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How Identity Politics Is Harming the Sciences

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How Identity Politics Is Harming the Sciences

Universities and other institutions are watering down requirements in order to attract more women and minorities. Spring 2018
The Social Order
Politics and law

Identity politics has engulfed the humanities and social sciences on American campuses; now it is taking over the hard sciences. The STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—are under attack for being insufficiently “diverse.” The pressure to increase the representation of females, blacks, and Hispanics comes from the federal government, university administrators, and scientific societies themselves. That pressure is changing how science is taught and how scientific qualifications are evaluated. The results will be disastrous for scientific innovation and for American competitiveness.

A scientist at UCLA reports: “All across the country the big question now in STEM is: how can we promote more women and minorities by ‘changing’ (i.e., lowering) the requirements we had previously set for graduate level study?” Mathematical problem-solving is being deemphasized in favor of more qualitative group projects; the pace of undergraduate physics education is being slowed down so that no one gets left behind.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), a federal agency that funds university research, is consumed by diversity ideology. Progress in science, it argues, requires a “diverse STEM workforce.” Programs to boost diversity in STEM pour forth from its coffers in wild abundance. The NSF jump-started the implicit-bias industry in the 1990s by underwriting the development of the implicit association test (IAT). (The IAT purports to reveal a subject’s unconscious biases by measuring the speed with which he associates minority faces with positive or negative words; see “Are We All Unconscious Racists?,” Autumn 2017.) Since then, the NSF has continued to dump millions of dollars into implicit-bias activism. In July 2017, it awarded $1 million to the University of New Hampshire and two other institutions to develop a “bias-awareness intervention tool.” Another $2 million that same month went to the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University to “remediate microaggressions and implicit biases” in engineering classrooms.

The tortuously named “Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science” (INCLUDES) bankrolls “fundamental research in the science of broadening participation.” There is no such “science,” just an enormous expenditure of resources that ducks the fundamental problems of basic skills and attitudes toward academic achievement. A typical INCLUDES grant from October 2017 directs $300,000 toward increasing Native American math involvement by incorporating “indigenous knowledge systems” into Navajo Nation Math Circles.

The INCLUDES initiative has already generated its own parasitic endeavor, Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER). The purpose of EAGER funding is to evaluate INCLUDES grants and to pressure actual science grantees to incorporate diversity considerations into their research. The ultimate goal of such programs is to change the culture of STEM so that “inclusion and equity” are at its very core.

Somehow, NSF-backed scientists managed to rack up more than 200 Nobel Prizes before the agency realized that scientific progress depends on “diversity.” Those “un-diverse” scientists discovered the fundamental particles of matter and unlocked the genetics of viruses. Now that academic victimology has established a beachhead at the agency, however, it remains to be seen whether the pace of such breakthroughs will continue. The NSF is conducting a half-million-dollar study of “intersectionality” in the STEM fields. “Intersectionality” refers to the increased oppression allegedly experienced by individuals who can check off several categories of victimhood—being female, black, and trans, say. The NSF study’s theory is that such intersectionality lies behind the lack of diversity in STEM. Two sociologists are polling more than 10,000 scientists and engineers in nine professional organizations about the “social and cultural variables” that produce “disadvantage and marginalization” in STEM workplaces.

One of the study’s directors is a University of Michigan sociologist specializing in gender and sexuality. Erin Cech has received multiple NSF grants; her latest publication is “Rugged Meritocrats: The Role of Overt Bias and the Meritocratic Ideology in Trump Supporters’ Opposition to Social Justice Efforts.” The other lead researcher, Tom Waidzunas, is a sociologist at Temple University; he studies the “dynamics of gender and sexuality” within STEM, as well as how “scientists come to know, and hence constitute, sexuality and sexual desire.” Such politically constituted social-justice research was not likely envisioned by Congress in 1950 when it created the NSF to “promote the progress of science.”

