Possum’s Handy Guide to Wokeness

Rational people in Western society have been puzzled in recent years by a series of disturbing words, some new, some old with new meanings.  Information and analysis is now available to help the ‘unwoke’ to appreciate, if not fully understand, these powerful new concepts. Our account might even interest the occasional ‘wokester’ who has a side-interest in reason. The  guide follows:


This has become a big issue in 2020. It was kicked off by black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in a June 2014 Atlantic article. Are African Americans worse or better off than if they had remained in Africa with their ancestors ? REPARATIONS: Taking Ta-Nehisi Coates Seriously looks at the pros and cons of the idea.


“Aggression means “an intent to harm”; microaggressions are usually unintentional.  What are they then?  Microaggression, Mens Rea and the Unconscious Mind and It’s All About Power explain and Blinded with Science! If civil speech is violence, what is real violence? reassures the ‘unsafe’.


This paradoxical idea was mooted a few years ago by scholars of race and ethnic studies. Recently it has given birth to the racism vs, anti-racism dichotomy, aka “you’re either with us or against us”. The New Racism, Part I: How ‘Race and Ethnic Studies’ Made Color Blindness a Bad Thing and The New Racism, Part II: The Sociologist’s Toolkit: Justifying Racism Through Language explain what is going on.


Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (appropriately: DEI) have become a new religion among administrators everywhere, from schools and colleges to big business: “demographic diversity is a proxy for perspectival diversity…” says one historian of science. Well, no it’s not: Diversity and Inclusion of Identity Groups Often Means Uniformity and Exclusion of Ideas and  Is Diversity an Enemy of Excellence? explain why.


This has become a popular theme and a very successful book, but as social science (as opposed to propaganda), it is nonsense.  A parody, Did the Hoaxers Do Anything Wrong? shows that white fragility is a meaningless insult.


This has become a biggie. Now systemic racism is everywhere. We all know about individual racism: how is systemic racism different? Does it even exist?  How Real Is Systemic Racism Today? , The New Racism: How activism and pseudo-science have corrupted sociology and Response to Vicky: Is racism everywhere, really?


How can we recognize prejudice? It isn’t always easy.  Is stimulus generalization prejudice, or just an automatic learning process? Offense intended? Or not? gives an example.


A powerful new social-justice philosophy that proves and empowers: “My ongoing general motivation for the past twenty years or so has been to help with the project of unwhitening mainstream political philosophy…” says Charles S. Mills, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center.  For more see…


Determining Truth

Harvard Magazine  July-August 2020

MANY THANKS for the rather eloquent article in the May-June issue (“Will Truth Prevail?” page 27) by 2020 Harvard graduate Drew Pendergrass on his science education. I applaud his enthusiasm but have reservations about what he seems to have learned from history of science professor Naomi Oreskes.

Pendergrass has obviously been much influenced by Oreskes’s book Merchants of Doubt. I recently wrote a critique of the book’s treatment of passive smoking, an issue so entangled in political bias that the truth, which is in fact pretty clear, is hard to see through the smoke. Pendergrass has obviously picked up Oreskes’s habit of dismissing an argument by impugning the motives of the source. She describes (in Pendergrass’s words) “how a small group of contrarian, industry-funded scientists misled the public about the dangers of both tobacco and human-caused climate change. By sowing doubt, exaggerating scientific uncertainty, and creating their own institutions to publish junk papers that would never survive peer reviewmore

Why Do American Universities Lead the World in Scientific Research?

Urquiola describes how the history of American universities put them on a path different from European universities, a path where economic forces could act in ways that allowed American institutions to diverge and, in the late 20th century, to become pre-eminent engines of scientific research.

This pre-eminence occurred despite statistics putting US scientific literacy well behind many European countries…more 

The Self-Destruction of the Academy

John Staddon May 26, 2020 Heterodox Academy

A review of Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education, by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness.

There is a field of economics called Public Choice Theory (PCT) whose best-known advocates are James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Public Choice aims to show how the incentives to which bureaucrats are subject, the things that their status, perks, and salaries really depend on, frequently push them in directions incompatible with their assigned mission. PCT highlights the purely economic forces that often underlie apparently moral decisions.

Cracks in the Ivory Tower (CIT) is in the PCT tradition. The two authors are economists and philosophers. They ask tough questions about higher education as a business and a bureaucracy. They point out that the misalignment of actual incentives with stated goals also poses moral problems…more

What Happened to the SAT?

Selection bias and the end of Gen Ed.

Posted May 22, 2020 Psychology Today, John Staddon

he Scholastic Aptitude Test was once hailed as a way to open colleges to bright poor kids. It works pretty well to predict performance in college, and even afterwards —at least it used to in 2011. But it has been increasingly criticized on several grounds: It doesn’t predict; it doesn’t predict as well as high school grades; it’s unfair because it’s correlated with parents’ socioeconomic status (SES); it’s unfair because different racial/ethnic groups don’t score the same; rich kids can prepare for the SAT, poor ones can’t; high schools waste time on test prep when they should be teaching substance. There are probably other objections; this is a tangled issue, not to be settled in a short blog post.

I just want to draw attention to a simple problem…more

Science and Activism

Should scientists also persuade, or should facts speak for themselves?

Posted Apr 28, 2020 Psychology Today, John Staddon

The May-June issue of the Harvard Magazine has several interesting articles.  The World’s Costliest Health Care, by professor of applied economics David Cutler will perhaps draw the most readers (U.S. health care costs roughly twice as much, per capita, as healthcare in other developed countries; in return we have a lower life expectancy than most).

But almost equally interesting is Will Truth Prevail? by just-graduated student Drew Pendergrass.  The piece is well written and Pendergrass’ enthusiasm for science is appealing.  Less attractive is his belief that scientists should also be activists, because “truth” doesn’t always win…more

Moral Algorithms

“I’m sorry, Dave; I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Posted Apr 02, 2020 Psychology Today, John Staddon

Thus spake HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. The computer saw Dave’s request as jeopardizing the mission and acted accordingly. HAL’s algorithms were moral.

Not to be outdone by science fiction, Congress last year introduced something called the Algorithmic Accountability Act, a novel attempt to hold computer programs accountable for immoral behavior. The New York Times (5/7/19) labeled it “The Legislation that Targets the Racist Impacts of Tech.” The bill seems to have died, but the ideas behind it are worth exploring…more

The Mess That Is Science Publishing

Researchers have been grumbling about the state of scientific publishing for years. Now, rumor has it that the Trump administration (yes, those science-haters!) may be trying to fix at least one problem: access to reports of government-funded research.

The rumored proposal will require free, immediate access to all reports of government-funded scientific research. The rumor is credible enough that an association of 210 academic and research libraries has written to the president in support of the idea. The research-publication system is a mess, and open access would be one small step toward a fix.

But first, a little history. When scientific publishing began, scientists were few, many were amateurs…more

The Meritocracy Trap—A Review

Quillette  John Staddon Published October 9, 2019. VIDEO

A review of The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feed Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite by Daniel Markovits, Penguin Press (September 2019) 422 pages.

Meritocracy is in trouble. Recent years have seen a flood of articles deploring inequality and blaming meritocracy for it. In the vanguard is Yale Law professor Daniel Markovits who attacked meritocracy in its home, in an address to Yale University graduates in 2015. His new book, The Meritocracy Trap,1 has just been published.

Professor Markovits is a meritocratic champ himself: “In the summer of 1987…I graduated from a public high school in Austin, Texas, and [then] attend[ed] Yale College. I then spent nearly 15 years studying at…the London School of Economics, the University of Oxford, Harvard University, and finally Yale Law School—picking up a string of degrees [in philosophy, econometrics, mathematics and law] along the way.”…more

Diet Reporting—the Real Fake News

Quillette  John Staddon Published on September 18, 2019

No one would choose to study diet as a way to understand the way humans metabolize food. Effects are delayed, often for years. Experimentation is usually impossible for ethical and practical reasons—subjects cannot be sacrificed and dissected to see the physiological effects of different food regimens. And much better methods are available to study how food is processed by the body. On the other hand, people are very interested in what they should eat. There is a huge market for ‘diet science.’

Diet Reporting Should Go on a Diet

The New York Times once had a reputation as the “paper of record,” a reliable, if left-of-center, source of information. I’m not sure it’s ever been reliable when it comes to diet…more

No Offense

What did she really mean?

Psychology Today John Staddon Posted Jul 23, 2019

Behaviorists of all varieties agree on one thing—that the job of their science is to explain how an organism’s history affects its future behavior.

