Jordan Peterson hangs it up as a professor

January 20, 2022 • 9:30 am

Reader Duff called my attention to a piece by Jordan Peterson in—where else—Canada’s National Post, announcing that he’s quitting as a professor at the University of Toronto.  You can read the piece by clicking on the screenshot below:

As I’ve said before, I know virtually nothing about Jordan Peterson, though of course you can’t be living in this bubble without occasionally hearing of his doings. Jordan Peterson refuses to agree to mandatory pronoun use. Jordan Peterson near death’s door from disease and depression in Russia. Jordan Peterson clashes with British t.v. host, trounces her. Jordan Peterson writes bestselling book on how to live. And so on and so on.  When I’ve heard bits of his videos, I tend to agree with sp,e of what he says, but I claim no knowledge of his general views nor about his writings. (I tried to read his big academic book, and failed.) But I admire his honesty and his eloquence, though sometimes exercised in the service of causes I don’t support.

So I don’t have a strong reaction to the news above, nor endorse all that he says—except about the fulminating wokeness of academia, which is apparently what impelled him to resign. (I don’t think it hurt that he probably has about a gazillion dollars from his books and lecture fees!). I think he goes too far in indicting virtually the entire West for wokeness, though some of what he says rings true. Here’s one quote that I like.

We are now at the point where race, ethnicity, “gender,” or sexual preference is first, accepted as the fundamental characteristic defining each person (just as the radical leftists were hoping) and second, is now treated as the most important qualification for study, research and employment.

Need I point out that this is insane ? Even the benighted New York Times has its doubts. A headline from August 11, 2021: Are Workplace Diversity Programs Doing More Harm than Good? In a word, yes. How can accusing your employees of racism etc. sufficient to require re-training (particularly in relationship to those who are working in good faith to overcome whatever bias they might still, in these modern, liberal times, manifest) be anything other than insulting, annoying, invasive, high-handed, moralizing, inappropriate, ill-considered, counterproductive, and otherwise unjustifiable?

And this is credible; one of the reasons he resigned:

Second reason: This is one of many issues of appalling ideology currently demolishing the universities and, downstream, the general culture. Not least because there simply is not enough qualified BIPOC people in the pipeline to meet diversity targets quickly enough (BIPOC: black, indigenous and people of colour, for those of you not in the knowing woke). This has been common knowledge among any remotely truthful academic who has served on a hiring committee for the last three decades. This means we’re out to produce a generation of researchers utterly unqualified for the job. And we’ve seen what that means already in the horrible grievance studies “disciplines.” That, combined with the death of objective testing, has compromised the universities so badly that it can hardly be overstated. And what happens in the universities eventually colours everything. As we have discovered.

All my craven colleagues must craft DIE statements to obtain a research grant. They all lie (excepting the minority of true believers) and they teach their students to do the same. And they do it constantly, with various rationalizations and justifications, further corrupting what is already a stunningly corrupt enterprise. Some of my colleagues even allow themselves to undergo so-called anti-bias training, conducted by supremely unqualified Human Resources personnel, lecturing inanely and blithely and in an accusatory manner about theoretically all-pervasive racist/sexist/heterosexist attitudes. Such training is now often a precondition to occupy a faculty position on a hiring committee.

This is what I object to most about current academic culture: it forces people to either lie about their feelings or to shut up.

But, as critical as I am about DEI statements (he calls them “DIE statements,” which doesn’t help his cause), I still believe in affirmative action in some spheres, including academia. Since he’s uniformly opposed to it it any way, I can’t sign on to his views in toto.  I can’t claim, for instance, that current efforts to diversify universities will “compromise them so terribly that it means the death of higher education.” Nor do I think that DEI initiatives will produce a generation of researchers “utterly unqualified for the job.”

I do, however, hate to see institutions dedicated to pursuing truth nevertheless lie and dissimulate about their motivations, and chill the speech of who would disagree with “conventional” (in academia, that’s “progressive liberal”) views.

I suspect many readers know a lot more about Peterson than I, so do weigh in below. One thing you have to hand the man: he says what he thinks, even if others disagree strongly with him. That’s opposed to the many academics who say (or are forced to say) what they don’t think, or keep their mouths shut rather than buck the latest ideology.

Our attempt to correct the record about E. O. Wilson: a joint letter to Scientific American—which, of course, they rejected.

January 19, 2022 • 8:00 am

UPDATE: David Sloan Wilson has also published the letter on his site “This View of Life”.

______________

A bunch of people in evolution and genetics took exception to an op-ed in Scientific American by Monica McLemore, which called E. O. Wilson a racist just days after he died. The author, who apparently had almost no familiarity with Wilson’s work, gave no examples of his supposed racism, and left out quotes showing his opposition to racism. Anybody who knew Ed also knows that he was no racist! Many of the signers below knew Ed well.

The author also indicted others, including Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin, for the same sin:

Wilson was hardly alone in his problematic beliefs. His predecessors—mathematician Karl Pearson, anthropologist Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel and others—also published works and spoke of theories fraught with racist ideas about distributions of health and illness in populations without any attention to the context in which these distributions occur.

My “bon mot” on this: “Did Mendel see green peas as superior to yellow ones?”

The fun didn’t end there, for McLemore got further entangled by trying to accuse the normal distribution in statistics of racism!:

First, the so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against. The fact that we don’t adequately take into account differences between experimental and reference group determinants of risk and resilience, particularly in the health sciences, has been a hallmark of inadequate scientific methods based on theoretical underpinnings of a superior subject and an inferior one. Commenting on COVID and vaccine acceptance in an interview with PBS NewsHour, recently retired director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins pointed out, “You know, maybe we underinvested in research on human behavior.”

This is too ridiculous to critique except to say that everything in that paragraph is wrong.

I wrote a critical rebuttal on this site about the badly misguided piece, which apparently constitutes part of Scientific American‘s campaign to morph from an organization teaching laypeople about modern science into an ideological venue for promoting “progressive” leftism and trying to effect social change. (No change, of course, will be effected by publishing ignorant nonsense like that. It is virtue-flaunting, pure and simple. Do they think that equality will come from accusing Ed Wilson of being a racist?)

A lot of us in the area were steamed at the arrant nonsense purveyed by the author, apparently approved for publication by Scientific American and its editor. We petulant scientists found each other on social media, and an initiative to write a critique of the Sci. Am. hit job was begun by geneticist Razib Khan. It came to fruition in the piece below, signed by many evolutionists and geneticists. It was rejected, of course: I fully expected that a journal that would publish such a flimsy attack on Wilson et al. wouldn’t want to hear the truth.

But the rejection was even worse because some of the staff at Scientific American reached out to Razib, saying that a formal rebuttal might be more useful than social media outrage. In other words, their own people solicited a response from Razib and others. From that it’s clear that not everyone on the editorial staff is overjoyed with the new woke direction of Scientific American! After promising us we’d get a quick response, they sat on our response for a week or so, finally giving Razib the thumbs-down after he had to inquire.

The journal of course acted abysmally here, though its most abysmal action was the publication of McLemore’s piece. But then they more or less asked us to respond, then refused to publish what we wrote.

After this reaction, Razib and I decided to publish the original submission, with its signers (all by their permission) on our websites, so at least you can see the panoply of scientists who think that the Wilson article was ridiculous. Razib put up his piece last night on his Substack site; it’s called “Setting the record straight: open letter on E. O. Wilson’s legacy.” I urge you to read it; although we’re posting the same text and signers of the rejected article, Razib has a very good introduction about his views and about how the piece came to be.

After the rejection, we got an email by editor Laura Helmuth, who, I think, is largely responsible for running the journal into the ground out of sheer ideological bias. The letter gave what I think are lame reasons for not running our piece. I quote (with interpolations):

We would be happy to publish other articles about E.O. Wilson’s research and legacy, but we avoid running direct rebuttals of earlier articles. This is a standard practice in most magazines to avoid being too self-referential, and so each article stands on its own.

Does anybody really believe that? First of all, Scientific American has run direct rebuttals of earlier articles: here are two (granted, they don’t do it often). Nor do their instructions about what and how to submit say anything about prohibiting rebuttals. But above all this, how else would a journal correct itself if it publishes distortions or errors, which are pervasive in the Wilson piece? “Each article stands on its own?” What that means, translated into regular English, is “each article is immune to criticism.” Besides, this article doesn’t stand on its own; it lies prostrate on its own. Helmuth wrote more:

As you may know, we publish a range of perspectives in our Opinion section, written by authors such as Monica McLemore who are presenting their own experiences and analysis.

It is not an “experience” to claim that Ed Wilson or Mendel were racists. Those are assertions of fact, and need to be—but weren’t—backed up with any evidence. I suspect this emphasis on “personal experience” is part of the woke path that the journal is treading. As the journal says in its instructions for authors of opinion and analysis pieces (my emphasis):

We look for fact-based arguments. Therefore, if you are making scientific claims—aside from those that are essentially universally accepted (e.g., evolution by natural selection explains the diversity of life on Earth; vaccines do not cause autism; the Earth is about 93 million miles from the Sun) we ask you to link to original scientific research in reputable journals or assertions from reputable science-oriented institutions. Using secondary sources such as news reports or advocacy organizations that do not do actual research is not sufficient.

I guess they waived those rules for this article.  Nor is there any note that rebuttals or critiques are not permitted.

Finally, a lame offer.

If you’d like to suggest a different article, or revise this one to be a stand-alone piece rather than a rebuttal, we’d be happy to work with you or your coauthors.

When I saw that, this thought letter instantly crossed my mind, “Dear Ms. Helmuth, I would like to write an article called ‘Why E. O. Wilson and Gregor Mendel were not racists’. I promise, however, not to mention McLemore’s article in the proposed piece. Yours, Jerry Coyne.”

I ask Ms Helmuth: what other way can we rebut false claims in your magazine than to cite the source and nature of the false claims?

At any rate, our letter is below the line; there are 33 signers, and you may recognize some of the names. Kudos to Razib for organizing it. I’ve added links to every name so you can verify the existence of those who signed.

In all likelihood, Scientific American will ignore this, whether it gets published here or in their magazine, but they do so at their peril. The wide range of interests of the signers, and the diversity of areas they work in, plus the fact that many actually knew Wilson and his work, should constitute a potch im tuchas to Helmuth and her magazine. And at least they know now that their own editorial staff is not 100% behind the new course the journal is taking.