The National Institutes of Health are another diversity-obsessed federal science funder. Medical schools receive NIH training grants to support postdoctoral education for physicians pursuing a research career in such fields as oncology and cardiology. The NIH threatens to yank any training grant when it comes up for renewal if it has not supported a sufficient number of “underrepresented minorities” (URMs). One problem: there are often no black or Hispanic M.D.s to evaluate for inclusion in the training grant. If there is a potential URM candidate, the principal investigators will pore over his file in the hope of convincing themselves that he is adequately qualified. Meantime, the patently qualified Indian doctor goes to the bottom of the résumé pile. For now, medical schools can claim Argentinians and the sons of Ghanaian plantation owners as URMs, but if NIH bean-counters become more scrupulous in their “diversity metrics,” this aspect of biomedical research will reach an impasse.

The diversity mania also determines the way medical research is carried out. The NIH has onerous requirements that government-sponsored clinical trials include the same proportion of female and minority patients as is found in the medical school’s “catchment area” (its geographic zone of study). If some of these populations drop out of medical trials at disproportionate rates or are difficult to recruit, too bad. If these URM and female-enrollment quotas are not met, the medical school must “invest the appropriate effort to correct under-accrual,” in the words of the NIH guidelines.

That “appropriate effort” can cost a fortune. Schools such as the Mayo Clinic, located in overwhelmingly white areas, must still meet a diversity quota. Lung cancer and coronary-artery disease afflict adults. If a particular immigrant group in a research trial’s catchment area contains a disproportionate share of young people compared with the aging white population, that immigrant group will be less susceptible to those adult diseases. Nevertheless, cancer and heart-disease drug researchers must recruit from that community in numbers proportionate to its share of the overall population.

Accrediting bodies reinforce the diversity compulsion. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education requires that medical schools maintain detailed diversity metrics on their efforts to interview and hire URM faculty. Medical school search committees go through lengthy implicit-bias training sessions and expend enormous amounts of effort looking for something that they often know a priori doesn’t exist: qualified URM faculty candidates. The very definition of diversity used by academic review panels is becoming ever more exacting. A 2015 panel assessing the academic strength of San Diego State University’s biology department complained that the faculty, though relatively representative of traditional “underserved groups,” nevertheless failed to mirror the “diversity of peoples in Southern California.” The use of a school’s immediate surroundings as a demographic benchmark for its faculty is a significant escalation of the war between the diversocrats and academic standards. Naturally, the accrediting panel made no effort to ascertain whether those Southern California peoples—including Hmong, Salvadorans, and Somalis—are netting Ph.D.s in biology in numbers proportional to their Southern California population.

Many private foundations fund only gender- and race-exclusive science training; others that do fund basic research, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, nevertheless divert huge sums to diversity.

The major scientific societies push the idea that implicit bias is impeding the careers of otherwise competitive scientists. In February 2018, Erin Cech presented preliminary findings from the NSF intersectionality study at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting; naturally, those results showed “systemic anti-LGBTQ bias within STEM industry and academia.” Another AAAS session addressed how the “hierarchical nature” of science exacerbates gender bias and stereotypes, and called for the “equal representation of women” across STEM.

STEM departments are creating their own internal diversity enforcers. The engineering school at UCLA minted its first associate dean of diversity and inclusion in 2017, despite already being subject to enormous pressures from UCLA’s fantastically remunerated Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and other bureaucrats. “One of my jobs,” the new engineering diversocrat, Scott Brandenberg, told UCLA’s student newspaper, is “to avoid implicit bias in the hiring process.”

The science diversity charade wastes extraordinary amounts of time and money that could be going into basic research and its real-world application. If that were its only consequence, the cost would be high enough. But identity politics is now altering the standards for scientific competence and the way future scientists are trained.

“Diversity” is now an explicit job qualification in the STEM fields. A current job listing for a lecturer in biology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst announces that because diversity is “critical to the university’s goals of achieving excellence in all areas,” the biology department “holistically” assesses applicants and “favorably considers experiences overcoming barriers”—experiences assumed to be universal among URMs. The University of California at San Diego physics department advertised an assistant-professor position several years ago with a “specific emphasis on contributions to diversity,” such as a candidate’s “awareness of inequities faced by underrepresented groups.” Social-justice concerns apparently trump the quest to solve the mystery of dark energy. All five candidates on UC San Diego’s short list were females, leading one male candidate with a specialty in extragalactic physics to wonder why the school had even solicited applications from Asian and white men.