Here is an example. Imagine a hungry pigeon in a Skinner box facing a disk (called a key) which can be lighted with different colors. He is exposed to a random sequence of two key lights: red and green: RGRRGRGG…Each color stays on for 5 s.  If he pecks the red light, he gets a “time-out,” all the lights go out and he must wait in the dark for 60 s until one of the lights re-appears. If he pecks on the green light, he gets a bit of food and the sequence resumes….more

Administrative Bloat: Where Does It Come From and What Is It Doing?

James Martin Center JUN 19, 2019 John Staddon 12 Comments

College bureaucracies have been growing at least since the 1980s. I was then editor of a mildly disputatious Duke University publication called the Faculty Newsletter. The one thing that seems to be remembered from those days is the “VP Count:” The number of people in the administration with “vice president” or “vice provost” in their title. On the first or second page of every issue of the Newsletter, in large letters, appeared the current number of VPs. Finally, I got data from the Duke Archives and published a graph in November 1991, plotting the number of vice presidents from 1959 to 1991. The graph rose with only one small dip, from three in 1959 to 19 in 1991. Now we might have to convert to a log scale….more

The APA Guidelines

Science or ‘Dedicated follower of fashion’

Psychology Today, John Staddon Posted Apr 22, 2019

Many eminent scientists think that science is a guide to action, which is true in a sense: Science guides action in the way that a steering wheel guides a car. But the wheel by itself provides no destination and the car will not go anywhere without an engine.  Without moral values to motivate action and set a goal, scientific facts point nowhere.

As David Hume explained several centuries ago: “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me.” Action requires motive; the facts of science by themselves provide no motive….more

Values, Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne’s article “Secular Humanism is Not a Religion” is longer than my “Is Secular Humanism a Religion?”, perhaps because he is confused about what I said. Or perhaps I was too concise. Possibly the problem was my title (not mine, but Quillette’s) which is a bit misleading.

I wasn’t saying that secular humanism is a religion. I was saying that in those aspects of religion which actually affect and seek to guide human behavior, secular humanism does not differ from religion. It has commandments, just as Christianity has. But they are covert, not in plain sight and not easily accessible: not, therefore, as vulnerable to criticism as religious dicta. Moreover, in no case are secular commandments derivable from reason. Like religious “oughts” they are also matters of faith. Secular morals are as unprovable as the morals of religion….more

Is Secular Humanism a Religion?

It is now a rather old story: secular humanism is a religion. A court case in 1995 examined the issue and concluded, rightly, that science, in the form of the theory of evolution, is not a religion. In 2006, the BBC aired a program called The Trouble with Atheism which argued that atheists are religious and made the point via a series of interviews with prominent atheists who claimed their beliefs were “proved” by science. The presenter, Rod Liddle, concluded that Darwinism is a religion. That is wrong, as 18th century philosopher David Hume showed many years ago. Science consists of facts, but facts alone do not motivate. Without motive, a fact points to no action. Liddle was half-right: both religion and secular humanism provide motives, explicit in one case, but covert in the other.

What is religion?…more

Is Diversity an Enemy of Excellence?

By John E.R. Staddon

Intellectual Takeout February 13, 2019

The National Science Foundation (NSF) was created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science….” Following a 2012 recommendation, NSF now has an Office of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I). NSF was just following the crowd, for almost every academic and research institution now has a D&I program.

No one wants to exclude people or not be diverse. So, what’s wrong with D&I?

Could D&I perhaps interfere with “the progress of science”? …more

Did the Hoaxers Do Anything Wrong?

One of the three “Sokal Squared” academic hoaxers, Peter Boghossian of Portland State University, has been accused of violating his university’s research policies. Boghossian is the only one of the three to hold an (untenured) academic position and so is the only one vulnerable to disciplinary action.

Boghossian and his compatriots parodied fashionable social-“science” research; now, some in the academy are crying that parody is not fair play…more

How Real Is Systemic Racism Today?

Racist attitudes of whites towards blacks have long become socially unacceptable in America, although the reverse, racism of a minority directed at the white majority, is still tolerated or even encouraged. However, statistical racial disparities persist. African Americans, as a population, continue to suffer income, crime and incarceration rate, health, housing and family-structure deficits by comparison with the white population.

These disparities cannot easily be attributed to racist behavior by whites. The disparities have either increased or remained the same while individual racist behavior has declined. What then is the cause of these disparities? There are two possibilities: causes within individuals, what I have elsewhere called endogenous causes; or external, exogenous causes….more


Glenn Beck: Why do they hate him so?

In January 2011, Vanity Fair published Tea’d Off, an article by Christopher Hitchens which is an attack on the Tea Party movement and its chief icon, broadcaster Glenn Beck. I have long admired Mr. Hitchens, for his prose, his erudition, his independence, and, not least, his courage now in the face of a dreadful disease. Mr. Hitchens is also one of our most brilliant debaters and polemicists. In short, I’m a fan; but I’m very disappointed by his caricature account of Glenn Beck…more

How Not to React to a Research Paper

Citizens of North Carolina, to the extent that they pay attention to such matters, may be puzzled by the recent storm in a teacup at Duke.

A statistical study co-authored by two Duke economists and a sociologist described data suggesting that black and legacy applicants to Duke are more likely than others to shift majors away from their initial expressed preference for science, engineering or economics to subjects in the humanities or social sciences with a more generous grade distribution…more

Static theories are inadequate to describe real markets

Financial Times OCTOBER 29, 2012 From Emeritus Prof John Staddon.

Sir, As someone who was heckled by Robert May (Comment, October 20) while giving a plenary lecture to a conference on ethology in Oxford more than 30 years ago (I went on too long, as a nervous speaker will often do), I want to add to John Whiteman’s letter about predator-prey equations and market cycles (October 26)…more

Solution is to abolish multinational tax

Financial Times November 22, 2012, John Staddon
Sir, Sol Picciotto and Nicholas Shaxson are quite right that the tax treatment of multinationals gives them an unfair competitive advantage over smaller companies. But there is of course an even better way of solving the problem than restructuring the tax code as they propose…more

Cutting the Too-Big-to-Fail Banking Risk Down to Size

Wall Street Journal  March 13, 2013, JS and various contributors

If size is the problem, size should be the target. The simplest way to deal with the TBTF problem is a progressive tax on total exposure. The largest banks should pay a marginal rate that makes them unprofitable. It would force them to downsize and would raise much-needed cash in a way that should not damage the economy…more


The Atlantic January/February issue 2013, John Staddon

In November, James Bennet interviewed Michael Bloomberg. They spoke about the role of government, highlighting such topics as the New York City mayor’s regulation of soda sizes and metzitzah b’peh, an ancient Jewish circumcision practice.

I liked Mayor Bloomberg more after reading James Bennet’s interview, but I still find him annoying…more

‘Gullivering’ American Enterprise and Its Job Creators

Wall Street Journal ,June 25, 2013 John Staddon and another

The core problem seems to be “legislation by delegation.” The Dodd-Frank Act and the Affordable Health Care act are both wish lists of utopian objectives, with no details about how they might realistically be achieved, plus the assumption that they are in fact achievable. An example from Dodd-Frank: “SEC. 714. ABUSIVE SWAPS. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission or the Securities…more 

Science and the senator: missing the point about government waste

About to retire, Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn, M.D., has just released his 107-page 2014 Wastebook, a tabloid-type listing  of over a hundred wasteful government-funded projects. Coburn continues the tradition of the late William Proxmire, the Wisconsin senator who, more modestly, chose just one or two “Golden Fleeces” each year.

Many objects of Coburn’s ire—agencies using paid “administrative leave” to isolate whistle blowers, vast misdirection of food-stamp money, for example—are right on target. But when it comes to science, he misses the point…more

A Most Curious Document

National Association of Scholars, June 23, 2016. John Staddon

Elite schools have struggled for many years to increase their racial and ethnic diversity, to foster ‘inclusion,’ and to eliminate any vestige of prejudice. Surely after decades of effort, universities must be among our least prejudiced, biased and hate-filled institutions?

Apparently not. Duke University, one among many, is worried about bias and hate and recently produced a report to prove it: Report of the Duke University Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues (April 30, 2016)…more

Team Player: Professor Shiller and Finance as Panacea

How big should finance be? How productive is the financial industry?

