With friends like these: Krauss, Quillette, and systemic racism

Krauss & friends

Lawrence Krauss stands exposed as a gullible fool, and it’s sad to see. He’s reduced to publishing in Quillette, of all places, and his claim is that “Racism Is Real. But Science Isn’t the Problem”. He has always had this simplistic view of science as a pure ideal that isn’t touched by, you know, humanity. He’s now irritated that, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, people are turning their eyes towards racism in all kinds of social institutions, and have even dared to demand that the American Physical Society address the failings of physics (I imagine poor Larry stuttering in outrage that I would even write that physics as a discipline has failings). His precious physics doesn’t have a problem!

It sounds laudable. But as argued below, mantras about systemic racism are hard to square with the principles and necessary protocols of academic science. And in any case, overhauling university hiring and promotion aren’t the way to address the fundamental underlying causes of racism in our society. The APS and other scientific organizations have adopted dramatic anti-racist posturing in sudden response to George Floyd’s homicide and the protests that followed. But in so doing, they risk unwittingly demeaning science and scientists, as well as trivializing the broader and more vicious impacts of real racism in our society.

Science has principles! And protocols! Nope, no racism here. The implementation of those principles and protocols is flawless. Nope, no racists in physics (or any other scientific discipline, like biology), and if there were, they certainly wouldn’t be rewarded with the highest honors, like the Nobel prize, for their work. No way. You see, we just apply the Scientific Method, and presto, racism is gone.

Krauss is not alone, but he is certainly relatively rare in that kind of naïve scientific idealism. Most of us are totally aware that science is a human enterprise, constructed and maintained by flawed people, and that we are part of the social structure of the world. Sublime abstractions might be appealing, but they have little to do with the dirty jobs of funding and hiring and interacting with people, all things that Krauss had to have experienced, and must realize have little to do with formulas and recipes and computer programs.

Really, he has this delusional idea that because Scientists do Science, they can’t possibly be racist or sexist. Just possessing the tools of science makes you immune!

Science is furthered by the development of theories that better explain nature, that make correct predictions about the world, and that may help develop new technologies. A scientific theory that can be supported by rigorous empirical observation, theoretical analysis, and experimental results; and which withstands scrutiny and critique from peers; will be adopted by the scientific community, independent of such theories’ origins. If the system is functioning properly, the people who develop these ideas and experiments rise in prominence. The nature of the scientific process requires it to be color-blind, gender-blind, and religion-blind.

This means that science can unite humanity in a way that’s unmatched by any other intellectual endeavor—for it transcends cultures, languages, and geography. Physicists in China and the United States may have vastly different political views and experiences. But at a physics conference, they interact as colleagues.

Somebody should have a word with that Albert Einstein fellow.

The Chinese, Einstein wrote, were “industrious” but also “filthy.” He described them as a “peculiar, herd-like nation often more like automatons than people.” Even though he only spent a few days in China, Einstein felt confident enough to cast judgment on the entire country and its inhabitants, at least in his private journal.

“It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races,” Einstein wrote. “For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

The problem is that science isn’t a cure-all. Often it can be used as a tool for rationalizing one’s biases, and one of the great dangers is when some people, like Lawrence Krauss, get it in their head that being a scientist lofts one above the petty problems of the mob. This is not the first time Krauss has made these ridiculous assertions.

Some scientists, especially vociferously atheist scientists like Krauss, pride themselves in their ability to rise above certain biases, in their work and in social systems at large. They believe that science, as a concept, will safeguard against them.“Science itself overcomes misogyny and prejudice and bias. It’s built-in,” Krauss said last year during a promotional event for one of his books.

It’s outrageous to claim scientists, hard as they might try, are immune to biases. In fact, scientists’ fierce belief that they are exempt from such pitfalls risks blinding them to the possibility that there may be a chance, however small, that they’re not. In the wake of the allegations, Krauss acknowledged that his demeanor may have “made people feel intimidated, uncomfortable, or unwelcome,” and recognized that “the current movement makes clear that my sensitivity, like many others’, can be improved.”

Krauss is also good at kicking the blame to someone else. Physics in higher ed is pure and unsullied, therefore any underrepresentation of black physicists must be the fault of the leaky pipeline.

