On “whiteness in physics”, its rebuttal, and a symposium of papers about the dangers of authoritarian control to science

October 20, 2023 • 12:15 pm

In April of last year I posted about the paper below, “Observing whiteness in introductory physics: A case study” (published in Physical Review and Physics Education Research). and I wrote this (tweaked a tiny bit for publication now):

I cannot emphasize enough how bad the paper is. Have a butcher’s [look]. First, read the abstract above, and then have a look here [there was a link to the preliminary version, which is gone now].

The first paragraph sets the tone:

Critical Race Theory names that racism and white supremacy are endemic to all aspects of U.S. society, from employment to schooling to the law [1–7]. We see the outcomes of this in, for example, differential incarceration rates, rates of infection and death in the era of COVID, and police brutality. We also see the outcomes of this in physics.

. . . and in the short incident analyzed at great length in this paper. The entire paper is, in fact, a lengthy and tendentious exegesis of six minutes of observing a presentation by three physics students, seen as “a case of whiteness”:

In this paper, we analyze a case of whiteness as social organization from an introductory physics course at a large public institution in the Western United States. We use the analytic markers from Sec. II to illustrate how whiteness shows up in this context, and we identify and discuss a number of mechanisms of control that co-produce whiteness in the six-minute episode of classroom interaction. We draw on tools of interaction analysis [59], including discourse, gesture, and gaze analysis, to unpack how whiteness is being constituted locally or interactionally. Our hope is that illustrating whiteness as social organization can contribute to readers’ awareness of and vision for disrupting and transforming this social organization in their own contexts [56,60] and support other researchers who want to do similar analyses.

You can read it for yourself by clicking on the screenshot below, and I used it as an example of how “critical studies” was pushing science toward the drain, or at least coopting science for ideological purposes.

Lawrence Krauss also went after the paper on his “Critical Mass” Substack site, saying this:

That this got published in a peer-reviewed physics journal is what makes this so surprising.  It means there is something fundamentally wrong with the system, and it isn’t systemic racism.  It is sheer stupidity combined with lethargy.

The natural tendency of academics, and scientists in particular, is to ignore this kind of nonsense and focus on their own work.   But once the bar gets this low, and the flood waters are rising, you can be certain a lot of nasty effluence will be flowing out as well.    And with the pressing need for better physics education at all levels (that is, better ways to actually teach physics), this garbage filling up journals and taking away precious research resources means that there is less room for the good stuff.

The standards of a field are determined by the practitioners in the field.  That means it is about time that physicists started doing something about it.

But rebuttal on our websites isn’t as powerful as rebuttal in a peer-reviewed journal.  And that has finally happened. Three authors wrote a critique of the article, but of course the original journal wouldn’t even look at it.  They then added to the critique of Robertson’s and Hairston’s paper their own analysis of the difficulties they getting the rebuttal published.

And, mirabile dictu, it’s now published. The author said:

We spent a long time trying to get a critical comment published in the journal to no avail. However, with the help of Anna Krylov we managed to get an article published in European Review, discussing the “whiteness” article, our critique of it, and the journal’s resistance to our critique.

Anna is a real force in pushing back against ideologically-tainted science! And now you can read the rebuttal/recount, published in European Review, for free by clicking on the screenshot below:

And the abstract:

Research framed around issues of diversity and representation in STEM is often controversial. The question of what constitutes a valid critique of such research, or the appropriate manner of airing such a critique, thus has a heavy ideological and political subtext. Here, we outline an attempt to comment on a paper recently published in the research journal Physical Review – Physics Education Research (PRPER). The article in question claimed to find evidence of ‘whiteness’ in introductory physics from analysis of a six-minute video. We argue that even if one accepts the rather tenuous proposition that ‘whiteness’ is sufficiently well defined to observe, the study lacks the proper controls, checks and methodology to allow for confirmation or disconfirmation of the authors’ interpretation of the data. The authors of the whiteness study, however, make the stunning claim that their study cannot be judged by standards common in science. We summarize our written critique and its fate, along with a brief description of its genesis as a response to an article in which senior officers of the American Physical Society (which publishes PRPER) explained that the appropriate venue for addressing issues with the paper at hand is via normal editorial processes.