Psychology Today  March 6, 2017, John Staddon

This is a new review of a relatively old book by a famous economist.  The book seems never to have been critically reviewed, despite the eminence of its author.  But as the financial industry looks forward to some kind of deregulation, the issues covered here are returning to the front page.

Shiller, Robert J. (2012). Finance and the Good Society. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Yale professor Robert Shiller is one of the most influential economists in the world.  Co-inventor of the oft-cited Case-Shiller index, a measure of trends in house prices, he is author or co-author of several influential books about financial crises – including Irrational Exuberance (2000) and (with George Akerloff) and Animal Spirits (2009).  He shared the 2013 Economics Nobel with Eugene Fama and Lars Peter Hansen.

In 2012 Professor Shiller published a full-throttle apologia for plutocracy: Finance and the Good Society.  FATGS is a reaction to the hostility to finance provoked by the 2007+ crisis…More

Unlucky strike: Private Health: The Science, Law and Politics of Smoking

Video John Staddon Cato Institute March 11, 2015

Duke Professor’s 1991 Warning about Campus Chaos is Oddly Prophetic

Intellectual Takeout, Annie Holmquist April 27, 2017

If one was to judge solely from headlines, it would appear that the only activities occurring on university campuses these days are riots and outrage. As professor Jonathan Haidt notes, it’s as if the university is possessed of a “tribal mind” which views “the demonization of inconvenient research and researchers” as its chief end…more

Taking Ta-Nehisi Coates Seriously

Ta-Nehisi Coates has become one of the most prominent intellectuals in America. But his case for reparations is flawed.

Intellectual Takeout John Staddon October 26, 2017.
In June 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a feature in the Atlantic arguing that the terrible history of blacks in the United States justified reparations. Many consider this a radical proposition. Yet critical reaction was mild.

Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review, disagreed with Coates’ proposal but was impressed with the “beautifully written monograph,” describing the prose as “intelligent and sometimes moving.” In his muted critique, Williamson gives little weight to the faulty logic and fundamental injustice of Coates’ proposal…more

How Is Science Judged? How Useful Is Peer Review?

James Martin Center,  John Staddon Jan 31, 2018

The British journal Nature, home in 1953 to Watson and Crick’s important DNA paper, was by 1966 rather in the doldrums, with a backlog of submitted manuscripts and losing ground to the general-science leader, the U.S. journal Science…more

Peer Review: the Publication Game and “the Natural Selection of Bad Science”

James Martin Center,  John Staddon February 2, 2018

Professor Brian Wansink is head of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. The lab has had problems, some described in an article called “Spoiled Science” in the Chronicle of Higher Education early in 2017:…more

The Persistence of Memory and #MeToo

Intellectual Takeout, John Staddon February 8, 2018

The recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein have precipitated hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse. Many of the complainants are now adults, even middle-aged. But most of the alleged events took place when the victims were young – teenagers or even children. One of Weinstein’s accusers recounted events that occurred some twenty years previously; another accused Weinstein of raping her in 1992…more

Science and Its Discontents: Too Few Jobs—or Too Many Scientists?

James Martin Center, John Staddon February 28, 2018

The United States is producing more research scientists than academia can handle,” so begins a July 2016 article by respected New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata. It turns out that new PhDs in science have a hard time getting a job like their mentor’s: tenured faculty in a research university. Fifty years ago, in my own area of experimental psychology, things were very different. Postgraduates, after four years of college, were able to get their PhDs in four or five years. They usually got a tenure-track job at a reasonable university right after graduating….more

Duke Divinity School’s Race to the Bottom

Comment on The Irreproducibility Crisis: The State of Science


Racism Is Everywhere…Is It, Really? Suppressing debate is a non-solution

Psychology Today  Posted Oct 07, 2017

This blog is about how lack of empathy can lead to charges of racism; and how the perception that racism is pervasive can lead to demands for remedies worse than the disease they are supposed to cure.

A Chronicle of Higher Education article, written by Marcia Chatelain, an African-American curricular activist and associate professor of history at Georgetown University, claims that racism is found almost everywhere, that limiting academic speech is a necessary part of a cure and “That college campuses are complicit in encouraging and emboldening budding white nationalists.”…more

Response to Vicky: Is racism everywhere, really?

This is a response to a thoughtful comment from Vicky to my blog critical of the supposed ubiquity of racism.  This response turned out to be too long for a comment; hence this new blog. (It also made Psychology Today uncomfortable).

Apropos race differences in IQ and SAT: They do exist, both in the US and in comparisons between white Europeans and Africans.  What they mean is much less clear…more

Sorry, Professor, Speech Is Not Violence, Even To Your Neurons

These data simply do not support Lisa Barrett’s implausible claim that speech directed at college students can cause them physiological harm.

The Federalist, J 20, 2017  By

“She Blinded Me With Science” is a wonderful 1980s song by the Brit Thomas Dolby. It could be the signature tune for Professor Lisa Barrett’s deeply fallacious New York Times article on speech as violence. She writes: “Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system. Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sick, alter your brain – even kill neurons – and shorten your life.”…more

Diversity and Inclusion of Identity Groups Often Means Uniformity and Exclusion of Ideas

The New Racism, Part I: How ‘Race and Ethnic Studies’ Made Color Blindness a Bad Thing

Like most Americans, I have always assumed that color blindness is our ideal.  Not any more: color blindness is now become the new racism. So much for a 70-year struggle to fulfill Martin Luther King Jr.’s wish that his children be “judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” So much for the noble aim to treat people as individuals rather than as representatives of an identity group….more

The New Racism, Part II: The Sociologist’s Toolkit: Justifying Racism Through Language

James Martin Center AUG 3, 2018 By John Staddon  23 Comments

The best way to grasp how sociology has managed to make color-blind racism (CBR) seem believable is to study its Newspeak (to continue the Orwell theme).


To many modern sociologists, color blindness is a racist weapon that works, somehow, through whiteness, a scheme of thought invisible to most whites, but revealed by CBR sociology. Whiteness is part of systemic racism: “Exposing the Whiteness of Color Blindness” is a chapter subhead in Bonilla-Silva’s book. Whiteness is as real an identity as blackness. None of these, neither whiteness, nor blackness, nor systemic racism is measurable in an objective way.  Whiteness, “the practices of the ‘new racism’—the post-civil rights set of arrangements that preserves white supremacy” in the words of Bonilla-Silva—is apparently hegemonic: “I contend that ‘color-blind’ ideology plays an important role in the maintenance of white hegemony,” writes Ashley “Woody” Doane, a leading “whiteness studies” advocate who heads the sociology department at the University of Hartford….more

Righteous Witness

AUG 6, 2018 National Association of Scholars

A couple of years ago, Duke University convened a large task force to produce a 69-page Report of the Duke University Task Force on Bias and Hate Issueswhich I discussed on the NAS site.  The report expressed much concern about, but provided little evidence for, an epidemic of hate. On the other hand, bias (by Duke’s definition) may well be widespread, since the report emphasized that a “bias incident” need not be intentional.

Now there is a new report from Duke, this time in response to the battles over politically incorrect monuments and lack of representation for ‘marginalized groups’ in the history of Duke and other historically white and male institutions. The lavishly produced 100-page Activating History for Justice at Duke, funded by the philanthropic Bass family,..more

The Devolution of Social Science

This article has two themes: first, how in “soft” science fields, increased specialization has led to fragmentation, incoherence and, ultimately, nonsense. And second, an example of the process: race and ethnic studies (RES) and the concept of color-blind racism (CBR) — the idea that treating people according to the content of their character, not the color of their skin, is itself racist. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous definition of non-discrimination is not accepted by, for example, the 2018 President of the American Sociological Association.

Some science history…more


Op-ed: Worse than Bigotry

In June 2020 the conversation of three cops in Wilmington NC talking to one other in their separate cars was inadvertently recorded by the police system.  After scanning a 2-hour video that had been “accidentally activated”, towards the end of the tape an officer found conversation she found to be “extremely racist”.

Why, one wonders, did the Wilmington police department devote so much time to scrutinizing an accidental recording?  No matter: the comments thus discovered were indeed unpleasantly racist. The mildest involved one officer referring to a black woman and later a black magistrates as “negroes”. The officers also speculated about a possible coming civil war and “slaughtering them”.  Another officer apparently felt a civil war was needed to “wipe them off the (expletive) map.” Another officer told this one that he was “crazy”. The recording ceased at that point.

Overall, the officers’ conduct was deplorable. On the other hand, their conversation was intended to be private and some of it might not be racist.

