What does it mean to live an ethical life?

I am teaching PPS 302D again this semester (Value Choice as Policy Conflict)–our so-called core course in ‘practical ethics’ for the undergraduate Public Policy major at Duke University. The course begins with some overview of different approaches to ethics and systems of thought. We are then asking two questions across the rest of the semester: What is good? What is right? and apply this to a variety of issues.

I am trying a new assignment to stimulate consideration and discussion of the question that is the title of this post–what does it mean to live an ethical life? Each student will investigate this question by learning as much as they can about a ancestor who was alive during the influenza pandemic of a Century ago. Students are using all sorts of sources, from oral history, online genealogical resources, newspapers and in at least one case, having a diary written by a loved one during World War I. This is a semester long project, and all assignments build to this final project.

A sub-theme of the course, or perhaps more of a a methodological frame is the use of counterfactual thinking (always asking, as compared to what?) to look back at history in attempt to say something about today, or the future that we wish to construct via public policy. Simple questions, such as ‘should we remove a monument?’ have complex answers. Addressing the ethics of monument removal is certainly a legitimate and worthy endeavor, but not before you consider the ethics of taking one down, you must discuss the ethics of putting one up in the first place. You need to push a bit harder to better understand what it meant when it was erected, to have a better sense of what it means now.

The class is seeking to emphasize humility in this enterprise of looking back to learn about going forward. Before we begin these historical discussions, I remind students that in 100 years, an ancestor of ours that we will never know may be deeply appalled by some aspect of our lives. Looking back to inform today and tomorrow is a potentially rich experience, and a key sweet spot is to both realize people are “a product of their times” AND “everyone has choices and decisions” and what we choose to do has consequences for us today, and after we are gone.

White supremacy is not the opposite of critical race theory

White supremacy is an ideology that holds that Whites are superior to Blacks, that has undergone numerous shifts in expression and openness over the past 2+ Centuries in the United States. I have described it as operating on Duke’s campus as a “quiet default” that White is the ideal, and no longer defined by folks marching around in Klan robes.

Critical race theory is a method of analysis that holds that the role of race in society is both profound and that the very concept of race is malleable and has been altered by those with power to keep it. When people say that race is socially constructed, that is what they mean. If you are wondering what a critical race theory analysis might look like, here is a simple example, that also demonstrates the social construction of the very concept of race.

The juxtaposition between the Declaration of Independence’s (1776) high minded language of it being self-evident that “all men are created equal” and the straightforward racial calculus of “who counts” in Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution (1787) is jarring:

Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 (uchicago.edu)

The language is a bit weird to the modern ear so let me re-write Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 in my words.

“The population of the U.S. will be used to determine representation in Congress, and to levy taxes. All free persons count, including people who are indentured servants. Indians who are not taxed do not count, and Enslaved persons count as 3/5ths of a person.”

All people were obviously not equal in the most basic task of determining who counts, as written into the Constitution, just 11 years after Thomas Jefferson’s soaring ideals.

Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 goes on to set up the U.S. Census with the details being hammered out by Congress who decided that the actual count would be completed by the Executive Branch. The first Census was collected in 1790, and in every 10th year since. This Pew Center infographic demonstrates the numerous changes in how race and ethnicity have been measured in the Census from 1790 to 2020. The United States has basically been obsessed with race since its legal founding, and while the categories have changed, everyone had to fit in somewhere.

Social construction of race simply means that the very definition of race and how it was used changed across time, with those in power (the government) determining what the categories were in the Census.

Critical race theory holds that race is so fundamental in the story of United States that it can operate in nearly imperceptible ways if you do not pay close attention. The gap between the high minded ideals, and the practical rules written down 11 years later in the Constitution, including the inability to use the word “Slave” shows a profound American ability to hold seemingly incompatible notions at the same time, to the point of shared delusion.

