Reader Barry sent me a link to an article in BoingBoing reporting briefly that a freshman state Senator in Montana, Dan Emrich, has introduced a bill that would ban the teaching of “scientific theories” in secondary schools and allow only the teaching of “scientific fact”. According to the article, the object of this bill is the “theory” of evolution, and since he doesn’t see evolution as a fact, then bye-bye Darwin. You can click below to see the short bill, and I’ve put the relevant bits of the bill below the screenshot (bolding is mine):
WHEREAS, the purpose of K-12 education is to educate children in the facts of our world to better prepare them for their future and further education in their chosen field of study, and to that end children must know the difference between scientific fact and scientific theory; and
WHEREAS, a scientific fact is observable and repeatable, and if it does not meet these criteria, it is a theory that is defined as speculation and is for higher education to explore, debate, and test to ultimately reach a scientific conclusion of fact or fiction.
They later clarify: “As used in this section, ‘scientific fact’ means an indisputable and repeatable observation of a natural phenomenon.”
BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF MONTANA:
NEW SECTION. Section 1. Requirements for science instruction in schools.
(1) Science 18 instruction may not include subject matter that is not scientific fact.
(2) The board of public education may not include in content area standards any standard 20 requiring curriculum or instruction in a scientific topic that is not scientific fact.
(3) The superintendent of public instruction shall ensure that any science curriculum guides 22 developed by the office of public instruction include only scientific fact.
(4) (a) The trustees of a school district shall ensure that science curriculum and instructional 24 materials, including textbooks, used in the district include only scientific fact.
Why are they doing this? Apparently because Emrich is after the “theory” of evolution and this is his way of banning it from being taught. (This won’t fly, of course; it’s hopelessly confused.) And I can tell without looking that Emrich is a Republican. From BoingBoing:
Montana Public Radio reports that more than 20 people testified against the bill to voice their concern “that it could keep teachers from including gravitational theory, evolution and cell theory in curriculum.”
In his testimony, Emrich “If we operate on the assumption that a theory is fact, unfortunately, it leads us to asking questions that may be potentially based on false assumptions,” Emrich said.
We know what Emrich is up to. He wants to ban the teaching of the theory of evolution, which is a well-substantiated explanation based on a large body of factual evidence, not assumptions. His dangerous and misguided bill creates a false dichotomy between science and scientific theories, and undermines the principles of academic freedom and the separation of church and state.
This plays on the public confusion, promulgated decades ago by Ronald Reagan, who said this in 1980 (my emphasis):
I have a great many questions about it. It is a theory, it is a scientific theory only. And in recent years it has been challenged in the world of science and is not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was. I think that recent discoveries down through the years have pointed up great flaws in it.”
That’s all bullpucky, of course, especially the claim that evolution is becoming less accepted in the scientific community. My book Why Evolution is True dispels that claim, but it also shows that yes, evolution is a scientific theory, but it is also a scientific fact. Organisms evolved, they did so slowly rather than instantaneously (except for polyploid or hybrid species), lineages split over time, producing new species who evolved further, creating a branching evolutionary tree showing that any two living species have a common ancestor, and that the remarkable “adaptations” or organisms evolved via natural selection. (There are also other ways of evolving, like genetic drift, but they don’t produce adaptations). All five of these bits of evolutionary theory are also facts, supported by mountains of evidence.
I would reproduce my discussion of why evolution is both a fact and a theory from the book, but you can read it from pp. 14-19 and it’s too long to put here. (You do have the book, don’t you?)
Alternatively, you can read Steve Gould’s well known essay on this issue, “Evolution as fact and theory“, online for free. Here’s the bit that most of us know, written with Gould’s characteristic flair:
The basic attack of modern creationists falls apart on two general counts before we even reach the supposed factual details of their assault against evolution. First, they play upon a vernacular misunderstanding of the word “theory” to convey the false impression that we evolutionists are covering up the rotten core of our edifice. Second, they misuse a popular philosophy of science to argue that they are behaving scientifically in attacking evolution. Yet the same philosophy demonstrates that their own belief is not science, and that “scientific creationism” is a meaningless and self-contradictory phrase, an example of what Orwell called “newspeak.”
In the American vernacular, “theory” often means “imperfect fact”—part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus creationists can (and do) argue: evolution is “only” a theory, and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is less than a fact, and scientists can’t even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): “Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science—that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was.”
Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.
Moreover, “fact” does not mean “absolute certainty.” The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.
This bill will not pass, not only because it would prohibit the teaching of atomic theory, germ theory, and the theory of gravity (what Emrich is saying, falsely, is that “theory” = “speculation”), but also because many “facts” of history itself are not established with 100% certainty. It’s best to regard all truths as provisional, but some, like evolution, are sufficiently established that you’d be safe betting your life savings on them.
If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.
Ignorance and fanaticism are still at play, as you can see in this bill.
For decades, the University of Chicago has prided itself as a unified community of scholars whose members were encouraged to (and were free to) debate the big questions. Now, apparently, the big questions have been settled by the uncritical adoption of Critical Theory, as evidenced by what our school is doing to its alumni (see below):
I am now in the sad position of watching my own school slowly go woke, fracturing along lines identified by Critical Theory as separating “homogenous” groups of people residing on a hierarchy of privilege. With the exception of “military alumni”, I hate to see our alumni tribalized in this way, and, truly, don’t see the sense in it..
An alum sent me links to this page, where events for alumni are divided up by race, sex, sexual orientation, and even military service. I’m not sure exactly why they are doing this (click on each screenshot to go to the page and read more). I suppose you could confect a reason, but in truth I think it reflects recent subservience to Wokeness, Critical Theory, and a tribalism once seen as exclusionary but now extolled as a sign of “inclusivity.”
I note with special sadness that one of the Association of Black Alumni events deals with the extremely controversial notion of “implicit bias”. Implicit bias is an important buttress of Critical Theory, asserting that that all white people are racist, whether or not they know it. (See Robin DiAngelo for a popular exposition.) This also holds for all men, who are said to be implicitly sexist.
As far as I know, most scholars without an agenda have abandoned it as a useful notion, along with “implicit bias training”, deep-sixed as a serious and useful endeavor to rid institutions of bias and bigotry (see, for example, here, here, here, here and here). But of course there will be no debate about this at the University of Chicago, where all were once free to question ideas like that. It’s simply presented as a given:
This is not to say, of course, that racism is gone, or that there aren’t bigots peppered through society. Of course there are! But the notion that all people are bigots, whether they know it or not, is an unfalsifiable assumption of Critical Theory, and used solely to gain power over others and advance one’s own power. If you’re racist and don’t know it, there’s nothing you can say, do, or evince to defend yourself—much less change the mind of your interlocutor.
A while back, the University suggested that members of our community might be required to undergo training to eliminate racism and other forms of “bias and exclusion”. If the University of Chicago does this, it’s finished as the gold standard school for freedom of inquiry.
I may live to see the day that I simply have to accept my school as the midwestern version of The Evergreen State College. We’ll all have to get in the canoe! But for now I’ll continue objecting to such a change. After all, the U of C has encouraged its community to be critical.
I see that Quillette is now being demonized by many Leftists as some sort of “alt-right” or conservative website. And although some of their articles are indeed too Right-wing for me, most of the articles seem to be doing what I do—calling out the excesses of the Left, the same excesses that, I suspect, held back the predicted Blue Wave in November’s election. Further, it’s not a good idea to denigrate an entire website as a way of avoiding—or urging others to avoid—reading anything published there. Regardless of what you see as Quillette‘s overall ideology, you will benefit from reading some of its pieces, if for no other reason than some of the follies of the Left, which threaten a liberal government, simply can’t be found in mainstream media.
Here is one piece that will repay reading, although it’s long (my printout, in 9-point type, occupies 14 pages). This should keep you occupied on a cold December Saturday:
In some ways it’s nothing really new: the piece describes a meltdown at Haverford College, a posh and expensive school near Philadelphia. What’s unusual about this is that the students went on strike for several weeks, refusing to go to classes or, indeed, do anything college-related. What’s not new is that they issued a set of demands to the administration: the usual mix of the ridiculous to the tame. And the administration, to placate the outraged students, accepted nearly every one of those demands.
To me it’s a scary harbinger of my own school which, despite holding the line on some aspects of free speech, is showing worrying signs of encroaching wokeness. I’m worried that the University of Chicago will go the way of Yale, Middlebury College, Harvard, and now Haverford. But more on that in weeks to come.
The author of the piece, Jonathan Kay, is the Canadian editor of Quillette, and has cobbled together a thorough and engrossing summary of Haverford’s meltdown. I’ll try to be brief, as I want to discuss his views on the future of fulminating college wokeness.
Earlier this year, before the death of George Floyd on May 25, Haverford was pretty much a school of comity. While there was discussion about various issues, there was not much about race, and a college committee in 2019 noted that there was, as Kay says, “little indication of mass discontent or ideological conflict.” This contrasts markedly with the many statements in the next few months, including some by administrators admitting that Haverford had long been a bastion of systemic racism.