The word “negro” was once the acceptable term for African-Americans. It was MLK’S term and is used by black charitable organizations like the United Negro College Fund. Now Black Lives Matter seems to have ratified the word “black”. The point is that racial issues are so touchy that acceptable language changes frequently.

The name for anything that is, or was, regarded as undesirable, is always subject to change. An obvious example is mental handicap.  After the term “idiot” became unacceptable it was supplanted by “moron” (yes, the Greek-derived “moron” was for a while a gentler and more acceptable term than Middle English “idiot”). Moron in turn has been succeeded by a long list of euphemisms, the current favorite being “special needs.”

Although the Wilmington cops can be exonerated for some of what they said, much that is racist remains. There is as yet no evidence that they acted publicly as their words implied (an inquiry is ongoing). The three officers denied that they are racists.  Their conduct was intended to be private; in effect it was a “thought crime”.

Nevertheless, before the results of an inquiry are in, they have all been fired.

Avid anti-racists may regard this as a just punishment.  But, absent any evidence of public misbehavior  by the three officers, the punishment will seem to others both hasty and harsh.

Wilmington police authorities should reflect on what their action means for society as a whole. Racism may be a sin. But the idea of “sin” is a Christian one and it comes along with the idea of redemption — and forgiveness.  The treatment of these three officers for a private speech  crime is not only un-Christian, it is also chilling.

Peremptory and extreme treatment suppresses not just free speech but free thought. Perhaps that’s the idea, although I doubt the officers’ superiors thought much about that. Protecting their fragile fundaments was probably the main thing on their minds. But arbitrary and harsh punishment does chill thought and that is much worse than the small amount of bigotry that is unavoiadable in any free society.

A more moderate  punishment would have let the officers and the public know that the Wilmington police department understands justice as well decency: decency of behavior and justice of punishment. As it is, they do themselves no credit by bowing to the mob.

CAVEAT:  This post was deemed “too political” for my blog on Psychology Today. You be the judge.



Critical Race Theory

I first became aware of critical race theory when a commentator to a Psychology Today blog (cancelled after publication by a woke editorial staff) confidently demolished my arguments with the initials “CRT”. I was puzzled because to me, CRT stood for “cathode ray tube”, which seemed hardly relevant.

I soon discovered what CRT stands for:

CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color (Wikipedia).

CRT is apparently a third-stage derivative of Critical Theory, a mid-20th century movement derived from Marx and advocated by German writers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.  The second stage was Critical Legal Theory, a 1970s movement applying some of the same ideas to the study of law.

There is a huge CRT literature, much of written in impenetrable prose full of jargon and familiar words with new and often obscure meanings. But there is a way to evaluate this field and indeed any other that pretends to embrace all of human experience in a scientific way: What are its values? What are the facts with which it deals? And how good is the logic of its arguments? Boiled down to these fundamentals, CRT can be easily assessed.

Applied to standard social science — much of sociology, personality and social psychology — these questions can be simply answered: Values? Just finding the truth. Facts? Demographic data, results of experiments, randomized samples, etc. Logic? Well, just logic: “If A implies B, then produce A and see if you get B”, and so on.

CRT is different. Values?  Enhance the power of black and other “marginalized” minorities. Facts?  “Insistence on ”naming our own reality’”. A society’s “truth” is often just a way to exert power; truth has no independent existence.  Some “borrowing of insights from social science on race and racism”[1] is OK. But mainly, the emphasis is on ‘counter-story telling’ and personal experience. Logic? CRT undervalues logic; the term “racial logics” is sometimes used. Some versions of CRT even consider logic a feature of “whiteness,” as in White logic, White Methods[2].

In short, CRT is neither legitimate social science nor law in the Western tradition. It is a ideological politico-religious movement whose aim is not truth or understanding but power.  CRT is antithetical to science. It has no credibility in discussion of race.

[1] Richard Delgado (1990) When a story is just a story: Does voice really matter? Virginia Law Review Vol. 76, No. 1 (Feb., 1990), pp. 95-111.

[2] Tukufu Zuberi & Eduardo Bonilla-Silva eds. (2008)

A Platform for Activists

This correspondence relates to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Katherine Mangan. The article was highlighted by a picture of four rather grumpy looking young interviewees and headed: What College Activists Want.

From an editor: On 7/16/2020 11:44 AM, Rachel Mull wrote:

Dear Professor Staddon,

Katherine Mangan passed along your email. To answer your questions:

In the past several weeks, racial-justice advocates have gained widespread support for their cause, with sustained calls for change at institutions of all kinds. Colleges are likely to face pressure from student activists and their allies well into the academic year. This article gives Chronicle readers a window into the viewpoints of a few such students.

Additional Chronicle coverage of this movement offers analysis, and will continue to do so in the future. Criticism is the domain of The Chronicle Review [Here is a relatively balanced example.]

Thank you for reading.

Rachel Cieri Mull

Senior Editor

The Chronicle of Higher Education



Dear Rachel Mull:

Thanks for responding. I take your point about newsworthiness, and thanks for the link — which also seems to be promoting the activists’ cause.  My problem is that as someone who has worked in a US university for decades, I see little evidence for many of the claims these kids make and little or no representation of that point of view in CHED.  A couple of examples:

“it was a jarring reminder for Maliya Homer of how vulnerable she felt as a Black woman.” But the question is: How rational is it for Ms. Homer to feel that way on the campus of a university where such events essentially never occur? Does she need a course in statistics? In other words, is it her problem or ours? (Of course, it is a problem for government and law enforcement, but that is another matter.)

Tyler Yarbrough is concerned about Emmett Till, but who isn’t? I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t deplore what happened. I suspect that the frat boys [“a photo emerged last year of fraternity members posing with guns in front of a bullet-pocked memorial sign to Till.”] were just reacting against the pressure to conform (has anybody investigated?). I well remember how I behaved as a college kid in less tumultuous times.

A confederate statue is just a statue; it doesn’t “say” anything. It means different things to different people. Many, myself included, don’t see those statues as anything more than relics of history reflecting the importance of the figure not his virtue.

What do southerners, white and black, really think? If only a minority see these statues as celebrating slavery and a majority see them as reminders of Southern history, then should the  minority, who see them as somehow supporting racism, automatically have their way — never mind the illegality of toppling?

“Among their key demands: Students need more minority faculty, staff, and administrators they can feel comfortable confiding in and seeking advice from.” Knowledge has no color; white kids have sought comfort from black nannies in ages past; why should not black kids do likewise with whites?  Segregating students and faculty by color turns history on its head, and is racist besides.

I could go on. The point is that these are emotional and contentious issues. They should not be presented without a context. Perhaps next time, if you pick four students, there should be two on each side of the debate.

John S.

The New Racism: How activism and pseudo-science have corrupted sociology

This post originally appeared on the Psychology Today blog in May 2018, but has been deleted for reasons unknown.

Roseanne’s crack that “they’re just like us!” [is] an allusion to the bland family sitcoms of the nineteen-eighties, when syrupy, anti-racist “very special episodes” dominated prime-time comedy … treating color blindness as a virtue.
From the New Yorker, April 4, 2018, before the defenestration of Roseanne Barr. [my emphasis]

Martin Luther King wanted his children to be “…judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…”. That’s color blindness: treating people as individuals not as representatives of a race.  How is color blindness not a virtue?  Is it racist now? Where on earth does such an idea come from?

The answer is ‘race and ethnic studies’ which pops up in several traditional disciplines, such as cultural anthropology, political science, social psychology and sociology.  The problems I will describe infest all, but I will focus on sociology, where MLK’s idea of color blindness has been turned on its head.

Sociology began as a science. Max Weber, Émile Durkheim and other founders of the field insisted on objectivity: empirical measurement and logical argument. Remnants of that tradition remain, but a non-scientific movement now threatens to take over.  

Sociology is complex because it necessarily intersects with psychology, economics, politics, anthropology and even evolutionary biology. Sociologists are no smarter than other social scientists.  No one could possibly master all these disciplines. It is no surprise then, that this mélange has evolved in directions that often have little connection with one another.  As we will see, the activist branch that studies race and ethnicity has explicitly abandoned any allegiance to science.

Contra Karl Marx, science is about knowledge, not action. But politics is part of sociology, which means that straying from the scientific straight and narrow is all-too-easy: from scholarship to social justice is but a single step.  For Marxists the point is not understanding the world, but changing it — by politics and, if necessary, by force. Scholarship and science have become tools for activism in the branch of sociology I will call CBR (“color-blind racism”, from the subtitle of a book by Bonilla-Silva, discussed below).

