Category Archives: Initiatives

Thoughts on #ShutDownSTEM day

Colleagues who thought that #ShutDownSTEM had nothing to do with mathematics will have been surprised to read this on Wednesday morning in place of their usual list of prepublications:

arXiv will not mail a daily announcement on the evening of Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Submissions received at or after 14:00 ET Monday, June 8 and before 14:00 ET Wednesday, June, 10 will be announced at 20:00 ET Wednesday, June 10.
 We also encourage authors to pause their submissions on Wednesday, June 10 to participate in the #strike4blacklives.

We encourage arXiv readers to use the time they would normally spend reading the daily announcement or submitting an article to instead read about and discuss racism and how they will work in their own local and professional communities to address it. If you choose to participate, please consider tagging @arXiv on Twitter to let us know what you are doing.

When I first posted a link to the #ShutDownSTEM website I never expected the call would be adopted by the staff at arXiv, much less by the AAAS, Nature, the American Physical Society, the MIT School of Science, and laboratories and universities around the world.  That a political program that is potentially so destabilizing to the status quo could attain mainstream status in the space of a few days is practically unprecedented in my experience.  At the same time, it strongly suggests that people in positions of authority believe its destabilizing potential can be kept under control.

The concise explanation of the purpose of the day-long hiatus at particlesforjustice.org hints at its inherent radicality:

as physicists, we believe an academic strike is urgently needed: to hit pause, to give Black academics a break and to give others an opportunity to reflect on their own complicity in anti-Black racism in academia and their local and global communities. This #strike4blacklives is in dialogue with a call from colleagues in astronomy to #shutdownSTEM and #shutdownacademia for at least the day of June 10.

Complicity in anti-Black racism?  That’s strong language!  To help understand what is meant here by that challenging word, here is Charles Blow of the New York Times, a more effective writer than most activist scientists.

We must make ourselves comfortable with the notion that for the privileged, equality will feel like oppression, and that things — legacy power, wealth accumulation, cultural influence — will not be advantaged by whiteness.…

How will our white allies respond when this summer has passed? How will they respond when civil rights gets personal and it’s about them and not just punishing the white man who pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck? How will they respond when true equality threatens their privilege, when it actually starts to cost them something?

He is talking about true equality in our departments, dear colleagues.  Mathematics has seen a few public initiatives in support of the #ShutDown — check out the top line at researchseminars.org, for example

Untitled

or this announcement of the postponement of a trinational seminar, these announcements from MSRI and the MIT and Duke mathematics departments,

MSRIMIT

Dukemore extended and apparently permanent announcements at Stanford and Barnard, and finally this image that greets today’s visitors to the AMS:

AMS screen capture

So I am spending Wednesday writing down my thoughts about structural obstacles to change in the profession.

Meritocracy

From the Strike4BlackLives page at particlesforjustice.org:

We must confront the institutional barriers to justice for Black people in academia and beyond, challenge the notion of the meritocracy whereby “objective and neutral” criteria infused with systemic racism are used to exclude Black people from physics and other academic disciplines, and rebuild our institutions and collaborations in a way that is just and equitable.

Chapter 2 of MWA is devoted to the way something I call charisma structures not only the profession’s functioning in practice but its very self-image as a coherent activity, and suggests that the profession’s value system is inseparable from the existence of a hierarchy that to all intents and purposes is consensual among practicing mathematicians.  This does not — necessarily — mean that mathematics would collapse if the hierarchy were disturbed, but it does mean that eliminating systemic racism from mathematics, insofar as it exists as a recognizable phenomenon, will require a painstaking (and frankly tedious) examination of how meritocracy works in mathematics.

I guess I know something about that.  I have taken part in departmental hiring decisions on two continents and was involved in several national committees for promotions and honors in France, and on the committee choosing candidates for grants at the European level.  I was once the editor-in-chief of a journal and continue to be on the editorial boards of several journals.   My files for the last year alone include 26 reference letters for positions or promotions or honors, about half at the request of the candidates and half at the request of their institutions.  And so on and so forth.  The only reference I have ever seen to race in connection with any of these activities has come in my membership in my department’s Diversity Hiring Committee (more on “diversity” below) and in sentences like

We especially encourage participation from junior
mathematicians, women, under-represented minorities,
and mathematicians from primarily undergraduate
institutions.

that are among the few “systemic” features of the process of including or excluding colleagues from professional activities in the United States and a few other English-speaking countries.

