In case you haven’t been reading the comments on yesterday’s post, “Three authors “problematize” rigor, objectivity, replicability, and yes, all the aspects of “colonizing and white Eurocentric science”, you’ll have missed a good comment by Helen Pluckrose. It was in fact so worth hearing that I’m putting it up again as a separate post. Helen, as you may know, is an author specializing in analysis of Critical Social Justice, and is co-author with James Lindsay of the excellent book Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody. You should read it. She was also, along with Lindsay and Peter Boghossian, one of the three perpetrators of the “Grievance studies” affair“, which submitted risible but bogus articles on social justice to academic journals, some of which were accepted.
Helen was responding to my critique of an article that appeared in the Journal of Social Issues, an article that called for the “decolonization” (i.e., dismantling) of traditional tools of scientific analysis, including “rigor”, “objectivity”, and “replicability,” all of which were said to be aspects of white culture used to oppress others. “Decolonization,” which once meant to remove aspects of a colonizer’s philosophy or practice in a country that had been colonized, like India, now simply means “get rid of antiwoke ideas and colonize with the ideas of Critical Social Justice.”
Anyway, Helen has some trenchant remarks about the “decolonize” trope STEM. Here’s her comment.
It is absolutely essential that we make more people aware of this aspect of the “Decolonise” movement, in particular. I don’t think I have ever seen anything more imperialist than claiming STEM to be white & Eurocentric. Complete ahistorical nonsense that can only be written by someone who has never had to try to work with the “maths” that existed before Europe adopted Arab numerals and maths. As a late medievalist, let me inform you that trying to do maths working in 7s over 20s in Roman numerals as Europeans did before this is a primary reason for so many calculations of anything from that period being wrong.
Aside from it being factually wrong to claim STEM to be white & Western, it is an insult to all the doctors, scientists & engineers the Western world needs to recruit from Africa and Asia to keep those fields running. If all the Indian, Nigerian and Pakistani Brits left for their former homelands or that of their parents and grandparents, the NHS would collapse, engineering would struggle and we’d be much diminished in output in science more broadly. As I have had to point out to anybody insisting that my critiques of fields using the approaches of Critical Social Justice are just a way to attack the work of “people of colour,” if that were actually my motivation, it would be medicine and technology I’d have to critique, not CSJ, as this is where black and brown Brits are most represented.
STEM, objectivity, rigour and replicability are not products of the West. Postmodernism and its latest incarnation “Critical Social Justice,” however, are. If you want to ‘decolonize’ Western “ways of knowing,” start by weeding out that one, not the development of science which has been a worldwide project for millennia, although Europe was a relative latecomer to it.
Meera Nanda is your best source for opposing the false claim that science is a Western phenomenon and that it needs decolonising.
JAC: If you want a pdf of Nanda’s paper, just ask. But also be warned—it’s highly academic and is rough going.
37 thoughts on “A comment by Helen Pluckrose”
The great J Needham (originally a biochemist, later the inspiration behind the publishing of the multi-volume Science and Civilization in China) devoted much attention to the question of why specifically “modern science” (i.e. since the so-called “scientific revolution” of the seventeenth-century) developed in the West (and nowhere else). The debate has not ceased since his death.
Another watershed publication in which the scientific revolution is discussed is :
The Two Cultures
C. P. Snow
… there’s a book with that essay and “another look” in one volume.
Speaking of China, I met through Bunge years ago a sensible social scientist of science, trying to figure out what political institutions are required for science to be successful, knowing perfectly well that this comes in degrees, has variations across fields, etc. I dare say one of the questions this sort of inquiry must ask is: what gives rise to such bad social science of science? (More correctly it includes a bad sociotechnology of science, since the decolonializers (sic!) want to change, rather than simply explain or describe.)
A “decolonize movement”, you say – “rough going”, you say.
You know, I’m gonna have to agree with that.
[ goes to grocery store for prunes ]
I think it it wrong to see the disparagement of “Western” mathematics, or other disciplines, as being a mistake or ignorance of the alternatives. It is a clear political move to discredit these disciplines, precisely because they are effective. Utopianism has increasingly been at war with Science as Science has continually proven various utopian schemes and projects to be unworkable, if not harmful. The facts are not on their side, and, rather than give up, they must do away with the facts. If the numbers don’t add up, change the way addition works.
