Alan Sokal critiques a bizarre paper from Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

November 1, 2023 • 9:30 am

I’ve been critical of the papers and views of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an American cosmologist and particle physicist at the University of New Hampshire, with appointments in both physics and gender studies. You can see some of my critiques here, here and here, but my most severe criticism involved the paper below, published in the University of Chicago journal Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Click on the screenshot to see it, or get the pdf here.

The paper’s thesis was that black women (more than black men; it’s intersectional) face huge bigotry in physics which keeps them not only out of the field, but also from contributing to the canon of knowledge in the field. The bigotry supposedly reflects the hegemony that knowledge claims in physics reflect a “white spistemology”, and that soon after black women enter the field in substantial numbers, our ways of doing physics, as well as what we learn, will change dramatically.  Here’s the paper’s abstract:

In this article I take on the question of how the exclusion of Black American women from physics impacts physics epistemologies, and I highlight the dynamic relationship between this exclusion and the struggle for women to reconcile “Black woman” with “physicist.” I describe the phenomenon where white epistemic claims about science—which are not rooted in empirical evidence—receive more credence and attention than Black women’s epistemic claims about their own lives. To develop this idea, I apply an intersectional analysis to Joseph Martin’s concept of prestige asymmetry in physics, developing the concept of white empiricism to discuss the impact that Black women’s exclusion has had on physics epistemology. By considering the essentialization of racism and sexism alongside the social construction of ascribed identities, I assess the way Black women physicists self-construct as scientists and the subsequent impact of epistemic outcomes on the science itself.

I won’t go through that word by word; you can see the problems.

This paragraph from the paper sums up its repeated conflation between physics and social justice. I’ve bolded an especially bizarre part:

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). The gender imbalance between Black women and Black men is less severe than in many professions, but the disparity remains (National Science Foundation 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.

Remember this statement, as it will be examined again by Alan Sokal (below).

I wrote this about that:

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 and with equal claims to objectivity, 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.

Here’s another quote from Prescod-Weinstein arguing not only about pervasive and pernicious forms of racism exist in physics, but that admitting more black women might well get rid of the doldrums that string theory finds itself in:

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. It is reflected in string theorists’ ability to actively argue for continued investment in their ideas via funding and faculty hiring while at the same time Black people—particle physicists or not—are often considered to be making controversial or “evidently wrong” statements about racism.

And my take on that:

These statements, particularly the last one, show 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.

Well, I didn’t have much space to do a complete analysis, but Alan Sokal, mathematician at University College London and famous (and infamous) for his Social Text hoax, has done a thorough critique of the same paper in Peter Singer et al.’s new venue, The Journal of Controversial Ideas. (This journal is where a bunch of us published published our paper “In Defense of Merit in Science,” and I predict that the journal will increase in quality and visibility as authors objecting to au courant nonsense, mostly of the Leftist social-justice variety, place there papers there, for woke journals will not accept “controversial” and often antiwoke discourse. Sokal, by the way, has a whole history of debunking nonsense, as in his book with Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science.)

At any rate, in the journal Sokal has a long and devastating takedown of Prescod-Weinstein’s “White Empiricism” paper, and you can see it by clicking on the screenshot below (you can find the pdf here):

Sokal first notes the wide approbation the paper got, but with a footnote that I (along with John McWhorter!) was one of only two people who actually criticized it:

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s article, “Making Black women scientists under white empiricism: The racialization of epistemology in physics” (Prescod-Weinstein 2020), has been widely cited and praised. It is #56 in the Altmetric ranking of the Top 100 Most Discussed scholarly articles for 2020.It has been cited 37 times in the scholarly literature – including 14 citations in the Science Education literature – all of them completely uncritically.(footnoter 2). There has not, to my knowledge, been any detailed engagement with the content of the article’s reasoning.

And footnote 2, just to be self-aggrandizing:

2. Web of Science as of 1 March 2023. I have checked all 37 articles (except one to which I was unable to get access), and none of them contains even the slightest critical commentary on, or critical analysis of, the reasoning in Prescod-Weinstein (2020). The only critical citations of which I am aware are a blog by biologist Jerry Coyne (2019) and a brief comment in the book of linguist John McWhorter (2021, 109–110). Google Scholar, which has a wider scope than the Web of Science, shows 90 scholarly citations as of March 2023.

Enough bragging: where else can one criticize such a paper except on a website? (Surel the journal would reject criticism!).  This is why The Journal of Controversial Ideas is so essential.

I don’t want to summarize the entire critique of Sokal, as it’s very detailed and you can read the paper itself, which is straightforward, clear, and sometimes funny. Sokal avoids any nasty or ad feminam remarks, though in my view he bends over backwards too far trying to find merit in Prescod-Weinstein’s thesis. (Well, my Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin told me that a good critique involves “giving with one hand and taking with the other”, so Sokal’s method is probably more efficacious than mine.)

Here’s his own preface and rationale:

There has not, to my knowledge, been any detailed engagement with the content of the article’s reasoning.

That detailed engagement is the purpose of the present article. I will argue that the reasoning, both scientific and philosophical, in Prescod-Weinstein (2020) is deeply flawed. I will also argue that the article’s main contention – that “race and ethnicity impact epistemic outcomes in physics” – is valid, if at all, only in an extremely limited sense. I will finally argue that the flawed reasoning in this article, together with its uncritical acceptance in many progressive educational circles, threaten to have negative practical consequences both for science and for science education, and in particular for the goal of attracting more women and Black people (and especially Black women) to scientific careers. For all these reasons, I believe it is of some value that the reasoning in this article be openly and rigorously debated

I can give but a flavor of Sokal’s article through quotes (but again, there’s no substitute for reading the paper).

Regarding the conflation between Einstein’s theory and the neglect of black women as objective observers, Sokal says this (see paragraph above):

The first step in this reasoning is the elision between “frame of reference” in physics and “observer”. This elision is common in expository accounts of special relativity, beginning  with Einstein’s original paper (Einstein 1905); the elision is harmless provided that one understands that the “observer” need not be a human, but could well be a machine (and in contemporary experimental physics most often is). What is relevant in relativity is not the identity of the “observer”, but rather its state of motion. Discussions of special relativity (especially in textbooks) refer frequently to the “earth frame of reference” or the “train frame of reference”; it is irrelevant whether the “observer” (if any) located on the ground or the train is a white man, a Black woman, or an automated particle detector.

Secondly, in general relativity (Einstein 1915) the relevant concept is general covariance, i.e. the covariance of the equations under arbitrary smooth changes of coordinates. It is dubious whether most of these coordinate systems can be associated in any sensible way to “observers”.

