Krauss on the universality of science

June 3, 2021 • 9:00 am

Although I’ve severed any personal communication with Lawrence Krauss, I don’t think that someone who did bad stuff should have their ideas or writings completely ignored forever. Ergo, I present this short piece by Krauss that was just published in Quillette (click on screenshot). It emphasizes the universality of science.

By “universal values,” Krauss could mean several things. First, the development of empirical investigation, though it reached full flowering in the West, occurred throughout the world, including China and Arabia, though progress slowed considerably in the latter two places.

Second, what one discovers in science is pretty much independent of your sex, race, or ethnicity.  Now there may be a few exceptions to this dictum. I’ve always thought that progress in understanding sexual selection in evolutionary biology was promoted by female researchers, who emphasized the role of female choice in this subset of natural selection.  But I have to add that Darwin himself, who originated the theory of sexual selection, also emphasized female choice in animals (in his case, preference for male “beauty”). Further, progress in understanding and modeling female choice has been made by many men as well. And that’s about the only perspective where I think a “diverse” panoply of investigators has led to scientific progress based on “viewpoint diversity”. Of course we want diversity in science because to get the best minds, ergo the fullest understanding of the universe, we have to cast our net widely, looking for talented investigators from many places, and of all genders and races.

But that in itself is not a reason to promote diversity in science. Rather, it’s a reason to look for talent everywhere and ensure that everybody has an equal chance to study science from the outset. (The latter, of course, is not the case.)  For, with the possible exception of “female-centric” views of sexual selection, I don’t think there are ways of studying the world that are specific to particular genders or ethnicities. While it’s true that indigenous peoples have hit on folk remedies that have proven useful to the world (aspirin and quinine come to mind), this is really the result of empirical investigation (what plants work to help people?), and has to be confirmed with double-blind studies unique to modern science. If scientists have suppressed indigenous knowledge or the aspirations of minorities because of bigotry, that is not inherent in science itself but is the fault of flawed human beings.

Finally, as emphasized by Krauss and a gazillion other people, truth is truth, wherever it comes from. Just as there are no group-specific “ways of knowing” different from science’s empirical toolkit, there is no “truth” about the universe that is specific to a given group. That last trope, of course, is a staple of postmodernism, which sees scientific truth as the simple outcome of which investigators in science have power.

Krauss emphasizes this by describing a physics seminar scheduled at the University of Oregon and promoted by the Divisional Dean of Social Sciences. The seminar was mysteriously canceled, but here’s the original announcement reproduced by Krauss:

Title: Scientists vs. Science: Race, Gender, and Anti-Intellectualism in Science

Abstract: Black thought can help us free science from the white supremacist traditions of scientists. Scientists vs. Science will use Black feminist and anti-colonialist analyses to show that white supremacy is a total epistemic system that affects even our most “objective” areas of knowledge production. The talk hinges on the development of the concept of white empiricism, which I introduced to give a name to the way that anti-intellectual white supremacy plays a role in physicists’ analysis of when empirical data is important and what counts as empirical data. This white empiricism shapes both Black women’s (and other) experiences in physics and the actual knowledge produced about physics. Until this is understood and addressed directly, systems of domination will continue to play a major role in the practice of physics.

This is nonsense, of course, with the worst part being the notion that the “objectivity” of science is merely a reflection of white supremacy, even in areas like physics (the seminar was, of course, by a physicist, whose name isn’t given). This physicist did one other questionable thing:

I happened to attend another online talk by this individual, in this case a physics seminar. Each slide shown also included a reference to a different racist incident that had happened in the US. Speaking to other colleagues after the seminar, I wasn’t the only one who questioned the appropriateness of this political commentary from beginning to end in a seminar on dark matter, as would I would have equally squirmed had each slide quoted a different lie uttered by Donald Trump when he was President. Yet none of us spoke up at the time to raise any concerns.

