A long time ago, I predicted that among all academic disciplines, science would be the least likely to become woke. I was wrong. These disciplines, I thought, are wedded to facts and to open discussion as well, so surely they could not all rush to conclusions that were unevidenced. Yes, I was wrong, but I won’t discuss the reasons why I erred. The fact is that as soon as one department or scientific journal drank the Kool-Aid, the others rushed to the trough to imbibe along with them. The result is that nearly all scientific societies and journals (Nature and Science prominent among them), as well as many STEM departments in universities, are rushing to proclaim their virtue, while in the end doing very little to ensure equality of opportunity for Americans.
I of course favor equality of opportunity: a long and arduous project that involves putting effort and money into housing, education, and every aspect of culture that, inherited from the bigotry of the past, holds down minorities. It’s certainly true that the underachievement of “minoritized” groups in the sciences is largely a relic of discrimination—a relic that society (though not necessarily particle physics) has a responsibility to attack. But the woke people in STEM aren’t trying to rectify this by “widening the pipeline.” Instead, they use this kind of logic:
a.) There are “inequities” in science: disproportionally low numbers of individuals from some minority groups in fields like physics and chemistry.
b.) These inequities are evidence for current and ongoing “structural racism” in science.
c.) Therefore, we must root out the present racism endemic in scientific fields.
We all know by now the fallacy of this argument. Inequities now are largely the result of racism in the past, whose legacy remains with us. But to say that current inequities reflect current racism is fallacious (especially for scientists) because, for cultural and historical reasons, the obstacles to entry into scientific fields is simply lower for “privileged” groups—and the desire to do pure science may differ as well. As anybody in the sciences knows, the inequities persist despite years of attempts of schools and fields to recruit minorities. Of course some scientists are racists—every field has its bigots. Science is not 100% purified of bigotry. But to say that such bigotry is currently endemic, rife, and ubiquitous in science is to completely ignore all the efforts scientists have made to recruit minorities.
The equation of inequities with ongoing structural racism is a fallacy that one wouldn’t expect among evidence-adhering scientists, especially in view of the countervailing evidence, but it’s the kind of claim that’s simply taboo to question. But what else are we to do to ensure equality unless we know the causes of inequality?
The new article from Nature below (click on screenshot) makes the familiar argument that a field of science—in this case particle physics—is structurally racist, and that’s why there are fewer doctorates going to women (22%) and underrepresented minorities (7%) than their proportion in the population. To the interviewee, Kétévi Assamagan, this constitutes evidence that the field is not only rife with discrimination, but is also not a meritocracy, for to Assamagan a true meritocracy would have more women and minorities than it does. This claim again requires evidence, but none is given.
The article shows the characteristics of all such articles accusing scientific fields of being hotbeds of racism: not only the equation of inequities with ongoing racism, but the obvious omission of supporting data. Rarely do we see evidence of racism at all beyond assertions, and we never see evidence for systemic racism (or, for that matter, for “implicit bias” as its cause, an assertion that many are now questioning). Instead, we get anecdotes about people who feel “harmed” or disrespected. And sometimes that’s true, but apparently only a small handful of cases of “harm” are sufficient to indict an entire field, and then to call for changes in its standards and practices.
Here’s the article, and remember that it’s from Nature:
The background is that a bunch of American particle physicists engaged in a once-a-decade exercise called “Snowmass,” in which they assess the state of the field and recommend changes. This time, one of the ten topics included was “elevated diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI). Assamagan, a particle physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory and a leader of the community-engagement project, was interviewed by Elizabeth Gibeney. Here are a few Q&As from the interview, which are indented. Things that are flush left are my own comments.
From the introduction:
Nature spoke to Kétévi Assamagan, a particle physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, and co-convenor of the community-engagement frontier, about the DEI recommendations that emerged from the Snowmass process — and why meritocracy in particle physics an illusion.
I question, of course, how illusory the notion of a meritocracy in physics is, but the article makes clear that, according to Assamagan, physics should be a meritocracy—not, as you might think, that we should eliminate the meritocratic aspects of the field to increase minority representation. No, Assamagan says that if physics were a true meritocracy, there would be more more physicists from underrepresented groups. Here’s his claim:
How do you convince people that particle physics is not a meritocracy?
People in the dominant culture think: “I am not a racist, I don’t see racism in my group, so if these people work hard, it will be fine.” But research has shown that there is much more under-representation in our field than meritocracy would suggest.
The culture is not welcoming and the climate is not conducive for some people to be there. Unconscious bias feeds into how people progress and go into senior positions, and how the senior people then maintain that culture. We are not asking for favouritism for any group. We are talking about making the environment and culture work for everybody in the way that it does for the majority.
I am not aware of that research, but in fact I doubt that it exists. How can you actually demonstrate that if there were a true meritocracy, you would have greater representation of minority groups? The only way I can think of would be to show consistent and pervasive racism in promotion, hiring, and publication, so that really good work by minorities gets ignored, and that this brand of ignoring leads to greater inequities. Those data may in fact exist, but I’d like to see them for particle physics. As in most fields, physicists, like evolutionary biologists, are eager to find qualified members of minority groups.
Here’s what one of my colleagues said about this, “Another way to demonstrate racism would be to compare the number of undergraduates interested in particle physics with their representation in PhD and professor positions. I would bet that the underrepresentation starts at level 0 – therefore it is a matter of choice, as interested people simply aren’t there to begin with (rather than they being weeded out by racism”.
