Arquivo da tag: Racismo na ciência

How a Famous Harvard Professor Became a Target Over His Tweets (New York Times)

nytimes.com

By Michael Powell, July 15, 2020

The outcry over free speech and race takes aim at Steven Pinker, the best-selling author and well-known scholar.

Professor Steven Pinker, in his office in Cambridge, Mass., in 2018. He has been accused of racial insensitivity by people he describes as “speech police.”
Credit…Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

Steven Pinker occupies a role that is rare in American life: the celebrity intellectual. The Harvard professor pops up on outlets from PBS to the Joe Rogan podcast, translating dense subjects into accessible ideas with enthusiasm. Bill Gates called his most recent book “my new favorite book of all time.”

So when more than 550 academics recently signed a letter seeking to remove him from the list of “distinguished fellows” of the Linguistic Society of America, it drew attention to their provocative charge: that Professor Pinker minimizes racial injustices and drowns out the voices of those who suffer sexist and racist indignities.

But the letter was striking for another reason: It took aim not at Professor Pinker’s scholarly work but at six of his tweets dating back to 2014, and at a two-word phrase he used in a 2011 book about a centuries-long decline in violence.

“Dr. Pinker has a history of speaking over genuine grievances and downplaying injustices, frequently by misrepresenting facts, and at the exact moments when Black and Brown people are mobilizing against systemic racism and for crucial changes,” their letter stated.

The linguists demanded that the society revoke Professor Pinker’s status as a “distinguished fellow” and strike his name from its list of media experts. The society’s executive committee declined to do so last week, stating: “It is not the mission of the society to control the opinions of its members, nor their expression.”

But a charge of racial insensitivity carries power in the current climate, and the letter sounded another shot in the fraught cultural battles now erupting in academia and publishing.

Also this month, 153 intellectuals and writers — many of them political liberals — signed a letter in Harper’s Magazine that criticized the current intellectual climate as “constricted” and “intolerant.” That led to a fiery response from opposing liberal and leftist writers, who accused the Harper’s letter writers of elitism and hypocrisy.

In an era of polarizing ideologies, Professor Pinker, a linguist and social psychologist, is tough to pin down. He is a big supporter of Democrats, and donated heavily to former President Barack Obama, but he has denounced what he sees as the close-mindedness of heavily liberal American universities. He likes to publicly entertain ideas outside the academic mainstream, including the question of innate differences between the sexes and among different ethnic and racial groups. And he has suggested that the political left’s insistence that certain subjects are off limits contributed to the rise of the alt-right.

Reached at his home on Cape Cod, Professor Pinker, 65, noted that as a tenured faculty member and established author, he could weather the campaign against him. But he said it could chill junior faculty who hold views counter to prevailing intellectual currents.

“I have a mind-set that the world is a complex place we are trying to understand,” he said. “There is an inherent value to free speech, because no one knows the solution to problems a priori.”

He described his critics as “speech police” who “have trolled through my writings to find offensive lines and adjectives.”

The letter against him focuses mainly on his activity on Twitter, where he has some 600,000 followers. It points to his 2015 tweet of an article from The Upshot, the data and analysis-focused team at The New York Times, which suggested that the high number of police shootings of Black people may not have been caused by racial bias of individual police officers, but rather by the larger structural and economic realities that result in the police having disproportionately high numbers of encounters with Black residents.

“Data: Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately,” Professor Pinker tweeted with a link to the article. “Problem: Not race, but too many police shootings.”

The linguists’ letter noted that the article made plain that police killings are a racial problem, and accused Professor Pinker of making “dishonest claims in order to obfuscate the role of systemic racism in police violence.”

But the article also suggested that, because every encounter with the police carries danger of escalation, any racial group interacting with the police frequently risked becoming victims of police violence, due to poorly trained officers, armed suspects or overreaction. That appeared to be the point of Professor Pinker’s tweet.

The linguists’ letter also accused the professor of engaging in racial dog whistles when he used the words “urban crime” and “urban violence” in other tweets.

But in those tweets, Professor Pinker had linked to the work of scholars who are widely described as experts on urban crime and urban violence and its decline.

“‘Urban’ appears to be a usual terminological choice in work in sociology, political science, law and criminology,” wrote Jason Merchant, vice provost and a linguistics professor at the University of Chicago, who defended Professor Pinker.

