I’ve been critical of the papers and views of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an American cosmologist and particle physicist at the University of New Hampshire, with appointments in both physics and gender studies. You can see some of my critiques here, here and here, but my most severe criticism involved the paper below, published in the University of Chicago journal Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Click on the screenshot to see it, or get the pdf here.
The paper’s thesis was that black women (more than black men; it’s intersectional) face huge bigotry in physics which keeps them not only out of the field, but also from contributing to the canon of knowledge in the field. The bigotry supposedly reflects the hegemony that knowledge claims in physics reflect a “white spistemology”, and that soon after black women enter the field in substantial numbers, our ways of doing physics, as well as what we learn, will change dramatically. Here’s the paper’s abstract:
In this article I take on the question of how the exclusion of Black American women from physics impacts physics epistemologies, and I highlight the dynamic relationship between this exclusion and the struggle for women to reconcile “Black woman” with “physicist.” I describe the phenomenon where white epistemic claims about science—which are not rooted in empirical evidence—receive more credence and attention than Black women’s epistemic claims about their own lives. To develop this idea, I apply an intersectional analysis to Joseph Martin’s concept of prestige asymmetry in physics, developing the concept of white empiricism to discuss the impact that Black women’s exclusion has had on physics epistemology. By considering the essentialization of racism and sexism alongside the social construction of ascribed identities, I assess the way Black women physicists self-construct as scientists and the subsequent impact of epistemic outcomes on the science itself.
I won’t go through that word by word; you can see the problems.
This paragraph from the paper sums up its repeated conflation between physics and social justice. I’ve bolded an especially bizarre part:
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). The gender imbalance between Black women and Black men is less severe than in many professions, but the disparity remains (National Science Foundation 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.
Remember this statement, as it will be examined again by Alan Sokal (below).
I wrote this about that:
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 and with equal claims to objectivity, 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.
Here’s another quote from Prescod-Weinstein arguing not only about pervasive and pernicious forms of racism exist in physics, but that admitting more black women might well get rid of the doldrums that string theory finds itself in:
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. It is reflected in string theorists’ ability to actively argue for continued investment in their ideas via funding and faculty hiring while at the same time Black people—particle physicists or not—are often considered to be making controversial or “evidently wrong” statements about racism.
And my take on that:
These statements, particularly the last one, show 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.
Well, I didn’t have much space to do a complete analysis, but Alan Sokal, mathematician at University College London and famous (and infamous) for his Social Text hoax, has done a thorough critique of the same paper in Peter Singer et al.’s new venue, The Journal of Controversial Ideas. (This journal is where a bunch of us published published our paper “In Defense of Merit in Science,” and I predict that the journal will increase in quality and visibility as authors objecting to au courant nonsense, mostly of the Leftist social-justice variety, place there papers there, for woke journals will not accept “controversial” and often antiwoke discourse. Sokal, by the way, has a whole history of debunking nonsense, as in his book with Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science.)
At any rate, in the journal Sokal has a long and devastating takedown of Prescod-Weinstein’s “White Empiricism” paper, and you can see it by clicking on the screenshot below (you can find the pdf here):
Sokal first notes the wide approbation the paper got, but with a footnote that I (along with John McWhorter!) was one of only two people who actually criticized it:
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s article, “Making Black women scientists under white empiricism: The racialization of epistemology in physics” (Prescod-Weinstein 2020), has been widely cited and praised. It is #56 in the Altmetric ranking of the Top 100 Most Discussed scholarly articles for 2020.It has been cited 37 times in the scholarly literature – including 14 citations in the Science Education literature – all of them completely uncritically.(footnoter 2). There has not, to my knowledge, been any detailed engagement with the content of the article’s reasoning.
And footnote 2, just to be self-aggrandizing:
2. Web of Science as of 1 March 2023. I have checked all 37 articles (except one to which I was unable to get access), and none of them contains even the slightest critical commentary on, or critical analysis of, the reasoning in Prescod-Weinstein (2020). The only critical citations of which I am aware are a blog by biologist Jerry Coyne (2019) and a brief comment in the book of linguist John McWhorter (2021, 109–110). Google Scholar, which has a wider scope than the Web of Science, shows 90 scholarly citations as of March 2023.
