“Everybody has won and all must have prizes”: The drive to end merit-based schooling

November 9, 2021 • 12:15 pm

There are two articles you can read that show how quickly merit-based educational assessment is vanishing in the U.S. The first, from the New York Times, discusses California’s downgrading of math instruction, turning it as well into an instrument for teaching social justice. The second, from the Los Angeles Times, describes the move to eliminate grading, or at least the lower grades of D and F so that everyone must have the prize of a “C” (required to get into the Cal State system of colleges).

Click on the screenshot to read the pieces. I’ll give a few quotes from each (indented):

NYT:

If everything had gone according to plan, California would have approved new guidelines this month for math education in public schools.

But ever since a draft was opened for public comment in February, the recommendations have set off a fierce debate over not only how to teach math, but also how to solve a problem more intractable than Fermat’s last theorem: closing the racial and socioeconomic disparities in achievement that persist at every level of math education.

The California guidelines, which are not binding, could overhaul the way many school districts approach math instruction. The draft rejected the idea of naturally gifted children, recommended against shifting certain students into accelerated courses in middle school and tried to promote high-level math courses that could serve as alternatives to calculus, like data science or statistics.

The draft also suggested that math should not be colorblind and that teachers could use lessons to explore social justice — for example, by looking out for gender stereotypes in word problems, or applying math concepts to topics like immigration or inequality.

No matter how good the intentions, math—indeed, even secondary school itself—is no place to propagandize students with debatable contentions about social justice. The motivation for this, of course, is to achieve “equity” of achievement among races, since blacks and Hispanics are lagging behind in math. (Indeed, as the article notes, “According to data from the Education Department, calculus is not even offered in most schools that serve a large number of Black and Latino students.”)

Everything is up for grabs in California given the number of irate people on both sides. Some claim that school data already show that the “new math” leads to more students and more diverse students taking high-level math courses, while other say the data are cherry-picked. I have no idea.

Complicating matters is that even if the draft becomes policy, school districts can opt out of the state’s recommendations. And they undoubtedly will in areas of affluence or with a high percentage of Asian students, who excel in math. This is not a path to equal opportunity, but a form of creating equity in which everybody is proportionately represented on some low level of grades. I wish all the schools would opt out! There has to be a way to give every kid equal opportunity to learn at their own levels without holding back those who are terrific at math. I don’t know the answer, but the U.S. is already way behind other First World countries in math achievement. This will put us even farther down.

From the L. A. Times:

 

This issue is a real conundrum, more so than the above, because it’s not as easy to evaluate.  Here are a few suggestions of what teachers are doing to change the grading system—the reason, of course, is racial inequity in grades that must be fixed.

 A few years ago, high school teacher Joshua Moreno got fed up with his grading system, which had become a points game.

Some students accumulated so many points early on that by the end of the term they knew they didn’t need to do more work and could still get an A. Others — often those who had to work or care for family members after school — would fail to turn in their homework and fall so far behind that they would just stop trying.

“It was literally inequitable,” he said. “As a teacher you get frustrated because what you signed up for was for students to learn. And it just ended up being a conversation about points all the time.”

These days, the Alhambra High School English teacher has done away with points entirely. He no longer gives students homework and gives them multiple opportunities to improve essays and classwork. The goal is to base grades on what students are learning, and remove behavior, deadlines and how much work they do from the equation.

But I had always assumed that grades were based on what students were learning: that’s what tests do. You ask students questions based on what you’ve taught them and what they’ve read, and then see if they’ve absorbed the material.  I have no objection at all to basing grades on “what students are learning” so long as you don’t grade them on the basis tht you have different expectations of what different students can learn. (In fact, as you see below, that may be the case.)

As for behavior, well, you have to conduct yourself in a non-disruptive manner in class; and as far as deadlines and quality of papers and work, those are life lessons that carry over into the real world. You don’t get breaks from your employer if you finish a project late.  I always gave students breaks if they had good excuses, or seemed to be trying really hard, but can you give a really good student a lower grade because she’s learning the material with much less effort than others? Truly, I don’t understand how this is supposed to work.

There is also much talk about “equity” in grading, and I don’t know what that means except either “everyone gets the same grade”, which is untenable, or “the proportion of grades among people of different races must be equal”, which, given the disparity in existing grades between whites and Asians on one hand and blacks and Hispanics on the others, means race-based grading. That, too, seems untenable.  But of course this doesn’t negate my own approval of some forms of affirmative action as reparations to groups treated unfairly in the past. Nobody wants a school that is all Asian and white, and nobody wants a school that is all black or all Hispanic.