Our letter is below the line:


The great entomologist and evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson died on December 26, 2021 at the age of 92. Within three days, Scientific American published a bewilderingly flimsy opinion piece that ignored his exceptional legacy of scholarship, innovation and advocacy, instead using his passing to attack science’s history of “white empiricism” and “scientific racism.” The piece suggests Wilson’s and other seminal thinkers’ works were problematically “built on racist ideas” and calls for “truth and reconciliation… in the scientific record.”

Wilson’s scholarly treatises and popular books appeared over an astonishing span of five decades, and their visionary breadth and graceful prose inspired generations of scientists. His  dozens of works include: The Theory of Island Biogeography; Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process; Sociobiology: The New Synthesis; Consilience and The Future of Life. Among his countless awards were the 1990 Crafoord Prize, non-medical biology’s equivalent of the Nobel, and Pulitzer Prizes for the books On Human Nature and The Ants. Wilson, a lifelong conservationist, is often credited with kickstarting an evolutionary understanding of universal human behavior, as well as developing models foundational to ecological theory.

No stranger to intellectual dust-ups, Wilson had for decades endured sometimes misplaced vitriol and ad hominem attacks. But he strived to uphold standards of integrity and insisted on putting science first, even when activists stooped to physically attacking him. Wilson was spared the indignity of reading Scientific American’s mystifying reappraisal. But such a weakly sourced and misinformed piece raises troubling questions about the state of scientific inquiry and discourse. “The complicated legacy of E. O. Wilson” is alarming, not because of any revelation about Wilson, since it’s hardly about him, but for the casual lapses in basic editing and fact-checking behind its extreme claims.

In “The Complicated Legacy,” Dr. Monica R. McLemore, professor of Nursing and Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, unloads an arsenal of buzzy accusations on the late scientist, dragging in Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, Karl Pearson and Gregor Mendel for critique in the process. She quotes Craig Venter and Francis Collins, but neglects to link their allusions to “the complex provenance of ideas” and underinvestment “in research on human behavior” to widespread “scientific racism” in any way.

And what specific evidence does McLemore present against Wilson or the nineteenth-century scientists she holds up for opprobrium? She claims to have “intimately familiarized” herself with Wilson’s work, having enjoyed his fictional Anthill and thus being disappointed by Sociobiology (which touches on humanity only in its 26th and final chapter), because of its role in the orthodoxy that human differences “could be explained by genetics, inheritance and other biological mechanisms.” But alas, she doesn’t appear to have familiarized herself even minimally with the basic science, because this proposition is empirically unassailable. Twin, adoption and DNA-level studies on millions of individuals consistently demonstrate that just about all human traits, from height to intelligence and personality, owe at least some, often much, of their variation among individuals to genetic influences – not to be confused with genetic determination as in the opinion piece by McLemore. And yet like Darwin, Wilson actually argued eloquently for a universal human nature, a premise that undermines racist agendas.

Furthermore, although McLemore apparently intended to damn Wilson by attributing to him this factual insight, it is not at all clear that the flowering of human behavior genetics even belongs in the ledger of Wilson’s scientific accomplishments. The germ of behavior genetics predates Wilson’s insights by decades. The fact is, sociobiology helped pave the way for other evolutionary approaches to human behavior, with a focus on understanding our human commonalities, as well as the nascent field of cultural evolution.

More perplexing lapses of scholarship follow. McLemore lumps Wilson, b. 1929, together with Pearson, Galton, Darwin and Mendel (born between 1809 and 1857), castigating all for “problematic” and “racist ideas.” Galton, Pearson and Darwin held Victorian views we find reprehensible today. But, the enduring truth or falsity of a scientific theory does not depend upon the anachronistic opinions of the scientists who helped develop it. So, has McLemore discovered bias in Wilson’s legacy?

Here, the author proceeds only to demonstrate a baffling ignorance of one of the most basic concepts in modern statistics. Calling on her expertise in public health, she claims “the so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against.” But this is nonsense. Far from a conspiracy of biased humans, the “normal distribution” is a widely observed feature of the natural world. Across the animal and plant kingdoms, traits like human birth weight and height, cucumber length, bovine milk production, indeed any trait with many random, independent variables at play, can often be found to approximately follow a normal distribution. “Normal” simply refers to a probability distribution with a certain mathematical form, the value-neutral outcome of random variables that have hewed to certain patterns.

Finally, we learn that “the description and importance of ant societies as colonies is a component of Wilson’s work that should have been critiqued.” It beggars belief that among the most serious offenses the author could dredge up from a wildly prolific career “built on racist ideas” was Wilson’s use of the term “ant colony,” a standard term for cohabitating groups of ants, wasps and bees in entomology. Perhaps it is by this logic that she also invites us to condemn Mendel, the father of genetics, whom she counts among Wilson’s intellectual forebears and who “published works and spoke of theories fraught with racist ideas.” Is Mendel, the Augustinian monk, famously pottering over his pea plants in obscurity, now racist for discovering the Law of Segregation? Or because he found that yellow peas are genetically dominant over green?

Following this uncompelling evidence, the author puts forward three suggestions for the health of science. She calls for new methods in science (an odd plea in the age of CRISPR and ubiquitous whole genome sequencing), “diversifying the scientific workforce”, a massive and important priority in academia today, and finally “truth and reconciliation … in the scientific record.” The entire idea of a “scientific record” is hard to interpret, but she suggests citational practices to flag “problematic work” and unironically nominates “humanities scholars, journalists and other science communicators” to make these judgments.

There is one point on which we can agree with McLemore: “It is true that work can be both important and problematic—they can coexist. Therefore it is necessary to evaluate and critique these scientists, considering, specifically the value of their work.” Indeed, this is how science has always proceeded. Unfortunately, McLemore continues “and, at the same time, their contributions to scientific racism.” Alas, Scientific American’s readers will find neither a clear definition of this sinister undercurrent, nor any instances of its actual existence in Wilson’s thought.

It surely says more about the spirit of our age than it does about Wilson that the editors of Scientific American chose to mark the passing of a scientist of his stature by debating baseless accusations of racism. A line Wilson penned to Nature in 1981 has aged well, “To keep the record straight, I am happy to point out that no justification for racism is to be found in the truly scientific study of the biological basis of social behavior.” Wilson’s insights speak for themselves and his dozens of worthy titles allow us to grapple with his actual ideas directly. His books are suffused with an abiding gratitude for and humble, lifelong wonder at the complexity of our natural world. Their impact will long outlive any hasty and poorly informed appraisals of his legacy.

Dr. Abdel Abdellaoui, Research Scientist, Department of Psychiatry, Amsterdam UMC, University of Amsterdam

Dr. Rosalind Arden, Research Fellow, London School of Economics

Dr. Georgia Chenevix-Trench, Professor, Genetics and Computational Biology, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, Yale University

Dr. Anne B Clark, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Binghamton University

Dr. Jerry Coyne, Professor, Emeritus of Ecology and Evolution, The University of Chicago

Dr. Matthew Hahn, Distinguished Professor, Department of Biology and Department of Computer Science, Indiana University

Dr. John Hawks, Vilas-Borghesi Distinguished Achievement Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Dr. Joseph Henrich, Professor and Chair, Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

Elliot Hershberg, Doctoral Candidate, Genetics, Stanford University

Dr. Hopi Hoekstra, Professor, Organismic & Evolutionary Biology and Molecular & Cellular Biology, Harvard University

Razib Khan, Unsupervised Learning, Substack

Dr. Nathan H. Lents, Professor of Biology, John Jay College

Dr. Armand Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology, Imperial College London

Dr. Jonathan Losos, William H. Danforth Distinguished University Professor, Washington University

Daniel Malawsky, Doctoral Candidate, Genomics, Wellcome Sanger Institute

Dr. Hilary Martin, Group Leader, Wellcome Sanger Institute

Dr. Nick Martin, Senior Scientist and Senior Principal Research Fellow, QIMR Berghofer

Dr. Corrie Moreau, Martha N. & John C. Moser Professor of Arthropod Biosystematics and Biodiversity and Director & Curator of the Cornell University Insect Collection, Cornell University

Dr. Craig Moritz, Professor, College of Science, Australian National University

Dr. Vagheesh M Narasimhan, Assistant Professor, Department of Integrative Biology, University University of Texas

Dr. Nick Patterson, Associate,  Department of Human Evolutionary Biology,  Harvard University

Dr. Steven Phelps, Professor, Department of Integrative Biology, University of Texas

Dr. David Queller, Spencer T. Olin Professor of Biology, Washington University in St Louis

Dr. Joan E. Strassmann, Charles Rebstock Professor of Biology, Washington University in St. Louis

Dr. Alexander Wild, Curator of Entomology, Lecturer Department of Integrative Biology, University of Texas

Dr. Peter M. Visscher, Professor, Program in Complex Trait Genomics, University of Queensland

Dr. Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Emeritus Scientist, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution

Dr. Judith Wexler, Zuckerman Postdoctoral Fellow, The Hebrew University in Jerusalem

Dr. David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Binghamton University

Dr. Richard Wrangham, Moore Research Professor of Biological Anthropology, Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

Dr. Alexander Young, Research Scientist, Human Genetics Department, UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine

Dr. Marlene Zuk, Regents Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota

_______

Note: three people (names crossed out) decided to remove their names from the letter after it was rejected.

More bias in Scientific American, this time in a “news” article

January 15, 2022 • 1:00 pm

Scientific American has tendered a news piece in their “Mathematics” section, reporting on a schism in the math community. I’ve followed this schism for a while but haven’t written about it. As I understand it, what happened is that last October the Association for Mathematical Research (AMR) was formed, breaking away from the two older associations, the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) and the American Mathematical Society (AMS), primarily because the latter two societies were becoming too woke, trying to dilute the mathematical goals of their organization with social-justice considerations, considerations favoring the performative and “progressive” ideology we know too well.

While the article starts off okay, giving the facts above, it quickly devolves into somewhat of a hit piece on the new AMR for being racist and sexist. This is in line with the total lack of objectivity of Scientific American, which, as we all know, has diverted much of its mission to teach science so that it can further social justice, though in a misguided and ineffective way. In this piece, the bias of Sci. Am. is reflected in both the imbalance of quotations from pro- and anti-AMR people (much more from the latter) and in its own commentary and slant.

Now I tend to be opposed to the new direction Sci Am is taking, so I may be biased, but I don’t think I am: I think this article is what’s slanted, not me. But read it for yourself by clicking on the screenshot.  The dissing of the AMR starts with the subheading, where critics get their say without any mention of why the AMR was formed.