So, although I have no doubt that some senior colleagues harbor characteristically racist ideas, there is no blatant conspiracy to keep Black mathematicians out of the profession.  Nevertheless, the number of African-American colleagues in visible positions in mathematics has hardly changed over the course of my career — the New York Times estimated in 2019 that there are “only perhaps a dozen black mathematicians among nearly 2,000 tenured faculty members in the nation’s top 50 math departments” — not even 1%.   Fixing that gross imbalance is the modest challenge the #ShutDownSTEM action addresses to “non-Black” mathematicians.  The much more modest challenge I set myself for today is to analyze some of the stages of the creation of that imbalance in which mathematical gatekeepers like myself can intervene directly.

After thinking it over, however, and reading Louis Menand’s subtle New Yorker article on meritocracy, I decided to postpone this analysis to a future post.  Changing the structure of the decision process would require nothing less than a social revolution, albeit one on a much smaller scale than the one required to transform the so-called pipeline that leads through life in a profoundly racist society to the stage at which mathematical gatekeepers can become cognizant of the problem.  Fortunately for this discussion, people like Bernie Sanders have done much to take the sting out of the notion of “revolution,” so most readers will not immediately have images of guillotines and the Battleship Potemkin when they read that word.  Nevertheless, reviewing these decision processes has lost some of its urgency in view of the hiring freeze decided by at least 396 colleges and universities, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.  And the larger question of the dependence of mathematics on the existence of a consensual hierarchy; the reasons for placing “objective and neutral” in scare quotes in the above quotation; and the extent to which the decision process leads to an unquestionably racist outcome because it is based on criteria that are “infused with racism”:  these are questions that call for a book-length analysis.  For now I just want to urge my fellow gatekeepers to acknowledge the seriousness of the questions, and to resist the temptation to dismiss them with superficial answers.

But I do want to include Corey Robin’s concise metaphor for what passes for meritocracy in higher education in the US (but not only in the US):

This is the song of culture in our society. The bass line is wealth and profit; the melody is diversity and opportunity.

 

Taking action

In view of the problematic history of “diversity” as a juridical category in the United States, I’m pleased to see that the initiators of #Strike4BlackLives do not share the illusions of some of our colleagues with regard to diversity statements and diversity training.

Importantly, we are not calling for more diversity and inclusion talks and seminars. We are not asking people to sit through another training about implicit bias. We are calling for every member of the community to commit to taking actions that will change the material circumstances of how Black lives are lived — to work toward ending the white supremacy that not only snuffs out Black physicist dreams but destroys whole Black lives. In calling for a strike, we call on people who are not Black to spend a day undertaking discussion and action that furthers this work, while providing Black scientists with a day of rest.

Even with the best of intentions, commitment to diversity as codified in the jurisprudence initiated by Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell will not go far to remedy the pathological scarcity of Black mathematicians, much less to overcome the systemic and frankly criminal racism at the origin of the uprisings of the past few weeks.  Commitment to “taking actions” is clearly necessary.

But where to start?  Fortunately, a group of geoscientists has proposed a very helpful list of 15 classes of actions on a petition that at the time of writing has already been signed by more than 14000 people.  I am surprised to learn that the American Geophysical Union claims 62000 members, so maybe everyone who signed is actually a geoscientist; and a number of the actions suggested (like the ones about fieldwork, or the reference to mining and fossil fuels) don’t transpose naturally to mathematics.  But some of them do, and the others can serve as a stimulus to our imagination.  For example, Points 1 and 3:

  1.  Post anti-racism statements publicly and accessibly, and incorporate anti-racism into codes of ethics.

   3. Identify ways each society and organization has previously failed Black,         Indigenous, and Latinx People and other minoritized groups both structurally and individually.

would be too obvious to mention if more institutions had taken the initiatives listed at the beginning of this post.   The AMS has been acting on Point 14:

14. Publish annual, data-rich reports of the self-reported, intersectional demographics of members, including demographic data about who is getting awards and who is engaged in leadership in the organization.

for well over a decade — and I would be able to provide a link to the data if the AMS website were not shut down today! — but it’s less clear that departments (like mine) have been studying the data systematically and drawing conclusions.   On the other hand, I can well imagine that implementing Point 9:

9.  Address issues of workplace culture that are active threats to safety, wellbeing, and careers, and acknowledge, address, and promote the safety and success of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other minoritized geoscientists and students who have been historically marginalized in education and the workplace.

would make colleagues extremely uncomfortable, especially in departments (like mine) where North American colleagues of any race are in the minority (and I say this on the basis of my experience in France, where it took me years to understand “workplace culture”).

(Cautious) optimism

Now that (some) colleagues are paying attention, I actually think that the proportion of Black colleagues will increase significantly, and it won’t take as long as the 27 years that elapsed between the Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for Do the Right Thing and the Best Picture award for Moonlight.  For reasons already discussed here, young mathematicians are much more sensitive to questions of political injustice than (most of) their senior colleagues, and I anticipate that the situation described in a private message from a scientist at one of the major research institutions involved in #ShutDownSTEM

The strike was endorsed by the Graduate Student Council, and is close to being endorsed by the [NAME REDACTED] Postdoctoral Association; this has given trainees a sense of safety in numbers.  Trainees have organized their labs and communicated with PIs together, which has helped get whole labs on board.  Grad students and postdocs have also organized together to send joint statements of support to their Departments as a whole.  A few [NAME REDACTED] faculty pledged to participate early on.

will be reproduced by the future decision makers in mathematics departments (assuming there will be mathematics departments in the future).   Attitudes and practices will improve, structural obstacles will be removed, and initiatives like the Math Alliance will help to solve the pipeline problem.

I’m less convinced that getting racism in mathematics under control will have much of an effect on the problems that led to the current uprising.  Research mathematics, like Hollywood, is a compact and prosperous institution and can expand its demographic base — it has done so repeatedly over the course of the past century — without calling into question its dependence on existing power relations in the larger society.

At this point I was planning to insert some text from Adriana Salerno’s post on the AMS inclusion/exclusion blog, and to add some of my own thoughts on how training in financial mathematics has contributed to the problems highlighted in this book by Keanga Yamahtta-Taylor.  But the blog is shut down for the day, like the rest of the AMS website, so this will have to wait.

UPDATE:  Some more statements from Columbia:  The Department of Astronomy  has a statement that ends with these thoughts:

Society is facing an inflection point, fueling new awareness. We recognize the need for sustained actions that lead to real change. These may build on on-going efforts or may involve new initiatives and resources. They must also be derived from the exchange of ideas within our academic community of faculty, students and staff.

We commit to not only taking this moment to reflect and learn but also to using the momentum of the present to make concrete plans for the future.

The Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology has uploaded a diversity statement to its home page that does not explicitly refer to ShutDownSTEM.  The Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which includes the Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, sent a long statement to faculty and students at the school, including this commitment to practical action:

At the school level, we will begin by coordinating our current programs and actions into a more cohesive and visible effort, from K-12 outreach on through student and faculty recruitment and mentoring. This will enable further expansion of these initiatives and greater participation of our community in these impactful endeavors. This will also provide a clearer framework and foundation for us to build out these programs, identify gaps, and outline needed actions. I will be inviting your active participation in these efforts.
Other departments and schools may have sent similar messages to their members.

#SHUTDOWNSTEM

SHUTDOWNSTEM+(1) image

This is one of the many projects that grew out of the uprising against racism and police violence that began barely a week ago, in response to the murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers.  What I find especially striking in this case is that most of the initiators are physicists and astronomers, with a particular concentration at Caltech and some of the other campuses in the Los Angeles area.

