John Derbyshire On Science Education And Affirmative Action: The War Against Human Nature Continues

Following on from my last week’s analysis of the International Math Olympiad results (here, with supplementary posts here and here), I have a couple of items on science education and the Left’s continuing war against human nature.

First, an opinion piece for the blog of The Smithsonian magazine. The author is one Shannon Palus, [Email her] described as “a science writer and a researcher for Popular Science.”

Ms. Palus’ blog post laments the under-representation of blacks, Hispanics, and women in American college science faculties.

In the matter of racial under-representation, we get this:

According to the new survey data, just 2.1% of physics faculty in the country are African American and 3.2% Hispanic … The overwhelming majority—79.2%—of physics faculty are white.

[We Know Physics is Largely White and Male, But Exactly How White and Male is Still Striking by Shannon Palus,, July 14, 2014]

As one of Ms. Palus’ commenters points out, adding the three numbers there gives a total of 84.5 percent. Who are the missing 15.5 percent? Perhaps they are some analog of the mysterious “dark matter” that physicists tell us lurks in the interstices of spacetime?

Answer, of course: Asians. For some reason, Ms. Paulus isn’t interested in them.

If you factor in sex, which Ms. Palus needless to say calls “gender,” the discrepancies are even greater:

In the entire United States, of the thousands and thousands of college physics and astronomy faculty, only 75 are African American or Hispanic women, says the American Institute of Physics. According to a new survey by the AIP, female racial minorities make up less than 1% of the 9,050 physics faculty members in the country.

Presumably “racial minorities” does not include that 15.5 percent of dark matter.

What accounts for these under-representations, though? You have one guess: Bias!

The roots of bias run deep, and in some part stem from the idea that physics is a select club, the exclusive realm of brilliant, excentric [sic] white men.

Eliminating irrational biases in faculty hiring, supposing such biases exist, would obviously be an advance in fairness. But Ms. Palus thinks it would also improve the actual quality of science:

New ideas often come from new ways of thinking. The different perspectives and experiences of those who—by nature of their gender or skin color—have tred [sic] a different path through life should be valuable to all people who care about scientific discovery. Not just because diverse ways of thinking could set the stage for new scientific ideas but because, at its heart, physics explores the underpinnings of the universe, and the keys to the cosmos should be accessible to everyone.

(It would be disgracefully male-supremacist of me to pass in chivalrous silence over Ms. Palus’ not knowing the perfect participle of “tread” or the correct spelling of “eccentric,” so I won’t.)

The assumption: women and blacks bring “diverse ways of thinking” to sciences like physics and astronomy; not by virtue of innate differences in neurological wiring—perish the thought!—but as a result of having trodden those different paths through life.

This is not absolutely implausible, though it would be nice to see some evidence. Science at the highest levels advances in part by imaginative leaps—Albert Einstein’s career famously attests to this—and the imagination is nourished by varieties of experience.

Nevertheless, your first filter in hiring in to a physics faculty must be the applicant’s ability to handle the cognitively very demanding material of advanced physics. And that ability is differently distributed by sex and race. There is the fundamental reason for those different percentages.

Ms. Palus’ case is not entirely without merit. She links to a much-discussed 2012 study on sex bias, which presented faculty hirers with résumés to which male or female names had been assigned at random. Sex bias did indeed show up.

The effect is slight, and is present in female hirers as well as males (“female faculty participants did not rate the female [applicant] as more competent or hirable than did male faculty”), so presumably is not an artefact of patriarchal oppression. What is it an artefact of? JayMan chews over five possibilities here. (For example, “any sort of test is likely to overpredict the performance of high-scoring individuals, and much more so for those from low-scoring groups…[Thus the hirers’] experience with female students/employees has shown them to be, overall, weaker performers, and it this, quite unfortunately, colors their decision.”)

In the matter of race, the next most important factor after differences in cognitive ability is the law of supply and demand, as a different commenter on Palus’ article points out:

As a former administrator in a major engineering college in the United States, I can tell you that the primary limitation that we faced in recruiting engineering or physics undergraduate students into our graduate programs who were people of color or women was not “bias” or “racism” or any such thing—it was that they were universally able to find extremely lucrative positions elsewhere.

