Is “white empiricism” hindering physics?

December 10, 2019 • 9:30 am

UPDATE: James Lindsay has an analysis of this paper in a number of successive tweets, starting with the one below. Click on it if you want to see his take. He criticizes a number of points that I either missed or ignored, so I recommend your reading it.


My ears always perk up when I hear the claim that there are special ways of doing science (“ways of knowing” if you will), that are practiced by different groups, and that the nature of science would be different, and better, if these groups are included in science.  There is a modicum of truth in this. Nobody denies that, in the past, oppressed people—women, minorities, and so on—have not been given the same opportunities to enter science as, say, white men. And I can think of at least one case in which the interests of different groups, by being different, have enriched science. (I think that the presence of women in evolutionary biology, for example, could have prompted the increasing emphasis on female choice in “Darwinian” sexual selection, though of course males have also done pioneering work in that area and my contention is arguable.)

But in general, though social conditioning may affect which problems one attacks, I don’t think there are special ways of doing science, nor in general do different groups of people practice science in different ways.  I advocate for open access and equal opportunity for all people, but I do that because I see it as immoral to block access to careers for different groups, and also because the more minds that have access to science, the faster science will progress. When women were kept from doing science over the past few centuries, we effectively lost half of the pool of talent that could expand our understanding of the universe, not to mention denying the dreams and ambitions of half the population. And of course that holds for other groups, as well. I advocate equal opportunities for all to do science, but not necessarily equal outcomes, since outcomes could depend partly on preference. But until all groups have equal opportunities, which is a long way off, I think we have to practice some form of affirmative action in science and other professions.

I give this preface because I’m about to criticize a new paper that claims not only that different groups (in this case, black women) have different ways of doing science, but also that black women have been oppressed by an inherent characteristic of science (not of scientists): “white empiricism”, which denies the validity of black women as objective observers of reality. The paper’s author is Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy as well as a faculty member in Women’s Studies at the University of New Hampshire. as well as a writer of popular articles for New Scientist and other venues. She’s also prolific on Twitter, having tweeted (by my count at 5 a.m.) 132 times in the last 24 hours, thus averaging (with eight hours off) about 8 tweets per hour.

Prescod-Weinstein is the daughter of a white Jewish father and a mother from Barbados, so she considers herself both black and Jewish.  I’ve written about her once before, criticizing a Slate article in which she argued, based on James Damore’s Google document (for which he was fired), that sexism is inherent in the practice of science (not just in scientists), and that science cannot be equated with “truth.”

You see a related critique of science in Prescod-Weinstein’s new paper in the journal Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, a publication from my own University of Chicago. You can get the paper for free by clicking on the screenshot below. A free pdf is here, and the full reference is at the bottom.

As I see it, the paper’s big problem is that it sees bigotry and racism as violations of the empirical methods of science—as aspects of science that are violated by “white empiricism”.  But first, what is “white empiricism”?  Here are a few definitions or characterizations of  from Prescod-Weinstein:

White empiricism comes to dominate empirical discourse in physics because whiteness powerfully shapes the predominant arbiters of who is a valid observer of physical and social phenomena. Based primarily on their own experiences, white men, who are the dominant demographic in physics, construct the figure of the observer to exclude anyone who does not share the attending social and intellectual identities and beliefs.

. . . Essentially, white empiricism involves a predominantly white, predominantly male professional community selectively failing to apply the scientific method to themselves while using “scientific” evaluation to strengthen the barriers to Black women’s entry into physics. White empiricism is therefore a form of antiempiricism masquerading as an empirical approach to the natural world.

. . . White empiricism is conceptually distinct from epistemic injustice because it describes a resistance not just to testimony but also to empirical fact. It is strongly linked to epistemic oppression and conceptual competence injustice because it involves a denial of a knower’s competence based on ascribed identity (Dotson 2014; McKinnon 2014, forthcoming; Anderson 2017). White empiricism is the specific practice of epistemic oppression paired with a willingness to ignore empirical data.

. . . White empiricism is the practice of allowing social discourse to insert itself into empirical reasoning about physics, and it actively harms the development of comprehensive understandings of the natural world by precluding putting provincial European ideas about science—which have become dominant through colonial force—into conversation with ideas that are more strongly associated with “indigeneity,” whether it is African indigeneity or another.

Now how is it that “white empiricism” turns out to be a form of hypocrisy, in which white male physicists (and also white female physicists) claim they’re objective when investigating physics but aren’t really objective?  It is because, alongside their “objectifity” in studying the laws of nature, they ignore or dismiss black women’s “lived experience” and claims about the pervasiveness of racism, which are taken to be objective scientific claims.

And here we see the conflation of physics with social justice. To wit:

In string theory, we find an example wherein extremely speculative ideas that require abandoning the empiricist core of the scientific method and which are endorsed by white scientists are taken more seriously than the idea that Black women are competent observers of their own experiences. In practice, invalidating Black women’s standpoint is an antiempirical disposal of data, in essence turning white supremacist social structures into an epistemic practice in science. Therefore, while traditionally defined empiricism is the stated practice of scientists, white empiricism—where speculative white, male testimony is more highly valued than reality-based testimony from Black women—is the actual practice of scientists.

. . . [Jarita] Holbrook holds that Black students are presumed to be epistemically unreliable on the subject of racism, which sends the message that they can never achieve an objective observer status akin to that of their white peers. As Holbrook describes this epistemic dismissal, “When confronted with a racist incident as a person of color, your objectivity is immediately questioned. Are you sure it happened? Are you sure that it was their intention? to flat out: So and So is not racist! I’ve known them for years. Thus, your objectivity is being questioned. … The internal dialogue is that if they do not believe me in this, what do they think about my science? Thus, it erodes the scientific identity that you are in the process of creating”

. . .  In effect, white physicists are considered competent to self-evaluate for bias against other epistemic agents and theories of physics where there is no empirical grounding to assist in decision making, while Black epistemic agents are considered incompetent to bring a lifetime of knowledge gathering about race and racism to bear on their everyday experiences. This empirical adjudication is the phenomenon of white empiricism.

These statements, particularly the last one, shows Prescod-Weinstein’s confusion between empirical studies of physics and evaluation of the “lived experience” of racism by black women. I’m not denying, of course, that some physicists have racist attitudes. But to say that one must accept a black women’s views about racism because science says you must is to equate subjectivity with objectivity, anecdote with scientific consensus. And, in fact, Prescod-Weinstein gives no examples of white male physicists rejecting black women’s views about racism. She goes on at length about the history of racism in America, and how scientists have participated in it, but I see no examples of any modern male physicists saying that black women aren’t competent to describe and evaluate their own experiences, much less to act as valid students of the laws of physics.

In pursuit of her thesis that racist attitudes violate the very objectivity inherent in science, Prescod-Weinstein adduces some ludicrous examples. One is the theory of relativity, which states that the fundamental laws of physics are invariant under the inertial frame of the observer. Prescod-Weinstein sees racism as violating this canon:

Yet white empiricism undermines a significant theory of twentieth-century physics: General Relativity (Johnson 1983). Albert Einstein’s monumental contribution to our empirical understanding of gravity is rooted in the principle of covariance, which is the simple idea that there is no single objective frame of reference that is more objective than any other (Sachs 1993). All frames of reference, all observers, are equally competent and capable of observing the universal laws that underlie the workings of our physical universe. Yet the number of women in physics remains low, especially those of African descent (Ong 2005; Hodari et al. 2011; Ong, Smith, and Ko 2018). . . . Given that Black women must, according to Einstein’s principle of covariance, have an equal claim to objectivity regardless of their simultaneously experiencing intersecting axes of oppression, we can dispense with any suggestion that the low number of Black women in science indicates any lack of validity on their part as observers. It is instead important to examine the way the social forces at work shape Black women’s standpoint as observers—scientists—with a specific interest in how scientific knowledge is dependent on this specific standpoint. As Jarita Holbrook notes, Black students have their capacity for objectivity questioned simply because their standpoint on racism is different from that of white students and scientists who don’t have to experience its consequences.