This bit is pretty accurate, as far as I know, though you can see a bit of pro-woke bias nosing in:

A new organization called the Association for Mathematical Research (AMR) has ignited fierce debates in the math research and education communities since it was launched last October. Its stated mission is “to support mathematical research and scholarship”—a goal similar to that proclaimed by two long-standing groups: the American Mathematical Society (AMS) and the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). In recent years the latter two have initiated projects to address racial, gender and other inequities within the field. The AMR claims to have no position on social justice issues, and critics see its silence on those topics as part of a backlash against inclusivity efforts. Some of the new group’s leaders have also spoken out in the past against certain endeavors to diversify mathematics. The controversy reflects a growing division between researchers who want to keep scientific and mathematical pursuits separate from social issues that they see as irrelevant to research and those who say even pure mathematics cannot be considered separately from the racism and sexism in its culture.

Then, throwing off the mantle of objectivity, the author goes full steam ahead. All quotes from the piece are indented:

Criticism of the AMR (selected bits)

With bias, harassment and exclusion widely acknowledged to exist within the mathematics community, many find it dubious that a professional organization could take no stance on inequity while purporting to serve the needs of mathematicians from all backgrounds. “It’s a hard time to be a mathematician,” says Piper H, a mathematician at the University of Toronto. In 2019 less than 1 percent of doctorates were awarded to Black mathematicians, and just 29 percent were awarded to women.

. . .Louigi Addario-Berry, a mathematician at McGill University in Montreal, wrote about the AMR on his blog. He told Scientific American he is speaking up because “I think this is an organization whose existence, development and flourishing will hurt a lot of members of the mathematical community who I respect. It is being founded by people who have publicly stated views I find harmful—both hurtful to me as an individual and detrimental to the creation of an inclusive and welcoming mathematical community.”

Hass responded in a statement to Scientific American: “The focus of the AMR is on supporting mathematical research and this goal benefits all members of the mathematics community.” But Addario-Berry questions how the AMR can be neutral on social justice issues when some of its leaders have previously taken strong public stances on some of these topics.

This is very strange. It’s like saying that the University of Chicago cannot be organizationally neutral on social-justice issues when many of its faculty have taken strong stands one way or the other. Can the author not conceive of an organization being officially politically neutral even though its members may have strong views? This isn’t rocket science. It’s just the University of Chicago.

There’s some discussion both ways about UC Davis math professor Abigail Thompson’s criticism of requiring diversity statements for faculty jobs (see my post here), and a note that Thompson is secretary of the new AMR. But that’s seems like an attempt to tarnish the AMR by picking out members who themselves opposed wokeness. It says nothing about the organization’s own stance, which is indeed neutrality. Thompson is also listed as one of the “current vice presidents of the American Mathematical Society” in her Wikipedia bio. But none of this really has to do with the issue at hand, except to try to cast aspersions on Thompson and, by extension, the AMR. But wait! There’s more!

Another AMR founding member and a member of its board of directors, Robion “Rob” Kirby, is a mathematician at the University of California, Berkeley. In a post entitled “Sexism in Mathematics???” on his Web site, he wrote, “People who say that women can’t do math as well as men are often called sexist, but it is worth remembering that some evidence exists and the topic is a legimate [sic] one, although Miss Manners might not endorse it.”

In fact, I don’t think that Kirby is right; as far as I knew, men and women in secondary school perform equally well in math, but the women excel in reading. Women like reading more than math, and thus they tend to go on more often to the humanities. Whatever is responsible for inequity between men and women, it’s not skill.

Or course conservatives are going to leave an organization disproportionately if it becomes too woke, for wokeness is the purview of the Left, not the Right. You don’t have to be a conservative to try to keep your discipline pure, but if you’re a liberal like me who doesn’t like performative wokeness, you’re going to have to live being associated with some politically inconvenient bedfellows. At any rate, the statement above doesn’t represent someone supporting the new AMR, it’s Sci Am’s attempt to denigrate it.

Then there’s this:

The AMS and the MAA have publicly acknowledged the need to work toward a more inclusive mathematical community. Last year an AMS task force released a 68-page report that, in the organization’s words, details “the historical role of the AMS in racial discrimination; and recommends actions for the AMS to take to rectify systemic inequities in the mathematics community.” In 2020 an MAA committee stated that the mathematics community must “actively work to become anti-racist” and “hold ourselves and our academic institutions accountable for the continued oppression of Black students, staff, and faculty.” It also addressed Black mathematicians specifically, saying, “We are actively failing you at every turn as a society and as a mathematics community. We kneel together with you. #BlackLivesMatter.”

In contrast, the AMR has not released any official statements about injustice.

Okay, that’s pretty snarky, but is followed by something even snarkier:

“I am supposed to believe, in the year 2021, that this omission is not itself an act of racism?” asks Piper H, who spoke to Scientific American late last year. “How am I, as a 40-year-old Black American mathematician, parent, and person who has paid a bit of attention to American history and American present, supposed to believe that AMR’s refusal to address the actual obstacles that real mathematicians face to doing mathematical research and scholarship is anything other than an insult and a mockery?”

This is pure Kendian mishigass: if your organization doesn’t make an explicitly anti-racist statement, then your organization is racist. Note that they add that Hass denies that the AMR’s silence on diversity is a message (see below).

. . . It’s not just a coincidence that the AMR was founded on the heels of a greater push for diversity within the AMS,” wrote Lee Melvin Peralta, a mathematics education graduate student at Michigan State University, in the November 16, 2021, newsletter of the Global Math Department, an organization of math educators. The AMR, Peralta added, “seems more like a separatist organization for those people who are striving for some kind of ‘purity’ within mathematics away from ‘impure’ considerations of race, gender, class, ability, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status (among others).”

And, at the end of the article, there’s this parting shot:

Some of the AMR’s founding members have left the organization amid the controversy. “To create an organization to do something positive requires the trust and goodwill of the community that it wants to affect. And this is something that the AMR does not have at this point,” wrote Daniel Krashen, a mathematician at the University of Pennsylvania, in a November 14, 2021, Twitter thread. “I have no desire to negatively impact the mathematical community by my actions and words. I see that some people feel less safe and less heard by my actions, and for this I apologize. I have decided to withdraw my membership.”

Less safe? How has Krashen made anybody less safe or less heard? For crying out loud, this whole article is a megaphone handed to the critics of the AMR! Nobody has been silenced and the only harm has come to people’s feelings. (That said, I of course oppose those social conditions that have denied women or minorities entry into the math “pipeline.”)

Defense of the AMR:

Joel Hass, a mathematician at the University of California, Davis, and current president of the AMR, describes the group as “definitely focused on being inclusive.” He adds that the AMR “welcomes all to join us in supporting mathematical research and scholarship. In early 2022 we plan to open membership to anyone in the world who wishes to join us. There will be no fees or dues. By removing financial barriers to entry, we will make it easier to have participation from anyone across the world. Mathematical research is a truly global endeavor that transcends nation, creed and culture.”

. . . Hass denies that the AMR’s founding had anything to do with the antiracism push at the AMS or the MAA. The changes in the research environment caused by the COVID pandemic revealed new opportunities for the development and communication of mathematical research, allowing for incorporation of new technologies and international activities,” he says. “We felt there was room for a new organization that would explore these.” Hass adds that “the AMS and MAA are wonderful organizations that we hope to work with, along with other organizations such as SIAM [Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics], ACM [Association for Computing Machinery] and many non-U.S.-based groups.”

I think Hass is being disingenuous here, for what I’ve heard is that the AMR is a reaction to the wokeness of the other two organizations. I don’t see that as a sign of racism; I see it as a sign of trying to keep an objective discipline from being diverted into political pursuits.*********

So there we have it:  four mathematicians criticizing the AMR for racism/sexism or “harm”, and one defending its mission. That’s not to mention the way that Scientific American has structured the article, providing a critical sub-header for the title and ending with a critical slam.

I’m not by any means a fan of the views of all AMR members: in fact I’ve just criticized two statements of their members. But with this article, Sci. Am. is casting its lot in with the woke, as it always does. There is no rationale, they’re saying, for a mathematics organization that is not explicitly devoted to achieving Social Justice.

This is my view, which of course might be conditioned by my extreme dislike for the direction that Sci. Am. is taking. So read for yourself and let me know if the piece seems objective to you.

John McWhorter talks with Bill Kristol

January 11, 2022 • 1:15 pm

Here we have conservative writer Bill Kristol speaking with Columbia Univesity linguist and writer John McWhorter. This is part of the “Conversations with Bill Kristol” website, and there the video is divided into two non-overlapping moieties. But just watch this one 71-minute video starting at the beginning.

McWhorter, always eloquent (does he ever say “uh” fluff a sentence?), is especially eloquent here in parsing the current meaning of “wokeism” and analyzing how it plays out in society—as a nefarious phenomenon. In fact, he pretty much gives up on academia as a venue for those seeking the life of the mind.

Kristol is a good interlocutor, not dominating the conversation but raising questions that draw out McWhorter.  I find it heartening in that we have such honest people on our side. What’s depressing is McWhorter’s claim that only black people like him are capable of overthrowing wokeness. That makes me feel impotent, but surely white people can push back—at least by rejecting the claims and epiphets of the Woke. And he does have a message for non-blacks on how to counter Wokeness—starting about 49 minutes in.

People call McWhorter “white adjacent”, “useful idiot” or any of the names that the Woke hurl at their opponents to demonize them.(At about 39 minutes in, listen to how abysmally McWhorter has been treated by his black Columbia University colleagues.)

I call him thoughtful and honest. Let’s put it this way: if he was seriously setting back equality, would the New York Times give him a biweekly column?

I don’t recommend many longish videos, but I think this one will hearten you at least a bit.

Guest post: Wokeness in the latest issue of Science

January 5, 2022 • 10:00 am

The title of this post is mine (Jerry’s), and since there’s no word that has replaced “wokeness”—a word I construe as “performative social justice, often going to ludicrous extremes, that has little effect on society”—I’ll use that one. The articles below were called to my attention by reader Smith Powell, and his commentary was substantial enough that I asked him if I could post it (along with some additions that I’ll identify, like adding the screenshots). He gave permission, and so I’ll put it between the lines. My own additions and comments are in brackets with a “JAC:” beginning the note.

Smith Powell briefly discusses a book review and a letter to the editor that appeared in a recent issue of Science, giving his reaction to both. I’ve left in the “deadnaming” for the book review simply because many of you may have read the author, Riley Black, who was well known for science writing before transitioning to the female gender and taking the name “Riley Black”. Her piece turns out to be far more of a manifesto for inclusiveness than a book review, committing the cardinal sin of book reviewing: assessing a book that the author should have written instead of the one he did.