Critical race theory simply points this out, and proceeds with an analysis of a law or practice that uses race as the central lens for analysis. For example, if you look at housing wealth by race today, critical race theory would suggest that accounting for redlining of mortgages whereby Blacks were systematically denied loans for half a Century meant that they did not accrue housing equity at the same rate as did Whites. That has to be part of any full consideration of wealth in the United States, and you could miss this if your attention were not called to race as more than a simple comparator of reality today.

Some say that critical race theory is biased, because it is only Black people who have been proponents of its use; those who have been harmed by a process are more likely to focus on that process, and critical race theory arose to counter the tone-deafness that enabled “all men are created equal” and Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 only 11 years apart.

The great thing about critical race theory is that you could differ with someone’s analysis, and someone else could disagree with yours, and pretty soon you would be having a conversation that reckoned with the role of race in United States history. That is what we need to do as a society. It is really not that complicated, but it is hard.

This is so bad it is almost a work of art

Note: I drafted the post below (material between the *** about a week ago, but decided not to publish it because it seemed like punching down the hill to a staffer who was just writing what s/he had been directed to write. Down below is my addendum today.

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I try and grant the benefit of the doubt, but lorda mercy is this a bad take on how a research university should be run, from a writer at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

Given Hannah-Jones’s questionable credentials, how did she get hired at North Carolina’s flagship research university? The most likely explanation is that unaccountable faculty and administrators made the executive decision to hire her without any involvement by the university’s Board of Trustees.

Nicole Hannah-Jones, the editor and creator of the New York Times 1619 project, and has received a Pulitzer Prize and Peabody award, receiving a Macarthur Genius grant and is an experienced journalist. The folks at the Martin Center don’t like some of what she says so they attack here as unqualified? Where again are the snowflakes supposed to be coming from?

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Update below on May 20, 2021 after this took place.

I am a lifelong North Carolinian, and a three time graduate from Carolina, a place that I love. This is an example of the Board of Trustees exercising a right that they have, but in doing so, they have harmed the University and threatened academic freedom. The orchestrated charge that began with posts like the above that she is an unqualified person for such a post is plainly absurd. She received a Pulitzer Prize, a Peabody award and a Macarthur Genius grant among other accolades and she is a long standing journalist. Conservatives don’t like some of what she has to say—snowflakes indeed, I guess. Her case went through the normal university processes that are governed by the Faculty at UNC, and the role of Trustees at UNC, like Duke and other Universities is pro forma and reserved for extreme situations. That they think this is one of those cases shows they either do not understand the University, or do and wish to have a chilling effect on academic freedom and the exchange of ideas in support of their ideology. The orchestrated nature of the criticism by political conservatives who control Board of Governors and Trustees at UNC makes clear why she likely needs tenure to do her work. It is no accident that they felt free to do this to a Black woman. I am disgusted and embarrassed by the actions of the BOG and Trustees at UNC.

Value based payment in SNFs

A Margolis Center for Health Policy project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation this week put out a policy brief on value based payments in skilled nursing facilities. It started as a look only at impact of COVID19 on SNFs but was broadened a bit to include movement toward VBP in nursing homes more broadly.

Thank You

The Department of Health Policy and Management, in the UNC Gillings School of Public Health honored me last week with their Distinguished Alumni Award. Both my undergraduate BS and Ph.D. are from this Department and I owe them a great deal. Thank you to Morris Weinberger, the Chair, and the rest of the Faculty of the Department of Health Policy and Management for this wonderful Award. I am deeply honored and wanted to say a few thank you publicly and offer a reflection on my primary intellectual regret from the nine years spent learning at Alma Mater.

Thank You.