Non-academic or high-prestige academic employers, keen to fill their race and sex quotas, snap up the small numbers of black and female science graduates, leaving nothing for middling colleges.

Second science education item: The assault on New York City’s specialized science schools.

Within New York City’s public-school system are nine elite specialized high schools, in which very able kids can get a supercharged education free of charge. By New York State law, the only way to get accepted in eight of the nine is by an open competitive standard examination. (The ninth school is for music and drama; it selects by audition.)

New York’s specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant [High School] and the equally storied Bronx High School of Science, along with Brooklyn Technical High School and five smaller schools, have produced 14 Nobel laureates—more than most countries.

[To make elite schools ‘fair,’ city will punish poor Asians, by Dennis Saffran, New York Post, July 19, 2014.]

The state-mandated competitive examination of course yields different pass rates for different races.

Blacks and Hispanics make up seventy percent of the relevant age group in the city; in this year’s exam they only got twelve percent of the seats in those eight schools. Non-Hispanic whites are only twelve percent of New York’s student population, they got 26 percent of the seats. Asians are only fifteen percent of the student population: they got fifty-three percent of the seats.

Immigration patriots might wonder about the wisdom of importing so many Asians and supplying their kids with a premium education at taxpayers’ expense. Do we really need another high-IQ overclass?

I would say not. That’s an argument against mass nonwhite immigration, though, not against specialized high schools with meritocratic admissions criteria.

If you know your statistics, you’ll know that these discrepancies are going to be most prominent at the tails of the distribution. The best-known of the eight schools is Stuyvesant High, and that’s also the one with the highest cutoff for admission. Stuyvesant will take in 950 freshmen this fall. Only 21 will be Hispanic; only seven will be black. Percentagewise that’s 2.2 and 0.7.

Similarly, at Bronx Science, black enrollment has fallen from 12 percent in 1994 to 3 percent currently and Hispanic enrollment has leveled off, from about 10 percent to 6 percent. The figures are even more striking at the less selective Brooklyn Tech, where blacks made up 37 percent of the student body in 1994 but only 8 percent today, while Hispanic numbers plunged from about 15 percent to 8 percent.

The big winners here, as Dennis Saffran’s title makes clear, are the city’s poor Asian kids. Poor they mostly are:

Half the students at the specialized high schools qualify for free or subsidized school lunches, including 47 percent at Stuyvesant and 48 percent at Bronx Science—figures that have increased correspondingly with Asians’ rising numbers at these schools. Based upon these figures, Stuyvesant and Bronx Science (as well as four of the other six specialized schools) are eligible for federal Title I funding, given to schools with large numbers of low-income students.

To Mayor Bill de Blasio and the other limousine Leninists in charge of the city government, the situation is scandalous. Those numerical discrepancies are evidence of discrimination.

Two years ago the NAACP filed a civil rights complaint with the federal Department of Education, charging “bias” in the entrance examination. De Blasio has now signed on to the suit. The push is for “holistic” admissions to the specialized high schools. As Andrew Ferguson observed in Crazy U: “A more practical and accurate term for holistic admissions is ‘completely subjective.’”

And as always with Leftist projects, the beneficiaries will be affluent or well-connected Leftists.

De Blasio suggested, for example, that a student’s extracurricular activities should be one of the selection factors. But as a past president of the Stuyvesant Parents Association noted, “the kids that have the best résumés in seventh and eighth grades have money.”

A Chinese student … who has to help out in his parents’ Laundromat is not going on “service” trips to Nicaragua with the children in de Blasio’s affluent Park Slope neighborhood. The [NAACP’s] suggested admissions criteria—student portfolios, leadership skills and community service—are all subject to privileged parents’ ability to buy their children the indicia of impressiveness.

The war against human nature continues. Human nature will win.


John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. ) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by com is  FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at

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