I’ve seen graphs from the AAAS down the years, and elsewhere, about the proportions of non US-born students studying mathematics, stats, and applied math. The higher the degree, the greater the percentage are non-US citizens; and this trend may not have diminished. I can’t recall the ethnic breakdown of US citizen students who pursue mathematics, but I presume ‘Asians’ would be over-represented according to population. Here in Keyaurastan [ ie New Zealand ] and Australia, Asians, particularly East Asian ethnicities, have usually been the most ethnically ‘over represented’ in Tertiary education maths or stats, whether as local nationals or classified as foreign students.
Which means that contemporary maths [ probably a better appellation than ‘Western maths’ ] is largely a Eurasian discipline whether by vocation, or in terms of academic papers.
And remember that Mainland China produces 100,000 PhD level or thereabouts graduates in engineering every single year, with the caveat that ‘engineering’ in China is a much bigger multi-subject discipline.
Helen Pluckrose is one of my all time heroes, but she is not terribly well. At the end of this article
she says “Get up, get moving and get on, Pluckrose. How is the world to survive without you pedantically pointing out the differences between things like Critical Race Theory and Contemporary Critical Theories of Race?”. Quite so. The world needs you as you are one of the most articulate people around who can diagnose the ills of the postmodern world. I bought copies of Cynical Theories and gifted them to our President, Provost, and Vice Provost EDI. I fear they weren’t opened but at least it contributed a little to her finances.
Yes. Helen Pluckrose’s comment is excellent. Just imagine what will happen if today’s social warriors succeed and we’re forced to run the clock back to a time when mathematical principles really were local to their indigenous sources. Pathetic that we are having to deal with this made-up nonsense.
“… false claim that science is a Western phenomenon”
Alan Cromer, a Northeastern professor emeritus until he died in 2005, begs to differ.
This book contains an excellent history of objectivity. His claim is that while other cultures could “do” arithmetic and algebra, and make observations, the foundational root — the primacy of existence* — was not present. He makes a strong case that the West’s Enlightenment and subsequent Age of Reason (Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton) reconnected with the classical Greeks, to reveal objective reality. His wry comment was “not everyone was happy with what they saw.”
My add to that comment is, “while many scoff at objectivity, preferring emotion and whim, they are unembarrassed to take advantage of the stupendous wealth, comfort, and confidence that Western science has delivered.”
There also exists the issue of the “scientific method”, which many regard as a uniquely Western invention (perhaps dating as far back as F Bacon) and only much later adopted by other cultures.
Alan Cromer’s book was and is a favorite of mine.
One of the many foundational aspects of science which leads to outside criticism is the contentious, argumentative, rude nature of a skeptical scientific community which sifts out error. Non-scientific modes of knowledge tend to be based on authority and respect — and that includes respect for “lived experience.” If it can’t be replicated, can’t be tested, and can’t convince those who aren’t already open and willing to be convinced, then it’s not reliable enough to count. This infuriates people who aren’t being believed. It’s a resentment which I think lies at the heart of much of the ultra-progressive pushback against science, and resembles the ultra-enlightened pushback against science.
The plaintive complaint about rigor, objectivity, and replicability is familiar to anyone who’s dealt with any the forms of pseudoscience, woo, and spirituality which the skeptical movement addressed. It’s the same butthurt outrage which came from all those offended practitioners of Therapeutic Touch, or Extra Sensory Perception, or water dowsing.
“This is SCIENCE! I’m TELLING you what happens! I was there! I don’t know why it doesn’t work under controlled conditions but it’s probably your negative, arrogant, closed-minded attitude.”
Same old, same old. Been there, done that.
“One of the many foundational aspects of science which leads to outside criticism is the contentious, argumentative, rude nature of a skeptical scientific community which sifts out error.”
I’m not sure why it’s necessary to be contentious, argumentative and rude. Is it a way of entertaining oneself?
I’d like to think that a presenter at a scientific gathering could be reasonably allowed to make her/his presentation without being repeatedly interrupted mid-sentence. Speaking for myself, I’d have to enjoy being contentious, argumentative and rude to so indulge myself. (The presenter would have to be at least a semi-masochist to enjoy it.) In my view, such behavior bespeaks of a significant sense of self-absorbed entitlement. But perhaps to be rude is to somehow be “cool.”
I’m reminded of how U.S. Supreme Court justices repeatedly interrupt lawyers presenting their cases. Perhaps their excuse for this behavior is that only an hour (at the most two) has been allocated to the proceedings. Perhaps the justices should rather simply read the record, prepare their questions, and the lawyers simply stand by to answer their questions instead of otherwise being repeatedly interrupted (though they might still be interrupted). (Say what one might about “Silent” Clarence Thomas, it would seem he doesn’t interrupt lawyers.)