Statements like that make me wonder if Prescod-Weinstein knows that she’s distorting science in the service of social justice. Einstein’s principle simply states that the laws of physics are invariant under frames of reference, not that “all observers are equally competent and capable of observing the universal laws [of physics].” To say that the theory of relativity shows objectively that racism against black women is unscientific is to mistake the laws of physics with a moral dictum. In other words, Prescod-Weinstein is committing the naturalistic fallacy. Certainly all groups get the same opportunity, should they wish to become physicists, to study the laws of nature, but not everyone, least of all me, is “equally competent.” What Prescod-Weinstein should be arguing is not that Einstein’s theory explicitly makes all people morally equal, but that considerations of well-being and empathy make all people morally equal. Dr. King didn’t need Einstein to convince America that segregation was wrong.

Prescod-Weinstein is not by any means obtuse, and so I wonder if she sees the fallacy of what she’s doing here, or is so blinded by ideology that she really thinks that Einstein’s theory is explicitly anti-racist.

She also uses string theory as an example of how “objective” study of physics conflicts with racism. She considers why string theory, though in many ways appealing, has failed to gain widespread acceptance in the scientific community and yet is still considered a valid object of study. She gives three reasons why string theory remains viable (her quote):

Surveying what should happen next, there are at least three distinct possibilities:

  • 1. Patience is required, and evidence is coming.
  • 2. String theory has failed to succeed in expected ways because the community—which is almost entirely male and disproportionately white relative to other areas of physics—is too homogeneous.
  • 3. The scientific method overly constrains our models to meet certain requirements that no longer serve the needs of physics theory.

The trouble with the first option is that because of the theory’s structure, parameters could continuously and endlessly change to excuse the absence of evidence: “It is simply in a regime where we can’t currently take measurements” (Dawid 2013, 112; see also Ellis and Silk 2014). This never-ending passing of the buck to higher energy scales that require bigger experiments and more funding is suspect, although there is certainly no universal law that says that finding quantum gravity should be an affordable pursuit.

The second option is effectively unconsidered in the literature. Instead, the case for the third option has been made. This is a curious turn of events. Rather than considering whether structural and individual discrimination results in a homogeneous, epistemically limited community, physicists are willing to throw out their long-touted objectivity tool, the scientific method. In its place, they propose that their sense of aesthetics is sufficient, that the theory holds a kind of beauty (such as high levels of symmetry) similar to other, empirically successful theories such as the Standard Model of particle physics (Polchinski 1998).

What she’s saying here is that it’s distinctly possible that the absence of diversity (e.g., black women) among physicists is a reasonable explanation for why no empirical evidence has arisen to support string theory. That contrasts with explanations 1) and 3), that say, respectively, that we might get evidence for or against the theory some day, or that we should simply accept string theory without empirical evidence because it’s a lovely theory and, by the way, evidence is overrated.

Prescod-Weinstein indicts white empiricism here because, she says, people have gravitated to explanation #3 instead of #2, and by so doing have rejected the empirical canons of science—the need for evidence—rather than accept the possibility that we need more black women physicists. And, she argues, there’s no empirical reason to support #3 over #2—except under white empricism.

I don’t think that’s correct. First of all, she adduces no reason why black physicists rather than white physicists can help provide the ultimate empirical test of string theory. That presupposes that there is a “black” way of doing string theory that white physicists don’t comprehend. Second, I haven’t seen physicists, at least the ones I know, arguing that string theory is correct and we don’t need empirical verification. My own take is that string theory is appealing in many ways but can’t be accepted as true because it can’t be tested in any way that we must know. In other words, possibility #1 is the consensus among physicists, and possibility #2 isn’t that viable because there’s been no demonstration that different ethnic groups or genders have investigatory tools that could solve the issue. (This is not to justify racism in physics, of course. It’s just that diversity is an inherent good, that equal opportunity is a moral imperative, and diversity may advance science not because different groups have different “ways of knowing”, but because the bigger the talent pool, the more likely we are to have breakthroughs.)

But Prescod-Weinstein does believe that what we know about physics would change if more black women participated. Yet she fails to be specific, arguing that “there are contexts in which Black women are epistemically privileged observers”, but not telling us which contexts. Instead, she says this:

Yet there is a way in which feminist standpoint theory can help us think about the gulf between epistemic theory and social practice in physics. Standpoint theory correctly identifies that there are contexts in which Black women are epistemically privileged observers, and I argue that a refusal to accept this fact translates into modified epistemic outcomes in physics, not because the laws of physics are different but because which parts of the universe we understand, and even the very nomenclature we develop to describe our understanding, are impacted by social forces.

It would be nice if she could adduce an example here. Which parts of the universe are susceptible to analysis by a black woman physicist but not a white male? Since there are almost no black women physicists, it would be hard to even think of an example.  As for terminology or nomenclature, well, that has little to do with our understanding; it is just words we use to describe our understanding. Would “the uncertainty principle” be called something else if discovered by a black woman physicist? If so, would it matter? Again, we have no examples—even hypothetical ones.

Prescod-Weinstein does adduce the fight over the 30-Meter Telescope in Hawaii (some scientists want it built, while many native Hawaiians oppose it on grounds of tradition and the claim that Mauna Kea site is sacred) as another example of “white empiricism”, but this is also misguided. The fight is not about the nature of science, but about whether a tool for doing science should be built if it conflicts with local beliefs and practices. I’m not that familiar with the battle, but what I do know tells me that it’s not a battle over the validity of Hawaiians as valid observers of physics. Prescod-Weinstein seems to disagree:

As we enter an era where physics and astronomy are both studied and practiced by increasingly larger teams with wide geographic footprints, these social dynamics will become important in new ways. For example, in the debate about the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, the question of which epistemologies merit legitimate consideration is intimately tied to white empiricism (Swanner 2013; Salazar 2014; Kuwada 2015). White empiricism can help explain why the Thirty Meter Telescope was evaluated so differentially by Mauna Kea protectors and telescope-using scientists, resulting in a specious debate over who was for and who was against science. Protectors, who do not subscribe to white empiricism, have been forced to repeatedly challenge press coverage that tends to assign a higher knowledge prestige to the role of nonindigenous scientists than to cultural knowledge holders of indigenous communities (Fox and Prescod-Weinstein 2019). Future work should unpack this phenomenon further in dialogue with decolonization discourse.

But the native Hawaiian argument against the telescope is not an epistemological stand, unless you think that it’s based on superstition; and in that case it’s not relevant to Prescod-Weinstein’s argument. “Cultural knowledge” here does not refer to scientific knowledge, but to spiritual belief, and thus we are not seeing a conflict about the way to do physics. There may be some racism inherent in the battle, but that’s different from a battle over “valid ways of understanding nature.”

I am growing weary, for I have dissected papers like this before—papers on white glaciology, the racism of Pilates, lattes, and pumpkins, and so on. The difference here is that Prescod-Weinstein is a working physicist with respectable accomplishments in the field. It is a sad testimony to the power of ideology, though, that her interpretation of what science is has been so severely distorted by her anti-white feminism.  Instead of arguing, as I’ve said, on moral grounds, she argues that the objectivity of science itself is in conflict with the supposed dismissal of black women’s experiences of racism, and that such an attitude is not just racist but anti-science.

In view of the paucity of black women physicists with a Ph.D. (there have been only a few dozen in history), what should we do? I agree that there may be a problem here, and my solution is, as always, twofold. First, rectify any inequality of opportunity starting at the ground—the limited opportunities afforded to minorities by living conditions and poor schooling, themselves byproducts of racism. Second, for the time being practice a form of affirmative action, realizing that diversity in the physics community is an inherent good for several reasons (providing role models to eliminate roadblocks to opportunity, for one).

But these STEM initiatives are rejected by Prescod-Weinstein as a form of patronizing manipulation of black people for the good of America:

The National Science Foundation (2008) argues that the broader impact of diversity is a worthwhile consideration in granting criteria based on a national need for a strong STEM workforce as the United States undergoes a demographic transition where white-identified people will soon no longer account for over 50 percent of the population. Because white Americans still heavily dominate STEM degree earning and the STEM workforce, American STEM cannot keep up with the demographic changes. These arguments repurpose Black Americans (and other minorities) as tools to serve nationalist needs.

I doubt that the National Science Foundation’s strong STEM programs to increase minority participation in science are designed to “repurpose Black Americans (and other minorities) as tools to serve nationalist needs.” These programs are supported and implemented largely by women, and their avowed purpose is to diversify participation in science and technology. To say that they are designed to turn minorities into slaves of white nationalism is simply ridiculous. For one thing, I doubt that anyone who has been supported by these programs, many of them investigating pure science rather than advancing technology, sees themselves as “tools.” Let Chanda-Weinstein talk to those people rather than pronounce, as a privileged physicist, how they should feel. Does she understand their lived experience?