All that changed with the death of Floyd and then the police shooting in Philadelphia on October 26 of another black man, Walter Wallace, Jr., who was bipolar and carrying a knife. Because it wasn’t clear that the cops had a good reason to fire on Wallace, this predictably led to rioting in Philadelphia. Earlier, the racial unrest of the summer had led the College’s President, Wendy Raymond, to issue a statement of support for the black protestors, and the students began protesting the alleged racism of Haverford and issuing lists of demands.
After Wallace’s death, President Raymond and Interim Dean Joyce Bylander (the latter a black woman) issued a joint letter of anti-racism, but made the mistake of saying that students shouldn’t go to Philadelphia to protest because they could get infected with Covid-19 or “play into the hands of those who might seek to sow division and conflict especially in vulnerable communities.” (It’s not clear whom they meant.)
This statement (like others, reproduced in the article), urging students not to put themselves in “harm’s way”, enraged those students, who saw in it a line drawn between the poor black residents of Philadelphia and the entitled bubble of Haverford students. A Zoom call ensued on November 5 in which the President, the black Interim Dean, and the black Provost, Linda Strong-Lee, talked to many of Haverford’s 1350 students. The students proceeded to revile the administrators in the call, as usual, but did so anonymously.
And the administrators proceeded to abase themselves:
Raymond presented herself as solemnly apologetic for a litany of offenses. She also effusively praised and thanked the striking students for educating her about their pain, while “recognizing that I will never understand what it means to be a person of color or be black or indigenous in the United States. I am a white woman with considerable unearned privilege.”
Not only did Raymond announce that she would be acceding to many of the students’ previously listed demands, she also reacted positively to the new requests that students put forward during the call. “All of the recommendations you’ve made here sound spot on and are excellent,” she said. “We can do those—and go beyond them.”
“I’ll just share that I hear your pain, and I know that this is something that rings hollow for you, but I am a black woman who has lived in a black body for 56 years,” responded Strong-Leek, in carefully measured tones that, among all the responses from administrators, seemed closest to escalating into something approaching candor. “My husband is black. My children are black. Every day, I worry about them and myself. Every day, I confront racism. [I’m] Looking forward to working with you and looking forward to making Haverford a better place.” She seemed to be fighting back her own emotions, but ultimately kept her composure.
The Interim Dean:
“I continue to listen and learn, and try to understand the ways in which the college has failed you and how I have failed you,” Dean Bylander calmly responds, ticking off seemingly well-rehearsed talking points. “[I] continue to be committed to trying to work to change and improve the experience of BIPOC students at Haverford.” Her face is a mask of deadpan professionalism. Or maybe she’d simply gone numb.
Eventually, the College acceded to virtually all the students’ demands. But by then the students had gone on strike, refusing to attend classes or extracurricular activities, with the intent being to disrupt the college, make them see how valuable people of color were in running the College, and to spend their time doing teach-ins and reading anti-racist literature. The strike lasted three weeks.
It wasn’t enough that there was a strike, for the striking students tried to punish those “scab” professors who insisted on holding classes during the strike as well as those students who opposed the strike, the latter keeping quiet lest they be forever demonized. Alumni banded together threatening to withhold donations to Haverford unless the students’ demands were met (this is a particularly effective way to effect college change: smack them in the pocketbook).
Social-media statements like this circulated (“Peanuts” is President Raymond’s dog, for crying out loud, and the poor mutt was threatened multiple times with death):
All of a sudden, where comity had reigned, the students, administration, and alumni discovered that all along the school had been a bastion of racism and bigotry:
The students appeared on Zoom under pseudonyms plucked from a list of past Haverford presidents and benefactors. The idea, a strike organizer self-identifying as “Henry Drinker” is heard to say at the 12:20 mark, was to co-opt the names “of the old white men who have made Haverford the racist institution that it is today.”
. . . These details help contextualize the mass email that Dean Bylander and President Raymond sent to the school community on October 28th, a six-paragraph message that student strikers would cite in the days that followed as proof of the “long tradition of anti-Blackness and the erasure of marginalized voices that have come to characterize the experiences of students of color at Haverford.”
From an article in the college newspaper by a student named Soha Saghir:
This campus has failed its Black students (especially Black women and Black nonbinary people), its students of color, and its FGLI [first-generation low-income] students—the very people whose labor is the backbone of this campus. These emails [from the administration] were just one more way in which you and this institution neither feel nor understand how tired, angry, and ready for change we are… In this pandemic, that labor has intensified in unimaginable ways… We are no longer asking for inclusion or diversity since that gives more power to the institution. Instead, we will disrupt that order. We will be going on a strike from our classes, our jobs (which we need), and any extracurricular activities. This campus can’t run without BIPOC. This is not just a reminder that we are valuable to you on campus, but that our lives, minds, and bodies matter.
There’s more, but what’s clear is that all of a sudden students discovered that the school, once peaceful and inclusive, was really a hotbed of racism. Did the school change in such a short period of time, or did outraged students confect a “structural racism” that didn’t exist.
I opt for the latter, having long lived on a liberal campus where such recent accusations fly in the face of the facts.
What bothers me about Kay’s piece is what looks like a correct diagnosis of why the administration caved completely to the students, abasing themselves, losing their dignity, and admitting to an institutional bigotry which didn’t exist. It’s because the administration has nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by standing up to the students. If true, that doesn’t give me much hope:
When campus meltdowns of this type occur, you often see conservative culture warriors demand that administrators take a hard line, demonstrate backbone, “grow a spine,” and so forth. But what is their incentive for doing so? It was once the case that a university president was able to balance different constituencies against one another as a means to achieve some kind of policy equilibrium—liberal students versus more conservative professors, administrators against alumni, this department versus that. But that doesn’t happen anymore: Thanks to the homogenizing effects of social media, all of these constituencies tend to be drinking the same bathwater from the same troughs, and so get caught up in the same social panics at the same time.
And Kay’s solution seems lame: “eventually the trend will reverse itself, and that will be prompted by the students themselves.” Dream on, Mr. Kay: I don’t see this happening:
The process of sifting through these events at Haverford has convinced me that the ideological crisis on American campuses can’t be solved by administrators—not because they are beholden to critical race theory, intersectionality, gender ideology, postmodernism, or any of the other bugbears of conservative culture critics, but because they simply have no practical inducements for doing so. Ultimately, this is a crisis that is going to have to be addressed, if at all, by students themselves. And in this regard, I do see some green shoots of hope. Nick Lasinsky, a white undergraduate student at Haverford, wrote a beautiful and thoughtful piece called Why I’ve Chosen Not to Strike. And a black student named Khalil Walker wrote an amazing series of comments in which he demolishes the idea that Haverford is a hive of systematic racism. Our culture moves in cycles, and I predict that you will see more of these brave voices in months to come.
I predict otherwise. These woke and outraged students will, since they come from elite colleges, get positions of leadership in the media as well as in other colleges, for many of them will go on to become academics and administrators. And that will make colleges even more woke, and so on. There’s nothing on the horizon to break that cycle.
As I worry about this fate for my own university (our hard-line President, Bob Zimmer, will resign at the end of this academic year), I spend too much time—especially for an emeritus professor—fretting about the University of Chicago. For decades, we were the beacon of freedom of speech and academic freedom among American colleges. This uniqueness was in fact a selling point of the University, who advertised it to potential students and their parents. But it’s crumbling.
Now we stand on an equipoise that could easily turn us into Haverford, especially because many of our students are just as woke as theirs. While I still fight for freedom of speech here, it’s getting harder and harder, and the opposition gets louder and louder. What’s freedom of speech compared to the “harm” you cause by speaking your mind?
Before too long, we may see the time when the University of Chicago is no longer the model for colleges that want to encourage all sorts of discussion and discourage none. And I find that prospect discouraging.
This link, from Canada’s National Post via the news agency The Canadian Press, was sent to me by reader Rich Harkness, who noted, “As they say about the influx of critical race theory/intersectionality: We are all on campus now!”
Well, we’re both on campus and also in a procession of penitentes from the Church of Wokeness, in which people who have said perfectly respectable things get demonized by the Offense Brigade. Rather than be smeared as a racist, the offenders then repeatedly lash their backs in contrition. Or, acknowledging their “privilege”, they beat their backs from the outset. It’s an embarrassing sight, amply on display in a recent debate in British Columbia.
First, John Horgan, premier of British Columbia and leader of the B.C. New Democratic Party, made a big-time slipup during an election debate. His opponent, B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson, avoided demonization by groveling from the outset. This article (click on screenshot) shows the self lashing proceeding fast and furious (click on screenshot):
Horgan’s slip, in quotes from the article:
Horgan shared his experience playing lacrosse as a youth, telling the debate moderator he doesn’t see colour.
Oops! BAD mistake! And now comes his fulsome apology:
On Wednesday, Horgan said he needs to be reminded daily that he does not face the challenges of systemic racism that many others do.