Commentary by Smith Powell

A recent issue (24 December 2021) of Science had two woke items of interest.  The first was a review of Dinopedia by Darren Naish. The review is called “Revisiting paleontology’s greatest hits”.  The second is a letter “Transgender rights rely on inclusive language” with multiple authors.

[JAC: Click on the screenshots, which may take you to the article. pdfs are available via judicious inquiry]:

The reviewer, Riley Black, is herself an author of books and many articles and blog posts on dinosaurs and she has written about a number of other science topics.  Until recently, Ms. Black was associated with Scientific American where she wrote for a blog entitled Laelaps.  She used to write as Brian Switek but came out as transgender and non-binary in 2019.

Ms. Black makes her point in the very first paragraph of her review [emphases mine]:

Dinosaurs garner esteem that is often reflected onto the people who search for, excavate and study them, and therein lies a fundamental problem with the ever-increasing number of popular tomes about the “terrible lizards” hitting bookshelves.  Even as the field of vertebrate paleontology pushes to become more inclusive, personages from decades past remain the only experts many members of the public encounter.  Although there is a trove of dinosaurian information to recommend paleontologist Darren Naish’s short encyclopedia Dinopedia, it does little to correct this antiquated view of who is, or can be, a paleontologist.

Ms. Black notes that Naish has written a “friendly and breezy tour of dinosaurs and what paleontologists have come to know about them.”  She further notes that the book is illustrated with Naish’s own drawings and that “the result is a solid primer on dinosaur science…”  Again, she makes her point when she writes, “Nevertheless, the book offers a view of modern dinosaur scientists that is practically petrified.

Ms. Black continues:

Naish includes profiles of a handful of paleontologists: Robert Bakker, Jack Horner, Halszka Osmólska, John Ostrom, Richard Owen, Greg Paul, and Paul Sereno. These figures were indeed pivotal in the dinosaur debates and discussions of the late 20th century, but Naish’s decision to focus on them, rather than on contemporary paleontologists, makes the book feel decades out of date rather than representative of modern dinosaur studies.  Aside from the gender imbalance, nonwhite scientists and researchers from the Global South are given short shrift.

[JAC: I’ve added the next indented section]

Naish’s book joins a number of recent titles that have failed to effectively convey the increasingly diverse practice of paleontology. I, too, have fallen far short in achieving equality and inclusivity in my writing.

There is no doubt that the Dinosaur Renaissance was huge for paleontology. Many of the children who were inspired by the museum exhibits, books, and films that debuted during that time are paleontologists or fossil fans still. But the height of that era’s dinomania was nearly three decades ago, when discussions about diversity and representation in the field often occurred in the background, if they happened at all. Paleontologists today openly consider such issues, as well as adjacent topics such as the ethics of collecting specimens and samples in other countries and the repatriation of illegally exported fossils.

Still, there is much work to be done. In a field in which even gender equity between white cisgender researchers has been difficult to achieve, now is not the time to reaffirm the male-dominated days as representative of where the field stands today.

Ms. Black gives no hints as to what debates and discussions have been prominent in the last couple of decades that should have been addressed by Naish, nor does she offer any examples of researchers who should have been recognized by him. Indeed, she notes:

Change is likely to come slowly.  Diversity in paleontology is currently highest among volunteers, students, and early-career researchers, all of whom are less likely to be conducting research that is covered by the press, and less likely to write books themselves.

But she does offer a mea culpa when she wrote above, “I, too, have fallen far short in achieving equality and inclusivity in my writing”.

In summary, it appears to me that Ms. Black thinks that Darren Naish has written a nice book on dinosaurs that is marred because it is not sufficiently woke.

[JAC:  I’ve added the excerpt below. I was appalled when I read the review, for it’s far more about the author failing to socially engineer paleontology than it is about paleontology itself. In other words, Black criticizes the book for failing to be the kind of book she wanted. But the kind of book she wanted would be far more about making paleontology more “inclusive” than about dinosaurs themselves. And Black doesn’t even name the advances or the BIPOC paleontologists that she wants to see represented, even after admitting that there are few of them. I suggest that Black herself write that book! The excerpt:]

Again and again, op-eds and sociological studies have pointed out that a lack of visible representation affects who goes into science and who is supported through its process, which, in turn, affects scientific theory and thought. It is time to start embodying the change we wish to see. Ensuring that popular accounts of paleontology reflect the field’s 21st-century practitioners would be a strong step toward this goal.

But “embodying the change we wish to see,” as Black has done, is not the same as imbuing every aspect of the world with a single change you wish to see.

*************

The second item in this issue is a letter [above] that notes in the first sentence, “Inclusive language around sex diversity has never been more important”.  Do the authors mean “gender diversity”?  Apparently not, as they write:

It is important to recognize the context-dependent and multidimensional nature of sex.  Rather than privilege any characteristic as the sole determinant of sex, “male” and “female” should be treated as context-dependent categories with flexible associations to multiple variables (such as, but not limited to, genitalia, gametes, or karyotype). The usage of “male” and “female” should be explicitly defined in any given study.  Failing to do so promotes harmful language (such as “male chromosomes” rather than “Y chromosomes”) that attributes an essential “maleness” or “femaleness” to traits, obscuring the true biological mechanisms at work (e.g., the Tdf gene leads to testicular development, not to “being male”).  No one trait determines whether a person is male or female, and no person’s sex can be meaningfully prescribed by any single variable.

I am not a biologist.  I thought sex was very much bimodal with a very small percentage of indeterminant cases.  I guess I need a little help in understanding this issue. [JAC: Smith Powell is actually correct in his criticism. Sex is for all intents and purposes binary and bimodal, for it depends on whether the individual is capable, or would be capable, of producing eggs or sperm. There is only a tiny, tiny minority of people who, at birth, elude this dichotomy.]

I’m further confused as the authors continue:

Awareness of the distinction between sex and gender is another vital element to inclusive, quality research.  Conflating the two harms and invalidates gender minorities by implying that these distinct attributes are inextricably linked.

[JAC: It is the authors who are conflating sex and gender here. There is an accepted biological meaning of “male and female” in organisms that have two sexes. Yet in the first paragraph they mistake sex for “gender” when they say that sex is “context-dependent and multidimensional.” It is not.]

In conclusion, the authors write:

As scientists, we must push back against the misappropriation of biological terms by promoting precise language that focuses on the variables themselves (e.g., “menstruating people”) and acknowledging that people express these variables in ways that may not conform with a binary system of sex or gender.  This both creates a more inclusive environment for gender-diverse scientists and reinforces that sex is a context-dependent summary of a multidimensional variable space.

“Menstruating people”?  Isn’t that an example of conflating sex and gender?  I think I understand some of the words individually, but when they are put together as these authors did, I see a word salad with some words apparently not meaning what I thought.


JAC: Apparently it’s not sufficient to recognize that “gender”—the sex role or aspects of sex roles that people assume or behave according to—is indeed a spectrum. No, they want to distort biology itself by claiming that sex itself is equally continuous and a “spectrum.” This is a Lysenko-ist tactic to try to make nature conform to an ideology.

But I swear, I spent my whole career sorting fruit flies—thousands a day—and maybe once every six months I’d find one “gynandromorph”: a fly that was part male and part female (this happens rarely when an X chromosome gets lost during female development). These XO individuals, which must constitute less than 0.00001% of flies, are not a third “sex,” but a developmental accident. And they are invariably sterile.  For all the other flies, when I dissected one that looked like a male, it had testes and sperm. When I dissected one that looked like a female, it invariably had ovaries and nascent eggs.

Humans are no different.

Now it’s paleontology that gets accused of being rotten with structural racism, colonialism, and white supremacy

January 4, 2022 • 11:30 am

One by one, every area of science is falling prey to the “we need to purge ourself of racism” syndrome. It’s in genetics, animal behavior, ecology, chemistry, physics and now, at least for the first time I’ve seen, in paleontology. It wouldn’t be so bad if I really thought that all the fields of science are permeated with hatred and bigotry at present, but I just don’t see that. There are accusations, but rarely do we get evidence. (See the Sci Am article on E. O. Wilson the other day.)

Of course in the bad old days, when racism and misogyny were acceptable behaviors, yes, many scientists evinced racist and sexist attitudes. And yes, there are still some bigots in science, as there are in every field of endeavor, and we should call out those behaviors and ensure that they’re not common. But the kind of overall accusations of the kind leveled in this article are pure hyperbole, and, to my mind, do more to signal the authors’ virtue than to actually create equal opportunities (not equal outcomes, which are “problematic”) for oppressed people.

To really see the lack of force of accusations of rampant bigotry in STEM, look for surveys, or even examples, of bigotry in papers such as this. They’re notably lacking. The paper below, which just appeared in Paleobiology, has a lot of citations, but a big lacuna when it comes to examples. Perhaps they’re buried in the citations, but no reader is going to trawl through a gazillion citations to find instances of bigotry. And so we’re subject to a long list of accusations, which are virtually identical from field to field. In fact, in many cases you could substitute “chemistry” or “mathematics” for “paleontology” in these papers and then publish it in the discipline -appropriate journal.

The accusations here (yes, some of them are justified, especially the ones about removing fossils without permission or authority) comprise the usual mix—some are justified but exaggerated, and in the end the paper becomes so extreme that it damns the whole field of paleobiology for racism, sexism, colonialism, white supremacy—you name it.

Click on the screenshot to read, and you can find the pdf here(reference at bottom).  One of our readers, I believe, said that this is the first time a political/ideological paper had appeared in the journal Paleobiology. I don’t know if that’s true.

The abstract:

There is what is said to be a list of “examples” of “racism and colonialism” in the field, presented in Table 1, but that’s not what Table 1 shows. It’s not a list of examples of biased behavior, but a “glossary of anti-racism terms.” (click to enlarge table).

I have neither the time nor will to look up all the citations to see if they really do show examples of bigotry in paleobiology. But I decided to pick one example and follow it back. That is the one under “erasure”: a reference to a 2016 article in the New York Times Magazine. Paragraph 3, which is the “example” cited, simply says this:

‘‘Erasure’’ refers to the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible. The word migrated out of the academy, where it alluded to the tendency of ideologies to dismiss inconvenient facts, and is increasingly used to describe how inconvenient people are dismissed, their history, pain and achievements blotted out. Compared with words like ‘‘diversity’’ and ‘‘representation,’’ with their glib corporate gloss, ‘‘erasure’’ is a blunt word for a blunt process. It goes beyond simplistic discussions of quotas to ask: Whose stories are taught and told? Whose suffering is recognized? Whose dead are mourned?