In general I object to this fusion of science and politics, whether it be in the classroom or the seminar room. The way I feel about that is expressed at 2:35 in this monologue by Ricky Gervais when he hosted the Golden Globe awards last year.

And this leads to Krauss’s conclusion, somewhat anodyne, that “we need to be more vocal up front in our critical assessment of nonsense emerging in academic science settings.” Well of course! But the seminar above shows how deeply and how well the termites have dined on the edifice of science, and there’s considerable opprobrium attached to even criticizing woke nonsense like that above.  But nevertheless, we will persist.

31 thoughts on “Krauss on the universality of science

  1. Your opening line reminds me of a quote by EM Forster

    “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

    I’m not sure I agree with the quote, but it gives me pause for thought.

  2. I think a confusion arises in the public sphere with the subjective notions that arise from the words “objective” and “truth”. The words sound like – or give the feeling – that there is something that can never be changed with the products of science and mathematics, when in fact Bayes showed the way to update beliefs in light of new evidence. Not many writers make this point – Richard Dawkins briefly touched upon it in the interview the other day, and of course PCC(E) and other commenters here made the very important point of it in the “Other Ways Of Knowing” dialogue with Adam Gopnik.

    Bayesian inference and likelihood give us the way to update belief, and it works – it finds lost sea vessels, improves predictions, guides public health and gives confidence that we are on the right track – especially when there are no obvious signs.

  3. It’s simple to find the source, because the talk’s author references coining of “white empiricism”. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a cosmologist at U of NH and she references white empiricism in this paper: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/704991

    Having read it briefly, I find that it focuses on the practice of science, not the findings. To quote the article: “the central argument of this article is that white empiricism limits who is authorized to make claims about physics and that this is damaging to physics and alters its empirical direction.”

    Historical gatekeeping and privilege is, I would dare say, self-evident in science, and several examples are given in the article. In my own field, eugenics and white supremacy were the dominant mode of thought for ~70 years, with lingering traces still detectable in what research is funded.

    Papers on copper metabolism, for example, as recently as 40 years ago reference presumed racialized differences that we know today don’t exist. Why were those hypotheses focused on; why were the assumptions made? I think it’s reasonable to assume that a field composed almost entirely of white scientists will select certain hypotheses in studying human populations that a more diverse field will not.

    1. I remember reading that paper now, and I wasn’t impressed with the supposed examples of “gatekeeping.” Here are two quotes from that paper about two examples of supposed gatekeeping—string theory and quantum gravity,

      To provide an example of the role that white empiricism plays in physics, I discuss the current debate in string theory about postempiricism, motivated in part by a question: why are string theorists calling for an end to empiricism rather than an end to racial hegemony? I believe the answer is that knowledge production in physics is contingent on the ascribed identities of the physicists. Contingentists focus on top-down social forces, or the contingency associated with laboratory instrumentation; in this way, they challenge any assumption that scientific decision making is purely objective.1 Scientists are also typically monists—believers in the idea that there is only one science—who, rather than feeling burdened to prove there is only one science, expect contingentists to prove that there can be more than one (Soler 2015b). This monist approach to science typically forecloses a closer investigation of how identity and epistemic outcomes intermix.

      . . . For these reasons, the area of quantum gravity, a physics subdiscipline considered by many to be the pinnacle of physics prestige, objectivity, universality, and culturelessness, is a natural starting point for a discussion about how social prestige asymmetries affect epistemic outcomes in physics. Ultimately, the discourse about the quantum gravity model of string theory provides an example of how white supremacist racial prestige asymmetry produces an antiempiricist epistemic practice among physicists, white empiricism. 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.

      In fact, there are plenty of women physicists who work on these exact problems. And frankly, the idea that string theorists have abandoned empiricism (people are looking desperately for ways to test it) is flat wrong, and the comparison of this supposed abandonment of empiricism with the denigration of black women as “competent observers of their own experience” is risible; the latter is a sociopolitical assertion that has no connection with string theory unless you stretch yourself out like Gumby.