“As a personification of white privilege, I misspoke, words matter,” he said at a campaign stop at Richmond. “I deeply regret it, but I’m also committed to making sure that every day I’m reminded of the discomfort that I cause to people and I will work to correct that.”
Horgan said he did not intend to hurt people with his debate comments.
“I was jolted out of my comfort last night and I’m going to reflect on that,” he said. “I profoundly regret that I alienated and hurt people last night.”
In an earlier statement on Twitter, Horgan said he wished he had given a different answer during the debate when the three party leaders were asked how they have reckoned with white privilege.
“Saying ‘I don’t see colour’ causes pain and makes people feel unseen,” he wrote. “I’m sorry. I’ll never fully understand, as a white person, the lived reality of systemic racism. I’m listening, learning, and I’ll keep working every day to do better.”
Clearly people told him that “not seeing colour” was hurtful. But what an embarrassing display of craven pandering! “I don’t see color” doesn’t mean that black people get ignored; it means that people are treated the same regardless of race.
Wilkinson wasn’t quite as bad, but, as the article notes, he acknowledged several times his white male privilege. You have to do that these days, you know:
At the debate, Wilkinson discussed his time working in rural B.C. as a doctor in Indigenous communities, saying all people must be treated equally.
He expanded on his comments Wednesday at a campaign stop in Kitimat.
“In medical practice, I became very much aware of the particular struggles of Indigenous people in dealing with the health-care system and in dealing with society’s other structures,” Wilkinson said. “The idea that people in our society are somehow treated differently because of the colour of their skin or where they grew up or who their parents are is not acceptable.”
He said he grew up fortunate as a white male and it wasn’t until his teenage years that he realized he received different treatment than others.
“It’s wrong. It’s not fair,” said Wilkinson. “I’ve suggested in the (Liberal) platform there should be anti-racism training for everybody in the provincial government.”
Okay, there’s the obligatory anti-racism training, most likely along the lines of critical race theory. Wilkinson said that elected officials should also receive such training.
But wait! There’s more! The article goes on, and gets more and more cringe-worthy as others weigh in with their ideological bona fides:
The Green party’s Sonia Furstenau said at the debate she cannot comprehend that some mothers tell their children to be wary of the police. She pledged to work to end systemic racism, but admitted neither she nor the other two party leaders could ever grasp its nuances.
Prof. Annette Henry of the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice said she believes Furstenau gave the strongest answer in the debate, but Wilkinson and Horgan didn’t seem to understand what systemic racism is.
“I don’t really think they understand how they are implicated in everyday systemic racism and how the structures that we live in prevent people from access, prevent people from opportunities, prevent people from being educated, from getting adequate health care from getting adequate housing,” she said.
Lama Mugabo, a community engagement co-ordinator for the Hogan’s Alley Society, which advocates for Black people in Vancouver, said he wants a premier who sees colour.
“When you say you don’t see colour, what does that really mean?” he said. “I don’t want people not to see that I’m Black. I want them to appreciate that I’m Black and recognize my Blackness. I don’t want any special treatment, but I want to be acknowledged as such.”
Now of course Canadians are liable to be woker than Americans, if only because they are famously polite and don’t want to give offense to anyone. But even polite Canadians should refuse to put up with this brand of nonsense. And now, besides Land Acknowledgments, for which Canadians are also famous, we have Race Acknowledgments. “I’d like to begin by acknowledging that Ms. Mugabo is Black, and I deeply acknowledge her Blackness.”
This all demonstrates exactly what Bari Weiss said in her article in Tablet:
Racism is the gravest sin in American life. Who would ever want to be anything other than an anti-racist? And so under the guise of a righteous effort to achieve overdue justice and equality of opportunity for Black Americans, Kendi and his ideological allies are presenting Americans with a zero-sum choice: conform to their worldview or be indistinguishable from the likes of Richard Spencer.
On December 17 I reported about Harvard’s denial of tenure to Lorgia García Peña, an associate professor of Romance Languages and Literature and of History and Literature. The denial was approved by President Lawrence Bacow, who has never overturned a faculty recommendation.
Why García Peña was denied tenure is unclear, and we’ll never know for sure as these are secret personnel matters. But looking at her c.v. and publications, my best guess was that she was deficient in scholarship, especially at a place like Harvard where scholarship is the primary requirement for tenure. As I wrote after perusing her c.v.:
Looking at García Peña’swebsite at Harvard, her c.v., and her Google Scholar profile gives me a clue, though. She’s published one book, which seems to be derived from her Ph.D. thesis (another’s under contract, and a third seems to be just a Spanish translation of the published book), but lists only five refereed papers since she began at Harvard in 2013. (There are also four “peer-reviewed” chapters, but in general those things are invited and the “peer review” consists of the comments of reviewers who know the chapter will be published.) Here are the listed papers:
2020 “Lo que dice la piel: Consciencia rayana y solidaridad post-terremoto 2010” Forthcoming in Revista de Estudios Sociales, Santo Domingo, Spring 2020.
2016 “Black in English: Race, Migration, and National Belonging in Postcolonial Italy.” Kalfou 3, no. 2 (2016), 207-229
2015 “Translating Blackness: Dominicans Negotiating Race and Belonging.” The Black Scholar 45, no. 2 (2015): 10-20. Awarded Best Article by Black Scholar,
2015. 2013 “Un-Bordering Hispaniola: David Pérez’s Performance Actions of Haitian-Dominican Solidarity.” Afro-Hispanic Review 32, no. 2 (2013): 57-71.
2013 “Being Black Ain’t So Bad… Dominican Immigrant Women Negotiating Race in Contemporary Italy.” Caribbean Studies 41, no. 2 (2013): 137-161.
For Harvard, this doesn’t seem an outstanding record of scholarship, especially the hiatus between 2016 and 2020.
But because she taught ethnic studies, the students took this as almost a racist move, or at least a slap in the face at continuing efforts by students and some faculty to establish various ethnic studies departments, even though there are already plenty of courses at Harvard that fit the “ethnic studies” curriculum. As the article in today’s New York Times reports (click on screenshot below), the students not only demanded that Harvard give García Peña tenure, but also occupied the administration building, disrupted a faculty meeting, and protested by invading the admissions office.
What is striking about the article is how entitled these students seem. Their demand for ethnic studies rests largely, it appears, on their need to feel “supported” after they are admitted to America’s most prestigious university; indeed, to get help to “understand their own stories.” A few quotes:
And on the day in December that early admissions decisions were to be released, black, Latino and Asian students protested in the admissions office, accusing the university of using them as tokens in its professed commitment to diversity, while failing to invest in academic areas critical to their lives.
. . .Several students who testified during the legal challenge to Harvard’s admissions policies, saying it was important for the school to be able to consider race in admissions, are now among those criticizing the decision to deny tenure to the professor, Lorgia García Peña.
One of them, Catherine Ho, 20, a junior, took part in the December protest at the admissions office, where students held signs with messages like “After You Admit Us, Don’t Forget Us!” and “Want Diversity? Teach Our Histories!”
Ms. Ho, who is Vietnamese-American, accused Harvard of using her and other students who testified to burnish its image at the trial and afterward, while refusing to listen to what they said they needed in terms of resources once they got to campus.
“I am tired of Harvard using my story without giving me ethnic studies so I can fully understand what my story even means,” Ms. Ho said during the protest, to cheers from the other students. She added, “Harvard, stop using our stories when you won’t listen to us.”
. . .“We need more than just letting us in,” said Ms. Veira-Ramirez, who came to the United States from Colombia when she was 3 years old. Ms. Veira-Ramirez, who is undocumented, has protection from deportation under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that protected young undocumented immigrants.
“We need resources once we get to campus,” she said, “and part of those resources is an ethnic studies program.”
My response to this is severalfold. First, why are minority students seen completely through the lens of their ethnicities? When they have plenty of opportunities to read Latino/Latina literature, Black Literature, and so on, why do they need an entire department to help them “understand what their stories even mean”? And do all Hispanic or black students really have the same story? I doubt it. For one thing, these aren’t your average minority students: they are the best in the country, and are certainly privileged. Their stories must surely be different from the stories of impoverished youth in, say, the ghettoes of Chicago, doomed to lousy schools, an unsupportive environment, and, for many incarceration. Is the “story” always the story of oppression in the past? Is the unifying factor one of pigmentation? Are the stories of Spanish students (considered “students of color”) similar to those of Brazilian students or Guatemalan students? If so, how?
And if skin color (a sign of oppression) is really the unifying factor here, then Harvard’s “ethnic studies” departments will become—like so many of them are in America—grievancestudies departments, pushing an ideology of intersectionality and oppression. Harvard does not need departments designed for social engineering rather than knowledge, and I suspect that’s why Harvard hasn’t instituted ethnic studies as a department. Indeed, that’s why I object to ethnic studies. Every Hispanic student is different, just as every Jew is different, and despite Jews having been the most oppressed minority in the last two millennia, I would strongly object to starting a “Jewish studies” program to help Jews figure out “what their stories mean.” If you want your stories, you have to do more than major in a field centered on your ethnicity.