Entry requirements for graduate education are being revised. The American Astronomical Society has recommended that Ph.D. programs in astronomy eliminate the requirement that applicants take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) in physics, since it has a disparate impact on females and URMs and allegedly does not predict future research output. Harvard and other departments have complied, even though an objective test like the GRE can spotlight talent from less prestigious schools. The NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program has dropped all science GREs for applicants in all fields.

Expectations are changing at the undergraduate level, as well. Oxford University extended the time on its undergraduate math and computer science exams last year, hoping to increase the number of female high-scorers; results were modest. Expect test-time extensions nevertheless to spread to the U.S.

Medical school administrators urge admissions committees to overlook the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) scores of black and Hispanic student applicants and employ “holistic review” in order to engineer a diverse class. The result is a vast gap in entering qualifications. From 2013 to 2016, medical schools nationally admitted 57 percent of black applicants with a low MCAT of 24 to 26, but only 8 percent of whites and 6 percent of Asians with those same low scores, according to Claremont McKenna professor Frederick Lynch. Individual schools have larger score disparities. This achievement gap does not close over the course of medical school, but the URM students who do complete their medical training will be fanatically sought after anyway. Adding to medical schools’ diversity woes is the fact that the number of male URM student applicants has been declining in recent years, making it even harder to find qualified candidates.

Medical school administrators urge admissions committees to overlook test scores and employ “holistic review” to minority-student applications. (SUZANNE DECHILLO/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX)

Racial preferences in med school programs are sometimes justified on the basis that minorities want doctors who “look like them.” Arguably, however, minority patients with serious illnesses want the same thing as anyone else: subject mastery.

The push for gender proportionality in medical education and research is not quite as quixotic as the crusade for URM proportionality, but it, too, distorts decision making. Two-thirds of the applicants for oncology fellowships at a prestigious medical school are male. Half of the oncology department’s fellowship picks are female, however, even though females do not cluster at the top of the applicant pool.

A network of so-called teaching and learning centers at universities across the country is seeking to make science classrooms more “inclusive” by changing pedagogy and expectations for student learning. The STEM faculty is too white, male, and heteronormative, according to these centers, making it hard for females, blacks, Hispanics, and the LGBTQ population to learn. Lecturing and objective exams should be de- emphasized in favor of “culturally sensitive pedagogies that play close attention to students’ social identities,” in the words of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. STEM teaching should be more “open- than closed-ended,” more “reflective than prescriptive,” according to the association. At the University of Michigan, the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program collaborates with the Center for Learning and Teaching to develop “deliberately inclusive and equitable approaches to syllabus design, writing assignments, grading, and discussion.” Yale has created a special undergraduate laboratory course, with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, that aims to enhance URM students’ “feelings of identifying as a scientist.” It does so by being “non-prescriptive” in what students research; they develop their own research questions. But “feelings” are only going to get you so far without mastery of the building blocks of scientific knowledge.

Mastering those building blocks involves the memorization of facts, among other skills. Assessing student knowledge of those facts can produce disparate results. The solution is to change the test or, ideally, eliminate it. A medical school supervisor recently advised a professor to write an exam that was less “fact-based” than the one he had proposed, even though knowledge of pathophysiology and the working of drugs, say, entails knowing facts.

Grading on a curve is another vilified practice for those interested in building “inclusive” STEM classrooms. The only surprising aspect of that vilification is that it acknowledges one of the most self-defeating aspects of black and Hispanic culture: the stigma against “acting white.” URMs may “reject competitiveness as an academic motivator,” explains a 2015 UCLA report on the undergraduate academic-achievement gap. Instead, URMs “draw strength in peer acceptance, nurturance, and cooperation.” Translation: instead of pulling all-nighters studying for a linear algebra exam, they may be inclined to hang out in the Afro-Am or LatinX center. This rejection of academic competitiveness is a “coping mechanism,” says the UCLA inclusiveness report, that allows individuals to “devalue” things that threaten their sense of well-being, such as high academic expectations. A grading curve contributes to academic competition by objectively ranking students. As a result, URMs will be further alienated and further withhold their academic efforts. The solution, according to diversity proponents, is to throw out the curve and grade students on whether they have achieved the expected learning outcomes. This sounds unobjectionable; but in practice, a curve is the only reliable defense against raging grade inflation.