  • Thank you to UNC Chapel Hill. Carolina changed my life and I would be nothing professionally without the training I received from the faculty and so many passionate graduate students. I moved into Winston Dorm in August, 1986 as an uninitiated kid, just bouncing through life and having a good time, and left as a scholar committed to research and education. I was introduced to the life of the mind at Carolina and was shaped as a scholar and person there. I am forever grateful.
  • Thank you to the UNC School of Public Health for teaching me a simple definition of Public Health—“you protect the individual best by  protecting the whole.” While this principle works most deterministically in infectious diseases, I believe there is something called the common good, and I encourage everyone to keep searching for it even when it is difficult. Public Health is the appropriate way to think about most profound societal problems such as Racism, wealth inequality and sectarianism because these are systemic problems and not individual failures alone.
  • Thank you to the Sheps Center for Health Services Research, for both pre doctoral and post doctoral training. I now direct the Social Science Research Institute at Duke University and try to catalyze funded research across Duke. This perspective has taught me what a gem UNC has in the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research. Great credit is due to Gordon DeFriese. They have managed to create and nurture an intellectual legacy built upon some state support, soft money, hustle and a passion for trying to make the world and the lives of the disadvantaged a bit better.
  • Thank you to Tom Ricketts. He was a part of all 9 of my years at UNC. He taught me introduction to Health Policy in 1987 when an undergrad, and it was the first inkling that I would study health in some manner. He mentored me in undergrad, hired me as a research assistant one summer when I was doing the MPA program at UNC and needed a job, and later became my dissertation chair after I refocused on health policy for my Ph.D. Tom Ricketts exemplifies great mentorship—he treated me as a colleague before it was warranted, but did so in a way that protected me from horrible mistakes.

As I reflect on my time at Carolina, and the 35 Augusts I have lived since I moved into Winston Dorm, I have only one intellectual regret–I did not take a course in United States history at UNC because I placed out of it via my score on the AP US History Exam.

However, in the last decade or so, I have come to understand that my education in both United States as well as North Carolina history was incomplete and purposefully false. Just one example. Charles B. Aycock is the most famous person from my hometown of Goldsboro, NC. We learned growing up that he was “the education Governor” a title that is perhaps deserved because he brought about compulsory education for Whites and Blacks, though segregated, and certainly not equally funded. However, he was also an unreconstructed White Supremacist to the end of his life in 1913 who clung to a philosophy that bordered on a personal theology that Blacks were inferior to Whites.

No word of this was taught to students growing up in Goldsboro.

We need to trust young people with a more full and truthful telling of our history. Middle School and High School students can handle ambiguity. They know people are not always as good as their best moment, nor always as bad as their worst. Our State needs to trust our young people with a full look at our past as we wrestle with what it means for the future, and the various bills in the North Carolina General Assembly seeking to write curriculum policy via bumper sticker slogan is an embarrassment to our great State. Finally, I would like to suggest that all undergrads at UNC should be required to take a course in North Carolina or United States history, regardless of their score on the AP US History Exam.

Structural Racism–the ways in which White is the default ideal in numerous life domains–is the biggest public health challenge of our time, and part of the solution is an honest reckoning with our history, and learning how to talk about difficult topics, especially when we disagree. I suspect if we trust our adolescents and teens and give them just a bit of guidance, they will do a better job at this than have their parents and grandparents.

Godspeed.

Don Taylor

Chinese laundry’s in the American South

The murders of 8 people in Atlanta last week, 6 women of Asian descent (4 of whom were Korean-American), appear to have been the result of a multi-faceted, murderous toxic stew in the gunman. Misogyny. Xenophobia. Racism. Objectification of Asian women as sexually available. And guilt-driven Christianity that viewed other human beings as a temptation–rendering human beings as only existing in relation to this killer’s mind–may have been the tipping point that led to these pre-meditated murders.

The pain expressed by Duke students and faculty colleagues who identify as Asian or Asian-American has been palpable, heart breaking and long-coming. This event seems to be a breaking point of sorts, and I realize the many common tropes related to the “model minority” have been accepted by me, especially in the context of a world class University, causing me to not take as seriously as I should have, the Racism, Bigotry and “Othering” that some of my students and colleagues have experienced.

The Duke Office of Faculty Advancement hosted an event yesterday in which four of my Faculty colleagues provided their insights on Asian and Asian-American culture informed by their scholarly pursuits, shared personal reflections and discussing what things they believe need to change at Duke. One thing that came through clearly to me was the sense that “Asian” and “Asian American” and “Asian descent” are overbroad terms, that depending on definitions could include one third to one half of the people alive today. These terms mostly have meaning in the way that people identify individuals who look different from them, labelling folks as “Asian” based on a casual glance. This is not a term of choice, but a term of the reality of simplistic Racial categories applied to people from myriad backgrounds in the United States.

The reason that I commonly use the phrase “White Supremacy” instead of “Structural Racism” even though they could be thought of as synonyms is the degree to which the application of much of the hate and discrimination in our world is applied to individuals based on nothing more than a cursory glance. Our brains are amazing devices that process billions of instructions per second, and shortcuts or heuristics are necessary or we would not even be able to get out of bed in the morning. A glance of how someone looks categorizes them in many ways, often leading to harm for those who are not viewed as White.

A key takeaway from yesterday’s event was the necessity of humanizing people by learning and telling their stories for their own value and worth. We can overcome biases if we work at it, and understanding people as people, and not as members of a group falling under an umbrella term like “Asian” is a start.

That leads me back to the title of my post. In my hometown of Goldsboro, N.C., there was a laundry started in 1910 by a man who had immigrated from China. He was known as Sam Lee, but it turns out that there was a Sam Lee laundry in most every State in the United States by the early 20th Century and that was probably not his name, though he cannot be found in the 1910-1930 Census.

As noted in a prior post, Sam Lee was a common name for a Chinese laundry.  A small sample of Sam Lee Laundries is shown in the photograph below.  You could find one in virtually every state, but the Chinese men who operated them were not necessarily named “Sam Lee.”

I did not know this history from my small town, Eastern North Carolina home, until I did a bit of research. The blog Chinese Laundry is excellent, written by John Jung, whose family opened a laundry in Macon, Georgia in 1885. This blog uses the device of the Chinese Laundry to tell some of the story of the United States, one small town and city at a time, one person and family at a time. In doing so, he brings to life some of the immigrants who helped to make the United States what it is today.

The Awokening–about to break or getting started?

Razib Khan is one of the people I follow on twitter who makes me think–that is why I follow him. His recent tweet below harkens a question folks have been asking me lately–has “woke” culture gotten out of control on campus and where does it stop?

https://twitter.com/razibkhan?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

Let me provide a practical definition of how I understand “wokeness” in the best sense of the word, with respect to myself. Only within the past few years did I come to understand my identity as being White. I would always have checked “White” on a demographic survey, but I viewed being White as a fact, and thought of my perception of most everything as being the obvious default. Anyone compared to my views was bringing an identity–I was just bringing me. My daughter tells me stumbling through life without this realization was also related to being a White man.

The best of wokeness is being open to new information that you may have missed altogether in the past. Understanding how people of different identities have experienced the world is not a toxic thing, it is just a part of seeking to be a more practical Bayesian in a diverse society, meaning striving to be someone who is not fully convinced of everything and is willing to consider new evidence, and to be persuadable. If you never change your mind, that is a bad sign.

Of course some folks go to far, and illiberalism is antithetical to the life of the mind that is the best of the University community, regardless of the ideology of the imposer. The biggest blind spot in the pushback about “wokeness” on campus and the broad discussion of safe spaces is as follows.

1. Students live on campus at a place like Duke. The first Amendment principle of “freedom to assemble” includes sometimes not wanting to be subjected to unfettered speech. I go home at night.

2. Much of the worst speech, has a disproportionate impact on historically marginalized groups, and someone who is fearful for their safety, or who does not feel as if they belong, has little chance to engage in full dialogue. It is very difficult to walk the line of making a college campus a place where all who are willing to defend their words can speak up, while ensuring that all have a chance to join the fray.

My two cents.

A new hobby

I struggle with anxiety, commonly triggered by what I call “role clutter”–the need to juggle between the various roles that people play. Husband, father, son, brother, professor, mentor, director, neighbor, etc. As 2020 came to an end, I read that taking up some type of artistic outlet was a helpful practice, so I started drawing/sketching and a bit of painting with watercolor. This has been immensely relaxing and rewarding. I am going to share some pieces from time to time.

Unobserved Counterfactual. Our world today would be quite different if General Order #15, issued by General Sherman in January, 1865 had been followed through on. Forty Acres and a Mule was a military order, but did not last past the Fall of 1865 when President Andrew Johnson had it rescinded. I drew this while basking in the beauty of one of the Sea Islands that was covered by this order. Pencil and charcoal.
Notorious RBG. Faces are hard to draw well. I drew this one for my daughter Morgan, for whom RBG is a role model, and an icon. Rest well. Pencil.
Potential. Books may have some inherent, or intrinsic value, but only because someone can pick it up and engage their mind. The engagement can result in good or bad. Pencil.

Tower Bridge. I enjoy drawing landscapes and the like and this is my attempt at this landmark. Pencil and charcoal.
Blanche’s Rooster. One of my beloved possessions is a sketch of a Rooster, drawn by my Great Grandmother Blanche in 1913. This is my attempt to draw that, with a bit of color added. Pencil.
Rooster. This was drawn by my Great Grandmother Blanche Sugg, in 1913. My Rooster above is my attempt to sketch her sketch. Pencil.

How do you know what you know?

Peder Zane has a piece in the WSJ based on an interview with James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Neuroscience and Biology, James Staddon, criticizing Duke University’s “Anti-Racism” efforts, couched as defense of Science. The essence of the interview is that Professor Staddon is a scientist, and that many Duke faculty are not, especially those in the Social Sciences, because they do not follow the semantic reductionism of Randomized Control Trials (RCT)s or adhere to the internal validity conventions of animal-based model research.

“weak science competes with activist political tendencies around fraught issues of race, class and gender.”

This leads to the conclusion of a University that has lost its way and no longer seeks truth alone, but is instead a tool of political indoctrination.

The span and scope of the material covered in the piece is centuries long, and the disciplines involved touch nearly every corner of Duke, yet Professor Staddon and Mr. Zane seem fully sure of their conclusions. However, I would like to grant Professor Staddon the benefit of the doubt and assume he is interested in answers to the questions he posed about Duke and Race in the WSJ piece. It is in the spirit of answering a colleague that I offer this post.

“What are these ‘systems of racism and inequality?’ How have they affected Duke and how is Duke involved in them?”

From 1931-1964, Duke University included Racial Covenants (see the pdf download below) in the deeds of 300 homesites in the Duke Forest neighborhood that it sold to faculty and staff that remain today, even though legally unenforceable for decades. These covenants state that people who were not White could not stay overnight in the house unless they were servants. I once owned one of those homes, built in 1959, and asked about it at closing in 2006, and my lawyer said it was unenforceable but difficult to change given how the covenants had been written. Thus, Duke: (1) imposed Racial segregation in robust form to make Durham palatable for White faculty; (2) did not fully tell this story in a transparent manner; people (like me) knew about it for a long time; (3) these covenants helped define the residential segregation patterns seen in Durham today that influence things like school assignment, and public services, including policing; (4) residents of Durham, especially those who are Black, understand that at the heart of Racial covenants is an idea–some people are worth more than others, and the persistence of this idea is how “systems of racism and inequality” still affect Duke.

One more example. Duke hospital and the University’s physician practice plan had segregated floors and clinics from the 1930s until the early 1960s. They were replaced by the nomenclature of “private v. public” even before segregated medical care became illegal, and with the advent of Medicare and Medicaid in 1966, huge inflows of money began as health insurance coverage surged, helping make Duke University what it is today. The full story of how this shift in language nevertheless lead to continued segregation (when in doubt, Black patients were “Public”, White patients were “Private”) is just now in the process of being fully told, in part due to the fact that Board of Trustees records are confidential for 50 years. There is a straight line from this history—deeply known through experience and mostly untold—to the current reticence at receiving the COVID19 vaccine by some Duke employees and Durham residents who understandably doubt that Duke has their best interests at heart. This affects us all as we seek herd immunity.

These are just two “systems of racism and inequality” that Duke University built to segregate both housing and health care based on Race, and those systems influence our world today, at Duke, in Durham and in the lives of all the students we have taught and trained over the years. Naming and addressing these realities and blind spots is key if we as a University claim to have, or aspire to a more equitable culture of scientific excellence (the bold is my goal for Duke, and I understand the broad efforts to address Structural or Systemic Racism at Duke to be part of making that goal a reality).

How do systems of racism and inequality affect health? Broadening the discussion beyond simply answering Professor Staddon’s questions with the two examples offered above, the vision of the life of the mind described in Mr. Zane’s piece is too narrow to address many of the most important problems of our day. While animal model experimentation is a crucial part of the cannon of knowledge produced by a Research University, this approach alone cannot ask, nor answer all the important questions. A far more difficult and nuanced approach is called for to understand cause and effect in areas that cannot be studied in reductionist fashion via placebo and randomization, or measured only at the cellular level. This does make it difficult to find agreement about “how do you know what you know?” an important question raised in Mr. Zane’s piece by Professor Staddon. Let me try and explain what I mean.

The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded for advances in understanding Telomeres, caps on DNA strands that provide protection during chromosome replication, and whose length provides a measure of cellular aging. An emerging body of research suggests that cellular aging is more rapid for Blacks as compared to Whites, even after controlling for other factors that influence Telomere length, such as poverty, obesity, smoking and exercise. More work is needed to calibrate the practical impact on life span and to so determine what proportion of a Black/White mortality gap could be explained by differential cellular aging. Science builds upon on Science. The 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded to Barbara McClintock, for her discovery in the 1930s of “mobile genetic elements” identified first in maize and then fruit flies. This forgotten finding became a building block for the 2009 Nobel Prize that shows the progression of findings from plant, to animal model, to human discovery and finally to the potential to intervene in the lives of human beings–the march of Science.

However, others were working as well, motivated not by an intrinsic interest in human biology, but instead by an explicit focus on explaining why Black/White mortality differences were so large and persistent. A finding that cellular aging is more rapid for Blacks versus Whites net of other factors, is consistent with an interpretation that Racism causes negative health impacts, providing a link between structural factors such as those noted above and individual health, most likely via the bodies stress response as measured by allostatic load. My Duke colleague, Susan B. King Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Public Policy Sherman James first proposed John Henryism, a hypothesis to explain this Black/White mortality gap nearly 40 years ago, based on the idea that striving against the headwinds of being Black lead to individual harm, with numerous mechanisms hypothesized as potential causal links (see pdfs linked at the end). Professor Arline Geronimus followed with the Weathering Hypothesis in the early 1990s to explain Race by Gender mortality differentials, and this work has been tested using allostatic load and cellular aging techniques in addition to being applied to other outcomes (pdfs at the end). The 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine provided a means of using biological evidence in the form of Telemores, to study the impact of structural Racism on individual health. The march of Science.

The use of Telomeres to document differential aging by Race remains an emerging field that is limited by the samples available for study (selection bias is always an important factor when interpreting research, whether a RCT or not, and there are tradeoffs between internal and external validity). More research, as always, is needed and understanding Black/White mortality differences affects us all, because our assumptions about the causes influence what we think about one another and therefore how we respond, individually or as a society via public policy. Life expectancy at birth is 4.6 years less for Black males as compared to White males; and 1.8 years shorter given survival to age 65 (red underline males; yellow highlight females–table is in this post).

The best that the modern Research University can offer is an amalgam of scholars doing what they do in the manner that they do it, and disputes both within and across disciplines are legion. It is difficult to synthesize scholarship across disciplines, time and methods. Maize, mice, humans, telomeres, bench to bedside translation, history, public policy, business, art, literature and ethnography. This is who we are collectively as a modern research University, and just as Barbara McClintock’s discovery gained dust for decades until she won the Nobel Prize in 1983, human knowledge progresses in a non-linear fashion, and you never know when a unique insight will provide the missing piece of the puzzle.

