A New Zealand teacher writes the government protesting a proposed curriculum asserting the equality of indigenous “ways of knowing” with science

December 1, 2022 • 9:00 am

I’ve often written about how New Zealand’s government and school authorities are determined to teach the indigenous way of knowing,”Mātauranga Māori (“MM”), which I’ve often discussed, as coequal to modern science in science classes.  While many (like me) maintain that MM should be taught in sociology or anthropology classes as an important part of national culture, I vehemently object to it being taught as coequal to modern science.

That’s because MM, though some of the entire system contains “practical knowledge” taken from observation and trial and error, also contains many things that aren’t science-y at all: ideology, morality, religion, legend and superstition. Teaching the two systems as coequal would not only confuse students about what science is, but also confer coequality where it isn’t warranted. Even if you just teach the parts of MM that encompass practical knowledge, it’s important to show how this differs from the systematic methods and tools used by modern science to find truth. The efforts of the NZ government and schools will, in the end, doom science in New Zealand. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is my worry

(I’ll add that MM advocates, when they claim empirical knowledge, often do so unscientifically. Their remedies are often untested, and, regarding history they have claimed, falsely, that the Polynesians, ancestors of the Māori were the discoverers of Antarctica in the 7th century AD. [see also here]. This is untrue, and based on both legend and a mistranslation; Antarctica was first seen by the Russians in 1820.)

Because equating MM with other “ways of knowing” like modern science is a way of valorizing the indigenous people, and because there’s no government more “progressive” (in the pejorative sense) than New Zealand’s, efforts by me and others to stop the impending dilution of science with MM are almost surely doomed. It’s even worse, for criticizing what the government is doing is seen as anti-Māori racism. It’s not: it’s just distinguishing between a real way of knowing and a dubious “way of knowing”. As preacher Mike Aus said after he publicly renounced his faith at an FFRF meeting,

“There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.”

Thus, critics of teaching indigenous ways of knowing in science class critics are forced to shut up, for raising one’s voice not only leads to pile-ons and petitions, but has actually cost teachers their jobs. Today I’m posting a letter written by a critical teacher who dares not give their name for fear of being fired, but who’s sufficiently courageous to let their views be known, including a letter they wrote about the MM/science controversy to various government ministers (all anonymously, of course, as this person wants to keep their job!). The teacher was disturbed at a government lesson plan to equate modern science with Māori empirical knowledge, and I also show a bit of that lesson plane.

So. . . .

A friend of mine in New Zealand got a letter from a secondary school teacher who went to a meeting in they were given proposed government curriculum for integrating modern science (which they call “Western science”, abbreviated “WS”) with the indigenous “way of knowing”.  The curriculum, which you can have by emailing me, is for “year 9” students, who are 13 years old.

The curriculum tries (but fails) to take the superstition out of MM, so that the part of MM that’s supposedly co-taught with “western science” is actually “Mātauranga Pūtaiao” (“MP”)—practical knowledge related to the natural world. The plan, an outline of the future curriculum from which I’ve taken excerpts, demands that we must consider MP equivalent to Western science (though they’re also claimed to be different in ways that aren’t explained).  As you’ll see, though, they haven’t managed to keep the numinous bits out of MP, and they don’t attempt to show what’s unique about MP as opposed to WS.

Everything below is reproduced with the permission of the principals, and, as I said, I will be glad to send you the whole curriculum plan—an 11-page pdf—if you want to see it.

Here’s what the teacher wrote to my friend, who then forwarded the teacher’s letter to me with permission to see it and reproduce it here.

I have attached a curriculum unit plan to this email that was distributed last week to school teachers in my region during a teacher-only day dedicated to the curriculum re-alignment. It illustrates how a typical school is attempting to integrate mātauranga Māori in the science curriculum. Rather distressingly, it is quite political in how it presents the relationship of science to mātauranga Māori.

I have also included a letter I have written to government ministers that illustrates the potential for confusion to occur when local schools are left to interpret the implications of such integration without authoritative guidance from the Ministry of Education. I have written this anonymously, both for the benefit of the school from which the document originates as well as for the sake of my own career as a teacher. Within the teaching profession, there is considerable confusion over what mātauranga Māori is and how it relates to science.

Finally, here’s the letter the teacher wrote to government ministers (bolding is the teacher’s). It’s quite eloquent and clear.

Good day,

I am a science teacher writing from a regional city on the South Island. This past week, my colleagues and I attended a government-funded day of professional development, the purpose of which was to discuss the re-alignment of the new NCEA science curriculum with other teachers from the region. Among the topics discussed were mātauranga Māori and its integration into the science curriculum. As part of this discussion, the host school that was facilitating the meeting distributed resources outlining how they were teaching (or intended to teach) mātauranga Māori and science. I have included a copy of the unit plan that was distributed during the meeting to illustrate the concerns I will outline below. Of particular interest is how the realignment of the curriculum could enable epistemic relativism to be introduced into what should be a world-leading system of publicly-funded education. The highly decentralized nature of the NZ education system, coupled with the vague wording of the proposed curriculum by the Ministry of Education, introduces the possibility that local schools will ultimately be left to devise science programs based on faulty premises and questionable interpretations of the relationship of mātauranga Māori to science. I have attached the unit plan presented by the host school of this meeting as evidence of this potential.

First among my concerns is the presentation of science in this school’s unit plan as a “western” knowledge system. This is peculiar (to say the least), given that science is a global endeavor drawing on a toolkit with contributors from many cultures and ages. To call science a “western” knowledge system is to ignore the contributions of many cultures from places such as India, the middle-east, China, and the Maori themselves. For example, Arabic and Indian scholars made fundamental contributions to the development of mathematics, which is the decision-making language of science. Labeling science as “western” makes as much sense as dividing mathematics into categories of “Arabic,” “Chinese,” or “Roman.” It may be true that over the past century many contributions to science have originated from a few countries in the so-called “west;” but that point has more to do with economic forces and the vagaries of historical chance, rather than cultural “ownership” over a methodology. Moreover, the Māori themselves used aspects of science (observation, pattern-seeking) as part of their exploration of Aotearoa [JAC: the Māori word for New Zealand]. Why can’t we simply celebrate the varied contributions of humanity to science and our knowledge of the natural world, rather than create an ideological division that does not exist in the first place?

The unit plan also makes the claim that both “knowledge systems” have equal authority. Again, this statement is based on a faulty premise and false dichotomy. To teach children that science is a “western” knowledge system is to undermine the idea of what science is. Ultimately, science is a collection of methodological tools and approaches that allow us to reliably distinguish and relate cause, effect, and chance. Put simply, science has predictive power in how humans relate to the natural world. In everyday life, no one practicing science (or using its products) cares about cultural attribution or the so-called “knowledge system” it arose from. If an idea or technique works in practice and has predictive power, it is accepted as part of our understanding of the natural world. To take an example from history: Polynesian, European, or Chinese sailors from centuries ago would no doubt have told us that there are two types of navigation: the sort that gets you where you are going and the sort that gets you dead. No one cared where your technique came from: if it worked, it was adopted. Categorically, scientific knowledge is either descriptive of our objective reality or it is not.