Color-blind racism

The study of race and ethnicity is possibly the dominant, certainly the most visible, part of contemporary sociology (‘gender studies’ is a close second). Most Americans believe that color-blindness is the civil-rights ideal.  The new CBR movement in sociology, on the contrary, believes that color blindness is itself racist..

How can color blindness be racist? The claim makes sense only if one accepts the CBR conceptual framework, which is tough because while claims and allegations are many, facts are few. Indeed, the elements of this kind of sociology are not facts of the usual social-science sort: surveys based on random samples, verifiable measures of achievement, interests or ability, family size, income or other demographic information.  Instead, interviews, stories, anecdotes, non-random samples are the norm. There is even something called “snowball sampling” which finds people by going from one interviewee to a friend to friends of friends, and so on; about as non-random a process as you can get. It is obviously impossible to generalize from a snowball sample to the population at large, Yet, a typical study generalizes from a snowball sample of black professionals to black professionals as a whole.

CBR arguments don’t proceed from factual premises to logical implications. They are usually more like claims or assertions than logical inferences. They are comprehensible only by those who have taken the time to learn the vocabulary of “frames”, “discursive analysis”, “story lines”, “narrative” and the like. They are qualitative not quantitative, closer to postmodern philosophy, to (biased) journalism and to literature, than to empirical science.

Here is a typical claim (from a 2015 New York Times Opinionator piece entitled  “American Racism in the ‘White Frame’”):

“To understand well the realities of American racism, one must adopt an analytical perspective focused on the what, why and who of the systemic white racism that is central and foundational to this society.”

Here is another:

“color-blind racism is theorized as covert and highly institutionalized. As such, analyses of contemporary racial reproduction often emphasize the structure of colorblindness, particularly the habitual routines and discursive patterns of everyday white actors … this work may conceal whites’ innovation in reproducing, revising, and at times resisting white supremacy and corresponding logics.”

“White frame”? “White supremacy?” “White logics?”  The systemic racism of color blindness is simply assumed; no proof seems to be needed.

CBR conclusions frequently violate longstanding legal doctrine such as mens rea, the idea that intent is necessary to prove guilt. Color-blind racism is unconscious, but whites are guilty anyway. Some claims are simply political and not scientific at all, urging action by government, companies or institutions. These ideas are the topic of academic books in multiple editions; they are promoted not just through writing and teaching, but by educational as well as non-educational methods: by curriculum design (down to the K-12 level), by policy diktat from sympathetic administrators (‘implicit bias’, ‘hate and bias’ inquiries, ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ training and the like), by ‘no-platforming’ intimidation and exclusion of contrary views by agitators, and sometimes by ‘Antifa’ and violent demonstrations.  Just where this activism leads, I will get to in a moment.

Definition of ‘color-blind racism’

According to CBR doctrine, color blindness is any attempt to explain racial disparities by means other than racist discrimination. “This ideology [color blindness]… explains contemporary racial inequality as the outcome of nonracial dynamics”, writes Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, distinguished professor of sociology at Duke University, and currently president of the American Sociological Association, in the fourth edition of his book Racism without Racists (a title rather belied by his frequent use of the term “color-blind racists”).  In other words, CBR assumes, without proof, that non-racial factors are irrelevant, so that any attempt to draw attention to them is ipso facto racist.


 Color blindness is a racist weapon that works, somehow, through whiteness, which seems to be a whole scheme of thought. Whiteness is part of systemic racism: “Exposing the Whiteness of Color Blindness” is a chapter subhead in Bonilla-Silva’s book.  Whiteness is as real an identity as blackness. Neither whiteness nor systemic racism is measurable in an objective way.

Whiteness, “the practices of the ‘new racism’— the post-civil rights set of arrangements that preserves white supremacy”, is apparently hegemonic: “I contend that ‘color-blind’ ideology plays an important role in the maintenance of white hegemony” writes Ashley “Woody” Doane,  a leading ‘whiteness studies’ advocate. ‘Whiteness’ is employed as a method of maintaining control over other groups by the ‘dominant culture’. “Challenging white hegemony” is a major motif for ‘whiteness studies’.  Only race traitors, “whites who do not dance to the tune of color blindness” can escape from whiteness. Color blindness is part of the whiteness strategy and is therefore racist.

Whiteness is also unconscious. A former student of Bonilla-Silva’s raised the obvious question “How does one test for the unconscious?” but, like Bacon’s Jesting Pilate, Bonilla-Silva stayed not for an answer. Others have tried; there is something called the ‘implicit-bias’ test which pretends to measure unconscious processes. But it has little or no scientific basis, despite the existence of a Harvard University web site.  It has been widely administered for some twenty years nevertheless.

Above all, whiteness is a bearer of privilege. The term itself adds nothing new: white privilege is just the same as black un-privilege; to discriminate against blacks is to privilege non-blacks. But the word is another way to make whites feel bad. Books and articles in this area are sprinkled with tendentious phrases like “the manifold wages of whiteness”, “white privilege”, “historically white colleges”, all to emphasize persistent, unjust advantages possessed by whites as opposed to blacks. Again, the injustice of ‘privilege’ is just assumed not demonstrated empirically. The few demonstrable examples of ‘black privilege’ such as affirmative action and ‘diversity’ policies, are either ignored or dismissed as ‘tokenism’.

Racial power

The CBR aim is to challenge all white supremacy: ‘supremacy’ based on competence or effort is not exempt. Bonilla-Silva continues, with remarkable frankness:

“[L]et me suggest a few of the political conditions necessary to fight color-blind racism… First, blacks and their allies would be the core of a new civil rights movement demanding equality of results… To launch a frontal attack on the “new racism” and its color-blind ideology, the black masses must be as racially conscious as the leaders of the new movement. In ideological terms, the movement must break with the hegemony color blindness has over all Americans” [my emphases]

Bonilla-Silva is a major voice arguing for the essential racism of ‘whiteness’ and the need to combat it through political action. In 2017 he said that

“Adding a few scholars of color to mostly white departments did not involve doing what sociology needed the most: restructuring the discipline and, more significantly, redistributing racial power… it has not lead [sic] to changes in sociology’s curriculum; nor has it involved changing our sociological methods…. Another way of doing sociology is possible because critical, engaged, and, indeed, more ‘political’ sociologists are the majority. We might not be at Harvard, Princeton, Wisconsin, Columbia, Michigan, or Chicago, but we have power in our numbers. Although mainstream sociology rules, there are more sociologists who want to be engaged and do ‘liberation sociology’.” [my emphases].

It seems that power is at least as important to CBR as racial equity — and more important than empirical verification.

And why should the problems and methods of sociology change with the racial composition of scientists? Bonilla-Silva’s frequent references to “white logic” and “white methods” are unpleasantly reminiscent of what was once called “Jewish physics” (Jüdische Physik) in Nazi-era Germany.  Bonilla-Silva is untroubled; he feels that sociology is insufficiently comprehensive because “we made a pact with the devil of ‘objectivity.’”  This is a frontal assault on a basic assumption of all science: that scientific knowledge is universal. There is not, cannot be, a ‘Jewish physics’ — or a ‘white sociology’.

The black identity

Whiteness is “socially constructed”, which “means that notions of racial difference are human creations rather than eternal, essential categories. As such, racial categories have a history and are subject to change”. Are all racial categories “socially constructed” and “subject to change”, as Bonilla-Silva claims? Are all equally valid?  ‘Blackness’ may be different. The early black sociologist W. E. B Du Bois wrote in a dreamy Emersonian style about what he saw as a division — permanent, he thought — in the minds of African Americans:

“The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife… to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not wish to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American…”

The idea that there are intrinsic and possibly unbridgeable mental differences between blacks and whites, between white and Negro ‘blood’, was plausible in 1897.  It was on the back burner for several decades. Now the permanence of this division seems to be denied by Bonilla-Silva who calls the racial categories socially constructed and subject to change.  So, a hopeful omen, if there is conflict between “whiteness” and “blackness” it may perhaps be resolved peacefully.


Multiculturalism is an alternative to hegemony. Its unstated premise is that different cultures — identities — can live together peacefully. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it thus:

“[P]roponents of multiculturalism reject the ideal of the “melting pot” in which members of minority groups are expected to assimilate into the dominant culture in favor of an ideal in which members of minority groups can maintain their distinctive collective identities and Practices.”