Again, I don’t know the solution except to improve teaching while allowing everyone to learn to the best of their ability. And that means effort must be judged as well as achievement. Here’s a statement from L.A. Unified’s chief academic officer:

“Just because I did not answer a test question correctly today doesn’t mean I don’t have the capacity to learn it tomorrow and retake a test,” Yoshimoto-Towery said. “Equitable grading practices align with the understanding that as people we learn at different rates and in different ways and we need multiple opportunities to do so.”

Somehow I get the feeling that this refers not to different individuals‘ capacity to learn, but on assumptions about the capacity of members of different races to learn—assumptions that are both racist and patronizing. This is supported by the fact that San Diego’s school board said this:

“Our goal should not simply be to re-create the system in place before March 13, 2020. Rather, we should seek to reopen as a better system, one focused on rooting out systemic racism in our society,” the board declared last summer.

Similar to Los Angeles, the San Diego changes include giving students opportunities to revise work and re-do tests. Teachers are to remove factors such as behavior, punctuality, effort and work habits from academic grades and shift them to a student’s “citizenship” grade, which is often factored into sports and extra-curricular eligibility, said Nicole DeWitt, executive director in the district’s office of leadership and learning.

It seems to me that you can’t solve the problem of unequal achievement by adjusting grades based on race. In the long term, that accomplishes very little. You solve the problem by giving everybody equal opportunities in life from the very beginning of life. Since minorities don’t have that, we should be investing a lot of time and money in providing those opportunities. In the meantime, some affirmative action is necessary to allow more opportunity than before, and because we owe it to people who have been discriminated against and haven’t had equal opportunity.

The new math in Toronto

November 5, 2021 • 1:30 pm

A graduate of the University of Toronto called my attention to this mathematics course as a harbinger of the decline of that great university. I have no idea what “liberated” mathematics is, and can’t find out anything about it, or the course, on the Internet. Several other people have tweeted this course, and I note that the only requirement for it is “high school level algebra.” I gather, therefore, that this course, taught by the mathematics department, is more about ideology than math.

I’ve put the transcript of the course description below, or you can click on the screenshot.

Currently, mathematics is at a crossroads between tradition and progress. Progress has been led in large part by women mathematicians, in particular Black women, Indigenous women, and women from visible minorities. Intertwined in their studies of mathematics is a daring critique of traditional mathematics, re-imagining of mathematics culture, and more. This course will compare and contrast new forms of accessible mathematics with standard sources that draw dominantly on the experiences and narratives of men. Restricted to first-year students. Not eligible for CR/NCR option.

The solution to this morning’s puzzle

September 20, 2021 • 2:39 pm

I haven’t yet looked at the comments about the puzzle I reported this morning that had been proposed by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin when visiting a science-oriented “sixth form” class.

Here’s the puzzle again:

Construct a perpendicular from the (red) point on the circle to the diameter, without using any measuring devices.

In other words, given a circle with a diameter marked on it, and a point on the circle, can you find a way to draw a line from the point that hits the diameter at a right angle. (As marked in green above.)

The beauty of this question is the seemingly outrageous restriction not to allow measuring devices, which means that you cannot use a compass or a marked ruler. All you are allowed is an unmarked ruler to draw straight lines.

 

The Guardian has now published the four-step solution (there may be others); go to the preceding link to see it. Below you can see the PM drawing the solution (he must know his math).

A geometry puzzle from Russia’s prime minister

September 20, 2021 • 8:00 am

In lieu of Readers’ Wildlife today, we have a puzzle, one posted (as the Guardian reports) by Russian Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin when he was visiting a science-oriented “sixth form” (what age of kids are these?) school. Matthew sent me a link.

Here’s the problem, and there’s a clue in both the photo below and in the Guardian article:

Construct a perpendicular from the (red) point on the circle to the diameter, without using any measuring devices.

In other words, given a circle with a diameter marked on it, and a point on the circle, can you find a way to draw a line from the point that hits the diameter at a right angle. (As marked in green above.)

The beauty of this question is the seemingly outrageous restriction not to allow measuring devices, which means that you cannot use a compass or a marked ruler. All you are allowed is an unmarked ruler to draw straight lines.

Matthew couldn’t solve it and, as I haven’t had my coffee, I’m not even going to try.

Here’s, a picture of Mishustin posing the problem (and giving a bit of a solution):

Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin draws on a chalkboard while visiting the Kapitsa Physics and Technology Lyceum in the town of Dolgoprudny earlier this month. Photograph: Dmitry Astakhov/TASS

Scientific American (and math) go full woke

August 29, 2021 • 12:15 pm

As we all know, Scientific American is changing from a popular-science magazine into a social-justice-in-science magazine, having hardly anything the science-hungry reader wants to see any more. I urge you to peruse its website and look for the kind of article that would have inspired me when I was younger: articles about pure science.  Now the rag is all about inequities and human diseases.