Read and enjoy!

In fact, this is only one of a bunch of papers in a special issue of the European Review, derived from a symposium in Israel on the dangers of ideology and politics to science.  Here is the screenshot of the contents, and you can see all the papers (and read them) by clicking anywhere below. The title of the issue is right at the top:

I’ll single out three papers of special interest, to me at least.  First, the paper by my Chicago colleague Dorian Abbot at the bottom is about the three “foundational” principles of the University of Chicago, which Dorian calls the “Chicago Trifecta”.  Its abstract:

The purpose of this article is to discuss practical solutions to the threat to free inquiry at universities coming from the illiberal left. Based on my experiences at the University of Chicago, I propose that all universities should adopt and enforce rules requiring that: (1) the university, and any unit of it, cannot take collective positions on social and political issues; (2) faculty hiring and promotion be done solely on the basis of research and teaching merit, with nothing else taken into consideration; and (3) free expression be guaranteed on campus, even if someone claims to be offended, hurt or harmed by it. Faculty need to work together with students, alumni, journalists and politicians to get this done.

Second, the article by Ahmad Mansour points out the dangers of authoritarianism in science using his own tortuous biography, involving growing up in Israel and Palestine, and connecting that with the “cancel culture” of Germany. It resonates with the present situation going on there, and is a courageous article.

Finally, Anna and Jay Tanzman have a piece on how scientific publishing is being corrupted by ideology. The abstract:

The politicization of science – the infusion of ideology into the scientific enterprise – threatens the ability of science to serve humanity. Today, the greatest such threat comes from a set of ideological viewpoints collectively referred to as Critical Social Justice (CSJ). This contribution describes how CSJ has detrimentally affected scientific publishing by means of social engineering, censorship, and the suppression of scholarship.

Just peruse the titles, click here or on the screenshots, and download what you’d like (or read on the screen, which I can’t do). If you think that science is immune to corruption by ideology (and it’s always been, but rarely more than now—except perhaps in the Soviet Union), then you should definitely read all the pieces.

22 thoughts on “On “whiteness in physics”, its rebuttal, and a symposium of papers about the dangers of authoritarian control to science

  1. What a relief – there is some sense in the world.

    BTW this is standard Marxist setup, e.g:

    “I reveal how the doctrine of innocence has operated to maintain White supremacy.”

    Interrogating innocence: “Childhood” as exclusionary social practice
    Julie C Garlen

    Childhood 2019, Vol. 26(1) 54–67, 2018

    Always revealing how “mystified” everything is without them to “reveal” that which is hidden to us under the mystification.

  2. On Dorian Abbot’s idea that nothing but research and teaching should count for hiring and promotion. I was one of nine tenured women in a large research university, back in 1971. There were very substantial “service” demands, which obviously took up time and energy. When the university hired young African-American scholars, the demands on them for mentoring and so on were incredible. Various kinds of service to one’s department, one’s university and the profession do need to count for promotion, even if they can’t make up for inadequacy in a candidate’s record of research and teaching.

  3. I am now enjoying reading Anna Krylov’s paper. Table 1 is a right-on summary that compares how ideologically captured researchers see the science enterprise versus how traditional research sees things.

  4. I’m reading (or trying to read) the original paper because having a concrete example (an analysis of a video from an introductory physics class) would certainly be helpful in understanding what they think the problem of “whiteness in physics” is. I find it hard going, particularly since concepts from CRT constantly have to be explained so the reader can figure out how they’re being applied.

    On the surface, it would look like the authors were complaining that, during a problem-solving session, one student took over, made themselves the center of attention, and this is “whiteness” in action. But of course it’s not that simple. From what I can make out, the bigger concern is that the physics students were more interested in getting the right answer than making sure that a collaborative effort took place, one that was open, free, and acknowledged there are “many ways to understand the heating of water (including those outside of traditional physics).” The use of a diagram itself is suspect.