Multiculturalism is a utopian project, in the sense that it assumes different cultures can co-exist without restricting the freedom or warping the identity of any one.  This may be true for some small set of closely related cultures. But as a general rule it is nonsense. The Jews could not co-exist with the Nazis and cannot reconcile with the Islamists; people who believe in the subjection of women cannot peacefully coexist with Western culture. Gay-marriage advocates cannot live with devout Christians. Anti-colonialists cannot co-exist with anyone who points to positive features of colonialism. Du Bois himself thought that Black and White were “two warring ideals”. In other words, in most cases of cultural admixture the two cultures must either compromise, separate or let one win out.

Is a peaceful multiculturalism compatible with CBR’s racial agenda? If, as Du Bois so passionately claims, the black identity is inbuilt, perhaps it cannot come to terms with “whiteness”? Or perhaps, as Bonilla-Silva contends, identities are socially constructed, hence malleable, so the ‘identities’ of black and white could perhaps fuse in some sort of compromise. But many voices both black and white don’t want it to change even if change is possible. They resist “white hegemony”. This is the CBR view. Multiculturalism for them seems to mean either separation or eternal conflict.


In CBR social science the existence of racism tends to be just assumed, or proved by numerical disparities, even ridiculous ones such as an admission by a white interviewee that “He is not attracted to black women”. If none of that works, racism is related to a wider ‘systemic’ problem.

In off-the-record Atlantic comments, Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps the most visible black writer on these issues, repeatedly affirmed that if, say The New Republic, was at one time 100% white, then it was racist.  Apparently, racial disproportion proves racism. The fact that only one percent of Caltech’s student body is black, is therefore evidence of racism.  It is not just prima facie but proof positive of racism if blacks and whites are not employed/honored/paid in strict proportion to their proportion in the population. The fact that black women are actually paid slightly more than comparable white women goes unremarked.  Facts seem to be just a distraction to CBR.

Bonilla-Silva, a few years ago gave a talk entitled “Why can’t we just get along” at Brown University (where, in an aside, he assured his northeastern audience that Durham, NC, is “One of the most segregated cities in America” which is almost the opposite of the truth). He described two versions of racism. What he called the folk view is: The irrational beliefs some people have about the presumed inferiority of others.

Bonilla-Silva found the folk view to be inadequate in several ways, the first being that it

“Misses the fact that racism is “structural” or “systemic”, that is, racism is part of the social structure of society, hence we all participate in it and we all participate in it whether we like it or not and conscious and unconscious and in passive as well as active ways — and develop interests that fit our racial location. [emphases in original slide]”

So, like ‘whiteness’, systemic racism is unconscious. Whether they know it or not, white people are racist. Racism is the original sin of the white race.  Whites are a people eternally condemned. No proof is offered for an untestable and slanderous, not to say racist, claim.

Causes of racial disparities

The CBR sociology of race says almost nothing about measurable causes. A causal analysis of racial disparities might look like this: There are manifest inequalities between black and white: education, cognitive skills, crime and incarceration rates, income levels, family structure, etc. There are two kinds of cause for these differentials: exogenous, due to outside forces over which individuals have no control. And endogenous, factors under the control of the individual and his or her immediate family. The main exogenous factor is racial discrimination in employment, schooling and housing. The endogenous factors are behavioral group-differences between blacks and whites: individual interests, motivation, and ability, family environment. These endogenous factors are not entirely independent: motivation, interests and ability depend to some extent on family environment and education.

The allegation that looking for non-racial causes for racial disparities is itself racist has led to successful efforts to suppress research on, and even attention to, those non-racial causes. Endogenous factors — black-white behavioral differences in interests, abilities, family structure and motivation — all are “off the table” for CBR. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the leaked Atlantic transcript, refuses to entertain the idea that blacks and whites differ in endogenous factors: “obviously that’s out of bounds for us”. Editor Jeffrey Goldberg concurs “No, we’re never running s**t like that, obviously”.

This is the liberal consensus. Discussion of these topics is widely acknowledged to be taboo, even by the pre-eminent scientific journal Nature, which rates research on genetics and intelligence “Taboo level: High” and race and genetics: “Taboo level: Very high”.  One researcher said he felt “ambushed” by discussion of his early findings on race differences: “My friends [including one co-author] said nothing” he reported. The vilification of race-and-IQ researcher Charles Murray has gone on since the publication of The Bell Curve in 1994.

Equality of results

The logic of the CBR argument is straightforward. There are no non-racial reasons for racial disparities. Ergo, without racism blacks, whites, Asians, etc. would be equally represented in every profession.  Consequently, “… blacks and their allies would be the core of a new civil rights movement demanding equality of results…To launch a frontal attack on the “new racism” and its color-blind ideology…the movement must break with the hegemony color blindness has over all Americans” says Bonilla-Silva [my emphasis].

This is a solution with which many CBR sociologists seem perfectly happy. Yet it is a proposition that will dumbfound most Americans, who can live with disparities providing they reflect merit, or even (within limits) inherited wealth — but not color or ethnicity. Few consider the NFL racist for favoring blacks, or Caltech for favoring Asians — because more blacks are good football players and more Asians are good techies.

Forcing equality of result is obviously unjust. It also presents a problem that apparently leaves CBR unfazed: achieving equality of outcomes requires coercion.  Under relatively free conditions, individuals will distribute themselves nonrandomly in different occupations.  The more able, energetic and motivated will tend to move higher in the hierarchy than less talented individuals. Energy, talent and motivation will not be the only factors, but they will be one set of factors. So, if there are racial-group-average differences in these attributes, there will probably be racial disproportion in the hierarchy of wealth, earnings and prestige.  Hence, the only way to eliminate disproportion is by force. If ‘equality of outcome’ succeeds, it will be accompanied by totalitarianism.

The new racism

So what is the new racism?  There seem to be at least three definitions: Is it the “color-blindness = white supremacy = racism”, that CBR sociologists attribute to the American people?  Is it the simple “race should not matter” ideal they actually believe? Or is it “equality of outcomes”, the proposal to abolish objective, non-racial measures of ability in favor of totalitarian racial apportionment of jobs, degrees and all other avenues to wealth?  Dear reader, you decide.

John Staddon is James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at Duke University. His most recent books are Scientific Method: How science works, fails to work or pretends to work. (2017) Routledge, and The Englishman: Memoirs of a psychobiologist. (2016) University of Buckingham Press.

Op-Ed: Worse than Bigotry: An incident in Wilmington

Cancel culture on the beach

Bigotry is bad. But the steps that must be taken to completely eliminate it are much, much worse.

Here is an example.  The conversation of three cops in Wilmington NC talking to one other in their separate cars was inadvertently recorded by the police system.  Their comments were picked up via a monthly video audit.  The comments were unpleasantly racist. The mildest involved one officer referring to a black woman and later a black magistrates as “negroes”. The officers also speculated about a possible coming civil war and “slaughtering them”.  Another officer apparently felt a civil war was needed to “wipe them off the (expletive) map.” A second officer told this one that he was “crazy: the recording ceased at that point.

The officers conduct was deplorable; no doubt about that. On their other hand, their conversation was intended to be private. The word “negro” was once the acceptable term for African-Americans. It was used by MLK and is still used by black charitable organizations like the United Negro College Fund.

The point is that racial language is so touchy that what is acceptable changes frequently.  You can see the same phenomenon in relation to mental handicap.  Once mentally handicapped people were just called “idiots”.  After the term idiot became unacceptable it was supplanted by “moron” (yes, the Greek-derived “moron” was for a while a gentler and more acceptable term than Middle English “idiot”). Moron in turn has been succeeded by a long list of euphemisms, the current favorite being “special needs.”  If a person or a condition is regarded as socially undesirable, the words used for it tend to change: as one word becomes stigmatized, another will take its place. This is just the nature of language,

Even if they were confused about the acceptable term for people of color, there is no doubt that the rest of the cops’ conversation was blatantly racist. The three officers denied that they are racists.  Their conduct was not public; in effect it was a “thought crime”. There is as yet no evidence that they acted publicly in the way their words implied (an inquiry is ongoing).

Nevertheless, before the results of an inquiry are in, all three cops have been fired.

Many people will regard this as a just punishment. They should reflect on what it means for society as a whole. Racism may be a sin. But the idea of “sin” is a Christian one and it comes along with the idea of redemption — and forgiveness.  The treatment of the officers is not only un-Christian, it is also chilling.