This paper is not a hoax, though if it had been written by someone else it could be seen as one of the “grievance study” hoax papers produced by Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay. It is a serious attempt at scholarship, and I say “attempt” because it fails on all levels. It is what happens when a “hard” discipline like physics is infected by a “soft” discipline with an ideological agenda, like gender and race studies. The result are specious and insupportable claims like that of Einstein’s theory of relativity explicitly stating that people from all ethnic and gender groups should be treated equally.  And while you’ll find many physicists, including white ones, who refuse to dismiss black women as valid observers of physical reality, I doubt that you’ll find many who cite Einstein in support of such egalitarianism.

It’s always a bad idea to draw moral conclusions from science, for that makes the moral conclusions susceptible to changes in our understanding of the physcal world. If we had only Newtonian mechanics and not relativistic mechanics, would racism be more justified?


Prescod-Weinstein, C. 2020. Making Black women scientists under white empiricism: The racialization of epistemology in physics. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 45:421-447

133 thoughts on “Is “white empiricism” hindering physics?

  1. I would allow that she does identify one problem, which is that when a black person claims racism they may encounter push-back and doubt. There is the damnable instinct to protect the privileged and so to doubt the claimant as being overly sensitive. I do think there is some truth to that, although I see no evidence that this is the general rule as she seems to say.

    1. What about when Zionists claim that most criticisms of Israel and criticisms of Zionism are instances of antisemitism and they encounter pushbacks? Jews have been oppressed and marginalized for centuries (blood libels, pogroms,the Holocaust, etc.), so why doesn’t standpoint theory apply to them, then? Why isn’t it epistemic injustice when Zionists receive doubts and pushbacks? Is it because Jews are “white” and Palestinian are “people of colors”? Are Turkish people “white”? Are Armenian people “white”?

  2. So this only applies to “empiricism”? So language – say, English, being formulated by, well, white men, is not hindered. I mean, we need a control experiment- but then, that’d be “empiricism”… unless … [ checks skin color with spectrophotometer ] … drat – empiricism again.

  3. There is a kind of ‘positive control’ to test her claim that other races can give unique insights into science. Besides the white race, of course Asians are also strongly represented in the sciences. So one may ask: Are there sufficient cases to suggest that members of a different race (or cultural background) able to provide a unique insight into scientific questions?
    On the subject of physics, I cannot think of any, though I may be mistaken. But I would bet a Krispy Kreme doughnut there are areas of applied science that have benefited from workers of certain genetic and geographic backgrounds. I bet a lot of what we know about rice agriculture and solutions to its problems with farming and pest control come from folks in Asia, as an obvious case in point.

    1. That’s not the claim: the claim is that different groups have different ways of doing science. Just because Asians face unique problems, like rice farming, doesn’t mean that they have unique Asian scientific perspectives on how to solve them. What are the “unique insights” that you claim Asians have into this problem?

    2. I kind of agree with Mark. I think there could be differences in the way different groups think, based on language. We know that our language shapes the way we think about things and processes, and languages with very different structures might influence what kinds of theories are “easy” or “hard” to discover. Vocabulary can also be limiting or enriching our experiences in ways that might very well have an influence on a group’s ability to theorize about some subjects.

      1. All you have is speculation here. Since Prescod-Weinstein is half Jewish, do you posit that Jews think differently about physics from non-Jews, and thus have done physics differently from the goyim? I want more than speculations like yours and Prescod-Weinstein’s: I want an example. Please provide one.

            1. Probably thought of as such by many, but the definition that pops up on Google indicates “derogatory”. I’ve also heard it used in a who’s in, who’s out context. That said, I am not offended by much 🙂

              1. Goyim can no doubt be used derogatorily, the same way some gentiles use “Jew” derogatorily.

                But that’s true of many words. Hell, in my family “Republican” was considered a dirty word. In fact, my sweet, silver-haired grandmother wouldn’t use the word “Republican” when speaking to us grandkids. She’d call them “those motherfuckers” instead. 🙂

        1. All I have is speculation; how could anyone prove that Scientist X was able to formulate his or her new theory before Scientist Y because of differences in language/culture? But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that this happens, since language has such a deep effect on how we think.

          For example, I strongly suspect that languages whch lack a way of expressing large numbers might impede discoveries about the laws of physics.

          1. I’ve long wanted to ask John McWhorter & co. (those who reject the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in toto), a version of that question. And specific to your question, beyond making such discoveries, how could such already-discovered concepts be comprehensively and succinctly explained in/through a language that didn’t possess a lexicon or syntax adequate to convey the abstract concepts. I’m sure McWhorter would be unfazed, but what can he adduce to substantiate his assertion. I believe he’s an expert in pidgin and creole languages, how would Police Motu fare if tested?

              1. I am no expert but I’ve found the criticisms of Sapir-Whorf by experts to be very convincing. One easily made point, think I heard it from Stephen Pinker, (paraphrasing) “How many times have you been frustrated because you couldn’t compose the words to communicate what you were thinking?”

                I do think that culturally learned / imprinted / indoctrinated attitudes, behavior and concepts can certainly affect the way people think. But I’m quite convinced by the arguments and evidence against it that people do not think in the languages they speak. People who speak languages that don’t already include words or conventions for naming large numbers will simply invent a new way of communicating them when exposed to them or the need to use them.

              2. I’m torn and don’t pretend to understand. McWhorter and Pinker are the experts, and on one hand, I, too find what they say compelling, but I’d like something more substantial than breezy disclaimers, and the rebuttal “How many times have you been frustrated because you couldn’t compose the words to communicate what you were thinking?” whether an exact quote or a paraphrase representing the concept doesn’t answer anything for me because there’s a whole world of unstated assumptions that are not answered by the question. For me the unanswered question raises more questions. There are plenty of concepts that have been impossible for me to comprehend and express because I didn’t have the vocabulary and there’s no way I was able to understand or express these concepts with the vocabulary I had/have. I can’t “just” think up another way to express myself.

      2. i was thinking more along the line of motivation, hence the suggestion that some areas of applied science, such as research in agriculture, may have benefited from certain racial or cultural groups since certain crops. This would be because certain crops are more important to the economies of certain people.

        1. I don’t know to what extent China and other predominantly rice growing/eating cultures have been involved in scientific research on rice. I do know that Golden Rice was initially created by Ingo Potrykus, Swiss Institute of Technology, and Peter Beyer, University of Freiberg. This a GMO rice with lycopene added. The intent was to increase nutritional value (reducing Vitamin A deficiency) for populations heavily dependent on rice as the primary food source. Golden Rice was a Patents for Humanity winner in 2015 in the nutrition category.

      3. The problem is that she smuggles in some incredibly strong claims along with the vaguely reasonable stuff.
        She doesn’t just talk about sociological problems in science, which is what you’re talking about – she talks about fundamental problems with the very basics of the scientific method, and she does so without putting forward a single example.

      4. Lou, I’ve heard that so often ‘language shapes the way we think’, and there is certainly some truth in that, but I think the influence of language on thought is somewhat overrated.
        Eg. If you have an idea, even a clear idea, you often struggle to find the language to express it.
        I think, moreover, that the whole idea of science is to get rid of preconceived ideas and different cultural influences. To find a kind of ‘universal’ truth, regardless of anything else. In that sense these ‘different ways of knowing’ make no sense at all. (Forgive me if my language did not convey the idea clearly) 😁

        1. Here is an example of language setting the agenda for Science. Who began the study of the laws of motion? Why, it was a man whose language (Italian) cannot be spoken without moving your hands a lot. Fine della storia.

          One of Prescod-Weinstein’s more revealing proclamations can be enjoyed at:
          Here is a sample: “science has roots outside of the Eurasian peninsula known as Europe, it likely has its limitations as one of multiple ontologies of the world, it has been used in really grotesque ways, and we must understand all of these threads to truly contextualize the discourse in Hawai’i around science, Hawaiian epistemologies and who gets to determine what constitutes “truth” and “fact” when it comes to Mauna a Wakea.” Uh huh.

          1. Nice joke. 🙂 I speak Italian without moving my hands though. I guess I would not understand the laws of motion.

            I was once in a meeting with two Italian physicians from Milan and a Swiss physician from Geneva (French speaking). The discussion was held in English. When speaking, the Genevan kept moving his hands and arms, you had to seat two meters from him to avoid being hit; the two Milanese and myself barely moved a hand. At the end of a meeting the Genevan ridiculed himself with a joke about Italians speaking with their hands.