Don’t get me wrong: the story of minorities is an important part of the history of America, and there is much great literature written by “marginalized” people. This should be taught in college. But there are plenty of opportunities to do that already. As the Times notes:
Efforts to create an ethnic studies program at Harvard go back several decades. Undergraduates now have two ways to pursue ethnic studies: Students majoring in history and literature can focus on the subject, and students can minor in ethnicity, migration, rights. The ethnic studies track in history and literature was created in 2017, the minor in 2009. The students who are protesting now want a full-fledged department and the opportunity to major in ethnic studies.
Further, Harvard also has a full department of African and African-American studies. Given that, and the fact that there are tracks for other ethnic studies, like Latin American literature and history, I fail to understand why there’s a need for a whole department of “ethnic studies”. What will the department teach beyond what is available already? Certainly African-American studies have everything they need in their already-existing department.
Given that there are already ethnic studies tracks and lots of courses, the only reason I can see for such a department is to enshrine an ideology at the University, and to bow to students’ demands that they need a department to feel supported. That claim is palpably ridiculous in light of the opportunities already available to learn about the history of minorities.
Of course this constitutes tremendous pressure on Harvard, for if the University refuses to confect a department, they will be called racists and bigots, insufficiently supportive of blacks and Hispanics. (Do they also propose departments of women’s studies and LGBTQ+ studies? Courses and sub-majors in women’s studies already exist in plenitude.)
Make no mistake about it. With no exceptions that I know of, ethnic studies departments are departments of grievance studies, dedicated not to advancing knowledge of the history of various groups, but of pushing a particular narrative of continuing oppression of these groups by the dominant white culture. They are not full of courses urging students to question that narrative. Imbuing students with ideology is very different from filling them with knowledge and teaching them how to think.
Indeed, García Peña herself admitted as much in her writing:
In an online article published last year, Dr. García Peña wrote that ethnic studies programs make universities “a little less racist, a little less white.”
“They provide students with spaces for thinking and writing about important questions,” she wrote. “They also provide support for students of color who are made to feel in every other course, like second class citizens who are reminded that they don’t belong.”
No, they provide students with spaces to absorb the ideology of intersectionality and develop a coherent viewpoint that takes all blacks, or all Hispanics, as sharing one story. Further, I deny her contention that minority students are made to feel like second-class citizens in every other course. That’s the kind of grievance viewpoint that develops in such departments, and, though one is called a racist for saying this, it’s simply not true. I know many professors who teach students of color and go the extra mile to help them if they see the students struggling or the students ask for help. And I have never seen a student of color treated as a second-class student in any class I’ve ever taught or attended, though of course this will happen in some places at some times.
Now clearly Harvard will do something—they almost have to lest they look mean-spirited. But I hope that whatever they do will ensure that new courses will not push a specific ideology of intersectionality and unrelenting oppression, but will adhere to the Harvard motto, “Veritas.” (Truth.)
UPDATE: James Lindsay has an analysis of this paper in a number of successive tweets, starting with the one below. Click on it if you want to see his take. He criticizes a number of points that I either missed or ignored, so I recommend your reading it.
Time to start talking about the now infamous "white empiricism" paper, written by a black woman who is a physicist with a dual appointment in gender studies. This paper, in a feminist journal, is a doozy. This will be relatively long thread, so buckle up.https://t.co/yrJMYyQIXUpic.twitter.com/ggvIDesKkM
My ears always perk up when I hear the claim that there are special ways of doing science (“ways of knowing” if you will), that are practiced by different groups, and that the nature of science would be different, and better, if these groups are included in science. There is a modicum of truth in this. Nobody denies that, in the past, oppressed people—women, minorities, and so on—have not been given the same opportunities to enter science as, say, white men. And I can think of at least one case in which the interests of different groups, by being different, have enriched science. (I think that the presence of women in evolutionary biology, for example, could have prompted the increasing emphasis on female choice in “Darwinian” sexual selection, though of course males have also done pioneering work in that area and my contention is arguable.)
But in general, though social conditioning may affect which problems one attacks, I don’t think there are special ways of doing science, nor in general do different groups of people practice science in different ways. I advocate for open access and equal opportunity for all people, but I do that because I see it as immoral to block access to careers for different groups, and also because the more minds that have access to science, the faster science will progress. When women were kept from doing science over the past few centuries, we effectively lost half of the pool of talent that could expand our understanding of the universe, not to mention denying the dreams and ambitions of half the population. And of course that holds for other groups, as well. I advocate equal opportunities for all to do science, but not necessarily equal outcomes, since outcomes could depend partly on preference. But until all groups have equal opportunities, which is a long way off, I think we have to practice some form of affirmative action in science and other professions.
I give this preface because I’m about to criticize a new paper that claims not only that different groups (in this case, black women) have different ways of doing science, but also that black women have been oppressed by an inherent characteristic of science (not of scientists): “white empiricism”, which denies the validity of black women as objective observers of reality. The paper’s author is Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy as well as a faculty member in Women’s Studies at the University of New Hampshire. as well as a writer of popular articles for New Scientist and other venues. She’s also prolific on Twitter, having tweeted (by my count at 5 a.m.) 132 times in the last 24 hours, thus averaging (with eight hours off) about 8 tweets per hour.
Prescod-Weinstein is the daughter of a white Jewish father and a mother from Barbados, so she considers herself both black and Jewish. I’ve written about her once before, criticizing a Slate article in which she argued, based on James Damore’s Google document (for which he was fired), that sexism is inherent in the practice of science (not just in scientists), and that science cannot be equated with “truth.”
You see a related critique of science in Prescod-Weinstein’s new paper in the journal Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, a publication from my own University of Chicago. You can get the paper for free by clicking on the screenshot below. A free pdf is here, and the full reference is at the bottom.
As I see it, the paper’s big problem is that it sees bigotry and racism as violations of the empirical methods of science—as aspects of science that are violated by “white empiricism”. But first, what is “white empiricism”? Here are a few definitions or characterizations of from Prescod-Weinstein:
White empiricism comes to dominate empirical discourse in physics because whiteness powerfully shapes the predominant arbiters of who is a valid observer of physical and social phenomena. Based primarily on their own experiences, white men, who are the dominant demographic in physics, construct the figure of the observer to exclude anyone who does not share the attending social and intellectual identities and beliefs.
. . . Essentially, white empiricism involves a predominantly white, predominantly male professional community selectively failing to apply the scientific method to themselves while using “scientific” evaluation to strengthen the barriers to Black women’s entry into physics. White empiricism is therefore a form of antiempiricism masquerading as an empirical approach to the natural world.
. . . White empiricism is conceptually distinct from epistemic injustice because it describes a resistance not just to testimony but also to empirical fact. It is strongly linked to epistemic oppression and conceptual competence injustice because it involves a denial of a knower’s competence based on ascribed identity (Dotson 2014; McKinnon 2014, forthcoming; Anderson 2017). White empiricism is the specific practice of epistemic oppression paired with a willingness to ignore empirical data.
. . . White empiricism is the practice of allowing social discourse to insert itself into empirical reasoning about physics, and it actively harms the development of comprehensive understandings of the natural world by precluding putting provincial European ideas about science—which have become dominant through colonial force—into conversation with ideas that are more strongly associated with “indigeneity,” whether it is African indigeneity or another.
Now how is it that “white empiricism” turns out to be a form of hypocrisy, in which white male physicists (and also white female physicists) claim they’re objective when investigating physics but aren’t really objective? It is because, alongside their “objectifity” in studying the laws of nature, they ignore or dismiss black women’s “lived experience” and claims about the pervasiveness of racism, which are taken to be objective scientific claims.
And here we see the conflation of physics with social justice. To wit:
In string theory, we find an example wherein extremely speculative ideas that require abandoning the empiricist core of the scientific method and which are endorsed by white scientists are taken more seriously than the idea that Black women are competent observers of their own experiences. In practice, invalidating Black women’s standpoint is an antiempirical disposal of data, in essence turning white supremacist social structures into an epistemic practice in science. Therefore, while traditionally defined empiricism is the stated practice of scientists, white empiricism—where speculative white, male testimony is more highly valued than reality-based testimony from Black women—is the actual practice of scientists.
. . . [Jarita] Holbrook holds that Black students are presumed to be epistemically unreliable on the subject of racism, which sends the message that they can never achieve an objective observer status akin to that of their white peers. As Holbrook describes this epistemic dismissal, “When confronted with a racist incident as a person of color, your objectivity is immediately questioned. Are you sure it happened? Are you sure that it was their intention? to flat out: So and So is not racist! I’ve known them for years. Thus, your objectivity is being questioned. … The internal dialogue is that if they do not believe me in this, what do they think about my science? Thus, it erodes the scientific identity that you are in the process of creating”
. . . In effect, white physicists are considered competent to self-evaluate for bias against other epistemic agents and theories of physics where there is no empirical grounding to assist in decision making, while Black epistemic agents are considered incompetent to bring a lifetime of knowledge gathering about race and racism to bear on their everyday experiences. This empirical adjudication is the phenomenon of white empiricism.