But the fundamental and glaring flaw in this passage is, once again, the series of elisions from physics to social epistemology. In the first sentence, “there is no single objective frame of reference that is more objective than any other”, the second use of the word “objective” is not wrong – the accounts of a particle collision from the earth frame of reference and the train frame of reference are indeed equally objective – but it paves the way for a more tendentious interpretation of this word in what follows. The second sentence, “all frames of reference, all observers, are equally competent”, explicitly elides “frames of reference” to “observers”, and then introduces the new adjective “competent”: an adjective that would be bizarre for describing a frame of reference (earth or train) or an automated particle detector; it can now only be intended to refer to a human observer, contrary to the meaning of “frame of reference” in physics. The conclusion, “Black women must, according to Einstein’s principle of covariance, have an equal claim to objectivity”, is then a pure non sequitur: Einstein’s principle of covariance says nothing whatsoever about any humans’ claims to objectivity. Indeed, Einstein’s principle of covariance says nothing whatsoever about any human social issues. But – it goes without saying – one doesn’t need general relativity to argue that all humans, regardless of race or sex, are potentially capable of doing physics, with their work being evaluated on its merits.

This is of course a far better and clearer analysis than mine.

Below is Sokal’s reaction to Prescod-Weinstein’s claim that native Hawaiian opposition to constructing the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, reflects a pushback against “White Empiricism” by  indigenous “ways of knowing”—in this case the native Hawaiian system of ethics, land use, and religion/spirituality. I’ve bolded one sentence I love:

But one thing should be clear: nothing is gained by mixing these ethical, political and legal debates with flawed philosophical and scientific arguments. Whatever can be said in favor of the “cultural knowledge” of the Indigenous Hawaiian communities – and undoubtedly much can be – that knowledge certainly cannot compete with modern science in the domain of astronomy and cosmology. To point this out is not to engage in cultural arrogance; it is simply to state facts. No premodern belief system – whether Western (e.g. fundamentalist Christianity) or non-Western– can compete with modern science as an account of reality. Indeed, even modern science 100 years ago – after the development of general relativity (1915) but before the modern understanding of galaxies (1920s), the discovery of the expansion of the universe (1930s), of the cosmic microwave background radiation (1965), and of the accelerated expansion of of the universe (1998) – is vastly inferior to our present-day understanding of cosmology.

One more quote on Prescod-Weinstein’s claim that black feminist theory can change the content of physics knowledge (and the ethnicity of physicists):

Finally, what about the more ambitious claim, made by Prescod-Weinstein in her conclusion, that “Black feminist theory intersectionality should change physics – and not just through who becomes a physicist but through the actual outcomes of what we come to know”? Alas, this claim is simply plucked out of the blue in the conclusion; not the slightest argument or evidence is provided, in the body of the article, that Black feminist theory, or indeed any feminist theory, has had or will have any consequences for the content of physics. And why on earth should it? The subject matter of feminist theory is human relations; it is very remote from the subject matter of physics. The relation between the two subject matters could be, at best, one of distant analogy. In fact, Prescod-Weinstein concedes that, despite four decades of trying, feminist ideas have not yet had any significant effect on the substantive content of physics (Schiebinger 1999, 178–179; Rolin 1999; Bug 2003). The claim that feminist theory (intersectional or otherwise) will in the future change the content of physics – and not merely the social structure of the physic community – is nothing more than a promissory note, unbacked by any assets.

At the end, Sokal asks why on earth should we care about critiquing a slight and deeply misguided paper conflating science and social justice? Because, he says, it has three bad side effects. The first is that it will “engender sloppy thinking”, promoting the idea that it’s okay to reject sound reasoning if its conclusions are not “politically congenial.” (This is a point that Luana and I made in our paper on the ideological subversion of biology, and it was also made by Orwell in his famous and essential essay on “Politics and the English Language“.) Second, the sources cited by Prescod-Weinstein often don’t say what she says they do, and this again reflects sloppy thinking as well as a tendency of social-justice advocates to support their arguments with either flawed data or other people’s misguided arguments. Most important, Sokal argues that Prescod-Weinstein’s repeated assertion that physics is strongly and systemically racist may well discourage black students from going into physics:

Beyond the purely intellectual flaws of half-baked philosophies of science, these “antiracist” screeds may also have a negative practical effect: namely, discouraging some talented Black students from entering or remaining in physics. Obviously, any exaggerated portrayal of racism in a particular community is likely to deter Black students from entering such a purportedly inhospitable environment.

When all is said and done, Prescod-Weinstein (2020) does contain some correct claims, even if they are correct only in a very limited way and are anyway not novel.

As I said, I think Sokal’s paper is an excellent critique, marred only slightly (and perhaps not at all) by Sokal’s bending over backwards to be charitable to Prescod-Weinstein. But he’s adhering to Dan Dennett’s tactic that if you’re going to take down a paper, first try to see what merit there really is in the paper’s arguments, and lay that merit out. That is supposed to give your own views more credibility, and it probably does.

It seem, at least for me, that Prescod-Weinstein’s paper has very little merit, if any.  Her claim of widespread and strong racism in physics is not supported, and neither is her view that the presence of not just black people, but black women in science will cause a sea change, expanding our knowledge of the universe and, perhaps, finally allowing us progress in seeing if string theory is true. Yes, more diverse people in physic—increasing “viewpoint diversity”—will certainly expand the way physicists approach problems, but Prescod-Weinstein’s argument that the important diversity is black women espousing intersectional feminism has no support.

It is shameful that such a misguided paper has accrued so much uncritical support. The widespread citation and approbation for the paper surely reflects the inability of people to think rationally about arguments when they involve ideology, and also the tendency of people to not look too hard at arguments that are politically congenial.  The paper is a good example of the ideological erosion of physics.

Cartoon by Tony Auth, used with permission

h/t: Alan Sokal, for calling my attention to his paper

An ideology-infused paper on how to teach college biology

October 18, 2022 • 12:15 pm

If I could display one paper that vividly demonstrates the infiltration of ideology into biology education, it would be the one below, published last May in Bioscience.  The article tells instructors in college biology classes how to teach the subject so that teachers do not “harm” the students by making them feel “unwelcome”, by implying that their behavior—particularly that related to sex and their gender—is “unnatural”, or by failing to represent the students’ identities while teaching biology.

You can read the paper by clicking on the screenshot below, or get a pdf here.

The gist of the paper is provided by its abstract:

Sexual and gender minorities face considerable inequities in society, including in science. In biology, course content provides opportunities to challenge harmful preconceptions about what is “natural” while avoiding the notion that anything found in nature is inherently good (the appeal-to-nature fallacy). We provide six principles for instructors to teach sex- and gender-related topics in postsecondary biology in a more inclusive and accurate manner: highlighting biological diversity early, presenting the social and historical context of science, using inclusive language, teaching the iterative process of science, presenting students with a diversity of role models, and developing a classroom culture of respect and inclusion. To illustrate these six principles, we review the many definitions of sex and demonstrate applying the principles to three example topics: sexual reproduction, sex determination or differentiation, and sexual selection. These principles provide a tangible starting place to create more scientifically accurate, engaging, and inclusive classrooms.

The principles, which I’ll give below with quotes, are designed to buttress the appeal to nature (closely related to the “naturalistic fallacy”)—the idea that a person’s identity is good because it is analogous to what we find in nature.  Thus there is great emphasis on the diversity of sexual reproduction and a de-emphasis of generalizations (e.g. promiscuous males vs. picky females) that, the authors say, harm people.  (My answer, below, is to teach that the appeal-to-nature fallacy is fallacious for a reason: it draws moral principles from biological facts, which is a bad way to proceed.) Although the authors claim to be avoiding the appeal to nature, their whole lesson can be summarized in this sentence:

Human diversity is good because we see similar diversity in nature.

