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Requesting evidence is violence

The Record’s final edition for the year came out on Wednesday, featuring several opinions. A couple of them appeared to respond to Professor Luana Maroja’s recent op-ed, “Refuting claims of institutional violence: Analyzing evidence of racism at the College.” Professor Maroja has historically been an advocate for free speech at the college, and her article’s thesis was simple: There is not sufficient evidence for claims of institutional racism at the college.

Two opinions this week sought to provide an argument for structural racism at the college. Professor of geoscience Phoebe Cohen wrote the more compelling of these, at least trying to provide evidence for racism. She begins her article with the following:

I am white. I am racist. I am not proud of this fact, but I have accepted it. Acknowledging that I am racist helps me to become, I hope, less so. I catch my instinctive thoughts and ask them why they are there. Why am I feeling annoyed, fearful, dismissive in this moment? When someone in my community at Williams tells me they feel unsafe, and my first instinct is skepticism, I know that it is a fallacy to say that I’m skeptical because of my training as a scientist. Instead, it is because I don’t want to believe that my colleagues are racist, sexist, transphobic. Not believing it doesn’t make it true. I am a white person raised in a racist, white supremacist country. Every day I have to make a conscious decision to fight against that and to challenge my own thoughts and biases. 

Truthfully, I would expect more out of a scientist. Skepticism is never a fallacy; it should be the instinctive response to any claim. What is a fallacy, however, is blindly accepting anecdotal evidence as statistically significant.

Professor Cohen spends a large part of her article describing racist events outside of Williams and employing definitions of racism, white supremacy, transphobia, etc. that are strictly unscientific (if they cannot be refuted and their validity is contingent upon diagnosing their opponent, they are scientifically meaningless). She finally hits a note, however, in her discussion of microagressions:

As a scientist, I love to go to the literature. I pull up Google Scholar and what I find confirms what I am telling you. People are racist and full of biases. And while it may be true that people don’t often get punched in the face on our campus, that does not mean that violence does not occur. What happens more often are the much maligned “microaggressions.” The thing is, even if you don’t want microaggressions to matter, they do. The research backs this up, but so do the experiences of our own friends and colleagues.

However, this point is mostly trivial. Of course microagressions and implicit bias exist; nobody is denying this fact. Tribalism is unfortunately a very instinctive trait among humans. However, it is important to remember that this bias exists among all groups. In fact, I would argue that whereas there is only implicit bias toward minority groups on campus, there is very explicit bias toward majority groups; people are not afraid to say they hate or do not trust white men. All individuals should seek to be aware of our biases. However, implicit biases and microagressions are a far cry from the much more alarming claim of “structural violence,” which merits stronger evidence.

While I disagree with Cohen’s article, I thought it was at least a thoughtful contribution to the discussion. Students were not so thoughtful. The op-ed titled “Bearing witness to aggression against faculty of color: Calling for accountability from the College for structural racism” features a number of bizarre claims. I won’t recreate them in full here. However, we need to draw attention to one sentence in particular:

The constant request for more evidence of racism is also violence because it invalidates the ways in which racism harms our mental health and our bodies.

This is the absolute worst response possible to the debate, but, unfortunately, is the crux of most of the arguments of the Social Justice Warriors. No matter how true your claim is, dogma is bad. These students could have discovered a unified theory of science, and this dogma would still be terrible. In what world is it good journalism to equate basic scientific inquiry to violence?

The lack of ideological diversity is already a problem at institutions like Williams, but nothing fatal. An attack on scientific methodology and healthy discourse, however, is a much more dangerous development. Consider that, additionally, students on campus have been calling for Professor Maroja’s op-ed to be taken down because it is disrespectful to minority communities. A plea for free speech is now ironically being attacked by suppression of free speech. Of course, the college will not dignify this suppression of speech (Mandel’s recent WIFI statement proved that she is not a pawn of these activists). But it remains unsettling that a growing number of students are adopting this philosophy and dogma is now the social norm.

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20 Comments To "Requesting evidence is violence"

#1 Comment By EphProf On May 11, 2019 @ 7:47 am

Phoebe Cohen’s op ed was condescending and patronizing to her colleagues. By saying that her colleagues who disagree with her just haven’t earned the trust of her students yet, she came across as “holier than though” to many, many people who were immediately turned off, including me. Note how many times her op ed uses the word “I.” She is trying to advance her own career and perhaps it will work. Perhaps it will spectacularly backfire.

