Jo Boaler, the Nomellini-Olivier Professor of Education at Stanford University, has just posted on her recent mistreatment at the hands of a campaign against her. The post is titled,
Crossing the Line: When Academic Disagreement becomes Harassment and Abuse
Boaler’s post includes detailed claims that she has received abuse, rape threats and more, the truth of which there is no reason to doubt and which if true then obviously points to inexcusable and disgusting behaviour directed at Boaler. The problem is, Boaler is also playing a game. Again.
I briefly discuss Boaler’s latest post, below, but first and mainly, I want to outline a prior dispute involving Boaler, which went public in 2012. The purpose of revisiting this decade-old dispute is not to distract from Boaler’s latest claims, but to provide needed context for these claims.
In 2012, Boaler wrote a post titled,
Jo Boaler reveals attacks by Milgram and Bishop
Boaler’s post began,
Honest academic debate lies at the core of good scholarship. But what happens when, under the guise of academic freedom, people distort the truth in order to promote their position and discredit someone’s evidence? I have suffered serious intellectual persecution for a number of years and decided it is now time to reveal the details.
As Boaler laid it out, this “intellectual persecution” was conducted by mathematicians James Milgram and Wayne Bishop, and the underlying dispute was over the merits or otherwise of Boaler’s famous and highly influential “Railside” study, critiqued by Milgram and Bishop and statistician Paul Clopton, a critique later published here.
This double dispute, over both “Railside” and Bishop’s/Milgram’s conduct, has been much discussed. At the time, Inside Higher Ed had an even-handed report, and The Mathologer and I wrote about it in our Age column. Boaler’s 2012 post is not now fully available (24/04/23 – archived here), although Boaler includes the timeline of “persecution” from that post at the bottom of her new post (confusingly using the same link Boaler used in 2012). Boaler subsequently expanded upon her criticisms of Milgram and Bishop (in an article that now appears to be inaccessible online), and Milgram and Bishop responded to the criticisms here and here.
Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised by who I think won this dispute: clearly, it was Boaler.
In 2012, I knew essentially nothing of Boaler or her work, and cared less. Then, Boaler posted her claims and I witnessed Australian mathematics teachers rush to Boaler’s defence; I could not detect a millimetre of openness to the possibility that there might be some substance to Milgram’s and Bishop’s and Clopton’s criticisms. I also knew Milgram from my student days at Stanford (he didn’t know me), and I knew he was meticulous and ferociously intelligent. I was curious.
I looked, and when I looked, three things became clear. First, Milgram and Bishop and Clopton had worked extraordinarily hard to understand Boaler’s Railside study and had made detailed and serious criticisms, which required a proper response. Secondly, Boaler had no intention of making any such response, to the substance of M-B-C’s criticisms; if Boaler has ever done so, I am not aware of it. Thirdly, mathematics teachers in the thrall of Boaler didn’t give a damn about any of this.
The cultish faith in Boaler’s innocence and wisdom was, and is, something to behold. In 2012, Boaler employed accusations of bad behaviour to distract from the substantive criticisms of her research, and it worked. Boaler was playing a game, and she won. Now, in 2023, she is playing the same game.
Boaler is currently being subjected to scrutiny and criticism and, seemingly, abuse, due to her prominent role in the new Californian mathematics curriculum, a curriculum which, to put it mildly, is controversial. About a year ago, the battle over this curriculum led to a public run-in with Jelani Nelson, in which Boaler once again tried to play the victim. I have not been paying attention, but I imagine the battle is still heated, and probably hotter.
Jo Boaler, the Nomellini-Olivier Professor of Education at Stanford University, begins her new post by tying the M-B-C dispute to recent events:
Honest academic debate lies at the core of good scholarship. But what happens when, under the guise of academic freedom, a small cluster of aligned people distort the truth in order to discredit someone’s evidence and boost their own allied position? I have come under severe academic and personal attacks for many years from the same male professors, who I list below. I first shared the details of their attacks on my work in 2012, listed below. Their aggressive efforts have intensified significantly in the last three years, due to their consternation over my role as one of the writers of a new proposed mathematics framework for the state of California.
Boaler then quickly runs through the 2012 dispute, from her perspective and declaring the great importance and quality of her research. Fair enough, but readers need not believe her, and I do not. I will give one concrete example. Boaler writes there,
Milgram and Bishop, and now others, have tried to discredit this research as they do not like the findings. This makes more sense when considering that Bishop has used a highly offensive racial slur when discussing issues of equity.
The clearly intended implication of this claim, which Boaler details in her 2012 post, is that Bishop is racist, which is absurd, and Boaler must know it is absurd. (Boaler’s link is broken, but the article is archived here). I note Bishop’s response to this nonsense and include links here. But it doesn’t matter: Bishop is successfully painted as the racist, and we go on. Boaler’s post is replete with such manipulation, both blatant and subtle.