The explicit aim of this pedagogy is not just to teach biology but largely to advance the authors’ social program. As they say (my emphasis):

At their most harmful, biology courses can reinforce harmful stereotypes, leaving students with the impression that human gender and sexual diversity are contrary to “basic biology” or even that they themselves are “unnatural.” At their most beneficial, biology courses can teach students to question heteronormative and cisnormative biases in science and society. On a larger scale, by encouraging an inclusive and accurate understanding of gender and sex in nature, biology education has the power to advance antioppressive social change.

My response would be “at their most beneficial, biology courses teach students what biology is all about, to inspire them to learn biology, and to learn the methods by which we advance our understanding of biology.  It is not to advance antioppressive social change, which, of course, depends on who is defining ‘antioppressive’.”

Here are the authors’ six principles. The characterizations are mine:

1). Diversity first.  The authors strongly believe that educators should teach about the diversity of nature before giving generalizations.  So, for example, instead of discussing the prevalence of maternal over paternal care in animals, or of the preponderance of decorations, colors, and weapons in males of various species compared to females of those species, you should show the wonderful diversity of nature: you talk about clownfish that can change sex when the alpha female dies, about seahorses, in which females are the decorated se (but for good reasons that conform to a generalization), and discuss some groups of humans in which males give substantial parental care.

This is done explicitly to be “inclusive”:

 Recent work focused specifically on undergraduate animal behavior courses has demonstrated that presenting diversity first does not negatively affect learning objectives (Sarah Spaulding, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, personal communication, 9 April 2019).

That’s some reference, eh?

I would argue that the great generalities should be taught first, and the exceptions later, whose interests rests largely on the fact that they are exceptions.  Gaudy female seahorses are of interest mainly because in seahorse reproduction, the males get pregnant (they carry eggs in their pouches), there are more females with eggs than males to carry them, and therefore, in a form of reverse sexual selection, the males are choosy instead of the females, who compete for males to carry their eggs.  It makes little sense to me to teach the exceptions before the rules, or the diversity before the generalizations, unless you do so to advance an ideological program.

Although the authors say that teaching generalizations first itself perpetuating the appeal-to-nature fallacy by implying what is “normal”, they themselves perpetuate the same fallacy by pointing out exceptions that are said to correspond to biological phenomena, too. Here they are discussing their “teach diversity first” principle:

A second potential concern is that this principle, if it is simplistically applied, will perpetuate the appeal-to-nature fallacy—that is, the argument that anything found in nature is inherently good (Tanner 2006). This is problematic, because it can suggest that students need examples of specific behaviors or biologies in nature to validate human experiences or, alternatively, that anything found in nature is justified in humans. We emphasize that presenting diversity first should only demonstrate that we should expect diversity, including among humans, but this does not present a value argument. Rather, it combats the incorrect assumption that nonbinary categorizations, intersex characteristics, same-sex sexual behavior, transgender identities, gender nonconforming presentation and behavior, and so on are unnatural, which is, itself, often used against LGBTQIA2S + people in an appeal-to-nature argument (e.g., Newman and Fantos 2015).

Note that they are using the appeal to nature fallacy: diversity is good because it is seen in nature. Thus LGBTQIA2S+ should not be demonized because sexual diversity occurs in nature. But these brands of diversity are not are not comparable. As I wrote when reviewing Joan Roughgarden’s book Evolution’s Rainbow:

But regardless of the truth of Darwin’s theory, should we consult nature to determine which of our behaviours are to be considered normal or moral? Homosexuality may indeed occur in species other than our own, but so do infanticide, robbery and extra-pair copulation.  If the gay cause is somehow boosted by parallels from nature, then so are the causes of child-killers, thieves and adulterers. And given the cultural milieu in which human sexuality and gender are expressed, how closely can we compare ourselves to other species? In what sense does a fish who changes sex resemble a transgendered person? The fish presumably experiences neither distressing feelings about inhabiting the wrong body, nor ostracism by other fish. In some baboons, the only males who show homosexual behaviour are those denied access to females by more dominant males. How can this possibly be equated to human homosexuality?

So Zemenick et al. do advance value argument—an argument designed to shows “diverse” students that they are not abnormal and should not feel bad about themselves.  While I agree that we shouldn’t denigrate students for their sexual orientation or gender identity, or any other trait, you don’t need to teach in a way to validate the identity of all students  While the authors do give caveats about saying that teaching diversity first “does not present a value argument”, in fact it does.

2.) Present the social and historical context of science. This is another way to prevent students from being “harmed” by infusing biological history and data with ideological lessons. One example:

There are still numerous issues with testing for and reporting sex differences in scientific research, prompting calls for increased training in this area (Garcia-Sifuentes and Maney 2021). Furthermore, it is increasingly recognized that testing for only binary sex differences excludes and harms many others that fall outside this binary (Reisner et al. 2016).

Would that harm still be done if the teacher notes that more than 99.9% of individuals conform to the “binary sex difference”? We should not tailor what we teach to the goal of affirming everybody’s identity.  That is therapy, not biology.

3.) Use inclusive language while teaching. This has the same goal as above, to avoid words that make some students feel “excluded”:

Culturally loaded sex- and gender-related terms are often used in biology classrooms without careful thought and discussion. This is especially true of familiar terms, such as male, female, sex, paternal, maternal, mother, and father. Students and instructors alike may fail to notice that these terms imply and affirm cultural norms around sex, gender, and family structure that can be inaccurate and harmful. We therefore suggest, whenever possible, using inclusive, precise terminology that does not assume sex and gender binaries or traditional, nuclear family structures.

. . .Encouraging students to develop an inquiring attitude toward culturally loaded biology language may reduce the harm of these terms and help students develop important critical-thinking skills (Kekäläinen and Evans 2018).

For sex- and gender-related biology terms, we believe it is imperative to provide definitions that are as inclusive, accurate, and precise as possible.

They don’t mention that precisely defining terms like “biological sex” may not be “inclusive.” In fact, every time I give the biological definition of sex, based on gamete type, I get considerable feedback for having “harmed” people. But biology is not, and should not be, a form of social work.

4.) Show the iterative process of science. This is supposed to emphasize that science is “nonlinear and iterative”, though I’m not sure what they mean. Regardless, it has an ideological aim:

Showing the iterative process of science allows students to see how biological models often begin simple and general, to the exclusion of sexual diversity. As models are developed further, with more data and collaboration, they are often refined to encompass more complexity and diversity. For example, past sexual selection theory emphasized how sex differences in gamete size (anisogamy) and differential reproductive investment can drive the evolution of sexual dimorphic behaviors and morphology (box 4). Despite evidence suggesting that humans may be only weakly sexually dimorphic (Reno et al. 2003), early evolutionary models of animal behavior contributed to biological essentialist ideas about human males being inherently highly competitive and human females being driven primarily by the need to rear young.