In the past couple of months, there have been some dire op-eds, and here’s another one—not as bad as some others, but (especially for a science magazine) riddled with unexamined assumptions. Click on the screenshot to read it. Apparently the “racial reckoning” that began last year has now crept into mathematics.

After reading it, I have two questions: Is mathematics structurally racist? And why has Scientific American changed its mission from publishing decent science pieces to flawed bits of ideology?

The article, of course, claims that mathematics is a hotbed of racism and misogyny, which explains why there are so few women and blacks in academic mathematics.

The article begins with stories of thee women mathematicians, all of whom report that they felt discriminated against or at least looked down upon. All of them have academic jobs, two as professors and one as a postdoc. I don’t doubt their stories, but what we have are three anecdotes. At face value, they show that there is some racism or sexism in academic math, but these are cherry-picked anecdotes that demonstrate little except that, like all fields, math is not entirely free of bigotry. I also procured two anecdotes with no effort. First, I asked one of my female math-y friends, Professor Anna Krylov,  a theoretical and computational quantum chemist at USC, who deals extensively with mathematicians, if that had been her experience, and she said what’s indented below. (I quote her with permission; we’ve met Anna before.)

 I was often a single women in a room — but so what? It did not turn me away from the subject I was passionate about.  I experienced some forms of discrimination throughout my career and can tell stories… But — as McWhorter often says — “there was then and there is now”! These anecdotes [from Sci. Am.] are blown out of proportion and completely misrepresent the current climate.

She also worried that these narratives, which don’t resemble her own, cultivate a victim mentality in women. (Anna is no anti-feminist, either: she helped initiate a protest against an all-male speaker agenda at a chemistry conference.)

Anna also mentioned another female math professor in the U.S. who agrees with her own experience. So we have two anecdotes on one side, and three on the other. (I have to add that, as I’ve said before, I myself felt inferior and suffered from “imposter syndrome” for several years in graduate school, constantly thinking about dropping out. But I finally realized that I could find my own niche.)

Author Crowell also gives two examples of undeniable racial discrimination against black mathematicians, but those took place in the early 20th century and in the Fifties, and it’s undeniable that at that time there was academic racism. But, as Anna said, “there was then and there is now”. If we’re to accept that mathematics is now structurally racist and misogynist, with an endemic culture of bigotry that leads to inequities, we need to do better than that.

So beyond the academic data, the article adds this:

Racism, sexism and other forms of systematic oppression are not unique to mathematics, and they certainly are not new, yet many in the field still deny their existence. “One of the biggest challenges is how hard it can be to start a conversation” about the problem, Sawyer says, “because mathematicians are so convinced that math is the purest of all of the sciences.” Yet statistics on the mathematics profession are difficult to ignore. In 2019 a New York Times profile of Edray Herber Goins, a Black mathematics professor at Pomona College, reported that “fewer than 1 percent of doctorates in math are awarded to African-Americans.” A 2020 NSF survey revealed that out of a total of 2,012 doctorates awarded in mathematics and statistics in the U.S. in 2019, only 585 (29.1 percent) were awarded to women. That percentage is slightly lower than in 2010, when 29.4 percent of doctorates in those areas (467 out of 1,590) were awarded to women. (Because these numbers are grouped based on sex rather than gender, that survey did not report how many of those individuals identify as a gender other than male or female.)

This is the Kendi-an idea that inequities in achievement are prima facie evidence of bias. But if you think about it for both women and African-Americans, that need not be true. This is a true case of begging the question: assuming that there is structural racism and misogyny in math and thus the lower representation is simply its result.

The problem with this, as we’ve discussed before, is that there are reasons for these inequities beyond structural racism, so you can’t just assume its existence. (As I said, nobody with any sense would deny that there are racist or sexist mathematicians; the claim is that the field is permeated with bigotry._

Regarding women, we’ve learned that the sexes differ in interests and preferences, with men being “thing people” and women being “people people” (these are of course average differences, not diagnostic traits!). As Lee Jussim points out in a Psychology Today op-ed, on the advanced high school level, men and women do about the same in math, but women do better than men in demonstrating verbal and reading skills.  In other words, women are better than men at everything, but many choose areas that are more word-heavy than math-heavy. That itself, combined with different preferences, causes inequities. As Jussim writes,

This same issue of differing interests was approached in a different way by Wang, Eccles, and Kenny (2013). Disclosure: Eccles was my dissertation advisor and longterm collaborator; I am pretty sure she identifies as a feminist, has long been committed to combating barriers to women, and is one of the most objective, balanced social scientists I have ever had the pleasure to know.