Another issue, Professor Pinker’s critics say, is contained in his 2011 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” In a wide-ranging description of crime and urban decay and its effect on the culture of the 1970s and 1980s, he wrote that “Bernhard Goetz, a mild-mannered engineer, became a folk hero for shooting four young muggers in a New York subway car.”

The linguists’ letter took strong issue with the words “mild-mannered,” noting that a neighbor later said that Goetz had spoken in racist terms of Latinos and Black people. He was not “mild-mannered” but rather intent on confrontation, they said.

The origin of the letter remains a mystery. Of 10 signers contacted by The Times, only one hinted that she knew the identity of the authors. Many of the linguists proved shy about talking, and since the letter first surfaced on Twitter on July 3, several prominent linguists have said their names had been included without their knowledge.

Several department chairs in linguistics and philosophy signed the letter, including Professor Barry Smith of the University at Buffalo and Professor Lisa Davidson of New York University. Professor Smith did not return calls and an email and Professor Davidson declined to comment when The Times reached out.

The linguists’ letter touched only lightly on questions that have proved storm-tossed for Professor Pinker in the past. In the debate over whether nature or nurture shapes human behavior, he has leaned toward nature, arguing that characteristics like psychological traits and intelligence are to some degree heritable.

He has also suggested that underrepresentation in the sciences could be rooted in part in biological differences between men and women. (He defended Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard president who in 2005 speculated that innate differences between the sexes might in part explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Mr. Summers’s remark infuriated some female scientists and was among several controversies that led to his resignation the following year.)

And Professor Pinker has made high-profile blunders, such as when he provided his expertise on language for the 2007 defense of the financier Jeffrey Epstein on sex trafficking charges. He has said he did so free of charge and at the request of a friend, the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, and regrets it.

The clash may also reflect the fact that Professor Pinker’s rosy outlook — he argues that the world is becoming a better place, by almost any measure, from poverty to literacy — sounds discordant during this painful moment of national reckoning with the still-ugly scars of racism and inequality.

The linguists’ society, like many academic and nonprofit organizations, recently released a wide-ranging statement calling for greater diversity in the field. It also urged linguists to confront how their research “might reproduce or work against racism.”

John McWhorter, a Columbia University professor of English and linguistics, cast the Pinker controversy within a moment when, he said, progressives look suspiciously at anyone who does not embrace the politics of racial and cultural identity.

“Steve is too big for this kerfuffle to affect him,” Professor McWhorter said. “But it’s depressing that an erudite and reasonable scholar is seen by a lot of intelligent people as an undercover monster.”

Because this is a fight involving linguists, it features some expected elements: intense arguments about imprecise wording and sly intellectual put-downs. Professor Pinker may have inflamed matters when he suggested in response to the letter that its signers lacked stature. “I recognize only one name among the signatories,’’ he tweeted. Such an argument, Byron T. Ahn, a linguistics professor at Princeton, wrote in a tweet of his own, amounted to “a kind of indirect ad hominem attack.”

The linguists insisted they were not attempting to censor Professor Pinker. Rather, they were intent on showing that he had been deceitful and used racial dog whistles, and thus, was a disreputable representative for linguistics.

“Any resulting action from this letter may make it clear to Black scholars that the L.S.A. is sensitive to the impact that tweets of this sort have on maintaining structures that we should be attempting to dismantle,” wrote Professor David Adger of Queen Mary University of London on his website.

That line of argument left Professor McWhorter, a signer of the letter in Harper’s, exasperated.

“We’re in this moment that’s like a collective mic drop, and civility and common sense go out the window,” he said. “It’s enough to cry racism or sexism, and that’s that.”

Scientists Call for Academic Shutdown in Support of Black Lives (Gizmodo)

Ryan F. Mandelbaum

June 9, 2020

Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos (Getty Images)

White supremacy is baked into science and academia, from racist language in textbooks to a culture that excludes Black scientists from innovating and advancing at the same pace as their colleagues. But rather than more milquetoast statements and diversity initiatives, researchers want action. Organizers are asking the scientific community to participate in a work stoppage on Wednesday, June 10 to bring attention to racism in the world of research.

Two groups of scientists, technologists, and diversity and inclusion specialists have come together to organize a shutdown and strike on June 10, with the hashtags #ShutDownAcademia, #ShutDownSTEM, and #Strike4BlackLives. They’re asking science professionals and academics to stop doing business as usual and to instead focus on long-term action: protesting, educating themselves on the issues that Black academics face, and drafting plans based on existing work done by Black leaders on how they’ll dismantle the racism entrenched in their respective fields. Hundreds of scientists, including Nobel Prize winners and high-profile groups, have signed a pledge to take part.