Well, we may be “only weakly sexually dimorphic” compared to, say, gorillas, but we’re a lot more sexually dimorphic than chipmunks. The fact is that human males are indeed inherently highly competitive and risk-taking—a result of sexual selection in our ancestors—and human females more infant-rearing-oriented than males, largely but not entirely a result of natural selection (there is, after all,  social pressure for females to conform to those roles).

The solution to this whole mishigass is not to restructure biology courses in a Rawlsian way to avoid “harming” the most easily offended individual, but simply to teach the biology you think is important, point out that there is variation, that some of that (like the ornaments of female seahorses) actually proves the generalizations, but, above all, tell the students ONCE or TWICE that they should not draw any lessons about “right versus wrong” or “good versus bad” from biological knowledge, for that makes morality liable to change when biological knowledge changes. Yes, perhaps you can buttress the identities of gay people by saying that female bonobos engage in genital rubbing to strengthen bonds, but does it also buttress bullies and aggressors to tell them that chimpanzees also engage in deadly intra-group warfare? For every variant that buttresses someone’s identity, I can point out a variant that exemplifies something we don’t want people to do.

5.) Present students with diverse role models.  They mean “individuals from marginalized groups” here, presumably racial groups rather than individuals in the LGBTQ+ categories.  While I have no beef against role models, their absence is not the main reason why minority students drop out of STEM programs. The reason, for which we have plenty of data, is that those students aren’t well prepared for the courses, don’t do well, see a lack of success in their futures, and switch to other majors. But Zemenick et al. emphasize the “look like me” aspect:

One reason students from marginalized groups leave STEM majors is a lack of relatable and supportive role models (Hurtado et al. 2010). Role models inspire students, provide psychological support, and help them adopt a growth mindset about intelligence (Koberg et al. 1998). For students from marginalized groups in particular, relatable role models can help them perform better (Marx and Roman 2002, Lockwood 2006). Therefore, a simple way to support LGBTQIA2S + students—who leave STEM majors at higher rates than their straight peers (Hughes 2018)—is to expose them to relatable role models from diverse backgrounds and identities.

I suggest that you check out the Hurtado et al. reference to see the evidence for “relatable and supportive role models” playing a major role in minority students dropping out of STEM. I can imagine that students who feel supported might tend to stay in STEM, but what the authors are suggesting is to beef up teaching so that more importance is given to the work of minority scientists:

Despite the importance of relatable role models for marginalized students, most scientists featured in biology curricula are white, heterosexual, cisgender men, and, as a result, marginalized students often do not see their identities represented (Wood et al. 2020). Instructors should be intentional about introducing their students to biologists from diverse backgrounds and identities, and there are several approaches instructors can take to integrate this into biology courses. For example, instructors can complement or replace content about historical scientists with content about diverse contemporary scientists, or they can assign a small project in which the students research relatable role models.

What Wood et al. (2020) does show, as we’d expect from history, a lack of minority representation in the history of science. Though that representation is at odds with the kind of people doing science now, remember that textbooks concentrate on important discoveries of the past, and those involved mainly white heterosexual cisgender men. But that’s not because textbook authors are bigots. As the participation of minorities in science increases, so will their representation in future textbooks and instruction.

I wonder here, as I alluded to above, whether this problem applies to LGBTA+ people, also seen as “marginalized.” I doubt it, for gay+ people are pretty well represented in science (though I have no data on this issue!), and do we really want to talk about the sexual orientation of famous scientists as a way to avoiding LGBTQ+ people? The key here is that “represented” means “looks like”, and that directly implies race is the important factor, not other criteria for marginalization.

6.) Develop a classroom culture of respect and inclusion. I certainly think that all students should be respected in class: treated as future colleagues whose questions and views should be handled with respect, even when the students are wrong. As I tell my students, “There is no such thing as a stupid question.”  One should cultivate an atmosphere in which no student should be fearful of expressing their views, asking questions, or challenging the teacher. But this is simple civility in pedagogy.

But that’s not what the authors mean:

Instructors can work to make all students feel welcome by building professional relationships with students that are founded on respect and nonjudgement. To develop and nurture such relationships, instructors must confront their unconscious biases, such as homophobia, transphobia, or interphobia, through education and self-reflection. Consider attending LGBTQIA2S + sensitivity training, often offered by campus pride and GSA (gay–straight or gender and sexuality alliance) centers.

. . . By developing an awareness of how LGBTQIA2S + identity affects students’ experiences of the biology classroom and by engaging with students empathetically and authentically, instructors can create meaningful and inclusive learning experiences (Dewbury and Brame 2019).

Somewhere along the line, the authors of this paper have forgotten that the purpose of biology class is to teach biology as it is understood today, not to coddle the identities of students. My solution, once again, it simply to say at the beginning of the class, and perhaps reemphasize it, that we are to draw no moral or social lessons about humans from the facts of biology, though biological facts can serve to prop up or militate against some moral views (like those based on utilitarianism). To quote Hitchens, the teach-biology and denigrate the “appeal to nature” view  is enough for me, and I don’t need a second.  I don’t believe, and there is no evidence adduced, for statements like the following:

Biology classrooms represent powerful opportunities to teach sex- and gender-related topics accurately and inclusively. The sexual and gender diversity displayed in human populations is consistent with the diversity that characterizes all biological systems, but current teaching paradigms often leave students with the impression that LGBTQIA2S + people are acting against nature or “basic biology.” This failure of biology education can have dangerous repercussions. As students grow and move into society, becoming doctors, business people, politicians, parents, teachers, and so on, this misconception can be perpetuated and weaponized. Our hope is that this article helps to combat that scenario by stimulating the adoption of accurate and inclusive teaching practices.

Which professors are teaching in a way that makes students feel that they’re acting “unnaturally”? I would claim that the authors are offering a solution to a non-problem.

I agree that all topics should be taught accurately, but if some students feel “non-included” by facts taught in a civil manner in college biology, that is not up to the instructor to fix. Again, a two-minute explication of the fallacy of the appeal to nature is all that’s needed, not a schedule of “LGBTQIA2S + sensitivity training.”

The whole problem with this form of pedagogy is seen in the “author biographical” section of the paper, which I reproduce in toto:

Author Biographical

Ash T. Zemenick is a nonbinary trans person who grew up with an economically and academically supportive household to which they attribute many of their opportunities. They are now the manager of the University of California Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station, in Truckee, California, and are a cofounder and lead director of Project Biodiversify, in the United States. Shaun Turney is a white heterosexual transgender Canadian man who was supported in both his transition and his education by his university-educated parents. He is currently on paternity leave from his work as a non–tenure-track course lecturer in biology. Alex J. Webster is a cis white queer woman who grew up in an economically stable household and is now raising a child in a nontraditional queer family structure. She is a research professor in the University of New Mexico’s Department of Biology, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is a director of Project Biodiversify, in the United States. Sarah C. Jones is a disabled (ADHD) cis white queer woman who grew up in a supportive and economically stable household with two university-educated parents. She is a director of Project Biodiversify, and serves as the education manager for Budburst, a project of the Chicago Botanic Garden, in Chicago, Illinois, in the United States. Marjorie G. Weber is a cis white woman who grew up in an economically stable household. She is an assistant professor in Michigan State University’s Plant Biology Department and Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, in East Lansing, Michigan, and is a cofounder and director of Project Biodiversify, in the United States.