I would also draw your attention to the first lesson in the attached unit plan, whose focus is the subject of Maori gods and “their powers.” Now, I assume that this is a lesson on how people in the past have explained natural phenomena by appealing to supernatural explanations. As mātauranga Māori is a living knowledge system and is intended to be taught within the science curriculum, it no doubt has replaced such concepts with ideas based on naturalistic explanations. However, I cannot confirm this because the Ministry of Education has not provided teachers with an authoritative reference on how these two systems are similar or different. The document presented by our meeting facilitator claims that no one system has “authority.” If that is the case, science teachers need a clearly articulated vision of how these differences are to be taught in the classroom.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. I am sending you this letter and the attached example from a local school’s curriculum to illustrate the potential for confusion that has arisen from the inclusion of mātauranga Maori in the science curriculum. Is the Ministry of Education intending to publish and distribute a detailed and authoritative guide on how schools should integrate mātauranga Maori in relation to science? As illustrated by the material presented at the meeting I recently attended, there is considerable potential for disagreement without ministry guidance.I would ask that you raise this issue with the Minister of Education as a matter of urgency given the proposed timeline for the implementation of the new curriculum. Both teachers and students deserve clarity and a set of authoritative guidelines on how mātauranga Maori and science are to be taught together. Without such guidelines, teachers will be left to interpret how these systems relate and how to teach them as a single subject (as illustrated by the example unit plan I have attached to this letter).

It is unfortunate that I must write to you anonymously. In the present climate, my intent could be misconstrued or mischaracterized if I were to put my name to this letter. Furthermore, my career as a teacher could suffer if I were to air these concerns publicly.

Kind regards,

A concerned teacher

Below are a few screenshots from the 11-page proposed document.

Here’s how the lesson starts: a “warm up activity” that teaches the 13 years old about “the Maori Gods and their powers”. Are they going to mention that there’s no evidence for the existence of these gods? If not, then they shouldn’t be mentioned, for this is not science but religion. But of course they won’t do that. Thus the confusion between MM and science starts at the outset of the course. Do they warm up the students by teaching about the “Western gods and their powers.” Of course not! Science is a godless activity, so get this stuff out of the curriculum!

 

Part of the level 3 assessment on page 10 says: “Understands that Māori have always been scientists, and that MP and WS are different.” Are Māori unique in this regard, i.e., did they alone among indigenous peoples came up with science, or does this apply to all indigenous people? The former is rather racist, while the second dilutes science to only that derived from observing the natural environment.

Note as well that they explain differences and similarities between science and the empirical bits of MM, but don’t say what those similarities and differences are. Further, they don’t explain “the importance of multiple perspectives.” Any perspective that is empirically correct is part of science.  And just as not all “westerners” aren’t scientists, so not all Māori are scientists. This is gobbledygook in the cause of inclusion.

Week 5 includes the story of Maui and Aoraki, although it looks like the Youtube video link no longer works. The tale of Maui and Aoraki is in fact the creation myth of the Māori , describing how two of the several gods created the North and South Islands. Why is this in the curriculum? Is the curriculum also going to describe the Western Biblical creation myth as outlined in Genesis, complete with God, Adam, Eve, and a talking serpent?

Whakapapa” is a numinous concept that relates to the connection of all things, both earthly and spiritual. That, too, doesn’t belong in a “science” curriculum, but in an anthropology class.

Below we see again the flat assertion—one that the teacher emphasizes above—that WS and MP, though not exactly the same (they don’t say how), are of equal “authority and status”. Can you imagine half of a 9th-form science class devoted to all of modern science, and the other half devoted to MP, which includes things like Polynesian navigation (not a Māori development) and when, exactly, the Maori pick their berries and catch their eels? Yes, the latter bits are “empirical knowledge” deriving from trial and error, but to give these things authority equal to all of modern physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics is a fool’s errand. But such is the government of New Zealand, heavily “progressive” and pressured by the Māori and their sympathizers to give local ways of knowing a status equal to what “Western” science has given us in the last four centuries. This includes the claim that untested remedies involving herbs and spiritual chanting are just as good as modern medicine (see here, here, and here). (I hate using the words “Western” science, as the term is meant to denigrate modern science by implying it’s a “colonialist” enterprise.)

Have a look. If you want the entire curriculum (and some of it is okay), email me.

I feel sorry for nearly everyone involved in this sad tale: the New Zealand government, in thrall to the indigenous people to the extent that it will destroy science education; the Māori themselves, who will be given not only a false view of science but an education that will hold them back; the teachers, forced to teach ludicrous propositions and must keep their mouths shut about it; and all the people of New Zealand, who will be shorted on science education. In the end, that will hold science back in one of the countries I love the most. And that is ineffably sad.

Ideology keeps sticking its nose into science: An essay by Anna Krylov

November 29, 2022 • 9:30 am

Anna Krylov, a professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California (USC), has a fruitful sideline in calling attention to the invasion of science by wokeness—much to the detriment of science. I’ve called attention to one of her papers before—a critique of politicizing science that she managed to get published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal.  And she did an interview that I wrote about here. Since then, we’re coauthors—with a gazillion other “concerned scientists”—on a couple of papers on related topics, but it’s hard getting them published since no regular journal will touch anything perceived as anti-woke.

Anna’s latest piece (click on screenshot below) appeared yesterday at the Heterodox STEM  site, a site worth following if you’re worried about how science is becoming a mere appendage of “progressive” ideology. Anna lived and worked in the USSR until 1991, and draws on her experience, comparing the authoritarian forces that squelched Soviet science in her youth with the authoritarianism of the “progressive” left that afflicts and constrains us now. Here’s the abstract, and then click to read the whole thing:

My everyday experiences as a chemistry professor at an American university in 2021 bring back memories from my school and university time in the USSR. Not good memories—more like Orwellian nightmares. I will compare my past and present experiences to illustrate the following parallels between the USSR and the US today: (i) the atmosphere of fear and self-censorship; (ii) the omnipresence of ideology (focusing on examples from science); (iii) an intolerance of dissenting opinions (i.e., suppression of ideas and people, censorship, and Newspeak); (iv) the use of social engineering to solve real and imagined problems.

A couple of quotes:

Much more dire manifestations of the SJW [social-justice warrior] agenda are subverting research and education, most notably, in the life sciences and medicine [15]. Just as happened in  Soviet Russia, the new ideology is declaring entire disciplines—for example, mathematics—racist [16,17]. There are proposals, some already enacted in Oregon and California, that call to “dismantle white supremacy” in the mathematics classroom. How does white supremacy manifest itself in the classroom? By “the focus [being] on getting the ‘right’ answer” and asking students “to show their work.” Google “equitable math instruction” to see what this is all about. These programs are backed by serious institutions, such as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In California, there is a proposal to do away with advanced math programs in schools. Why? Because they are racist. Why are they racist? Because their demographics do not match the state’s demographics. How can we make math instruction equitable? Instead of raising the quality of education for everyone, the SJW favor the path that socialist regimes—real [18] and dystopian [19]—took: bringing everyone down to the lowest common denominator.

For the same reasons, proficiency tests are being dropped, grading standards lowered [20], standardized tests eliminated [21], and so on.

What will the consequences of such policies be? I think they will be devastating, possibly on the scale of Lysenkoism.

Let’s hope not! At least we’re not yet at the stage where the editors of Nature can kill anti-woke scientists, as the Soviets did to the great geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, who dared stand up to Lysenko’s insane theories. For his honesty, Vavilov was sent to the gulag, where he died.

One more quote:

Now we live in the shadows of Cancel Culture. People are being disinvited and de-platformed. Or dragged through administrative investigations and reviews, which is a form of punishment [27]. Dorian Abbot’s case is a good example [7].

Scientific papers are being retracted or self-retracted. Not because of scientific concerns—but because findings are deemed to be offensive to some. Or because they contradict the dominant narrative. Many examples are from biology [15], but this ideological intrusion is not limited to the life sciences [28-32].