        2. In mathematics there are often legit multiple ways of expressing mathematical relations – thus an intractable algebraic problem can open up when mapped to a geometrical perspective, say. Perhaps something analogous can happen in other fields & it can be informed by a different cultural outlook?

          e.g. Ma (間) is a Japanese word which can be roughly translated as “gap”, “space”, “pause” or “the space between two structural parts” or “negative space” or “the silence between notes” – I know this perspective has influenced Frank Lloyd Wright’s work greatly & no doubt many western sculptures & painters.

          I can’t think of any specifically science examples though – where some new insight arose. The closest I can get was a spate of bad, hippy pop-sci books of which I recall only one now – The Dancing Wu Li Masters – an award winning, metaphor-drenched work from 40 years ago that used Buddhism & other eastern mysticisms to try & paint a fresh picture of the history of science. Dreadful stuff man. 🙂

          1. Is this an example of Ma? The spaces between the edges (or branches) of a phylogeny represent the parts of the evolutionary space that are not occupied by living organisms. There isn’t a name for those spaces, but the idea that there might be some combinations of traits that can’t evolve or has not yet evolved or once existed but has now become extinct (leaving gaps between the existing lineages) is a fairly common one.

            1. Mike,what a fascinating concept! And it is one that is new to me. Can you provided a source where it is discussed?

            2. It’s an interesting idea but defining the space represented by all possible evolutions seems problematic. It’s not as if we could represent it as a vector of real numbers. Evolution has the ability to create new dimensions (but without a designer of course).

              You could describe part of the space by considering all possible DNA sequences but that’s not good enough either because it wouldn’t include the physical environment.

        3. Sure, “language shapes the way we think.” Were it true that Eskimos actually have 50 words for snow, it would undoubtedly affect the way they perceive the stuff. What it wouldn’t change is the temperature at which water freezes.

          1. But there resally are many kinds of snowflakes, and I suspect an Eskimo might be more likely to be interested in why there are so many kinds, versus a typical person who pays no attention and has no words for the differences between kinds of snow.

            You seem to think I am claiming that scientific truth is culturally relative. If so, you are misinterpreting what I said.

            1. Actually, I was responding to Nicky’s response to your comment, Lou. Sometimes these longer sub-threads can get hard to follow.

        4. Nicolaas, you wrote “In that sense these ‘different ways of knowing’ make no sense at all.”

          But there are many routes to the truth, and languages and/or cultures may have some influence on the route taken. And some routes are more direct than others.

  4. Gawd I’ve read this post up and down trying to make sense of Prescod-Weinstein’s arguments and all I really have to show for it is a headache.

    To answer the question Dr. Coyne asks – “Is White Empiricism hindering physics?” – I am sure that having a group of physicists that are predominately white and male brings a set of collective biases that may have some negative impacts in the human races’ effort to understand physics. And the solution,as I see it, is to encourage a more diverse group of people to engage in the study of physics. And then let the chips fall where they may.

    But beyond that I see Prescod-Weinstein’s arguments as trying to put a bunch of fancy words around a straighforward problem.

    1. Yes, but this is not the argument. It’s not just biases, it’s a claim that racism is inherent in the epistemology of science and that science, like the theory of relativity, is a corrective to “white epistemology.”

      If it was just a claim that white scientists are biased, well, that’s been made many times before, and yes, there’s some truth in it though not all scientists are racists. But if you think that residual racism has had a negative impact on exactly what we understand about the universe (beyond my claim that we need more people to increase knowledge), then please provide an example.

      1. As I said, I can imagine a group of people raised in similar circumstances sharing experiences that might bias how they perceive and explain the universe.

        But I cannot see her point that different races do science differently. In science you hypothesize, you test, you create theories. I am sure one’s background would influence how you go about doing that, but unless the world operates differently based on the color of your skin, then everyone should get the same results (eventually). Right?

        1. The central bogus conceit that underlies America’s culture wars:

          Race = Culture

          Race and culture are not the same. They’re correlated because culture tends disproportionately to propagate along family lines and because both strongly correlate with geography. It’s a useful conceit for many powerful factions since it can be used to conflate affirmative action – which doesn’t much affect corporate bottom lines – with multiculturalism, which does.

          Different cultures can indeed do science differently, Fraans de Waal has written on the subject. Different races probably don’t, though, so the entire discourse is taking place deep in fantasy-land.

  5. Two brains? One for probing hard science early universe physics [her field] & the other for the sociology of identity in science, wherein she happily spews false equivalences hither & thither! Somewhat of a blind spot given that she must obviously respect observation & evidence in the former & yet she throws it all away in the latter.

    I note that the very ‘right on’ Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is also pro-BDS [as per below Tweet thread & other Tweets]:

    1. I find it interesting that Prescod-Weinstein considers herself Jewish based on having a Jewish father more than black (presumably) as her mother from Barbados. It may be that she is as mixed up in this as she is in conflating black racism with Physics.

    2. Antisemitism is rampant among the Far Left regressives, NewRacists, and the anti-science woo brigade.

  6. I agree there are areas of applied science that may benefit from researchers of diversified genetic backgrounds. However, in physics, the reason string theory is in the doldrums is simple: behind string theory is the notion that quantum mechanics is incomplete and somehow needs to be completed. This is a false premise, quantum mechanics is as complete as it can be. No diversity of genetic backgrounds is going to change that.

  7. A photon makes a billion year journey to a 30 m diameter telescope made from a honeybomb hexagonal zerodur substrates coated to within lambda/10 and then adaptively corrected with a kilowatt pulsed sodium line laser and there is some contention that this photon cares what race measures it?

    1. Yes exactly (I also agree with our host) but that’s not what seems to be vexing this author. She would it seems would have a problem with what ‘colour’ the eyes are that’s doing the observing.
      Blue eyes would ‘see’ differently from that of green eyes 😳 …to bad if you’re a heterochromia iridium individual. Which eye is true, which eye do I trust?
      An absurdity like the tenet of her argument.
      I support women of any race to do science of their choosing but not confined to science either, any occupation.
      👉 back to your post and the photon.

  8. She gives three reasons why string theory remains viable (her quote)…

    How about 4. Nobody has come up with anything better. (Though there are competitor theories, they haven’t been better confirmed, either.)


    I do worry about bias and racism in science. Not just in hiring or grad school atmosphere and opportunity, but also in “blind” peer review that isn’t, in fact, all that blind. This allows unintentional bias to creep in, even if reviewers are well-meaning. But the way to solve that problem is to put more thought and effort into the peer review process – the solution is not to ask scientists if they believe the lived experience of minorities who face racism.

    what we know about physics would change if more black women participated.

    I accept that may be so. Here’s hoping the science community continues to get wider in terms of women and minorities. Here’s hoping we have far less future cases of the community downplaying or ignoring a woman scientist’s results (experimental or theoretical) because she’s a woman than we have past cases.

    But what we know about physics will change based on what physics is published and stands up over time, not by giving extra weight to the results of scientists who make some ideological statement that they accept minority lived experience accounts of racism. A school wants to not-hire a racist scientist on account of their racism? I’m okay with that. A school wants their scientists to pass some liberal purity test before letting them publish? I’m not okay with that. That may be a matter of degree, but I think it’s an important one; if we’re going to ‘exile’ scientists from the community over their ideology, we had better stick to only the most egregious cases. Otherwise you get…well, calls like Prof. Prescod-Weinstein’s.

    To give an example, I strongly disagree with Michael Behe’s religious ideology, and I think it biases much of his research. I am probably in the majority of scientists in that view. But I think Lehigh University is right to let him continue to publish his research. Likewise, there’s a significant difference between a scientist who is a nazi vs. a scientist who is conservative on their political views towards immigration and police powers (i.e. thinks claims of systemic racism towards minorities are overblown). Want to ban the former? Sure. Want to ban the latter? No. That’s simply not enough on it’s own, at least IMO, to warrant a banhammer.

    1. “Likewise, there’s a significant difference between a scientist who is a nazi vs. a scientist who is conservative on their political views towards immigration and police powers (i.e. thinks claims of systemic racism towards minorities are overblown). Want to ban the former? Sure. Want to ban the latter? No. That’s simply not enough on it’s own, at least IMO, to warrant a banhammer.”