Answering whether Racism or “living while Black” is an independent predictor of health, or simply a proxy for other factors cannot be investigated in an experimental manner. We cannot go back and randomize some to live under Structural Racism and others to not, or to run 1,000 experiments of “Reconstruction” and identify how different courses of history over the past 150 years might change the distribution of illness and longevity by Race that we see today. The 1862 Homestead Act, in force and revised numerous times until its repeal in 1972 distributed 10 percent of the land in the United States to individuals. Had this program not had a Century long history of discriminatory practices against freed Slaves and Blacks, we would undoubtedly observe a different wealth distribution and life expectancy spread by Race. Counterfactual thinking is hard, and requires painstaking effort to piece together what different disciplines have to say.  

How Do You Know What You Know? Zane’s piece describes Professor Staddon as simply wanting to ask “how do you know what you know?” and having no interest in politics. I agree that this question is central to the life of the mind and the University, but the Harold Lasswell definition of politics still rings true from graduate school–“Who gets What, When and How?” Nothing is apolitical, including, or perhaps especially, assuming that only those things that can be studied via experimental or reductionist evidence are knowable, or worth knowing. Interestingly, a book that I wrote with Frank Sloan and others (The Price of Smoking MIT Press, 2004) apparently played a role in Professor Staddon’s “tipping point” to concluding the University has been given over to political correctness , based on the quote in Mr. Zane’s piece of him mis-interpreting one of our book’s findings:

Still, he says, “my personal tipping point” regarding the uses and misuse of science occurred some two decades later, “when I found out that despite massive publicity to the contrary, smoking has no public cost.”

This is not what we found. This post from 2011 explains what I mean—cigarette taxes did on average cover the external costs of smoking, but did not cover quasi-external ones, and we explicitly assigned a dollar value of $0 to the intangible cost of life years lost. We did this because the range of estimates in the literature differed by orders of magnitude, thus allowing readers to use the per pack estimate they believed to best represent the intangible costs of smoking mortality that we left aside in order to painstakingly highlight the economic costs and their distribution. Many have made a similar assumption about the book, and there is much nuance of interpretation, and very little of this work is based on experimentation. However, our work was obsessed with identifying the best possible counterfactual given that experimentation is uncommon or impossible in the study of Smoking outside of pharmaceutical work and social-psychology based perceptions of risk, and our concept of the non-smoking smoker, estimated via Smoking Life Tables, and the identification of “quasi-external” costs, or those imposed by smokers on their families are the most important theoretical and methodological innovations of the book. If such research is not Science then most of what impacts human beings today cannot be studied by Science.

I think our book is great, and you should buy 20 copies. However, if the distributional analyses of one book (no matter how good!) on the most heavily studied topic of the past 80 years (the impact of Cigarette Smoking on humans) could send Professor Staddon over the top to his conclusion that Universities have given into political correctness and lost our way, then to paraphrase the Eagles, that had to be where he already knew how to go.

PDFs of selected relevant works mentioned above, but not readily available via hyperlink are below

White Supremacy v. Structural Racism

Working on an NIH Institutional grant to develop a culture that is more conducive to the thriving of faculty who are from under-represented backgrounds. The task at hand is to create an equitable culture of scientific excellence.

The FOA from NIH focuses on Race, and the writing team has been discussing whether to use the term White Supremacy or Structural Racism. I think that White Supremacy is the most directly correct term, because a great deal of the Structural or Systemic harm operates visually–the billions of calculations my brain makes when I see someone in a space. This is how “may I help you?” operates when it is experienced and sometimes meant as a worried “Why are you here? Am I in danger? Are you going to steal my stuff?”

We are going with the phrase Structural Racism, which I consider broadly to be a less specific synonym of how Race in the United States helps those who can pass as White, and harms those who cannot, but this is NIH, a slowly moving organization. And them having this initiative at least acknowledges that identifying the impacts of Structural Racism on Universities has not yet lead to true culture change. May a new day dawn at Duke.