The mechanism of censorship and suppression is different from Soviet Russia. It is not administered by the government, but rather by Twitter vigilantes—by outrage mobs who use social media to call for punishment of those whose views they find  objectionable [28].

But mobs alone would not be able to enforce censorship. In Western democracies, outrage mobs do not burn heretics at the stake, at least not yet [28]. They do not retract papers. They do not cancel seminars. People in positions of power do—university presidents, department chairs, journal editors. Bret Stephens called this “Coward Culture” in his New York Times opinion about Dorian’s case [32].

Sadly, some organizations are institutionalizing censorship.

Here is a recent example [29,30]: The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) issued guidelines to its journal editors to “consider whether or not any content [in a submitted manuscript]… might have the potential to cause offense.” The memos and published policies emphasize that it is the perception of the recipient that determines offense, regardless of author intent.

The RSC gave 15 “indicators” of offensive content, which included content that is “[l]ikely to be upsetting, insulting or objectionable to some or most people.” That covers a lot of ground, doesn’t it?

How does that align with the publisher’s mission to facilitate the communication of high-quality chemistry research? This is a subversion of the institution of science by SJW agenda.

One difference between the “science culture wars” of the Scopes Trial days versus now is that now scientists are complicit in their own muzzling. The ideologization” of science comes from both within the field, including journal editors and funding agencies, and without (social media, of course).

Anna uses lots of good pictures to illustrate her piece, and ends with a Jewish joke at the end that she got from me. Below is one photo of the much-maligned Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s darling. (If you don’t know the story of Lysenko, his rise to power, and his strangulation of Soviet agriculture, which led to the death of millions, at least read the Wikipedia article on him.)

(from paper): Trofim Lysenko speaking in the Kremlin to the Communist Party Leadership (1935). Scientists make mistakes, form incorrect theories, and pursue false hypotheses all the time, but what makes science powerful and credible is its ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. In the USSR, the ideology took control over science, which impeded its ability to self-correct, and resulted in the catastrophe of Lysenkoism. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s Anna’s final paragraph about possible solutions.

What can be done? Here are some ideas. First, speak up. Do not submit to bullies. Refuse to speak Newspeak. If you see that the king is naked—say the king is naked. Second, organize. There is safety in numbers. Organizations such as the Academic Freedom Alliance, Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, and the Heterodox Academy, can provide a platform for action and protection against repercussions [46]. Do your share in defending humanism, democracy, and the liberal Enlightenment.

It all starts—like the New Atheism jump-started an increase in secularism—by saying out loud what the ideologues consider taboo.

Sabine Hossenfelder disses the multiverse

September 11, 2022 • 10:30 am

In this 17-minute video, physicist and science popularizer Sabine Hossenfelder discusses the concept of the multiverse, one that’s popular with many physicists (and laypeople)—but one, she says, for which there’s no evidence. (It’s also a topic of her latest book; see an excerpt here and get a link to the book below)

Reader Steve sent me the video link with the note (reproduced below with permission), referring to Sean Carroll, who’s an advocate of the multiverse.

The latest from our friend, Sabine. As much as I like and admire Sean Carroll, I am convinced by Sabine’s argument…for now.

I’m putting her new book on my reading list.

The video is pretty clear, so I’ll just give the take-home message briefly.

To Hossenfelder, the problem with mulitverse theories is that they all “Postulate the existence of unobservable entities”.  That is, although the multiverse is an outcome of some mathematical physics, there is no way physicists have found to test it—to make observations that would make its existence more or less likely.  If it ultimately can’t be tested, she says—and I agree—then it can’t be considered a scientific theory. (This is also true of string theory.)  Now we don’t know if somebody in the future will come up with a clever way to see that the universe keeps splitting into more and more universes every time something happens, but until they do, to quote Laplace, “we have no need of that hypothesis.” I’m glad, however, if some physicists are working on a way to test it. However, Hossenfelder says that there is no observation even in principle, that physicists can make to test the existence of the multiverse. That may change. And of course a failure to find ways to detect multiverses does not mean that they do not exist, of course. Like the idea of an unobservable God, we simply can have no confidence in their existence.

Hossenfelder then considers whether the multiverse theory is science, religion, or pseudoscience. She’s already dismissed science, but argues that the theory either pseudoscience or religion, depending on how you use it. One quote:

“If you assume that unobservable universes exist, and write papers about them, then that’s pseudoscience. Because this is exactly what we mean by “pseudoscience”—pretends to be science, but isn’t. If you accept that science doesn’t say anything about the existence of those universes, one way or another, and you just decide to believe in them, then that’s religion. Either way, multiverses are not science—they’re like Tinker Bell, basically: they exist if you believe in them. 

Hossenfelder thinks that the fundamental error that physicists have made is thinking that multiverses exist because they’re an outcome of mathematical physics.  In other words, “The big problem with the multiverse idea is that physicists are confusing mathematics for reality.”

Finally, she takes on four objections to her own view, but dispels all of them.

Adjudicating this argument is above my pay grade, but I do know that no physicist has found a way to test the predictions of multiverse theory. It’s still a theory widely discussed (Sean Carroll talks about it quite often, and I believe it’s discussed with approbation in his 2017 book The Big Picture). But if scientists, after arduous effort, eventually can’t see a way to find evidence to test it, it will eventually disappear as a matter for serious discourse in physics.

Hossenfelder is an excellent presenter of physics, and passionate about her views. The only flaw in her presentation is that she seems a bit nervous—or perhaps she’s just being very serious and passionate.  A more relaxed presentation would be a better one, but not a lot better.

I also like her because, as I discussed exactly two years ago, she’s a hard determinist with respect to free will. She doesn’t seem to be a compatibilist, either, though she does agree with some compatibilists in thinking we shouldn’t worry about our lack of libertarian free will.  But I don’t think she’s dug deeply enough into the consequences of rejecting “naturalism” (my new word for “determinism”. There are serious social implications, notably in the judicial sphere, to rejecting libertarian free will. Below the fold you can see some of what I wrote about her video on free will.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to see a debate between Hossenfelder and Sean Carroll (who’s a bit of a compatibilist) on the multiverse, on free will, or both?  In such a debate both sides would be smart, rational, quick, and, of course, polite. It would be a delight to watch.

Enough—watch this:

Here’s Sabine’s new book (click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site), and you can get a peek inside at that site:

Click on “continue reading” to see some of my discussion of Hossenfelder’s take on free will.

Continue reading “Sabine Hossenfelder disses the multiverse”

Another STEM field, particle physics, gets woke

September 5, 2022 • 11:30 am

A long time ago, I predicted that among all academic disciplines, science would be the least likely to become woke. I was wrong. These disciplines, I thought, are wedded to facts and to open discussion as well, so surely they could not all rush to conclusions that were unevidenced.  Yes, I was wrong, but I won’t discuss the reasons why I erred. The fact is that as soon as one department or scientific journal drank the Kool-Aid, the others rushed to the trough to imbibe along with them. The result is that nearly all scientific societies and journals (Nature and Science prominent among them), as well as many STEM departments in universities, are rushing to proclaim their virtue, while in the end doing very little to ensure equality of opportunity for Americans.

I of course favor equality of opportunity: a long and arduous project that involves putting effort and money into housing, education, and every aspect of culture that, inherited from the bigotry of the past, holds down minorities. It’s certainly true that the underachievement of “minoritized” groups in the sciences is largely a relic of discrimination—a relic that society (though not necessarily particle physics) has a responsibility to attack. But the woke people in STEM aren’t trying to rectify this by “widening the pipeline.” Instead, they use this kind of logic:

a.) There are “inequities” in science: disproportionally low numbers of individuals from some minority groups in fields like physics and chemistry.

b.) These inequities are evidence for current and ongoing “structural racism” in science.

c.) Therefore, we must root out the present racism endemic in scientific fields.