Here is some of the relevant text:

In the wake of the most recent murders of Black people in the US, it is clear that white and other non-Black people have to step up and do the work to eradicate anti-Black racism. As members of the global academic and STEM communities, we have an enormous ethical obligation to stop doing “business as usual.” No matter where we physically live, we impact and are impacted by this moment in history.…

Here I would like to interject, for the sake of my French colleagues, that there is no need to focus on developments in the United States.   French practices provide ample scope for action and reflection.

To continue:

…For Black academics and STEM professionals, #ShutDownAcademia and #ShutDownSTEM is a time to prioritize their needs— whether that is to rest, reflect, or to act— without incurring additional cumulative disadvantage.

Those of us who are not Black, particularly those of us who are white, play a key role in perpetuating systemic racism. Direct actions are needed to stop this injustice. Unless you engage directly with eliminating racism, you are perpetuating it. This moment calls for profound and meaningful change. #ShutDownAcademia and #ShutDownSTEM is the time for white and non-Black People of Color (NBPOC) to not only educate themselves, but to define a detailed plan of action to carry forward. Wednesday June 10, 2020 will mark the day that we transition into a lifelong commitment of actions to eradicate anti-Black racism in academia and STEM.

Up to now I have seen no similar initiatives on the part of mathematicians, but I found it encouraging that John Bergdall used the expressions state-sponsored killing of African-Americans and American police terrorism in his opening remarks during the “local” panel at last week’s online CARTOON conference.  Finding the right names for the many visible and persistent consequences of racism within our own profession as well is a good place to start.  And studying the history of the mathematical institutions’ attempts to find ways to react to even the most blatant manifestations of racism places current practices in valuable perspective — Michael Barany’s sobering account of the creation of the AMS Notices should be read by everyone who still believes mathematics is intrinsically apolitical.

 

 

 

 

Mathematicians take the lead in coronavirus crisis

Mathematicians in both Britain and France are calling on their respective governments to abandon their present plans, which aim at reaching “herd immunity.”  Here are the first paragraphs of the British petition, which was apparently initiated by a group of applied mathematicians at Queen Mary University of London.

As scientists living and working in the UK, we would like to express our concern about the course of action announced by the Government on 12th March 2020 regarding the Coronavirus outbreak.  In particular, we are deeply preoccupied by the timeline of the proposed plan, which aims at delaying social distancing measures even further.

The current data about the number of infections in the UK is in line with the growth curves already observed in other countries, including Italy, Spain, France,and Germany [1]. The same data suggests that the number of infected will be in the order of dozens of thousands within a few days.

Under unconstrained growth, this outbreak will affect millions of people in the next few weeks. This will most probably put the NHS at serious risk of not being able to cope with the flow of patients needing intensive care, as the number of ICU beds in the UK is not larger than that available in other neighbouring countries with a similar population [2]. Going for “herd immunity” at this point does not seem a viable option, as this will put NHS at an even stronger level of stress, risking many more lives than necessary.

By putting in place social distancing measures now, the growth can be slowed down dramatically, and thousands of lives can be spared.

The complete statement is online.  It already has received more than 500 signatures, and they write

We are still collecting signatures, primarily from UK scientists but
also from leading international experts, mainly in mathematical
modelling, epidemiology, immunology, virology.

If you want to add your signature, you can write to Vincenzo Nicosia at

v.nicosia [at] qmul.ac.uk.

While the British statement is politely worded, almost to the point of caricature, Michel Parigot’s op-ed in today’s Libération, entitled Coronavirus:  the population must be locked down now, is extremely direct.  I translate the essential passages:

On Sunday Morning [French Minister of National Education] Jean-Michel Blanquer revealed, with an astounding distance and coldness, what what the government’s strategy had been from the start.  He explained that it is not a question of “preventing the virus from developing … but of ensuring that it develops over the longest possible period”, so that “50% to 70% of the population [are] ultimately infected with the virus “to achieve” majority immunity “.

Behind these figures, people are going to die. The idea is to immunize around 40 million people by exposing them to the virus. With a death rate in the range of 1% to 5%, depending on whether or not there are sufficient care options, that means between 400,000 and 2 million deaths. A strategy of deliberately sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives when an alternative exists, which the Chinese have already shown is possible, is simply monstrous.

Concretely, Parigot calls on the government to

ban all contacts which are not strictly necessary, and for that to kill the economy [here he quotes an expression that has been circulating in the press], with the exception of strictly necessary economic activities and working remotely. Maximum protection must also be provided to those who provide essential services: healthcare, food (production and distribution), essential infrastructure (water, electricity, internet, etc.). Masks must be worn by anyone who travels. Finally, we must give precise instructions with informative explanations to protect ourselves and others; it’s not enough to recommend “washing our hands as often as possible”.

Parigot’s final paragraph calls on President Macron to lock down the population completely and immediately, and seems to endorse a declaration of martial law if it comes to that.  An article in today’s Le Monde suggests that the French authorities are already thinking along these lines.

 

(To avoid any misunderstanding, I hasten to add that I can’t imagine that a declaration of martial law by the current US administration would end well; and in view of the violent reaction of the French police to demonstrations over the past 18 months — even as recently as one week ago — I’m not so sure it would work out well in France, either.)

 

 

Mathematicians on strike in Paris

maths-en-lutte

As a public service, I am copying the message that just arrived on my Jussieu account:

Pour les collègues présents à Jussieu qui souhaitent aller manifester (mes excuses pour les autres), il y a un rendez-vous :
Vendredi 24 janvier, 10h devant la tour 26.
And here are the minutes of a meeting between students and faculty on the ongoing strike, held on January 20:
CR_REUNION_UFRMATH_20_01_2020

Scientists for Palestine at MIT

S4P_MIT

It may not be too late to register for next month’s conference, at MIT, of the Scientists for Palestine network.  This is the third international meeting, and unlike the previous meetings at Cambridge University and at Columbia, this is the first to be co-sponsored by its host university.

Past conferences have focused primarily on physics, but at least one scheduled speaker is a mathematician (topologist Marwan Awartani), and I expect the mathematical sciences will be well represented.  A complete schedule will be posted here when it is made available.

Normally I would have expected the AMS inclusion/exclusion blog to be willing to help publicize such a meeting, since in many respects Palestinians live their entire lives in a state of exclusion.  But I learned that that is not the appropriate venue when my request to publicize last year’s meeting at Columbia was refused:

I’m sorry to say that the Editorial Board had decided that this submission was not quite appropriate for the blog, and I do apologize for not replying to you sooner (before the conference had already happened). Certainly posts on the struggles and successes of Palestinian mathematicians, particular first-person stories of such, are completely appropriate for this blog.  Unfortunately, press releases about conferences, even releases with added introductions and/or commentary, are not appropriate.

Perhaps a mathematician who attended this conference could write a blog post about their experience there, about any Palestinian mathematicians they met, and particularly about any conference talks by mathematicians.   This sort of personal review of a mathematics conference is common on this blog…

Apparently the inclusion/exclusion blog prefers to focus on individual rather than collective exclusion stories.  The present blog reaches a limited audience, but some of my readers have a more extensive presence on social media:  Twitter directed at least 350 visits to my blog over the last two days.  I hope those readers who can do so will help to spread the word.

CORRUPT DATA: Conference at Columbia April 13-14, 2017

The Center for Contemporary Critical Thought’s Digital Initiative presents a two-part conference series

Cambridge Analytica: Tracing Personal Data (from ethical lapses to its use in electoral campaigns)

Thursday, April 13, 2017 | 11:00am | East Gallery, Maison Francais

by Paul-Olivier Dehaye with Tamsin Shaw | Cathy O’Neil as respondant | moderated by Professor Michael Harris

&

Civil Society and Personal Data Use: necessary and salutary responses

Friday, April 14, 2017 | 12:00pm | Jerome Greene Hall 103

by Paul-Olivier Dehaye and Jerome Groetenbriel | moderated by Profesor Michael Harris | introduced by Professor Bernard E. Harcourt

 

 

Hedge fund wealth + Big Data = Mind Control

1024px-darpa_big_data

By DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA))[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Carole Cadwalladr’s article in the Guardian speaks for itself.  But this (copyrighted) visualization is more colorful.  See also Paul-Olivier Dehaye’s Twitter feed.

Robert Mercer’s role in US politics has already been mentioned here.