Why is this there? What purpose does it serve except to signal the virtue (or social consciousness) of the authors? Most important, what on earth does it have to do with biology—or with this paper?

Pastor Tish Harrison Warren sees prohibiting abortion as part of the Social Justice Movement

May 9, 2022 • 10:00 am

Reader Kenneth said he found the latest NYT column by Anglican Priest Tish Harrison Warren “hallucinatory”. His reason, amply supported by Harrison’s words, is that she is in favor of the upcoming Supreme Court decision that overturns Roe v. Wade (and is apparently against abortion per se), but sees this as an opportunity to create more social justice by supporting women and their now-to-be-born children, as well as by giving women opportunities that prevent them from getting pregnant.

This is all part of Warren’s schtick of downplaying her religious beliefs to seem more liberal and kindly. After all, the NYT don’t want religious fundamentalists in their pages, particularly ones who oppose abortion because the fetus has some kin of soul. Yet Warren, according to her column, apparently has that belief. The cowardly thing is that she doesn’t say this outright: rather, she either quotes others or conveys her views obliquely. Yet though it is her first responsibility in such a column to tell us where she stands on the issue, she shies away from it. Nevertheless, there are several places where she makes her opinion clear.

Click to read:


First, the two statements where Warren makes clear that she’s “pro-life” (aka “anti-abortion”); the bolding is mine:

Pro-life activists have been working toward overturning the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision ever since it came down in 1973. But as I spoke to folks from pro-life and whole-life movements last week after the leak of a draft opinion that indicated the court will overturn Roe, the mood was complicated. I did not find unalloyed jubilance or triumph.

Most people I talked to expressed cautious optimism and hope but also concern. This was in part because they worried that the court’s draft opinion may shift in weeks to come. But more so because those who take a holistic approach to reducing abortion feel that legally restricting abortion, while a win for justice and the voiceless and vulnerable, is not alone enough to create a culture that is holistically pro-life and addresses the needs of both women and unborn children.

It’s pretty clear that she’s expressing her own take here by quoting others (“Most people I talked to. . .”) who agree with her. She also expresses her virtue by refusing to gloat.  Here’s the other statement:

The pro-life community has to reckon with the long-ignored elephant in the room: Economic realities, not abortion laws, are our true antagonists. Creating a pro-life culture that supports women and mothers economically is how the pro-life movement should have responded to Roe v. Wade in the first place. And now we’re two laps behind. To truly value life, we must pursue policies and community resources that support paid leave for parents, child care, equitable health care and education.

But what is Warren’s stand? Does she favor banning all abortions, including those from rape and incest? And if she grants those an exception, does she favor banning all other abortions, from the get-go? (This is implied in her statement that “legally restricting abortion” is a “win for justice and the voiceless and vulnerable.”) But she doesn’t want to be explicit.

Again, and perhaps to her credit, Warren doesn’t gloat over a court victory that she surely supports. But support it she does. Note, though, that the last sentence, “To truly value life, we must pursue policies and community resources that support paid leave for parents, child care, equitable health care and education,” tries to link the anti-abortion movement with social justice—a weird pairing indeed!

Here’s her own program to reduce abortions to nearly zero, most supported with statements by other religionists. The bullet points are hers, but my comments are in parentheses:

  • Prioritize paid universal leave
  • Address the elephant in the room (this involves rectifying the “economic inequalities” that she mentions in the last quote above).
  • Focus on affordable housing, child care, and transportation
  • Find creative ways to serve women and children (sanctuaries for abused women and children, job training for economically disadvantaged women)
  • Promote pregnancy prevention. (She mentions increased contraception and a “decrease in risky sexual behavior.” But her failure to mention “promulgating the ‘Plan B’ pill” leads me to believe that she thinks all abortion should be banned, since the Plan B Pill is an early-term abortion of a one-day-old zygote).
  • Build a coalition of people with different views on abortion. (What she means here is that everyone should accept the refutation of Roe v. Wade and work together “to boldly advocate the social services that will ensure care for both mother and child.” But what if the woman doesn’t want a child?)
  • Empower economically disadvantaged women.

It’s very clever of Warren to try folding the antiabortion movement into the social justice movement, but it won’t work. For one thing, many of the women who now seek and get abortions are already well off and economically empowered. Mistakes will be made by women from all groups classes, and to force a woman to pay for a slip-up by carrying and presumably caring for an infant she doesn’t want (the former: for nine months; the latter for at least 18 years) is a big price to pay in contrast to, say, taking the Plan B pill, which simply gets rid of an early-stage and non-sentient zygote.

The fact that Warren considers such a zygote as a human being leads me to believe that her opposition to abortion is not only wholesale, but based on the religious assumption that at the moment of fertilization, a “soul” or some holy feature enters the zygote, rendering it immune from removal. Why won’t she tell us that she believes this?

Although I of course agree with most of Warren’s suggestions (except she needs to include Plan B and stop opposing Roe v. Wade), I do so in the interests of improving the lot of women (indeed, of everyone), not to reduce abortions (I agree with Roe v Wade and, indeed, would go farther). Her suggestions won’t work, as we can see from the fracas already ensuing before the court has even ruled. Telling women that they have to carry a child but it’s okay because they’ll get parental leave is not going to substantially reduce abortions.

When you look at the multifarious reasons why women get abortions, the futility of her program becomes clear. (As I said, I favor the program in general—just not to cut abortion.) 60% of Americans favor Roe as it stands, in my view mainly because women want to be the ones to decide about whether to have a child, not to throw that decision into the hands of others. To think otherwise is to imbue a non-sentient zygote or fetus with some supernatural property that gives it complete immunity. She might consider that “truly valuing life” also involves valuing a woman’s own adult and sentient life against that of a ball of developing cells.

Warren (from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship):

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

November 9, 2021 • 12:15 pm

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the L. A. Times:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Progressophobia” demolished by Bill Maher: “Kids, there actually was a world before you got here.”

June 12, 2021 • 11:00 am

Reader Tim found this video from Bill Maher’s latest show in which the host attacks “progressophobia”—the claim that everything, including morality and social justice, is getting worse. This is palpably untrue, as Steve Pinker shows for many aspects of society in his book Better Angels. (Maher says the term “progressophobia” was coined by Pinker.) Yet for simply documenting progress (while noting that it’s not always steady and some areas regress), Pinker has been demonized. This baffles me.

I’m not sure why the “”progressophobes” persist. Some people seem to have an interest in claiming that the world is getting worse in nearly every way. I suppose this comes from the fear that if you admit that things like race relations and civil rights are getting better, you’re undercutting your mission in some way. After all, if equal opportunity (or even numerical equity) finally obtain in colleges, then diversity and inclusion administrators will be out of a job. And if your self-importance and the attention you get from others depend on complaining about lack of progress, then real progress undercuts those traits.

But I don’t see why we can’t fight to improve things at the same time we admit that they have improved. Who but a historical ignoramus (or Kevin Hart; see below) could clam that the rights of people of color haven’t improved in the last 75 years? I’m not going to bother to list all the ignominies visited on African-Americans, even when I was a little boy, that are diminished or gone. And do I need to add here that there’s still substantial room for improvement: improvement in housing, income, education, and so on? Or that racism has not completely disappeared?