He/she added, “Finally there is the issue of culture. Why would a minority individual coming from an underprivileged background be interested in particle physics, a topic he/she was probably never exposed to? Why would the person not want to be a medical doctor or a social worker or a teacher – dealing with things he/she might perceive as urgent? Particle physics is an elitist area, frankly for people distant from the reality of the world.”
Note that Assamagan is saying here that particle physics should be a meritocracy, not that it shouldn’t be because meritocracy causes inequities.
As for the second claim, that’s the claim of structural racism caused by “unconscious bias”. Again, we have a claim with no evidence: that senior physicists unconsciously maintain a racist culture in the field.
Can you give me some examples of how an unwelcoming climate can affect particle physicists?
Someone might ask a female physicist, “Can you bring me some coffee?” Or I could go to my lab and a newly hired white person might ask: “When are you going to clean my room?” It is assumed that people who look like me can only be there to do that kind of work. Police have been called on colleagues because they were in the building where people don’t expect them to be.
These incidents make people really uncomfortable and mean you have to work to demonstrate that you occupy that space because you have the training and ability to be there. People might also say you are a ‘diversity hire’. We as minorities are expected to take all of these things, shrug them off and excel like everyone else.
My colleague added this: “Although I am not in particle physics, I would be shocked if it is common for people to say to a woman ‘are you going to clean my lab?’!
Now I’m not doubting that such incidents may have happened on occasion, but I simply cannot believe that they’re so common that they create an unwelcoming climate. That would suggest that we’ve made no progress towards moral equality since the Jim Crow era. If these things happen all the time, I’d like to know about them. But it’s considered churlish to even ask for evidence. Believe the “lived experience”!
Note, though, that Assamagan does reject the notion of “diversity hires”, which means that he’s also rejecting the notion of hiring that favors members of certain groups—that is, affirmative action. And indeed, he doesn’t even suggest affirmative-action hires or promotions, so I largely agree with his suggestions below for improving the scientific climate for everyone:
What are some of your recommendations for improving the workplace climate and encouraging diversity?
It starts with the application of a code of conduct for everyone — including anti-harassment policies and policies to protect victims when they report issues. Conducting surveys about workplace climate will tell you what your community needs. For example, for people with disabilities, you need to ensure that meetings are arranged with consideration of their needs.
You also need to start engaging with science in schools and building the pipeline — there are minority-serving institutions that have a lot of capacity that particle physics can tap into.
Leadership is also important. One of the papers submitted to Snowmass says there needs to be a cultural change where people are chosen for leadership positions through excellence, and then promote an environment of equity and excellence, for example by getting away from just automatically rewarding privileges such as being from a top university.
I’m not too keen on the endless codes of conduct promulgated in meetings and by departments, one reason being that this assumes that bad conduct is not already subject to supervision and sanctions. Do we really need this kind of policing? Not if particle physics is largely free from sexual or racial harassment.
As for building the pipeline: YES! To me that is the main way to increase diversity in STEM. But it’s a lot harder than just promulgating codes of conduct or requiring candidates for jobs and promotions to submit DEI statements. To Assamagan’s credit, he doesn’t suggest any such form of affirmative action.
The third paragraph above, where he emphasizes choosing leaders through “excellence,” is more evidence that Assamagan really does want a meritocracy in particle physics, but one that takes genuine quality into account, as it should. There is indeed too much emphasis on “elite schools.” (This overrating of schools as a sign of one’s merit is the reason that, when someone asks me where I went to school, I say “near Boston.”) At the U of C, we try to avoid this elitism by concentrating solely on research records. For several years I was on the University of Chicago’s promotion and tenure committee in the Biological Sciences, and was continually impressed by how the meetings were dominated by discussion of research quality. Never once did I hear someone touted because they went to an elite university.
In the end, Assamagan’s article is a mixed bag. The good bits are his insistence on a real meritocracy (that will enrage some of his woke colleagues!), and his lack of insistence on affirmative action. Perhaps he realizes that affirmative action is at odds with the true meritocracy he wants—that’s another truth that nobody dare discuss, much less admit. But Assamagan also implies that particle physics is structurally racist, and that this ongoing racism creates the inequities we see. If that’s true, I’d like to see the evidence.
Why am I concerned with a two-page piece in Nature that, after all, is almost identical to dozens of statements from other areas of science? Because, as I said, to cure a problem you have to correctly diagnose it. It makes a substantial difference if you impute inequities in physics—or any field—mainly to ongoing racism or, alternatively, mainly as a historical relic of racism that has narrowed the opening of the pipelines to success. For the former, you do the fixes that departments are doing now: codes of conduct, affirmative action, DEI statements, and the like. So far, those haven’t worked. For the latter, you concentrate on rebuilding society from the ground up to afford everyone equal opportunity from birth. If you do only the former and don’t concentrate on education and opportunity, the problem of disproportionate representation will need constant policing and tweaking via diversity initiatives. If you do the latter, you have the chance to really solve the problem. And that’s why the last Q&A was this:
How much did physicists get involved with the community-engagement frontier during Snowmass?
Not enough. Very few people participated in community-engagement activities, compared with the big physics areas. All of this research-based work was done by just a few people. People feel they understand the issues and want solutions, but they don’t have a lot of time to devote to it.
It’s the time (and money), Jake!