I didn’t realize the Lawrence Krauss had a Substack site, but all the cool kids seem to be getting one, along with the dosh that comes with it. Krauss’s site, named “Critical Mass,” is new, but already has interviews with notable people he knows, including Steve Pinker, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Richard Dawkins, Roger Penrose, and Stephen Wolfram.
This is all well and good, though I shy away from podcasts of any stripe, but there’s one article that should be read by all the Pecksniffs and Virtue Flaunters who are, in my view, dragging down modern science by turning its purpose from the investigation of nature towards a form of social engineering.
Krauss’s piece doesn’t say much that hasn’t been said before, but he’s a good writer and doesn’t pull any punches. I wish that every scientist—and that includes my Chicago colleagues who indict evolutionary biology for current bigotry—would read the piece below (click on the screenshot):
Krauss’s words are indented; mine are flush left.
Earlier this month Science magazine, whose editor since 2019 has promoted the notion that science is systemically racist and sexist, ran four hit pieces on physics in a single issue. It was claimed that physics is racist and exclusionary, run by a “white priesthood,” and based on “white privilege.”
The articles themselves were inconsistent at best. They promoted a specific viewpoint and sometimes made claims that were manifestly contradicted by their own examples. I don’t want to spend a lot of time here critiquing the specifics, or the magazine in general, because I don’t think either are worth it. But it is worth summarizing some of the misconceptions they promote. If one hears the same things over and over again, even if they are not true, it is easy to begin to believe them. So, it is important every now and then, to step back and question the assumptions on which they are based.
(a) If the representation of various groups in scientific disciplines does not match the demographics of the society at large, the cause must be racism, sexism, or other forms of discrimination.
This comes straight from the Kendi-an playbook: one of the major theses of How to be an Antiracist is that “inequity” in organizations—ethnic or gender composition differing from that of society as a whole—is an unquestionable sign of bigotry currently acting against members of those groups less represented in government, companies, science, and so on.
This accusation is just wrong, and wrong for several reasons. First of all, “inequities” may be the sequelae of past bigotry, and not the sign of present racism or misogyny in organizations like universities. While both alternatives indict bigotry, the way to fix the problem, given that “equity” is one’s goal, are very different.. Most people, including me, think that fixing such problems for good requires fundamental structural change. John McWhorter, for example, suggests that fixing the root cause of inequity can be largely with just three changes: teaching kids to read via phonic, ending the war on drugs, and discarding the idea that everyone must go to college.
But if inequities reflect differences in preference and not just racism, then they don’t necessarily need to be rectified to equal the existing proportions of groups in society.
So we have three hypotheses for inequities—present-day bigotry, reflections of past bigotry with minimal present bigotry, and differential preference. Asserting that only #1 is true, as Kendi does (and many scientists and science journals), is not only unjustified, but goes against some evidence, particularly regarding inequity of the sexes.
None of this is to deny that bigotry still exists and still holds people back. Of course it does. The question is whether the bigotry is structural—still built into the system—and what proportion of the variance in representation is due to bigotry past, bigotry present, or difference in preference. Here we have no evidence, but anecdotes and a lot of assertions involving “lived experience.” Data contravening the bigotry narrative—including the negative correlation between measures of gender equality and the proportion of women in STEM careers, so that more egalitarian societies have a lower proportion of women in STEM—is ignored.
The glomming on to favored hypotheses without strong evidence as well as the rejection of counterevidence are both unscientific. It’s odd that scientists themselves are so ready to behave unscientifically when it comes to this issue. But a lot of it is understandable as a way of signaling one’s virtue.
As Krauss says,
Without some control over confounding factors or some other clear empirical data validating a theoretical model, it is impossible to isolate the cause of this effect. Most areas of human activity are self-selecting. To argue that people don’t become scientists because they are excluded by the scientific community is an extraordinary claim. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This is not to claim that racism or sexism do not exist in society at any level. Nor that examining such demographics might not be useful. But to lay this demographic on the doorstep of science without further justification is inappropriate. Moreover, there is a lot of empirical data that shows quite the opposite
That data includes not only the negative correlation mentioned above ,but studies showing that there is no evidence for racial discrimination in evaluating NIH grants. You rarely hear about data like these because they don’t support the preferred narrative. Krauss continues:
(b) When interviewed, white male scientists cannot provide examples of racism or sexism in their disciplines
In the Science articles, this was taken, as it often is, as manifest evidence of white privilege. One is reminded of one of the ancient ways of determining if someone was a witch. If they claimed not to be, that was good evidence that they might be. Alternatively, it could be because most faculty at universities are acutely concerned about possible discrimination on the basis of race and gender and would root out efforts to discriminate on the basis of either. In these articles, and in most other claims about systemic racism in science, empirical examples of such systematic racism are generally absent. Instead vague anecdotal claims are made.
This is dead common. Articles indicting modern evolutionary biology for racism, for instance, invariably lack either supporting data or even examples.
c) Anecdotal claims of slights based on ability, or of working in an atmosphere that seemed neither friendly nor inclusive are not in themselves evidence of anything except an atmosphere that seems neither friendly nor inclusive.