These statements, particularly the last one, shows Prescod-Weinstein’s confusion between empirical studies of physics and evaluation of the “lived experience” of racism by black women. I’m not denying, of course, that some physicists have racist attitudes. But to say that one must accept a black women’s views about racism because science says you must is to equate subjectivity with objectivity, anecdote with scientific consensus. And, in fact, Prescod-Weinstein gives no examples of white male physicists rejecting black women’s views about racism. She goes on at length about the history of racism in America, and how scientists have participated in it, but I see no examples of any modern male physicists saying that black women aren’t competent to describe and evaluate their own experiences, much less to act as valid students of the laws of physics.
In pursuit of her thesis that racist attitudes violate the very objectivity inherent in science, Prescod-Weinstein adduces some ludicrous examples. One is the theory of relativity, which states that the fundamental laws of physics are invariant under the inertial frame of the observer. Prescod-Weinstein sees racism as violating this canon:
Yet white empiricism undermines a significant theory of twentieth-century physics: General Relativity (Johnson 1983). Albert Einstein’s monumental contribution to our empirical understanding of gravity is rooted in the principle of covariance, which is the simple idea that there is no single objective frame of reference that is more objective than any other (Sachs 1993). All frames of reference, all observers, are equally competent and capable of observing the universal laws that underlie the workings of our physical universe. Yet the number of women in physics remains low, especially those of African descent (Ong 2005; Hodari et al. 2011; Ong, Smith, and Ko 2018). . . . Given that Black women must, according to Einstein’s principle of covariance, have an equal claim to objectivity regardless of their simultaneously experiencing intersecting axes of oppression, we can dispense with any suggestion that the low number of Black women in science indicates any lack of validity on their part as observers. It is instead important to examine the way the social forces at work shape Black women’s standpoint as observers—scientists—with a specific interest in how scientific knowledge is dependent on this specific standpoint. As Jarita Holbrook notes, Black students have their capacity for objectivity questioned simply because their standpoint on racism is different from that of white students and scientists who don’t have to experience its consequences.
Statements like that make me wonder if Prescod-Weinstein knows that she’s distorting science in the service of social justice. Einstein’s principle simply states that the laws of physics are invariant under frames of reference, not that “all observers are equally competent and capable of observing the universal laws [of physics].” To say that the theory of relativity shows objectively that racism against black women is unscientific is to mistake the laws of physics with a moral dictum. In other words, Prescod-Weinstein is committing the naturalistic fallacy. Certainly all groups get the same opportunity, should they wish to become physicists, to study the laws of nature, but not everyone, least of all me, is “equally competent.” What Prescod-Weinstein should be arguing is not that Einstein’s theory explicitly makes all people morally equal, but that considerations of well-being and empathy make all people morally equal. Dr. King didn’t need Einstein to convince America that segregation was wrong.
Prescod-Weinstein is not by any means obtuse, and so I wonder if she sees the fallacy of what she’s doing here, or is so blinded by ideology that she really thinks that Einstein’s theory is explicitly anti-racist.
She also uses string theory as an example of how “objective” study of physics conflicts with racism. She considers why string theory, though in many ways appealing, has failed to gain widespread acceptance in the scientific community and yet is still considered a valid object of study. She gives three reasons why string theory remains viable (her quote):
Surveying what should happen next, there are at least three distinct possibilities:
1. Patience is required, and evidence is coming.
2. String theory has failed to succeed in expected ways because the community—which is almost entirely male and disproportionately white relative to other areas of physics—is too homogeneous.
3. The scientific method overly constrains our models to meet certain requirements that no longer serve the needs of physics theory.
The trouble with the first option is that because of the theory’s structure, parameters could continuously and endlessly change to excuse the absence of evidence: “It is simply in a regime where we can’t currently take measurements” (Dawid 2013, 112; see also Ellis and Silk 2014). This never-ending passing of the buck to higher energy scales that require bigger experiments and more funding is suspect, although there is certainly no universal law that says that finding quantum gravity should be an affordable pursuit.
The second option is effectively unconsidered in the literature. Instead, the case for the third option has been made. This is a curious turn of events. Rather than considering whether structural and individual discrimination results in a homogeneous, epistemically limited community, physicists are willing to throw out their long-touted objectivity tool, the scientific method. In its place, they propose that their sense of aesthetics is sufficient, that the theory holds a kind of beauty (such as high levels of symmetry) similar to other, empirically successful theories such as the Standard Model of particle physics (Polchinski 1998).
What she’s saying here is that it’s distinctly possible that the absence of diversity (e.g., black women) among physicists is a reasonable explanation for why no empirical evidence has arisen to support string theory. That contrasts with explanations 1) and 3), that say, respectively, that we might get evidence for or against the theory some day, or that we should simply accept string theory without empirical evidence because it’s a lovely theory and, by the way, evidence is overrated.
Prescod-Weinstein indicts white empiricism here because, she says, people have gravitated to explanation #3 instead of #2, and by so doing have rejected the empirical canons of science—the need for evidence—rather than accept the possibility that we need more black women physicists. And, she argues, there’s no empirical reason to support #3 over #2—except under white empricism.
I don’t think that’s correct. First of all, she adduces no reason why black physicists rather than white physicists can help provide the ultimate empirical test of string theory. That presupposes that there is a “black” way of doing string theory that white physicists don’t comprehend. Second, I haven’t seen physicists, at least the ones I know, arguing that string theory is correct and we don’t need empirical verification. My own take is that string theory is appealing in many ways but can’t be accepted as true because it can’t be tested in any way that we must know. In other words, possibility #1 is the consensus among physicists, and possibility #2 isn’t that viable because there’s been no demonstration that different ethnic groups or genders have investigatory tools that could solve the issue. (This is not to justify racism in physics, of course. It’s just that diversity is an inherent good, that equal opportunity is a moral imperative, and diversity may advance science not because different groups have different “ways of knowing”, but because the bigger the talent pool, the more likely we are to have breakthroughs.)
But Prescod-Weinstein does believe that what we know about physics would change if more black women participated. Yet she fails to be specific, arguing that “there are contexts in which Black women are epistemically privileged observers”, but not telling us which contexts. Instead, she says this:
Yet there is a way in which feminist standpoint theory can help us think about the gulf between epistemic theory and social practice in physics. Standpoint theory correctly identifies that there are contexts in which Black women are epistemically privileged observers, and I argue that a refusal to accept this fact translates into modified epistemic outcomes in physics, not because the laws of physics are different but because which parts of the universe we understand, and even the very nomenclature we develop to describe our understanding, are impacted by social forces.
It would be nice if she could adduce an example here. Which parts of the universe are susceptible to analysis by a black woman physicist but not a white male? Since there are almost no black women physicists, it would be hard to even think of an example. As for terminology or nomenclature, well, that has little to do with our understanding; it is just words we use to describe our understanding. Would “the uncertainty principle” be called something else if discovered by a black woman physicist? If so, would it matter? Again, we have no examples—even hypothetical ones.
Prescod-Weinstein does adduce the fight over the 30-Meter Telescope in Hawaii (some scientists want it built, while many native Hawaiians oppose it on grounds of tradition and the claim that Mauna Kea site is sacred) as another example of “white empiricism”, but this is also misguided. The fight is not about the nature of science, but about whether a tool for doing science should be built if it conflicts with local beliefs and practices. I’m not that familiar with the battle, but what I do know tells me that it’s not a battle over the validity of Hawaiians as valid observers of physics. Prescod-Weinstein seems to disagree:
As we enter an era where physics and astronomy are both studied and practiced by increasingly larger teams with wide geographic footprints, these social dynamics will become important in new ways. For example, in the debate about the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, the question of which epistemologies merit legitimate consideration is intimately tied to white empiricism (Swanner 2013; Salazar 2014; Kuwada 2015). White empiricism can help explain why the Thirty Meter Telescope was evaluated so differentially by Mauna Kea protectors and telescope-using scientists, resulting in a specious debate over who was for and who was against science. Protectors, who do not subscribe to white empiricism, have been forced to repeatedly challenge press coverage that tends to assign a higher knowledge prestige to the role of nonindigenous scientists than to cultural knowledge holders of indigenous communities (Fox and Prescod-Weinstein 2019). Future work should unpack this phenomenon further in dialogue with decolonization discourse.
But the native Hawaiian argument against the telescope is not an epistemological stand, unless you think that it’s based on superstition; and in that case it’s not relevant to Prescod-Weinstein’s argument. “Cultural knowledge” here does not refer to scientific knowledge, but to spiritual belief, and thus we are not seeing a conflict about the way to do physics. There may be some racism inherent in the battle, but that’s different from a battle over “valid ways of understanding nature.”