In a national study of over 1,000 high school students, they found that:

1. 70 percent more girls than boys had strong math and verbal skills;

2. Boys were more than twice as likely as girls to have strong math skills but not strong verbal skills;

3. People (regardless of whether they were male or female) who had only strong math skills as students were more likely to be working in STEM fields at age 33 than were other students;

4. People (regardless of whether they were male or female) with strong math and verbal skills as students were less likely to be working in STEM fields at age 33 than were those with only strong math skills.

Thus inequities in academic math may be a matter of differential preferences or other factors not reflecting bigotry. And this may be one explanation for why, although Sci. Am. notes that only 29.1% of doctorates in math were awarded to women in 2019, it looks from Jussim’s bar graph that about 35% of first time graduate enrollees in math and computer science are women. That bespeaks only a slightly higher attrition rate among women than men—something that needs to be addressed. But again, the go-to answer is not automatically “misogyny.”

As for African-Americans, yes, there’s way too few doctorates awarded in mathematics. To me this does bespeak racism, but racism in the past, not necessarily now. The situation is that due to inequality of opportunity, blacks almost certainly lack easy entry now into mathematics studies. This is a narrowing of the pipeline from the outset that needs to be rectified. But again, the figures do not show that the low output at the pipeline’s terminus is due to racism.

As to what happened to Scientific American, well, it’s gone the way of all the science journals. It is doing performative wokeness.

One more item: Have a look at MathSafe, an organization hired by the American Mathematical Society to police meetings like beagles sniffing out impurities. It’s as if we are no longer adults who can police our own behavior at meetings, and need to pay others to do it for us.

h/t: Anna

McWhorter and Loury on the math gap

March 8, 2021 • 2:00 pm

Here’s a 15-minute segment of the latest Glenn Show, featuring Glenn Loury and John McWhorter. (To see the rest requires a Patreon donation). In it, both men take up the issue of the black/white race gap in academic achievement, and both seem to attribute it to the culture of African-Americans. That, of course, is anathema to antiracists like Ibram Kendi, who seems to has a feud going on with McWhorter.

McWhorter refers to Ibram Kendi’s dictum, one that I just read in his How to be an Antiracist book, that black students should be ranked on their “desire to know” rather than what they do know. McWhorter’s characterization of Kendi is correct, as Kendi says that there are “different ways of ranking” appropriate to each race, and that black students should be ranked not by achievement, which is a white criterion, but by things like their spunk and their desire to know. And yet despite that, Kendi also says that the idea of a black culture is an illusion, and that all races are equal in every respect, including culture, though there are some local differences. This is one of the contradictions I found in Kendi’s book. (I recommend that everyone read it, as we all need to know about the bibles of the anti-racist movement. You will learn some stuff, and it’s not all bad, but it’s truly Manichean in its worldview.)

Loury gets particularly exercised at the low performance of black students in mathematics (he’s an economist), and at people who say that math is not a Black Thing. At times Loury looks like he’s going to blow out an artery, almost yelling that the response of people like Kendi is to “denounce the entire corpus that your people are not mastering by saying that it’s somehow alien to, or in fact repressive to the essence of your people.”

McWhorter chimes in, adding that the notion that each ethnic group should be judged by a different set of academic standards is a view that is often raised, but “has never gotten any purchase”.  Loury and McWhorter both suspect that the achievement gap is caused by a subtle cultural factor connected with “what it is to be raised black”. And that view is absolutely opposed to the ideas of Kendi, who doesn’t think that black “culture” operates any differently from white culture. Kendi, I believe, would attribute the math gap to racist policies of the present put in place by the academic power structure.

Loury winds up extolling the universality and beauty of math, using as one example we should admire the fact that “there is no largest prime number.” The universality of mathematical instruction, he implies, means that there is no reason not to teach any group differently from any other, nor hold different groups to different standards.

I hope that Loury doesn’t have high blood pressure, as he’s going to get an aneurism if he keeps getting this exercised. Both men, as usual, are great speakers, uttering long disquisitions without a hitch. Their conversations are a thing to behold.

A bit more on the racism of math

March 2, 2021 • 1:15 pm

Yesterday I directed your attention to the new Gates-Foundation-funded booklet on how to “teach” mathematics in an anti-racist way. I put “teach mathematics” in quotes, because the book doesn’t tell you how to get kids to be proficient in doing math. Instead, it is a Trojan Horse to sneak Critical Race Theory into the classroom, and in fact is detrimental to teaching math by urging the elimination of practices, like having students show their work, that help foster math proficiency. I urge you to look over the pamphlet yourself to see how insidious and invidious it is (click on the screenshot; access and a pdf are free):

Over at Bari Weiss’s Substack site, “Common sense,” Bari’s given the stage to Princeton math professor Segiu Klainerman to write a guest post, which you can read by clicking below (remember to subscribe to Weiss’s site if you like her writing).