#2 Comment By Caleb Smith On May 11, 2019 @ 2:20 pm

EphProf,

Thanks for sharing Professor.

I think this sheds a light on another interesting phenomenon: How current student activism can divide the faculty. Reminiscent of the Evergreen State fallout. Professors interested in advancing their careers find appealing to these students politics a pretty easy way to do that.

#3 Comment By 0xEph On May 11, 2019 @ 3:50 pm

and employing definitions of racism, white supremacy, transphobia, etc. that are strictly unscientific (if they cannot be refuted and their validity is contingent upon diagnosing their opponent, they are scientifically meaningless).

I wouldn’t have thought of these things as being of the sort of terms that require scientific definitions. I also don’t see any definitions in her op ed that “cannot be refuted.” And I also don’t know what you mean “their validity is contingent upon diagnosing their opponent.”

Skepticism is never a fallacy; it should be the instinctive response to any claim.

Professor Cohen is not calling skepticism a fallacy. She writes: “When someone in my community at Williams tells me they feel unsafe, and my first instinct is skepticism, I know that it is a fallacy to say that I’m skeptical because of my training as a scientist. Instead, it is because I don’t want to believe that my colleagues are racist, sexist, transphobic.” Professor Cohen is saying that it’s easy to take refuge in something akin to ‘my skepticism is just me being a scientist,’ but that her saying as much would not be truthful; Professor Cohen’s skepticism about these claims stems, instead, from the unpleasantness of acknowledging that one’s colleagues might be “racist, sexist, transphobic.”

(Presumably you’re not arguing that skepticism can never spring from anything beyond good scientific thinking — because that’s obviously not true.)

In fact, I would argue that whereas there is only implicit bias toward minority groups on campus, there is very explicit bias toward majority groups; people are not afraid to say they hate or do not trust white men. All individuals should seek to be aware of our biases. However, implicit biases and microagressions are a far cry from the much more alarming claim of “structural violence,” which merits stronger evidence.

This is where you need to really do some heavy self-evaluation. You make strong and entirely unsupported descriptive and normative claims just several paragraphs after criticizing Professor Cohen for making similar claims.

It’s also worth noting that lots of people, including some on this board, do deny the existence or relevancy of implicit bias and micro-aggressions. I’m also not sure that I understand what the difference between implicit bias and micro-aggressions and “structural violence” is, or why the evidentiary requirements differ.

This is the absolute worst response possible to the debate, but, unfortunately, is the crux of most of the arguments of the Social Justice Warriors. No matter how true your claim is, dogma is bad. These students could have discovered a unified theory of science, and this dogma would still be terrible. In what world is it good journalism to equate basic scientific inquiry to violence?

Again, you misread the op-ed. The op-ed does not disallow any request for any evidence, but instead decries the constant requests for more evidence. There is nothing inherently unreasonable about such a plea: there is a point in any scientific debate at which the marginal value of additional support for a theory becomes outweighed by (a) the cost of investigation; and (b) the risk that false negatives or false positives could muddy what should be a clear picture. It is not good science to run every available test in every available circumstance and then to rerun said tests again and again and again and again and again forever. Such an approach becomes susceptible to false positive problems (see p-hacking) or to a nihilistic view in which nothing is really ever adequately proven. (To the extent that it’s useful to regularly re-check even widely-recognized and firmly established results, it’s in the context of acknowledging those results as almost certainly true and to acknowledge any follow-up evidence that undermines those results as likely untrue.)

Now, what I imagine is your actual issue here is that you don’t believe that the evidence provided thus far for these sorts of claims is sufficient, whereas the writers of the op-ed disagree. Your dispute is where the line falls respecting adequate evidence, not over whether evidence is needed. That’s a fair point — and one to which the op-ed writers respond. It is, however, a different point than the one you make in your above post.

#4 Comment By John Drew On May 11, 2019 @ 4:24 pm

– oxEph

I think Caleb has you beat on this argument. The claims of the proponents of identity politics are so distant from reality and empirical testing that they are now best interpreted as the creed of a new woke religion.