      I think I instinctively agree with you, but I know people who are self-professed ‘free-speech absolutists’, and I’d be interested to know whether they draw a line on this: should Nazis be allowed to teach at universities?

      If not, why not?

      1. I would say yes, “Nazis” should be allowed to teach at universities, as long as they stick to their subject, treat their students objectively, and demonstrate intellectual honesty.

        1. So, as long as they’re extracurricular Nazis they’re acceptable employees…

          Does that mean you would object if a university fired them solely for being a Nazi?

          I’m not trying to corner you btw, I’m just interested to see where the logic of this terminates.

          1. Personally, I think that’s reasonable on the part of the university, even though universities are (supposed to be) dedicated to exploring truth wherever it may lead.

            I admit that this creates a problem of ‘quantity’ (i.e. how much objectionable belief is too much…and why is the university deciding which of it’s professor’s beliefs count as objectionable, anyway?). It creates a potential slippery slope argument. Nobody likes that. However, I think the binary extremes (totally ignore even extreme beliefs, outside of the classroom or “zero tolerance” for even the slightest disturbing belief) are both worse. It’s better to think our way out of this on a case-by-case basis, using discussion between many adult professionals, rather than tie our hands (or is it wash our hands?) by using some hard rule.

            ““A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

            Hard problems are where we prove our mettle as deep thinkers.

            1. ” However, I think the binary extremes (totally ignore even extreme beliefs, outside of the classroom or “zero tolerance” for even the slightest disturbing belief) are both worse.”


  9. This general point of view is now widely accepted among administrators of research and grant agencies. From the guidelines for grant applicants submitting proposals for research dunging to my country’s leading natural science research organization:

    “The Evidence is clear. Equity, diversity, and inclusion strengthen the scientific and engineering communities and the quality, social relevance and impact of research.”

    The guidelines include this specific advice: “[We encourage] applicants to explain their process of identifying, recruiting and selecting research personnel based on equity, diversity and inclusion best practices as one means to enhance excellence in research, training and outreach.” The criteria for selecting based on EDI include sex, gender, race, and other personal qualities. No advice is given for how researchers holding a grant should go about recruiting trainees on the basis of things like gender identity and sexual orientation.

    In a FAQ section, the guidelines make the claim that “Diverse experiences and approaches to knowledge creation increase the spectrum of ideas and insights which broadens and vastly improves our chances of producing breakthrough discoveries and innovation.” IOW, different ways of knowing.

    Fortunately, this seems to be mostly window dressing for the more defensible idea that everyone should be treated fairly, and that some groups of people have in the past been disadvantaged in research training, and we should watch out for and correct any ongoing discrimination. There is little evidence so far that researchers (as opposed to the grant agency administrators) believe that different ways of knowing contribute to actual discoveries. Dr. Prescod-Weinstein’s point of view seems to be a small minority. But it’s still disconcerting for researchers to be told that their discoveries would be better if only their research groups were more diverse and inclusive.

    As Jerry has often pointed out wrt other topics, this is a dangerous argument to make because it’s vulnerable to evidence that diversity in research groups has no effect on quality of research (or even worse that diverse research groups generate research of lower quality). People deserve to be treated fairly for reasons other than the quality of the research discoveries they might make.

  10. People like this really are exasperating. All I can say is; when you come up against a problem in a particular scientific discipline, like physics, you do not solve it by destroying that discipline.

    There is no easy fix for diversity in science, and allowing people who practice ‘other ways of knowing’ into physics just means that it’s not physics any more.

    These people, like all people whose beliefs are on the extreme fringes, always want the quick fix, the easy workaround, whether it’s for democracy or science, or the economy, or whatever. They always think they’ve found a loophole that means they don’t have to do the hard work that genuine problem-solving requires.

    1. *not that she’s an extremist, just that her epistemological beliefs are extreme and would render science pretty much impotent. She’s probably quite nice, and we’d agree on a lot of things, but on this she’s talking bullocks’ bollocks.

  11. Seems to me there are two questions here: Do black women have equal access to the scientific community, and would they do science differently if they did have access. The former is a question of social justice; the latter is a question of inherent sexual/racial differences affecting epistemological/behavioral approaches to understanding the natural world. I’m not equipped to either question, but it seems to me important that we keep them separate.

    1. The “founding error” of radical science studies, postmodernism, etc. is insisting that somehow these questions are the same. The pre-error is thinking that Kuhn and Feyerabend and those guys were right about the history of science, which they were not. (Provably, in Kuhn’s case, for example.)

  12. What Einstein says in GR is that the laws of physics should be the same for all observers in freely-falling inertial frames. (Pardon the redundance.) He is talking about the laws of physics, not about the folks doing the observations. She should not be quoting Einstein in defense of her thesis, be it right or wrong.

  13. Can’t imagine reading the whole paper, though the language is somewhat humorous in the Sokal vein. These sentences did catch my eye. I suppose it is just an analogy but it’s quite a stretch to claim that women do physics different from men because of Einstein’s frames of reference.

    “Albert Einstein’s monumental
    contribution to our empirical understanding of gravity is rooted in the principle of covariance, which is the simple idea that there is no single objective
    frame of reference that is more objective than any other (Sachs 1993). All
    frames of reference, all observers, are equally competent and capable of observing the universal laws that underlie the workings of our physical universe.
    Yet the number of women in physics remains low, especially those of African
    descent (Ong 2005; Hodari et al. 2011; Ong, Smith, and Ko 2018). “

    1. “All frames of reference, all observers, are equally competent and capable of observing the universal laws that underlie the workings of our physical universe.
      Yet the number of women in physics remains low, especially those of African

      (non sequitur)^3

    2. Her statement, of course, mangles general relativity. It has nothing to do with objectivity, and it is certainly not an empirical statement, either. (Science is not more empiricist than rationalist – Einstein had to *invent* the hypotheses that seem to be more or less correct.)

      1. We see this kind of thing a lot. People take fundamental findings and stretch them to add authority and credence to their ideas. Evolution, relativity, incompleteness come to mind but I am sure there are others too. I think it’s fine to use one these fundamental ideas as inspiration but it should be explicit. Unfortunately, some just can’t resist claiming that the fundamental finding “proves” their idea. Sometimes they try to have it both ways. They stop short of claiming proof but use words that encourage the naive reader to come to that conclusion.

  14. Firstly, I think we should come to an agreement about whether race and sex are cultural constructions and irrelevant to a person’s abilities, or if they immutable and define one’s physical abilities and thought processes. I don’t think both can be true.

    As for minority women in science, there is literally nothing keeping them out. Most incoming students these days are female. Any of them, at any time, can go to their counselor’s office and change their course of study to Physics or Chemistry or whatever. Certainly every freshman girl in college these days has had a steady stream of “grrl power” and empowerment their whole lives. My kids have been involved heavily in First Robotics, and that is one of many programs that focuses largely on female STEM empowerment.

    I am not a physicist, although one of my Sisters is, and works in the field. A quick glance that the MIT physics department website shows pretty strong multicultural representation, including Black women.

    I have to think that working with Prescod-Weinstein would be a horrific experience, if only because she would probably steer every discussion into one about race and oppression. And I would never want to have any sort of professional disagreement with her.

  15. Just to give her a tiny bit of (probably undeserved) credit, different backgrounds can cause people to make different advances even in the physical science.

    1. Some of science is using your internal metaphors to understand nature. A Tanzanian woman’s metaphor may allow her to interpret the data differently than me as an American man.
    2. A diverse group of people working together can nudge each other in ways that a homogeneous group would miss. Having to explain yourself in a different manner can be very helpful in your own understanding.

    The science is the same but a bright person who is different can be a huge asset.

    1. Different backgrounds can also make different opinions on anything.
      I think her idea that there are a limited number of women,regardless of race, in the field is not because of white male superiority, but because mother discouraged daughter from looking higher than was “good for her.”
      I am retired. Nothing special occupation wise but I certainly learned volumes. One I am a twofer. She would most likely be considered a threefer. These mean if a job came up for a job where she and I and a man (regardless of color) with comparable skill and experience the first offer would go to him, second to me and third to her.
      Fortunately, today that is slightly better BUT if the woman gets the job first, she will be paid considerably less than the man would have had he gotten the position.
      I’m not a big believer in white male superiority. I am more concerned with how mother raises her boys and girls. Let the interest of the individual take presidence.

  16. Very well rebutted, Jerry. This paper doesn’t sound very original (“ways of knowing” goes back to the 1990s) and it truly makes my heart sink to read stuff like this as much as reading outright creationism.

    Attributing psychological and emotional character to a group of people, as if they were psychically connected, on the dubious basis of skin lookism (“race” when it isn’t) is racist itself, and that’s the tragedy. So is implicitly grousing that [insert gender/ethnicity here] didn’t invent the particle accelerator. So what?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but “theory” doesn’t seem to have the same meaning in mathematics as in the hard sciences, so “string theory” is not meant as a theory like the theory of evolution, anyway. A theory in a hard science is a well-organized explanation of facts, which require evidence, so she’s speaking out of both sides of her mouth, too.

    And thank you for pointing out how many women run STEM programs! That’s definitely been my experience – and not just white women, either.

    When I get some time I’ll produce an article on the successful use of science by West Coast tribes to successfully sue the government and dismantle outdated hydroelectric dams over rivers that threaten the salmon. THIS is a marvelous example of how science, used by white fishermen and nonwhite tribe members, countered the erroneous data and “science” by the government and came to a solution for everyone (except the power companies, who exported most of the energy produced anyway).

  17. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who feel perfectly comfortable blathering on about incredibly precise, subtle scientific theories like relativity when it’s clear they don’t understand them. Aren’t they even slightly worried that they might have misunderstood something along the way? Didn’t they at least check some sort of ‘relativity for dummies’ video? The arrogance is incredible.

    Just imagine if Richard Dawkins or Sean Carroll wrote, in a piece for the Times Literary Supplement, that “the impressionist painters strongly influenced modern impressionists, like Dana Carvey, Rory Bremner, Steve Bridges and Tina Fey, whose impressionism of Sarah Palin rocketed her to fame in the late noughties. The impressionist painters were so named for their uncanny ability to make the paints on their canvas impersonate things like bridges and flowers, in just the same way that Will Ferrell would later impersonate George Dubya Bush.”

    Imagine that kind of ridiculous, public blunder, committed by a scientist gallumphing into a subject they know nothing about. How would experts in the humanities react? Probably not positively.

    Yet the writer of this paper has committed a similarly enormous, egregious error in their short section on Einstein and relativity, and she’ll probably get no significant pushback whatsoever.

    1. She’s…a professional physicist. I only noticed that now. I don’t know what to say to that, it’s just mind-boggling to me.

      Clearly she can’t be just mistaken as I initially thought – she must be actively bullshitting about what relativity actually means.

      1. I looked over her publications. It appears as though she stopped doing physics around 2016 and has since been writing POMO bs. Her latest physics papers have multiple authors, with some over 100. Presumably she is shooting for tenure in Women’s Studies, not Physics.

        1. Not necessarily, she is in an area of Big Science where long lists of authors is the norm – not a theorist herself [I think from watching a YT lecture by her] thus her papers will hardly ever be authored by herself alone or one, two, three others.

        2. She has an unusual publication history: her PhD from Waterloo was 2011; she published two research papers from that work in 2009, then nothing at all until 2015. She must have something great going for her to get through that long publishing drought (including four years as a postdoc with no publications). No one in my area of research could have stopped publishing for such a long time and still succeed in getting postdocs and landing a faculty job (she seems to have started at University of New Hampshire earlier this year as an assistant professor). She has several papers on different theory and empirical topics in 2017 and 2018, then she seems to have spent all of 2019 writing news articles for New Scientist. But I think overall there’s evidence that she’s a working theoretical physicist.

          1. Those are important factors for granting tenure. I suppose she might have had to get medical treatment for a disease, she had children, there was a disaster of some sort. No idea. But I’m not sure what any of that has to do with the notion of “white empiricism” which is being taken apart on the table here.

            1. Only relevant because there was some question up-thread about whether she is a working physicist (her POV implied a complete misunderstanding of relativity). Her publication history shows she is indeed a working physicist.

          2. “She must have something great going for her to get through that long publishing drought (including four years as a postdoc with no publications).”

            Ticking “diversity” boxes is what she has going for her.

            1. “Ticking ‘diversity’ boxes.” Yes, sure, that’s a decent working hypothesis. I don’t know how one could spin that into eight years of postdoc work. All I meant to suggest is that if she has misunderstood relativity per Saul (and what do I know – I’m a population geneticist) then it’s not because she is outside that field of research or because she has stopped doing research. I guess there is some kind of very interesting story behind that six-year publication gap, but I’m not here to fill that gap with speculation (ymmv).

        3. Even so, this calls into question the veracity of so-called “women’s studies,” as I am a woman and this crap alienates me.

          The chasm, if not outright war, between the sciences and the social sciences, arts and literature is very painful for me. That just doesn’t have to be.

    2. It feels to me as if her “egregious error” is possibly conscious – she doesn’t expect the tribe who will agree with her conclusions to question her ‘facts’ & line of reasoning. But then, maybe I’m seeing ghosts – Brexit has made me very sensitive to similar absurd, juvenile argumentation!

      1. Well, our PM is nicking journalists’ phones now. I’d say we can’t sink any lower but inevitably some toffee-nosed git politician will prove me wrong within a matter of minutes. So I’ll just keep quiet about Brexit.

  18. You can sort of see where she starts from, noting the dodginess of string theory and hence comparing people believing that to people not automatically believing claims of racism.

    However, a moment’s reflection should have told her that “my own perceptions of my own experiences” are pretty much the dictionary definition of subjective rather than objective. Hence it is hardly surprising if people don’t automatically believe something falling into that category.

    There is also the usual conflation of diversity “everybody is different” with diversity “a euphemism for ethnic and gender differences”. Clearly diversity in the correct first sense is valuable in most areas of human endeavour (e.g. very much so in crowdsourcing), whereas diversity in the misleading second sense is only relevant when it correlates with diversity in the first sense (which of course it sometimes does).

    1. Actually, hasn’t neuroscience shown that we, whatever our demographics, first believe any statement before we dismiss it? So she’s really assuming too much about what she thinks other people are thinking about claims of racism. I think I first always believe the victim – such claims arouse sympathy in me – and then I ask for evidence. But we cannot just go around assuming people are guilty.

  19. I heard many times how academia has learned from the Sokal Hoax, and how the type of fashionable nonsense Sokal and Bricmont discussed in their book was now passé. Everyone learned their lesson and it was anyway blown out of proportion. Such postmodernism does not really exist and so on, and if you criticize it, you really just hate pinkos, women, feminists and cute kitten. Incidentally, the same type of defense that is now popular with the woke.

    And yet, here we are. The conflation of everything shows such an astonishing lack of clear-thinking, that I am genuinely surprised how this writer could work in an academic culture at all. When postmodernists first seized Einstein relativity, it was already ludicrous, and when debunked, the standard excuse was the usage was merely metaphorical. And yet here we are. Again.

    She mixes together observations about the cosmos submitted in papers with personal experiences perhaps shared over twitter. Objects with a referent or at least with measurable properties, which can be observed, are conflated with non-repeatable experiences that become a thing as patterns (where it’s difficult to even agree on the exact parameters of the pattern). Process (how to observe, e.g. with a telescope on Hawaii) are conflated with knowledge. Map is territory. You have to search for a long time to find other examples of such poor reasoning. Especially astounding as the author is apparently capable to follow what’s going on String Theory (does Michio Kaku contribute to “white empiricism”).

    What this shows, and what Clear Peer Review showed for a while is that not much has changed in certain corners of academia. It’s depressing that such people and their institutions pose as “social justice” activism, when they might as well be funded by donors close to the Republican party, measured by the damage they deal to actually worthy concerns and causes.

    1. Reading through the post, I thought “surely, the article is a hoax”, and yet, PCC(E) explicitly stated that it is not. My own patience would have run far short of such a polite and detailed rebuttal.

      It beggars belief how Dr. Prescod-Weinstein misappropriated concepts about observers in un-privileged reference frames into arguments about race. What does race have to do with meter sticks and clock ticks?

      The tiniest kernel of truth in her article is that scientists with different backgrounds bring in different ideas on how to approach a problem – not a new thought at all. For instance, in mathematics it is said that it may take someone from outside the immediate field (though not a crank) to crack certain long-standing problems by approaching them from a different angle. But just like PCC(E) wrote, that’s far from doing mathematics differently by race.

  20. I got as far as the author’s name. I don’t know where I know it from, but New Scientist sounds quite plausible. And … onto the next topic.

  21. I find her written style to be so confusing and convoluted that it makes little sense at all. I often think they deliberately write in such a manner so that most people give up and are excluded from a discussion or even participating in any of the points.

    I think they do this deliberately to demonstrate look how clever I am but the reality is very clever people can succinctly and clearly write without the use of this verbose garbage. Once you are reduced to writing like this your argument is so weak and has to be bolstered by this florid turgid style of confusion.

  22. Why do they capitalize the word ‘black’ but not the word ‘white’ (unless at the beginning of a sentence) in their article? That seems kinda racialized, no?

    1. Yes, I think it’s racist. There is a Scientific American blog piece in which she insisted that “black” be capitalized but “white” not. And she links to an article that explains her insistence that the editors leave the capital “B”. It’s here, in an article in which she accuses Neil deGrasse Tyson of sexual misconduct.

      See the note at the bottom of the piece.

    1. I can’t believe I spent fifteen minutes running the rule over the borderline-fascistic entries at your blog. I’ll never get that quarter hour back.

  23. A recent issue of the Economist had an article about a different view of sex and evolution that was arguably the result of the scientists being LGBT. They weren’t claiming that LGBT had a different kind of science, just a point of view regarding sex that led them to reconsider its evolutionary biology.

    It’s hard to refute anyone’s claim of inspiration but I could easily imagine straight white male scientists coming up with the same idea. On the other hand, diversity of ideas is helpful to science and that comes from diversity of background, culture, etc.

    1. I see absolutely nothing there that couldn’t come from heterosexual males. What I see is an attempt at an evolutionary explanation which shows homosexuality is “normal”. They suggest that it’s not worth the effort to determine if a partner is of the opposite sex.
      “The cost of the sensory and neurological mechanisms needed to identify another’s sex, and thus permit sex-discriminating mating behaviour, is high.”

      Sounds crazy. e.g. a dog/wolf can instantly identify the opposite sex with virtually no effort at all (sense of smell). I don’t think queer biology (or physics) is going to give us lots of new insights.

      1. I don’t buy that explanation either but it’s probably ok as a testable hypothesis.

        Without getting into the issue too deeply, it seems that sense in which one thing needs more explanation than another is problematic in itself. What is important to someone, or a group of scientists, is mostly a matter of taste or personal choice.

        There could be lots of reasons why homosexuality persists in many species. I’m sure someday we’ll find out why.

  24. This question – “Can perspectives lead to different objective truths?” – has actually become a brain teaser that I enjoy. As of yet, however, I have found no examples (and unfortunately Prescod-Weinstein does not provide any either.) I think the problem is that the idea of ‘different truths’ is always solved by adopting a hypothetically broader perspective. In the classic example of relativity, for example, Observer A and Observer B might, at an individual level, think “Aha! Different locations, different answers – there are different truths!”. When Einstein wrote the whole thing down on paper, however, he took a broader third party perspective that could predict what both Observe A and Observer B would observe. By thinking about them from that bird’s eye view, their truths are part of a single larger equation that still applies equally to all. A very rough and kinda clumsy (because I can’t think of a better one) analogy might be Child A holding one apple and Child B holding three apples, and both of them receiving one additional apple. They could say that math has worked ‘differently’ for each of them, because when Child A completed the equation “+1” they ended up with 2, and Child B ended up with 4. But we understand easily and intuitively that this is because they started out at different spots on the number line to begin with, and that formulaic truths of course depend on what variables you plug into the formula – but the formula itself doesn’t change.

    It is possible that people from different cultures are more likely to frame questions differently and thus come up with different answers. For example, when measuring the size of a flower, maybe someone with a more holistic viewpoint would include the roots and even the surrounding air, while another would not. That said, for that to result in even the mistaken impression of ‘different truths’ means assuming that humans have no way of communicating these perspectives to each other. Instead, if they got different answers, the first thing they would of course do is ask one another “Ok, well, where did you start measuring?”, and the gap would be easily bridged. If there are cultural differences in perception that simply cannot be expressed in language but result in different framings then this may give the impression of ‘different truths’ (albeit just a surface impression, I think,) although one would expect those to be apparent, as different people would appear to be asking the same question and coming up with different answers. This is not the case so far as I know, although I’m certainly not familiar with the world of physics.

    1. In mathematics, some systems have analytic solutions if you use polar coordinates, but do not have analytic solutions with Cartesian coordinates.

      Nor can polar coordinates be translated into Cartesian coordinates or vice versa in a precise fashion due to transcendental numbers and the inability to square the circle.

      Different perspectives do not lead to different objective truths though. Some perspectives do not yield useful results in some contexts, while other perspectives do.

      Verificationism has fallen into disrepute, but it is a nice criterion for determining what questions people can come to an empirical agreement on, and what must be chalked up to world view or dogma.

    1. In fact, the entire idea of “white male science” reminds me, I’m afraid, of “Jewish physics.” Perhaps it is another inadequacy of mine, but when I read a scientific paper, I can’t tell whether the author is white or is male. The same is true of discussion of work in class, the office, or somewhere else. I rather doubt that the non-white, non-male students, friends, and colleagues with whom I work would be much impressed with the doctrine that their thinking and understanding differ from “white male science” because of their “culture or gender and race.” I suspect that “surprise” would not be quite the proper word for their reaction.

      Noam Chomsky, 1995

  25. The creeps and cranks at Pharyngula, and increasingly, Hemant’s Friendly Atheist blog, like this sort of woo.

    Of course, many of them used to be “skeptics”. When I see former “skeptics” parroting this anti-science crankery, the collapse of the skeptic movement all makes sense.

  26. First, rectify any inequality of opportunity starting at the ground—the limited opportunities afforded to minorities by living conditions and poor schooling, themselves byproducts of racism.

    Struggling to understand what this means. We already have HEAD Start which targets disadvantaged minorities, as well federal special education dollars to rectify disabilities. In terms of who is actually going to be a physicist, if you look at Ivy admissions, your Black population (as well as the rest of the minority population) is overwhelmingly from upper and middle income households. Maybe someone yelled the “N” word at them driving by at a gas station, but that’s about it on the physical deprivation. Something can be said for mentoring opportunities, but there are already programs everywhere to do this.

    Second, for the time being practice a form of affirmative action, realizing that diversity in the physics community is an inherent good for several reasons (providing role models to eliminate roadblocks to opportunity, for one).

    I don’t see how affirmative action solves anything. If people have aptitude and ability, people don’t need affirmative action (the same way that if you offer a product or service that people want, the government doesn’t have to order you to buy the product to generate sales).

    If they don’t, and you bring them in for affirmative action reasons, they do lousy work and everyone who doesn’t pretend their work product isn’t lousy gets called a racist and humiliated. You get hypocrisy, and a mis-allocation of labor. You don’t change anything, and once the artificial intervention is removed, it immediately reverts. You just end up with a permanent political lobby who’s job is to pretend bad is good and good is bad to protect a corrupt system of racial nepotism. Which, gee, may be why the article exists in the first place, to legitimate the affirmative action regime against bourgeois saboteurs.

    Ethnic spoils is fine in politics, but if your going to do ethnic nepotism, better to confine to register of probate or city boiler inspector. Bad engineering kills people, and having to pretend that bad scientists are good scientists, and pushing out good scientists, its not going advance science. The last thing physics needs is a bunch of identity politics hacks dependent on racial nepotism attacking non-hacks of the wrong color and/or politics for being “white supremacists”. Better to just bring back to Lyshenkoism for Christ’s sake.

    1. To put it succinctly:

      Premise 1.) Individuals possess objective and (mostly) measurable talents and abilities.

      Premise 2.) There is no reason to suppose that those talents and abilities are distributed equally or in a politically correction fashion among human groups. [The contrary position, the stereotype or generalization that all people are the same in talents and abilities zero no empirical support, even if environment does matter to some degree.]

      3.) To legitimate a politically correct spoils system in employment and college admissions, premise 1 and premise 2 must be attacked.

      A.) Post-modernism and relativism are employed as ideological justifications to attack premise one.

      B.) Charges of racism, sexism, blah, blah, against anyone who suggests that the Blank State is not true (even though our “science” and “skeptic” community must know that the empirical case for Noah’s Ark is stronger than the case for the Blank Slate).

