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February 02, 2005

Antidote to Anti-Racist Math

I'm sure that we've all neared our fill of Anti-Racist Math (See related posts here and here) bilge but there is more to say about the larger intellectual forces that enable follies like Anti-Racist Math. During the whole Larry Summers flap co-blogger Theresa encouraged me to broach the subject of Gender Free Math, and while I have been mulling over that topic I've also purposely been putting it off while replenishing the fortitude I'd need to dive back into what would likely be the manifesto of a Gender Free Math Movement, Sandra Harding's The Science Question in Feminism.

Harding's work is a prime example of postmodernist social constructivism and while it draws from the wellspring of a relativist perspective it surely isn't alone. In fact, recent incidents like Ward Churchill's salute to the "combat teams" of 9/11 mass murderers for ridding the world of the "little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers" and the Dover School Board's introduction of Intelligent Design have at their root the transition of opinion into fact. We can witness this arc in the rise of Holocaust Denial. New Criterion explored this topic recently:

Instead of being instantly dismissed as pernicious nonsense, denying the Holocaust is increasingly accorded the status of a "different perspective," a "dissenting point of view," "another opinion"--just like Ward Churchill's comments about the victims of 9/11.

Here's how it works. You find a Susan Rosenberg, a Ward Churchill, or a denier of the Holocaust. Then you say, "I certainly don't agree with them, but don't you think we should expose our students to the other side?" It sounds like good liberal doctrine: free speech, everyone entitled to his own opinion, and so on.

But denying the Holocaust is not simply the expression of "another opinion," a "different point of view," any more than comparing the victims of 9/11 to Nazi bureaucrats is. On the contrary, it is to engage in the kind of ideological warfare that corrupts the very nature of opinion in order to promulgate historical falsehood.

Now I'll grant you that it is a stretch to equate postmodernist thought to Holocasut Denial but the corruption and intellectual bankruptcy of the former enables the latter to incubate and rise. This aversion to facts and the process of scientific inquiry leads to all sorts of Rube Goldberg contortions to maintain ideological purity.

In this context, it is important to understand that denying the Holocaust is only one of many efforts to undermine the authority of historical truth. The phenomenon of Afrocentricism (which, incidentally, often indulges in a bit of Holocaust denial as a sideline) belongs here, as do many varieties of academic literary "theory" that now reign in the academy: deconstruction, extreme examples of "reader-response" theory, new historicism, etc. For all of them, facts are fluid and historical truth is a species of fiction: what actually happened in the past, or what a given text actually means, are for them ridiculous questions. Nor are these attitudes confined to the cloistered purlieus of the academy: in watered-down versions they have become standard-issue liberal sentiment: Rather than risk having to make an unpleasant judgment about the facts, deny that there are any such things as facts.

Readers of this blog will of course recognize this phenomena playing out with the "Race is a Social Construct" proponents despite compelling evidence to the contrary and the machinations following the passing of NCLB, with its Soviet styled multi-year plans, and their gaming of the system, as Kimberly Swygert details. Of course the resulting reality that results from these mindsets is as isolated from objective standards as the Soviet politburo and bureacracy were from the economic fundamentals affecting the Soviet Union. The statistics can be gamed but that doesn't change the reality of what is transpiring.

This slow accretion of opinion into truth is was is giving rise to Intelligent Design and it's Indian counterpart, Vedic Science. I'd encourage a full reading of Meera Nanda's essay on Intellectual Treason in the New Humanist.

All told, preservation of cultural meanings took priority over validity. Objectively false cosmology of the ‘other’ was not to be challenged because it gave meaning to people’s lives. Any demand for self–correction of local knowledges was routinely decried as a rationalist ‘witch–hunt’. The alternative to universalism was that of ‘critical traditionalism’ or ‘borderland epistemologies’. Cultures should be encouraged to create an eclectic mix of different and even contradictory ways of knowing. One need not reject modern science altogether, but rather selectively absorb it into the Indian gestalt: Contradictions were not to be questioned and removed, but rather celebrated as expressions of difference.

The picture of science that social constructivism offers is tailor–made for the doublespeak of Vedic science. All the major conclusions of science studies — culturally different but equally rational paths to truth, equation of universalism with colonialism and totalitarianism, penchant for eclecticism and hybridity, and the condemnation of disenchantment of nature — end up restating the fundamental assumptions which the nationalist neo–Hindus have always used to assert the superior ‘scientificity’ of Hindu metaphysics and mysticism. Postmodern prophets who promise us a kinder gentler science do indeed face backward to the spirit–soaked metaphysics of orthodox Hinduism, which has, in fact, inhibited the growth of reason, equality and freedom in India.

