Quick comments on “Self-Censorship on Campus Is Bad for Science”

Worth reading in its entirety first because I’m just going to comment on a couple parts!

Should say up front – I do feel almost entirely free, personally, to say what I need to say in a classroom environment.  That may have something to do with teaching physics at a community college, probably making me just about as isolated from these forces as it is possible to be (which is still not even close to completely isolated, but relatively, anyway).

Some thoughts…

And well-established scientific ideas that I’d been teaching for years suddenly met with stiff ideological resistance.

It was really this set of graphs that made me remember just how recent many of the ideas that now feel in complete control of our culture are – they really got popular like, a decade ago maybe?  (Also worth remembering that if they appeared yesterday they could be gone tomorrow.)

I asked students to think about the limitations of the data, which do not control for environmental differences, and explained that the raw numbers say nothing about whether observed differences are indeed “inborn”—that is, genetic.

I appreciate that – understanding both the limitations, and uncertainty, of data, is a huge part of doing good science, and it is often exactly those things that get obliterated in public media reporting about science.

In class, though, some students argued instead that it is impossible to measure IQ in the first place, that IQ tests were invented to ostracize minority groups, or that IQ is not heritable at all. None of these arguments is true… Even so, some students, without any evidence, started to deny the existence of heritability as a biological phenomenon.

Ideology is a powerful thing.  One starts to wonder if part of the problem is students wanting to believe that everything they believe about life is somehow derivable from science.  They have a strong belief in equality (and individual autonomy) that isn’t going away, so when their biology professor tries to tell them about the heritability of IQ or that men and women might be biologically inclined to make different choices in life, they can only conclude that no, science can’t really be saying that. But it is saying that… their problem is that they have placed the natural sciences not only on top of the educational curriculum, but indeed also almost all alone there, so that when science is saying something they dislike they have nowhere else to turn.  (But yes – recognizing that does open up a whole new can of philosophical/religious worms for them.)

As perhaps the author later indicates,

Startled students, falling into what we call the “naturalistic fallacy”—the notion that what occurs in nature is good… Just because a trait has evolved by natural selection does not mean that it is also morally desirable.

We need to have the sophistication to recognize that nature isn’t nothing, and nature isn’t everything.  We need to have a worldview that recognizes that.  Two more comments,

They resort to denialism to protect themselves from having to confront a worldview they reject…

I found this story via this tweet, which made reference to “creationists” (which this article doesn’t mention at all).  Once upon a time when people made comments like the above they were referring to (conservative Christian) students denying evolution entirely or denying the Big Bang or something like that – the torch has indeed been passed to modern social justice concerns.  Finally,

One set of data challenges the idea that bias is the only cause of sex-ratio differences in the STEM fields. The so-called gender-equality paradox involves the observation that, while women and men around the world perform equally well on standardized science tests, countries with the highest proportion of women in STEM are not the ones with the least discrimination or sexual harassment, but those with the greatest gender inequality. Where women are free to choose their own path and do not have to worry about pay, they gravitate toward the humanities. Countries such as Norway and Finland have relatively few women in STEM fields, while countries such as Algeria and Indonesia have an ample supply.

Worth mentioning because very often even within the natural sciences a discrepancy in male/female representation is presented and it is merely assumed the discrepancy must indicate some injustice – no real attempt to show that an injustice is the explanation is even made.  Such an ill-supported picture is in fact doing bad science, but scientists themselves engage in it regularly.  Ideology, as I said, is a powerful thing – let us be more careful thinkers.