Can Science Survive Praise?

There is something an old guy can do that young people can’t: call bullshit. There is a reason for this, that you can’t cancel someone for thinking wrong after he’s out of the picture. You can disappear his books, articles and lectures, but it doesn’t change that they happened, that people read them and that they were influential.

You can call him mean names, bad words, but young people lack the capacity to understand that their elders aren’t vying for their “likes” and approval. We weren’t reared in the fragile climate of addictive validation, where getting ratio’d cracks our feigned self-esteem into tears of misery.

This is why John Staddon, 83, a Duke professor of psychology, neuroscience and biology, was willing to say what he had to say.

When Prof. John Staddon read the “Statement to the Community Regarding Anti-Racism” sent out by Duke University’s president this summer, he was alarmed. The president, Vincent Price, promised to require “anti-racism and anti-bias training for every member of our faculty, student body, and staff.” To Mr. Staddon, that sounded more like indoctrination than academic inquiry.

To be fair, Duke President Vincent Price’s statement was the usual heaping helping of social justice word salad, the sort of question-begging empty banalities that give Ph.D. candidates and high school sophomores a warm and fuzzy feelings of being seen. But Staddon was disinclined to let it pass.

Assumptions

(Quotes are all from the Statement.)

How widespread is racism? You say: “Those of us who are not subject to the daily oppression of racism…” Who, exactly, is “subject to the daily oppression of racism?” There are very few if any at Duke University. No doubt there are some in the country as a whole, but how many and where?

There are by some estimates 10,000 or more elected black officials in the U.S., including the mayors of major cities such as Chicago and Atlanta, not to mention the long-time much-respected mayor of Durham, Bill Bell—never mind a two-term black president. You are talking about now, not the decades before the civil rights legislation of 1964. African Americans are well represented in the legislatures of this country; they are far from powerless. It seems unwise to imply near-universal oppression when the current situation, though far from perfect, is obviously very different from the bad old days.

Empathy: “I cannot as a white person begin to fully understand the daily fear and pain and oppression that is endemic to the Black experience.” As a behavioral psychologist, I acknowledge that this is true, as is its converse: a black person “cannot begin to understand” how you or I feel. In other words, it is an epistemological truism that no one has direct access to the feelings of another.

Your reassurance is fine as an expression of empathy. I daresay you feel better, and possibly your African American audience does as well. But feelings differ: Unless the discussion can be moved from feelings to facts, no harmony is possible. Empathy, guilt, and good intentions are a dodgy basis for sweeping resolutions.

And sweeping they are: “Here at Duke, we aspire to be agents of progress in advancing racial equity and justice.” No one is against progress, equity, or justice, but views differ on just what they constitute. What is meant by equity, for example? Is it “equality of results” as at least one eminent Duke scholar believes? Does justice include reparations, advocated by another Duke professor? Just what counts as progress? In all these cases, many will disagree.

Staddon goes on with similar moderation in tone, but challenging the assumptions that are unacceptable to be challenged, questioning the begging and pointing out that this rhetoric doesn’t actually have any cognizable meaning.

Structural racism is one of the most ill-defined concepts in the current debate. The law is race-neutral and scrutiny does reveal examples of individual racism. Evidence of ill-defined systemic or structural racism is slight. In effect, allegations of systemic racism have become a way to deflect attention away from endogenous causes of racial disparities. In these tempestuous times, it is surely unwise to present this questionable concept as revealed truth.

One of Staddon’s foundational premises is that science isn’t strengthened by praise, but by criticism. Thought doesn’t need cheerleaders, but critics.

While Mr. Staddon has addressed issues in the hard sciences, he’s more concerned with “festering” problems in the social sciences, “where weak science competes with activist political tendencies around the fraught issues of race, class and gender.” In a forthcoming book, “Fact vs. Passion: Science in the Age of Unreason,” he writes that “many social scientists have difficulty separating facts from faith, reality from the way they would like things to be. Many research topics have become taboo which, in turn, means that policy makers are making decisions based more on ideologically-driven political pressure than scientific fact.”

Putting aside whether a younger academic, perhaps one seeking tenure or a seat with a name on it, would risk speaking openly of doubting the secular religion of social justice, would they want to? As Staddon notes, no decent person is for race or sex discrimination, but that isn’t the question. The question is where we are, in reality, and what needs to be done about it if we really want to address problems rather than praise the orthodoxy.

Sir, you repeatedly propose “transformative action” and end by saying that “These actions are only a starting point.” I hope that nothing happens until some of the questions I have raised are satisfactorily answered.

Hope springs eternal, of course, even when someone reaches the ripe old age of 83. But what one can’t say, no less think, as a younger person surrounded by others who can’t tolerate anything but praise for their beliefs, is that maybe it’s not a heaping helping of word salad but a steaming pile of bullshit backed by a coterie of youthful and enthusiastic, if none too wise, cheerleaders. If it can’t withstand rational criticism, maybe it’s not as tasty as they say.