I am growing weary, for I have dissected papers like this before—papers on white glaciology, the racism of Pilates, lattes, and pumpkins, and so on. The difference here is that Prescod-Weinstein is a working physicist with respectable accomplishments in the field. It is a sad testimony to the power of ideology, though, that her interpretation of what science is has been so severely distorted by her anti-white feminism. Instead of arguing, as I’ve said, on moral grounds, she argues that the objectivity of science itself is in conflict with the supposed dismissal of black women’s experiences of racism, and that such an attitude is not just racist but anti-science.
In view of the paucity of black women physicists with a Ph.D. (there have been only a few dozen in history), what should we do? I agree that there may be a problem here, and my solution is, as always, twofold. First, rectify any inequality of opportunity starting at the ground—the limited opportunities afforded to minorities by living conditions and poor schooling, themselves byproducts of racism. Second, for the time being practice a form of affirmative action, realizing that diversity in the physics community is an inherent good for several reasons (providing role models to eliminate roadblocks to opportunity, for one).
But these STEM initiatives are rejected by Prescod-Weinstein as a form of patronizing manipulation of black people for the good of America:
The National Science Foundation (2008) argues that the broader impact of diversity is a worthwhile consideration in granting criteria based on a national need for a strong STEM workforce as the United States undergoes a demographic transition where white-identified people will soon no longer account for over 50 percent of the population. Because white Americans still heavily dominate STEM degree earning and the STEM workforce, American STEM cannot keep up with the demographic changes. These arguments repurpose Black Americans (and other minorities) as tools to serve nationalist needs.
I doubt that the National Science Foundation’s strong STEM programs to increase minority participation in science are designed to “repurpose Black Americans (and other minorities) as tools to serve nationalist needs.” These programs are supported and implemented largely by women, and their avowed purpose is to diversify participation in science and technology. To say that they are designed to turn minorities into slaves of white nationalism is simply ridiculous. For one thing, I doubt that anyone who has been supported by these programs, many of them investigating pure science rather than advancing technology, sees themselves as “tools.” Let Chanda-Weinstein talk to those people rather than pronounce, as a privileged physicist, how they should feel. Does she understand their lived experience?
This paper is not a hoax, though if it had been written by someone else it could be seen as one of the “grievance study” hoax papers produced by Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay. It is a serious attempt at scholarship, and I say “attempt” because it fails on all levels. It is what happens when a “hard” discipline like physics is infected by a “soft” discipline with an ideological agenda, like gender and race studies. The result are specious and insupportable claims like that of Einstein’s theory of relativity explicitly stating that people from all ethnic and gender groups should be treated equally. And while you’ll find many physicists, including white ones, who refuse to dismiss black women as valid observers of physical reality, I doubt that you’ll find many who cite Einstein in support of such egalitarianism.
It’s always a bad idea to draw moral conclusions from science, for that makes the moral conclusions susceptible to changes in our understanding of the physcal world. If we had only Newtonian mechanics and not relativistic mechanics, would racism be more justified?
Two days ago I wrote a critique of a curiously disjointed and poorly written article by science historian Nathaniel Comfort: a critique of science and “scientism” published in Nature. It was a garbled mixture of postmodern and woke sentiments, making a bogus claim that discoveries like the microbiome and epigenetics have radically altered our “sense of self”, with an ancillary claim that “other ways of knowing” can help us define “the self”. Here’s Comfort’s garbled last paragraph:
Since the Enlightenment, we have tended to define human identity and worth in terms of the values of science itself, as if it alone could tell us who we are. That is an odd and blinkered notion. In the face of colonialism, slavery, opioid epidemics, environmental degradation and climate change, the idea that Western science and technology are the only reliable sources of self-knowledge is no longer tenable. This isn’t to lay all human misery at science’s feet — far from it. The problem is scientism. Defining the self only in biological terms tends to obscure other forms of identity, such as one’s labour or social role. Maybe the answer to Huxley’s ‘question of questions’ isn’t a number, after all.
I won’t repeat my criticisms of Comfort’s piece; plenty of readers also found it bizarre. I’ll say only that nobody, including we biologists, defines the self only in biological terms, but in fact the use of biology to help us understand the notion of self is both uncontroversial and a non-problem. Steve Pinker kindly emitted two tweets criticizing Comfort’s piece and calling attention to my critique. To wit:
Unlike past anti-scientism rants in lit/cult/pol mags, this is in Nature. Why? Sci eds often outsource commentary on sci & soc to the clique of historians of sci, who historicize everything & hate sci's claim to objectivity & realism. https://t.co/1DYq8kuG4R@Evolutionistrue
Now, on his website Gentopia, whose motto is, oddly, “here lies truth” (Comfort is not a scientist but a historian of science), Comfort answers not me, but Pinker’s tweets, or, rather the second tweet. Click on the screenshot to read another rant. And note that he misspells Pinker’s first name—twice. In the title, too! But Pinker’s name is spelled correctly in his tweets, the ones Comfort attacks.
Apparently I am too small a fish to merit a response from Comfort, which is fine. I’ve never pretended to be as smart or influential as “Stephen”. Rather, Comfort is eager to go after Pinker’s second tweet, and can’t resist a few ad hominems, showing what a nasty piece of work Comfort is (neither Steve nor I addressed Comfort’s appearance, which of course is irrelevant). I’ll give just a few of Comfort’s responses:
I’m now used to the ritual of Jerry Coyne (@whyevolutionistrue) attempting a takedown of my stuff. To my perverse delight, though, the Harvard psychologist and hair model Stephen Pinker took a poke at me. Couldn’t resist that. What follows is the tweet stream I sent out in response, clarifying some points in the article and differentiating further between science and scientism.
Hair model? Seriously, dude, your animus is showing!
Anyway, you can look at Comfort’s “tweetstream” yourself (he goes by the name of Pomo Shaman!), none of which dispels the notion that he’s pushing a postmodernist critique of science, indicting the field because it’s been misused by people to do bad stuff (like the humanities, architecture, and nuclear physics). But the end of his piece shows both his anger and his “novel” claim that science has been misused, which of course is not novel at all, and certainly not worth a diatribe in Nature. (Or was his disatribe about how new discoveries have altered our sense of self?). I’ve bolded the telling parts, but Comfort’s anger peeks through in the interstices:
The question isn’t *whether* science and society interact, it’s *how.* We can have disagreements on the how—I show you my evidence, you show me yours, we hash it out—but not the whether.
I’m not arguing with a flat-Earther.
Historians don’t “hate realism,” for chrissakes. We’re more realistic than scientists like Pinker who live in an ideal world of pure reason, failing to acknowledge the messiness of the real world. [JAC: LOL!]
Thinking you have uniquely privileged access to reality is scientism, not science. It is to live in a sterile, blinkered world, populated only by the stately march of the anointed intellects toward the one & only Truth. That’s like the worst kind of superstitious evangelism.
It’s also chauvinistic, narrow, parochial, and bullying. It’s tyrannical, ham-handed, intolerant of dissent. How unscientific! And if Pinker knew his history, he’d know how science can be—has been—marshaled in the name of tyrannies large and small, across continents, down the centuries.
Umm. . . Pinker does know his history, and has made the point about science’s misuse several times in his writings. Comfort goes on:
Science can be great! It makes many, many positive contributions to knowledge & to society. It need not be put in the service of oppression, nor is it always. But it’s indisputable that it has been, many times. You can start with Karl Brandt and work your way down.
The thesis of my @nature piece, then, once again, is that insidious applications of science are due not to the science itself, but to the ideology that sometimes accompanies it: Scientism. Capeesh?
He also says this:
Yes, I am anti-scientism.
Scientism = science + hubris.
Scientism = science + arrogance.
Scientism = science + vanity.
Scientism = science + cruelty.
Scientism = science + ignorance.
Scientism, in other words, is science plus something shitty.
If that was your point, Dr. Comfort, why didn’t you make it explicit? What you said is this:
I want to suggest that many of the worst chapters of this history result from scientism: the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems. Where science has often expanded and liberated our sense of self, scientism has constrained it.
That’s not saying that ideology coupled to science can do bad stuff; it’s saying that the ideology that “science is the only valid way to understand the world and social problems” is what’s problematic. In fact, one can make a case that if you mean “a general understanding of reality that is agreed on by all rational people”, science (construed broadly) is the only way to understand the world. The values that we bring to diagnosing the world’s ills don’t come from science, but, as I said in my critique, implementing those values to effect a desired solution is also an empirical problem. Capeesh?
Comfort emits a final dose of bile, not omitting his woke and postmodernist equation of Pinker’s views with the “male gaze.”
One last thing: @sapinker’s arrogant and bullying scientism is both a symptom and a cause of the WEIRD male gaze that’s dominated science for centuries is Exhibit A in the case for why we need more diversity in science. Hence the last point in my essay.
Male scientists who aren’t arrogant, scientistic pricks (and I know many): There’s no need to say, “Not all scientists.” If this doesn’t describe you, it’s not about you, and I doff my hat to you, sir.
