Relatively Woke

Some Twitter conversation and a comment by Aard regular Phillip alerted me to an on-line offensive that the Swedish extreme Right seems to be staging against critical race theory and wokeness. I thought I’d take the opportunity to clarify my own position.

In general politics I’m a member of the Social Democrat party. In US terms this means that I consider AOC and Bernie to be good vanilla politicians. In one Swedish Leftie internal debate, I am on the side of Socialism rather than Identity Politics. I am more interested in your relationship with your employer and the banks than in your skin colour. Of course I’m anti-racist anyway.

But inside the walls of Academia, I part company with many Leftie friends. I like to refer to myself as a member of the Alan Sokal Academic Left. We’re academic Lefties who seek scientific truth first, and want to further Leftie political causes second. You can’t right a societal wrong if it’s impossible to determine if the societal wrong has any objective existence. Nor can you right a societal wrong if there is no way of measuring objectively which methods work.

On an unrelated note, I also like to annoy earnest Leftie humanities colleagues by pointing out that it doesn’t matter in practice what our politics are, because Swedish humanities have almost no political influence or relevance. You can try all you like to “make visible the power structures” in archaeology, it will not move society at large in any particular direction anyway. Also, it’s my opinion that if such activities do not increase our knowledge of societies in the past, then they should receive no archaeological funding. Because archaeology is about material culture and societies in the past.

As for wokeness, we don’t really have a word for that in Swedish that I am aware of. Here the extreme Right often attacks “political correctness” instead, which seems to refer to the same things. My opinions are probably quite woke seen from a US perspective where AOC and Bernie are considered extremists (which makes everyone in European politics laugh). But in the Swedish context my political correctness is middling.

I get along poorly with the woke academic Left because of their bad science/scholarship: their knowledge relativism, their incomprehensible fad jargon and their focus on meta-issues. But I’m fine with their politics.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

31 thoughts on “Relatively Woke”

  1. I have a quick metal-detecting question for you, good Doc. You’ve been helpful in the past. We live across from two large farm fields just a few minutes south of Eskilstuna in a little place called Husby-Rekarne. I keep thinking of those farm fields in England where detectorists have all sorts of good luck. Could I expect the same luck in these farm fields? I keep imagining silver coins and the like. I do now the rules, thanks to you, and the paper work required and how to get the proper permissions, how to report and log finds. You helped me out when I got my permission paperwork for a small beach on Rindö where we used to live. There are some R areas around here but not directly on the farm fields I want to search. Do you think it would be worth the long process to get permission to detect those fields? Do these farm fields stretch back in use for hundreds of years?

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    1. Could I expect the same luck in these farm fields? There’s lots of stuff in all fields in your province. Most of it isn’t super old. But that’s to your advantage: if you do find something super old then your permit for that field evaporates.

      Do you think it would be worth the long process to get permission to detect those fields? Depends entirely on the distance to the listed archaeological sites.

      Do these farm fields stretch back in use for hundreds of years? Many do. Others are drained boggy meadows or bogs.

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  2. I’m worried how much tumblr and twitter are driving political discourse around the world. Its not just that this discourse is inspired by the situation in the USA and other countries have other situations, its that the traits which are helpful for getting attention on social media are harmful for changing the policies of the state. (eg. social media rewards division and drama and impulsiveness, democratic politics reward coalition building across difference over long periods of time).

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  3. I would say that my position is extremely close to Martin’s in almost every respect. There have always been crazy people. What I see as the big problem at the moment is that many on the left remain silent rather than call out the loony stuff touted by a small but vocal minority of people who to some extent also see themselves on the left, the reason being that they somehow fear being confused with the right (who of course call at the loony stuff on the left, just as the left calls out loony stuff on the right). Something similar happened on the other side, but I’m not sure if the reasons were similar: Donald Trump managed to get the support of the Republican party. While there are a lot of really loony people on the right in the States (I grew up in Texas and Alabama before coming to Germany almost 40 years ago), at least in the old days most Republicans were not as absurd as Trump.

