That’s Just Our Policy – An American Story of Racism, Policy, and Higher Education
By Ava St. Claire
Four of the world’s top scientists sat gracefully perched in cherry red chairs. Bright white spotlights fell softly on the esteemed figures as they swiveled in their mid-century rockers. Their forms seemed to float on stage against the black backdrop of New York University’s Skirball Center at the 2014 World Science Festival. Among these postured sages were Gregory Chaitin, a mathematician and computer scientist, astrophysicist Mario Livio, Marvin Minksy, a cognitive scientist and co-founder of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Ai Laboratory, and to my surprise, a woman, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein who focuses on mind-body dualism in psychology. They’d gathered to discuss the limits of understanding and its impact on Artificial Intelligence. Despite their varied backgrounds, permutations of theoretical disagreements and concurrences, and nationalities, they all had one thing in common, they were white. Now many would argue that in the context of a conference panel this single commonality is hardly worth mentioning. But when you consider the commonality and this picturesque scene as a pixel in the aggregate image of those influencing our future technologies, one begins to wonder…and worry.
Whiteness in and of itself isn’t the main concern, it’s the homogenous frame of thinking that worries me most. Working in the NGO and community sectors, I’ve watched scientists, researchers, and policy makers at levels of government enact policies they believe will be helpful. They make decisions in “the people’s best interest” but rarely ever speak to the marginalized communities who would be affected by those policies. They don’t realize their perception of the problem may be biased or just flat wrong in the first place. With high credentials from the top universities in the world, those same institutions are responsible for encouraging a lack of compassion with myopic, homogenous curriculums that focus on classical, Western philosophy.
I tripped over this realization just recently during one of my love affairs with this philosophical perspective. In early February of this year, I reached peak madness trying to get at some curious aggravation I couldn’t articulate. I circled hawkishly around ancient and contemporary philosophy. I read Plato, Aristotle, Kant. I watched countless lectures from the men of the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web”, Jordan Peterson, Brett Weinstein. I circled back the other way to the uncles and grandfathers of Consciousness. Ken Wilbur, Dean Radin, John Searle. Scientific Philosophers, Lakatos, Feyerabend, Kuhn. Most recently I knocked on the doors of Hermeticism through Thelema and Aliester Crowley.
The first realization I had after yet another bleary-eyed, two am mania was that all the information, though enlightening, seemed to have within it a similar spirit. A certain kind of… certainty. I peered over the thumbnails of my Youtube video and started connecting the dots. Each and every one of them, whether sepia, grayscale, and color, donned faces of old and getting older white men.
Meanwhile, I’d also been balancing a whirlwind of personal and spiritual growth by taking up some aspects of my shamanic tradition. The Sangoma of west Africa taught me the importance of divine communion and ancestor work. I was also reading texts by Malidoma Some and Sophie Oluwole.
I began to wonder why some of the work by African mystics and philosophers couldn’t be found in my search for knowledge. Ancient philosophy returned results on Greeks, with some mention of Egyptians origins as if the two regions were one in the same. I had to specifically search for African philosophy and even then, the results missed the mark.
Finally during a podcast with neuroscientist Sam Harris and political scientist Charles Murray, the two began a conversation about Murray’s writings. The first, Losing Ground written in 1984, and the second far more controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve, which outlined the IQ differences between races, pinning African Americans and Sub-Saharan Africans toward the bottom of the curve. In Murray’s study, Ashkenazi Jews, Asians and Whites dominated the higher points of the curve. Blacks scored a mean of 85, with whites at a mean of 100, at a 15-point difference (Herrnstein, R. J., & Murray, C., 2010). With some statistical talk about margins and standard deviations, it was enough to throw everyone in a tizzy. Though it is debatable if Murray or his partner Richard Herrnstein were textbook cases for confirmation bias, unintentionally stumbled upon something scandalous, or were just flat racist, many leveraged the science to campaign for a variety of policies that hindered Black Americans’ social mobility. Scientists have called the methods used for these findings into question for over two decades. But for myriad reasons, the conversation was never laid completely to rest. Meanwhile, Murray is still finding new ways to resurrect the discussion.
I appreciated the kind of novelty and rigor Sam and his colleagues brought to the web. I also hoped to join them one day. So, I was quite embarrassed, saddened, and angry while listening as Sam side-stepped scientific method, inquiry, evolution, and epigenetic nuances that may have contributed to Murray’s findings. All this under the guise of pushing against political correctness with “free speech”.
After the initial controversy of the Harris-Murray interview, political analyst Ezra Klein stepped in to make sense of the event. Ezra’s appeal-turned-plea to Harris was clear: It is fine to exercise your freedom to have controversial conversations, but you must have them more carefully. I listened to Ezra try to reason with Sam Harris about the implications of having these talks without nuance and countering perspectives, to no avail. As time wore on, I saw more clearly. With every minute that passed, I watched the red loading bar on the video near closer and closer to its end, hoping that Sam would at least give a little. Though I anxiously watched the video’s clock anticipating an “Oh, okay, I see what you’re saying”, or a “You may have a point there” from Harris, it never came. Instead, just when I thought Klein had made himself his clearest, Harris let out a guttural near painful wail, “Science can’t be racist!” (2018, 1:31:20). He continues, “…Scientists can be racist. But data can’t be racist. The data is whatever the data is” (2018).
The sound of this exclamation brought on my first moment of shocked clarity. I’d been reading books by philosophers like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, who posited that scientists and data can in fact be quite biased. And why not? Scientists are only human. The production of Murray’s experiments and their methods were based on a scientist’s formulation of the problem. It is therefore entirely possible for science, as both process and principle guided by human beings, to be racist.
There is a groundswell movement for thinkers like Harris and Murray to leverage the public perception of science as inherently aim and therefore good. Philosopher Subrena Smith writes about this ideology, “Science, students insist, is purely objective, and anyone who challenges that view must be misguided. A person is not deemed to be objective if she approaches her research with a set of background assumptions. Instead, she’s ‘ideological’. But all of us are ‘biased’ and our biases fuel the creative work of science. This issue can be difficult to address, because a naive conception of objectivity is so ingrained in the popular image of what science is” (Smith, 2018).
Thinkers like Harris and Murray are not just scholars, they are quickly becoming public figures. Murray is a policymaker first, but also plays public ambassador as the chief scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, (AEI), a policy think tank. His newest research aims to eliminate Affirmative Action. He claims this makes African Americans feel less worthy of their positions. Murray believes “Affirmative action policies in college admissions, he argues, actually hurt black and Latino students by creating a “mismatch” between their abilities and those of their white and Asian peers, which leads to elevated dropout rates” (Yglesias, 2018). He is also advocating a Universal Basic Income (UBI). This is not the left leaning UBI that will help creative millennials supplement their income. Murray wants the UBI to replace all social goods and services with the UBI instead of Snap, cash assistance, medicare, and medicaid. Many who want a UBI often champion Murray’s advocacy without reading the entirety of his plans.
The thrust of all this is not Murray’s social-engineering. It is the unwitting public and their policy makers that dance blindly with each other in the shaping of our society. As evident in the comments of Murray’s Youtube videos and on the Amazon reviews for his book, laypeople wanting to engage in “rigorous intellectual exercises”, not his cloaked eugenics, may inadvertently find themselves adding legitimacy to racist discourse. Our biases are situated within the perspective of how we view ourselves and each other. Our personal and political identities shape our public policies. If the public is not aware of biases they may have in their perception, they might also persuade unconscious lawmakers to build laws against the public’s best interest. Yglesias goes on, “Murray’s views on immigration policy have emerged as the dominant school of thought coming out of the White House and are supported by the Republican Party as a whole, despite evidence that the restrictionism has no society-wide upside…People of goodwill who really do simply believe in open inquiry ought to take a good, hard look at the overall context in which his topic arises and think carefully about what exactly it is they are trying to say” (2018).
Facts are … Facts?
Murray’s home institution promotes a video that discusses the connection between free speech, policy research, and the U.S. Government. Policy-researchers Frederick Hess and J. Grant Addison walk us through this relationship in a seven-minute video. Addison begins:
[An appropriate approach to free speech] recognizes that colleges and universities are not just places of classroom learning, they are also research enterprises generously funded by taxpayer funds. Since World War II, the federal government has used [these institutions] as subcontractors, dispersing billions annually for research in medicine, defense, energy and much more. From the beginning, these grants and contracts have been funded with the expectations that institutions receiving taxpayer dollars would adhere to the tenets of responsible science. Including the assurance that research questions, methods, and reporting would be guided by an unwavering commitment to free inquiry (2018, 1:33).
Today however, it is often universities themselves that pose the threat to free speech… This is a problem for robust debate around important questions regarding race relations, immigration, social policy and much more. After all, researchers like anyone else can fall prey to confirmation bias. The more ideologically uniform a research environment, the greater the risk that bias going unrecognized and reinforced and ultimately tainting results…”When it comes to research funded by taxpayers, it is important institutions are committed to open inquiry and create environments where hypothesis can be generated and research can be pursued freely, regardless of the feathers they ruffle or the feelings they hurt” (2018, 3:30).
Hess and Addison are just two voices among many claiming to be philosophical neutral by extolling the virtues of intellectual rigor and free speech. The institutions that are instating speech policies are doing so to protect the diversity of students in their labs from harmful speech. Though I also believe in maintaining free speech on campus, Hess and Addison miss the irony that institutions which contribute to our nation’s policy research are already overwhelmingly homogeneous and therefore bias in their research and thinking.