During the academic strike called for by the APS, it was emphasized that the proportion of black physicists in national laboratories such as the Fermi National Laboratory in Illinois (where one #strike4blacklives organizer works) is much smaller than the percentage of blacks in the population at large. It was implied that systematic racism in the profession was responsible for this, although no explicit data supporting this claim was presented.

In fact, there is a simpler explanation. There are fewer tenured black physicists at universities and laboratories because there are fewer black PhD physicists. There are fewer black PhD physicists because there are fewer black physics graduate students. There are fewer black graduate students because there are fewer black undergraduates who major in physics. This latter fact is a cause for concern. But the root cause lies in inequities that arise far earlier in the education process. These cannot be addressed by affirmative action policies at the upper levels of practicing professional scientists.

He doesn’t cite any explicit data supporting his claim, either. Because he didn’t look, however, doesn’t mean the data negating his assertion isn’t there; the sociology of science gets studied out the wazoo, it’s just that some scientists let their biases dictate what they see. Here’s one example.

Women and men of color represent growing populations of the undergraduate and graduate student populations nationwide; however, in many cases, this growth has not translated to greater faculty representation. Despite student demands, stated commitments to diversity, and investments from national organizations and federal agencies, the demographic characteristics of the professoriate look remarkably similar to the faculty of 50 years ago. Many strategies to increase faculty diversity focus on increasing representation in graduate education, skill development, and preparation for entry into faculty careers. While these needs and strategies are important to acknowledge, this chapter primarily addresses how institutions promote and hinder advances in faculty diversity. Specifically, extant literature is organized into a conceptual framework (the Institutional Model for Faculty Diversity) detailing how institutional structures, policies, and interactions with faculty colleagues and students shape access, recruitment, and retention in the professoriate, focusing on the experiences of women and men of color. A failure to address these challenges has negative implications for teaching, learning, and knowledge generation; consequently, this review also presents research documenting how women and men of color uniquely contribute to the mission and goals of US higher education.

If it were just a leaky pipeline, then increases in recruitment at lower educational levels ought to translate into increasing proportions of minority employment at the topmost levels. It doesn’t. It’s almost as if there is some invisible force suppressing minority participation at the level of practicing professional scientists…I wonder what it could be? Some kind of invisible dark energy? I wonder what we should call it?

Of course, this is Larry Krauss, whose powers of discernment are remarkably limited…while at the same time, he argues that the powers of science are so great that he’d be able to see such a limiting factor. He’s notorious as the persistent defender of Jeffrey Epstein — man, that position hasn’t aged well — who claimed that Science would enable him to instantly detect pedophiles.

“If anything, the unfortunate period he suffered has caused him to really think about what he wants to do with his money and his time, and support knowledge,” says Krauss. “Jeffrey has surrounded himself with beautiful women and young women but they’re not as young as the ones that were claimed. As a scientist I always judge things on empirical evidence and he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I’ve never seen anything else, so as a scientist, my presumption is that whatever the problems were I would believe him over other people.” Though colleagues have criticized him over his relationship with Epstein, Krauss insists, “I don’t feel tarnished in any way by my relationship with Jeffrey; I feel raised by it.”

Apparently, his racism-detection sense is just as finely honed and acute as his underage-girl sense. It was that sense of what is right and proper and just that seems to have gotten him fired from a prestigious position, after all. It has now led him to write an essay denying racism in Quillette.

I wonder if he now feels raised by his association with Quillette? He doesn’t have a very good track record in his friendships.

Delusional

This is how you get lunatics in high office. Do you want more delusional politicians with selfish, unrealistic ideas running the country?

This is where we’re at. Those two grossly wealthy clowns probably actually believe they understand the qualifications for the office, and it’s something stupid like Instagram popularity or how many records you’ve sold or how full of yourself you are.

Where is ‘teaching a class of 50 students’ on this scale?

Just asking, since that’s what I’ll be doing next month.

Also on that list…gosh, I miss going to the movie theater. A hot summer evening like tonight would be exactly the time I’d walk down to the theater, no matter what was playing, to sit back and enjoy the atmosphere, and the air conditioning. I haven’t done that in a long time. High risk, huh…guess I won’t be doing that for a while.