An introductory chemistry course at UC Berkeley exemplifies “culturally sensitive pedagogy.” Its creators described the course in a January 2018 webinar for STEM teachers, sponsored by the University of California’s STEM Faculty Learning Community. A primary goal of the course, according to teachers Erin Palmer and Sabriya Rosemund, is to disrupt the “racialized and gendered construct of scientific brilliance,” which defines “good science” as getting all the right answers. The course maintains instead that “all students are scientifically brilliant.” Science is a practice of collective sense-making that calls forth “inclusive ways” of being brilliant. Students in this “inclusive” Chem 1A course work in groups arranging data cards in the proper sequence to represent chemical processes, among other tasks. Chemical terms of art are avoided wherever possible to accommodate students’ different academic backgrounds. The instructors hold the teams “accountable to group thinking”; a team can’t question an instructor unless it has arrived collectively at the question and poses it in “we” language.

Progressive pedagogy has long embraced the idea that students should work exclusively in groups as a way to model collectivist democracy. This political agenda is simply a pretext for masking individual differences in achievement that might reinforce group stereotypes. Here, the rationale for group organization is that students are modeling “collective chemical practice.” The group design “makes space for students to recognize themselves as competent thinkers and doers of chemistry.” Are they competent thinkers and doers of chemistry? It’s hard to say. The course’s grading is idiosyncratic, and thus not comparable with other intro-chemistry courses. The final grade is based on homework (notoriously easy to crib), a final exam (which the teachers wish they could ditch), and an informal presentation to friends or family about the chemistry of compounds. Use of slang or a language other than English in this presentation is encouraged. One such effort featured a photo of the character Joey from the TV sitcom Friends dressed in several layers of unmatched clothes to suggest the relationship between positive and negative charges. The teachers have done no follow-up evaluation to see how students performed in their subsequent courses, nor have they determined whether the attrition rate of URMs is lower than in traditional chemistry classes. What they do know is that students showed a positive shift in believing that they were good at science. Scientific self-esteem is now an academic goal.

STEM industry leaders are fully on board the diversity juggernaut, having absorbed academic identity politics. The giant Silicon Valley companies offer gender- and race-exclusive mentoring programs and give special consideration to females and URMs in hiring and promotions. Managers go through the same costly implicit-bias training as faculty committees. In August 2017, Google fired computer engineer James Damore for questioning the premises of Google’s diversity training and policies. The discrimination lawsuit he subsequently filed against the Silicon Valley giant reveals a workplace culture infused with academic victimology. Employees denounce the advocacy of gender- and race-blind policies as a “microaggression” and the product of “racism” and “misogyny.” Managers apologize for promoting males, even when females are being promoted at a higher rate. All-male research teams are mocked; employees self-righteously offer to protect Google’s oppressed females and URMs from “blinkered, pig-ignorant” conservative opinion. A manager reprimands someone for pointing out that white males are actually underrepresented at Google compared with the general population. The manager informs the errant employee that caring about facts may seem to be a trait of engineers, but “being absolutely correct is inappropriate” when it comes to “discussions of race and justice.” Facts are especially inappropriate “in the context of the threat” faced by minorities and females at Google. Needless to say, no female or underrepresented minority faces a threat at Google.

In February 2018, an associate general counsel with the National Labor Relations Board upheld Google’s firing of Damore on the grounds that his statements about “purported biological differences between men and women” were “discriminatory and constituted sexual harassment.” This decision means that every evolutionary biologist, neurologist, or economist studying different risk preferences or levels of aggression between males and females could be fired for harassment. Since Damore had already withdrawn the complaint that he had filed with the NLRB, the opinion does not have the force of law, but it indicates which way the wind is blowing in federal agencies.