Boaler then moves on to the recent attacks of her, stemming from the Californian curriculum battle:
Now in 2023 I am again experiencing the same attempts to suppress research evidence. As stated, this was originally started by Milgram and Bishop, but they are now being joined by others, particularly six men, who are part of a broader, organized campaign to discredit me, that has led to threats of physical violence to myself and my family. …
The efforts of this small group of people opposing these ideas included several negative articles shared through social media and news media. The first death and rape threats I received came [in 2021] after Tucker Carlson shared my name and image on his Fox News Show with the words: “Professor: ‘Math Should Have Social Justice Infused.’” He suggested that it meant that the framework was proposing that “numbers are racist”. The threatening emails and letters that followed included threats to myself, my two daughters, and directives that “I go back to where I came from.”
The following year, a group of people opposed to the three main objectives in the framework, focused their work on discrediting me, personally and professionally. These new ramped-up attempts to silence me and suppress my research included serving districts with public records requests to find any work I had conducted with teachers. They then published contracts, including my home address, on Twitter (this is called doxing). They claimed I was “robbing districts” which led to a mob on social media attacking my work, and placing my family under physical threat. During the most intense time of doxing and online harassment, which included sharing my personal emails on Twitter, Stanford police decided they needed to include my house in their daily patrols to ensure our safety. The emails the group shared on Twitter included very personal details of my life, including discussion of the recent death of my young niece, from adrenal cancer. The same group petitioned journals to pull my research articles down, and they amplified the older claims made by Milgram and Bishop, that my research on equitable teaching, had included manipulated data.
Again, Boaler is documenting obviously revolting behaviour, and one hopes the cops are involved. But, again, this is a game. Boaler is bundling together vicious trolling with strong but considered criticism of her work and her research. So, if one then points out that this criticism might have merit, and that Boaler has not addressed this criticism in any substantive manner, her supporters can cry “What about the rape threats?” It is difficult to see this as anything but a deliberate ploy.
To be fair, Boaler’s post also also includes a link to a post with her responses to recent criticisms of her work. (The linked post includes no reference to, much less a defence of, Railside.) Greg Ashman has now looked at one area of this response, Boaler’s long-held claim that timed tests directly cause “maths anxiety”. Ashman accepts that maths anxiety is a thing. (I do not.) But, Ashman wants to see the evidence that timed tests are a cause. So, Ashman goes on a long, long trek, following the trail of Boaler’s references. Ashman eventually returns, empty-handed: he has found no proper evidence for Boaler’s claim. Which is no shock. There is always a risk in taking a Boaler claim at face value.
The vicious, headline attacks of Boaler apparently began in 2021, so why post on it now? Well, Boaler indicates that the Chronicle of Higher Education is planning an article and, although CHE is the furthest thing from a reactionary publication, it appears the article will give at least some space to Boaler’s critics:
After I was contacted and asked to participate in an article that is appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education at the end of March, 2023, representing the views of Milgram and six other men, I decided it is time to share the broader context of the attacks on my work, and the attempts to suppress my research and discredit my integrity.
Lifting the lid on my interactions with the Chronicle, the reporter asked me to respond to Milgram’s statement that “I should not be at Stanford” and I should “stay in my lane.” She also said that critics described me as “combative”. I replied that women are often given this label when standing up for their work. I also told her that I give no credence to Dr. Milgram’s very personal and individual assessment of what I should be doing or where I should be working.
Disgraceful, of course. Except, what if Milgram is correct? What if Boaler should not be at Stanford?
The CHE articled alluded to by Boaler has now appeared, here (open access after free registration). The author, Stephanie M. Lee, also has a Twitter thread, here, mostly on Boaler’s preemptive post. And, Greg “The Salesman” Ashman, who is quoted in Lee’s piece together with a response from Boaler, has written on that aspect, here. It is all well worth a read.
To the best of my knowledge, Boaler has not written anything in response to Lee’s CHE article. Below is an openly sympathetic podcast interview with Boaler, which appeared on 24 March, around the same time as Lee’s article. It is unclear when the interview was recorded but it was clearly recently, and in response to Lee’s scrutiny of Boaler.
Boaler has written an opinion piece for EdSource,
Let’s move past the acrimony, and create a mathematics framework that works for all students
How does one move past the acrimony? Boaler begins the article by linking to her Crossing the Line post, and writing,
Unfortunately, the debate about the best way to teach math correctly has become very contentious, and I continue to be the target of misinformation and even personal attacks.
So, the way to end the acrimony is apparently for Boaler to cast herself once again as the victim, and to wave away the criticisms of her work as “misinformation”. It should work a treat.