What we have here is a shocking failure of imagination

The poor man. Jimmy Flores came down with a serious case of COVID-19: life-threatening symptoms, hospitalized, breathing tube, the works. He’s getting better now, fortunately, but he was mystified about how he got into this state.

“I would never have imagined in a million years that I would get this virus the way that I did,” becoming so sick about a week after, Flores said.

Before his collapse, he had chosen to attend the reopening of a bar in Scottsdale — a packed bar with 300-500 people.

Totally mystifying.

Someone noticed Pinker’s sleaziness

There’s a petition making the rounds to have Steven Pinker’s recognition by the Linguistic Society of America removed. I don’t expect a petition to accomplish much of anything, but this one is nicely written.

As we demonstrate below, Dr. Pinker’s behavior is systematically at odds with the LSA’s recently issued statement on racial justice, which argues that “listening to and respecting [the experience of students of color] is crucial, as is acknowledging and addressing rather than overlooking or denying the role of the discipline of linguistics in the reproduction of racism.” Instead, Dr. Pinker has a history of speaking over genuine grievances and downplaying injustices, frequently by misrepresenting facts, and at the exact moments when Black and Brown people are mobilizing against systemic racism and for crucial changes.

Though no doubt related, we set aside questions of Dr. Pinker’s tendency to move in the proximity of what The Guardian called a revival of “scientific racism”, his public support for David Brooks (who has been argued to be a proponent of “gender essentialism”), his expert testimonial in favor of Jeffrey Epstein (which Dr. Pinker now regrets), or his dubious past stances on rape and feminism. Nor are we concerned with Dr. Pinker’s academic contributions as a linguist, psychologist and cognitive scientist. Instead, we aim to show here Dr. Pinker as a public figure has a pattern of drowning out the voices of people suffering from racist and sexist violence, in particular in the immediate aftermath of violent acts and/or protests against the systems that created them.

It then proceeds to document instances where Pinker played fast and loose with the facts to advance his dogma of progress constantly marching forward, as long as we ignore the inconsequential suffering of poor minorities. It’ll be ignored, but maybe a few people will wake up to his dishonest messaging.

The presidential campaign will be about…statues?

So, how are you celebrating the Fourth of July? I’m not. It’s just another day when idiots will crank up the jingo and make me embarrassed to be an American, so I don’t have any reason to party — quite the contrary, I plan to duck down low and hope the whole shameful episode goes away soon.

The president, on the other hand, took the opportunity yesterday to amplify his disgrace with a partisan demonization of his critics.

“The radical ideology attacking our country advances under the banner of social justice. But in truth, it would demolish both justice and society,” Trump said. “It would transform justice into an instrument of division and vengeance and turn our free society into a place of repression, domination and exclusion. They want to silence us, but we will not be silenced.”

The president, who recently signed an executive order aimed at punishing those who destroy monuments on federal property, referred to “violent mayhem” in the streets, even though many of the mass demonstrations have been largely peaceful. He warned that “angry mobs” were unleashing “a wave of violent crime” and using “cancel culture” as a weapon to intimidate and dominate political opponents — in what he compared to “totalitarianism.”

And Trump asserted that “children are taught in school to hate their own country and to believe the men and women who built it were not heroes but villains.”

“This radical view of American history is a web of lies,” he added.

“They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive,” Trump said. “But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country and all of its values, history and culture to be taken from them.”

To demonstrate totalitarianism, Trump also had Indian protesters, who have long protested the seizure of their land to build a ‘patriotic’ monument to American colonialism, sculpted by a racist, arrested. Message received.

We’re living in interesting times, when we face the ongoing threats of a pandemic and climate change, when the police have been rampaging against the citizenry, when naked racism is exposing itself everywhere, when the government is a nest of corruption and incompetence. One might wonder what our president might do to address these issues, rather than inflame them. Don’t worry. He has a Plan. A cunning plan, no less, one that we’ll hear much more about as he runs for re-election.

In an effort to fight back, he announced a surprise executive order establishing “The National Garden of American Heroes”, a vast outdoor park featuring statues of “the greatest Americans to ever live” – a selection sure to provoke debate and controversy.