    A related problem is that classical liberals such as Steven Pinker (an atheist Jewish Canadian who teaches at Harvard, which not long ago would have been a typical caricature of a left-wing intellectual) are labelled alt-right by the woke.

    The bottom line is that even if the goal (progressive politics) is correct, that doesn’t justify the corruption of science as a means, even if it were effective.

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    1. Philip, I think the reason for that label is that Pinker sympathizes with the work of people who spend a lot of time talking about race and how some races are superior and others are inferior. In the 2000s he speculated that the Ashkenazi were bred for intelligence and reprinted an article by Steven Sailer (although he seems to have lost interest). “Alt right” and “intellectual dark web” often refer to people like his friends who use their clever minds to rationalize their prejudices.

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      1. Pinker needs to be a lot more careful about who he is identified with (but then he’s rich and famous, and I am not). I would never go quoting Sailer to anyone anywhere ever. But it’s a lot more than that – Pinker wrote the best selling book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature which was published in 2002, earning himself the hatred of blank slaters in academia, who deny that human behaviour and intellect have a heritable component varying from about 50 to 70% (but are highly polygenic, so there is no Intelligence Gene, so to speak – there are literally at least several thousand genetic variants contributing to the heritable components of intelligence and personality, which directly affect behaviour) and insist that they are the result solely of environmental factors. It is known for certain that factors like childhood disease and malnutrition negatively affect intellect (and other less controversial and highly polygenic traits like physical height), whereas education has been found to positively affect intellect, to the extent of about 3 IQ points per year, which is a lot. So environmental factors certainly should not be dismissed, they can have a very big effect, but it is undeniable that there are also very substantial heritable components (but the blank slaters, who are now dominant in academia in the Anglosphere, particularly in the Social Sciences, continue to deny it). I do not wish to get into further discussion about psychometric testing, IQ and intelligence because I am sick to death of the whole subject; people can read the literature.

        Suffice to say that I detest racism in all of its many insidious guises, and strongly support efforts to eliminate the negative impacts of environmental factors on all people everywhere, and to further those environmental factors that have a positive effect. I also detest sexism, and all other forms of discrimination that impact negatively on people. To that extent I suppose I could be labeled as ‘relatively woke’, but that doesn’t wash with the wokesters – to them, either you are fully woke or you ain’t; either you sign on for every new source of outrage or you don’t, regardless of the numerous contradictions and hypocrisy that throws up. To me, hard facts, data and the truth are paramount, so I can never be fully woke. At a guess I am also probably the most left wing person commenting on this blog, but I am not interested in getting into any discussion of politics either – if I was Swedish I would probably be content to give the Social Democrats a tick in the box as the best available alternative.

        The theory about the Ashkenazim, which I believe was first expounded by Gregory Cochran and the late Henry Harpending, is that in eastern Europe, because they were herded into ghettoes and effectively forced to make a living from occupations like money lending, which required literacy and numeracy, were under strong selective pressure to evolve higher intellect, i.e. they did not start out smarter than anyone else, but only the more intelligent ones survived and were reproductively successful. They famously have a mean IQ of 112, against a global mean of 100, and 20th Century history is littered with the names of high achieving Ashkenazim in many fields from Mathematics and Physics to Classical Music. (They also suffer from very high rates of some very nasty heritable diseases, so it’s sort of a case of be careful what you wish for.) Other Jewish populations like the Sephardim, who did not come under this selective pressure, have mean IQ no higher than the global mean. The theory cannot be proven or disproven, but it seems at least somewhat plausible – they didn’t start out any smarter than other people when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, but the Ashkenazim, and only them among Jewish populations, have ended up a lot smarter on the mean, even more than the Han Chinese, who have a mean IQ of 106. But it is not correct to say that they were “bred for intelligence” as if they were domesticated dogs. If you don’t see the distinction I am drawing, we have nothing to talk about.

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      2. That is not what I gather from reading Pinker. Rather, he suggests that saying that any sort of genetic difference between races is a priori necessarily wrong is not the correct way to go about it. Rather, nature is what it is. He is also said that while it might be theoretically possible, cultural differences are much larger, so there is not much point in pursuing it. Also, so what? What if some races turned out to be, on average, better than others? What would that matter? One can, and should, still have equal opportunity. Why is the fraction of Blacks in the NFL much higher than in the general population? Systemic racism against Whites, genetic superiority, culture?

        The point is that if, whatever the facts are, perhaps without even knowing what the facts are, one pre-determines the outcome of a scientific investigation, then that has nothing to do with science.

        Suppose that some races turned out to be, on average, superior. Some suggest that that would be ammunition for racists. Maybe. But racists have no problem with being racists even with zero information. So again hardly anything would change.

        It is well known that Blacks have a higher susceptibility for prostate cancer, sickle-cell anemia, and so on (many diseases affect different races differently, many Chinese have difficulty with milk products, etc.). Some are now claiming that even mentioning this uncontroversial fact is somehow racist, even if it helps when treating those afflicted. Pinker has, correctly, criticized such nonsense. Claiming that makes him alt-right is akin to saying that whoever is not a Nazi is a communist and vice versa.

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      3. I disagree with John here on only one thing: I think there are equally left-wing commentators here.

        The problem with being careful about whom one is identified with is that if one tries to avoid all associations which might be misinterpreted, then one can’t really say anything at all. Even saying “women are adult human females” can result in death threats these days.

        Woke isn’t the same as the classical liberal/progressive values, though there is some overlap, but that is like saying there is some overlap between Trump and sensible Republicans like the late John McCain. The main problem with wokeness is that the conclusion is assumed and evidence rejected if it doesn’t support it, rather than vice versa.

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      4. “Why is the fraction of Blacks in the NFL much higher than in the general population?” – That’s an easy one. All of the world’s best sprinters, both male and female, have West African ancestry.

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      5. Yes, easy for me as well. The point is that no-one claims that it is systemic anti-white racism, or something to do with the priorities of the society in which they grew up. But in categories where Blacks statistically do less well, claims that it is due to systemic anti-black racism or environmental factors (culture, etc.) are common and claims of genetics taboo.

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      6. On the other hand, there are fewer Blacks in professional baseball, where arguably sprinting is more important, since (except where sometimes the pitcher doesn’t bad) all have to sprint between the bases. In American football, not all have to sprint.

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      7. Yeah, true – I’m no expert, but it seems like a lot of the quarterbacks are white. Not all, certainly, but you just don’t see white wide receivers, not at the elite level.

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      8. One thing I did pick up – Samoans are over-represented in the NFL; I’m guessing not so much for their sprinting ability.

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      9. Although Polynesians and Melanesians like the Fijians can be very fast, big and scary strong, and scary willing to mangle people. Fijians went from cannibalism to Christianity virtually overnight (mild exaggeration).

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      10. “Suppose that some races turned out to be, on average, superior. Some suggest that that would be ammunition for racists. Maybe.”

        Philip, the whole point of a lot of this ‘research’ is to provide arguments against any attempt to make society more equal. If *those people* are inherently inferior, then aren’t they doomed to remain at the bottom of society? Charles Murray has said directly that his research is an argument against what Americans call affirmative action https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/charles-murray And ever since the middle of the last century, hardcore racists often open by arguing that some group is better at something than Europeans, then start their rants about why the group they hate is obviously worse. For many so-called researchers, the whole point is to give people with university degrees excuses to be prejudiced.

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      11. That might be true, but the conclusion is not that one should simply assume that that which one wants to believe to be true without evidence. Trying to suppress discussion is usually a sign that one is not sure of one’s evidence. And if the evidence is that there are no statistically significant differences between races, then the more it is discussed in the open, the better. You are playing right into the hands of the racists who can then claim that their science is being censored. Science is about putting data out in the open and debating conclusions.

        Again, even if such evidence were secure, why should it affect equal opportunity? Just because some right-wing idiots abuse facts to their own ends doesn’t mean that one should oppress the facts. (I’m not saying that there are such facts, only that all hypotheses should be discussed.). If there is intelligent discussion, then the truth will hopefully win out in the long run; most people don’t believe that the Earth is flat.

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      12. Phillip, I don’t give my time to openminded consideration of claims of racial differences in intelligence because life is short and spending it evaluating claims which again and again turn out to be excuses for childish prejudices is a waste. Brandolini’s Law applies (“the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it”). I am happy to stick with the premise that its very unlikely that human difference correlates with any folk system of races or ethnicities. Other people spend their time other ways.

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      13. You might be surprised that you agree with me and Pinker here. Pinker’ s point is that it is not a priori physically impossible, thus claiming that it is wrong without evidence, or trying to cancel those investigating it (people do all kinds of things to waste their time, but should be allowed to do so), due to some political agenda, is wrong.

        Neither Pinker nor I wastes any time on this. But calling Pinker alt-right because he thinks that scientific claims should be based on evidence is incorrect.

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      14. It is very unlikely that on average the Dutch are taller than the Vietnamese. I know that because I sat in a corner for five minutes and thought about it. I understand nothing about modern genetics, but I still know it. And besides, nice people don’t talk about such things, even if talking about them means preventing more people from dying of cancer or heart disease. I don’t know who Brandolini is, Sean, but you might usefully spend five minutes thinking about whether his law applies to you. P.S. Don’t bother to send me any more emails. You clearly didn’t understand when I said I do not want to discuss the subject of intelligence, so I have blocked you.

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      15. However, I will permit myself to say this to you, Sean: there is a valid reason why at least some people research psychometric testing, IQ, intelligence, academic achievement and to what extent those things are determined genetically, by environmental factors, or by a complex interaction of genes and environment – where one or more groups in a society are clearly disadvantaged by having lower academic achievement or learning difficulties, it is important to understand why in order to be able to strive to ‘close the gap’. It doesn’t matter whether those disadvantaged groups are females, African Americans, Latinos in the USA, Hmong people in the USA, low achieving neurodiverse people who have special educational needs, or Aboriginal people in Australia, there are genuine altruistic reasons for conducting such research. The more complex the world becomes, the more pressing the need.

        Unadmixed Aboriginal people infamously have a mean IQ of 65. That should mean that they are unable to take care of themselves, which is obviously nonsense. They have been able to survive in environments so harsh that other people would not survive there for more than three days. They also have acute eyesight in the absence of eye disease due to fly infestations – not just better than all other populations, seven times better. Gregory Cochran told me that Central Asian people also have more acute eyesight than most populations, but nowhere near as acute as Australian Aboriginal people. This is such common knowledge among eye specialists in Australia that they no longer bother to comment on it. One of them said: “If someone comes in for an eye test and just rattles off the lowest line of letters effortlessly, I know without looking that person is Aboriginal.” An Aboriginal person can see things on the horizon with the naked eye that a person of European ancestry needs binoculars to see. They also have enhanced spacial memory, and enhanced sense of direction. All of this points to what is known, that the brains of Aboriginal people are structured somewhat differently to those of other people. That should not be controversial – they were genetically isolated for 37,000 years. The brains of women are smaller and structured somewhat differently from the brains of men, although women are no less smart than men. But it is now impossible to do further research on Aboriginal brain structure in Australia, and you will be attacked if you suggest that the brains of men and women are different. Hell, as of now, as Phillip has alluded to, you will be attacked if you even use the terms man and woman. In medical schools in the USA they are having to resort to talking about “people who are capable of giving birth” instead of using the term “females”.

        Dismissing people who research and discuss psychometric testing, IQ and intelligence for altruistic reasons as “just weird Americans and Brits who have too much time to write on the Internet” is essentially no different from dismissing people who research why Cantonese people are at greatly elevated risk (by several orders of magnitude) of contracting naso-pharyngeal cancer compared to other Han linguistic/cultural groups, let alone geographic populations in other parts of the world. I spoke to one of Hong Kong’s leading Otorhinolaryngologists, who told me he had not seen a single patient with nano-pharyngeal cancer who was not just not southern Chinese, but not Cantonese. I said: “So it’s genetic.” He said: “Yes, it’s genetic.” Until very recently in China, linguistic/cultural groups among the Han ethnic majority were endogamous. Despite him and his colleagues knowing that the cause is genetic, people who know nothing refuse to accept that explanation and continue to insist that it must be dietary. Cantonese are not the only people who eat dried fish, but they overlook that.