I often tell the story of arriving at the College of William and Mary in 1967 on a Greyhound bus. At the bus station there were two bathrooms for each sex and two water fountains. It took me a minute to figure out what that meant. Only a few years before, those bathrooms and water fountains had been labeled “white” and “colored”. (William and Mary is in Virginia.) The labels had been removed, probably in 1964.

This bit by Bill Maher, in which he underlines moral progress, will surely dispel the claim that he’s an alt-righter (maybe he was an anti-vaxer, but he’s still on the Left). It’s one of his better bits, honest but humorous. And he takes “progressophobia to bits, asserting “There is a recurring theme on the far Left that things have never been worse,” and giving the example of Kevin Hart telling the New York Times, “You’re witnessing White power and White privilege at an all-time high” (article here).

Now no chronicler of progress, least of all Pinker, would claim that progress has been steadily upward, or in some areas, there’s been actual regression. Maher notes in this segment that areas that have worsened include the environment, the degree of homelessness in Los Angeles, and “the prospects for maintaining an actual democracy in America”.  But seriously, if you were a Jew, a black person, a gay person, or a woman, would you rather have lived in 1850 or now? This is a no-brainer.

Biden administration poised to impose CRT on American public schools

April 20, 2021 • 10:15 am

“CRT”, of course, is Critical Race Theory, which rests on a number of assumptions and assertions that are sometimes dubious (e.g., inequality of representation purely reflects current racism). When Biden got elected, I worried—and, I think, predicted—that he would be too woke for my taste. (I may not remember correctly.) And, sure enough, that’s exactly what is happening on a number of fronts. I hasten to add that Biden and Harris are infinitely better than Trump and Pence.  I support much of what he’s done, and I don’t much care if Biden hasn’t become the “unifier of Congress” that he promised. Given Republican intransigence, that would be impossible.

But the Biden administration isn’t perfect, and I’ll criticize it when I see fit—like now.

This article appeared in the conservative venue The National Review, and I was sent it by reader Bill who suspected, correctly, that it is “not one of my preferred news sources.” Indeed! But who else would publish something like this: a notice that the Biden administration has set out a proposal to get schools to teach Critical Race Theory in one of its more objectionable forms? Click on the screenshot to read the National Review piece, but be warned that a lot of it is right-wing kvetching:

The upshot of the report, leaving aside the kvetching about CRT and the criticism of Biden, is that his Department of Education has just put out a proposal for grants to secondary schools in the area of American History and Civics Education. You can see the pdf of the government proposal here, or click on the screenshot below:

The aims of these proposals are these, set out in the government document:

The purpose of the National Activities program is to promote new and existing evidence-based strategies to encourage innovative American history, civics and government, and geography instruction, learning strategies, and professional development activities and programs for teachers, principals, or other school leaders, particularly such instruction, strategies, activities, and programs that benefit low-income students and underserved populations.

Note the “evidence-based” slant. I have no quarrel with the aims, nor with the second area of funding that I won’t discuss (“Promoting Information Literacy Skills”). But the first part, “Projects That Incorporate Racially, Ethnically, Culturally, and Linguistically Diverse Perspectives into Teaching and Learning”, is objectionable and invidious.  I’ll let you read for yourself from these screenshots:


Note the exemplar module: the New York Times‘s “1619 Project”, which has been severely criticized for both ideological zealotry and historical inaccuracy. But this is exactly what the New York Times wanted—not journal, but an injection of the paper’s own ideology as propaganda in the public schools. Notice also the approbation for Kendi’s dubious claim that any racial inequities in any area, say in evolutionary biology, are the result of “racist policies.”  While that may be true of policies in the past, Kendi means it to reflect current racism. And he’s not always right about that; but this is what our kids are going to learn.

Again, I emphasize that some redress is needed in teaching American history for the decades of teaching that more or less erased the fates of oppressed minorities in this country. I have no problem with such redress. I do have a problem with redress via the methods of The 1619 Project and the views of Ibram X. Kendi.

When a school or school system writes a proposal to be funded under this aegis, this is what it must do:

I don’t have to dwell on the problem with this program: its divisiveness, its one-sidedness, its questionable claims about systemic marginalization (that is, marginalization built into form structures of governments, schools, and other organizations), and the laughable bit about “critical analysis”, for you know that no criticism of the program will be tolerated once it’s in the classroom. That is, this is an ideology to be foisted on students, and perhaps a violation of the First Amendment.

Now I don’t agree with state laws that have been enacted (Trump also ordered one) prohibiting the teaching of CRT in the classroom. The government should not be in the business of saying what students shouldn’t learn beyond forbidding violations of the First Amendment (e.g., you can’t teach creationism or Intelligent Design because they’re forms or religion) or the purveying of arrant lies, which should be handled by schools themselves.

But by giving money to schools in this one specific area, the Biden administration is ensuring that cash-strapped schools are going to board the CRT train. And once they do, that’s it. As Ignatius of Loyola might have said, “Give me the children until they are ten and I will give you the future, including politics, universities, and the liberal media.”

According to author Kurtz, this is only the beginning. I have no knowledge of this area, so I just present his claim:

The programs immediately targeted by Biden’s new priority criteria for American history and civics grants are small. Once in place, however, those criteria will undoubtedly influence the much larger and vastly more dangerous “Civics Secures Democracy Act.” That bill would appropriate $1 billion a year, for six years, for history and civic education. Support for leftist “action civics” is already written into the priority criteria of the bill itself. I have argued that additional anodyne-sounding priority criteria in the Civics Secures Democracy Act — criteria favoring grants targeted to “underserved” populations and the mitigation of various racial, ethnic, and linguistic achievement gaps — would be interpreted by the Biden administration as a green light to fund Critical Race Theory in the schools. The new draft federal rule for grant priority in American history and civics education makes it clear that this is indeed the Biden administration’s intent.

And Kurtz may well be right.

I’m not sure how Uncle Joe let his agenda be hijacked by the Woke, as it wasn’t clear that this would happen, but I can assume only that he has loud voices yelling in his ear to get this stuff done. We already know that the Woke are louder than the Rational. It’s up to us to fix that disparity.

Now, social justice in organic chemistry class

March 28, 2021 • 9:30 am

There is seemingly no academic field—not  even in the sciences—that’s immune from being forced to board the social-justice juggernaut. The latest is organic chemistry, and I found out about it from the letter below that just appeared in Science (click on screenshot). The letter is by Melissa McCartney, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology and the STEM Transformation Institute at Florida International University.

So of course I had to look up the original article in the Journal of Chemical Education, which is free online (click on screenshot, pdf here).  The authors teach organic chemistry at Reed College in Oregon, a private liberal arts school that is among the five or six wokest colleges in America (think The Evergreen State College format). Do be mindful of that when you read about the student approbation for infusing social justice into the second semester of the class.