      I’d be curious about what your own field is that, you say, has been dominated by eugenics and white supremacy for 7 decades. Would you care to name the field? For if it’s either evolutionary biology or genetics, you’re incorrect.

      1. This person doesn’t even seem to understand what string theory is, nor is the writer aware of how many physicists look denigrate it and its practitioners (somewhat unfairly) because of its currently untestable character. This comparison of that controversy with the notion of “Black women’s standpoint” isn’t even comparing apples and oranges, it’s comparing apples with limericks.

        1. She’s a cosmologist with a Ph.D. from the prestigious Perimeter Institute, where she worked on quantum gravity, and with post-doctoral fellowships at NASA and M.I.T. I’m pretty sure she understands string theory well enough. Also, I’m sure she’s aware of criticisms of string theory, given that her Ph.D. supervisor was Lee Smolin, one of the more prominent critics of string theory.

          1. I did say “seem”. Based on the quote, which is almost certainly not representative of her knowledge and abilities, she doesn’t SEEM to understand it. Perhaps (I suspect) she’s being a bit disingenuous, or betraying a personal bias that’s leading her to give a strawman impression of string theory. I don’t know her work other than this quote. Her degree, her fellowships, and even her advisor don’t absolve her from responsibility for saying things that are incoherent or at least rather misleading. Maybe she’s just not making herself clear, which is certainly possible, in which case I apologize in spirit; clarity is not always easy. Maybe she’s pulling a Sokal style hoax that will be revealed in due time. I don’t know. But I stand by the “apples and limericks” point. The logic of combining the two concepts she brings together is so tortured that it’s gone mad from the pain.

      2. Since no response from c0nc0rdance; there is the same name on Twitter as “Molecular biologist”,

    2. That article you link to seems to be mostly an attempt to make out that writing stuff like that is scholarly.

      E.g.: “Given that Black women must, according to Einstein’s principle of covariance, have an equal claim to objectivity …” (That’s what you’d write if you were trying a Sokal-style hoax.)

      1. That sentence really jumped out at me.

        [I could not understand most of the article but a lot of that is due to my inability to comprehend philosophical terms.]

    3. I would agree that string theory has abandoned empirical criteria of success—anyone in any doubt should read Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong, Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics, Jim Baggott’s Farewell to Reality, or Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math. The proliferation of models for the vacuum state of the universe in string theory—at one point there were known to be on the order 5×10^{100} such possibilities, but now I gather there are vastly more—has been met not by a reassessment of the theory, such as it is, but rather the ‘string landscape’, a framework that posits that all of those vacuum states are possible possible universes which may exist inaccessibly from each other, leading to the crazy pseudo-scientific cult of the ‘multiverse’. The philosopher of science (and ex-physicist) Richard Dawid has explicitly defended nonempirical modes of verification (or as he call the idea, the ‘post-empirical theory of verification’; see Woit’s post at https://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=7005 for an excellent summary and discussion of the slippery slope towards—dare I say it?—’other ways of knowing’ that this blog has relentlessly critiqued. Richard Feynman and Sheldon Glashow are only two of the eminent physicists who have commented on string theory’s abandonment of the most tried-and-true methods of physics. As Feynman famously observed, ‘String theorists don’t make predictions, they make excuses’.

      But that has nothing, so far as I can tell, with a ‘white supremacist’ epistemology or research ethic. There are many minority practitioners of string theory and plenty of white critics of it. This whole line of argument strikes me as a ludicrous stretch.

    4. Sampling convenience and statistical naivety are more reasonable explanations for poor population sampling now and 30 years ago. Eugenics pretty much had a stake driven in its heart post 1945 and although practitioners may have lingered for decades, they have retired and died a generation or more ago. Nowadays any researcher working in any human related field begins with the axiomatic assumption that populational differences are due to environmental differences, and any challenge to the axiom, even in the face of contradictory evidence, is seen as nefarious.