We all know by now the fallacy of this argument. Inequities now are largely the result of racism in the past, whose legacy remains with us. But to say that current inequities reflect current racism is fallacious (especially for scientists) because, for cultural and historical reasons, the obstacles to entry into scientific fields is simply lower for “privileged” groups—and the desire to do pure science may differ as well. As anybody in the sciences knows, the inequities persist despite years of attempts of schools and fields to recruit minorities. Of course some scientists are racists—every field has its bigots. Science is not 100% purified of bigotry. But to say that such bigotry is currently endemic, rife, and ubiquitous in science is to completely ignore all the efforts scientists have made to recruit minorities.

The equation of inequities with ongoing structural racism is a fallacy that one wouldn’t expect among evidence-adhering scientists, especially in view of the countervailing evidence, but it’s the kind of claim that’s simply taboo to question.  But what else are we to do to ensure equality unless we know the causes of inequality?

The new article from Nature below (click on screenshot) makes the familiar argument that a field of science—in this case particle physics—is structurally racist, and that’s why there are fewer doctorates going to women (22%) and underrepresented minorities (7%) than their proportion in the population. To the interviewee, Kétévi Assamagan, this constitutes evidence that the field is not only rife with discrimination, but is also not a meritocracy, for to Assamagan a true meritocracy would have more women and minorities than it does.  This claim again requires evidence, but none is given.

The article shows the characteristics of all such articles accusing scientific fields of being hotbeds of racism: not only the equation of inequities with ongoing racism, but the obvious omission of supporting data. Rarely do we see evidence of racism at all beyond assertions, and we never see evidence for systemic racism (or, for that matter, for “implicit bias” as its cause, an assertion that many are now questioning). Instead, we get anecdotes about people who feel “harmed” or disrespected. And sometimes that’s true, but apparently only a small handful of cases of “harm” are sufficient to indict an entire field, and then to call for changes in its standards and practices.

Here’s the article, and remember that it’s from Nature:

The background is that a bunch of American particle physicists engaged in a once-a-decade exercise called “Snowmass,” in which they assess the state of the field and recommend changes. This time, one of the ten topics included was “elevated diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI). Assamagan, a particle physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory and a leader of the community-engagement project, was interviewed by Elizabeth Gibeney. Here are a few Q&As from the interview, which are indented. Things that are flush left are my own comments.

From the introduction:

Nature spoke to Kétévi Assamagan, a particle physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, and co-convenor of the community-engagement frontier, about the DEI recommendations that emerged from the Snowmass process — and why meritocracy in particle physics an illusion.

I question, of course, how illusory the notion of a meritocracy in physics is, but the article makes clear that, according to Assamagan, physics should be a meritocracy—not, as you might think, that we should eliminate the meritocratic aspects of the field to increase minority representation. No, Assamagan says that if physics were a true meritocracy, there would be more more physicists from underrepresented groups. Here’s his claim:

How do you convince people that particle physics is not a meritocracy?

People in the dominant culture think: “I am not a racist, I don’t see racism in my group, so if these people work hard, it will be fine.” But research has shown that there is much more under-representation in our field than meritocracy would suggest.

The culture is not welcoming and the climate is not conducive for some people to be there. Unconscious bias feeds into how people progress and go into senior positions, and how the senior people then maintain that culture. We are not asking for favouritism for any group. We are talking about making the environment and culture work for everybody in the way that it does for the majority.

I am not aware of that research, but in fact I doubt that it exists. How can you actually demonstrate that if there were a true meritocracy, you would have greater representation of minority groups? The only way I can think of would be to show consistent and pervasive racism in promotion, hiring, and publication, so that really good work by minorities gets ignored, and that this brand of ignoring leads to greater inequities. Those data may in fact exist, but I’d like to see them for particle physics.  As in most fields, physicists, like evolutionary biologists, are eager to find qualified members of minority groups.

Here’s what one of my colleagues said about this, “Another way to demonstrate racism would be to compare the number of undergraduates interested in particle physics with their representation in PhD and professor positions. I would bet that the underrepresentation starts at level 0 – therefore it is a matter of choice, as interested people simply aren’t there to begin with (rather than they being weeded out by racism”.

He/she added, “Finally there is the issue of culture.  Why would a minority individual coming from an underprivileged background be interested in particle physics, a topic he/she was probably never exposed to?  Why would the person not want to be a medical doctor or a social worker or a teacher – dealing with things he/she might perceive as urgent?  Particle physics is an elitist area, frankly for people distant from the reality of the world.”

Note that Assamagan is saying here that particle physics should be a meritocracy, not that it shouldn’t be because meritocracy causes inequities.

As for the second claim, that’s the claim of structural racism caused by “unconscious bias”. Again, we have a claim with no evidence: that senior physicists unconsciously maintain a racist culture in the field.

Can you give me some examples of how an unwelcoming climate can affect particle physicists?

Someone might ask a female physicist, “Can you bring me some coffee?” Or I could go to my lab and a newly hired white person might ask: “When are you going to clean my room?” It is assumed that people who look like me can only be there to do that kind of work. Police have been called on colleagues because they were in the building where people don’t expect them to be.

These incidents make people really uncomfortable and mean you have to work to demonstrate that you occupy that space because you have the training and ability to be there. People might also say you are a ‘diversity hire’. We as minorities are expected to take all of these things, shrug them off and excel like everyone else.

My colleague added this: “Although I am not in particle physics, I would be shocked if it is common for people to say to a woman ‘are you going to clean my lab?’!

Now I’m not doubting that such incidents may have happened on occasion, but I simply cannot believe that they’re so common that they create an unwelcoming climate. That would suggest that we’ve made no progress towards moral equality since the Jim Crow era.  If these things happen all the time, I’d like to know about them. But it’s considered churlish to even ask for evidence. Believe the “lived experience”!

Note, though, that Assamagan does reject the notion of “diversity hires”, which means that he’s also rejecting the notion of hiring that favors members of certain groups—that is, affirmative action.  And indeed, he doesn’t even suggest affirmative-action hires or promotions, so I largely agree with his suggestions below for improving the scientific climate for everyone:

What are some of your recommendations for improving the workplace climate and encouraging diversity?

It starts with the application of a code of conduct for everyone — including anti-harassment policies and policies to protect victims when they report issues. Conducting surveys about workplace climate will tell you what your community needs. For example, for people with disabilities, you need to ensure that meetings are arranged with consideration of their needs.

You also need to start engaging with science in schools and building the pipeline — there are minority-serving institutions that have a lot of capacity that particle physics can tap into.

Leadership is also important. One of the papers submitted to Snowmass says there needs to be a cultural change where people are chosen for leadership positions through excellence, and then promote an environment of equity and excellence, for example by getting away from just automatically rewarding privileges such as being from a top university.

I’m not too keen on the endless codes of conduct promulgated in meetings and by departments, one reason being that this assumes that bad conduct is not already subject to supervision and sanctions. Do we really need this kind of policing? Not if particle physics is largely free from sexual or racial harassment.

As for building the pipeline: YES! To me that is the main way to increase diversity in STEM. But it’s a lot harder than just promulgating codes of conduct or requiring candidates for jobs and promotions to submit DEI statements. To Assamagan’s credit, he doesn’t suggest any such form of affirmative action.

The third paragraph above, where he emphasizes choosing leaders through “excellence,” is more evidence that Assamagan really does want a meritocracy in particle physics, but one that takes genuine quality into account, as it should. There is indeed too much emphasis on “elite schools.”  (This overrating of schools as a sign of one’s merit is the reason that, when someone asks me where I went to school, I say “near Boston.”) At the U of C, we try to avoid this elitism by concentrating solely on research records. For several years I was on the University of Chicago’s promotion and tenure committee in the Biological Sciences, and was continually impressed by how the meetings were dominated by discussion of research quality. Never once did I hear someone touted because they went to an elite university.

In the end, Assamagan’s article is a mixed bag. The good bits are his insistence on a real meritocracy (that will enrage some of his woke colleagues!), and his lack of insistence on affirmative action. Perhaps he realizes that affirmative action is at odds with the true meritocracy he wants—that’s another truth that nobody dare discuss, much less admit.  But Assamagan also implies that particle physics is structurally racist, and that this ongoing racism creates the inequities we see. If that’s true, I’d like to see the evidence.

Why am I concerned with a two-page piece in Nature that, after all, is almost identical to dozens of statements from other areas of science? Because, as I said, to cure a problem you have to correctly diagnose it. It makes a substantial difference if you impute inequities in physics—or any field—mainly to ongoing racism or, alternatively, mainly as a historical relic of racism that has narrowed the opening of the pipelines to success. For the former, you do the fixes that departments are doing now:  codes of conduct, affirmative action, DEI statements, and the like. So far, those haven’t worked.  For the latter, you concentrate on rebuilding society from the ground up to afford everyone equal opportunity from birth. If you do only the former and don’t concentrate on education and opportunity, the problem of disproportionate representation will need constant policing and tweaking via diversity initiatives. If you do the latter, you have the chance to really solve the problem. And that’s why the last Q&A was this:

How much did physicists get involved with the community-engagement frontier during Snowmass?

Not enough. Very few people participated in community-engagement activities, compared with the big physics areas. All of this research-based work was done by just a few people. People feel they understand the issues and want solutions, but they don’t have a lot of time to devote to it.

It’s the time (and money), Jake!

Nature: Manuscripts that are ideologically impure and “harmful” will be rejected

August 26, 2022 • 10:45 am

UPDATE:  Two tweets in agreement with each other and my sentiments:

________________________________________________

This new article in Nature Human Behavior Is well-intentioned, aiming to purge bigotry from science, but goes way over the top in three ways. First, it claims that science is complicit in structural racism at present.  That’s not true, though in the past some scientists and institutions were guilty of this. Second, it assumes that papers submitted to the journal are going to be rife with racism, bigotry, misogyny, and anti-LGBTQ+ bias that will cause “harm”, and therefore authors must be warned in a long document about their biases and how to avoid expressing them. The piece thus gives a long set of rules that actually conform to woke practice. Third, it explicitly states that even papers with publishable scientific results can be rejected if the facts presented are deemed liable to cause harm. And “harm” is often in the gut of the beholder. The article is thus a threat that unless articles conform to a specific ideological stance, they can be rejected even if the data themselves are worth publishing.

It is a patronizing piece full of Pecksniffery, but doesn’t differ in in substance from many similar articles appearing in scientific journals. The most dangerous thing is the implication that “harm” is grounds for rejection—and we know how many statements or results can be construed as “harmful”, including the claim that there are two sexes in humans, or any number of facts about human groups.  These days people are so eager to take offense that the guidelines have the potential to turn into pure censorship of any science that could offend anyone.

I of course have no quarrel with the title of the article. Who could? What bothers me is the implicit threat that one’s submitted manuscripts must be ideologically correct, purged of all potentially harmful stuff, or else be rejected.

Click to read (free pdf here):

A few quotes from the piece to give its tenor:

Well-established ethics frameworks govern the conduct of studies with human participants. Research ethics bodies use these frameworks to examine prospectively whether research projects involving human participants align with ethical principles.

However, these frameworks apply to research involving the participation of humans and do not generally consider the potential benefits and harms of research about humans who do not participate directly in the research. Such research is typically exempt from ethics review.

Yet, people can be harmed indirectly. For example, research may — inadvertently — stigmatize individuals or human groups. It may be discriminatory, racist, sexist, ableist or homophobic. It may provide justification for undermining the human rights of specific groups, simply because of their social characteristics.

This is the problem: who gets to decide what is “stigmatizing” or “harmful”? Clearly such statements can be inadvertent or unconscious. Presumably the editors could decide, but they of course will be very responsive to objections from other scientists, from the public—indeed, from anybody. But it’s already too late to ask for rational consideration.

Another:

Science has for too long been complicit in perpetuating structural inequalities and discrimination in society. With this guidance, we take a step towards countering this. The guidance is printed in full below and we encourage our readers to contact us with their comments and feedback.

Science now or science then? Right now science is busy trying to ensure equity and avoid stigmatizing any minorities. There are DEI statements, preferential hiring, and a drive to diversify students and professors. Much of this I approve of. But if there has been a problem with racist, sexist, or homophobic manuscripts, I am not aware of it. I’ve reviewed hundreds of manuscripts in my career, and I can’t remember even one that smacked of bigotry. The problem is certainly not rife in my field, and I seriously doubt that it’s widespread in the sciences.

Then comes the implicit threat (I’ve put it in bold):

We also highlight the importance of respectful, non-stigmatizing language to avoid perpetuating stereotypes and causing harm to individuals and groups.

Advancing knowledge and understanding is a fundamental public good. In some cases, however, potential harms to the populations studied may outweigh the benefit of publication. Academic content that undermines the dignity or rights of specific groups; assumes that a human group is superior or inferior over another simply because of a social characteristic; includes hate speech or denigrating images; or promotes privileged, exclusionary perspectives raises ethics concerns that may require revisions or supersede the value of publication.

Note: “potential” harms. Someone has to decide what harms are “potential.”

As we all know, “hate speech” has such wide interpretation that it’s almost useless.  Yes, there is true hateful speech, like “Jews are innately acquisitive”, and it’s possible that some manuscripts could be overtly racist or bigoted. But how often do journals get such things? The problem is that “hate speech” is more often a synonym for “speech that offends at least one person in the world.” And that includes all speech.

The paper goes on to give a long list of no-nos, most of which are superfluous.  And the ones that aren’t superfluous are subject to such variable interpretation that it would scare me away from submitting anything relevant to human society to the journal, which after all is Nature Human Behavior. 

I have four responses from colleagues who read this article.

One tendered this quote from Enrico Fermi:

“Whatever Nature has in store for mankind, unpleasant as it may be, men must accept, for ignorance is never better than knowledge.”

Of course “men” itself is admittedly sexist, so let’s substitute “people” for that.

Another from a colleague after I beefed that I would be called an alt-righter for highlighting this paper:

Naturally, because any academic taking issue with these guidelines must be someone who wants to “undermine dignity” and “stigmatize groups”, right?  Because WHY ELSE WOULD YOU PROTEST? That’s the childish logic that people are already using on Twitter.

From another one who read the editorial:

Did you see that new editorial by Nature Human Behavior already, containing “ethical guidelines” for publication about differences between human groups? The termites have apparently dined well and deep. The journal basically reserves the right to amend/refuse/retract any publication that causes “potential harms” to any human groups (including religious and cultural groups), that “undermines the human dignity” of said groups, or that “promotes privileged/exclusionary perspectives” (all suitably vague terms to be defined at editorial discretion according to reigning ideological orthodoxy).
This is sure to have a chilling effect on academic free speech. Ironically, some of the statements about biological sex in the editorial (they still concede it exists!) could undoubtedly be construed as “harmful” and “exclusionary” by the Woke, thus hoisting the journal by its own petard.