This, at least, is the take of a very courageous Williams College political science professor, Darel Paul.

Listening at the Great Awokening

Your naive comments remind me of the Russia Hoax Conspiracy theorists who still, even after the Muller Report, want to stomp all over anyone who disagrees with their erroneous views.

#5 Comment By Caleb Smith On May 11, 2019 @ 4:54 pm

oxEph,

Cohen uses words like “racism,” “white supremacist,” etc. in the typical radical left/academic fashion in which they mean that everybody is these things, whether we acknowledge it or not. Her entire article appeals to science; I assumed she would hold scientific standards to the terms she uses.

It most definitely is good science to run tests over and over again. p-hacking is a separate issue. If takes but one falsification to disprove a theory. Conjecture-refutation is the way of science.

I do not think I misread the op-ed. It is true that the students said “the constant request,” but there has not been a constant request. There have been a few requests which have resulted in students demonizing those looking for evidence. This isn’t some scientific program where the cost to look for evidence is millions of dollars of resources. We are just asking students to tell us where there is structural violence. Is producing this evidence, even once, really such a great burden?

The point about what qualifies as adequate evidence is definitely a point I did make in my post above. I discussed how anecdotal evidence is not sufficient for claims of structural (institutional, systemic) violence, and how microagressions are also not adequate. Microagressions are not adequate evidence for systemic oppression for two reasons: (1) because we do not observe a disparity on campus in how microagressions/implicit biases are attributed to certain groups, and therefore this evidence is not statistically significant, and (2) microagressions do not serve as evidence for the types of violence which is presumably part of the structure of the institution that these students are claiming.

I made one unsupported claim about how there are explicit biases toward majority groups. These were founded in my personal experience, which I do not take to be significant. The purpose of this sentence was a quick aside to propose an alternate, equally plausible hypothesis (that the data is significant in the other direction of bias).

Happy Saturday, maybe we can both spend it doing some “heavy self-evaluation.”

#6 Comment By Caleb Smith On May 11, 2019 @ 4:57 pm

JCD seems to plug Paul’s article every chance he gets (to be fair, it’s a really good piece IMO), but he’s right. It is much easier to understand contemporary SJWs as a religion rather than an empirically founded school of thought.

#7 Comment By 0xEph On May 11, 2019 @ 7:05 pm

Caleb,

You’re being unfair again. You’re ascribing to Professor Cohen unfavorable (and unstated) definitions of terms from other contexts. The academic definition of white supremacy, for example, is not that “everybody is these things, whether we acknowledge it or not.” There’s no doubt in my mind that you could find someone who would incorporate this sentiment into such a definition, but it’s really unfair of you to ascribe such a non-standard, exaggerated, and un-careful definition into what Professor Cohen wrote.

Also, I don’t think that it’s true that Professor Cohen’s article “appeals to science.” What she’s doing is more complicated than that, and I doubt that Professor Cohen believes that terms like “white supremacy” require a scientific definition. I remain confused by what that would mean. What is a scientific definition of white supremacy?

Third, are you a science major? Science (or statistics) just doesn’t really work the way that you think that it does. Substitute flat-earth in for your arguments. One of the arguments made by flat earthers is that there remains insufficient scientific evidence of the earth’s roundness and that scientists’ resistance to some of the desired tests represents an example of the round-earth dogma and supports the likely truth of the flat earth hypothesis. But I think you’re smart enough to know that the reason why scientists don’t take flat-earthers seriously, and ignore or condemn calls for more research on this subject, isn’t because there might be something to the flat earth theory. The fact of the matter is that there is easily ample evidence of the earth’s roundness to render additional testing net-harmful.

I obviously believe that there is a substantial difference between the amount of evidence supporting the earth’s roundness and the amount of evidence showing structural racism at Williams College. My point here isn’t that there is sufficient evidence for the latter proposition, but rather that the op-ed’s decrial of requests for additional evidence doesn’t represent an anti-science position. Rather, it represents a disagreement (maybe a reasonable one, maybe an unreasonable one) over what the current evidence–and there is undeniably some! means. Irrespective of whether you’re ultimately correct about structural racism at Williams, your criticism is different in kind to the one you’re trying to make. JCD, for instance, is making this latter point: that there just isn’t much evidence of structural racism at Williams. (JCD, of course, is unlikely to actually know either way — and was clearly politically and personally primed to reach only one possible conclusion on this subject.)