In January 2018, a former YouTube and Google recruiter filed another suit against Google, claiming that he was wrongfully fired for refusing to obey Google’s gender and race mandates. He and other recruiters had allegedly been ordered to purge all software-engineering applicants who were not female, black, or Hispanic from the entry-level hiring pipeline. In response, Google claimed that finding a “diverse pool” of qualified candidates allows it to “hire the best people.” But adding any irrelevant criterion such as race or gender to job specifications inevitably lowers the caliber of the applicant base by excluding candidates with potentially superior qualifications.

The idea that females and URMs are being discriminated against in STEM is demonstrably false. A physician-scientist at a top medical school describes the environment in which he works:

The sheer effort that is expended in complete good faith at the graduate, post-graduate, and faculty level chasing after a declining population of minority applicants is astonishing. URMs are encouraged to apply, indeed begged to apply, to medical school and post-graduate medical training programs. Everyone at this level is trying incredibly hard to be fair, generous, forgiving, thoughtful, kind, and encouraging to these applicants. But if the pool of candidates is actually declining, no amount of effort, exhortation, or threat will achieve diversity. It’s one thing to do poorly on the MCAT; it’s another not even to bother taking it. The latter is now the bigger problem because the academy has already relaxed its standards and come up with all kinds of ways to explain away the need to do well on these tests.

When it comes to URMs, math deficits show up at the earliest ages. It is only there where the achievement gap can be overcome, through more rigorous, structured classrooms and through a change in family culture to put a high premium on academic achievement. The institutional response to the achievement gap, however, is racial preferences. College freshmen are brought into elite academic environments for which they are unprepared, especially in the STEM fields, in order to satisfy administrators’ desire to look out upon a “diverse” student body. Those inaptly named preference “beneficiaries” drop out of their STEM studies at high rates, despite the availability of numerous tutoring and mentoring programs. This experience of academic failure only exacerbates the anti-acting-white syndrome acknowledged in the UCLA study. You can read through report after report on achieving diversity in STEM, however, without coming across any acknowledgment of the academic skills gap.

As for females, they, too, are the target of constant efforts to boost their representation in STEM environments. Yet we are to believe that highly educated heads of research teams are so benighted that they refuse to hire or promote scientists whose superior qualifications would increase the lab’s chance of a scientific breakthrough, just because those scientists are female. The diversity crusade rests on the claim that absent discrimination, every scientific field would show gender parity. That belief is ungrounded. Males outperform females at the highest reaches of mathematical reasoning (and are overrepresented at the lowest level of mathematical incompetence). Differences in math precocity between boys and girls show up as early as kindergarten. For decades, males in every ethnic group have scored higher than females in their same ethnic group on the math SAT. In 2016, the percentage of males scoring above 700 (on an 800-point scale) was nearly twice as large as the percentage of females in that range. There are 2.5 males in the U.S. in the top 0.01 percent of math ability for every female, according to a paper published in February 2018 in the journal Intelligence. But female high-scorers are more likely than male high-scorers to possess strong verbal skills as well, according to authors Jonathan Wai, Jaret Hodges, and Matthew Makel, giving them a greater range of career options. Traditionally, individuals who score well in both the math and verbal domains are less likely to pursue a STEM career. Moreover, females on average are more interested in people-centered rather than abstract work, which helps explain why females account for 75 percent of health-care-related workers but only 14 percent of engineering workers and 25 percent of computer workers. Nearly 82 percent of obstetrics and gynecology medical residents in 2016 were female. Is gynecology biased against males, or are females selecting where they want to work?

The extraordinary accomplishments of Western science were achieved without regard to the complexions of its creators. Now, however, funders, industry leaders, and academic administrators maintain that scientific progress will stall unless we pay close attention to identity and try to engineer proportional representation in schools and laboratories. The truth is exactly the opposite: lowering standards and diverting scientists’ energy into combating phantom sexism and racism is reckless in a highly competitive, ruthless, and unforgiving global marketplace. Driven by unapologetic meritocracy, China is catching up fast to the U.S. in science and technology. Identity politics in American science is a political self-indulgence that we cannot afford.

Top Photo: Consumed by ideology, the National Science Foundation claims that progress in science requires a “diverse STEM workforce.” (B CHRISTOPHER/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

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