In fact, Pinker’s tweet is not anything close to a demonstration of why we need more diversity in science. I’ll show it again:
Unlike past anti-scientism rants in lit/cult/pol mags, this is in Nature. Why? Sci eds often outsource commentary on sci & soc to the clique of historians of sci, who historicize everything & hate sci's claim to objectivity & realism. https://t.co/1DYq8kuG4R@Evolutionistrue
Does “Stephen” Pinker’s claim here come from racism, the privilege of old white males, or sexism? I can’t imagine how. It is an empirical claim that has nothing to do with gender or ethnicity. Comfort’s use of the postmodern “male gaze”, his call for diversity, and his implication that Pinker is an arrogant scientistic prick (seriously, dude, look at that last word!), is a form of virtue-flaunting.
After reading this, I now think that Comfort is not only a muddled, woke postmodernist, but also a nasty one. Hair model, indeed!
Well, two previously highly-reputed and well respected colleges are going down the drain as they cave in to unconscionable student demands. The first is Williams College in Massachusetts, where an unhinged gender-studies professor is basically determining college policy with the help of an invertebrate President. I’ll have more on that sad situation later.
The second is Sarah Lawrence College, a high-class liberal arts college in Yonkers, New York. It’s an expensive school, too, as you can see from its list of yearly costs, totaling $69,697 (lots of students get scholarships or other forms of aid).
One would think that the students at such an elite school would be entitled, regardless of their ethnicity, but you would be wrong. They are now up in arms big time over a New York Times op-ed written by a conservative professor.
The editorial, below, is by Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence and a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Have a gander:
The editorial, based on a survey Abrams took, showed that school administrators were overwhelmingly on the Left, as were professors and students (the latter two groups weren’t quite as liberal)—a profound difference between academia and the American public. He was prompted to investigate after seeing the ideological indoctrination of students at his school, something we’re well familiar with as colleges change their mission from education to social engineering. Here are the words that damned Abrams:
I received a disconcerting email this year from a senior staff member in the Office of Diversity and Campus Engagement at Sarah Lawrence College, where I teach. The email was soliciting ideas from the Sarah Lawrence community for a conference, open to all of us, titled “Our Liberation Summit.” The conference would touch on such progressive topics as liberation spaces on campus, Black Lives Matter and justice for women as well as for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and allied people.
As a conservative-leaning professor who has long promoted a diversity of viewpoints among my (very liberal) faculty colleagues and in my classes, I was taken aback by the college’s sponsorship of such a politically lopsided event. The email also piqued my interest in what sorts of other nonacademic events were being organized by the school’s administrative staff members.
I soon learned that the Office of Student Affairs, which oversees a wide array of issues including student diversity and residence life, was organizing many overtly progressive events — programs with names like “Stay Healthy, Stay Woke,” “Microaggressions” and “Understanding White Privilege” — without offering any programming that offered a meaningful ideological alternative. These events were conducted outside the classroom, in the students’ social and recreational spaces.
Abrams’s survey data:
Intrigued by this phenomenon, I recently surveyed a nationally representative sample of roughly 900 “student-facing” administrators — those whose work concerns the quality and character of a student’s experience on campus. I found that liberal staff members outnumber their conservative counterparts by the astonishing ratio of 12-to-one. Only 6 percent of campus administrators identified as conservative to some degree, while 71 percent classified themselves as liberal or very liberal. It’s no wonder so much of the nonacademic programming on college campuses is politically one-sided
The 12-to-one ratio of liberal to conservative college administrators makes them the most left-leaning group on campus. In previous research, I found that academic faculty report a six-to-one ratio of liberal to conservative professors. Incoming first-year students, by contrast, reported less than a two-to-one ratio of liberals to conservatives, according to a 2016 finding by the Higher Education Research Institute. It appears that a fairly liberal student body is being taught by a very liberal professoriate — and socialized by an incrediblyliberal group of administrators.
For all of this, his conclusions were fairly mild, even if the data weren’t all that surprising:
This warped ideological distribution among college administrators should give our students and their families pause. To students who are in their first semester at school, I urge you not to accept unthinkingly what your campus administrators are telling you. Their ideological imbalance, coupled with their agenda-setting power, threatens the free and open exchange of ideas, which is precisely what we need to protect in higher education in these politically polarized times.
In fact, I would have given students the same Hitchensian advice: think for yourselves. And colleges might rethink their mission, perhaps realizing that their job is to educate students and teach them to think, not fill them full of the professors’ and administrators’ own political ideology and act as super-indulgent helicopter parents.
But too late: the students at Sarah Lawrence went wild, demonstrating, sitting in, and issuing a multipage list of DEMANDS.
Here’s part of the demonstration (clicking on the tweet takes you to the video):
And the demands, published in the student newspaper The Phoenix (click on screenshot below), are generally risible. While some are reasonable, many are simply requests for Free Everything: food, housing, unlimited therapy sessions, and so on. Further, they are couched as demands, not requests, and all of us bridle when presented with demands that we are required to meet.
In addition, the students demand re-education of the administration, mandatory attendance at a session where they intend to hector administrators, and, worst of all, a review of Abrams’s tenure (he’s tenured)—a review conducted by members of the “Diaspora Coalition”—the student group that prepared the demands—as well as three professors of color. After all, Abrams’s editorial was VIOLENCE and hurt marginalized people, and he should be punished for that. If anything is a witch hunt, this is:
I can’t list all the demands, but, as I said, some seem reasonable (providing resources and advice to incoming and foreign students, as well as tax advice for foreign students); others debatable (send administrators to Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and so on to recruit students), and some downright ridiculous. The latter include these “demands”:
We demand a mandatory first-year orientation session about intellectual elitism and classism.
We demand all students have access to unlimited therapy sessions through Health and Wellness.
We demand indigenous land acknowledgement at all orientation and commencement ceremonies in addition to a permanent land acknowledgement page on both MySLC and the Sarah Lawrence website. These pages must also include a list of resources for local tribes.
They also demand race-segregated housing (their emphasis):
The College will designate housing with a minimum capacity for thirty students of color that is not contingent on the students expending any work or labor for the college. This housing option will be permanent and increase in space and size based on interest.
But wait! There’s more! (Emphasis is theirs.)
Students of color should not be forced to resort to racist white professors in order to have access to their own history. It is crucial that the College offer courses taught about people of color by people of color so that students may engage in and produce meaningful work that represents them authentically.
We demand there be new tenured faculty of color – at least two in African diasporic studies, one in Asian-American studies, one in Latinx diasporic studies, and one in indigenous/native peoples studies.
We demand there be at least three more courses offered in African diasporic studies taught by Black professors.
We demand that the College offer classes that embody intersectionality, as defined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, and address the racial diversity of the LGBTQ+ community instead of centering whiteness.
The aforementioned classes must be taught by professors who are a part of the culture they are teaching about.
And, of course, they are going to conduct a sit-in in which they will miss class, and perhaps engage in illegal conduct or behavior that violates College rules. From this they DEMAND complete protection from prosecution:
The institution will not use the threat of expulsion, removal of positions held in student government, or any other forms of punishment in retaliation to civil disobedience.
Clearly these students don’t know what civil disobedience means. A powerful tactic of the civil rights movement, it constitutes peaceful disobeying of unjust laws, with the willingness to accept punishment for that disobedience. The Sarah Lawrence students want to have their cake and eat it too.
They demand in addition that a whole slate of administrators “attend the student-facilitated talk-back on March 13, 2019 in Miller Lecture Hall regarding this document”, and also that another list of administrators sign the demand document and agree to a meeting on April 5.
But the worst part is the DEMAND to punish Abrams for his editorial. I’ll reproduce that bit in full (their emphasis):
Sarah Lawrence must confront how the presence of Sam Abrams, an anti-queer, misogynist, and racist who actively targets queer people, women, and people of color and is an alumnus of an institute with direct ties to a neo-Confederate hate group, affects the safety and wellbeing of marginalized students. Additionally, Sarah Lawrence will forfeit donations and interactions from the Charles Koch Foundation and never hire alumni from the League of the South-aligned Institute for Human Studies in the future.
Professor Samuel Abrams and Defending Progressive Education
On October 16, 2018, politics professor Samuel Abrams published an op-ed entitled “Think Professors Are Liberal? Try School Administrators” in The New York Times. The article revealed the anti-Blackness, anti-LGBTQ+, and anti-woman bigotry of Abrams. The article specifically targeted programs such as the Our Liberation Summit, which Abrams did not attend, facilitated by the Office of Diversity and Campus Engagement. The Sarah Lawrence community deserves an administration that strives for an inclusive education that reflects the diversity of our community. Abrams’ derision of the Black Lives Matter, queer liberation, and women’s rights movements displays not only ignorance but outright hostility towards the essential efforts to dismantle white supremacy and other systems of oppression. This threatens the safety and wellbeing of marginalized people within the Sarah Lawrence community by demonstrating that our lives and identities are viewed as “opinions” that we can have a “difference in dialogue” about, as if we haven’t been forced to debate our very existences for our entire lives. We demand that Samuel Abrams’ position at the College be put up to tenure review to a panel of the Diaspora Coalition and at least three faculty members of color. In addition, the College must issue a statement condemning the harm that Abrams has caused to the college community, specifically queer, Black, and female students, whilst apologizing for its refusal to protect marginalized students wounded by his op-ed and the ignorant dialogue that followed. Abrams must issue a public apology to the broader SLC community and cease to target Black people, queer people, and women.