It’s a definition, and not, as promised, an example of “the history of racism and colonialism in paleontology since the 1800s. .  “.  Readers can look up the other references, but my initial foray was not propitious.

Now I’m not going to say that examples are totally absent from this piece. Here, for example are three (the authors count the use of geological methods to extract minerals as oppression in paleobiology):

  1. the forced removal of Navajo and Hopi people from their lands in the Black Mesa in Arizona for access to coal deposits under the guise of a “land dispute” between the Navajo and Hopi (Redhouse Reference Redhouse1985; Cheyfitz Reference Cheyfitz2002; McBride Reference McBride2017);

  2. encroachment upon and threats to the well-being and safety of the Meskwaki, Standing Rock Sioux, and the Cheyenne River Sioux tribes posed by the Dakota Access Pipeline (Noicecat and Spice Reference Noicecat and Spice2016), although a new environmental review is being undertaken as of this writing (Frazin Reference Frazin2020); and

  3. the decision by the federal government to allow the state of Oklahoma to control the environmental regulations over the recently restored autonomous tribal lands of the Five Tribes of Oklahoma (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek [Muscogee], and Seminole) to the benefit of the oil and agricultural industries (Chang Reference Chang2020; Environmental Protection Agency 2020).

This does show the continuing disregard of Native Americans, but it reflects more on the perfidy of capitalists and governments than on the racism of paleobiologists themselves.

I’ll finish just by giving some quotations that struck me. Make of them what you will:

 Throughout modern history, Western science has directly benefited from the extraction of biological specimens born out of colonialist expansion (Sheets-Pyenson Reference Sheets-Pyenson1986; Roy Reference Roy2018; Chakrabarti Reference Chakrabarti2019; Christison et al. Reference Christison, Tanke and Mallon2020; see also Fagan Reference Fagan2007). These specimens formed the foundations of new theories and subdisciplines of scientific thought (Stix Reference Stix2009), including scientific racism (Curtin Reference Curtin1960).

I presume that the authors know that what happened in the bad old days is being repaired, both by journals requiring documentation of legitimate acquisition of specimens, and countries themselves taking control over their own land and what lies beneath it.

Here we come close to the authors suggestion that we present “other ways of knowing” alongside “Western” wys of knowing in museums. It’s not clear whether they will be presented as having scientific validity:

 The incorporation of Indigenous perspectives into museums, which may include views that are antithetical to the narratives previously professed by these institutions, would be a substantial step forward in addressing the colonial history of natural history museums (Vawda Reference Vawda2019). Furthermore, museums can and should be held accountable for cataloging their histories of colonialism and extraction to spur reflection on that history and grow beyond it (Das and Lowe Reference Das and Lowe2018). As part of this effort, the flaws of founders, scientists, and other historic figures involved in the narratives of museums must be publicly recognized for museums to maintain their credibility (Roy Reference Roy2018).

. . . A reflection upon how the history of paleontology is presented in the classroom provides an introduction to the concept of power imbalances in modern academia. In many Western paleontology courses, syllabi ignore how the establishment of paleontology (and geology) in the Americas relied on the removal and erasure of BIPOC groups. In addition to the material presented in the previous sections, examples include Native American beliefs surrounding the biological origins of fossils (Dussias Reference Dussias1996); the first fossils known to Western science in the Americas were identified by enslaved Africans (Mayor Reference Mayor2005); evolutionary theory was grounded in societal and political views regarding race and culture, wherein evolution and extinction were viewed as mechanisms of removing “unfit” species, and was used to justify Western colonialism (Sepkoski Reference Sepkoski2020). Discussing these facts in a science classroom at all ages and education levels may seem inconvenient and unsettling. Students are often taught that science is apolitical, unbiased, and egalitarian, when in reality it is not. Because of this, reality is often supplanted by a racist, colonialist, and inherently misleading narrative (Sabbagh Reference Sabbagh2017).

We see that, in all these interpretations, the field and the way it’s taught is asked to change dramatically, from an instructional presentation of scientific truth to a form of social engineering designed to indict practitioners in the field in the past, and to validate “indigenous” views of science that are invalid.  Science class, as in all of these manifestos, will change from people learning the truths uncovered by paleobiology into a discussion of the bigotry, racism, and sexism of paleobiologists themselves. Doesn’t this belong in a “studies” course or a “history of science” course?

I’m starting to think that the purpose of these attacks is not just to indict everyone for bigotry and white supremacy, but to fundamentally change the nature of science. It is no longer an objective search for truth (yes, of course some scientists are biased), but just one more tool to achieve not just equality but equity. If anything is being “erased,” it’s the distinction between the sciences and the humanities. “Science” is to become “science studies.”

Examples:

However, meaningful redress of these issues is effectively prevented by the same power dynamics that facilitated the growth of the geosciences described here. Indeed, the structure of Western academia, including the geosciences, is built upon imbalances of power (Clauset et al. Reference Clauset, Arbesman and Larremore2015; Moss Reference Moss2018; Marín-Spiotta et al. Reference Marín-Spiotta, Barnes, Berhe, Hastings, Mattheis, Schneider and Williams2020). These kinds of power imbalances are ubiquitous, yet seldom addressed, in professional or academic settings (Marín-Spiotta et al. Reference Marín-Spiotta, Barnes, Berhe, Hastings, Mattheis, Schneider and Williams2020). Here, we illustrate how perception of the history of paleontology reflects these imbalances of power, before discussing how these dynamics reinforce racist structures and norms within academia.

Note that any meritocracy will involve some imbalance of power, and that’s why people like this are also trying to water down merit-based advancement in science.  My emphases in the below.

Students are often taught that science is apolitical, unbiased, and egalitarian, when in reality it is not. Because of this, reality is often supplanted by a racist, colonialist, and inherently misleading narrative (Sabbagh Reference Sabbagh2017). Most Western paleontology and geoscience courses are taught by white faculty who control course curricula (Dutt Reference Dutt2020; Marín-Spiotta et al. Reference Marín-Spiotta, Barnes, Berhe, Hastings, Mattheis, Schneider and Williams2020). Without uncomfortable examination of current teaching methods and textbooks, most paleontology courses will continue to emphasize the contributions of white (often male) Western scientists to paleontology, while simultaneously failing to address the racist beliefs of Western scientists, the knowledge of BIPOC scholars, and the historical and modern exploitation of BIPOC communities to benefit Western institutions. This amounts to white supremacy (Truss Reference Truss2019; Table 1). Failure to recognize and address unequal power dynamics and their effects on academia only serves to entrench these behaviors.

Imagine a minority student (or any student) signing up for a paleobiology course only to learn not the facts and theories of paleobiology, but a litany of how the field has been used to suppress the marginalized—and is still being used that way! What minority student would want to enter such a field? And wouldn’t students who want to learn paleobiology be a bit peeved that they are repeatedly indicted for white supremacy?

I love biology and I have studied a bit of paleobiology, too (I pride myself in having read nearly everything that Steve Gould wrote, including his final behemoth tome, which you don’t need to read). But I’m not sure I would have loved evolutionary biology so much if, at the outset of my studies, I was told that I was entering a field riddled, like a house with termites, with bigotry, racism, and white supremacy. Darwin, Fisher, Galton, Wallace, and even poor Mendel—racists all.  Let’s leave science classes for science (with perhaps a rare mention of perfidy), and move this kind of stuff to the area of “studies” and history of science.

In the end, articles like the one above will serve to chill the speech of dissenters, for who dares criticize this article? The fear is that you’ll be called a racist, sexist, or other species of bigot. Some of us, though, aren’t put off by those epithets, nor do we have anything to lose professionally.

______________________

Monarrez, P., Zimmt, J., Clement, A., Gearty, W., Jacisin, J., Jenkins, K., . . . Thompson, C. (2021). Our past creates our present: A brief overview of racism and colonialism in Western paleontologyPaleobiology, 1-13. doi:10.1017/pab.2021.28

Matt Taibbi worries that the Dems are shooting themselves in the foot again

December 31, 2021 • 1:00 pm

In Matt Taibbi’s latest piece on Substack (click below for free access, but subscribe if you read often), he’s worried that the Democrats aren’t really parsing what happened when a Republican, Glenn Youngkin, defeated Democratic incumbent Terry McAuliffe in the recent race. A lot of it was about schooling, and about McAuliffe’s comment that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach,” which apparently drove a lot of voters towards Youngkin.  Taibbi sees this gaffe as on par with Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment during her run against Trump, and thinks that Democrats are dismissing McAuliffe’s statement as one that simply appeals to racists.

Taibbi, on the other hand, thinks there’s more to it than that, and Dems should be thinking hard about education. 23 Democrats are planning not to run for re-election in Congress next year, and that’s a big worry.

Click the screenshot to read (if you’re paywalled, try a judicious inquiry):

Once again this falls in the category of words and actions that make Democrats look like elitists in the eyes of Middle America, and there’s something to that. The dismissal of parents’ concerns is exemplified, says Taibbi, by recent words of Nikole Hannah-Jones, head of the NYT’s 1619 Project:

On the full Meet the Press Sunday, Todd in an ostensibly unrelated segment interviewed 1619 Project author and New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones about Republican efforts in some states to ban teaching of her work. He detoured to ask about the Virginia governor’s race, which seemingly was decided on the question, “How influential should parents be about curriculum?” Given that Democrats lost Virginia after candidate Terry McAuliffe said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach,” Todd asked her, “How do we do this?”

Hannah-Jones’s first answer was to chide Todd for not remembering that Virginia was lost not because of whatever unimportant thing he’d just said, but because of a “right-wing propaganda campaign that told white parents to fight against their children being indoctrinated.” This was standard pundit fare that for the millionth time showed a national media figure ignoring, say, the objections of Asian immigrant parents to Virginia policies, but whatever: her next response was more notable. “I don’t really understand this idea that parents should decide what’s being taught,” Hannah-Jones said. “I’m not a professional educator. I don’t have a degree in social studies or science.”

Even odder were her next comments, regarding McAuliffe’s infamous line about parents. About this, Hannah-Jones said:

We send our kids to school because we want our kids to be taught by people with expertise in the subject area… When the governor, or the candidate, said he didn’t think parents should be deciding what’s being taught in school, he was panned for that, but that’s just a fact.

