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.

Link between Lullism and the Jesuits’ descent into the particular

While reading The Art of Memory by Frances Yates, I ran across the phrase “descending from ‘generals’ to ‘specials'”and it reminded me of the Jesuit idea of “descending into the particular”.

Yates indicates, I think rightly, that this is:

a notion implicit in Lullism as it ascends and descends on the ladder of being [scala naturae] from specials to generals and from generals to specials. This terminology is specifically used of memory in Lull’s Liber ad memoriam confirmandam in which it is stated that memory is to be divided into specials and generals, the specials descending from the generals.

This seems like it is very closely associated with the Jesuit’s concept of “descending into the particular” (or the specials) within their teaching on thinking. (For those unfamiliar, I recall that Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting podcast episode within Revisionist History on this area of moral reasoning.)

Given that Raymond Lull (c. 1232 – c. 1315) has significant philosophical and religious sway in his lifetime, it is highly likely that the Jesuits (founded 1535) may have picked up the foundation of the concept from him. Yates writes this section in Chapter X, in relation to the ideas of memory with respect to Lullism which assuredly influenced Peter Ramus (1515-1572) and his ideas of memory.

I can’t help but think about why the Jesuits didn’t also include the idea of ascension into their philosophy? Perhaps some additional research into the topic will reveal some more direct associations. I think Yates’ link between Lullism and Ramism are pretty solid. I’d like to see some more direct evidence between Lullism and the Jesuits. I’d love to delve into the use of the art of memory within the Jesuit tradition as well.

The scala naturae or great chain of being has had a profound effect (not necessarily a positive one) on religion and modern culture. Far too many people are completely ignorant of what it is or what it entails, yet it underpins a huge swath of Western thought.

Miniature in an illuminated manuscript of Raymond Lull next to a ladder indicating the the levels of being
Scala Naturae or Ladder of Being in Breviculum ex artibus Raimundi Lulli electum – St. Peter perg. 92 [page 13 (5r)]
Read Introducing the idea of ‘hyperobjects’ by Timothy MortonTimothy Morton (High Country News)
A new way of understanding climate change and other phenomena.

We are obliged to do something about them, because we can think them.

Annotated on January 15, 2020 at 08:56AM

It’s very difficult to talk about something you cannot see or touch, yet we are obliged to do so, since global warming affects us all.

It’s also difficult to interact with those things when we’re missing the words and vocabulary to talk about them intelligently.
Annotated on January 15, 2020 at 09:00AM

Timothy Morton is Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University in Houston. He is the author of Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality and Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End Of The World.

want to read these
Annotated on January 15, 2020 at 10:10AM

Or global warming. I can’t see or touch it. What I can see and touch are these raindrops, this snow, that sunburn patch on the back of my neck. I can touch the weather. But I can’t touch climate. So someone can declare: “See! It snowed in Boise, Idaho, this week. That means there’s no global warming!” We can’t directly see global warming, because it’s not only really widespread and really really long-lasting (100,000 years); it’s also super high-dimensional. It’s not just 3-D. It’s an incredibly complex entity that you have to map in what they call a high-dimensional- phase space: a space that plots all the states of a system. In so doing, we are only following the strictures of modern science, laid down by David Hume and underwritten by Immanuel Kant. Science can’t directly point to causes and effects: That would be metaphysical, equivalent to religious dogma. It can only see correlations in data. This is because, argues Kant, there is a gap between what a thing is and how it appears (its “phenomena”) that can’t be reduced, no matter how hard we try. We can’t locate this gap anywhere on or inside a thing. It’s a transcendental gap. Hyperobjects force us to confront this truth of modern science and philosophy.

A short, and very cogent argument here.
Annotated on January 15, 2020 at 10:07AM

Hat tip: Ethan Marcotte #

Read The hoof and the horse. by Ethan Marcotte (ethanmarcotte.com)
On objects and slices; on design systems and scale.

Robin brings a helpful name to this problem, by way of the philosopher Timothy Morton: hyperobject. A hyperobject is an entity whose scale is too big, too sprawling for any single person to fully appreciate their scale. Climate change, financial markets, socioeconomic classes, design systems—they’re systems we move through, but their scale dwarfs our own.

Hyperobject is an interesting neologism and concept
Annotated on January 15, 2020 at 08:47AM

Bookmarked Understanding Concept Modeling by Winston Perez (conceptmodeling.com)
Ideas and concepts are different. In fact, they operate in two separate, radically different worlds that few have been taught to distinguish. One carries the “surface layer” and “whole” of the idea. The other, deeper layer carries essence, the structure of essence. and the activity of essence. Concept Modeling is about the art, science and philosophy that is concept. It is the missing discipline and here is the place to learn about that discovery made on February 6, 1989 by Winston Perez.

