Things you ought not to read while trapped in an interminable faculty meeting

I’ve just gotten out of a 2½ hour faculty meeting. During one of the breaks, I read this page on McSweeney’s, and when I got to #5 and #6, I almost lost it. Then #8, and I felt a funny noise trying to rise up the back of my throat. I seized up at #9, beginning to wonder if they had a spy camera on the wall behind me.

But then I read this article and realized they must have the spy cams installed at the University of Chicago, not here. Whew. We’re only sorta exactly like that.

Racial incoherence

Kwame Anthony Appiah gave a lecture on race and globalization, and all I’ve got is a second-hand review of the talk that makes me wish I could hear the whole thing.

Society still largely operates under the misapprehension that race (largely defined by skin colour) has some basis in biology. There is a perpetuating idea that black-skinned or white-skinned people across the world share a similar set of genes that set the two races apart, even across continents. In short, it’s what Appiah calls “total twaddle”.

“The way that we talk about race today is just incoherent,” he says. “The thing about race is that it is a form of identity that is meant to apply across the world, everybody is supposed to have one – you’re black or you’re white or you’re Asian – and it’s supposed to be significant for you, whoever and wherever you are. But biologically that’s nonsense.”

I can almost hear the alt-right whining in rebuttal…but there are genes for skin color, that’s biology, isn’t it? And aren’t there other genes that affect physiology and morphology? Yes, there are, and these can be significant markers of lineage. I can look at my brothers and sisters, and my aunts and uncles, and see an assemblage of traits that confer a familial resemblance. We don’t, however, assume that all members of the Myers clan are identical in behavior and attitude and ability because of the shape of their chin; we lack a social construct that affiliates that undeniably genetic trait with a whole vast host of assumptions about our place in society and every other biological property of the family.

What we do have is a complex social construct that takes one biological property, skin color, and imposes a mess of entirely non-biological assumptions on individuals with it. Worst of all, the people who do that then think that their racism, which is all about history and propagated myths and unjustified beliefs about relative superiority, is based on science because you can empirically measure the density of pigment cells in the skin. Or they do measurements of stuff like “intelligence” (where the tools are flawed and clumsy), correlate them with skin color, and pretend that the influence of cultural ideas and oppression and poverty, all freighted with the constructed social beliefs that they claim to be objectively assessing, are nonexistent.

But Appiah knows all this and is explaining it. I get irritated with the abuse of my discipline to justify nonsense.

Appiah is at pains to point out that, while society has made race and colour a significant part of how we identify ourselves, particularly in places such as the UK and US, it is an invented idea to which we cling irrationally.

Appiah’s lecture explores the notion that two black-skinned people may share similar genes for skin colour, but a white-skinned person and a black-skinned person may share a similar gene that makes them brilliant at playing the piano. So why, he asks, have we decided that one is the core of our identity and the other is a lesser trait?

“How race works is actually pretty local and specific; what it means to be black in New York is completely different from what it means to be black in Accra, or even in London,” he explains. “And yet people believe it means roughly the same thing everywhere. Race does nothing for us.

“I do think that in the long run if everybody grasped the facts about the relevant biology and the social facts, they’d have to treat race in a different way and stop using it to define each,” he says.

At a time when the world continues to divide itself along racial lines and where, in the US, “being put in that black box means you tend to get treated worse and are more likely to get shot by a police officer”, getting people to understand race as a social invention could, in Appiah’s view, save lives.

And expand human potential. Being put in the black box means much more than that you’re more likely to get shot — it carries a multitude of socially constructed biases that mean you’re more like to be imprisoned, less likely to get a job, more likely to face a thousand micro-aggressions every day, less likely to attend a good public school, etc., etc., etc. — and none of those are genetic.

None of this implies that we should be blind to color. I’m quite proud of my family, and I’m not going to deny our resemblance; I’m also not ashamed of my descent from a long line of stolid Scandinavian farmers. I think we should all recognize the struggles and successes and flaws of our forebears, and black people have diverse and complex histories, too, and rightly take some pride in their families. But let’s stop pretending that skin color is a simplistic proxy to excuse the baggage of our biases, OK?