Actually, the picture above of a student raising her hand shows what the pamphlet sees as a paternalistic (read: racist) classroom behavior, for reasons delineated on page 75 of the booklet:

Klainerman, in fact, found math, and its universality among cultures, as a way to escape the totalitarianism of his native Romania, and is appalled at any notion that different cultures or races have different styles of learning or doing math:

The woke ideology, on the other hand, treats both science and mathematics as social constructs and condemns the way they are practiced, in research and teaching, as manifestations of white supremacy, euro-centrism, and post-colonialism.

Take for example the recent educational program called “a pathway to equitable math instruction.” The program is backed financially by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; it counts among its partners the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, the California Math project, the Association of California School Administrators, and the Los Angeles County Office of Education, among others; and it was recently sent to Oregon teachers by the state’s Department of Education.

The program argues that “white supremacy culture shows up in the classroom when the focus is on getting the ‘right’ answer” or when students are required to show their work, while stipulating that the very “concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false”. The main goal of the program is “to dismantle racism in mathematics instruction” with the expressly political aim of engaging “the sociopolitical turn in all aspects of education, including mathematics.”

In the past, I would have said that such statements should be ignored as too radical and absurd to merit refutation. But recent trends across the country suggest that we no longer have that luxury.

So let me state the following for the record: Nothing in the history and current practice of mathematics justifies the notion that it is in any way different or dependent on the particular race or ethnic group engaged in it.

Klainerman is clearly mad as hell and isn’t going to take it any more:

Schools throughout the world teach the same basic body of mathematics. They differ only by the methodology and intensity with which they instruct students.

It is precisely this universality of math — together with the extraordinary ability of American universities to reward hard work and talent — that allowed me, and so many other young scientists and mathematicians, to come to this country and achieve success beyond our wildest dreams.

The idea that focusing on getting the “right answer” is now considered among some self-described progressives a form of bias or racism is offensive and extraordinarily dangerous. The entire study of mathematics is based on clearly formulated definitions and statements of fact. If this were not so, bridges would collapse, planes would fall from the sky, and bank transactions would be impossible.

The ability of mathematics to provide right answers to well-formulated problems is not something specific to one culture or another; it is really the essence of mathematics. To claim otherwise is to argue that somehow the math taught in places like Iran, China, India or Nigeria is not genuinely theirs but borrowed or forged from “white supremacy culture.” It is hard to imagine a more ignorant and offensive statement.

His ending:

Finally, and most importantly, the woke approach to mathematics is particularly poisonous to those it pretends to want to help. Let’s start with the reasonable assumption that mathematical talent is equally distributed at birth to children from all socio-economic backgrounds, independent of ethnicity, sex and race. Those born in poor, uneducated families have clear educational disadvantages relative to others. But mathematics can act as a powerful equalizer. Through its set of well-defined, culturally unbiased, unambiguous set of rules, mathematics gives smart kids the potential to be, at least in this respect, on equal footing with all others. They can stand out by simply finding the right answers to questions with objective results.

There is no such thing as “white” mathematics. There is no reason to assume, as the activists do, that minority kids are not capable of mathematics or of finding the “right answers.” And there can be no justification for, in the name of “equity” or anything else, depriving students of the rigorous education that they need to succeed. The real antiracists will stand up and oppose this nonsense.

This kind of math is coming to a school near you, whether you live in California, Oregon, or other areas with Woke schools. And, as Klainerman notes, this kind of teaching is not only a form of anti-black racism, but will hold back not just black kids, but any kid subject to it. It’s the new ways of teaching themselves, coupled with the assumption that black children simply cannot do math the way it’s taught now, that are paternalistic. You do not take a math class and turn it into a social justice class. But that is precisely what this book—as well as Bill and Melinda Gates—are recommending.

The dismantling of meritocracy, a misguided way of obviating the achievement gap between races, will, in the end, make everybody dumber.  By all means let us have affirmative action, but let’s not eliminate every way to assess the achievements of students. (This is what’s behind the unstoppable elimination of standardized tests for college and grad-school admission.) We do students no favors by assuming that every student’s potential in any area is exactly the same as every other’s, which is what Ibram Kendi asserts in his book How to be an Antiracist. Can’t do math? Well, you must excel in some other area, like “eagerness to learn.”

Achievement gaps are real, but rather than use sneaky ways to obviate them, or pretend they don’t exist, why can’t we use the old adage: “a rising tide lifts all boats”? And that tide, in my view, should be a huge American investment in fostering equal opportunity, beginning at birth. That requires substantial investment in minority communities, which I guess you can see as a form of reparations. As I’ve said repeatedly, that will be hard, time-consuming, and expensive. It’s not a quick fix, but it’s the only way to create true equality.

