A Failure to Communicate?

Science versus Sentimentality

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate!” Thus spake prison guard Strother Martin in the movie Cool Hand Luke, and so it is now between the woke and their opponents. In a recent dispute over affirmative action that got some publicity, one party affirms that, despite her best efforts, she has been misunderstood. It is worth examining this case because unlike most people on her side of the aisle, Dr. Phoebe Cohen is anxious to clearly explain her position to her critics.

Cohen, a geosciences professor at Williams College, was one of a number of academics who condemned another geoscientist, UChicago’s Dorian Abbot, for his criticisms of racial preferences in higher education. Abbot’s position is straightforward and shared by many. The downsides of affirmative action are, after all, obvious:

1. It involves racial discrimination, which is usually illegal and is always morally questionable.

2. It admits to tough academic environments identifiable individuals who are likely to perform below average. Hence,

3. it is likely to reinforce rather than reduce racial stereotypes.

Nevertheless, “a swell of angry resistance arose” in response to a series of videos made by Abbot calmly presenting the critical case. This mob response caused MIT’s earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences department chair Robert van der Hilst to cancel a prestigious visiting lecture by Abbot on a completely unrelated geoscientific topic. This, in turn, raised another hubbub. In the middle of it all was Prof. Cohen, who was interviewed by the New York Times. The interview then aroused its own criticism, which led her to write the piece that is my subject.

Apparently, Prof. Cohen hesitated before accepting interviews about her successful attempt to get Dr. Abbot’s lecture invitation retracted, partly because (she claims) “people who speak out on issues of diversity are often attacked — and the risk is greater for white women and Black, Indigenous and other people of color.” Prof. Abbot was attacked without belonging to any of those categories, of course. (Perhaps white males are more at risk than Prof. Cohen suggests.)

Cohen’s problem began with one of her quotes in the Times article: “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.” Apparently, this concurrence of white men and scientific rigor led to some obvious misinterpretations, such as “you mean that only white men are capable of intellectual debate and rigor” (from the Left) and “intellectual rigor is associated with white men and is therefore bad” (from the Right).

Both are wrong, says Prof. Cohen, who goes on to explain:

Intellectual debate and the concept of “rigor” are often seen as the pinnacle — that is, the most ideal form — of intellectualism today in American higher education, a type of discourse that is prioritized and prized in a system that was created by and for white men. There are many other forms of intellectual discourse and knowledge building that don’t center on conflict. [emphases added]

But, of course, the issue is not intellectualism, which seems to portray science as a sort of theater. The issue is always, what is the truth? It is not the “type of discourse” that is prioritized, but getting the right answer, by whatever means. Hopefully, the means are civil. If not, there are appropriate correctives, correctives which refer not to the “harm,” “hurt,” or (imaginary verbal) “violence” inflicted on a participant, but to commonly agreed-upon standards of politeness and civility.

[Related: “Diversity, Equity, and Segregation”]

Cohen goes on to discuss “decolonizing” higher education, emphasizing her and her students’ good experiences with “collaboration” and “shared curiosity.” Dr. Cohen enjoys collaboration; others do not, or find it unnecessary in their line of work. As always, it’s the results that matter; the method is up to the individual. Why should Dr. Cohen wish, or be permitted, to dictate her preferred method of working to others?

And then there is the matter of “rigor”:

[C]ritiques that center on rigor are equally problematic. Rigor according to whom? What standards are we using, and who is setting those standards? For centuries, a very thin slice of our society — primarily white, Christian, wealthy, non-disabled, cisgender men — has defined rigor in Western education systems.

Cohen’s comment has two parts. First, the definition of “rigor.” Rigor just means careful logical argument. It is part of science because it is necessary to get the right answer. Condemning rigor in science makes as much sense as condemning algebra in a math course. You may not like it, but it is a necessary ingredient. On the other hand, rigor is hard to define abstractly. A couple of examples where Cohen’s version of rigor is different from others’ would help. Otherwise, it is difficult to know just what she is against.

Second is, once again, the intrusion of identity—race, gender, disability—into the argument. Cohen’s distaste for “white, Christian, wealthy, non-disabled, cisgender men” is clear; science is “a system that was created by and for white men.” Sez who? Science was largely invented by white men, but it consists of facts and theories that are neither white nor male. Introducing the gender and race of scientists into the debate is about as relevant as, say, complaining about their hair color or right-handedness. Or is Dr. Cohen implying that, somehow, the facts of science are not universal and are only true for the male sex? Does she think that if science had been invented by women, we would not believe in evolution, or does she think that women can discover things that men cannot? If so, she should say so and offer some proof. Scientific facts are just facts—they are not gendered.

Cohen doesn’t like debate, or at least some kinds of debate:

“Intellectual debate” is often cited as an ideal for finding truth, but in reality, it is a framework that gives equal weight to two ideas that often are not, in fact, equally worthy of platforming.