I get email

It’s been a strange couple of days. The Trump camp is going down in flames, and I think they’re lashing out in frustration at totally irrelevant people, including me. I’ve had a sudden surge of off-the-cuff email from people angry about something, and they’re just randomly yelling at me. Dozens of emails all at once, all carping about something — transhumanism is good! You’re a goddamn cultural Marxist! Of course women and black people are biologically different from white men…and inferior! Are you Jewish? — it’s just gotten weird. Here’s one example; apparently, everything is my fault.

Richard Carrier

Your social justice warrior bullshit is making the entire atheist community look bad. If Richard Carrier hadn’t participated in the same kind of thin skinned, self-righteous bullshit you’re practicing right now, I would feel sorry for him.

Sent from my iPhone
Roger Ward

This is so typical. None of the current emails include a specific reference to anything, or even so much as a link or a quote — it’s all just furious blaming for something that has annoyed someone somewhere, and that something has provoked them into targeting me.

Which actually makes me kind of happy. I’m glad to steal the credit for social justice ‘bullshit’ anytime.

I’m also amused at the assumptions. There is an atheist community, and they’re looking bad, because someone is demanding equality and respect for all of its members? I don’t think the problem is one old nerd cocking an eyebrow and criticizing the normally uncriticized bad behavior of a few people, guy.

The most revolting justification for the Indian genocide yet

I blame Jason Colavito. He told me to look up the Solutrean hypothesis, and I did, and now I can’t unsee it — this stuff is flamingly racist, stupid, and wrong.

Here is the shit. The ‘hypothesis’ is that 20,000 years ago, white Europeans, the Solutreans, peacefully settled in the empty wilderness of North America (there is no evidence for any of this). And then…

And it was the American Indians who came way later, ten thousand years later, around 10,000 BC, crossing over from Siberia into Alaska and then down through Canada to what is now the USA. It was those American Indians from Asia, a merciless, slant-eyed people related to the Mongols, a race given to horrific tortures and genocides, who killed them off, just as the Asiatic Indians did horrific tortures to American pioneers in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s, and Asians committed indescribable atrocities to white soldiers, sailors and marines during WWII in the Pacific, during the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

You may close your mouth now. I know you’re sitting there slack-jawed with shock.

We didn’t know about the horrors that Asians committed against pure, white European peoples because, as this bozo claims, the jew-owned press won’t publish it. However, he has no evidence for any of the above — there is no archaeological evidence of an advanced Aryan culture inhabiting the Americas 20,000 years ago, nor evidence that non-white people are more savage than Europeans; I think the Nazis are a persuasive counter-example. There is also no evidence for this story:

[Read more…]

Faculty diversity has a lot of catching up to do

Over the years, I’ve noticed a steady increase in the number of minority students in my classes, which is great…but strangely, there hasn’t been any increase in the percentage of minority faculty over the same period. One possible explanation is that since the tenure of faculty is so much longer than the tenure of students, student numbers are going to be more responsive to current demographics. But I can’t help but feel that there’s more going on. That we current faculty are not doing our part to create a professoriate that reflects our culture.

Here’s a blunt assessment of the problem. Why don’t we hire more faculty of color? Because we don’t want them. The author lists a whole series of excuses we white faculty make, and I’ve heard them all.

First, the word “quality” is used to dismiss people of color who are otherwise competitive for faculty positions. Even those people on search committees that appear to be dedicated to access and equity will point to “quality” or lack of “quality” as a reason for not hiring a person of color.

Typically, “quality” means that the person didn’t go to an elite institution for their Ph.D. or wasn’t mentored by a prominent person in the field. What people forget is that attending the elite institutions and being mentored by prominent people is linked to social capital and systemic racism ensures that people of color have less of it.

This is slightly less of a problem in my current liberal arts, teaching-focused institution, but boy, I heard a lot of it in the big state schools I worked at before. I knew faculty who went through job applications looking only at the name of the institution/faculty member they worked with on the first pass, and if they didn’t come from a Name university or worked with a Name scientist, they were round-filed.

Second, the most common excuse I hear is “there aren’t enough people of color in the faculty pipeline.”