John McWhorter on anti-racist math

March 1, 2021 • 1:15 pm

John McWhorter has got hold of a newish education project—a curriculum guide for antiracist math instruction called “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction: Dismantling Racism in Mathematics”—and he’s furious about it. But “furious” in a McWhorterian way means that he completely takes the “curriculum” apart in a calm and elegant fashion.

A week ago I had prepared a draft post on this handbook, based on pages that deal not with mathematics, but how math is supposedly used to buttress white supremacy, as in the page below.  As McWhorter says in his new essay on Substack, the pamphlet in fact says very little about how to actually teach kids of any ethnicity math, and a lot about how to “decolonize” mathematics. If you don’t believe me, go to the bottom of this post (or to the first link above) and download the pamphlet for yourself.

Here’s one of many examples that will curl the soles of your shoes: an assertion that “showing your work” in math class is an example of white supremacy. As you’ll know if you’ve either learned or taught math, showing your work is essential in correcting errors of thinking and demonstrating how you solved a problem. But your implicit bias is showing, for that idea clearly evinces anti-black racism:

McWhorter’s analysis of this pamphlet is a joy to read if you abhor metastasizing wokeness. It’s free at his site (but subscribe if you keep reading him), and you can read it by clicking on the screenshot below:

A couple of quotes:

. . . this lovely pamphlet is teaching us that it is racist to expect black kids to master the precision of math. To wit – its message, penned by people who consider themselves some of the most morally advanced souls in the history of the human species, is one that Strom Thurmond would have happily taken a swig of whiskey to.

I wish I had written those sentences. McWhorter goes on (his emphasis):

. . . one idea in this fascicle is that black students learn how math has hurt people (i.e. black ones). But it’s no slam dunk that little kids need to be taught this. Wouldn’t this affect a child’s attitude towards mastering the skills? Or – the burden is upon the authors here to explain just why it would not. Sure, teachers imparting this lesson would show that they know racism exists; they will thus Reckon With Racism as we are told they must. But what might the impact of that lesson be on children who haven’t even reached puberty?

More to the point is that this entire document is focused on an idea that making black kids be precise is immoral.

McWhorter disposes of several objections to his objections, and ends by reiterating his idea that antiracism is a religion:

Many will dislike the general flavor of it but, amidst so much we all have to pay attention to, may question just what we must object to specifically about Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction.

There are two things. Racism and religion. Just those.

As in, first it is racism propounded as antiracism. Black kids shouldn’t expected to master the precision of math and should be celebrated for talking around it, gamely approximating its answers and saying why it can be dangerous? This is bigotry right out of Reconstruction, Tulsa, Selma, and Charlottesville.

Second, it is not science but scripture. It claims to be about teaching math while founded on shielding students from the requirement to actually do it. This is unempirical. It does so with an implication that only a moral transgressor numb to some larger point would question the contradiction. This is, as such, a religious document, telling you to accept that Jesus walked on water.

Humans may grievously sacrifice the 9-year-old, the virgin, or the widow upon the pyre in worship of a God. Too, humans may sacrifice the black kid from the work of mastering the gift of math, in favor of showing that they are enlightened enough to understand that her life may be affected by racism and that therefore she should be shielded from anything that is a genuine challenge.

This is not pedagogy; it is preaching.

And in this country, religious propositions have no place in the public square.

Besides the pamphlet over at Equitablemath.org, which is embedded at the bottom and can be read or downloaded using the arrows, you can read about the whole project. And if you go to the “acknowledgments” section of that page, you’ll see this (note the arrow at the bottom). Thanks a lot, Bill and Melinda! Imagine how much Wokeness can be bought with the Gates’s billions!

 

Click to access 1_STRIDE1.pdf

American Mathematical Society excoriated for creating a fellowship for black mathematicians, but not yet giving it a name

January 25, 2021 • 11:15 am

Speaking of Wokeness, remember that one of its symptoms is that if you do something in line with the tenets of Critical Theory, but don’t adhere to them 100%, you’re going to get slammed anyway. And you can never predict why and how The Outraged will come at you.

Here’s a ludicrous but sad example. The American Mathematical Society (AMS) recently created a fellowship “to support the research and scholarship of mid-career Black mathematicians.” That is good, right?

Not so fast. In their haste to announce the fellowship, the AMS didn’t yet name the fellowship, even though the details and application process haven’t even been revealed.  And so the Twitterati got to work on this thread and, clearly, contacting and excoriating the AMS for its “disrespectful” action. You can see some of the tweets on this thread, and I’ve put a few below.

It’s not enough to criticize the AMS for what the offended perceived as a hamhanded action (I don’t see it that way); they also hinted darkly that the lack of a name—and the fellowship will get a name—is an “intentional aggression”! How twisted do you have to be to think that the creation of a fellowship for black mathematicans is an “intentional aggression” because it wasn’t yet named?