I remember Dawkins reflecting, almost tearfully, on a presenter making such a solid presentation refuting the work of a more senior academic, the latter at the end of the presentation addressing the presenter as “my dear fellow” in cheerfully accepting the refutation of his work, a remark obviously devoid of contention, argumentation and rudeness.
It only seems “contentious, argumentative and rude” to the one who made a claim without stress-testing it before publishing. To others, the claimant might deserve it for the same reason.
Let’s just say, real real truth testing in science is brutally real. There … that contoured sentence conveys damage done when a claimant wastes the time of the rational community. A simple error might be calmly pointed out for correction, but an attempt to fake reality or go numb around a counterfactual in your pitch … deserves scorn.
It’s the same in the venture capital realm, and at Vagonova Academy, St Petersburg, Russia. It seems harsh, but worse would be to be “nice” and let an enterprise (or ballerina) continue on when it/she does not “have it.”
(no edit button)
It depends on what one regards as necessary. A paper in the volume _The Cognitive Study of Science_ years ago points out that hunter gatherers have all of the cognitive skills for science. They would thus lack starting background knowledge, and likely literacy. The weird thing to my mind is that sedentarization, which seems to be necessary for literacy, also tends to reduce these cognitive skills. (I am trying to understand how manuals of agriculture – think Hesiod or the Chinese, Indian, etc. equivalents – fit in.)
Thank you JAC for calling attention to Helen Pluckrose’s comment on yesterday’s post. I almost never look back at previous day comments, closing out my reading of comments around 1100pm eastern u.s. time each night. And thank you Helen Pluckrose for adding your wisdom in this very confusing area to the discussion. I both consult and recommend to others your writings and videos. My crowd is generally in the 50-80 age range and leans toward science, engineering, and medical careers. We all find your comments extremely helpful. I believe that my first connection with your work was through this website a couple of years ago.
Thanks, I missed Helen’s excellent comment yesterday.
I would love to know what she thinks of her coauthor James Lindsey going off the deep end and becoming a right wing conspiracy theorist.
One of the comments to her substack post asks if “you and James are still on the outs” . . .
Are you referring to Lindsay’s reported statement that he would vote for Trump in order to block Wokeism? Some dismiss this as Woke Derangement Syndrome. But Lindsay
presumably views the cult of woke as even more dangerous the Trumpism, precisely because it threatens the system of thought under discussion here, the one stretching from Friar Roger Bacon (350 years before cousin Francis) to the Webb space telescope.
I’m referring to his series of videos (New Discourses) describing gay rights as a Trojan horse to legalize pedophilia as part of a 100 year old communist conspiracy to undermine the family and capitalism.
I think her comment, while true in some sense, also seems to be sidestepping the real issue, such that it probably doesn’t sound very convincing to people on either side of this debate.
While Europe and the West generally may have been “a relative newcomer” in some areas, there’s no denying that they more than made up for whatever late start they may have had. When the ‘decolonizers’ complain that too many mathematical and scientific ideas have white male names attached, so many in fact that the historical achievements of European men “dominate” and “overshadow” the contributions of women and people of color, they’re not wrong as far as that goes.
Yes, European math and science has some pre-European roots, and yes the Arabs for example were ahead in some ways in the distant past. That doesn’t mean that an accurate accounting of historical accomplishments would show that Europe’s contributions over most of the past 1000 years were anything less than completely dominant.
Helen Pluckrose seems to imply that this is a figment of our imagination – a false history. The ‘decolonizers’ say Europe’s dominance is due to a racist failure to recognize the equally great (or better) contributions of others due to us privileging our own way of knowing. Both, in a sense, seem to claim that Europe’s contributions really weren’t that great compared to the contributions of ‘people of color’. Okay, so where are their great mathematical and scientific accomplishments? Where is the African, Asian, Polynesian, or Amerindian Euclid, Gauss, Newton, Déscartes, Galois, and so on? Who among them probed the secrets of chemistry, medicine, or physics as deeply? I’m not saying they can’t make great accomplishments or that they aren’t doing so today. I’m saying that as a simple historical fact they didn’t seem to be doing nearly so much as Europe was in the 800 or so years prior to the 20th century. That’s the history that the decolonizers want to decolonize. And pointing to a few pre-European roots is not going to dissuade them.
What’s the deal with email updates of the comment section? I don’t see a radio button for it like before. I do see and tried the “notify me of new posts by email” button.
I’m using – or being used by – a certain capitalist-colonialist product “Designed in California”.
Is it just me?