It is accurate that there are fewer people of color in some disciplines such as engineering or physics. However, there are great numbers of Ph.D.’s of color in the humanities and education and we still don’t have great diversity on these faculties.

In biology, we have a reasonable number of minority faculty applying for jobs — there are historically black colleges, like Howard University, that have excellent biology programs and turn out a good number of well-qualified black biologists. We just don’t hire them.

Third, I have learned that faculty will bend rules, knock down walls, and build bridges to hire those they really want (often white colleagues) but when it comes to hiring faculty of color, they have to “play by the rules” and get angry when any exceptions are made.

Let me tell you a secret – exceptions are made for white people constantly in the academy; exceptions are the rule in academe.

Oh man yes. Faculty tend to resent rules — this is a job that encourages independent thinking — and are accustomed to using the rules to get what they want. There is a kind of adversarial relationship between faculty and administration, and I suspect deans have all kinds of stories about how faculty try to work the system.

Fourth, faculty search committees are part of the problem.

They are not trained in recruitment, are rarely diverse in makeup, and are often more interested in hiring people just like them rather than expanding the diversity of their department.

True confession: I’m on the search committee for a tenure track cell/molecular biologist this year — we meet with our human resources person next week for the mandatory diversity training, which I have been through several times now. We still tend to hire our fellow white people every time. I will try to pay more attention to minority applicants, and will avoid insisting that faculty at UMM must fit the Lake Wobegon stereotype.

Fifth, if majority colleges and universities are truly serious about increasing faculty diversity, why don’t they visit Minority Serving Institutions — institutions with great student and faculty diversity — and ask them how they recruit a diverse faculty.

Now that is a really good idea. We should be sending out our job ad specifically to minority serving institutions with strong graduate programs in biology, which would also enrich our applicant pool significantly. Please do suggest such places in the comments and I’ll be sure to add them to our mailing list.

Of course, once we hire a diverse faculty, there’s the next problem: community and university attitudes. Science just ran an article on doing science while black.

But my experiences with the larger scientific community still made me feel like I didn’t belong. A few years after becoming a professor, for example, I went to a social event at a society meeting with an international, multiracial group of colleagues. I was the only black researcher among them. When we walked into the room, the crowd fell completely silent, apparently uncomfortable with my presence. I considered myself a scientist with great potential, but that experience made me feel that, to others, my skin color was more important than the quality of my work. The next year, as I was starting a sabbatical in a lab at another institution, I asked one of the researchers in the group whether the PI was in. “Are you delivering a package?” he asked. “I can pass it on to him.” These and other encounters imply that, no matter how productive my research is or how professionally I present myself, I and other black scientists do not belong in academia’s hallowed halls.

Ouch. That’s going to be another difficulty here in the blindingly white Minnesota farm country.

Oh, hey, the other committee I’ve been assigned this year is to serve on the multi-ethnic experience committee, which works to promote “campus-wide understanding of racial and ethnic minorities”, despite the fact that I am made of doughy Wonder Bread and was raised in the same kind of Scandinavian-American household that just about everyone grew up in around here. You might notice that I’m trying hard to educate myself on these phenomena.

Sometimes, it actually is a good idea to sit back and shut up

We actually thought about going out to the Standing Rock camp to show our support a few weeks ago, but ultimately decided against it — I didn’t want us to be that pair of white tourists showing up to nod appreciatively at the spectacle, and getting in the way of the protest. I also last had training in peaceful protesting a couple of decades ago, which was recently enough to know that it is a very serious business with its own rules and discipline, and long enough ago that I wouldn’t take it for granted that I knew what I was doing. So we stayed home, and I made a donation instead.

Caine describes how some people are Not Helping at the protest. Now I’m even more relieved that I didn’t go and be another meddler in the way. Guess I’d better make another donation.

(By the way, Caine also mentions how she doesn’t have the stereotypical Indian look, and is easily mistaken for European. I know about this as well, and it’s important not to go the other way: UMM has a significant percentage of Indian students, and you learn fast that “Gee, you don’t look Indian” is not a compliment, and that you shouldn’t assume that someone with a German last name, for instance, isn’t Indian. It turns out that Indians look…human.)