If one were charitable, one would presume, as is certainly the case, that the fellowship will have a name by the time people start applying for it. But charity is not part of Wokeness.

What happened? The proper response would have been, “Chill people; we’ve just announced it. The name will come soon.” Instead, the AMS issued this groveling apology:

Look at that! They apologize for not yet issuing a “proper, respectful, and Council-approved name”. They even apologize for causing “hurt and anger.” My response to that would be “suck it up; you’ll live.” The AMS is spineless, abasing itself before the dubious claims that there was harm. Anger? Yes, of course. Hurt? Maybe, but the hurt is in those who are ready and willing to be hurt; in fact, they’re looking to be hurt, knowing that if you claim hurt and offense, you get your way. This is all a way to leverage power. And if you reward outrage, the obvious outcome is more outrage. 

h/t: Luana

Assessing Ronald Fisher: should we take his name off everything because he espoused eugenics?

January 18, 2021 • 11:00 am

Many consider Ronald Fisher (1890-1962) one of the greatest biologists—and probably the greatest geneticist—of the 20th century, for he was a polymath who made hugely important contributions in many areas. He’s considered the father of modern statistics, developing methods like analysis of variance and chi-square tests still used widely in science and social science. His pathbreaking work on theoretical population genetics, embodied in the influential book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, included establishing that Mendelian genetics could explain the patterns of correlation among relatives for various traits, and helped bring about the reconciliation of genetics and natural history that constituted the “modern synthesis” of evolution. His theoretical work presaged the famous “neutral theory” of molecular evolution and established the efficacy of natural selection—the one part of Darwin’s theory that wasn’t widely accepted in the early 20th century.

Fisher also made advances important to medicine, like working out the genetics of Rh incompatibility, once an important cause of infant death. His statistical analyses are regularly used in modern medical studies, especially partitioning out the contributors to maladies and in analyzing control versus experimental groups (they were surely used in testing the efficacy of Covid vaccines).  As the authors of a new paper on Fisher say, “The widespread applications of Fisher’s statistical developments have undoubtedly contributed to the saving of many millions of lives and to improvements in the quality of life. Anyone who has done even a most elementary course in statistics will have come across many of the concepts and tests that Fisher pioneered.”

That is indeed the case, for statistical methods don’t go out of fashion very easily, especially when they’re correct!

Unfortunately, Fisher was also an exponent of eugenics, and for this he’s recently starting to get canceled. Various organizations, like the Society for the Study of Evolution and the American Statistical Association, have taken his name off awards, and Fisher’s old University of Cambridge college, Gonville and  Caius, removed their “Fisher window” (a stained glass window honoring Fisher’s statistical achievements) from their Hall last year.  Further disapprobation is in store as well.

This article in Heredity by a panoply of accomplished British statisticians and geneticists (Bodmer was one of Fisher’s last Ph.D. students) attempts an overall evaluation of Fisher’s work, balancing the positive benefits against his work and views on eugenics. If you are a biologist, or know something about Fisher, you’ll want to read it (click on the screenshot below, get the pdf here, and see the reference at the bottom.)

The authors make no attempt to gloss over Fisher’s distasteful and odious eugenics views, but do clarify what he favored. These included a form of positive eugenics, promoting the intermarriage of accomplished (high IQ) people, as well as negative eugenics: sterilization of the “feeble minded.” The latter was, however, always seen by Fisher as a voluntary measure, never forced. While one may ask how someone who is mentally deficient can give informed consent, Fisher favored “consent” of a parent or guardian (and concurrence of two physicians) before sterilization—if the patients themselves weren’t competent. But is that really “consent”? Negative eugenics on the population kind (not the selective abortion of fetuses carrying fatal disease, which people do every day) is something that’s seen today as immoral.

Further, Fisher’s views were based on his calculations that the lower classes outbred the higher ones, which, he thought, would lead to an inevitable evolutionary degeneration of society. But he was wrong: oddly, he didn’t do his sums right, as was pointed out much later by Carl Bajema. When you do them right, there’s no difference between the reproductive output of “higher” and “lower” classes.

Contrary to the statements of those who have canceled Fisher, though, he wasn’t a racist eugenist, although he did think that there were behavioral and intelligence differences between human groups, which is likely to be true on average but is a taboo topic—and irrelevant for reforming society. Fisher’s eugenics was largely based on intelligence and class, not race. Fisher was also clueless about the Nazis, though there is no evidence that he or his work contributed to the Nazi eugenics program.

In fact, none of Fisher’s recommendations or views were ever adopted by his own government, which repeatedly rejected his recommendations for positive and negative eugenics. Nor were they taken up in America, where they did practice negative eugenics, sterilizing people without their consent. But American eugenics was largely promoted by American scientists.