This is nothing other than a threat to a professor who dared differ from the ideology of the hyper-Leftist students. Note that Abrams did not evince misogyny, white supremacy, or any other form of bigotry in his editorial, yet he’s accused of nothing short of being both a Nazi and a Klansman. And his editorial is said to have “wounded” the students and targeted marginalized people. It did nothing of the sort: it took issue with the ideological indoctrination of students by Leftist administrators.
In this document we see a frightening future of American higher education: a future in which universities become not places of learning but Indoctrination Centers of the Left that cater to every student’s needs: all the way to free laundry detergent and unlimited therapy. We also see the policing of Wrongthink, in which dissenting professors are threatened with being fired. It is a place where those who dissent from “approved” opinion are afraid to speak, something now happening at Williams College in Massachusetts—a college that for 15 straight years has been rated the best of America’s liberal arts colleges. (It won’t be for long.) It is this suppression of dissenting opinion, which is pure censorship, that is frightening.
Sarah Lawrence is becoming the 1984 of college campuses, and it’s well down the road to becoming another Evergreen State College and to sharing that college’s fate: financial ruin and the refusal of parents to send their kids to a school Too Woke to Function.
I can only thank my lucky stars that The University of Chicago wasn’t like that when I was teaching there, nor is it like that now. That is thanks to the willingness of our faculty and administrators to stand up to ridiculous student demands while listening to and considering the reasonable ones. It is the failure of pusillanimous parents, administrators, teachers, and citizens to stand up to this nonsense that allows it to continue.
About 25 years ago, while waiting for an infrequent bus in a rural area of northern India, I became surrounded by a group of children who were intrigued by the camera-toting foreigner. I talked to them for a long time, as they wanted to practice their rudimentary English, and I even pretended that my name was Ganesha, the Hindu elephant-headed deity that I love. I can still remember one of the kids saying, “Ganesha? You are a GOD!!!” (I eventually told them my real name.) They were really sweet kids and eventually I asked my companion to take a picture of me with the group.
I didn’t post that picture on Facebook or anything, but I might have had those venues existed then. But of course I would have been accused, as was Stacey Dooley, of evincing a “white savior” mentality. (Maybe you have to actually pick up a kid to be a white savior.) For that is what VICE did in the annoying, hectoring, and Dooley-demonizing article below (click on screenshot):
Stacey Dooley is no random “savior tourist”, but an English television presenter who has done investigative reports on sex trafficking and on the disappearance of indigenous women in Canada. In other words, she’s woke, but in a good way. And apparently she was in Africa to film for Comic Relief, an organization that tries to relieve poverty throughout the world. In other words, Dooley was there to help Africans. Granted, part of African poverty is due to the continent’s history of colonialism, but Dooley wasn’t a colonizer. Her crime was being white and picking up a black child. The dissemination of that photograph, moreover, can only help the charity, as we all know that pictures of specific individuals, especially children, bring in more money than just a general un-illustrated appeal for funds.
Here’s her Instagram post.
And here’s VICE kvetching about it:
But “white saviors” does not refer to that. It refers to a very specific need for the West to portray Africa as a crumbling place of red soil, flies, and kids who don’t know it’s Christmas time at all. It reinforces the view that Africans can never be the solution, that they are helpless without any agency of their own, and that sunshine and hope only comes when cradled in the warm, bright embrace of whiteness. It centers the celebrity over and above those whose lives they’re supposedly trying to change. The young man in Dooley’s post is not a prop and should not be treated as such.
Imagery is extremely important. It’s something we all get wrong; VICE fucked up literally this morning. There are serious challenges facing Africa as a continent. Many of those challenges are universal because of the ramifications of colonialism and the way it divvied up the fruitful and fertile land, and forced grossly different cultures to form singular nations against their will. It’s something that a majority of nations are still trying to come to terms with. In that is space for anyone of good mind and spirit to do their bit where needed, hopefully directed by people on the ground.
(For more predictable kvetching, see the related Guardian article.) Yes, of course Africa faces challenges, some of them stemming from a history of European exploitation. And yes, some tourists may pick up black kids as a sort of authenticating experience, or as proof of their non-racism. That is not a good thing to do. But I doubt that Dooley was doing that. She probably liked the kid, and when you like a small kid, your first impulse is to pick it up. (nb: I did not pick up any Indian children.)
But in the end, what VICE is after is for white people to stop helping Africans, for how can you even do that without the possibility of being accused as a “white savior”? You are white and you’re trying to help people of other colors. “White saviorism” does not refer to a specific need to denigrate Africa, or to say that Africans can’t help themselves (many aid workers from Europe and the U.S. work hand in hand with Africans).
Dooley’s more or less poleaxed, as you can tell from her tweet below.
This whole policing of “optics” makes me ill. Now, when your impulse is to cuddle or pick up a child, you must consider the difference in pigmentation. Yes, of course you should ponder whether you’re being paternalistic or condescending, but how about extending some charity to people like Stacey Dooley? And now she has to suffer being demonized so that writers at VICE, who do not help people in Africa, can feel morally superior.
Godfrey Elfwick (aka Titania McGrath) apparently now has a regular column in The Spectator USA, and, frankly, I’m surprised that even a semi-conservative magazine would present Elfwick’s musings without saying that they’re satirical. After all, Elfwick, McGrath and their/hir/zir schticks are so close to the fulminations of exteme Control-Leftism that they sometimes gets mistaken for being serious Woke Leftism. In other words, Elfwick and McGrath present an ongoing “hoax” along the lines of Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay’s more arduous efforts.
The latest Elfwick production takes off from a recent cover of Esquire, which made the mistake of profiling a white boy during Black History Month in the USA. Here’s the Esquire cover. You can tell just from the words underneath “AN AMERICAN BOY” that it would rile up the Outrage Brigade.
And, after all, well-off white males are the most demonized of all groups of Americans, and it’s not out of the question to ask how this demonization has affected them. But not during Black History Month! The expected pushback arose quickly, as documented by, among other venues, the Guardian, the Independent, and, of course, PuffHo. Here are just a few examples:
Ya’ll – this Cover Story in @esquire is thee WHITEST SHIT I’ve come across all… well all week at least. I’m so fucking tired of press stories about poor white boys while marginalized people are actually dying because the current “era”. pic.twitter.com/j78OUwH8Dv
Now I haven’t read the story, which may well be dire and cloying, and were I an editor I probably wouldn’t have run it during Black History Month. Nevertheless, it still demonstrates how quick the Callout Culture is to react, and how strongly white males are being demonized—as if they represent some sort of monolithic, toxic and repressive cult.
But Elfwick comes to the rescue, in a funny article claiming that it should have been him—a “transblack genderqueer Muslim atheist”—who was profiled by Esquire. He makes a compelling case!
He rewrites the article in a way that even PuffHo would be proud of! A few excerpts (the captions are Elfwick’s):
Rather than waste my valuable time talking about this Trump-adoring pale manchild, I have decided to rewrite the article, this time featuring a true warrior. Someone who deserves the limelight. A role-model for the marginalized. A social justice icon who more accurately represents the youth of today.
Godfrey Elfwick is 27 and happy to be a genderqueer Muslim atheist, born white in the wrong skin. From an early age, xe knew xe was special. At the tender age of 14 months, xe was already making protest banners in support of marginalized people while xir’s older brother Moneer, played with his toys, oblivious to his sibling’s struggles.
Being an activist is hard and requires a lot of emotional strength, Godfrey tells me (ximself). A lot of people think it’s just posting stuff online and getting offended about meaningless things…but it’s so much more than that. There are important protests to attend.
. . . Only last year, I stormed into a home for the elderly close to where I live and no-platformed an ignorant racist who was giving the residents a talk called ‘World War II Memories’. There’s no place for that colonialist rhetoric in the current year.
After walking through the front entrance, I came face-to-face with a bunch of old white people (probably Nazis), openly enjoying a lecture on what life was like during the war. It made me feel sick to my stomach when I heard one of them make a positive comment on Winston Churchill. That was when I understandably lost my shit and demanded they shut down this endorsement of fascism ASAP.
Well, maybe it’s a bit heavy-handed, and less likely to be mistaken for real Social Justice Outrage than are the lucubrations of Ms. McGrath, but still. . .
Here’s Elfwick’s self-portrayal as a woke person:
Straight from Brooklyn!
And, for good measure, Titania’s latest:
The fact that Native Americans feel compelled to apologise for who they are tells us all we need to know about Trump’s America. https://t.co/x2nyfLmrYx