Move over, Martin Shkreli: Palmer Luckey is here!

Give a young man way too much money, and they turn into instant assholes. That’s what I conclude from the story of Palmer Luckey, who was one of the people behind the VR headset Oculus Rift, which he sold for over $2 billion dollars. He’s now worth $700 million (what happened to the other 1.3 billion?), and he’s got to do something to better humanity with that that money.

So he’s funding a company that’s backing Donald Trump.

Oculus founder Palmer Luckey financially backed a pro-Trump political organization called Nimble America, a self-described “social welfare 501(c)4 non-profit” in support of the Republican nominee.

A social welfare organization? Well, that sounds nice. Except, here’s what it’s really all about.

We’ve proven that shitposting is powerful and meme magic is real. So many of you have asked us, how we can bring this to real life. We wanted to do it in a way that was transparent and had purpose. Not just sell t-shirts to sell them, but to sell t-shirts to shitpost. We’ve worked with lawyers and RNC consultants to advise us on how to establish the proper entities to do this right, and we’ll be transparent with all financial activity from Reddit. We’ve also worked with the Reddit admins to make sure all of our activity operate within their guidelines.

Announcing Nimble America, Inc., a social welfare 501(c)4 non-profit dedicated to shitposting in real life.

Oh, hell no. How can someone grow up to think that “shitposting” is the great cause to which they will dedicate their life and fortune?

But wait! There’s more! What do you think the lofty goal of virtual reality programs might be?

Someone in the audience asked Palmer Luckey a rather odd but revealing question: Why did he and his chief technology officer, video game pioneer John Carmack, often speak of a “moral imperative” to bring virtual reality to the masses?

“This is one of those crazy man topics,” Luckey answered, “but it comes down to this: Everyone wants to have a happy life, but it’s going to be impossible to give everyone everything they want.” Instead, he went on, developers can now create virtual versions of real experiences that are only enjoyed by the planet’s privileged few, which they can then bestow to the destitute of the world.

He is so generous.

Well, then, I say we should give Luckey what he wants, and condemn him to spend the rest of his life with an Oculus Rift shackled to his head, and free access to all the VR he wants, while he lives in a shack and works 16 hours a day assembling expensive electronic gadgets in a Chinese factory.

It is a shame, though, that the Oculus Rift looks like a nifty toy, but now I’ll never buy one.

Black hole discovered inside the astronomy community

It’s name is Scott Lewis. He has “borrowed” over $30,000 from various people by telling tales of financial misery, getting pitying contributions, and then turning on his donors.

Scott Lewis tells many persuasive tales of woe involving former partners and/or friends designed to appeal to his current target’s compassion and desire to make a difference in his life. In hindsight, it should have been an obvious red flag to us that he seems to have an alarming number of these stories. By connecting with each other, we have now realized that many of the stories we had heard about each other were in reality blatant lies, crafted by Scott Lewis presumably to dissuade us from contacting each other. As author Lynn Fairweather puts it, “…an abuser’s prospect becomes an even better potential victim if she’s willing to listen to his tale of woe and offer him sympathy and encouragement, because then he’s hit the jackpot: He’s found a “saver,” a nurturing woman who compulsively takes in troubled souls, blind to the inherent risks to her own well-being”. Each of us have wanted to be “better than all the previous people” when we first entered his life.

Scott Lewis deliberately maneuvers his new target into disliking all his ex partners and previous friends. This is also why we have been silent for so long; for a very long time we were too scared to reach out to anyone else, or speak about what he did to us. We knew that he would always craft his narrative to portray himself in the best possible light while making us look vindictive, petty, and delusional. We were scared that he would reach out to mutual friends first with his own version of the story, to further isolate us and make his deception and abuse less likely to be called out. Since connecting with other victims of Scott Lewis’s abuse, we have been able to see exactly how he distorts the things that he does; the way he minimizes his own role, plays the victim, and pins all the blame on the actual victim instead. We were surprised to realize we each experienced the exact same cycle of abuse at his hands.

I used to be so optimistic about human beings.