Decolonising maths and science degrees at Oxford

I studied physics at Cambridge University. Technically, I followed the ‘Natural Sciences’ course that saw me take maths, physics, chemistry and cell biology in my first year, maths and physics in my second year and finally specialise in physics alone in my final year. So, I have experience of a number of university level maths and science courses.

Most of the time involved discussing concepts and then solving problems or performing experiments. We completed titrations and synthesised aspirin in chemistry and studied Fresnel diffraction and radioactive decay in physics. I learned about the role of mitochondria in cells and how to etherise fruit flies. And I did a lot – and I mean a real lot – of sums. Pages and pages of them.

What I did not spend a great deal of time doing was discussing people and places. Occasionally, a lecturer would try and add a little human interest by relating an anecdote about a scientist. But this was rare and never the main point. We were not expected to remember these. The only time people became an object of study was when I took a short, optional unit in the history and philosophy of science, my main memory of which was writing an essay arguing against Richard Dawkins.

I sometimes wonder what people with a background in the humanities think science and maths degrees are all about. Do they imagine something like that history and philosophy of science unit? Do they think we have seminars discussing great scientists and their work?

Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, has a background in political science. The Times is reporting that she has written to Oxford’s student union in response to the killing of George Floyd in the U.S. and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. In this letter, Richardson apparently informs students of a grant that has been made available to develop resources to ‘decolonise’ Oxford’s maths and science courses, “an area that is frequently overlooked”. The Times quotes Richardson as stating:

“Many departments in social sciences have begun work on making their curriculum more inclusive and adding diverse voices to it. This includes steps such as integrating race and gender questions into topics, embedding teaching on colonialism and empire into courses, changing reading lists to ensure substantial representation of a diverse range of voices, and ensuring better coverage of issues concerning the global South in syllabuses.”

The reading lists given to science students typically consist of textbooks that explain how to do particular calculations and the like, so what would it mean to ensure a ‘diverse range of voices’? I wonder how you would integrate race and gender questions into topics such as Fresnel diffraction. I have never looked into who Mr Fresnel was or what he did, but perhaps, if he is found out to be morally compromised by today’s standards, we could rename that particular form of diffraction after someone else. Is that the sort of thing we are talking about? If so, such a move would be both confusing and incidental – because the main focus will still be on doing the actual physics.

Unless, of course, we try to turn maths and science into humanities subjects – less technical stuff and more history and philosophy of science. Since the start of my career, I have been aware of people arguing for this shift in school science teaching, so perhaps this is a natural development.

If so, I wonder where future generations of people who can actually do science will come from? Presumably, not Oxford University.

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12 thoughts on “Decolonising maths and science degrees at Oxford

  1. jtfritchie says:

    The quote refers to the social sciences. Was there further similar discussion of the physical sciences? I can certainly see “decolonization “ as relevant to anthropology or sociology.

    • If you have access then read the Times article. My sense was that Richardson was commenting on the progress made in social sciences and suggesting that the natural sciences and maths should do the same.

    • Straw Man says:

      It must be fun to tilt exclusively at straw men from the relative safety of your personal blog while making less than no attempt to meaningfully with the people you’ve decided you disagreed with – presumably before bothering to read what they actually said. It’s just so much easier than actually having to interact with real people, many of them actual experts.

  2. James says:

    You can read the actual letter. It will give you a better sense of what she is saying than reading the Times article: http://www.ox.ac.uk/sites/files/oxford/LR_to_OUSU_reply_to_open_letter.pdf

    The only sentence that refers to STEM subjects at all: “The MPLS Division has been awarded a grant from the Diversity Fund to take forward a project to develop teaching resources to support the diversification of STEM curricula, an area that is frequently overlooked.”

    If you teach a course on History of Maths, or Ethics in CS, or Environmental Engineering, I’m sure you give these issues some thought. Fresnel diffraction: not so much.

    tl;dr: “Is that the sort of thing we are talking about?” No.

    • Thank you for the link to the original letter. The relevant section is:

      “The MPLS Division has been awarded a grant from the Diversity Fund to take forward a project to develop teaching resources to support the diversification of STEM curricula, an area that is frequently overlooked. Many departments in Social Sciences have begun work on making their curriculum more inclusive and adding diverse voices to it. This includes steps such as: integrating race and gender questions into topics; embedding teaching on colonialism and empire into courses; changing reading lists to ensure substantial representation of a diverse range of voices; ensuring better coverage of issues concerning the global South in syllabuses. Many syllabuses are currently under review as a result of these changes but this is only a starting point towards the truly inclusive curriculum.”

      I think The Times report this well and retain what I perceive as its original meaning. I therefore think my analysis stands.

    • If Alhazen developed what we now call ‘Fresnel’ diffraction prior to Fresnel, then it is probably correct to change the name (although this is likely to lead to some confusion in the medium term). However, as I note above, this would still be incidental to the business of doing the physics. Physics students simply do not sit around discussing the contributions of different scientists to the field. They spend their time mathematically modelling situations, solving problems and conducting experiments.

  3. Stan Blakey says:

    The problem here is there is no information on what the sort of thing talked about is. There is a specific point made that this is overlooked for STEM.

    So a valid complaint about the letter is it says nothing about what the actual problem to be solved is except it has not been looked at much. So you get people fearing the worst – things like – inserting material just for the sake of it without regard to the opportunity cost.
    This is exactly what happens in high school computer science in Ontario. Environmental concerns got inserted into every subject. So that computers use electricity becomes a key topic in CS but in a very superficial way. Those interested in CS for the main content find it a waste of time at best to be told to spend time writing about environmental impacts when all that is needed is say the right words rather than do some research on environmental concerns as part of a dedicated environmental science course.

  4. Brett B says:

    One of the great disasters of modern “education” is the invention of black studies, indigenous studies, women’s studies – exercises in establishing grievances through revisionism and brainwashing – very lucrative for the perpetrators. Climate alarm has followed the similar model. Good stuff if you’re one of the chosen: if you’re the working class taxpayer expected to fund the liberal dream, not so much. And like serfs you will be punished for even imagining that you might question the Great Chain of Being. However I have faith, having read my history, this too shall pass… generally with a lot of bloodletting.

  5. Walking Microbe says:

    Scientists develop technology, technology is political: https://www.cc.gatech.edu/~beki/cs4001/Winner.pdf
    Inequality and colonialism is perpetuated through scientists developing extractive, centralised technologies which are not shared. Decolonisation is not only about inclusion or representation, it must disrupt neocolonial processes: https://youtu.be/TSt2k7MrT5Y
    Decolonising maths and science needs amongst many other things, an education in responsible research too, to disrupt how findings are transformed in to technologies: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6499/39.summary

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