        In the process you would be dismissing someone like the late James Flynn. I will leave you to look him up or not, depending on how Confucian you feel. Flynn was on good terms with Jensen and Murray, despite their academic differences. I think Flynn was an overly generous spirit. I would not be on good terms with them – I have read more of Jensen’s papers than I care to remember, and I have no doubt that he was a virulent racist. I have also listened to Murray speaking about his work, and I would not go near him either; to me he is toxic. Also in the process, you would be dismissing the work of the late Judith Rich Harris.

        When David Reich, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he stated that African American men are at higher risk than white men of contracting prostate cancer due to a genetic factor that his research had identified and advising that they should undergo more frequent checks, 26 white anthropologists (who know nothing about genetics) in academia at various American universities published a joint letter condemning Reich for being a racist. David Reich’s father was the first director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He was clearly taken aback and very upset by this attack on him and subsequent attacks by other people in academia who accused him variously of being a racist, a ‘genetic determinist’ and various other terms coined to condemn people like him who have been working very hard in the field of medical genetics. There is a strong movement now in academia that any research at all on human genetics is unethical, even when that research is aimed at alleviating suffering and prolonging people’s lives. Geneticists have been leaving academia in droves – they can earn more money anyway working for big private sector genomics companies. Qiaomei Fu, one of Reich’s protégés, took a different route – she jumped ship from the USA and went back to China, where she can continue to engage in genetics research without being attacked. One of the consequences of the war on science in the USA is that American geneticists are now terrified that Chinese geneticists are outstripping them because they don’t face this concerted opposition.

        Of course you will get the right wing loony white supremacists who jump on genetics research as a way of trying to validate their prejudices. Those people are always around, and if they don’t jump on that, they will jump on other things. In my experience they are pretty easily detectable, but then I am less generous of spirit than Jim Flynn was. A lot less. Sending them to the gulag would be letting them off too lightly for my liking, but then with me racism is very personal.

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      16. Philip, “scientific claims should be based on evidence” is some words its hard to disagree with like “we should love our children,” but like many of us Pinker ‘s deeds are not always as admirable. For two criticisms of his research see the snarky https://www.salon.com/2019/10/20/steven-pinker-sam-harris-and-the-epidemic-of-annoying-white-male-intellectuals/ and the formal and academic https://www.amazon.com/Darker-Angels-Our-Nature-Refuting/dp/1350140597

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      17. The first one disqualifies itself due to its racist and sexist title (which is not meant satirically).

        As to The Better Angels of our Nature, have you read it?

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      18. Phillip: I have a PhD in history and have done research on violence and historical statistics. I’m sorry to say that when I looked at “Better Angels” I concluded it was the kind of book to be thrown at a wall with great force. I admire the 17 authors’ patience in writing a more detailed response!

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  4. As another (kind-of) Swedish (former) academic, I appreciate that you managed to put in succinct words exactly my own position on this.

    The goals are laudable; the means too often range from ineffective to counterproductive.

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  5. Ashkenazi Jews required males to be able to read the holy scripture in Hebrew to qualify for adulthood and marriage. There’s a whole eugenic theory based on this with a possible grain of truth involved. More likely, literacy was valued culturally, so literacy was cultivated. You get that in a lot of East Asian cultures with their famous civil service tests that made literacy a chance to get off the farm and earn a decent or better living.

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    1. An interesting difference between Jewish and Chinese literate culture though is the absence of Talmudic debate from the latter. You just memorised the classics and got your degree. Viz the different roles of Jews and Chinese in 20/21th century science and engineering.

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  6. A friend of mine is a feminist and very anti-woke. She recommends Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism. An awful lot of woke stuff is anti-woman. As my friend notes, there’s a lot of trans-woman-splaining going on. Sorry, it’s the people who can get pregnant who should have something to say.

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