My go-to procedure for assessing whether someone should be “canceled”—having their statues removed or buildings renamed and so on—involves two criteria. First, was the honorific meant to honor admirable aspects of the person—the good he or she did? Statues of Confederate soldiers don’t pass even this first test. Second, did the good that a person accomplish outweigh the bad? If the answer to both questions is “yes”, then I don’t see the usefulness of trying to erase someone’s contributions.

On both counts, then, I don’t think it’s fair for scientific societies or Cambridge University to demote Fisher, cancel prizes named after him, and so on. He held views that were common in his time (and were adhered to by liberal geneticists like A. H. Sturtevant and H. J. Muller), and his views, now seen properly as bigoted and odious, were never translated into action.

Of course the spread of wokeness means that balanced assessments like this one are rare; usually just the idea that someone espoused eugenics is enough to get them canceled and their honors removed.  It saddens me, having already known about Fisher and his views, that what I considered my “own” professional society—the Society for the Study of Evolution—and a society of which I was President, is now marinated in wokeness, cancelling Fisher, hiring “diversity” experts to police the annual meeting at great cost, and making the ludicrous assertion—especially ludicrous for an evolution society—that sex in humans is not binary (read my post on this at the link). The SSE’s motivations are good; their execution is embarrassing. I am ashamed of my own intellectual home, and of the imminent name change for the Fisher Prize, for which the Society even apologized. Much of the following “explanation” is cant, especially the part about students being put off applying for the prize:

This award was originally named to highlight Fisher’s foundational contributions to evolutionary biology. However, we realize that we cannot, in recognizing and honoring these contributions, isolate them from his racist views and promotion of eugenics–which were relentless, harmful, and unsupported by scientific evidence. We further recognize and deeply regret that graduate students, who could have been recipients of this award, may have hesitated to apply given the connotations. For this, we are truly sorry.

His promotion of genetics was not relentless, wasn’t harmful (at least in being translated into eugenics, as opposed to being simply “offensive”), and of course scientific evidence shows that you could change almost every characteristic of humans by selective breeding (eugenics). But we don’t think that’s a moral thing to do. And yes, you can separate the good someone does from their reprehensible ideas. Martin Luther King was a serial adulterer and philanderer. Yet today we are celebrating his good legacy, which far outweighs his missteps.

But I digress. I’ll leave you with the assessment of a bunch of liberals who nevertheless use Fisher’s work every day: the authors of the new paper.

The Fisher Memorial Trust, of which the authors are trustees, exists because of Fisher’s foundational contributions to genetical and statistical research. It honours these and the man who made them. Recent criticism of R. A. Fisher concentrates, as we have extensively discussed, on very limited aspects of his work and focusses attention on some of his views, both in terms of science and advocacy. This is entirely appropriate, but in re-assessing his many contributions to society, it is important to consider all aspects, and to respond in a responsible way—we should not forget any negative aspects, but equally not allow the negatives to completely overshadow the substantial benefits to modern scientific research. To deny honour to an individual because they were not perfect, and more importantly were not perfect as assessed from the perspective of hindsight, must be problematic. As Bryan Stevenson (Stevenson 2014) said “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

In one of Fisher’s last papers celebrating the centenary of Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” and commenting on the early Mendelian geneticists’ refusal to accept the evidence for evolution by natural selection he said, “More attention to the History of Science is needed, as much by scientists as by historians, and especially by biologists, and this should mean a deliberate attempt to understand the thoughts of the great masters of the past, to see in what circumstances or intellectual milieu their ideas were formed, where they took the wrong turning track or stopped short of the right” (Fisher 1959). Here, then, there is a lesson for us. Rather than dishonouring Fisher for his eugenic ideas, which we believe do not outweigh his enormous contributions to science and through that to humanity, however much we might not now agree with them, it is surely more important to learn from the history of the development of ideas on race and eugenics, including Fisher’s own scientific work in this area, how we might be more effective in attacking the still widely prevalent racial biases in our society.

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Below: Ronald Alymer Fisher, in India in 1937 (as the authors note, Fisher was feted by a colleague for his “incalculable contribution to the research of literally hundreds of individuals, in the ideas, guidance, ans assistance he so generously gave, irrespective of nationality, colour, class, or creed.” Unless that’s an arrant lie, that should also go toward assessing what the man actually did rather than what he thought.

Fisher in the company of Professor Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis and Mrs. Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis in India in 1940. Courtesy of the P.C. Mahalanobis Memorial Museum and Archives, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, and Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Adelaide Library.

h/t: Matthew Cobb for making me aware of the paper.

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Bodmer, W., R. A. Bailey, B. Charlesworth, A. Eyre-Walker, V. Farewell, A. Mead, and S. Senn. 2021. The outstanding scientist, R.A. Fisher: his views on eugenics and race. Heredity. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41437-020-00394-6