20 thoughts on “Can Science Survive Praise?

  1. Elpey P.

    “weak science competes with activist political tendencies….many social scientists have difficulty separating facts from faith….Many research topics have become taboo….policy makers are making decisions based more on ideologically-driven political pressure than scientific fact”

    Maybe if we expand our understanding of “structural racism” to include those things – because intent doesn’t matter and stupidity is an own goal – we could make all ‘decent persons’ happy:

    “Yes, I agree there is systemic racism that perpetuates racial disparities and please stop it.”

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      This seems like one of those attempts to make a point through snark that just doesn’t work and conveys no cogent idea. We need a long German word for this.

      Reply
      1. Elpey P.

        I should have left out the snarky part about people being happy.

        What does “systemic” mean if not unintended consequences of corrupted principles? That sword could cut more than one way. People err when they deny systemic racism, because disparities obviously exist, and they err strategically in disregarding those disparities instead of incorporating them. “You’re making it worse” is a more effective stance than “But ideals!” or “Reverse racism!” It was mostly a pretty sincere comment.

        Then again my snark-to-cogent ratio is historically atrocious, and it’s such a fine line between kladderadatsch and backpfeifengesicht.

        Reply
        1. SHG Post author

          Whenever anyone points out a disparate outcome, my first thought is to ask “why?” Others have the answer of “systemic racism” at the ready. For me, the reason why disparities exist is the important question. You have to decide for yourself what’s important.

          Reply
          1. Elpey P.

            It’s worth clarifying that the disparate outcomes at issue in this context are at the demographic level, not the individual level. People conflate these all the time, sometimes accidentally and sometimes strategically.

            Reply
            1. Elpey P.

              I persist only in the spirit of productive discourse. Alas, as someone here said a moment ago, intent doesn’t matter. If this is a reply too far and you wish to trash it as unwelcome, and that’s why the proper “reply” option to your last comment is unavailable, I apologize. Either way I promise to shut up finally.

              If individual and demographic outcomes are not being conflated – which is a ubiquitous problem regardless of what’s expressed or interpreted here – any collective racial disparity is ipso facto the product of systemic racism of some form. The alternative to this is to accept racial categories as signifying something more than a social construction.

              It’s not that “systemic racism” is a sufficient answer to collective racial disparities. By all means, we should ask about the deeper “why” instead of accepting “systemic racism” as the Cosmic Turtle that goes all the way down. Now that it has been dragged into the conversation by others, if we explore it and (properly) broaden the application instead of denying it, we will see that many of those who weaponize it for their sociopolitical crusade are themselves complicit in disparate outcomes. It may be more productive to critique them for that complicity rather than for things they don’t pretend to care about.

            2. delurking

              Hello, Elpey,
              “– any collective racial disparity is ipso facto the product of systemic racism of some form. ”

              I am skeptical that you actually mean this. For example, look at the racial disparities in representation in competitive long-distance nordic skiing and in marathoning, or chamber music vs. hip-hop. The most plausible explanations for the these differences in racial representation are geographic and cultural. If the definition of “systemic racism” encompasses the above disparities, then no one should care about most systemic racism, because most of it is trivial and some of it is desirable. Then the challenge reverts to defining “important systemic racism”.

            3. SHG Post author

              You prefer your rabbit hole to EP’s? Whether the disparity is “important” (who made you the universal arbiter of importance?) or trivial, it fails to confront the question of why it exists. Different magnitudes of stupid are still stupid.

            4. DaveL

              Staddon’s central point was that “We know it must be X, because otherwise it would be Y, and Y is unacceptable” is not science. It’s not even sound philosophy, more like theology.

  2. B. McLeod

    Imagine a mandatory training for all students, faculty and staff in which participants would be instructed in the worth of bourgeois values, the inherent fault of people of color for the state of the world today, and the constant need to empathize with white people. Who thinks that would fly?

    Reply
  3. L. Phillips

    Avi Loeb makes a similar argument in his latest book about astrophysicists being almost entirely unwilling to consider his argument that the object named Oumuamua might possibly be the detritus of an hereto unknown technological culture that is or was active in another part of the galaxy. The math is far above my abilities, but his thesis that science has become a secular religion with specific and largely indefensible taboos rings a bell for me.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      There are other examples as well, but this is the one I chose to write about in this post. Maybe you should start a blog and write about the one you want to?

      Reply
  4. Anonymous Coward

    Systemic racism is “the dog ate my homework” of social policy, absolving policy makers of blame for their failures.
    This morning I saw a Tumblr post:
    “Leftists have spent decades fighting against racism, homophobia, and climate change, but according to them things have only gotten worse. Either they are lying or they are really shitty at activism.

    Reply

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