What on earth is the basis for this claim? Is Dr. Cohen simply complaining that some ideas she knows to be false are given a hearing? Yes, probably, as she goes on to say: “Some things, such as the humanity of any group of people or the roundness of the Earth, are simply not up for debate.” Well, there’s no doubt about the roundness of the Earth. But “humanity”? If you just mean “biological species,” then, yes, there’s not much doubt about that. But I suspect that Dr. Cohen means much more, such as how individuals should be valued—in this case, the issue is more moral than scientific and is worth debating.

Cohen’s claim that intellectual debate “is a framework that gives equal weight …” misses the point. The point is not the “framework” but the outcome of the debate, which usually favors one side over the other. Excluding one side prejudges the issue, which Cohen favors in cases where she “knows” the right answer. But it puts her outside the bounds of science.

She continues the social-justice theme:

For example, calls to decolonize higher education and academic disciplines ask those of us in dominant groups not only to update and change our curriculum and syllabi but also require us to ensure our classrooms are spaces where students feel accepted and engaged, as well as active and equal partners with the professor in their learning.

This implies that one must first acknowledge one’s position in a hierarchy of power: are you “dominant” or “oppressed”? And how would you know? If you’re “dominant,” then you’re apparently obliged to defer to non-dominant groups and to “decolonize” and change your curricula, because science must sometimes give way to “indigenous” knowledge.

[Related: “Indigenization Has Poisoned Mount Royal University’s Academic Environment”]

Of course, Cohen is following a philosophy shared by influential institutions in her discipline. Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, for example, scatters this pledge across its website:

The EPS Department is sited on the unceded ancestral territory of the Massachusett people. As geoscientists, our scholarship and research is inextricably tied to the lands of indigenous peoples around the world, and we commit ourselves to acknowledge, respect, and honor their enduring ties to these sacred lands.

What message does this obeisance to “indigenous peoples” convey to prospective EPS students? It conveys that they are treading (literally) on dangerous ground and that science is subservient to the beliefs of pre-scientific people. Like many similar statements, it reads like meaningless virtue-signaling—Harvard has not ceded any land to the Massachusett. But it does devalue science.

The term “decolonize,” to which Prof. Cohen’s apologia refers, has colonized the scientific literature in recent decades. What does it mean? Wikipedia says:

Decolonization of knowledge (also epistemic decolonization or epistemological decolonization) is a concept advanced in decolonial scholarship that critiques the perceived hegemony of Western knowledge systems.

The knowledge system of science originated in the West, but it is universal, not “Western.” If it rules, it does so because it subjects its beliefs to testing, where testing is possible. In these cases, science and the methods it uses have an earned “hegemony.” Indigenous “knowledge” can compete, if its claims are testable. If not, it is system of belief, in effect a religion.

If testing is not possible, the “knowledge” in question is more akin to religious belief than science, which is not to say that such beliefs are illegitimate. On the contrary, scientists must live by beliefs that are unverifiable by science. But the whole “decolonization” idea is a muddle. Science is science; its hegemony is a product of successful testing. The fact that science evolved as colonies grew says nothing about the epistemology of science.

So, what can we conclude about the real differences between Prof. Cohen and her critics? First, the differences are not scientific. It is unlikely that her concerns about equity and the mental comfort of students affect her own work on the reconstruction of ancient organisms, which is a happily unpolitical area. On the other hand, her desire to create a “more just and inclusive discipline” does conflict with merit as assessed through academic tests, about which Cohen is skeptical but ill-informed:

[M]any metrics that academe has historically used to evaluate merit, such as standardized testing, are poorly designed and better reflect variables like family income rather than intellectual ability or even success in graduate school. Thus, using them as the standard by which we judge all people and all discourse is inherently flawed.

Yes, these tests are correlated with family income, but they are also better predictors of academic success than anything else. If they cease to work, methods are available to improve them. Or should they be ruled out just because rich kids tend to do better?

The problem is that Cohen seems uncertain about merit. If students fail, it’s not because of them; it’s because of something that has been done to them. She proposes no merit-based alternative for selecting students for a challenging program. She points to what she sees as impediments to students who might otherwise commit to geoscience—“implicit biases, structural racism, and ableism”—but here, she has her facts wrong. Implicit bias is a highly questionable notion (and only explicit bias can make a real difference, after all) and systemic racism has been discredited as a cause of anything. I’m not sure what she means by “ableism,” but, yes, a tough science curriculum does discriminate against those unable to cope with it. If the ability to do science is important, what is the alternative?

Another laudable but scientifically irrelevant aim is that of nurturing students: we must comfort our students and make them feel “accepted and engaged,” says Cohen. Well, a teacher should not be rude or insulting; otherwise, his teaching strategy should be up to him. But more importantly, the teacher should also train students to regard any factual claim dispassionately, asking first “is it true?” before reacting emotionally—which is impossible if the teacher himself cannot separate fact from passion.

[Related: “The Racialization of a Top Science Journal”]

Prof. Cohen clearly has values that don’t impede her own work but that are destructive of science in general. A paper on a topic like “Large spinose microfossils in Ediacaran rocks as resting stages of early animals” doesn’t raise any political flags. If Prof. Cohen’s scientific work continues along those lines, her non-scientific values need not intrude. On the other hand, her own department hosts events like a panel discussion on “‘Witnessing Lands, Witnessing Possession’ … [which] will engage in conversation on a range of topics, including colonialism, militarism, food sovereignty, and environmental justice movements,” which sounds more like a religious studies or ethics program than a scientific one.

These two sets of values conflict. On the one hand, we have Charles Darwin, who urged  “A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections, a mere heart of stone.” The values of science are first a desire for the truth, and second an ability to contemplate any and all facts in a dispassionate way. On the other hand, Prof. Cohen’s department is concerned with “environmental justice,” where facts are in the service of moral and legal claims.

Finally, there is Cohen’s commitment to “diversity”: “Geoscience remains one of the least diverse academic fields in the United States.” But why does it matter? Few Jews play in the NFL, few short people in the NBA. No one cares, because the players are picked according to their level of play. Why should the low percentage of minorities in geosciences be of any concern?

The obvious answer is that the current selection process is unfair. But is it? Does Prof. Cohen’s department discriminate against minorities? I doubt it; on the contrary, it probably admits more than it should, since there are “few minoritized students entering the field but even fewer deciding to stick it out for the long run,” suggesting that many “minoritized” admits are underqualified. In other words, absent explicit bias, there is no reason to be concerned about the proportion of different groups in geoscience or any other specialty.

Cohen’s concern, and the concern of her department, about numbers of minorities obviously comes from somewhere else, perhaps a belief that all people are basically the same and that any disparity must reflect some kind of unjust bias. But this is nonsense. People differ, and the chance that, even in a miraculously fair society, any group—racial, ethnic, or otherwise—will be proportionately represented in every profession, is essentially zero. To make such proportionality an aim is therefore a kind of superstition, a religious dogma, neither science nor common sense.

There is another possibility. Women are often stereotyped as more “nurturing” and “caring” for others, especially children, than men. Cohen seems sympathetic to this point of view, writing that “Abbot’s views on meritocracy and affirmative action deny the real, lived experiences of these students … ” which reveals both her empathy and her weak allegiance to a science that relies on third-party-accessible data. The psychology of individual differences in merit, like science in general, must rely on public data; it can have no place for “lived experience” inaccessible to others.

As the academic world has become more feminized, empathy may have morphed into a general concern for groups perceived as suffering, or having suffered, from unfair treatment. Minorities, evidently, qualify, an opinion shared by many. Consider this claim, for example, from a successful NSF grant application: “computer science (CS) is still overwhelmingly dominated by white and Asian, able-bodied, middle to upper class, cisgender men.” This is offered as a self-evident justification for reducing their numbers. No evidence is presented that these groups are unfairly favored; that they ‘dominate’ means that their domination should be reduced. Hence, the close attention paid to the numbers of “disadvantaged groups” and steady efforts to increase their representation, more or less irrespective of other considerations. But for science to thrive, only the most able should be admitted. Many scientific concepts, especially in STEM, simply cannot be grasped by everybody.

Professor Cohen’s apologia does make sense from this point of view. It is clear that she is unable to separate science, which deals with publicly verifiable facts, from a belief system focused on feelings and perceived inequities, a system that makes objective academic admissions and hiring essentially impossible. Without understanding individual differences, and the fact that not everybody is suited by their interests and aptitudes to scientific research, nothing useful can be said about the disparities that so concern her.

Until Cohen and her colleagues can separate fact from passion, their efforts can only damage science. It may not affect the kind of science she does, which is remote from political problems, but it has fundamentally altered the human science that is necessary to understand the social-justice issues that increasingly obsess the scientific academy.

Image: Adobe Stock

John Staddon

John Staddon is James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology emeritus at Duke University. His most recent books are The New Behaviorism: Foundations of Behavioral Science, 3rd edition (Psychology Press, 2021) and Science in an Age of Unreason (Regnery, 2022).

5 thoughts on “A Failure to Communicate?

  1. I don’t know anybody that wouldn’t think the person using these words is an a-hole

    Cohen goes on to discuss “decolonizing” higher education

    I have never in my life heard a normal person use that word — and if you do use it, normal people know you are an asss.

  2. Another small point.

    Racializing science by making claims like “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.” is a bit like distinguishing Deutsche Physik from Jüdische Physik.

  3. Ummm, White males are not a uniform entity. White males were killing each other in 1775, and again in 1861.

    White male Quakers were hung on Boston Common, Catholics & Protestants haven’t always been nice to each other, and WEB DuBois wote that discrimination in 19th Century Massachusetts was directed at races other than his.


    1. In 1911, Booker T. Washington wrote:
      There is a class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs-partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.

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