🎧 Fifty ways to cook a carrot: More than a snack, Jack | Eat This Podcast

Listened to Fifty ways to cook a carrot More than a snack, Jack by Jeremy CherfasJeremy Cherfas from Eat This Podcast

Book coverA rainbow handful of carrots graces the cover of Peter Hertzmann’s new book. But, as I discovered when I spoke to Peter, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Or even, apparently, by its title: 50 Ways to Cook a Carrot. Because although all the methods (not recipes!) feature carrots in one form or another, they’re intended to offer techniques that, Peter insists, you can apply to many other vegetables, fruits, and even meat and fish.

There is, indeed, much to be learned from the book, even for an experienced cook, and I have already successfully applied one of the methods to some leeks. The UK edition of the book, published by Prospect Books, is available now, but it won’t be available in the US for a couple of months. However, Prospect kindly agreed to send a copy to one lucky winner.

Next Monday (28 October) I will pick someone at random from all of those who subscribe to Eat This Newsletter. If you’re already a subscriber, you don’t need to do anything, although I would appreciate if you spread the word and thereby diminish your own chances. If you’re not a subscriber, do sign up now, and feel free to diminish your chances too by persuading friends to sign up.

Notes

  1. Peter Hertzmann’s website is à la carte
  2. You can order 50 Ways to Cook a Carrot directly from Prospect Books.
  3. Banner photo by Dana DeVolk on Unsplash
This podcast always sparks such joy for me. Sadly I love it so much that I can not just consume it in the same gourmand way I do the vast majority of the podcasts I listen to. I always feel the guilty-pleasure-need to carve out specific time to sit down and listen to it so that I can be a far more active listener than not. The worst part is that it means I’m not listening to it as frequently as I’d like. Sometimes you just can’t win.

I have to say that I whole-heartedly agree with Peter Hertzmann’s view of cooking pedagogy. It’s NEVER about the recipe, instead it’s all about the method. If you have the knowledge of the methods of cooking and know some ingredients then you’re set. Now of course when it comes to baking and a few other small sub-areas then having the proper ratios of ingredients becomes useful too. The rest is just taking the science of cooking and bring it up to the sublime level of art.

I’ve got a copy of the book on pre-order for it’s release on January 14, 2020 and based on Jeremy’s interview I suspect it’ll take up residence on the shelf right next to McGee’s On Food and Cooking and Ruhlman’s Ratio.

🎧 Episode 1: You Can Change | The Happiness Lab

Listened to Episode 1: You Can Change from The Happiness Lab

There are things you can do today to make yourself happier. Your life circumstances and personality aren't nearly as important as you think in deciding how happy you can be. Dr Laurie Santos explains how understanding the latest science will point you in the right direction to making you more satisfied with your life.

📑 We Have Never Been Social | Kathleen Fitzpatrick

Annotated We Have Never Been Social by Kathleen FitzpatrickKathleen Fitzpatrick (Kathleen Fitzpatrick)
Contravening that force is going to require something more than personal control, promoting something other than atomization.  

👓 'A Clockwork Orange' Follow-Up Found in Burgess Archives | Smithsonian Magazine

Read 'A Clockwork Orange' Follow-Up Found in Burgess Archives (Smithsonian)
'The Clockwork Condition' was intended to be a philosophical examination of themes raised in his most popular and problematic novel

👓 Paradox of tolerance | Wikipedia

Read Paradox of tolerance (Wikipedia)
The paradox of tolerance is a paradox that states that if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant. Karl Popper first described it in 1945—expressing the seemingly paradoxical idea that, "In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance."

👓 Seven ways to think like the web | Jon Udell

Read Seven ways to think like the web by Jon UdellJon Udell (Jon Udell)
Update: For a simpler formulation of the ideas in this essay, see Doug Belshaw’s Working openly on the web: a manifesto. Back in 2000, the patterns, principles, and best practices for building web information systems were mostly anecdotal and folkloric. Roy Fielding’s dissertation on the web’s...
Last week someone in the IndieWeb chat asked about what “web” thinking was. I’ve always understood the broader idea generally, but never seen it physically laid out. Jon does a pretty solid job of putting it down into words here.

📑 The Unlikely Survival of the Godfather of Rap | The New Yorker

Annotated New York Is Killing Me by Alec WilkinsonAlec Wilkinson (The New Yorker)
A philosopher might miss appointments, but so might someone with a propane torch in his apartment, even if he is a philosopher.  
— Gil Scott-Heron

👓 What are our ethical obligations to future AI simulations? | Philip Ball | Aeon Essays

Read What are our ethical obligations to future AI simulations? by Philip Ball (Aeon)
Say you could make a thousand digital replicas of yourself – should you? What happens when you want to get rid of them?