Hasty, arbitrary and severe treatment like this suppresses not just free speech but free thought. Perhaps that’s the idea, although I doubt the officers’ superiors thought much about that. Protecting their fragile fundaments was probably the main thing on their minds. But a more measured punishment would have let the officers and the public know that the Wilmington police department understands justice as well decency: decency of behavior and justice of punishment. As it is, they serve neither society nor themselves by caving to the mob.

John Staddon

Op-Ed: How to pay for it: Covid and after

Because of the covid crisis governments have incurred huge debts. How might they be repaid?

Some kind of tax must be imposed. Increasing existing taxes will be both unpopular and possibly damaging to the economy. How about a new tax? The place to begin to tax is activities which we want to discourage. Hence, existing taxes on alcohol and cigarettes which both raise money and deter an undesirable activity.

Social media has probably been a net cost to society during the current crisis. The internet is a huge benefits to scholars and other seekers after information. But, via social media, it has also amplified some of the worst tendencies in human nature and contributed to civil unrest. Social media are supported by advertising, information/scholarly sites, not so much.

So perhaps advertising is where should look to recover our debt?

A tax on internet advertising need not affect business adversely. Advertising is an arms race: the more you do, the more I must do in response. Almost any economic model will show that we have too much advertising. The advertising industry is “inefficient”.

So, perhaps some kind of tax on internet advertising would raise the necessary amount of money as well as reducing both advertising and, if properly designed, some of the malign properties of social media — and all without damaging economic growth.

SATIRE, by ‘POSSUM’ – Diversity


(Based on the leaked transcript of an editorial board meeting at the Atlantic magazine in 2019)

Lemuel Pepys Esq., time traveler

In which a Gentleman of the Eighteenth Century is Miraculously transported to a Twenty-First Century Editorial Meeting

Through a worm hole, unknown in the 18th century, but now routinely available on Twitter, Mr. Pepys, a distant cousin of the well-known diarist Mr. Samuel Pepys, has been time-traveled, in the guise of young staffer, to a meeting at a major publication of the US East Coast intellectual elite. Much is unfamiliar. He perceives that he has been taken to the remote future. He recognizes the jobs of the scribblers he is witnessing. He is puzzled at the presence of ‘negroes’ and young women. He is baffled by their discussion.  The following are extracts from his diary.

Friday April 6, 2018

Lemuel Pepy holding a copy of the ‘Reparations’ tract

Two men, one black, one white address the meeting. The white one seems troubled. The tall black one appears to be the master. They all labour for a periodical called The Atlantic (we seem to be in the colonies).

“Of no party or clique” is their motto. (Is it true that this publication supports no particular faction? That is an advance indeed!)

The black man complains about his previous employment at an organ called the New Republic: “No black people worked there. I’ve actually verified this. No black people worked there at all. And to my mind — other people will probably feel quite differently about this — but as far as I was concerned, it was basically a racist publication.” We learn later that The Atlantic suffers from the same distemper: “basically white dudes”.  (And what is this “dude”?)

What is racism?

None dissented from the black man’s claim: absence of black people means racism, which is a sin, it seems. But what means ‘racist’? No negroes are at my own employment, in the Royal Navy Sick and Hurt Board. Are the Navy yards therefore ‘racist’? But of course, few blacks are available – more in the colonies, I believe, though in bondage.

Apparently, there are many free black people in this new time. Are they excluded from all literary employment? Can they not write? Unlikely, since my black man writes much. Perhaps he is possessed of a Royal Prerogative? Are other black men in some way not fit for employment by The New Republic?

The black man is aggrieved. He missed black people at the NR because, he said “there was no me to learn from.”  I am puzzled. As a child, my teachers were actually women. Though myself a boy, I yet learned quite well from them. I learned a little music from Signor Ottocelli, an Italian gentleman, a very foreign person. Are black people somehow different?  Can they learn only from their ilk?

The black man is sad: “I don’t know how to put this without sounding like an a–hole.” But after debating the matter within himself, he decided that it was after all good to learn, even from people he believed to be “f—-ing racist” – that word racist again.

The black man has difficulty learning from others if they differ from him either by color or opinion.  He is concerned that his teachers did not see him “completely as a human being.” What does this mean? It is natural to see negroes as different, of course; they look different from Englishmen. Those who have arrived in our island since 1600 were savages, mostly, naked and illiterate. But many free black people are now in the colonies and, as I later learn, look and behave more or less as others do. I cannot comprehend his difficulty.

The black man apparently has one white colleague with whom he differs, but to whom he can speak: “You can go into The Atlantic archives right now, and you can see me arguing with Andrew Sullivan about whether black people are genetically disposed to be dumber than white people. I actually had to take this seriously, you understand?” But Mr. Sullivan is evidently an exception: “There was, like, no other conservative person I would have answered at all.” The black man can talk to Mr. Sullivan, but not to any others of his party. And what is “genetically”?

Are black people (in general, I suppose, there must be exceptions) in fact stupider than white people?  Apparently the proposition is too silly to debate, according to the black man (but he would say that, wouldn’t he?).

The trouble with Kevin

There is a discussion about a former colleague. A man called Kevin was recently ejected from the group after a very short stay.  Evidently, Kevin is one of those white folk who fails to see the black man and others like “as fully realized human beings.”  What does this mean? That Kevin doesn’t like them? That they don’t like Kevin? That he thinks black people are but hairless apes (tho’ he doth deny it!)? Apparently Kevin has views that are “batsh-t crazy” — not explained. But it is clear that “batsh-t crazy” opinions are anathema, like disbelief in the Trinity.

The willful disposing of unborn infants is a contentious issue.  The practice is a crime in my time. Kevin apparently is of the same view. But — O, tempora, O, mores! — Apparently, abortion is permitted now in some parts of the colonies and embraced by the present company.

The black man refers to capital punishment (I discovered later that criminals are now executed in a barbarous and ignoble fashion, by a medical procedure. Surely, hanging, which would at least preserve the honor and dignity of the condemned man, is to be preferred?)  The black man seems to believe it is wrong to execute anyone, no matter how heinous his crime.

After a brief jocosity with the white man, the black man speaks again: “you know, I was an admirer of Kevin’s work, and I think I can say this, you know, Jeff [the white man] talked to me about this. And I was not like, don’t hire that dude. To the contrary, I thought, OK, well he can come in and represent the position, and then we can fight it out…I feel like I failed the writers of color here in that advice.” Why “failed”? Are black people approving of abortion, as Kevin apparently is not? Can they not bear a contrary view? Do they not enjoy vigorous debate, as we do? Later discussion suggests that white people at the magazine also fear debate. And what is a “dude”?

The black man at last explains the difficulty: “This publication is diversifying…What is debatable comes up for question because you bring different people in, and those people are not just brown-skinned or dark-skinned or women who would normally — you know, who are just the same as any other. Their identity — and I know this is bad in certain quarters, but I don’t think it is — that identity cannot be neatly separated from the job.”  By “diverse” he seems to mean adding women and colored people to the group.

Diversity impedes debate?

It is clear at last:  This “diversity” is the problem. So long as the scribblers were all white men, they could converse and debate freely. But now colored people and women are in the room (yes, young women are present! Although they wear trousers and shirts, like men – only exposing more chest). Since the paper has become ‘diverse’, free debate is no longer possible: “So maybe the job changes a little bit” says the black man.

Now I think I begin to understand the dilemma at the New Republic: to have a vigorous and open group of writers, they needed to be all men, or at least not diverse. (Would all women, or even all black people, work as well? Or are such groups considered to be ‘diverse’, hence incapable of robust debate?)  “Like, those two things [diversity and a ‘broad range of debate”] actually, as you said, they’re part of each other. And I guess what I’m suggesting is they actually might also be in conflict with each other”, as the black man points out later. Though awkwardly expressed, the black man sees the problem: with women and blacks in the room, debate is stifled. Best go back to the old way, men only, as in my time? I well understand that many things may not be discussed in the presence of women.

The white man speaks. He has failed to grasp the black man’s point: “trying so hard to diversify gender, race ethnicity, orientation, whatever, part of it is to make sure that we’re of no party or clique.” So, he wishes to be ‘diverse’ but cannot understand that it conflicts with their motto.  The black man perceives that free debate is not possible in a ‘diverse’ group. The white man admits that certain issues cannot be discussed. He wishes debate “without touching the third rails of gender and abortion and race.” So, gender, abortion and race cannot be discussed? Which is a puzzlement, since they seem to be at the top of everyone’s minds. (And what is a “third rail”?)