    …physics values abstractness and disembodiment. The centering of representations, which are abstractions, reflects these values. The abstractness of the representation allows for—in fact, makes natural—abstracted ways of being in relationship with people, normalizing and even rewarding the co-opting or erasing of people’s ideas and experiences, while simultaneously centralizing credit for the influence of those ideas in a dominant other.

    It’s very convenient for the theory that criticisms of the theory is confirmation of the theory, for Whiteness is being centered when people do that.

    1. Race Marxism by James Lindsay would be useful here because it explains the formulation behind all these things, with lots of references and examples. In particular, it shows how [1] sophisticated it is and [2.] explains the magic trick.

    2. Just one more remark on the original paper, which at the end generously clarifies what the authors think a properly non-white physics discussion should look like:

      the (Energy Interaction Diagram) would find a place among many valued ways of sense making toward a shared purpose. Among those valued ways would be experiences and ways of knowing that have not historically been recognized by physics (e.g., Eastern and Indigenous ways of knowing). These ways of knowing would be seen as sources of insight in a pluriversal conversation where many worlds are possible and matter.

      So yes, New Zealand’s MM would be entering the study of physics. And the word “pluriversal” is apparently entering the English language, for my spellcheck knows it not.

      (Incidentally, one of the authors of the paper helpfully describes her position “as a learner and as a white person; in writing this paper, she is sharing her in-progress learning, as someone who is waking up to the world as it is, with gratitude for the support of Friends, Scholars, and Activists of Color.”
      Yes, it is an example of “woke” in the wild, cited by one of the Woke. The term obviously isn’t only used as a pejorative by those who disagree, so that’s nice.)

      1. I like your “‘woke’ in the wild” phrase, and if it quacks like a duck…

        But this that you quoted in a previous post:

        …physics values abstractness and disembodiment. The centering of representations, which are abstractions, reflects these values. The abstractness of the representation allows for—in fact, makes natural—abstracted ways of being in relationship with people, normalizing and even rewarding the co-opting or erasing of people’s ideas and experiences, while simultaneously centralizing credit for the influence of those ideas in a dominant other.

        — Is about a pure a sample of the sort of highfalutin gibberish form the po-mo/post-structural/Critical (whatever) Studies crowd — as one can find.

        It makes my head hurt. Thanks to those who read and critique this crap, struggling in the face of Brandolini’s Law and its First Corollary.

        I finally finished Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls — what reality matter for feminism. It was slow going because it was so painful to read but she has some wonderful passages in that fine book — recommended by Thyroid Plant.

        1. Appreciate that, glad to know Stock’s writing makes sense, or helps think about, these things… etc…

          1. Sorry about the typo in your screen name, Thyroid Planet.

            Kathleen Stock’s book took a long time because I was doing a close reading and she was tackling a maddening topic.

            I’m working my way through through David R. Samson: Our Tribal Future – How to channel our foundational human instincts into a force for good. I was railing about this book and metaphors around virus in a previous post before I chose a ‘nym. DRS is an biological anthropologist, up-and-comer, media appearances, etc. He’s a fan of R. Sapolsky, and related. He paints with a very wide brush, for sure. a lot thought-provoking content — and of course, with his large topics and sweeping assertions, plenty of room for — Hey, what about this (or that or the other)? So a close reading is taking longish, with my response so far ranges from: yeah sure, good point to hey, what about this or that, or seeing an internal contradiction. He neatly disposes of gender/sex folderol in a few well written pages. One clear message: Tribalism trumps truth — disturbing. I’ve not got into his grand assertions as to how We Can Fix Things.

        2. The belief that
          “if a physicist represents physics using abstractions, then they will treat other people as if they were nothing more than abstractions”
          looks strangely similar to
          “if an atheist believes the universe is made up of only matter and energy, then they will treat other people as if they were nothing more than collections of matter and energy.”