In the wake of McAuliffe’s loss, the “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach” line was universally tabbed a “gaffe” by media. I described it in the recent “Loudoun County: A Culture War in Four Acts” series in TK as the political equivalent of using a toe to shoot your face off with a shotgun, but this was actually behind the news cycle. Yahoo! said the “gaffe precipitated the Democrat’s slide in the polls,” while the Daily Beast’s blunter headline was, “Terry McAuliffe’s White-Guy Confidence Just Fucked the Dems.”

If Hannah-Jones abjures expertise in educaiton, why is she trying hard to foist the message of the 1619 Project on American secondary schools? She’s being disingenuous.

What’s happened, says Taibbi is that Dems are fobbing off McAuliffe’s loss as on racist parents who don’t want their kids to learn about Critical Race Theory, and those Democrats who still adhere to mantra “defer to the experts” that they use, usually justifiably, for science. But it didn’t work for economics or foreign policy, and, says Taibbi, is certainly doomed to fail when it comes to education:

But parenting? For good reason, there’s no parent anywhere who believes that any “expert” knows what’s better for their kids than they do. Parents of course will rush to seek out a medical expert when a child is sick, or has a learning disability, or is depressed, or mired in a hundred other dilemmas. Even through these inevitable terrifying crises of child rearing, however, all parents are alike in being animated by the absolute certainty — and they’re virtually always right in this — that no one loves their children more than they do, or worries about them more, or agonizes even a fraction as much over how best to shepherd them to adulthood happy and in one piece.

Implying the opposite is a political error of almost mathematically inexpressible enormity. This is being done as part of a poisonous rhetorical two-step. First, Democrats across the country have instituted radical policy changes, mainly in an effort to address socioeconomic and racial disparities. These included eliminating standardized testing to the University of California system, doing away with gifted programs (and rejecting the concept of gifted children in general), replacing courses like calculus with data science or statistics to make advancement easier, and pushing a series of near-parodical ideas with the aid of hundreds of millions of dollars from groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that include things like denouncing emphasis on “getting the right answer” or “independent practice over teamwork” as white supremacy.

When criticism ensued, pundits first denied as myth all rumors of radical change, then denounced complaining parents as belligerent racists unfit to decide what should be taught to their children, all while reaffirming the justice of leaving such matters to the education “experts” who’d spent the last decade-plus doing things like legislating grades out of existence. This “parents should leave ruining education to us” approach cost McAuliffe Virginia, because it dovetailed with what parents had long been seeing and hearing on the ground.

So, he says, it’s not merely resistance to teaching Critical Race Theory in schools. All of us hear constantly about the trend to lower school standards in the name of equity, and if you care about your kids’ education, that rankles, especially if you want your kid to excel.   I’ll give just one more quote:

The complaints of most Loudoun parents I spoke with about curriculum were usually double-edged. The first thing that drove many crazy was the recognition that whatever their kids were learning in school, it was less and less the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Kids were coming home showing weird deficiencies in obvious areas of need, forcing parents, and especially working mothers, to devote long evening hours to catching their kids up on things like spelling and multiplication tables. “I grew up laughing at the idea of homeschooling. I thought that was an idea for religious kooks,” one mother told me. “But after a while, I caught myself thinking, ‘I’m doing all the teaching anyway, why not just cut out the middleman?’”

Parents talked incessantly about the lowering of standards in Loudoun, whether it was the dropping of midterms and finals in 2015, or the school’s new “Retake Policy,” which not only set an arbitrary floor of 50% on all “summative assessments” (the word “test” has been mostly out of use for at least a decade there, apparently because it puts too much pressure on students), but automatically allowed students to retake tests if they scored below 80%. The rule also required teachers to accept a humorous euphemism called “late-work.”

School bureaucrats are motivated in almost every case to not only avoid giving bad grades, but to pre-empt efforts to track children as ahead or behind by slotting them in certain classes. In a phenomenon replicated in other parts of the country, kids in Loudoun take the same math classes all the way through their junior years in high school, when they’re finally allowed to take advanced courses. As a result, students who are ready for calculus sit in the same classrooms as students still struggling with pre-algebra, putting teachers in a nearly impossible bind — how do you design “summatives” for kids on such different levels? — and all but guaranteeing that the bulk of kids don’t learn much, or near enough.

Some version of this dysfunction story is going on in districts all over the country. If you drill down into reasons, they usually come down to local bureaucrats discovering that lowering standards and eliminating measurable forms of achievement works as a short-term political solution on a variety of fronts, from equity politics to dealing with parent groups, teachers’ unions, and public and private funding sources.

Those who lower standards never admit what their real reasons are, but you’d have to be without neurons not to know the real reason.

I think all of us who mourn the lowering of standards will understand that: it’s not just about CRT, but about all the changes being made for one reason only, to ensure “equity” in achievement and representation.  Middle America, apparently, isn’t as woke as Upper (Middle) Class America, and they want their children challenged to achieve. Eliminating SATs, homework, tracking, and so on, will, assets Taibbi, help “Bring back Trump”, for it tells worried parents that the message of the Democrats is “we know how to raise your kids better than you.”

I am no pundit, but at least this makes sense. And I’m sure James Carville would agree.

What are Maori “ways of knowing”, and should they be taught in science class as coequal to modern science?

December 19, 2021 • 10:45 am

I’ve been describing the big kerfuffle in New Zealand (well, it’s not a huge kerfuffle as the Kiwi public seems to know little about it) involving whether mātauranga Māori, (henceforth MM), which loosely translates to “Māori ways of knowing,”. should be taught as science alongside modern science in both secondary-school; and college science classes. In the past two weeks, I’ve been reading up on these ways of “knowing”, trying to understand them and to figure out how they can (or should) be fit into a science curriculum.  The more I read, the more puzzled I get about what exactly is going to be taught, but that’s no surprise since advocates of incorporating MM into science class are not specific about how and what will be taught. That’s important! There are FIVE questions I’ve had, and I’ll give some quotes below about the issues. At the end I’ll advance some tentative conclusions.

I’ve put references to the quotes as numbers, which you can consult at the bottom of this post.

WHAT IS MM? The definition of MM varies widely depending on what sources you read, but it can be regarded as a combination of theology, philosophy, mythology, morality, and a set of practical tools for how to get things done, both in the practical realm and in the human-relations realm. In quotes below, highlights (except the title are mine:

Mātauranga Māori Principle

This principle refers to the central value and recognition the University accords to Māori knowledges and ways of knowing. It refers also to the responsibility and honour we have as a knowledge institution to develop, nourish, protect, and help revitalise mātauranga, and to learn respectfully from Māori knowledge experts from the University as well as from communities outside the University.

For the purpose of this project, mātauranga Māori is defined as “the unique Māori way of viewing themselves and the world, which encompasses (among other things) Māori traditional knowledge and culture” (WAI262 p6).

Mātauranga Māori encompasses ancient knowledge of the human, natural and spirit worlds as well as modern and creative knowledge of these realms. It is knowledge developed collectively by Māori in the past, present and future. It refers not simply to knowledge but to ways of knowing.

Mātauranga Māori is a taonga, and as such requires protection. While iwi Māori are the primary kaitiaki of their knowledge, the University has an obligation to protect mātauranga Māori, and to provide a safe environment in which mātauranga can flourish. WAI 262 Waitangi Tribunal Report provides detail on the Crown’s kaitiakitanga obligations with regard to mātauranga.  (Source 1.)

Note that MM incorporates “ancient knowledge of the spirit world?” Is that really knowledge? If so, why is it better and truer than the other “ways of knowing” of indigenous people throughout the world?

Another definition:

Mātauranga Māori is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of Te Taiao (the natural world), following a systematic methodology based on evidence, incorporating culture, values and world view. Pūrākau (traditional Māori narratives) and maramataka (the Māori calendar) comprise codified knowledge and include a suite of techniques empirical in nature for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, and updating and integrating previous knowledge. They can be both accurate and precise, as they incorporate critically verified knowledge, continually tested and updated through time. After their arrival in Aotearoa and Te Wai Pounamu many centuries ago, Māori developed various forms of codifying knowledge – many based upon oral delivery – each with its own categories, style, complex patterns and characteristics. Whakapapa is the central principle that orders the universe, demonstrates an interconnectivity between everything, and is a cognitive genealogical framework connecting creation of the universe to everything that exists within it via descent from ancestors. (Source 2)

Another:

Mātauranga Māori is about a Māori way of being and engaging in the world – in its simplest form, it uses kawa (cultural practices) and tikanga (cultural principles) to critique, examine, analyse and understand the world.

It is based on ancient values of the spiritual realm of Te Ao Mārama (the cosmic family of the natural world) and it is constantly evolving as Māori continue to make sense of their human existence within the world.

Eminent Māori scholar Dr Charles Royal describes Mātauranga Māori in this way: ‘he whakaatu, he whakamārama hoki i ngā ahuatanga o te Ao. Mā reira e mōhio ai te tangata ki te Ao, e mātau ai hoki ia ki ētahi whainga, ki ētahi tikanga. He mea ako, he mea whangai’ (2008, p.37).

In short, Royal thinks about Mātauranga Māori as something that helps explain and enlighten us about different aspects of the world around us, and in that process, a person gets to know about and understand some of the different purposes and meanings, some of the different ways of learning about his/her world that can be transferred from one person to another.  (Source 3)

More spirituality being dragged in.

IS MM SCIENCE?

I’ve read much more than the five references below, and it seems that MM is a gemisch of legend, mythology, oral tradition, morality, philosophy, theology, and practical knowledge. The latter, like learning how to navigate using the stars or how to catch eels, or how to judge which parts of the landscape will flood, are what I call “science construed broadly”. This knowledge (“practical knowledge”) is based on trial and error and a form of hypothesis testing—and can lead to empirical predictions. But the rest of MM, including its creationism, its reliance on gods, its spiritual and moral aspects, and its philosophy, are not science, but fall into other realms. If MM is to be folded together and taught as coequal to Western science, only the bits that are “science construed broadly” should be taught.

Hikuroa (reference 2) points out the differences between MM and science, and he appears to be an advocate for teaching MM:

Clearly there are significant similarities between mātauranga Māori and science. Specifically, pūrākau and maramataka comprise knowledge generated consistent with the scientific method. The critical difference is that mātauranga Māori includes values and is explained according to a Māori world view. Some other relevant differences are outlined in Table 1.