1) because we do not observe a disparity on campus in how microagressions/implicit biases are attributed to certain groups, and therefore this evidence is not statistically significant, and (2) microagressions do not serve as evidence for the types of violence which is presumably part of the structure of the institution that these students are claiming.

I don’t follow. Who is “we?” I imagine that the authors of the op-ed — and probably most students on campus — do believe that there are material disparities “in how microagressions/implicit bias are attributed to certain groups.” Also, what is not statistically significant? And how do you know? Is there some study here about which I’m unaware? I don’t follow your second point either. Why don’t or couldn’t? microagressions “serve as evidence for the types of violence” at issue? And isn’t implicit bias exactly what we would expect to be at the center of any structural violence here?

#8 Comment By 0xEph On May 11, 2019 @ 7:29 pm

Finally, Caleb, it’s important to understand that seemingly neutral ideals like ‘free speech’ and ‘the scientific method’ can be applied in a non-neutral fashion.

If you’re only agitating about free speech when White Supremacist viewpoints are being expressed, it’s probably or at least plausible that your commitment is not free speech but rather the underlying viewpoints, and free speech is the tool that you’ve chosen to further those viewpoints. For a good example of what something like this looks like, just look at JCD — who routinely advocates for “free speech” on this board, when that either allows him to criticize Williams or to promote otherwise disfavored positions with which he agrees, yet seeks to control speech in his posts with a heavy hand. It is clear that for JCD, ‘free speech’ is a useful means for him to accomplish his anti-Williams and pro-conservative ends. The current ‘free speech on campus’ movement is complicated in part because it is comprised of a mix of people like JCD (who see it as a means for other ends) as well as people like PTC (who I think legitimately buys into free speech as an end, even when that means facilitating all sorts of things that he personally finds abhorrent).

I suspect that your plea for science is similar, at least to the extent that it comes as part of a burgeoning response to the left. Science is important. The scientific method is important. Scientific literacy is low and that’s a problem across the ideological spectrum. But the op-ed that you criticize at Williams seems pretty clearly motivated in part by a healthy amount of skepticism towards these sorts of calls for more proof. How much proof is demanded for other similar claims by this science-loving crowd — say, about anti-white discrimination? If the answer is little-to-none, it’s fair to wonder if “we just need proof” and “it’s science!” do, in fact, represent the end here, or if they’re just a convenient and seemingly neutral means by which people motivated by things other than a love for the scientific method seek to accomplish different and entirely unrelated ends.

I understand that it’s nice to think that you’re representing some higher–and ideologically neutral–ideal. But that’s simply not necessarily the case with either speech or science.

Without revealing too much about myself, I have devoted my professional life to promoting free speech and supporting good science. (I know — it’s the perfect confluence!) I believe in these respective ideals fully and absolutely. I say that only to highlight that my points regarding the increasingly non-neutral use of speech and science as swords in the culture wars are not motivated in any respect by my failure to fully appreciate or respect the importance of speech and science. I also want to note that although you’ll probably presume my political leanings from these posts, you should not.

#9 Comment By John Drew On May 11, 2019 @ 8:42 pm

-oxEph

Again, this smart undergraduate, Caleb, is schooling you something fierce. Your nearly impossible to comprehend mash-up of critical theory, faux concern and passive-aggressive personal attacks is wearing thin.

I suspect Caleb and I are more open-minded than you suspect. If you can provide evidence of structural racism at Williams College, then I, for one, stand ready to review your evidence and comment on it.

We both know, of course, you have nothing. If you had any evidence at all, you would have led with that.

Frankly, a lot of faculty of color are benefiting – professionally and financially – from the new religion of identity politics.

As a genuine, published scientist, I think we have a duty to be skeptical of their conveniently vague definitions, all or nothing assumptions of white bias, and bizarre claims their self-serving views should be accepted as matters of faith.

FYI: I understand why Caleb must post under an assumed name given the hostility to his views on campus. You, however, have no excuse.

#10 Comment By Caleb Smith On May 11, 2019 @ 9:34 pm

Thanks JCD.

To note, I am a math and philosophy major.