. . . Science is an intensely competitive field, and, as I will argue below, it probably should be. It is tempting, to view such a situation as a reflection of discrimination, and to feel victimized on the basis of your race, gender, religion, or other personal identity characteristics. Especially if you are constantly told in training sessions that this must be the reason for any hardships.
It’s considered impolite to claim that some people blame their failures on the bigotry on others, but that’s sometimes the case. This is one reason why “hate crime” hoaxes are common on college campuses, with members of minorities fabricating racist or sexist graffiti—something that always raises a huge ruckus. When those crimes are found to be fabricated as a way to exaggerate the extent of bigotry, they are quietly forgotten. (Jussie Smollett is an exception, because he was caught in the act and the evidence against him too damning.) Indeed, sometimes the narrative is reversed, with the fabricated hate crimes actually serving to underscore the continuing presence of bigotry.
(d) It is claimed that too few programs exist to recruit and retain women and minorities.
As Krauss says, “this is manifestly wrong.” Anyone in science knows that universities are falling all over each other to recruit minority professors and graduate students.
Another critique that is raised is that minority scientists pay a price because excessive demands are placed on them to assist in diversity recruiting and retention efforts. Yet a number of the individuals interviewed for the Science articles, who complained about this, are the very individuals who have lobbied hard for such programs to be expanded. If they were not included, I suspect that omission would be criticized even more. Universities have worked for over 40 years to increase diversity, through affirmative action programs at all levels, and other programming. In 1960, women in science may not have been taken seriously, but that was 62 years ago.
(e) It is claimed that standard merit-based evaluations must be relaxed to increase diversity in science, and that this will strengthen the field.
This is a form of affirmative action in which the bar for hiring or admission to graduate school—indeed, even for evaluating performance—is lowered as a way to increase diversity, almost always ethnic diversity. And this is one area in which people dissimulate like crazy when explaining the changes. It is rarely admitted, for example, that ditching standardized tests like SATs or GREs is done explicitly because if test scores are used to evaluate people, many minorities will score lower, creating inequities. And above all, people can’t bring themselves to admit that there is a negative correlation between the height of the bar and the degree of diversity. (If there wasn’t, there would be no reason to get rid of standardized test.)
The question that Krauss raises in his title bears directly on this: when thinking about the future of science when hiring or taking on students, do we go for maximum quality or maximum diversity? You can’t have both—at least now—though people pretend otherwise. Krauss goes for quality:
. . . there is little or no objective evidence that talented students or researchers who have a genuine interest in science are excluded on the basis of these measures. It is true that social inequities, financial at least as much as racial, mean that some individuals who, had they access to proper educational resources early on, end up not following a career track in science. But the solution to this is not diluting requirements for researchers at an advanced level.
Krauss’s most telling argument is that the very reason science is supported by the taxpayer is the reason that quality of work, past record of achievement, and future promise to produce good science must be prized above al else:
Similarly, while enjoying science is everyone’s right—I have spent a large part of my career trying to spread that joy as widely as I can—being paid to do science is a privilege, not a right. It is largely solipsistic and self-indulgent. What right have we to be supported by the public to simply explore questions that interest us? Science is supported by the public because of the public good it does. That good is not met by employing a rigidly diverse workforce. It is met by producing the best science money can buy. We should reserve that privilege to carry out this public good to those who can best exploit it. No system of culling is perfect, but not all students should succeed, nor should all researchers.
Finally, while admitting that bigotry, especially against women, is a major barrier in non-Western countries, Krauss argues, and I agree, that the supposed “colonial” nature of modern science—the claim that it’s structurally racist or misogynist—is not the cause of inequities.
And that is the key point. There may be economic and racial barriers that currently restrict equal opportunity in society. But science itself is not the cause of any induced lack of diversity, nor can it be the solution. To address deeper issues of racism, or sexism, requires addressing societal problems at a much deeper level, and confusing the end result with the root causes is folly.
Krauss then asks the Question that is Most Taboo:
Put another way, as harsh as it may sound, we need to ask a question that is currently impossible to ask in polite company, or even impolite company: Why is it so necessary for more women, minorities, and transgender individuals, and fewer white males, to become scientists? Surely the science doesn’t care about melanin or gonads or sexual preferences or identities.
Here I differ from him—not wholly, but a bit. Insofar as minorities aren’t represented in science, that points to a societal problem that must be addressed, and if inequities reflect bigotry in the past, as they must surely do to some degree, that must also be fixed. But the fix is not to indict science itself as a bigoted enterprise, nor lower the bar to a level that won’t support limbo.
And, as I’ve said before—and here I differ from many of my colleagues—I think that some degree of affirmative action is still needed in science and in schools in general, As I’ve said, the “optics” themselves point out a problem, but also, as a matter of reparations, one should at the very least give some preferences to underrepresented people if they show promise to do good future science. It’s not a matter of admitting the unqualified, but of putting ethnicity in the balance among qualified people.
Yes, the real solution to inequities, if they be caused by bigotry, lies in creating equal opportunities beginning at birth, but that won’t happen for decades. And given society’s unwillingness to make these fundamental changes right now, we must do something. And we can do something without severely affecting the quality of science. To me that means more outreach combined with a bit of affirmative action.