Mātauranga Māori is, first and foremost,mātauranga Māori, valid in its own right. Both mātauranga Māori and science are bodies of knowledge methodically created, contextualised within a world view. As demonstrated herein, some mātauranga Māori has been generated according to the scientific method, and can therefore be considered as science. While there are many similarities between mātauranga Māori and science, it is important that the tools of one are not used to analyse and understand the foundations of another (Hikuroa et al. 2011). Thus, mātauranga Māori is mātauranga Māori, scientific in part, and in the context of this special issue, extends the history of scientific endeavour back to when Māori arrived in Aotearoa and Te Wai Pounamu, many centuries ago.

Note the inclusion of values in MM, as well as the “everything that is interconnected” trope, a fuzzy concept at best. We also see spiritual in MM versus “physical stuff” in “science”. Tellingly, “intuition” as a method of knowing applies in MM, but not really in science: intuition isn’t a method, but sometimes a way of thinking of testable hypotheses.  The explicit inclusion of creationism in MM but not in science (a creationism whose story varies from Maori tribe to tribe) makes an important part of MM totally inviable as something to be taught in science class.

Here’s an explanation by the Māori for the creation of humans, all of us descending from a primal couple:

 In the New Zealand story, Tane took his daughter Hinetitama to wife in order that the human species might be continued. They had a daughter who was named Hinerauwharangi. She married Te Kawekairangi, but there is no explanation of how he had appeared on the scene so opportunely. Perhaps there was some adjacent Land of Nod after all. Be that as it may, the Matorohanga version gives human descent as continuing through this last pairing. A genealogical tree gives 28 generations from Hinerauwharangi to Ngatoroirangi, the priest of the Arawa canoe. Percy Smith has made the count from Tane and Hineahuone to approximately the year 1900 as 52 generations. Applying the time measure of 25 years to a generation and adding 50 years to bring it up to the present date, the genealogy reveals that the first human being was created about 1350 years ago, or in the year 600 A.D. The fact that the time is rather short does not render the genealogy less valuable to the person who can memorize and recite it.

This is far younger than Biblical young-earth creationism—it’s the creation of humans 1.3 millennia ago!

Some advocates of MM say that the mythological/spiritual part of MM can also be interpreted literally to comport with science, for example, the single set of primal parents in the creation myth has led some to say that this buttresses evolution and genetics, because it shows that all of us are related.

The way people refute the idea that MM is “just myths” (it isn’t all myths, but includes myths), is also demonstrated by Hikuroa:

Pūrākau are a traditional form of Māori narrative, containing philosophical thought, epistemological constructs, cultural codes and world views (Lee 2009). Pūrākau are an integral part of mātauranga Māori and were deliberate constructs employed to encapsulate and condense into easily understood forms, Māori views of the world, of ultimate reality and the relationship between the atua (deities), the universe and humans (Marsden 2003). In traditional Māori society, pūrākau were fundamental to understanding the world. This is contrary to the widespread belief in the science and wider community that the numerous collections of pūrākau (e.g. Reed 2011) are just myths, ancient legends, incredible stories and folklore. Pūrākau explained as myths invalidate Māori ontological and epistemological constructs of the world, and pūrākau understood as just storiesis an inadequate explanation of the importance of pūrākau in teaching, learning and the intergenerational transfer of knowledge (Lee 2008).

This reminds me of “scientific creationism” in the U.S., in which legend is said to presage later scientific findings. A frequent example used to defend MM is the legend of a giant water-dwelling lizard in New Zealand valley who flicked its tail back and forth, said to explain the floods in that valley that kept the Māori from building their sacred areas there. Like Augustine and Aquinas, who had both a literal and metaphorical interpretation of Scripture, this appears to apply to MM as well: if MM advocates can squeeze legends into the Procrustean bed of science, it supposedly demonstrates that MM is science.

One more bit from reference 3:

Mātauranga Māori provides insight into different perspectives about knowledge and knowing. The Māori epistemological penchant for trying to understand the connections and relationships between all things human and non-human first, ‘what is its whakapapa?’ provides a contrast to the western paradigm that tries to seek knowledge and understanding by a close and deep examination of something or someone in isolation first, ‘what does it/he/she do? What is it for?’

An initial question is, ‘who or what is this thing I am seeing in this world and how do I relate to it?’ Western knowledge’s initial question is, ‘what is the role that this person or thing has?’ In summary, the emphasis on the human element and the impact on the human element differentiates a Mātauranga Māori approach from a Western Pākehā approach. (Source 3)

One could be excused from conflating this kind of MM with modern New Age philosophies in the West.

WHAT IS WRONG WITH TEACHING MODERN SCIENCE? Advocates of MM characterize Western science as white supremacist and colonial, and find it deficient in the spiritual and moral aspects of MM. There are other issues as well—things about modern science said to be a problem. This is from reference 4:

Simplified versions of science taught in schools are collectively known as ‘school science’ in which the big three (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) still reign as specialised subjects in the last two years of the school curriculum. These simplified versions plus the quasi-religious devotion to an outdated ‘lockstep’ version of scientific method add up to a simplistic model of science taught in school that bears very little likeness to the diverse milieus of contemporary working science and scientists (Aikenhead, 2000). The conservatism and resistance to change of school science curricula has been documented for many years (Blades, 1997). It is reasonable to argue that school science must of necessity be simplified by comparison with the real world of working science. But textbook presentations of science also tend to the triumphalist, promoting the successes of science but omitting to mention its failures and disgraces (Ninnes & Burnett, 2001). Distorted textbook versions of science must be considered ideological, although the relevant intentions and effects form complex chains of power, difficult to discern.

Secondary science teachers may believe that teaching science through the scientific method aligns with tertiary science education, making a strong rationale for them to reject the proposed changes. But this belief is flawed on two grounds: first, since contemporary philosophy of science accepts that there is no one ‘scientific method’ (Okasha, 2016); and second, because tertiary science educators are also under pressure to introduce Māori knowledge into their curricula, and may well expect their secondary school colleagues to share this responsibility. The next section considers how science teachers could respond to the challenge represented by these changes in relation to each of the three Māori concepts in the titles shown above.

If school kids are taught that there is a single “scientific method”, as implied above, then that’s wrong. As I note in Faith Versus Fact, the practice of science itself is a toolkit with many tools, includng observation, consensus, predictions, hypothesis-testing, experiments, falsification, and so on. Not all of these tools need be used in any scientific endeavor. As Feyerabend said, “Anything goes”—so long as “anything” involves some of the tools of science. But teaching science is far more than just teaching the methods scientists use: it also involves imparting a body of knowledge to students, and, at higher levels, answering the question, “How did we come to know that?” What is evolution? How do we know it’s true? What happens when chemical bonds are formed? Why do we find marine fossils at high altitudes? And so on and so on. . . . Does MM provide ways to answer those questions that differ from the ways of modern science?

As for the conclusion that science is white supremacist and colonial, I reject it. Yes, science was used in some cases to colonize (invention of weapons and so on), just as architecture and chemistry helped the Nazis build gas chamber to gas Jews. But all that means is that some scientists used their knowledge in damaging ways. It does not mean that science itself is colonialist. The “whiteness” of science reflects that modern science was developed largely by white people–and mostly male. But whether something is true doesn’t depend on the race or gender of who finds it and, thankfully, scientists are becoming much more diverse. Are Asian scientists practicing white supremacy?

SHOULD MM BE TAUGHT IN SCIENCE CLASSES? My answer is, “by and large, no“, because much of MM is not based on science and the methods of MM are not the methods of science. It would simply confuse students to learn two incompatible ways of knowing, for that results in incompatible “facts” (e.g., creationism and evolution) presented as coequal.

This does not mean that the “science construed broadly” of MM—the practical knowledge that helped the Māori thrive and survive, shouldn’t be incorporated into science class. It’s good to do this not just to help Māori connect with modern science, but to show Kiwis that part of the indigenous people with whom they rub elbows were skillful in empirical endeavors using a form of science. But MM should surely NOT be taught as coequal to modern science in schools, and MM should occupy only a small part of science classes. MM, by and large should be reserved for courses on culture, anthropology, and sociology.

Elizabeth Rata (reference 5) has shown some of the deleterious effects that occur when MM replaces science (Rata, a Professor of Critical Studies in Education at the University of Auckland, was one of the signers of the original letter in The Listener):

Curriculum design in New Zealand’s bicultural context tends to favour sociocultural knowledge at the expense of academic knowledge. Here are two illustrative examples. The first is from a study of Māori teachers’ classroom practices (Lynch, 2017). The teachers had benefitted from an academic education themselves and intended this for their own children. However, in line with bicultural policy, they teach a sociocultural curriculum to their Māori students. The social studies teacher has replaced history and geography with kapa haka (traditional Māori dancing and chanting) to ‘provide students with an opportunity to learn… through a Māori lens’ (p. 56). Another teacher rejected the idea of educational success, calling it ‘white success’ and in opposition to succeeding ‘as Māori’ (p. 60). The second example is from the media (Collins, 2020). According to a school principal, the ‘dangers of prescribing a powerful knowledge curriculum’ are because it ‘is about whose knowledge’. A ‘Eurocentric’ approach is ‘a colonial tool of putting old western knowledge ahead of indigenous communities’.

Sound familiar?

WHY THE BIG PUSH, THEN, TO TEACH MM AS COEQUAL WITH MODERN SCIENCE? Everybody knows the answer to this, but dare not say so because it’s the Elephant in the Room. The Māori are being catered to because they were (truly) an oppressed group, and, as reparations, their culture is being valorized—including arguing that MM is science. Further, it’s said that teaching MM will enable young Māori to connect better with science and thus become scientists who will join other working scientists in New Zealand. And yes, Māori are owed a form of reparations and certainly equal treatment morally and legally. But this should not include teaching non-science as science and pretending that the non-science is science. It failed with Biblical “scientific creationism”, and it will fail with MM, except for the parts of MM that are scientific.

Nevertheless, MM will be taught in schools and colleges as a form of science. You don’t have to read much about government and academic initiatives to know that this movement is unstoppable. New Zealand, in this respect, is the wokest of all Western nations, for it’s the only such country willing to corrupt science in the service of equity. I pity the country, I pity its science teachers, and, above all, I pity the children who are bound for a confusing education in science, depriving them of all the wonder and glory of real science. I love New Zealand and its people, but they are being divided along racial lines the same way that we are in America.

Further parallels with the U.S. are palpable. The push for teaching MM is part of the extreme Leftist attack on modern science, propelled by a combination of postmodernism and a desire to dismantle the meritocracy. For science is perhaps the most meritocratic of academic disciplines, since everybody can check on whether you’ve had a good idea that produces truth.