And from a colleague who happens to be a woman:

Knowledge per se isn’t what causes “harm”.  It is politics that does.  So if research finds out that women are more passive than men and not as ambitious, would that “harm” women?  Not unless they pass laws that women should thus not be CEOs due to their inherent lack of ambition.  (This is just a silly example – but there is nothing about groups that should determine how you treat individuals; after all groups have standard deviations and are all largely overlapping.)

A Māori scholar/musician explains mātauranga Māori

August 14, 2022 • 11:15 am

A Kiwi sent me this just-posted “Shape of Dialogue” video, which, although quite long for me (2 hours!), has an explanation of mātauranga Māori (MM) by a part-Māori scholar and musician, Charles Royal.  Royal’s webpage shows that he’s not only an expert in “indigenous knowledge”, but also “Advise[s] and Lead[s] Projects and People, particularly to do with the ‘creative potential’ of the indigenous Māori dimension of Aotearoa-New Zealand.”

My correspondent recommended this interview with Royal as “a very good resource for those seeking to understand mātauranga Māori. Charles is very smart, reasonable and balanced, and I’d encourage you to have a listen.” The correspondent adds, “You will see that they go back and forth on the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science, but there’s no doubt that Charles is pro-science.”

The podcast is also here if you want to download it.

I listened to the whole thing, and you’re welcome to do it, but unless you’re interested in a lot of NZ history, I’d concentrate on three segments. And if you’re interested in the relationship between MM—”indigenous science”—and modern science, just listen from 1:24:40 to the end (see below).

Here are three relevant bits.

25:25-about 35 minutes.  Royal’s definition of MM. The term “mātauranga Māori” doesn’t seem to have been used in New Zealand before 1980, but it did exist as a “fragmented, incomplete, and disorganized” body of traditional knowledge held by the indigenous people, though parts of this “way of knowing” are more organized than others. Royal discusses where the repositories of this knowledge are to be found. As we’ve learned in earlier posts, Royal affirms that it’s largely “practical knowledge”: things like how to fish or harvest plants.

1:06:58-to about 1:15:00 Royal’s definition of “indigeneity”.

1:24:40 to the end of the podcast. The discussion turns to the relationship between MM and science—the fracas started with a letter to “The Listener” by seven professors at the University of Auckland.  Royal does see MM as a “kind of science,” , and “intergenerational body of knowledge” (“efficacious knowledge”), but not equivalent to modern science.  He adds that MM is not a mature science but a “way to live in the world”. but it might have become a mature science had it not been suppressed by colonization. I don’t agree with him, especially because he claims it’s not really the same as modern science, nor does it aspire to be.

Note: at 1:44:30: Royal discusses whether MM should be taught in science classes as coequal to modern science—per recent national curriculum guidelines. Royal can’t answer that question, and says that “there isn’t the research” to address it.  But I think that we already know enough, based on the non-empirical nature of much of MM, its concentration on practicality rather than theory, and its addition of theology, morality, and legend, to say that while teaching MM is necessary and valuable in New Zealand to educate the citizens in the sociology, history, and anthropology of the country, it should not be taught in science class as the Maori alternative to modern science.

I’d recommend, then, that if you’re interested in the compatibility of MM and modern science as forms of science teachable in school, listen from 1:24:40 to the end of the podcast—about 42 minutes.

Mehitabel the cat writes into Science

August 5, 2022 • 1:15 pm

Reader Miriam brought my attention to an editorial in Science that, for once, is not offensively woke. In fact, it’s hilarious, using the trope of the famous books/cartoons of Archy and Mehitabel, created by writer and humorist Don Marquis. Appearing in newspapers and then in books from 1916 to 1937, when Marquis died, the lucubrations of the two animals was wildly popular. When I was very young, our neighbors had a cat named Mehitabel, and investigating that name brought me to the books, which I devoured. Read at least one!

Someone at Science has a great sense of humor, for I found from 2007 an “editorial” by the pair on cat domestication, addressing an article in the same issue. Mehitabel the cat ordered Archy to the typewriter to object to a scientific piece on cat domestication.  I hope Science doesn’t mind if I reproduce the editorial—written in perfect Archy-an prose—in its entirety. The introduction explains the absence of caps and punctuation.

Click to read:

Science’s intro, with a link to the 2007 paper under discussion (it shows from genetic analysis that cats were domesticated in the Near East, and all domestic cats originate from at least five “founder” cats in this region):

Readers old enough to remember Don Marquis’ syndicated New York Sun columns may recall that at night, a cockroach named Archy took over his typewriter to write short pieces about him and his friend, a cat named Mehitabel. Because he typed by diving on the keys, he had difficulty with upper case and punctuation, yielding a rather free-form text. In the following message forwarded to us, Mehitabel is apparently responding to recent findings on the genetic background and history of cat “domestication” (Science, 27 July 2007, p. 519).

The letter:

boss, i sent archy to the keyboard to say how upset I am about the terrible treatment of cats in the papers it’s because of a report in science telling all about how we cats got started pretty interesting but some of the papers are saying that’s how we got domesticated domesticated hell domesticated is for dogs not us boss action needs to be taken against this slander these scientist guys did a good thing they found that the first real house cat was not that pampered egyptian pussy instead they showed our relationship with people was much older thank god for that then they looked at genes of us cats and compared them with the five small wildcats and decided we all came from the one in the middle east maybe an arab cat their idea is that the first farmers ten thousand years ago started storing grain that brought in rats and mice so then this arab cat helped out some papers call that domestication that nonsense has gotta be stopped this was a gift not some ownership deal why do they think today we occasionally bring a bloody present into the house and lay it on the bed or the best rug it’s because we want to remind everyone that we are volunteers not repressed conscripts like the damn rovers and fidos just look at how they act wagging their tails and begging for food talk about deal they got one okay but they lost their independence not me and my kind no sir heres the thing about us cats we think it’s fine in the house but we’re just as happy in the alley or out hunting when we do that they call us feral ever hear anyone call a dog feral by the way hell the feral dog is a coyote not some lost rover get it our gig is about independence pet us a little thats okay even pimp us up for the cat show but make one of those ownership moves and sayonara we’re gone we think the scientists got it right about what went down back then in the fertile crescent after the mice got after the einkorn wheat or whatever pretty soon our ancestors were chomping em up well you might ask did they see any dog fossils in there what was old rover doing not much it appears maybe practicing pointing rats or rolling over for the farmers well when the going gets tough only the tough get going us cats are okay with the publicity but when the science story got out into the mainstream media what was said was downright disrespectful domestication indeed we don’t like to be dissed boss so get off your editorial ass and do something about this nonsense

your colleague mehitabel

Intellectural freedom in STEM: An interview with Anna Krylov

August 2, 2022 • 12:00 pm

We’ve met Anna Krylov on these pages before (see here); she’s a quantum chemist and the Gabilan Distinguished Professor in Science and Engineering and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Southern California. And we met her because she’s an opponent of the invasion of wokeness into STEM, and because she somehow got an anti-woke paper, “The perils of politicizing science” into the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters. That paper got a lot of attention, most likely because it was congenial to all those who deplore the fulminating wokeness of science but are afraid to speak up. (Try getting an op-ed extolling merit over identity into a science journal these days!)

Now she has an interview about what she calls the attacks on “academic freedom”, though I’d prefer to call it “freedom of speech”. To me, “academic freedom” means the freedom to teach what you want, so long as it is within the discipline you’re addressing and uses respectable standards of scholarship to address debatable issues.

But never mind the distinction. Have a look at the piece, which is good, and weep for the way science has become so politicized—and so quickly!  It’s almost like a disease that doctors are afraid to treat—much less diagnose. But Anna has no fears. Click below to read her interview with the Academic Freedom Alliance. The interview was conducted and edited by Olivia Glunz.

I’ll give just two excerpts:

What is the current state of academic freedom in chemistry and the natural sciences?

Traditionally, the natural sciences have not been strongly affected by politics. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, research on evolution, the climate, and stem cells has been politicized, but in general the natural sciences have been blissfully far from politics… But not anymore.

In chemistry, which is my field, research as such is generally not controlled; we do have freedom to pursue different research topics, subject to ability to secure funding. In other domains, particularly biology, things are different. For example, research relating to populations, genetics, heredity, human biology, or sexual reproduction became extremely politicized. Academic freedom in this field is very much affected by the current climate.

But even though chemistry research is not ideologically controlled, I see censorship and other forms of suppression creeping into our institutions, professional societies, and even publishing.

. . . While we are free, more or less, to carry out research, we are not free to talk about how we carry out our research and education. What do I mean by that? We are not entirely free to discuss practical aspects of the scientific enterprise. For example, how do we execute the publishing and peer review process? How do we fund research? How do we hire students and faculty? These are very important practical questions, and they are currently very difficult to discuss. If you start challenging some of the current practices that involve social engineering—which are, in my opinion, in conflict with the merit-based approach for carrying out science—you can easily get yourself in trouble—as did Dorian Abbot, a geophysics professor at the University of Chicago. His research is not controversial—he studies climate and the possibility of life on other planets. But Dorian spoke out against the current social engineering based practices in hiring. By simply sharing his thoughts on these issues, he found himself in the center of “controversy”. There were petitions by students and postdocs calling him violent and dangerous and demanding to remove him from teaching. The University of Chicago resisted these calls, but when Dorian was invited to give a lecture on his research at MIT, a Twitter mob successfully pressured MIT to disinvite him.

Just think about the implications of this case—you invite a scientist to discuss his research about life on other planets and the climate, but you cancel his appearance not because of some flaws or controversy in his research but because of his opinions on topics that are not related to his work. This trend is clearly detrimental to science. Imagine a scientist who is about to discover a cure for cancer or a solution to the energy problem. However, because this scientist has some opinions or behaviors that we do not approve of on moral or political grounds, we refuse to listen to his lectures and read his papers, and we ban his research. This is highly dangerous for science… and unfortunately this is happening now.

This kind of cancellation because the speaker has said things not in a scheduled talk, but in other places, is becoming more common, and this kind of deplatforming is shameful. At least we should be able to discuss these issues, especially in science, where quality work is more easily discerned than work in the humanities. But no discipline should have to experience the kind of disapprobation that Abbot did. Fortunately, the University of Chicago defended him by ignoring the calls to punish him.

One more Q&A;

What are some practical steps for promoting academic freedom on campus?

I like this attitude: we should stop complaining and start doing!

I would organize my suggestions into two categories: one is individual responsibilities, and the second is what we should do as communities.

As individuals, we need to learn how to speak up. Solzhenitsyn, a famous Soviet dissident who wrote The Gulag Archipelago and received the Nobel Peace Prize, once said, “The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the world.” We often fail to do this. Many people are willing to take part in the lie. They remain silent and complicit; they do not speak up.

Where do we start? I have a very simple suggestion for everyone: If you witness a lie—call it out; do not stay silent. If you see that the King is naked—say “The King is naked”.

That said, I do understand that speaking up is not easy. There could be consequences, and there often are consequences—recall Dorian Abbot’s case. But while no one wants to be a martyr for free speech, we should learn from history that we cannot just hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.

. . . This brings me to what we can do as communities. We do not need to act as isolated agents. It’s easier to take down a single person than a group—there is strength in numbers. That is why I am really delighted to see organizations like the AFA and FIRE taking the lead in providing support and protections for the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom. These organizations make a real difference by defending individuals who would otherwise be standing all alone against a powerful university or a professional organization “machine” that wants to fire or “disappear” them for their unpopular views. The AFA and FIRE provide counterweight to administrators who forget what their role is supposed to be and become complicit with the mob justice of cancel culture promulgated by small groups of extremists.

This is the same set of tactics recommended for atheists or humanists who oppose the incursion of religion into government. I know from talking to my colleagues that many despise the replacement of science by social engineering, and the climate of ideological uniformity that it promotes, but dare not speak up for fear of being branded bigots. I myself have been reluctant to talk about some of this, but of course as a retired professor I have little to lose. And I’ve found, by speaking up and doing stuff, we’ve actually accomplished the strengthening of free speech at the University of Chicago, a place that wouldn’t seem to need it but has been increasingly cowed by wokeness.

Here are two of the other questions she answers, and there are more as well:

You recently published several articles about threats to academic freedom in the natural sciences. What motivated you to do this, and how did you find the courage to speak your mind?

and

How do you encourage your students to be open-minded and appreciate diversity of thought?

More power to Anna. She is not retired, but in our conversations she has to encourage me to speak up more!

What does the Webb telescope reveal about God?

July 27, 2022 • 9:15 am

A few days ago, a reporter for the Voice of America‘s website called me and said she was working on a piece about the compatibility of science and religion, all prompted by some religionists’ claim that the Webb Space telescope revealed the handiwork of God.  I guess she interviewed me because I’m an advocate of incompatibility, and it was clear she was looking for voices on both sides (I suggested that she contact some accommodationists, including Ken Miller at Brown, who features in her piece).

You can read the article below for free (click on screenshots):

The article begins with a tweet by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who clearly saw the Webb’s first images as, well, you can see what he said:

Author Mekouar notes that Rubio’s post got pushback on social media from those saying that it was science, not God, that not only provided the images, but would analyze them. She then begins quoting from the dueling interviews.

Unfortunately, I’m the only one quoted arguing that science and religion are incompatible. In contrast, three people (four, if you count Georges Lemaître) argue for compatibility of science and faith. As for “equal time,” well, a crude count on my part showed that in an article whose content was about 1150 words, 214 came from opponents of compatibility (i.e., me) and 753 from the four who see no incompatibility. That’s a ratio of 3.5 words from incompatibilists to words soothing accommodationists.

To me that seems unbalanced, both in terms of space (which doesn’t concern me so much) but especially in terms of  the”experts” consulted. The ratio is four to one against atheists. Where are the other scientists who see an incompatibility between science and faith: people like Richard Dawkins, Steve Weinberg, Lawrence Krauss—or even Carl Sagan? These people wrote and spoke far more eloquently than I about the science/faith incompatibility.  They are not mentioned, though two of these (and a passel of others) could have been interviewed. So it goes.

I’ll put the entirety of what I said below and some quotes from the accommodationists, along with my comments. All indented quotes are from the article.

The skeptical comments are emblematic of the long-standing, ongoing debate about whether science and religion can be reconciled.

“There are a gazillion religions, each one making a different set of claims about reality, not just about the nature of God, but about history, about miracles, about what happened. And they’re all different, so they can’t all be true,” says Jerry A. Coyne, an evolutionary biologist and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.

Coyne, who likens religion to superstition, wrote a book called, “Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.”

“The incompatibility is that both science and religion make statements about what is true in the universe,” Coyne says. “Science has a way of verifying them and religion doesn’t. So, science is based on this sort of science toolkit of empirical reasoning or duplication experiments, whereas religion is based on faith.”

Coyne says he was raised a secular Jew and became an atheist as a teenager.

“Scientists are, in general, much less religious than the general public. And the more accomplished you get as a scientist, the less religious you become,” he says.

A 1998 survey found that 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the U.S., don’t believe in God.

I’m happy with what I said. (I think the “duplication experiments” will be changed to “duplicating experiments”).

The rest of the article is about scientists who see science as not only compatible with religion, but also buttressing religion. One of these is Ken Miller, who first explains, to his credit, that people see an incompatibility because religion is sometimes hostile to science. (He says there are other reasons, but this is one, and I’ve seen it cited in surveys assaying why young people are becoming “nones”.)

“I personally think there’s a couple of reasons for that,” says Kenneth Miller, a devout Roman Catholic and professor of molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry at Brown University in Rhode Island. “One of them, to be perfectly honest, is the out-and-out hostility that many religious institutions or many religious groups display towards science. And I think that tends to drive people with deep religious faith away from science.”

Later, however, Miller explains why science has actually buttressed his Roman Catholicism. First, though, we have a STEM person from Boston University explaining the supposedly reinforcing nature of science and faith:

“Science actually underlines the importance of religion because God told us that He created the Earth and the heavens,” says [Farouk] El-Baz, who is also director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University. “And the heavens, there are supposed to be all kinds of things out there. And scientific investigations have actually proved that, yes, there are all kinds of things out there.”

Maybe God told El-Baz that, but he forgot to tell the rest of us doubters.  He argues that “scientific investigations have actually proved that, yes, there are all kinds of things out there”, but what kinds of “things” constitute evidence for God? El-Baz doesn’t say (or maybe he told the interviewer). And yes, of course there are things out there that we don’t understand, like dark matter, but why on Earth would that be evidence for God? That’s the Argument for God from Ignorance.

People like El-Baz are not objective about their faith: they’re looking to the Webb photos—and the rest of science—as evidence to reinforce religion. It’s confirmation bias, and not very good confirmation bias. One could argue, for instance, that the vast, lifeless emptiness of most of space is evidence not for God but for the laws of physics.

Miller reappears:

Miller argues that the perceived conflict between scripture and science comes from those people who take the Bible literally:

Miller accepts the theory of evolution and says much of scripture is metaphorical, an explanation of the relationship between Creator and His creation in language that could be understood by people living in a prescientific age.

“[The book of] Genesis, taken literally, is a recent product of certain religious interpretations of scripture,” Miller says. “In particular, it’s an interpretation that became quite influential in the latter part of the 19th century among Christian fundamentalists in the United States. And the reality is that much of scripture is figurative rather than literal.”

Can Miller tell us exactly which bits of scripture are figurative rather than literal? Yes, Genesis is metaphorical, but what about the miracles of Jesus—or the existence of Jesus himself?  And what about the Crucifixion and especially the Resurrection? Are those literal phenomena or figurative? (Some think the person of Jesus has no historical basis, and certainly not all Christians think that even a real Jesus was both the son of God/part of God and came back to life after he was crucified.)

What about the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, or the Census of Quirinius , which supposedly drew Joseph and the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem? These are not metaphors, but simple errors, as neither assertion is true. This is exactly what you’d expect in a book confected and written by humans. All the “evidence for God” adduced by Christians simply comes down to assertions from the Bible, which, as Miller notes, isn’t literally true.

Miller—and I emphasize that he’s both a nice guy and has done good scientific work, as well as writing definitive textbooks—is also a remarkable theologian, as he’s able to winnow the metaphorical from the true, all in a single book written by humans. He also seems to know that science itself has told us what kind of God we have, even though there’s no evidence for a deity:

In Miller’s view, the concept of God as a designer who worked out every intricate detail of every single living thing is too narrow a vision of the Creator.

“The God that is revealed by evolution is not a God who has to literally tinker with every little piece of trivia in every living organism, but rather a God who created a universe in a world where the very physical conditions of matter and energy were sufficient to accomplish his ends,” Miller says. “And to me, that conception of God creating this extraordinary process that nature itself allows to come about is a much grander vision than a God who has to concern himself with every little detail.”

This is a god for which there is no possibility of disconfirmation, because everything that science tells us—stuff like evolution that used to be taken as evidence against God—is now seen as evidence for God. (That’s an idea that John Haught has been pushing for years.) The idea that the more we learn about science, the grander God becomes, winds up as a non-starter of an argument. If we’ve learned everything about the universe, and it all comports with the laws of physics, does that make God the most grand of all? This is an Argument for God from Science!

El-Baz uses the same dodge:

El-Baz says some people fear that science will reduce their religiosity, but the reverse is true for him.

“We understood through God’s guidance that humans evolved from other creatures, and evolution is still going on, and there’s absolutely no conflict between what science and religion are informing us,” he says. “It’s very easy to consider that a creator, or a force of creation — God or whatever faith you have — that it’s a force that put all of these things together, that created all of this.”

It’s interesting that the “design” of organisms was once seen as some of the strongest evidence for the existence of God. Now that we know that this design arises via the naturalistic process of natural selection, well, now it’s even stronger evidence for god.  The religionists can’t lose!

The article also quotes Accommodationist #4,  intellectual historian Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, who says this, among other things:

Jewish tradition also accepts evolution, according to intellectual historian Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, who suggests that the rise of the religious Christian right in the United States also influenced more observant Jews to harden their position against evolution.

“Medieval Jewish philosophy basically followed the Muslim paradigm,” says Tirosh-Samuelson, a professor of history and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Arizona State University. “The Muslim theologians and the Muslim scholars showed Jews how you can integrate a monotheistic tradition together with Greek and Hellenistic science … and showed how scientific knowledge is always a tool that enables you to understand the divinely created world better.”

She too, has bought into The Arguement for God from Science.

The line taken by all three quoted accommodationists thus takes the same form, which I characterize this way:

“We know the universe was divinely created, so the more understanding of that universe brought to us by science, the greater the glory of God, and the better we understand Him.”

Of course, we also know from science that this God kills many innocent people that he could have saved were he either all-loving or all-knowing, and we also know that God loves empty space, which is why the Webb scope show us the huge, fantastic theater that serves as a backdrop for the puny history and aspirations of humans!

The fatal flaw of all of these scientists and historians is this: None of them give us evidence for God in the first place.  Everything comes from the Bible and Qur’an, and nothing from extra-scriptural evidence. Combine that unsubstantiated assumption with the argument that scientific understanding must always reinforce the glory of God, and you have an airtight case for accommodationism—there can be no conflict between science and religion.

I suspect that if you read this article, on balance you’ll find that it supports the case that science and religion are compatible. But judge for yourself.

The primacy of indigenous ways of knowing

July 21, 2022 • 2:30 pm

Greg Mayer pointed out that my colleague Brian Leiter posted on this exchange, and I’m shamelessly stealing his material (his actual words are few). I’d seen this Twitter exchange before but had forgotten about it.  Here’s what Brian said on his post “When you can’t tell what’s a parody and what isn’t” on his Leiter Reports site.

This exchange has been circulating on social media.  My first reaction was that this had to be a parody of mindless identity politics, but in fact the participants actually believe their nonsense.   God help the universities if too many people like this gain a foothold.

I have news for you, Brian: they already have—in New Zealand.

It was Bill Maher who said:  “When what you’re doing sounds like an Onion headline, stop.” That’s an excellent quote. The stuff above does, as does my last post on insane school policies on nonattendance.