A Short Essay on the Relationship of STEM and Racist Ideas

I’ve seen many tweets today with the hashtag #shutdownSTEM. Some of them included some people asking why such a thing would be necessary. What does STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) have to do with racism they ask? 

I find myself seeing some immediate and excellent historical examples in Dr. Ibram X. Kendi‘s book Stamped from the Beginning. In chapter nine of the book he discusses the variety and flavors of racism espoused by Thomas Jefferson in his book Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), which would become the most  consumed American nonfiction book until well into the mid-nineteenth century.

Shortly afterward Samuel Stanhope Smith countered portions of Jefferson’s racist ideas in the 1787 annual oration to the august American Philosophical Society. This annual lecture was already one of the most heralded scholarly lectures in America and was attended by the wealthy and elite leaders and thinkers in the country. The lecture would be published as the influential Essay on the Causes of Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species

While Smith used the lecture to attack the abhorrent racist idea of polygenesis, he did espouse a wide array of other racist tropes including assimilationist climate theory. Dr. Kendi specifically notes that he may have picked up this idea from James Bowdoin’s opening oration of the newly established American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston on May 4, 1780.
To quote Dr. Kendi:

Samuel Stanhope Smith joined those preeminent intellectuals in Boston’s American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Philadelphia’s American Philosophical Society in attacking polygenesists, in reviving climate theory in America. His scholarly defense of scripture was quickly printed in Philadelphia, in London, and in Lord Kames’s back-yard, Edinburgh. By the time he sat down in Princeton’s presidential chair in 1795, he had amassed an international scholarly reputation.

So in just a few pages Kendi lays out some serious evidence of the direct spread of a wide variety of racist ideas by not only by the academic elite, but the leaders of multiple influential universities and scientific and philosophical institutions in America. The reverberating echos of these wrongs are still haunting us today. They still need to be addressed and righted. We need to use our moral alembic and distill these racist ideas out of science in America.

Lest one wonder about the influence of Samuel Stanhope Smith’s essay, I’ll note that Noah Webster cited Smith directly in Webster’s 1828 Dictionary in the definition of philosophy. The citation was from  Smith’s second edition of his Essay on the Causes of Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species (1810). The quote as given: “True religion, and true philosophy must ultimately arrive at the same principle.”

We’re obviously still seeking both true religion and true philosophy.

While you’re thinking about #shutdownSTEM on June 10th and long thereafter, I recommend you spend some time sitting with the ideas that have been handed down to us and question them closely, for this is what science and philosophy are all about. If you find you can’t do that hard work–and it is hard, then perhaps read a bit of Dr. Kendi’s excellent and ardent text Stamped from the Beginning.

This post was originally published on Chris Aldrich

No doubt many have already seen that Springer has released about 500 books for free during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Springer, these textbooks will be available free of charge until at least the end of July.

A bit of Googling will reveal people who’ve already written some code to quickly download them all in bulk as well. I’m happy with doing things manually as there’s only a handful of the 8GB of textbooks I’m interested in.

Browsing through, I’ll note a few that look interesting and which foodies like my friend Jeremy Cherfas may enjoy. (Though I suspect he’s likely read them already, but just in case…)

This post was originally published on Chris Aldrich

The Message Matters: A bone to pick with Jonah Goldberg about positively framing mathematics

Cover art for The Remnant podcastIn the opening of The Remannt episode “American Dreams, Populist Screams” (beginning at about 03:08) Jonah Goldberg and his guest go out of their way to talk about the moral and social bad that negative framing can have specifically on children, then expand it to adults, and then finally society at large.

They’re talking broadly about the negative messaging around the idea that the American dream is dead.

“People would understand that that kind of message can have a deleterious impact on someone’s life path. Right? The same principle applies even when you send that message to grownups.”

Then in the next breath, Jonah says:

“We promised our listeners there would be very little to no math on this podcast, but um, uh…”

Here he is essentially telegraphing to his audience, “we’re not going to expose you to the scary math”, “why do math?”, “math is hard”, “you can’t do math”.  He is specifically providing a negative framing for mathematics. His audience subtly hears “Math is bad!”–a message which is regularly heard, not just here, but nearly everywhere in our society including in our schools–often while it’s being taught. He does it again at 12:38 into the show and even suggests fast forwarding his own show to skip over the math portion! (A portion which doesn’t really appear by the way.)

So which is it Mr. Goldberg? Positive framing or negative?

Can we be a little less anti-math in the future? Some might suggest that being bad at math can make it immensely harder to take risks, to do the hard work, to have the American Dream. Didn’t the American Dream and associated ideas of American exceptionalism mean we could do anything–including mathematics?!

Otherwise let’s go on telling our children as you say:

“the game is rigged, you should just grab what you can, and […] not worry about being a good person or not worry about being a hard worker, or any of these kinds of things. Take the easy path because you’ll never get ahead.”

Going forward, let’s always frame math in a positive light.

I’d much rather hear regular messages that math is useful, math is productive, math is interesting, math is comprehensible, math is doable, math can be easy, math is fun! Or if you prefer a more nationalist, pro-capitalist positive framing: Math is American. Math will keep us on top. Math will get us there. 

Math is good for our children, it’s good for adults, it’s good for society.

This post was originally published on Chris Aldrich

🔖 Abstract and Concrete Categories: The Joy of Cats by Jiri Adamek, Horst Herrlich, and George E. Strecker

Mike Miller has announced in class that he’ll be using Abstract and Concrete Categories: The Joy of Cats as the textbook for his upcoming  Introduction to Category Theory course at UCLA Extension this winter.

Naturally, he’ll be supplementing it heavily with his own notes.

A free .pdf copy of the text is also available online.

Black and Tealish Green book cover of Abstract and Concrete Categories: The Joy of Cats

🔖 Abstract and Concrete Categories: The Joy of Cats by Jiri Adamek, Horst Herrlich, and George E. Strecker was originally published on Chris Aldrich