There are several ways they infuse social justice into the class, one of which seems harmless. The others, however, hijack the class to teach the students not only the social history of organic compounds, but to clearly impart to them an ideology based on Critical Theory.  The introduction shows the social motivations for the class:

Without engagement with equity issues, the standard curriculum produces students who may lack civic mindedness in their approach to science. We believe that young scientists should be invited to contemplate their work with a “systems thinking approach” and consider chemistry’s potential impacts beyond intention. Unfortunately, progressive discourse regarding these shortcomings in chemistry curricula is often overlooked, perhaps due to the misperception that science is somehow intrinsically “good”.

There’s nothing wrong with mentioning the social impact of various chemical compounds, but there is something wrong with using the class to foster “progressive discourse”, which in this case means Critical Theory discourse.  Not only does that constitute a form of propaganda for the teachers’ political views, but it also takes time away from learning chemistry itself. It’s clear from the article that the “social justice” implications aren’t just mentioned tangentially, but occupy 5-10% of the course, and will occupy more in the future.

The motivation continues:

In contrast to the dogma that science is “good”, chemists have historically produced compounds that are harmful to both humans and the environment. Examples of these harms are widespread and disproportionately affect economically disadvantaged areas. For example, over 30 years ago, an accident at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, was responsible for releasing poisonous gases into the local environment and atmosphere.(4) Reports described the release as containing 30–40 tons of methyl isocyanate and other toxic chemicals. Nearly 4000 residents of the surrounding tenements were killed immediately. For the remaining residents, the full long-term health consequences of the chemical exposure, including premature death, are still unknown.(5) Assessing the true costs of accidents such as the Bhopal disaster requires a full systems thinking evaluation. What were the early and late effects of exposure? What are the impacts of indirect contact? How have the toxic materials migrated and persisted in the local environment? Have these reactive compounds been transformed into other chemical entities with a new set of impacts and effects?

Seriously? The people who devised the synthesis of these compounds, and even that of Zyklon B (hydrogen cyanide), coopted to to kill Jews in Nazi concentration camps, didn’t aim to create harm (it was created to be used as a pesticide, which began in California in the 1880s). Harm was either due to the acts of bad people, a byproduct of the chemical’s poor storage, as in Bhopal, or an unintended consequence of drugs (the side effects of birth-control pills). Teaching this way gives the impression to students that science is “bad”, a general attitude of both postmodernism and Critical Theory, which dislike science because of its ability to find real truths.

But science itself isn’t “bad”: it is people who decide to use it in a bad way, or, when there are unintended side effects, it’s simply bad luck. Should they teach about the construction of gas chambers in architecture class to show that architecture is not “good”? Almost every discipline could be demonized in this way. Genetics could show that that science is bad by discussing how it was misused by the Soviet agronomist and charlatan Lysenko to derail Russian agriculture, which led to the starvation of millions.

And below is the goal of the professors: enhancing “equity”, which is proportional representation, not equal opportunity:

We aimed to briefly highlight how organic chemicals can be an instrument for enhancing equity, simultaneously stimulating awareness of the injustices and injuries that can be promoted by the misuse of chemicals.

How do they infuse social justice into Reed’s organic chemistry class? They talk about molecules that have social import—usually having a bad effect on minorities. These include birth control pills (has led to “serious environmental contamination”), antiretroviral drugs, and THC, active ingredient of marijuana. But whenever you can insert social justice, even if it’s not relevant to learning organic chemistry itself, they do. Here are the lessons they impart:

For antiretroviral drugs:

In a recent study, 35% of the countries with available data reported having a majority of people (over 50%) with “discriminatory attitudes” toward those living with HIV. This prejudice persists despite the fact that current antiretroviral therapy is able to suppress viral loads to undetectable and below transmittable levels. The stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV leads to marginalization (social, economic, and legal), which in turn can cause poor social, emotional, and physical well-being. These negative impacts on general well-being are correlated with lack of treatment.

For THC:

The dark side of the cannabanoids is that they have been used to systematically incarcerate African-Americans. During the “War on Drugs” in the 1980s, drug-related arrests rose 126%. African-Americans account for 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of people sent to prison for drug possession crimes. The incarceration rate is 13 times higher than that of other races, despite African-Americans only comprising 13% of regular drug users. Furthermore, there are collateral consequences to drug arrests. Many states will suspend the driver’s licenses of offenders for at least six months, irrespective of if a car was involved in the crime.

If this has anything at all to do with chemistry, it defies me. And I’m absolutely positive that Reed students have the chance to learn this kind of material in many other classes. What the professors are doing here is using chemistry as a convenient excuse to discuss oppression and marginalization.

Now the okay part of using these particular molecules is that they can be enlisted to demonstrate real principles in organic chemistry, but of course other molecules may do that, and do it even better. Here’s one innocuous quiz question that follows the social-justice indoctrination (they could hardly ask about social justice itself on chemistry tests). It’s about an antiretroviral drug used to treat AIDS:


Finally, surveys of students at the end of the course show that many or most of them think that it’s important to learn about the social justice impacts of chemical compounds, that so this material makes them “into more responsible scientists”, makes the material more relevant, and keeps the students engaged. Of course, using other molecules can create the same relevance (e.g., caffeine, penicillin, alcohol), but those molecules can’t be used to teach social justice.

And of course the Critical Theory material helps the students learn exactly what social justice is—at least, the conception that their professors hold:

We were interested to find that in the first lecture a majority of the class felt familiar with social justice as a concept; 75% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Social justice is a familiar concept.” However, only half of the class (53%) agreed or strongly agreed with, “I can write a definition of ‘social justice’.” We were very pleased to find that after exposure to only three lectures with social justice content, 91% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “learning about the social justice impacts of chemical compounds is important.” Similarly, 91% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “teaching students about the social justice impacts of chemicals could make them into more responsible scientists.” Furthermore, a majority of students (76%) agreed or strongly agreed that the discussion of social justice themes made the material more relevant to them (15% neutral).

Note that there is no “control” class in which socially important molecules like antibiotics or caffeine are used instead of ones that can be tied to oppression. More important, there is no assessment of whether students exposed to this kind of political material turn into better organic chemists or learn the course material better. All we have is the self-report of students who are mostly self-selected, by going to Reed, to be on the “progressive Left.”

But wait! The social-justice bit is going to expand:

In the future, we hope to address other timely issues such as the use of ethanol as biofuel, which was intended as an environmentally friendly alternative, but instead increased the risk of air pollution deaths relative to gasoline by 9% in Los Angeles. An entire class could be dedicated to addressing the impact of another supposedly sustainable biofuel, palm oil. While palm oil production has driven economic growth in Central and South America, “the methane produced by a typical palm oil lagoon has the same annual climate impact as driving 22,000 passenger cars.” We also would like to include a systems thinking approach to evaluating medications, as many of them can have harmful effects on animals and the environment upon excretion from the body.

Perhaps they might want to talk about the positive social effects of organic chemistry as well! Why is that left out? Because they want to show the students the bad effects of science, not the good ones. And few fields have had a more positive effect on human well being than organic chemistry.

While I have no objection in talking tangentially about molecules important to people in their everyday lives, this is not what’s going on here.  Rather, the lessons are used to impart the Critical Theory view of hierarchical oppression to students.  I have no doubt that almost any academic subject can be hijacked in this way. But is that how we should be teaching our students? Not only infusing everything with politics, but a particular view of politics?