“We need to hold our communities in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] and academia accountable to ending anti-Black racism. This is critically important because of our role in society,” Brittany Kamai, an experimental physicist with a joint appointment at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Caltech, told Gizmodo. “It’s going to be hard, and it will be growth for the community. We’re asking the entire community of both STEM and academia to commit to growing together to eradicate this,” said Kamai, who is an organizer behind #ShutDownAcademia/#ShutDownSTEM and a Native Hawaiian.

The ongoing protests against police violence targeting Black people in the U.S. served as the catalyst for #ShutDownAcademia/#ShutDownSTEM to collaborate with the physics-specific effort Particles for Justice. But these issues have long been bubbling up in the science community. A report earlier this year found that the already-dismal percentage of Black students receiving bachelors degrees in physics hasn’t changed in 10 years, in part due to a lack of support and mentorship as well as a decline in funding of historically Black colleges and universities.

Discrimination against Black scientists rears its head in more insidious ways, too. Labs will still refer to various pairs of equipment as “master” and “slave,” while the most commonly discussed milestone in quantum computing is “quantum supremacy;” few, if any publishing outlets are actively working to evaluate this kind of language. Buildings on college campuses are named after racists and slave owners, and pseudoscience is often used to try to rationalize and justify racism.

“When [the academic community] does try to show the value of diversity and inclusion, they do it by having those who are already marginalized do the work of their own liberation,” Brian Nord, research scientist at Fermilab, told Gizmodo. “They have us who are already embedded in that system and facing the problems that the system created do these activities and join these committees and all of these things that have ultimately been shown just to be window dressing… There has not been real investment and commitment in us.”

This extra work, in turn, does not offer the same career advancement as, say, using that time to publish papers, and puts them at a disadvantage. When issues of police violence against Black people crop up, Kamai said, her peers have looked to places other than the academic community for support, such as Black-led scholar collectives.

“We don’t want more diversity, inclusion, and equity seminars,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, assistant professor of physics and core faculty in women’s studies at University of New Hampshire, told Gizmodo. “We want people to take action, including participating in protests, for justice, now. We need people to be active in reforming the institutions they work within, rather than waiting for a top-down solution.” Prescod-Weinstein is one of the organizers of Particles for Justice.

The groups are encouraging all scientists to use the day to educate themselves and their students, organize protests, contact their local representatives, and make action plans for how they’ll work to change science and academia beyond just a single day’s strike. Just as important, they encourage their Black colleagues to use the day to prioritize their needs and find community support.

Kamai said that #ShutDownSTEM is not aimed at scientists who are directly participating in mitigating the global covid-19 pandemic. The Particles for Justice group encourages covid-19 researchers take a moment on Wednesday to reflect on how their work can contribute to these calls for justice.

Nord told Gizmodo that he hopes physicists will apply the passion they bring to figuring out fundamental truths of the universe to the movement, as if his and all Black scientists’ lives depended on it. “That energy and creativity is what we need. We need them to bring their compassion and their willingness to learn new methods and new things from other people who already know how to do this.”

These movements require non-Black allies to precipitate change, especially in fields like physics. “Particle physics is one of the academic disciplines with the lowest representations of Black scientists,” Tien-Tien Yu, assistant professor of physics at the University of Oregon, told Gizmodo. “The strike will bring this fact to the forefront, and it is important for us as a community to understand why this is so, but more crucially, to propose concrete solutions. But first, we hope that given that this is a Black-scientist led movement, we non-Black physicists finally learn to listen to what they have been saying all these years.”

More than 3,100 academics have pledged to strike with Particles for Justice, including Nobel Prize in Physics winners Adam Riess and Art McDonald.

Major scientific groups have already signed on to take part. The arXiv physics preprint server, where scientists often post their research papers ahead of publication, will not mail its daily announcement on Tuesday. Groups such as the LSST Dark Energy Science Collaboration, the Dark Energy Survey, and others have already agreed to postpone regular meetings or are planning discussions for their group members. The Canadian Association of Physicists has also announced its participation.

Both Particles for Justice and #ShutDownAcademia/#ShutDownSTEM have listed actions that academics and science professionals can take in order to dismantle racism in their respective fields, if you’re hoping to get involved.

Ryan F. Mandelbaum, Science Writer, Founder of Birdmodo