#11 Comment By 0xEph On May 11, 2019 @ 9:41 pm

JCD – I honestly don’t think you read what I wrote. If you did, you did not understand it.

#12 Comment By Caleb Smith On May 12, 2019 @ 10:55 am

oxEph,

Your latter post was unbelievably condescending. How did you infer that I was using free speech as a tool to only criticize views I do not agree with when I don’t offer any views I do agree with? I see free speech as its own end, and admitted that there was also not significant evidence for discrimination in the other way, because anecdotal evidence is not sufficient.

A scientific definition of “white supremacist” is certainly possible, and is not as complicated as you think. By scientific I only mean that it is falsifiable. Much of the way these terms are used today is not falsifiable, and I felt Cohen was employing that meaning. If she was not, the ambiguity and lack of explanation of her use of that term was at the minimum sympathetic and meant to appeal to groups who do employ those unscientific definitions.

Your flat earth analogy does not hold. it does not hold because one view has been falsified while the other has been well corroborated, but not confirmed. Scientists have no will to entertain a theory that has already been falsified, as they should not. If there were a test to see if, perhaps, the earth was actually some 4-dimensional hypersphere, then I would think that would be a worthwhile endeavor. Anyhow, most of the tests requested by flat-earthers probably require scientists to send up some satellites or other spacecraft. If flat-earthers were asking scientists to pop a stick in the ground and track its shadow a la Erastothenes, I don’t think they’d be too burdened to recreate this experiment, despite flat-earth being a falsified theory. I can’t imagine that being able to point to a particular racist policy in Williams administration is equal in burden to dropping a couple million on some spacecraft.

I’m not sure what your idea of structural violence is. If you really do think that microagressions and implicit bias is structural violence then, hell, everybody’s a violent racist–you and I included. Is that the type of definition you believe these students are invoking? Further, is that a definition worth entertaining? I believe these students mean something more by structural violence. Specifically, I think they believe that there are policies that are discriminatory and branches of administration have been discriminatory. This is still a gross misuse of the word violence, but a much more reasonable definition. The problem is students are reluctant to offer evidence of this definition. For this reason they resort to one of two paths: Either (1) claim that asking for evidence is disrespectful (and throw in the word “more” before evidence to give the appearance that evidence has already been offered, despite unwillingness to procure it due to this argument), or (2) offer evidence for different, but loosely related things, like microagressions/implicit bias, instead. Together, these two arguments are difficult to defuse.

If someone offers evidence of structural racism at the college, I am as eager to hear it as anybody. But I will not be silent while unsupported claims are taken as fact on campus. It is even more unfortunate that those who ask for evidence, like me, are labeled racist or violent. For this reason, I have to use a pseudonym.

I am all for this discussion. You make a good point about attributing definitions to Cohen that she doesn’t use herself. But I can’t help but feel like you are making some assumptions about who I am throughout your posts. I ask that you try to resist painting a caricature of me in your head as some agitated conservative who is blind to his true motives. We’re both better than that.

#13 Comment By 0xEph On May 12, 2019 @ 3:42 pm

Caleb, sorry about that. I was using ‘you’ in the general sense, not to refer to you specifically. That’s sloppy writing on my part. If you replace ‘you’ with ‘one’ throughout, you’ll get my gist. I haven’t heard you specifically talk about the First Amendment much, and I discussed the increasingly ideological use of “free speech” in non-neutral manners because I think it’s closely analogous to what you were trying to do with science, and not because I think you also fall into that camp.

Regarding the falsifiability of definitions of “white supremacy” used today, can you elaborate further? What’s an example of one such non-falsifiable definition? I can’t think of one, which is why I’m asking.

Regarding my flat earth analogy, I agree that the landscape of proof looks entirely different. My point was that there’s nothing per se unscientific about disfavoring additional requests for proof. The flat earth example illustrates as much. Whether or not the evidence supporting structural racism at Williams is adequate (you say no, the op-ed writers say yes) is a different issue. Your original post implies that requests for additional evidence are necessarily desirable from a scientific standpoint, and so the act of making such requests is inherently neutral. That’s not true.