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REFERENCES (links are given to all publicly available documents).

1.) “Pūtoi Ako”, internal document of the Curriculum Transformation Programme of Auckland University

2.) Hikuroa, D. 2017. Mātauranga Māori—the ūkaipō of knowledge in New Zealand. Jour. Roy. Soc. New Zealand. 47:5-10.

3.)  Kia Eke Panuku organization. Undated.  Mātauranga Māori. Online at https://kep.org.nz/assets/resources/site/Voices7-16.Matauranga-Maori.pdf

4.)  Tuari Stewart, G. and A,. Tedoldi. 2021. Bringing Māori concepts into school science: NCEA.  Access: Contemporary Issues in Education. 41:77-81.

5.)  Rata, E. M. 2021.  Curriculum design in a bicultural context.  Research Intelligence. 148:22-23.

Guest Post: “Aftermath of the Prof. Jason Kilborn Controversy at UIC.”

December 18, 2021 • 12:15 pm

Yesterday I got an email from a student recounting an incident I’ve described before: the attacks on University of Illinois at Chicago Law Professor Jason Kilborn. Kilborn was demonized and punished for putting the redacted words “b—-” and “n—–” on an exam in describing a hypothetical case where these words were relevant. In contrast, at the University of Chicago, Law Professor Geoff Stone used the “n-word” in class yearly in his Free Speech course as a demonstration, and was never disciplined or warned by the administration. (Geoff did stop this practice after he met with some black law students.)  But UIC isn’t that keen on free speech or academic freedom.

You can read more about Kilborn and the execrable behavior of his university at these two FIRE posts: #1 and #2.

At any rate, the student, Joseph Shen, deliberately chose to use his name in this post, and what you see below is what he wants to tell us. The title is his as well. His piece is between the sets of asterisks:

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Aftermath of the Prof. Jason Kilborn Controversy at UIC.

Greetings WEIT readers, my name is Joseph Shen, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Recently, my university released its final word on an event relevant to the issue of progressive politics clashing with academic freedom of expression, and I’d like to share with you some details that would otherwise be unavailable outside UIC. The event in question is the controversy surrounding Jason Kilborn, a professor at the UIC School of Law (formerly the John Marshall Law School, whose renaming is another topic discussed here before), and his use of censored but recognizable slurs on an exam question. Our host has previously mentioned this issue in several previous posts.

First, some background on UIC. If you search for UIC on the FIRE website, you’ll find that my university is sadly given a red-light rating for having a policy that “substantially restricts freedom of speech.” As a public University in an overwhelmingly politically liberal state and city, it’s not surprising that the administration has steadily made changes that push progressive politics even at the cost of academic freedom. Curiously, UIC’s Policy on Open Expression is given a green-light rating despite the university’s overall red-light rating, which means the university is being hypocritical when it acts the way it did in controversies such as this one.

On Nov. 30, the university sent an email to the UIC Listserv summarizing its findings of and corrective actions to the events that happened around Dec. 2020 – Jan. 2021. The full redacted investigational report is linked in the email but only available to people with UIC long-in credentials. After reading the email and full report, there are some key points from the email that I want to mention and comment on.

First, the Chancellor gives a statement containing the following claim (indented, bolding is mine):

UIC remains unequivocally committed to fostering an environment conducive to learning and free of any form of harassment or discrimination. UIC also strongly supports and defends faculty rights of academic freedom, a critical component to preserving the intellectual integrity of our University. These are not antithetical principles, nor can they be. Our faculty prove daily that both principles can be honored. The key is not what ideas are presented or tested; it’s simply great consideration for how it’s done in a respectful manner for all involved. The use of words that disparage individuals based on identity or background is not necessary for academic freedom to flourish and is inconsistent with our commitment to create an inclusive and conducive learning environment. These actions are not acceptable in our educational settings from any member of the campus community.

This is a form of the ‘Free speech, but…’ claim that Prof. Coyne has talked about many times. I fully agree, and I believe you would too, that of course people in academia should be considerate of what others think and should in general adjust their actions and words to maintain respect towards each individual. The problem is when the recipient of your actions and words is extremely sensitive and becomes offended when you don’t follow the strictest guidelines. Anyone is capable of setting their tolerance so low that the most innocuous words and phrases become offensive.

The chancellor’s claim is palpably wrong because if one’s expression of academic opinion greatly offends another, then you can’t have both freedom of academic expression and freedom from (verbal) harassment. The solution is to not let individuals be the ones to set the bar and instead have generally accepted guidelines that can be agreed upon by most people of any background. Rather than judging Prof. Kilborn’s actions according to only the tolerance level of the particular students who were offended, judge them according to best practices of general guidelines for professional conduct. What did he intend with the question, what are the justifications for the question, do others people in the same demographic as the offended students think the same? These are all things to consider in best practices that are not considered when you only listen to the particular people offended. Extreme progressives don’t want to consider these points or just dismiss them, and the university has sided with this type of progressive.

Second, in addition to the use of the censored slurs (which was one of four racial harassment allegations), Prof. Kilborn was also charged with racial discrimination on two accounts:

(1) Dropping and refusing to re-add a student to a course based on race; and (2) Imposing an in-person participation grade bump policy that precluded Black students who could not attend in-person classes from receiving extra points due to COVID restrictions and precautions.

After reading the full report, it’s clear (to me at least) that the particular student who made those charges is the one responsible. Prof. Kilborn responded appropriately by dropping the student for not attending class (in person or remotely), not responding to emails, and submitting “woefully deficient” work as make-up. He also ultimately gave extra points to all students, which would have included the complainant. Neither of these responses by Prof. Kilborn was racially motivated nor directed only towards minority students. I suspect that the particular student adheres to the narrative of prevalent systemic racism and believed Prof. Kilborn acted out of racism because that would have matched the narrative. Ostensibly, the student didn’t seek information that would have given the whole picture and stuck to their initial assumption of racism. I fully admit that we have no knowledge of the student’s personal circumstances and that they may have perfectly valid reasons for missing class. That, however, does not entitle them to the level of special treatment they were asking for and a passing grade in a class they didn’t attend. Fortunately, the report found Prof. Kilborn to be not guilty of these charges. But the fact that a student was so quick to accuse him of racial discrimination without first investigating and introspecting is symptomatic of how wedded many modern university students are to progressive ideas. It has indeed become a social religion for them.

Lastly, Prof. Kilborn was found guilty of four racial harassment allegations, including the censored slurs. This was due to 5 actions in his history:

[Prof. Kilborn] Did violate the harassment aspect of the same Policy. This conclusion was not based on a single incident, but on his conduct considered in cumulative fashion and in context. The conduct included: (1) Using the word “cockroaches,” which was not directed to Black students, but in context, could have been perceived as directed towards racial minority plaintiffs; (2) Using the term “lynching,” although apologizing immediately for it; (3) Using African American Vernacular English [AVE] when referring to lyrics of an African American rapper; (4) Using racially charged language (the redacted terms “‘n____’ and ‘b____’…”) in an exam question;*** and (5) Responding to concerns about the exam with insensitive, chastising, and arguably threatening comments in January 2021, including using the term “homicidal” during a four-hour Zoom meeting with a student.

I argue that none of this should be considered harassment by a critically-thinking person. Regarding the above five points: 1) Words can and should have different meanings in different contexts. We should be cognizant of how others think about a word, but that action should be reciprocated. 2) The fact that Prof. Kilborn immediately apologized is a sign that he has some consideration and isn’t an inherent racist. Why is it that the offended never give people second chances, only all or nothing? What’s the point of sensitivity training if people can’t be forgiven for transgressions? 3) If the lyrics are indeed in AVE and he was quoting them, then what was he to do, convert them to the standard English equivalent or forbid himself from saying them? Gatekeeping language does not help build appreciation for one’s linguistic quirks. 4) I have nothing to add that Prof. Coyne and people like John Mcwhorter haven’t already said perfectly. 5) This may be the most valid criticism of Prof. Kilborn’s behavior, but we don’t have the specifics to judge for ourselves. I personally would not have used language like Prof. Kilborn, but that should not infringe upon his right to speak freely so long as his intention and the main effect of his speech are not verbal harassment or anything else not protected by free speech laws.

The end result is that Prof. Kilborn must go through “intercultural competency individual training and coaching sessions” and will have his courses monitored for four semesters. The training will likely be a waste of time and effort because of the dubious efficacy of DEI training. The monitoring reeks of Big Brother-like surveillance. I feel such disappointment at my university for their behavior in this debacle. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to improve in the future.

I hope you all find this helpful and informative. I’m sorry for this long, boring, and depressing post, but I’ll add two things I hope you find enjoyable. Below is a picture of my beloved cat Scooter. Rest assured that he’s kept fat, sleek, and thoroughly spoiled by his staff.

I know our host often shares his love of good music. Here is one of my favorite songs from the 90s, sung by Lesley Lee, about not wanting to wake up and lose sight of your love in your dreams.

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JAC: Here’s a YouTube video, produced by FIRE, of Kilborn describing his “transgression”.  And thanks for Joseph for sending along information bout Kilborngate!

“Jeopardy” shows that the Woke have won

December 16, 2021 • 1:15 pm

I received an email from reader Paul Topping, and I thought it was both amusing and sad. I have his permission to post it, so I’ll give it to you just as I got it:

My wife and I watch “Jeopardy!” regularly. This last Tuesday, they had an answer and question that might amuse you. This week and last they are doing their “Professors Tournament” which, obviously, features college professors. This question/answer was the “Daily double” in the first (single) Jeopardy part of the show.

Answer:

     Biologist T.H. Huxley was a renowned defender of this theory & in 1893 famously lectured on it ‘& Ethics’

Contestant (English Prof from Penn State U, Hester Blum):

     What is eugenics?

Host:

    Sorry, the question is “What is evolution?”

I don’t think this contestant was well-informed on science. She laughed out loud when the subject for Final Jeopardy was introduced: Physics.

When I wrote Paul that this was both sad and funny, he responded:

t’s interesting but not surprising that someone would know just enough science to name scientists to cancel but not much beyond that. If it’s any consolation, she lost the contest.

It would be an English professor, wouldn’t it? (Or a sociologist or cultural anthropologist!)

I’ve written about T. H. Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) several times, and about how his reputation has been unfairly besmirched. Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University, for instance, has been renamed because the University deemed Huxley a racist. Now T. H. seems to be more associated with eugenics than with biology, abolitionism, or science education. And he was NEVER a proponent of eugenics!