The black man speaks again: perhaps I have mistook him: “I think the deal is that in the ’90s, when this room would not have looked like this room does [i.e., no women or blacks?], there were things that were considered out of bounds. I don’t think we would have published ‘The Case for Reparations’ then.”

Much is made of this important “Reparations” production, which appeared in The Atlantic some years earlier. The black man refers to it frequently, making no mention of criticism that has appeared elsewhere.  “And I think the problem is, some of those things — this is the huge, huge problem — some of those things that I would argue should be out of bounds, actually a large number of Americans actually believe.”  He doth not say what those things are — perhaps a suggestions that there may be differences between black and white people? (But if blacks and whites truly are the same, why keep treating them separately? Why complain, as the black man frequently does, that “I was the only writer of color”?) Or is it just anathema to discuss things believed by the common people?

We cannot know whether “The case for reparations” would have been published in The Atlantic in years past. But if not, the reason might have been that its thesis seems unjust. Should living white people pay living blacks for injuries inflicted by dead whites on dead blacks?  Especially as some blacks believe themselves better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa.  Or, as some have suggested, because the argument made is feeble.  Or that the style of writing is too emotional for a scholarly publication.  We cannot know.

The white man speaks: “Do you think The Atlantic would be diminished if we narrowed the bounds of acceptability in ideological discourse, even as we grow in diversity?” He begins to see the black man’s argument. He begins to discern, as through a glass, darkly, the conflict between diversity of race and diversity of thought. A young woman later asks a similar question. She had heard “a certain amount of nostalgia for that time, which was the ability to just get out there and punch each other and people debating and actually having genuinely different ideas and having that spirit of really wanting to engage. And we just don’t have that anywhere on our website.” (What is this “website”?)

In the end, ‘diversity’ seems to win over open debate at The Atlantic.

Towards the end of the meeting, it becomes clear that the white man is supposed to be in charge. He is the Editor of The Atlantic, ‘tho he always defers to the black man. Indeed, he says at one point: “I mean he’s one of the dearest people in my life. I’d die for him.”

The black man seems to object, and the white man responds ruefully: “Can’t I just express my love for you? What’s so bad? What’s so wrong?”  To which the black man responds: “Can I just say — and I would only say this sitting in this room — but that was a very white response.” This seems to be a condemnation. Is love a bad thing? Is love from a white man bad. Do white men always express love for black men?

Or is the black man’s response in fact (that word again) racist?


Wealth through bondage: The Good Side of Slavery

I was unpersuaded at first. The thoughtful and carefully researched 1619 series in the New York Times on how slavery and racism are in fact responsible for American greatness was still in its early stage. But now I am convinced. What an insight! To see that without slavery, the US would be just another tinpot third-world state as poor as Peru or Venezuela, but without their fascinating cultural legacies.

Now it all seems so clear. The slave states were largely rural, of course, but how much of Western success depends on its farms and their human labor. And see now the problems that have arisen as sturdy yeopersons have been almost replaced by machines. In the US, the North did begin to industrialize after a while, but it was just imitating Britain and Germany, and without the vast wealth transferred to northern industrialists from Southern slave plantations, surely little could have been accomplished.  Canada’s success cannot be directly attributed to slave labor, but her parasitic relationship to the United States hardly needs to be spelled out.

The Civil War was, of course, a terrible mistake. The cost was excessive, and by abolishing slavery it greatly retarded America’s advance. How much more prosperous we would have been with a strong slave economy!

And we can see for ourselves how well those other slave nations have done. Saudi Arabia, for example, surely would not be wealthy were it not for its wise toleration of slavery in years past. And many nations in Africa have boomed on the backs of their slaves.  Russia’s meteoric economic growth undoubtedly depended and still depends on her slaves, first called “serfs”, more recently gulag residents and now “citizens.”  The custom may be dying out now, which perhaps accounts for Russia’s recent economic decline.

Japan is something of an exception. Future historians will need to help us understand how that prosperous nation managed to succeed without a serious slave market. Britain, of course, did not hold slaves but profited mightily from her holdings in the Caribbean. No doubt the industrial revolution would never have happened without takings from the slave trade.  It is surely no coincidence that James Watt’s steam engine was announced in 1776.

Germany’s industrial success in the 19th and early 20th centuries is remarkable since we have little evidence of much slave holding. But when her industries began to flag after WW I, it was only a few years before a farsighted leader sought to introduce slavery there also. His success might have been great, but his modernizing efforts were rudely interrupted by the Allies who seemed to have forgotten the great benefits that slavery could bring.

Or perhaps they were just jealous.


Offense intended?

Or not?

Behaviorisms of all varieties agree on one thing, that the job of their science is to explain how an organism’s history affects its future behavior.

Here is an example. Imagine a hungry pigeon in a Skinner box facing a disk (called a key) which can be lighted with different colors. He is exposed to a random sequence of  two key lights: red and green: RGRRGRGG…Each color stays on for 5 s.  If he pecks the red light, he gets a “time-out”, all the lights go out and he must wait in the dark for 60 s until one of the lights re-appears. If he pecks on the green light, he gets a bit of food and the sequence resumes.

Even the dimmest pigeon will soon learn to peck only on the green light.

Now we give the bird a test. Occasionally, instead of red or green, the light is yellow. What will the pigeon do? Well, at first he will peck the yellow key, because yellow is close to green on the spectrum: green and yellow are similar. This is called stimulus generalization.

But in our test, pecking yellow doesn’t give food but another timeout. Since the pigeon can in fact tell the difference between green  and yellow, even though they are similar, it takes but few repetitions for him to learn not to peck yellow. This is called discrimination.

Human beings also behave like this. Here is an example.

Many years ago, distinguished black scholar Dr. John Hope Franklin took offense. The incident occurred in Washington’s Cosmos Club:

In 1995, on the evening before he was to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House, Franklin hosted a celebratory dinner party for some of his friends at the Cosmos Club. Some of his guests had not arrived, and Franklin decided to head to the entrance of the Club to look for them. There, an elderly white woman handed Franklin her coat check and demanded that he fetch her coat. Franklin politely informed her that all the Club’s attendants were uniformed and if she handed one of them her coat check, they would be happy to assist her. In a talk he gave ten years later, Franklin recounted this event as an example of how racist stereotypes and ideologies about the social position of Blacks remained strongly entrenched in American society. [emphasis added]

Was Dr. Franklin right to be offended? Should the white lady have known better?

In fact, both parties were probably just behaving like our pigeon.  In the WL’s experience, coat attendants in Washington were almost always black (perhaps the attendant to whom she handed her coat originally was black) — the green key. Members of the Cosmos Club, on the contrary, were always white — Franklin was the club’s first black member. Hence her mistake. She had no experience with the yellow key, a black person at the club who was not a servant.

Dr. Franklin had experienced many racist insults in his life, all from white people. Like the pigeon, he had much experience with the red key. Hence his inference that this was just another insult and he reacted as if insulted.

Both individuals made mistakes. But in both cases, the mistakes were a predictable result of their past histories. Who should apologize?  Not Franklin, who was perfectly civil at the time. The lady? Well, yes, she should have apologized, since she did make a mistake. But neither party need feel offended since her error is understandable.

This incident has become an influential story of racism in the American South. It is taken as a blanket condemnation of stereotypes, even though many stereotypes are true: men are usually stronger than women and have deeper voices, for example. A stereotype doesn’t have to be true one hundred percent of the time to be useful. And people form stereotypes automatically.  Horse nettle fruit look like tomatoes, but they are poisonous. A hungry child familiar with tomatoes might well eat the look-alike nettle fruit and get sick. People, like pigeons, generalize based on their past experience.

How should the Cosmos Club incident be regarded now? Dr. Franklin’s original reaction is totally understandable. But emotion is not always a reliable guide to truth. Being upset does not mean you should be upset.  The real facts may be different from what your instincts assume. Dr. Franklin, unlike the hapless pigeon, had the power to reflect on possibly non-racist causes of the WL’s behavior.

It is unfortunate that, ten years after the event, Dr. Franklin used this ambiguous incident as a kind of prototype for racism. His history excuses him. Nevertheless, he could have looked at alternative interpretations, as I have done, or chosen a less ambiguous example. As it is, he provided race-baiters with a stick to beat up many probably innocent people caught up in similar incidents.

The message, for both black and white: please think before you take offense or might give it.

A version of this post appear on the Psychology Today blog.