Much of what our academies substantiate as knowledge or fact is inherently biased. Philosophy is the cornerstone of scientific inquiry and peer review. It is how we define Truth and delineate between right and wrong. The research our scientists conduct stem from the perspective of classic Western Philosophy. In college catalogs, the Philosophy department and many of its courses simply carry the name “Philosophy”. But rarely, if ever do these departments include courses or reading selections from Asian, African, or Latin philosophy. If we charge these scholars and scientists with creating research for the better good of the public, where do they learn about the diverse ways the public perceives the Truth? When do they learn more about the public they serve? How do they learn how to perceive themselves and their work in relation to the population?
Creating policy to organize our businesses, institutions and governments has been in effect since the Code of Hammurabi (Kerley, 2017). But these policies and their components are not unconditionally objective. Policies are not thinking androids that can calculate the best solutions with doubtless precision. They are subjective, complicated systems, whose forms depend on the morals and perceptions of the human minds that shape them.
In the past, policy design has depended on empirical studies from research institutions. But a re-emergence of intellectual celebrity will place new pressures on public policy. To continue building a more inclusive society, on-the-ground policymakers will need to be more aware of their biases Rather than relying on data, self-Awareness will need to be a primary tool for mitigating bias. Consciousness is pivotal for scholars and policy designers to frame a responsible perception of the roles they are playing, defining the knowledge they accept as Truth, and identifying personal biases as public servants.
Out of curiosity, I performed a brisk, cursory study of the top 10 research Universities in the United States as defined by Times Higher Education. I wanted to learn about the offerings available to science and philosophy students to study philosophy outside the traditional Western canon. Sexuality and gender aside, I defined diversity for this study as broadly as possible. Any course between the Philosophy and History of Science programs which focuses on any number of philosophers, philosophical theory, or consciousness perspectives anywhere outside the U.K. France, Germany, or the continental U.S. And/or any course that focuses on any number of philosophers, philosophical theory, or conscious perspectives of ethnically diverse populations anywhere in the world including the all the aforementioned geographies. For instance, Yale had a course focused on Leibniz’s antecedents – Andalusian Francisco Suarez and Jewish-Dutch-Portuguese philosopher Spinoza. I counted this as a valid course. Johns Hopkins’ History department had a course on global slavery and medicine. I counted this as well.
I reviewed all courses offerings for the 2019-2020 academic year. I classified philosophy diversity statements as strong so long as there was a narrative acknowledgement of the issue or desire to improve it. Graduation Diversity Requirement shows if either department implicitly through its curriculum or explicitly requires students to complete a social, ethnic, or otherwise philosophically diverse course to graduate. I did not include gender or sexuality as part of this statistic. Though even these offerings were scarce, with between 1- and 3-women’s courses offered per institution and none for sexuality.
I discovered that seven of the 10 universities offered roughly five or fewer courses that met the above requirements between two departments -both undergraduate and graduate- for the entire school year. Four of them had diversity or inclusion statements. I also found it curious to note that MIT and Princeton offered intensive programs for minority students in philosophy. But none of the schools offered intensive workshops on philosophers outside the traditional Western canon.
Second, after conducting scientific and philosophical inquiry, scholars sift it for peer review and substantiate these studies as credible knowledge. In my search for science-based knowledge about Shamanic traditions in West Africa, I’ve found African authors, white or black hadn’t written many of the books. And because many of them have written articles, books, etc, within African institutions, they may look their work upon as not credible. Prestigious American journals and institutions are rarely familiar with foreign institutions. So, they do not have the same quick credibility heuristics to discern what studies might be credible.
This is especially true with novel or innovative research. Much of what I need to know for my research purposes in shamanic traditions is experiential. I needed first-hand perspectives on the process of divination. This can’t be written from an observer’s point of view. But neither is it likely to be deemed “credible” through the traditional process of peer review. With such myopic course offerings and peer review from diverse perspectives, we will continue to encounter the biases already inherent in our system that Hess believes is coming.
To define the “formula of a single problem”, policymakers look to think tanks, research organizations, and universities to get valuable data. As a community organizer and something of a novice policymaker myself, I’ve never thought to critique the process of defining a problem. But, just over a month ago, I had a life-changing moment that changed that perspective.
Without diversifying how we teach students to think about problems and solutions, we are only perpetuating the issues we’re trying to solve. Climate change, human trafficking, digital access, are just a handful of the biggest challenges the globe faces in the coming decades. It will take empathy and expanded awareness to tackle them successfully. Learning compassion from a philosopher who thought that “Hindus are educable in the highest degree, but only to the arts and not to the sciences or that “the negroes can only be educated as servants”, is highly unlikely.