Scientific American Goes Woke

A case study in how identity politics poisons science

In April of 2001 I began my monthly Skeptic column at Scientific American, the longest continuously published magazine in the country dating back to 1845. With Stephen Jay Gould as my role model (and subsequent friend), it was my dream to match his 300 consecutive columns that he achieved at Natural History magazine, which would have taken me to April, 2026. Alas, my streak ended in January of 2019 after a run of 214 essays.

Since then, I have received many queries about why my column ended and, more generally, about what has happened over at Scientific American, which historically focused primarily on science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM), but now appears to be turning to social justice issues. There is, for example, the August 12, 2021 article on how “Modern Mathematics Confronts its White Patriarchal Past,” which asserts prima facie that the reason there are so few women and blacks in academic mathematics is because of misogyny and racism. Undoubtedly there are some misogynists and racists in mathematics, as there are in all walks of life, but we know that the number and percentage of such people throughout society has been decreasing for decades (see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and my own The Moral Arc). As well, this may be another example of base rate neglect: before indicting academic hiring committees as hotbeds of misogyny and racism, which they most assuredly are not (academics are among the most socially liberal people in any profession), we need to know how many women and blacks are applying for such jobs compared to whites. The percentage is lower, and according to a 2019 Women in Mathematics survey “senior faculty composition both reflects the BA and PhD pipeline of prior years, and also influences the gender composition of new graduates.” If “structural” causes are the culprits—for example, if base rate comparisons do not match population percentages because of differential educational opportunities or vocational interests—such variables should also be factored into any scientific analysis of causality, especially in a popular and respected science publication. Again, there is no denying that some bias against some women in some fields exist, but that this is the only explanation on offer is unscientific.

And, unsurprisingly, reverse asymmetries never warrant explanations of reverse biases. To wit, this same study reported that “women earned 57%, 60% and 52% of all Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral degrees respectively in the U.S. in 2013-14,” but proposed no reverse biases against men to account for such imbalances. Neither did a 2019 Council of Graduate Schools study that found for the 11th year in a row women earned a majority of doctoral degrees awarded at US universities (41,943 vs. 37,365, or 52.9% vs. 47.1%). Our attention is drawn to the lower percentages of female doctorates in engineering (25.1%), mathematics and computer sciences (26.8%), physical and earth sciences (35.1%), and business (46.7%), followed by discussions of systemic bias, but no such structural issues are on offer for the lower percentages of male doctorates in public administration (26.4%), health and medical sciences (29%), education (31.6%), social and behavioral sciences (39%), arts and humanities (48.1%), and biological sciences (48.6%). When the data is presented in a bar graph rank ordered from highest to lowest percentages for females earning doctorates (below), the claim that the fields in which women earn lower percentages than men can only be explained by misogyny and bias is gainsaid by the top bars where the valance is reversed, unless we are to believe that only in those bottom fields are faculty and administrators still bigoted against women whereas those in the top fields are enlightened.

Then there is the July 5, 2021 Scientific American article that “Denial of Evolution Is a Form of White Supremacy.” Because we are all from Africa and thus black, the author Allison Hopper avers, evolution deniers (AKA creationists) are ipso facto white supremacists. “I want to unmask the lie that evolution denial is about religion and recognize that at its core, it is a form of white supremacy that perpetuates segregation and violence against Black bodies,” she begins. “The fantasy of a continuous line of white descendants segregates white heritage from Black bodies. In the real world, this mythology translates into lethal effects on people who are Black.” Setting aside what, exactly, Hopper means by “lethal effects”, or that the vogue reference to “Black bodies” seems to reduce African Americans to nothing more than mindless matter, her thesis is verifiably wrong. As I and other historians of science have documented extensively (see, for example, Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods, Eugenie Scott’s Evolution and Creationism, Ronald Numbers’ The Creationists, Robert Pennock’s Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics, and my own Why Darwin Matters), the primary motivation behind creationism is religious (and secondarily political), not racist. Again, no doubt some creationists in the first half of the 20th century were also white supremacists, as were many more people throughout America then compared to today, but the chain of reasoning Hopper employs—that the Genesis story of Cain and Able suggests that “the curse or mark of Cain for killing his brother was a darkening of his descendants’ skin,” ergo the Bible endorses white supremacy—is not an argument made by mainstream creationists then or now. In any case, the hypothesis is gainsaid by the fact that polls consistently show a larger percentage of blacks than whites hold creationist beliefs. Apparently they didn’t get the white supremacist talking points. Finally, since anecdotes are often treated as data these days, let me add that I personally know a great number of creationists and I can attest that they would be horrified at the accusation. They are creationists not because they are white supremacists who wish to perpetuate “violence against Black bodies” but because they believe that God created the universe, life, humans, consciousness, and morality, and that the design inference to a designer makes the most sense to them (however wrong in their reasoning I believe them to be).

The most bizarre example of Scientific American’s woke turn toward social justice is an article published September 23, 2021 titled “Why the Term ‘JEDI’ is Problematic for Describing Programs that Promote Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.” Apparently, some social justice activists have embraced the Star Wars-themed acronym JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) as a martial reference to their commitment, and is now employed by some prominent institutions and organizations such as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The JEDI acronym is clearly meant to be uplifting and positive. It isn’t, opine the authors of this piece that is clearly not in the satirical spirit of The Onion or Babylon Bee. Make of this what you will:

Although they’re ostensibly heroes within the Star Wars universe, the Jedi are inappropriate symbols for justice work. They are a religious order of intergalactic police-monks, prone to (white) saviorism and toxically masculine approaches to conflict resolution (violent duels with phallic lightsabers, gaslighting by means of “Jedi mind tricks,” etc.). The Jedi are also an exclusionary cult, membership to which is partly predicated on the possession of heightened psychic and physical abilities (or “Force-sensitivity”). Strikingly, Force-wielding talents are narratively explained in Star Wars not merely in spiritual terms but also in ableist and eugenic ones: These supernatural powers are naturalized as biological, hereditary attributes.

One may be forgiven for thinking that anyone who sees in a lightsaber duel clashing penises has perhaps been reading too much Freud…or watching too much three-way porn. Nevertheless, the authors grouse about “Slave Leia’s costume”, Darth Vader’s “ableist trope”, alien “racist stereotypes when depicting nonhuman species,” and too many white men in the galaxy, no matter how far away or long ago they are. Worst of all, the authors propose, is that the Star Wars franchise is owned by a for-profit company. “How ready are we to prioritize the cultural dreamscape of the Jedi over the real-world project of social justice? Investing in the term JEDI positions us to apologize for, or explain away, the stereotypes and politics associated with Star Wars and Disney.”

It’s hard to know what this piece has to do with Scientific American’s commitment to STEM issues, and readers have sent me other such essays and articles whose connection to science seems tenuous at best. Perhaps some insight might be gleaned from the British historian and Sovietologist Robert Conquest, who observed in what became an eponymous law that “any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.” The reason, I surmise, is straight out of John Stuart Mill: “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.” Conservatives wish to conserve traditional institutions, so unless an organization or publication is avowedly conservative it will inevitably drift Leftward, a hint of which I noted creeping into the editorial process for my final columns.

For example, in my November 2018 essay—titled “The Fallacy of Excluded Exceptions,” or specific examples that do not support the general conclusion—I recounted being interviewed for a documentary on cursed horror films, in which I was asked to explain examples such as Poltergeist, after which its 22-year old star Dominique Dunne was murdered by her abusive ex-boyfriend; or when The Exorcist star Linda Blair injured her back when she was thrown from her bed when a piece of rigging broke; or when Gregory Peck was on his way to London to make The Omen his plane was struck by lightning, as was producer Mace Neufeld’s plane a few weeks later (Peck avoided aerial disaster when he cancelled another flight at the last moment and that plane crashed killing everyone on board); or The Crow when star Brandon Lee was accidentally shot to death by a stage gun with blanks, and he was the son of Bruce Lee, who also died mysteriously at a young age; or when the star of Twilight Zone: The Movie, Vic Morrow, was decapitated by a helicopter during filming.

Share

I explained that the “cursed-horror films” connection is causally unwarranted by asking viewers to picture a 2x2 square with four cells (see graphic below, from my PPT lecture on the subject). Cell 1 contains Cursed Horror Films (Poltergeist, The Exorcist, The Omen, The Crow, Twilight Zone: The Movie). Cell 2 contains Cursed Non-Horror Films (Superman, Wizard of Oz, Rebel Without a Cause, Apocalypse Now). Cell 3 contains Non-Cursed Horror Films (It, The Ring, Sixth Sense, The Shining). Cell 4 contains Non-Cursed Non-Horror Films (The Godfather, Star Wars, Casablanca, Citizen Kane). When put into this perspective it is clear that those seeing supernatural intervention are remembering only the horror movies that seemed cursed (“hits”) and forgetting the other three possibilities (“misses”, “false alarms”, and “correct rejections” in Signal Detection Theory parlance). 

I then added a more serious example of the Fallacy of Excluded Exceptions, provided to me by the renowned social psychologist Carol Tavris, citing her skepticism about the theory that sexually abusive parents were themselves sexually abused as children. This was a common explanation until researchers pointed out that most sexually abused children do not grow up to abuse their own children, and that most abusive parents were not abused as children (see the 2x2 matrix below from my PPT lecture).

My Scientific American editor deemed this unacceptable, telling me:

I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask for a revision on your November Skeptic column. The overall idea is sound—another example I often think of is “I was just thinking about you—and then you called! It’s ESP!” But we’re unwilling to publish a piece that suggests—even in a quote attributed to someone else [Carol Tavris]—that sexual harassment and the phenomenon of abused children growing up to be abusers are less of a problem than most people imagine. Heuristics are all very well, but unlike with spooky deaths related to horror movies, these involve real harm to real people.

To this I responded:

I’ll find other examples and send you another draft, but the point is NOT that sexual harassment or abuse is not as large a problem as we think (or that its effects are not as harmful as we thought); the point is that in our attempt to understand why, say, the sexual abuse of children happens, the hypothesis that their abusers were themselves abused as children is gainsaid by the cell in which all those kids who were abused as children grow up to not only not be abusers, but to be loving parents who wouldn’t dream of harming their children; and the other cell in which abusive adults were not abused as children. 

I understand why we need to be sensitive to victims of abuse, but from a purely scientific hypothesis-testing perspective, it doesn’t serve society to refuse to consider the other cells in the matrix that contain disconfirming evidence of the hypothesis just because someone is committed to the hypothesis that abused children grow up to be abusers, and abusive adults were abused as children. The evidence shows otherwise. It should be okay to point that out.

In 2018 at Scientific American it was apparently not okay to point that out. I had to rewrite the column.

My next column, December 2018, was rejected entirely. I include it in its original entirety below so you can judge for yourself the decision by my editor to cancel it. Here is what I was told:

I’m afraid I’m going to have to reject your December column. It’s not really well argued, and leaves a couple of enormous holes that any critic could drive a large truck through.

You say, essentially, that things are better, especially for minorities of various kinds, than ever in history, your evidence being, basically, “you can look it up.” It may be true in a relative sense—there are fewer lynchings these days, and a man generally can’t beat his wife to death and get away with it as easily as he once could—but you ignore the question of where these and other historically powerless groups stand in relation to those with hereditary privilege. “Driving while black” is still a thing, as is getting shot by cops for failure to be abjectly respectful enough, as is casual, thoughtless racism. Income inequality is larger than it’s been in a long time, which also impacts minorities vastly more than it does privileged groups. Women still suffer constant indignities and violence at the hands of men. And worldwide, fascist and authoritarian regimes are on the increase.

To simply say, blithely, that Steven Pinker tells us everything is wonderful and everyone should all stop whining doesn’t really work. And playing the MLK/Langston Hughes card rings hollow, since neither man is here to offer his opinion about the state of race relations today. 

I’m not looking for a revise here; we need a new column.

Crucially, Pinker’s massive body of work on human progress (for example, Enlightenment Now), or my own in The Moral Arc, most assuredly does not argue that “everything is wonderful and everyone should all stop whining.” To the contrary, as Pinker has said in hundreds of interviews, that just because life is better now than it was in the past does not mean it is perfect today. Many problems still exist (as outlined by my editor above), but it should be okay to document with data all the progress that has been made, or else why bother even trying? Here is my unpublished penultimate Scientific American column in its original draft so you can judge for yourself (later published in Quillette).      

SKEPTIC (December, 2018)

Dreams Deferred

Intersecting identities and tribal divisiveness

Michael Shermer

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

            When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what, in the fullness of time, would become his most memorable vision from his magisterial 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, he could not have known how much progress in civil rights would ensue over the coming half century, in no small measure because of his work. As documented in Hans Rosling’s Factfulness (2018, Flatiron Books), Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018, Spiegel & Grau), Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (2018, Penguin), Greg Easterbrook’s It’s Better Than it Looks (2018, PublicAffairs), Johan Norberg’s Progress (2017, OneWorld), and my own The Moral Arc (2015, Henry Holt), there has never been another time in history when it has been better to be alive than today, including and especially for people of color, women, and minorities of any type.

            Lamentably, in the process of this expanding moral sphere that was on its way to encompassing all of humanity, we are witnessing a reversal of Dr. King’s dream in the form of identity politics, or the collectivization of individuals into groups competing for status and power and perceived persecution by privileged identities. Its classificatory scheme includes not only race but gender identity, sexual orientation, class, religion, ethnicity, language, dialect, education, generation, occupation, political party, disability, marital status, and more.

            To this new instantiation of ancient tribalism is intersectionality theory, in which membership in multiple intersecting identity groups brings more or less power, more or less persecution. The historical subjugation of blacks by whites, or of women by men, are measured along single axes; black women have different experiences than black men or white women along two axes; a non-white transgender lower-class disabled Muslim woman faces a world different from that of a white cisgender upper-class able-bodied Christian man along multiple axes. As the philosopher Kathryn Pauly Morgan explained intersectionality, each of us may be identified and judged on where we fall “on each of these axes (at a minimum) and that this point is simultaneously a locus of our agency, power, disempowerment, oppression, and resistance.” The Chicana feminist activist Elizabeth Martinez worried what such hierarchical assessments might lead to: “There are various forms of working together. A coalition is one, a network is another, an alliance is yet another. But the general idea is no competition of heirarchies should prevail. No Oppression Olympics.”

            Unfortunately, as detailed in three new books, Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg (2018, Crown), The Diversity Delusion by Heather Mac Donald (2018, St. Martin’s Press), and The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018, Penguin), the Oppression Olympics are well past their opening ceremonies in colleges, corporations, and Congress, tearing institutions asunder as conflicting cohorts vie for who has suffered the most historical inequities. This has led to what Lukianoff and Haidt call “The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.” They write: “As a result of our long evolution for tribal competition, the human mind readily does dichotomous, us-versus-them thinking. If we want to create welcoming, inclusive communities, we should be doing everything we can to turn down the tribalism and turn up the sense of common humanity.”

            That historical injustices were degrading, destructive, and deadly none of these authors denies, and even the most optimistic of us acknowledges that prejudices and disparities still exist. But the division of people into such aggregate identities is a perverse inversion of Dr. King’s dream, now deferred by these regrettable movements, however well intentioned they were when launched.

                My lament is echoed by the African American jazz poet Langston Hughes in his 1951 poem Harlem, when he asked “What happens to a dream deferred?” He answered in a series of rhetorical questions, most famously:

“Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” 

                Let us not allow Dr. King’s noble dream to wither on the vine under the collectivist drought brought on by these intersecting tribal identities, which we must shed if we are to return to the moral path leading to a unifying humanity.

My revised December column, titled “Kids These Days,” focused on the growing concern over Gen Z kids having significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety, which Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt attribute to “coddling” by helicopter parenting and the larger culture of safetyism.      

Shortly after the December 2018 column I was given my walking papers, but was allowed one more farewell column in January, 2019. In it I noted that in accordance with (Herb) Stein’s Law—“Things that can’t go on forever won’t”—closed out my streak at 214 consecutive essays, my dream deferred to another day, which has now come in accordance to Davies’ Corollary to Stein’s Law—“Things that can’t go on forever can go on much longer than you think.”

I hope you’ll join me on this journey, and I look forward to hearing from readers and opening a dialogue about the myriad ways we can examine the world through a scientific lens.

Share Skeptic

Leave a comment