Is “toxic femininity” a major cause of social justice warriorism?

February 2, 2021 • 11:15 am

That’s a provocative headline, but it’s not my view, since social justice warriors don’t seem to me especially slanted towards women. But it seems to be the view, published in Areo magazine (click on screenshot below) of one Freya India Ager, described as “recently graduated from King’s College London with a degree in Political Science. She is now an independent writer interested in politics, psychology and culture.”

The “toxic femininity” term stems, of course, from its opposite: “toxic masculinity”, often been held responsible for many of the world’s ills. I don’t particularly like the term since it implies that all male traits are “toxic,” and as a male I naturally bridle at this accusation.  Yet I can’t deny that there are evolved biological differences between the sexes, and that some evolved traits in males may be detrimental to society. Aggression and male-male competition may be two of them.  Those traits leads to fights, wars, and, in my own university classroom, a tendency of men to dominate discussions, often talking over women. Every woman has experienced that.

Another is a desire for promiscuous sexuality, which leads to higher rates of adultery in males as well as mistreatment of women.  And, in fact, as I write this, I can’t think of any obvious “masculine” traits that are good ones, save, perhaps, a prescriptivity when it comes to solving problems.

On the other hand, male prescriptivity can be detrimental. Every man knows that when a woman comes to you with a problem, often they want you to listen and sympathize rather than solve that problem. That I see as part of the feminine trait of having greater empathy. And I find that salubrious, which is why a large proportion of my best friends are women. Sometimes you just want to talk and experience human connection, for if the answer to a problem were obvious, you would have thought of it already.

In the end, our shared “human” traits, which are present in both sexes to some degree (but not necessarily to the same degree), can be good ones: altruism, kindness, sociality, and so on. Maybe humor—if you believe Hitchens that men are funnier than women. But, truth be told, are there any typically “male” traits that you’d would want to see more of in women?

Ager, however, sees “feminine” traits—including empathy—as sometimes deleterious, especially when, as she sees it, they help ground “social justice culture”. And those traits she sees as the malign influence of “toxic femininity”.

Here’s Ager’s thesis:

But if we are going to describe toxic masculinity as the negative manifestation of male traits, some of our societal problems must be the negative expression of female traits.

Characteristics more common to one sex than the other certainly exist. Individuals vary, but men are predominately more aggressive, for example, and women are generally more empathetic. If a man or woman suffers from a psychopathology, these differences can manifest in distinct forms of antisocial behaviour.

We don’t speak of toxic femininity—and I don’t believe we should—but if we were to imagine the worst manifestation of typically female attributes, I think it would look a lot like today’s social justice culture.

. . .History bears testimony to the danger of demonising groups of people based on their immutable characteristics. Not only did this way of thinking lead to historical sexism against women (and continues to do so across the world), it also motivates anti-male attitudes today, giving rise to venomous trends like kill all men and men are trash.

I do not wish to argue that society is infected with toxic femininity, nor that all purveyors of social justice culture are female. Instead, I hope to add nuance to the discussion of toxic masculinity by showing that the line of reasoning many modern social justice leftists adopt and the methods they favour to bring about social progress correlate with typically female psychopathologies.

Looking at three key elements of social justice culture, I argue that our current zeitgeist—which normalises cancelling others, praises emotional reasoning and overvalues safety—aligns strongly with traits that are, in the aggregate, more predominant among women than among men.

And here are the aspects of SJW culture that she sees as more predominant in women than in men. That, of course, doesn’t mean that SJW culture itself comes from women; only that the aspects of SJW culture are, says Ager, found more often in the female than in male “nature”.  I’ve indented her own quotes; my comments are flush left.

Cancel Culture. I’ve heard from women many times that if I think men dissing other men is bad, well, I should hear how women talk about each other! I can’t speak to the truth of that, but this is what Ager says:

This is generally a female approach to antisocial behaviour. Rather than violent confrontation, women tend to engage in reputation destruction and social exclusion, seeking to destroy the status of their rivals rather than physically defeat them.

Several studies have suggested an evolutionary basis for this. In Stockley and Campbell’s interdisciplinary study of female competition and aggression, they suggest that females are wired to survive, compete for preferred mates and reproduce. They therefore target rivals through lower risk, indirect competitive strategies, such as:

refusal to cooperate with them, destruction of their reputation (so that others will also refuse cooperation) and, ultimately, exclusion from the group. Indirect aggression (the use of pejorative gossip and social exclusion) is women’s preferred aggressive tactic. Because harm is delivered circuitously and because it is executed simultaneously by several members of the community, it is a low-risk strategy.

Ager says that this happens in chimpanzees as well, with females “ousting newcomers or low-ranking community females.”

Lived experience. This refers to the SJW tendency to dwell on personal experience rather than data, leading to the denigration of objective truth. And this, says Ager, is an outgrowth of greater female empathy, which she sees as an evolved trait. She also argues that “women are more open to negative experiences,” which itself leads to higher degrees of neuroticism.  But I think she’s on shaky ground when she connects this with social justice culture:

Sex differences in neuroticism are actually larger in cultures with greater socio-political gender equity, not smaller as would be expected if sex differences were purely the result of socialisation into traditional gender roles.

A range of evolutionary theories could explain this, including the hypothesis that “Women may be more sensitive to all the emotions of others because of their need (more than men) to attach with their children, or women may be especially responsive to negative emotions only because of the need to react to fitness threats more than men do.”

This isn’t to say that all women are more emotional or neurotic than men, or that stability and rationality are distinctively male traits. But, as a whole, women tilt more toward negative emotional reasoning, a cognitive distortion endemic to the modern social justice movement.


Safetyism, the increasing desire to protect yourself and others of your tribe from emotional damage. We’ve encountered this before:

In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff sound the alarm about the rise of safetyism in the US, particularly on university campuses. Safetyism, as they describe it, is “the cult of safety—an obsession with eliminating threats (both real and imagined) to the point at which people become unwilling to make reasonable trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.”

Safetyism lies at the heart of social justice culture, giving rise to concepts like safe spaces, trigger warnings, hate speech and microaggressions. Haidt and Lukianoff argue that this ethos is leaving younger generations more fragile than ever, dramatically increasing their levels of anxiety, depression and suicide by positioning them as helpless victims.

Now Ager doesn’t want to demonize either sex, for that’s not productive—no more productive than talking about “toxic whiteness” or “toxic blackness.” As she says,

Healthy discourse should not pit the genders against each other or present women as morally superior, but recognise that we’re all fallible, and need to work together to eradicate all kinds of issues from sexual assault to safetyism.

Toxicity resides in individuals, not in groups. Certain traits may be more likely to exist in one sex than the other due to the average psychological differences between them, but what matters, ultimately, is how each individual behaves. In the end, all human virtues can become vices and the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can all progress.

And I agree: it’s much more useful—and less divisive—to work on problems as “social issues,” without worrying whether they’re “male” or “female” problems. So why did Ager write this piece? The only reason I can guess is because she’s fed up with men being tarred with the trait of “toxic masculinity”, and wrote this article as if to say, “See, we can also play this game with femininity.”