  4. A while back I looked up that seminar speaker’s record in actual science, and it seemed sufficiently meagre that the only way they would have an academic career is through ticking various “diversity” boxes and by being an “activist”.

    1. I was curious so I looked too. It’s a very unusual research record. PhD in 2011, but the last published article from that PhD work was in 2009. Then zero published research until 2015. That gap seems to include several years of postdoc work at the Goddard Spaceflight Centre, MIT, and the University of Washington.

      There is lots of what looks like serious physics in there (plus all the activism and fluff). But it is hard to understand how one could earn a faculty position after such a long dry spell of producing no new knowledge during the postdoc research years. My department would not interview (much less hire) a job candidate with that record because doing so would be considered unfair to the other queer Black women who also applied for the job but had actually been doing productive research. Maybe things work differently in physics?

      1. Dr Prescod-Weinstein holds a joint appointment in the Physics Department and the Women’s Studies Department at UNH. So, I think the latter provides cover for her apparent lack of productivity. I think she’s a very smart and capable physicist, but her interest in doing physics seems to be largely overshadowed by her mission to decolonize physics.

        That’s her choice, of course. But I’ve seen her complain that she has to work a thousand times harder to write a paper than your average white male physicist. I think she misidentifies the problem; it takes her much longer to write than her peers, but that’s because she spends most of her time tweeting, or writing articles for Medium or Salon, or authoring her book, or trying to get the James Webb Space Telescope renamed. I imagine she views it unfair that the rest of the physics community doesn’t do this work, and therefore has more time to do the science.

        It’s as if one contestant in the 100m dash decides to juggle while running, and then complains that the race is unfair because the other competitors are not similarly distracted.

      2. It’s a very unusual research record.

        What’s unusual about it? There are huge swathes of science where you never get to publish. If your work is commercially confidential, then for you to publish would destroy your career.

        1. Ah, yes—but she’s not doing anything remotely close to commercially exploitable. What she has is a large percentage of papers on arxiv, and a few joint papers in Physical Review D, including one with her thesis coadvisor at Perimeter, Lee Smolin, who is a seriously major player. In most hard science departments, anyone who aspires to get promoted with tenure had better have a long string of ‘home run’ contributions to Physical Review and other top journals, along with some very heavily cited arxiv preprints (this actually does work, but you better be damned good: Juan Maldacena, already tenured at Harvard, put up his discovery of the AdS/CFT—the so called ‘holographic’—correspondence on arxiv in 1998, and largely on the strength of that paper—which has at this point had more than 80,000 citations in the actual literature of the field—was promoted to Full in 1999. Full Prof at Harvard, three years out from his Ph.D.) Just on the basis of her record, and who she’s competing against in the field, it’s hard for me to imagine her getting tenured on the merits of her scientific record of actual citable discovery.

        2. Sure lots of scientists don’t publish their commercially valuable IP. I’m not saying anything about those other areas of research with commercial applications.

          But in a basic research field, it’s very unusual for someone to do 5 or 6 years of postdoc work, publish no papers or book chapters during that period, and then get a tenure-track job. Some postdocs do fail to thrive in that way, and most of those who don’t thrive get out of academics and go on to a different career (sometimes a very successful one). No knock against her, it’s just very unusual to succeed after such a long dry spell.

          1. Exactly. And there are legions of other postdocs in physics who are going to have been far more productive, many in HEP/QGrav with solo articles in the elite journals, who also were eligible for that job. Just saying….

  5. what one discovers in science is pretty much independent of your sex, race, or ethnicity. Now there may be a few exceptions to this dictum. I’ve always thought that progress in understanding sexual selection in evolutionary biology was promoted by female researchers, who emphasized the role of female choice in this subset of natural selection.