  5. Nearly 40 years a go I pursued my B.Sc(Honours) in physics at a New Zealand university. I met various people in that department, several of whom were people of color, and I saw no evidence of racism. My supervisor for a project in low temperature physics was a researcher from Sri Lanka – a decent man, a good friend to me and a fine physicist. He is now a professor at a US university. Eventually, we produced this, among other publications:


    In New Zealand we have seen lots of stuff like the article on whiteness in physics that you mention above and we have become very familiar with the terms “unpack”, “disrupting the system”, “transforming science through indigenization” etc.

    The goals of social justice and the pursuit of equity are entirely reasonable in themselves but is racism true in physics or, for that matter, any other science?

    We hear time and again that racism accounts for low percentages of minorities in faculty appointments but recently I looked at the completion rates of Ph.Ds in New Zealand and found that university faculties appoint minorities such as Maori at about the expected level for those holding a Ph.D. Surprisingly, a greater percentage of Maori are appointed at Senior Lecturer level than the overall percentage holding Ph.Ds. See:


    Let’s have equality by all means, but let’s also run with the facts when we make education policy and science policy and when we engage in academic promotions.

    This one is worth a read:


    It says:

    “For indigenous peoples living in colonial societies, imposed education and health practices have impacted heavily, contributing to intergenerational disparities between settler and indigenous outcomes. In education, routinely health-demoting institutional environments that abuse, alienate and marginalise indigenous students, have undermined learning, wellbeing and thriving (1–4). In the colonial project in Aotearoa New Zealand, European models of education have been among the key mechanisms by which settler culture has undermined indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing, enforcing alien values, beliefs and practices. As Penetito (5) observed:
    The education system has played a crucial role in acculturating Māori children and their families into accepting these [Western] ideals as being right and proper for them (p.90).”

    There is historic truth here, perhaps, but a lot of stuff that is open to debate. Have our institutions abused, alienated and marginalised particular communities – at least since the 1960s?
    David Lillis

  6. Footnote 1 in the above-referenced paper is an impressive example of anti-white racism: We whites are depicted as the evil race, being nothing but a bunch of dominators and excluders, a horde of colonizers and terrorists; so the word “white” isn’t worthy of capitalization in written speech.

    “1: In this paper, in most cases we choose not to capitalize white and do choose to capitalize Black, Hispanic, and Students or People of Color. (The exception is when referring to Critical Whiteness Studies, which is a formal term that is capitalized in the literature.) This choice is informed by critical scholarship and activism, such as that by Dumas and the PoC in PER group. For example, Dumas writes that Black is a “self-determined name of a racialized social group that shares a specific set of histories, cultural processes, and imagined and performed kinships.” White, on the other hand, is a socially constructed category that was created for the purposes of dominance and exclusion; it “does not describe a group with a sense of common experiences or kinship outside of acts of colonization or terror.”

  7. Did you know that the use of whiteboards is a manifestation of white racism? *DUH!*
    (I suppose the authors were immediately “triggered” by the very word, since it contains “white”; so a whiteboard must be a bad thing in itself.)

    “Entangled with the above is the use of whiteboards as a primary pedagogical tool. Though whiteboards have been shown to have a number of affordances when they are used as a collaborative tool that all members have access to, in this episode, they also play a role in reconstituting whiteness as social organization. In particular, whiteboards display written information for public consumption; they draw attention to themselves and in this case support the centering of an abstract representation and the person standing next to it, presenting. They collaborate with white organizational culture, where ideas and experiences gain value (become more central) when written down.” (Robertson & Hairston: Observing whiteness in introductory physics: A case study)

  8. “Second, the article by Ahmad Mansour points out the dangers of authoritarianism in science using his own tortuous biography, involving growing up in Israel and Palestine, and connecting that with the “cancel culture” of Germany. It resonates with the present situation going on there, and is a courageous article.” – J. Coyne

    Mansour is a public figure in Germany known for his outspoken criticism of Islamism and Muslim anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, like Salman Rushdie, he must pay a high price for his courage, viz. his personal freedom, because he has to live under police protection.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *