Identity Politics in the Sciences

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: “Identity politics has engulfed the humanities and social sciences on American campuses; now it is taking over the hard sciences.”  So writes Heather Mac Donald in her essay for the spring issue of City Journal, “How Identity Politics Is Harming the Sciences.”  From universities to the corporate world diversity initiatives are sweeping the country.  When it comes to higher education we know that the liberal arts programs in major universities have long been directed by leftist faculty typically committed to identity politics.  The STEM fields – that’s science, technology, engineering and math – however, have largely resisted this trend remaining a haven for meritocracy.  But the pressure is mounting to increase racial and gender diversity in these areas of education, as Heather illustrates in her important essay.  The countries top schools, scientific groups and even federal agencies are changing how science is taught and how scientific qualifications are evaluated.  And according to her the results will be disastrous for scientific innovation and American competitiveness.  We will talk to Heather Mac Donald after this.

Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast.  I am your host, Brian Anderson.  We are joined today by Heather Mac Donald.  Heather is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a long time contributing editor to City Journal, and author of the New York Times best seller, The War on Cops.  She has an important new book coming out this fall, The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture, which can be found already on Amazon.  We are here to talk about her latest essay which appears in the spring issue of City Journal, “How Identity Politics Is Harming the Sciences.”  Heather, thanks for joining us.  Let’s begin with some numbers.  What is the reported gender and racial disparity in undergraduate STEM majors that has everybody so upset?  And what is the goal for diversity advocates?

Heather Mac Donald: Well, despite decades of enormous federal funding and local funding to try and close race and gender disparities in STEM fields, it remains the case that about a quarter of all students in the highest-level STEM fields, like mathematics or physics, are female.  The proportions for so-called underrepresented minorities are much lower, probably in the single digits.

Brian Anderson: So, you have written about, and we have talked to you before on this podcast about implicit bias training, usually with regard to private companies and corporate H.R. practices and university departments.  Can you explain how the faculty search process has been changed in recent years in the STEM fields and how it might be relying on this new idea of implicit bias training?

Heather Mac Donald: Well, every academic department in the sciences, whether it is engineering, computer science, physics, is under enormous pressure from the diversity bureaucrats on their campuses – these are the vice chancellors of diversity equity inclusion sometimes they have internal diversity enforcers – to both interview and hire by race and gender.  If a faculty search, as happened several years ago at the University of California, San Diego, in the electrical engineering department, after spending long months trying to find the most qualified candidate, the three finalists were all male – not all white male but all male – these were the most competent published researchers in their field.  If those three finalists, they were all male, they were ordered, the department was ordered by the dean to tear up the results, go back to the drawing board and absolutely interview as one of the final three candidates, a female.  So, they brought somebody up from the much lower tier of the candidate pool to interview.  She did not do well.  She was not chosen.  The dean once again said this is not acceptable; we need more females in our department – ordered them back to the drawing board.  They did it again.  She still didn’t pass.  Rather than accepting the fact that the engineering faculty at UC San Diego was interested in one thing, and one thing only, scientific competitiveness, to bring in somebody who would advance their own research, advance their standing in the academic world, be able to bring in federal grants, the administration could not accept this and hired her anyway.  They create a position with the Orwellian name of an excellence candidate, and hire people based on lower standards simply for the totally irrelevant mission and criterion of race and gender diversity.

Brian Anderson: The assumption, though, is that this woman was not hired because there was some kind of unconscious bias on the part of the committee choosing her?

Heather Mac Donald: That is the assumption and I completely disagree with it.  I think it is such a disservice and insult to scientists to say that they are so blinded by prejudice that they cannot recognize scientific talent where it is found.  And it also ignores the fact that if they were acting on this alleged implicit bias they would be overriding what are incessant, enormous pressures to diversify, that somehow this very invisible idea of implicit bias is so vast that it overrides the fact that internally and externally everybody is counting by race and gender now, interested only in the diversity profile of scientific departments rather than their academic competitiveness.  And we are supposed to believe that implicit bias overrides those pressures.  To me it’s a completely fantastical conceit that is counterfactual and contrary to what we know about institutions.

Brian Anderson: Well, at a certain point you’re just going to run out of even remotely plausible candidates for many schools, right?  Because that’s the problem.  There is a supply problem.

Heather Mac Donald: Right.  For underrepresented minorities, blacks and Hispanics, the effort to diversity is truly quixotic because in 2016, for instance, there were two black Ph.D.’s in computer engineering in the entire country.  So, not only…

Brian Anderson: So, how are you going to diversity all of these departments if there is only two Ph.D.’s?

Heather Mac Donald: They are competing not only with departments, they are competing with Google, they are competing with Intel.  There is a massive arms race for faculty salaries to try and bid them up for the few plausibly qualified, you know, we don’t know how those two black computer engineers fared in their research output…

Brian Anderson: Right.

Heather Mac Donald: …compared to the Asians, but it’s a zero-sum game.

Brian Anderson: So, you have a dearth of qualified faculty.  That’s one problem.  But the diversity agenda is also now pushing down into the content of STEM courses at many universities.  Could you describe a little bit how that’s happening?

Heather Mac Donald: There is a huge movement funded by the federal government and by foundations to engage in what is known as inclusive teaching practices in the STEM fields.  The idea is that if minorities are dropping out of STEM classes at elevated rates, which is in fact the case, it must be because our traditional ways of teaching are somehow racist.  Things like expectations for exams, multiple choice exams, lectures, that somehow this is inimical to black or Hispanic progress, and facts themselves are under a stigma of racism.  I know a professor of oncology at an Ivy League medical school who was rebuked by his dean for giving an exam in the pharmacology of cancer drugs that was too “fact-based.”  This was seen as something that would harm the chances of both minority students and females.  So, you have now a whole introductory chemistry, biology classes, being redesigned with an emphasis on groupwork so that any group disparities are covered up, pressures to get rid of grading curves because that again ends up producing an academic standing rank that is unacceptable to the diversity bureaucrats.  One class had a remarkable assignment that the final grade was based on where students had to produce an oral presentation to a family or friend member about a chemical concept.  And one guy – this was celebrated by the professors – had a picture of himself wearing several layers of multi-mismatched clothes.  It was a picture from the sitcom Friends that allegedly exemplified a certain type of attraction and repulsion between different chemical charges.  This is hardly something that is going to fit somebody in order to do cutting-edge research in chemistry, in industrial compounds, in how to develop, say, better fertilizers that require less use, but in the desperate attempt to find something that will allegedly level the playing field, science teachers are now casting aside tried-and-true methods of instruction in order to produce some sort of collective leveling.

Brian Anderson: You mentioned that the federal government has been playing a role in this shift.  Describe how – what you do in your article, the National Science Foundation and, I believe the National Institutes of Health have been pushing this agenda.  And when did that begin?

Heather Mac Donald: Hundreds of millions, if not billions, of taxpayer dollars have gone into promoting the idea that the lack of diversity in STEM is due to bias.  And so, the National Science Foundation has enormous amounts of grantmaking going into programs to allegedly raise female accomplishment, minority accomplishment, even though we have been doing this for the last two decades.  They are spending half a million on a study of so-called intersectionality in the STEM fields.  This is one of the latest academic coinages to promote the phantom idea that to be a minority or a female in American society today is to be the victim of incessant overlapping categories of oppression.  They’ve got running this pool of intersectionality in the STEM fields, two sociologists who specialize in sexuality, trans-identity, gender identity.  This is not what was meant by Congress when it established the National Science Foundation in 1950 to advance the nation’s progress in science.  The National Institutes of Health require that any kind of research into drug efficacy have proportional group representation in the trial drug population that can impose enormous costs on scientific labs, on academic labs, in cases often where it is simply an irrelevant criterion, but rather than saying we want America to be the top in science they are saying that progress in science depends on diversity.  This is an illusion.  Progress in science depends on one thing, competence in science.  Race and gender have nothing to do with it.  But when you bring irrelevant criteria like race and gender into any kind of selection process you are inevitably going to water it down, and that’s what is happening in our scientific academic departments.

Brian Anderson: Is this something that the Trump administration could change by appointing new leaders to these particular institutions or is this largely autonomous of the presidency?

Heather Mac Donald: The NSF is a congressional creation.  So, I think that probably its leaders are appointed by Congress.  And, nevertheless, I think the Trump administration should be promoting or publicizing the fact that science has been captured by the diversity ideology.  And we certainly have a deep state problem with now the bureaucracies of these agencies are fully committed to the left-wing identity ideology.  So, any political appointee is going to have a hard time turning it around, but it has to be tried.  There have to be changes that could be brought into place because we are facing now a rising scientific power in China that cares about one thing and one thing only, meritocracy in the scientific fields.  If it turns out that a groundbreaking physics lab is all female, so be it, that’s great.  Irrelevant – the thing that matters is that it is the most qualified.  China does not care about engineering, race and gender proportionality.  If we spend our resources obsessing about that at some point inevitably China is going to pull ahead because they are looking only at competence while we are looking at gonads and melanin, something that is completely irrelevant to whether you can do the groundbreaking research in Alzheimer’s that will win you the Nobel Prize.

Brian Anderson: Well, we are starting to see some real-world effects of this intellectual shift on the campuses already, right?  In places like Google and elsewhere.