You see, the real problem is that statues are under threat, and we have to provide a refuge from oppression for a huge gallery of random collections of statues. Someone threatens to tear down a statue of slaver and traitor Robert E. Lee? Send in a helicopter and whisk it away to some acreage full of other statues of people no one should like. A retirement home for representations of dead people of dubious character, if you will, sprinkled with a few monuments to people like Ulysses Grant and Harriet Tubman to give the shameful dead some respectability.

That’s a Trumpian solution, all right, celebrating the problem and making it worse, creating a centralized repository of bad art and bad history which he can have patrolled by armed guards who will shoot and/or arrest people who dare to protest his celebration of freedom. He also desperately wants to make this nonsense a campaign issue, because for sure he won’t be running on his record or his abilities.

Well now, isn’t that a depressing article

In the Washington Post: Coronavirus autopsies: A story of 38 brains, 87 lungs and 42 hearts, just the thing to read if you want to know how COVID-19 will kill you. To summarize it unjustly, it’s thousands of microclots in your lungs. But that’s not all! There are cardiac, brain, and kidney effects as well, only those don’t seem to be direct actions of the virus. Instead, it’s more tiny vascular damages, like hundreds of microstrokes in the brain. Good to know, when you’re lying there comatose with a respirator down your throat, that you’re being nibbled to death by lots of tiny clots destroying your organs.

Yet people now are not even taking minimal precautions, claiming a mask infringes on their liberties, as if a virus ripping up delicate membranes in their body doesn’t.

Hey, who all is gettin’ together with their buds for beer and loud music and fireworks this weekend? It may be your last chance before your lungs are perforated and your brain gets swiss-cheesed, so enjoy yourselves!

Confessions of a has-been atheist

I gave up on creationist debates when I realized I was being taken advantage of — I’ve always been willing to do these engagements as an opportunity for science communication, so I wouldn’t charge anything except for travel expenses. Then I did one event where, after getting there, I learned that there was a banquet planned for their honored creationist speaker, to which I was not invited. Then I discovered that he was put up in a suite in the big hotel in town, but I was told that surely I’d be able to find a motel somewhere nearby. That’s the kind of respect you get from creationists.

Atheists aren’t much better.

Would you believe I still get tentative invitations to speak at atheist conferences? (For the past 6 months, those have all been online events, of course.) I hardly believe it myself, since I consider myself persona non grata in atheist circles, but apparently some people have good memories of events I’ve done in the past, and they call or email me. “Hey, we’re in the planning stages SuperAtheistCon, and your name has been suggested as a potential speaker. Are you interested?” And I’d say, sure, if I’m free that day. They’d ask for the usual headshot and bio, and sometimes they’d ask for an abstract for the talk, and sometimes they’d even ask for a complete outline of my topic, which was usually something science-related. I’d provide what they’d ask for, and let it lie. Then, usually, silence. I’d never hear from them again.

I’d just figure, “wow, my idea must have been really boring,” which may well have been the case, and that’s OK.

A few times, I’d get a regretful call back. They decided not to go with me, after all, because one of their board members objected that I was a feminist or an SJW (unspoken: the rest of the board went along with what they thought was a legitimate complaint), and also they landed some Hitchens-loving islamophobic misogynist speaker who was more popular than me, and now they’re out of money. Fair call.

One event even got to the point where I had all the slides done for a talk when they pulled the plug. It’s sinking in that I’m not ever going to speak at an atheist conference ever again, and that atheist conferences have achieved a kind of uniformly vaguely right-wing ambience that means they don’t want me, and that I don’t want them.

That’s all fine, I do not expect to be given a platform. However, please stop pestering me with tentative requests that you and I both know will get squelched by the dominant right-wingers in your organization, especially if that request is accompanied by a demand that I do the work of providing a justification for myself. It’s getting old and really hardening me in my cynicism.

P.S. I have zero sympathy for those professional atheists who whine about getting stiffed by conference organizers like Pangburn Philosophy. Sorry, guys, I’ve always done it for the cause and not for the money, so your petty bourgeois demands leave me cold. You’re doing it for the cash, and you got robbed by capitalist parasites, but still you defend the status quo? Boo hoo.

P.P.S. Maybe another reason I get disinvited from conferences is that they know I might sneer at their headliners.