Another–much more fraught–example is in the context of anthropogenic climate change. The evidence is strong and unequivocal supporting serious anthropogenic climate change effects. Although there legitimately remains a significant need for additional research on the subject, calls for research in this context often represent ideologically motivated attempts to de-legitimize what is an adequately well-established conclusion. This is an example for how it’s simultaneously possible for a field to greatly benefit/require from additional evidence and how it’s nevertheless possible to weaponize such calls.

I want to make clear that I’m not saying that your requests for additional information represent an ideologically driven attempt to weaponize and render non-neutral the powerful tools of evidence-gathering and hypothesis testing. I’m just saying that your post seems to assume away such a possibility, which is unfair in part because it appears to be a central contention of the op ed that you criticize.

Finally, I still don’t really understand what structural violence means as applied to Williams. I had assumed that the phrase described the effects of college workers’ implicit bias, or maybe the aggregated weight of micro-aggressions, but you’re obviously in a much better position than I am to understand what the student activists mean and your posts seem to disfavor either definition. I think one of the problems here is that you’re responding to on-campus uses of this phrase to which those of us off-campus don’t have much access.

#14 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On May 12, 2019 @ 5:36 pm

> The evidence is strong and unequivocal supporting serious anthropogenic climate change effects.

Then why do the prices of beach-front property keep going up?

#15 Comment By abl On May 12, 2019 @ 7:28 pm

> The evidence is strong and unequivocal supporting serious anthropogenic climate change effects.

Then why do the prices of beach-front property keep going up?

Wait, really? There are many, many reasons for this. I’ll list a couple below:

* Because scientific literacy in the population is poor and because this issue has become politicized, a large proportion of the market does not recognize the fact of anthropogenic climate change (and market behavior reflects the knowledge and belief of market participants);

* Because housing markets do a bad job of pricing long- or even medium- term shocks. As an example of this, the Seattle housing market is remarkably strong–and rising–despite the strong likelihood of a devastating earthquake in the near future (and Seattle isn’t a localized exception: housing values are rising in a slough of cities that are big earthquake risks);

* Because the selling horizon for most people buying beachfront property is sufficiently short that the effects of climate change would not be expected to be priced into immediate decisions (and you’d expect any longer-term ripple effects related to tertiary subsequent real estate transactions — such as the value of your house when the person to whom you sell it sells — to be muted);

* Because the relevant comparitor is a world in which there was no climate change. If climate change is depressing prices, it’s possible that beachfront prices are rising by less–maybe even much less–than they would otherwise;

* Because there are many market instances in which demand for a risky good is robust — and increasing — despite the fact that the good in question is risky. This is true for real estate as well, where it’s common to see rising home values in developments particularly / increasingly vulnerable to fires, earthquakes, mudslides, floods, or any of a wide range of other natural disasters.

#16 Comment By frank uible On May 13, 2019 @ 5:09 am

May we concede that in general a decision to buy-sell-hold real estate involves a wide range of varying factors?

#17 Comment By Williamstown Resident On May 13, 2019 @ 2:43 pm

Seems to me there are 3 positions faculty members at Williams (and most other so-called elite liberal arts schools) can take on the allegations of structural racism and systemic violence.

1) Those who actually believe in the claim that there is structural racism and systemic violence at Williams.

2) Those who believe that claim is nonsense but go along because they’re afraid of negative fallout.

3) Those who believe the claim is nonsense and speak out against it.

It would be fascinating to know the actual percentages. Ditto for the student ratios on the same question.

#18 Comment By John Drew On May 13, 2019 @ 2:52 pm

– Williamstown Resident

Based on my first hand personal experience and my second hand knowledge of contemporary Williams, I’d go with, for faculty…

True and/or modest believers – 40%
Don’t rock the boat bystanders – 40%
Outspoken opponents – 20%

The problem is that going against the structural racism and systematic violence ideology is costly to one’s career.

Among the students, I would say…

True and/or modest believers – 20%
Don’t rock the boat bystanders – 50%
Outspoken opponents – 30%

#19 Comment By Williamstown Resident On May 13, 2019 @ 3:23 pm

JD …

Frightening that there may be a higher percentage of faculty believers than student believers. One would hope that with age and maturity would come some rational thought but if your guesstimate is correct that is not the case.

#20 Comment By fendertweed On May 14, 2019 @ 11:28 am

I love it when JCD fires random numbers out his keister like so many wet brain farts.