Heather Mac Donald: Oh, absolutely.  We have now – there has been now two lawsuits that have been filed against Google for its obsession with academic diversity politics.  One occurred after a computer engineer, completely a successful worker, was fired for challenging the feminist ideology embraced by Google that says that the lack of gender proportionality at Google is due to sexism, not the fact that there is not a proportional number of qualified computer scientists who are female.  And then there is a second lawsuit that has been filed by a guy who was a recruiter for YouTube and Facebook, I believe, or possibly Google, who was ordered to only interview females or underrepresented minorities for entry-level engineering positions.  This means that without dispute there were competitively qualified, perhaps superior qualified Asian males who were turned down for those jobs, not even considered, because they didn’t have the right skin color and equipment between their legs.  So, this is not something that is hypothetical or abstract, it is happening now.

Brian Anderson: Well, another example here in New York of how this kind of thinking radiates out to the society as a whole is what has just happened with Mayor de Blasio who has proposed, and succeeded it looks like, in changing the admissions process to New York City’s selective schools, shifting from a meritocratic test to what amounts to a kind of quota system.  You have written in the past about the City’s elite high schools, these are really wonderful institutions, what’s going to be the upshot of that very dramatic policy change?

Heather Mac Donald: Well, the upshot is going to be, in fact, contrary to the stated cause, a reinforcement, if they exist, of racial stereotypes, a watering down of standards, but we are going to know now that the influx of black and Hispanic kids who have been brought into a system that was previously utterly colorblind and meritocratic that they are there thanks to racial quotas.  Everyone is going to know that and what is going to happen is those students who were brought in under a lowered academic standard in order for de Blasio, the mayor of New York, to feel morally self-righteous that he has strong-armed these highly successful laboratories of scientific accomplishment into a diversity profile.  The kids that are brought in under those double standards are going to be uncompetitive with their Asian and white peers who were admitted on their academic qualifications alone, they will end up at the bottom of their class, if not dropping out.  We see this in colleges.  We see this in law schools.  We see this at medical schools.  And we are going to be losing the opportunity to put our most intense teaching into students who are most capable of absorbing it.  Of course, admissions should be colorblind.  Nobody should discriminate against black or Hispanic students, but in fact we do not do that.  But to discriminate against whites and Asians in the name of diversity is not just morally wrong, it is also self-defeating and dangerous for our scientific competitiveness.

Brian Anderson: And I guess another possible outcome these students who are admitted with lower standards wind up at the bottom of the class, that’s certainly one outcome, but couldn’t this also wind up corrupting the instruction so that it’s dumbed down and made easier in order to mask this divergence in student outcomes?

Heather Mac Donald: That could absolutely happen.  We are seeing it in the colleges.  It will happen here because the administrators, well, not in – for once, in this case not Stuyvesant administrated, but certainly on college campuses – the administrators would rather have diversity than having successful students, and certainly in order to cover up the really pernicious effects of racial standards, they would rather water down qualifications and learning expectations.  The moral of the attack, the ultimately successful attack on the City’s exam schools, something that has been underway for probably three decades now and until now has been successfully resisted, the schools have remained colorblind.  The moral here is that anyone out there who believes that there is a single institution that can resist the pressure for race and gender proportionality is deluding himself.  This thing is a juggernaut.  It is going to take everything down with it.  And until we have enforced          equality of outcomes the left-wing Diversocrats are not going to be satisfied and they are going to browbeat and shame every institution in the country into conformity with their agenda.

Brian Anderson: Right.  I guess that just raises a last question.  In terms of resistance, I would imagine at least some of the teachers in these schools that are being transformed, the STEM teachers, recognize what is happening and don’t want to participate in it.  What has been your experience in talking to engineering instructors and math teachers?  Do they embrace this kind of diversity ideology or are they recognizing that this is a destructive juggernaut as you describe it?

Heather Mac Donald: Well, surprisingly it is not as univocal as one would think. There are even feminists in the sciences at the University of San Diego, UC San Diego, that I mentioned that had the excellence candidate being shoehorned into the department by the dean, one of the faculty there said that perhaps 50% of the faculty agreed with the diversity ideology and thought that gender should trump scientific qualifications.  So, these are faculty who presumably have themselves come up through the diversity university and amazingly, I mean I would have thought that scientists would be universally against the introduction of irrelevant criteria like race and gender into their fields, but some of them, having been subjected to feminist ideology throughout their undergraduate and graduate careers, have actually been changed into believing that this is relevant.  So, when that happens, again, we are simply putting the nail in the coffin of our heretofore unparalleled scientific competitiveness.

Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Heather.  Her article, “How Identity Politics Is Harming the Sciences,” it is in the latest issue of City Journal.  Don’t forget to check out her other work on our website,  You can follow Heather on Twitter, @HMDatMI.  We would also love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter, @CityJournal.  Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes.  Thanks for listening and thanks, Heather, again for joining us.

Heather Mac Donald: Thank you, Brian.

This article originally appeared here via Google News