      I think politically, you either have to accept the truth, that social outcomes may not be distributed in accordance with some political ideal, and that attempts to social engineer unleash undesirable consequences (such as the complete abolition of standards), or you embrace relativism, post-modernism and all the -ist denunciations.

      However, to pretend that the only political alternative is that one race will have to lord it over everyone else (“white supremacy”) is disingenuous. Whatever weight you want to give the notion of race, individual differences between members of a given population exceed differences between populations in any event, so I see no logical basis for racial preferences for anyone.

      Instead of making the perfect the enemy the good, we should commit to using existing measures of merit, and finding better objective measures of merit in the distribution of jobs and college admissions.

  27. In the 19th Century it was held that ‘White Mans Knowledge’ (eg Science, objectivity, etc) was not compatible with Females and non-whites because they lacked the mental/physical capacity to do well in it.

    In the 20th Century, this view was rightly challenged and shown time and again to be false.

    In the 21st Century we now ‘know’ that Science, Objectivity, etc. (aka ‘White Mans Knowledge’) is mentally, spiritually and physically incompatible with the Peoples of Color and Gender and should be replaced with ‘Other Ways of Knowing’ (e.g. Magic)

    How the hell is this progress…?!

    1. In the 19th Century it was held that ‘White Mans Knowledge’ (eg Science, objectivity, etc) was not compatible with Females and non-whites because they lacked the mental/physical capacity to do well in it.

      Why did they let W.E.B. Du Bois into Harvard then?

      Morehouse College was founded in 1868. Didn’t they teach the “White Man’s Knowledge”?

      I just don’t think that is an accurate historical assertion, although there were (and still are) individuals which held such views.

    2. “‘White Mans Knowledge’ (eg Science, objectivity, etc)”

      Humanity’s knowledge came from centuries of collected knowledge from many countries with people of many different colors. Due to culture, most of science came from men, but there were also women.

      1. “… from many countries …”

        countries in certain geographic areas – i.e. not the Americas, not Australia, not Papua New Guinea, not sub-Saharan Africa … I think… (obvs. I’m suggesting the Jared Diamond view of Guns, Germs, and Steel)…

  28. Conflating/misunderstanding Relativity with social justice, as she does, just reminds me of all the Deepities that mis-appropriate quantum dynamics terms with quantum consciousness, and ‘uncertainty’ and observer-based reality etc etc.
    The use of technical terms in a lay/lazy/non-discipline context is the province of the shyster (deep, deep, deepak), but for a Physicist to do this is akin to her misusing and confusing ‘theory’ (science) and ‘theory’ (religious fundamentalist/lay person ‘hypothesis’).
    Now I am going to the lab, turn all the lights off, and in the dark I shall discover a new way of sciencing that has thus far been denied my fellow lab-mole colleagues.

  29. “She’s also prolific on Twitter, having tweeted (by my count at 5 a.m.) 132 times in the last 24 hours, thus averaging (with eight hours off) about 8 tweets per hour.”

    I’m a PhD physicist, this paper is crap. What differentiates science from subjects like religion is its universality. There is no such thing as white physics. Apparently she thinks tweeting is an intellectual activity.

  30. Like many others I initially thought this must be a hoax and was shocked that it is not.

    Given that Dr Prescod-Weinstein is a working cosmologist and thus presumably understands the special and general theories of relativity, the absurd misrepresentation of the content and import of these theories in this paper appears to be a straightforward attempt to misuse the authority of her status as a scientist to hoodwink people untrained in physics. This is disreputable and demeans both herself and (the sensible component of) her work.

  31. I thought the origin of the black-white dichotomy was from slavery in the United States – including the travel to Africa to obtain slaves, with black-colored skin.

    1. I think this image from Germany predates the Portuguese slave trade:

      Maybe there were dark-complexioned people in Sub-Saharan Africa since before the emergence of lighter complexioned people in Europe, the Levant and East Asia? [Which would serve as a good marker for the “other” in a European representation of the “foreign” Magi adoring an infant Christ?]

      1. European slavery didn’t introduce Europe to Sub-Saharan African populations serving as slaves. The Arabs were raiding Africa since the 7th Century, and Islamic civilizations like the Ottomans posed an existential threat to the Europeans in the early modern period (so they were very conscious of the Ottoman’s and their institutions being the targets of slavery themselves), and the Ottomans utilized African slaves.

        Here is the BBC survey on Slavery in Islam:

        However, the Islamic slave trade persisted into the 20th Century despite best efforts of the British to suppress it internationally. Fortunately, the BBC assures us it was “less institutionally racist” then the European slave trade.

    2. Insofar as I can tell, slavery has existed throughout most of history and was not predicated on skin color. Study of history points to slavery of whites for whites, whites for blacks, blacks for whites, etc.
      Jews had slavery for which they created laws on how to treat them. Muslims had slaves. Greeks and Romans had slaves from wherever they went. Vikings captured slaves and either used them or sold them all over the known world. There are still forms of slavery in the world in which the “poor” can be enticed to “work” for the “rich” and can be prevented from going home.

  32. “Empiricism” is at most half of the scientific method, which if this person really is a cosmologist, would know (if thought through). What is the empircial content of Hawking’s work on black holes? None at all – black holes go beyond our sense experience. Yet we can understand them by creating (rationalism’s true part) ideas which help us explore what they might be like. We can then fuse with the truth of empiricism – that ideas should be tested – in the notion of an experiment, which is, like all science, both. (An experiment can also be somewhat pragmatist, in the sense one can think through how the chain of influence does get recorded, etc. in a practical way.)

    I note that MIT’s STS program used to (or still does) contain at least one other “former physicist”, Evelyn Fox-Keller, whose work is both modestly interesting and totally off the wall (some of the early pseudofeminist stuff and her use of psychoanalysis to try to understand Schrodinger’s motivation when writing _What is Life?_). I wonder if there is a connection.

    (I have no problem with former-anything going more in the philosophy or STS direction; I do have a problem with loopiness and misrepresentation from people who should know better.)

    1. Although I do not have any systematic investigations, it is my impression – based on supervision of graduate students and working with collaborators of both sexes – that there are significant tendencies in the type of projects chosen by male and female scientists. Women tend to choose projects which are “safe”, using established techniques within the researcher’s “comfort zone” to generate data which is certain to be publishable. Men tend to be more attracted to “high-risk” projects using novel approaches with the possibility of either opening up new areas – or of turning out to be a total waste of time and effort.

      I should emphasize that these are tendencies rather than absolute differences, and that both types of project are worthwhile and both contribute to the advance of scientific knowledge.

      I have no idea how this tendency would apply to groups differentiated on the basis of skin pigmentation.

      1. This was clearly written, thank you. It looks clear to me that [1] it appeals to a general intuition ( i.e. prejudice) about men compared to women, perhaps as might be suggested by experience, movies, or literature, etc. and as such [2] points to a more likely, more complex set of sex-associated factors such as upbringing, year of birth, or family structure.

        That is, the difference cannot be due to sex alone, but only looks that way superficially. The truth is likely more complex, and what’s more, is exceptions are not insignificant.

  33. Our host repeats his defence of Affirmative Action to compensate for historical discrimination. I am curious to know whether students admitted with inferior qualifications from high school – due for example to poor schools or home backgrounds – catch up during the first years of college courses. Specifically, are the grades during the the final 2 years of college similar to the rest of the student body?

    1. Here was an exhaustive study on law students:

      An excerpt:

      The primary impediment to the production of black lawyers is the shortage of highly qualified black students in the pipeline leading toward law school. As we noted earlier, black-white gaps emerge in the
      earliest years of schooling, or even earlier.’- A long-term solution to the
      Affirmative Action in Law School Admissions
      issues investigated here will have to involve closing these gaps, which unfortunately are poorly understood and dismayingly persistent.

      You are not going to close racial gaps unless you close the testing gaps, and those emerge well before secondary school, and perhaps before elementary school. No one has a definitive explanation for why those gaps emerge in the first place, and no one has an effective means of closing them, despite the expenditure of billions of dollars in an attempt to close them. Affirmative action amounts to a band aid at best.

  34. Were we to extend the empirical data to this topic,we would find that Coyne’s call for affirmative action is itself unscientific. The data show that women are just not as interested as men in becoming physicists. So the present disparity may well be an objectively fair outcome.

  35. I noticed a superficial detail:

    “empiricism” sounds like – that is, when spoken – “imperialism”.

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