One only need look to the aspirations of the proponents of Intelligent Design and Anti-Racist Math to see that they share common cause with their counterparts in India. The root problem, as they see it, is methodological naturalism and the common solution is to give rise to alternative ways of knowing, not the truth, but visions of how they would like to see the world. With Anti-Racist Math proponents the primacy of mission is to imbue math instruction with their fetishization of multiculturalism and with Intelligent Design the science is to be modified so as to support what its advocates see as an eventual body of knowledge being developed upon a foundation of untestable hypotheses, yet these groups are untroubled with the conflict their intellectual constructs and physically implemented policies encounter upon meeting a reality that doesn't subscribe to social constructivism. Nanda continues:

Like the postmodernist supporters of ethno–sciences, they do not deny that modern science has discovered some truths about nature. But they declare them to be lower–level truths, because they merely deal with dead matter, shorn of consciousness. Notwithstanding all pious declarations of the ‘death’ of the Newtonian world view of matter obeying mechanical laws, the fact is that any number of rigorous, double–blind tests have failed to show any signs of disembodied consciousness or mind–stuff in nature: matter obeying mindless laws of physics is all there is. But in the Vedic science discourse, the overwhelming evidence for adequacy of matter to explain the higher functions of mind and life are set aside as a result of ‘knowledge filtration’ by western–trained scientists. Take the example of the emerging theory of ‘Vedic creationism’ (which updates the spiritual evolutionary theories of Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda). Its chief architects, Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson, claim that Darwinian evolutionary biologists and mainstream biologists, being products of the western ontological assumptions, have been systematically ignoring and hiding evidence that supports the theory of ‘devolution of species’ from the Brahman through the mechanism of karma and rebirth. All knowledge, they claim, parroting social constructivism, is a product of interests and biases. On this account, Vedic creationism, explicitly grounded in Vedic cosmology is as plausible and defensible as Darwinism, grounded on the naturalistic and capitalist assumptions of the western scientists.

Sounds familiar doesn't it? It is with these types of efforts to bend science to conform to social constructivist visions (hallucinations?) of reality that lead to claims like:

An Indian man, who claims to have survived only on liquids and sunlight for eight years, has been invited by NASA to show them how he does it.

[ . . . ]

"He has a special taste for sun energy. He believes only 5 per cent of human brain cells are used by most people. The other 95 per cent can be activated through solar energy."

Sadly, these claims are given credence by NASA, which unfortunately it seems has been infected by the same postmodernist virus that encourages the rise of disciplines like Anti-Racist Math and movements like ID. Nanda continues:

Here one finds an incredibly brazen claim for relativism and the culture–boundedness of rationality. Because in Hinduism there are no distinctions between the spirit and matter, one can understand laws that regulate matter by studying the laws of the spirit. And the laws of spirit can be understood by turning inward, through yoga and meditation leading to mystical experiences. Supporters of this mysticism–as–science argue that all science gains its coherence from within its own culturally sanctioned assumptions; modern science puts an artificial limit on knowledge as only that knowledge which can be accessible to senses. Within Hinduism however, it is as rational and scientific to take the non–sensory ‘seeing’ — that is mystical and other meditative practices — as empirical evidence of the spiritual and natural realm. This purported scientificity of the spiritual realm, in turn, paves the way for declaring occult New Age practices like astrology, vastu, and quantum healing and even yagnas as scientific within the Vedic–Hindu universe. This defence of parity (i.e. equal rationality) of the Vedic method of non–sensory, mystical knowing is fundamentally a social constructivist argument: it assumes that all sciences are valid for a given community that shares a fundamental metaphysics.

The equal validity of all viewpoints and the intellectual tolerance for entertaining the ramblings of the Churchills of the world enable the Holocaust deniers to give voice to their visions without being immediately denounced, and give legitimacy to notions like Anti-Racist Math and help explain why movements like Intelligent Design have the resiliency, and adaptability, that they do. These ideas are hard to kill because they, like all parasites, have grafted onto a healthy host, the Enlightenment, and by their very presence they weaken that which has allowed them to flourish. Our tolerance for the open debate of ideas has been subverted by the equivalence of opinion and fact

But all hope is not lost for there are still voices of the remnant that can stand tall and battle those who claim to speak for them. In my readings on Gender Free Math, which this post, despite my initial intentions didn't address fully (the perils of writing on the fly), I came across a young mathematician's essay, she being a student at University of Waterloo, Canada's equivalent to M.I.T., and it's quite clear that she too is part of the remnant:

"It must be hard being a woman in the male-dominated field of math. You must have encountered a lot of opposition." Well, they're right. I have encountered a lot of opposition. And it's all been from women.

I applied to university three years ago, and in the process, applied for scholarship. I deliberately avoided scholarships that boasted of allotting a fixed percentage of awards to women. When I won one that didn't, one woman excitedly exclaimed, "Congratulations! It's great that Waterloo finally had a girl to give a math scholarship to!" I was duly offended -- here I was, the top student in my high school, winner of provincial and national distinctions in math, and tutor at a math help centre, but the main reason that I got a scholarship, was because I'm female.

As I write this there are posters in the math building advertising a Women In Math night. Funny -- one of the reasons I decided to pursue math is because it deals with completely abstract -- and therefore genderless -- concepts. But thanks to these sorts of promotions, there are two types of people in the math faculty -- "aspiring mathematicians," and "aspiring female mathematicians."

It's quite clear that this mathematician isn't buying into the identity politics which suffuses so much of modern thought. She clearly takes pride in her intellectual achievement and divorces herself from the concept of knowing math from a distinct female perspective The challenge for her, and for us all, is to recapture the commanding heights of intellectual discourse and once again establish the primacy of truth over opinion and to relegate postmodernism to the dustbin of history as we have with its ideological sibling, Marxism.

Addendum: Running With Plutonium links to this related article on Fashionable Nonesense.

Posted by TangoMan at 03:05 AM