    I tend to think of it as: what we find may be independent of these things, but what science we do is often dependent on them. Which could – and probably has – led to weird skews in our knowledge base. That different backgrounds and personal experiences may lead different people to want to do science on different subjects is IMO a solid justification on it’s own for promoting diversity in science. We don’t need the far-left’s postmodern ideas about other ways of knowing to justify diversity in the research community.

  6. I agree with Jerry: “what one discovers in science is pretty much independent of your sex, race, or ethnicity”.
    Personal values and ideology may influence what scientists study, and in the social sciences often the conclusions as well – because in the social sciences scientists often cannot run controlled experiments. and need to use observational data instead (and in the face of the possibly remaining ambiguity social scientists often champion the ideologically convenient explanation out of those hypothesis that are not rejected by the data).
    But ultimately it’s the social organization of science (everybody should be able to enter the fray, focus on arguments & data not people, their status, replicability, etc.) that warrants our trust in science – that is why airplanes usually stay in the air for the planned durations of their flight, why we have the covid vaccines, etc.

  7. I’m philosophically inclined to accept Naturalism – the idea that the natural sciences can provide a complete or exhaustive account of reality.

    Imagine drawing a circle around reality (it’s a big place). Most of what goes on in reality is a simple interplay of forces. Now imagine a much smaller dotted circle way off to one side of the big circle. This is the ‘human world’. It is still deterministic but within that circle there are strange eddies of past and current events, often hidden from the humans in the ‘human world’ and even more lost against the indifference of reality. Some people only see the eddies within the ‘human world’ and think that they are supremely important. Other people peer through the gaps in the smaller dotted circle and try and find ‘regularities’ and realise that the eddies are ephemeral.

    Science tries to find new knowledge in reality and proposes explanations. People only concerned with the human world try re-organise existing ephemera into more pleasing patterns.

    There is still no magic.

  8. One of the most typical expressions of postmodernist antiscientism is the cringeworthy use of the plural form of “knowledge”—”knowledges”. According to wokeism and its epistemic relativism, there is no knowledge simpliciter, because there are only different “knowledges” had by different sociocultural groups; and there is no epistemically superior vantage point from which those “knowledges” can be assessed and criticized objectively. So, for example, the “knowledge” of shamans is no less epistemically valid than the knowledge of scientists, which means that scientists criticizing shamans are doing “epistemic injustice” or even “epistemic violence” to them and must be condemned for doing so.

  9. In physics there are indeed some people who are both first-rate scientists and tick the right diversity boxes. But there are not that many, and they tend to get snapped up by the most prestigious universities. Thus, universities a bit down the pecking order have to decide which they want: scientific excellence or diversity boxes ticked?

  10. “Second, what one discovers in science is pretty much independent of your sex, race, or ethnicity.”
    The two things that seem to be relevant for me:
    1. In sciences that are close to human experience, having different perspectives might be better for hypothesis generation. Having a lived experience that gives insight into biology or psychology makes far more sense than it applying for physics.
    2. Any hypothesis once generated can be played against the evidence, so even if any of those factors are integral to the formulation of a hypothesis, the processes of verification and falsification in science remain the same.

    I think the main problem with the rhetoric around this is the takeaway is often that science is merely one story of how the world goes, and one that excludes the deep cultural history of most of the world. Indeed, it downright contradicts what most believe and have believed for millennia, and that puts science on a pedestal beyond other “ways of knowing”. The danger is the same danger as those religious believers that cry “scientism” at a science that doesn’t have God in it, and use the philosophical nuances around the demarcation problem as a justification for keeping God as part of the picture. It’s not about getting a better understanding of the world, but trying to stake a place for a non-scientific view to be part of the story we tell about who we are and where we come from.

  11. The central problem with current woke postmodernism is that its proponents fail do see how their own field of study and interpretations of reality are themselves prime examples of the types of preconception-, zeitgeist-, interest- and/or power-structure driven subjectivity in supposedly objective academia that the 1960s postmodernists or philosophers of science like Thomas Kuhn pointed to.

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