Tuesday, April 09, 2019

On Merit

Stories about academics who argue that the Western canon is a tool of the patriarchy abound. There's even some foundation for those arguments - it's a fact, after all, that female literacy lagged behind male literacy in the West for a long time, for instance, and that women with an artistic bent back in the day might only be able to express their talent in textiles, like tapestries and embroidery, rather than with paint on canvas, with its relative durability, stability, and above all status. In modern times, we've reclaimed a good deal of what was created in the past by women and people of color, but not recognized as important in its own time. Of course, we've also privileged modern creations by women and people of color (and non-straight people, whose personal proclivities might have been unrecognized or winked at, and were certainly not Line 2 on their resumes, in the past) that may or may not prove to be important, and we've deemphasized the creations of the Old White Men, simply because they were created by Old White Men, to the point that it's easy to understand why kids today don't "appreciate" the things that have proven to be important and timeless.

But now the foundations of science and math are becoming subject to the same postmodern critiques. Why? In God's name, why? Radioactive isotopes don't care whether you think time is a racist construct. And speaking as a (former) geologist, I'm going to say that the rocks don't care if you think a paleontologist should (or shouldn't) have a beard.

The thing is, I believe that the degradation of the Western canon does indeed threaten our civilization (and when I say "our," I'm not saying "belonging to us white people" or "belonging to the menfolk," but rather "belonging to those of us who recognize the relationship between individual rights, property rights, and the incredible level of prosperity enjoyed by an unprecedented proportion of humans alive today"). But surely everyone must acknowledge that the degradation of math and science can threaten lives in the here-and-now.

So here's this from Neo, a "political changer" who used to be on the Left but is now a thoughtful voice on the Right:
But those who are afraid of the truth cannot abide that situation [here she is talking about the Larry Summers story from 2005 when Summers mentioned almost in passing that biological differences between the brains of men and women might explain some part of the difference between male and female participation in, and success at the highest levels of, STEM fields] and feel that jettisoning the entire idea of merit is worth it in order to equalize the numbers, not the playing field but the score. And we will all suffer because, as Solway puts it:
[Tomas Brage, director of the undergraduate program of studies in physics at Lund University in Sweden] seems blissfully unaware that, aside from unadulterated brilliance, meritocratic traits and criteria are precisely those that STEM demands if it is to prosper. He concludes: “Clearly, the subject of all physics is affected by the background of the researcher, teacher and student, and it follows that a gender perspective is needed.” No, it manifestly does not follow. The individual’s practice of physics may indeed be affected by “the background of the researcher,” but the subject of physics is not. The laws of nature are the laws of nature and must be dealt with on their own terms. Physics is physics—nature’s handmaiden, not feminism’s.

Neo's link to David Solway's article is here.

Merit matters. And even the most ardent defender of the postmodern all-is-relative view of learning and knowledge recognizes it in some areas. Take music - not "radio music," where production and especially AutoTune can hide a multitude of sins, but live music, of almost any genre. Whether a singer sings in tune matters. Or take dance. There is a perceivable difference between the way I dance (which is frankly embarrassing) and the way, say, Justin Timberlake or Shakira dances - to say nothing of Baryshnikov.

There is a world of difference between opera and folk music, between heavy metal and soul. But in all, the ability of the singer to sing in tune (yes, even in heavy metal!) is the foundation of whether listeners will enjoy that piece of music - or cover their ears. There is a world of difference between ballet and ballroom, between hiphop and salsa dancing. But in all, the ability of the dancer to move in that ineffable way that strikes watchers as grace is the foundation of whether they'll watch with pleasure - or laugh behind their hands the way my kids do when I dance. Call it "talent" instead of "merit"; it exists, and it remains foundational to the value of the output.

And these are not matters of life and death. How can anyone doubt the merit of an accurate understanding of the foundations of engineering and technology, where life is often on the line? When I read stories like the one above from Sweden, what springs to mind is only, "Holy moly, what a first-world problem."