“Designed in California”. I’m reminded of several years ago seeing a series of full-page ads (for Apple, I think) in the NY Times featuring this phrase in tandem with a beguiling Asian lass gazing up into infinity. Not one word about where the item was manufactured.
I’ll read this later but I’m a big fan of Helen.
My first degree was in history. I am wondering how ‘lived experience’ works for historians. I mean, how do you study the Thirty Years War when you have no lived experience of it? Then what happens when we get to archeology, etc. It’s terrible. What was Svante Pääbo doing getting a Nobel Prize when he had no lived experience of being a Neanderthal?
But, maybe there is history homeopathy! 🙂 particles of history involved get diluted sufficiently that they come down to us…
Let me repeat: when we study the Thirty Years War or the Neanderthal genome, we eat
a little chopped liver, and thus benefit from liver experience.
Our numeration system is Hindu-Arabic. Hardly Western
And I’m sorry, but I will never get over the glaring contradiction that today’s “decolonize science etc.” wingnut brigades communicate everything they think via technology that is indisputably the product of the horrible “Western knowledge” they love to trash.
Great insight from Helen.
“If all the Indian, Nigerian and Pakistani Brits left for their former homelands…we’d be much diminished in output in science.”
The diminishment works in the other direction too. Canada’s universities have all signed the Scarborough Charter and pledged to hire more than a dozen new black professors each. Canada doesn’t have hundreds of highly qualified black PhDs to fill these jobs. My colleague has predicted that we will end up hiring many of these folks from universities in Africa itself, and diminishing the quality of African science in order to make ourselves feel better about our diversity.
The following is an interview with University of Warwick statistics professor Jane L. Hutton, who calls applying critical race theory to maths “American imperialism.”
She is very sensible. Pity it is on the GB News channel…
That’s Andrew Doyle (AKA Titania McGrath) presenting the show – his interviews are great and it’s a shame that he and his interviewees aren’t on a better channel.
I have a story that relates to Pluckrose’s comment.
For most of the past six years, I’ve been a prominent member of the community devoted to Super Mario Maker, a Nintendo game where people design their own levels based on the Super Mario series and share them online. (Don’t worry, this isn’t as off-topic as it sounds.) In particular, I’ve been a regular contributor to a set of projects in which every year, this game’s 50 or so most talented level designers are assembled to create a set of levels commemorating the anniversary of the game’s release. This set of projects, which are called “YMM”, have a reputation as the most high-quality collections of levels that exist in Super Mario Maker. Being accepted into one of these projects requires one’s levels to uphold an extremely high standard of design.
The Mario series is popular all over the world, so the community that exists to organize the YMM projects is possibly the most diverse online community I’ve ever been part of. Of the four people who did the most work organizing these projects, there was one person who lives in Italy, one in Canada, one in Norway, and one in the Philippines. Many of the people contributing to these projects haven’t been native English speakers, so the community’s Discord server also has included channels for discussions in German, Korean, and Japanese. Sometimes these projects have advertised their internationality as sort of a selling point, as can be seen in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hKTIAXIqn4 (Of the level makers shown in that video, I’m the one in the eastern United States who’s labeled as “Four Wings”.)
Here’s how this relates to Pluckrose’s comment: during the planning stage of some of the YMM projects, there’s been discussion about possibly lowering the projects’ standards of quality in order to make the projects more inclusive to under-represented groups. But the interesting thing about these discussions is that whenever the idea came up, the only support it ever received was from participants who live in English-speaking countries. All of the comments about this idea from participants in Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America took the view that it would be absurd for anyone to be judged based on something besides the quality of their work. As a result of the international nature of the YMM projects, they never were affected by trend towards adopting racial and gender preferences in the name of “equity” over the past few years.
More than anything else, this experience has suggested to me these recent trends towards DEI and Decolonization are in fact entirely Eurocentric, Anglocentric phenomena. Leftist academics in English-speaking countries have made up their own ideas about what they think is respectful to non-Western values, but from what I’ve observed, their ideas have virtually no relation to the actual values of people from non-Western countries.
Critical theory came about when European social ‘scientists’ and philosophers of the far left realized they could not promote communism because Stalin et-al had ruined the brand name. Instead of promoting their side they decided to destroy the other side by assailing it in the classroom and critical theory was born. But it can only destruct. It cannot construct anything. It’s like I used to tell people who said you could write software to do away with animal testing, go do it, write that magical mystical software. But they don’t because they can’t. To the critical theory idiots, go do science with your deconstructionist non-repeatable experiments based on black lives matter. Build a better computer chip with your intersectional non-binary genderism. Fill your boots.