Enough bragging: where else can one criticize such a paper except on a website? (Surel the journal would reject criticism!). This is why The Journal of Controversial Ideas is so essential.
I don’t want to summarize the entire critique of Sokal, as it’s very detailed and you can read the paper itself, which is straightforward, clear, and sometimes funny. Sokal avoids any nasty or ad feminam remarks, though in my view he bends over backwards too far trying to find merit in Prescod-Weinstein’s thesis. (Well, my Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin told me that a good critique involves “giving with one hand and taking with the other”, so Sokal’s method is probably more efficacious than mine.)
Here’s his own preface and rationale:
There has not, to my knowledge, been any detailed engagement with the content of the article’s reasoning.
That detailed engagement is the purpose of the present article. I will argue that the reasoning, both scientific and philosophical, in Prescod-Weinstein (2020) is deeply flawed. I will also argue that the article’s main contention – that “race and ethnicity impact epistemic outcomes in physics” – is valid, if at all, only in an extremely limited sense. I will finally argue that the flawed reasoning in this article, together with its uncritical acceptance in many progressive educational circles, threaten to have negative practical consequences both for science and for science education, and in particular for the goal of attracting more women and Black people (and especially Black women) to scientific careers. For all these reasons, I believe it is of some value that the reasoning in this article be openly and rigorously debated
I can give but a flavor of Sokal’s article through quotes (but again, there’s no substitute for reading the paper).
Regarding the conflation between Einstein’s theory and the neglect of black women as objective observers, Sokal says this (see paragraph above):
The first step in this reasoning is the elision between “frame of reference” in physics and “observer”. This elision is common in expository accounts of special relativity, beginning with Einstein’s original paper (Einstein 1905); the elision is harmless provided that one understands that the “observer” need not be a human, but could well be a machine (and in contemporary experimental physics most often is). What is relevant in relativity is not the identity of the “observer”, but rather its state of motion. Discussions of special relativity (especially in textbooks) refer frequently to the “earth frame of reference” or the “train frame of reference”; it is irrelevant whether the “observer” (if any) located on the ground or the train is a white man, a Black woman, or an automated particle detector.
Secondly, in general relativity (Einstein 1915) the relevant concept is general covariance, i.e. the covariance of the equations under arbitrary smooth changes of coordinates. It is dubious whether most of these coordinate systems can be associated in any sensible way to “observers”.
But the fundamental and glaring flaw in this passage is, once again, the series of elisions from physics to social epistemology. In the first sentence, “there is no single objective frame of reference that is more objective than any other”, the second use of the word “objective” is not wrong – the accounts of a particle collision from the earth frame of reference and the train frame of reference are indeed equally objective – but it paves the way for a more tendentious interpretation of this word in what follows. The second sentence, “all frames of reference, all observers, are equally competent”, explicitly elides “frames of reference” to “observers”, and then introduces the new adjective “competent”: an adjective that would be bizarre for describing a frame of reference (earth or train) or an automated particle detector; it can now only be intended to refer to a human observer, contrary to the meaning of “frame of reference” in physics. The conclusion, “Black women must, according to Einstein’s principle of covariance, have an equal claim to objectivity”, is then a pure non sequitur: Einstein’s principle of covariance says nothing whatsoever about any humans’ claims to objectivity. Indeed, Einstein’s principle of covariance says nothing whatsoever about any human social issues. But – it goes without saying – one doesn’t need general relativity to argue that all humans, regardless of race or sex, are potentially capable of doing physics, with their work being evaluated on its merits.
This is of course a far better and clearer analysis than mine.
Below is Sokal’s reaction to Prescod-Weinstein’s claim that native Hawaiian opposition to constructing the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, reflects a pushback against “White Empiricism” by indigenous “ways of knowing”—in this case the native Hawaiian system of ethics, land use, and religion/spirituality. I’ve bolded one sentence I love:
But one thing should be clear: nothing is gained by mixing these ethical, political and legal debates with flawed philosophical and scientific arguments. Whatever can be said in favor of the “cultural knowledge” of the Indigenous Hawaiian communities – and undoubtedly much can be – that knowledge certainly cannot compete with modern science in the domain of astronomy and cosmology. To point this out is not to engage in cultural arrogance; it is simply to state facts. No premodern belief system – whether Western (e.g. fundamentalist Christianity) or non-Western– can compete with modern science as an account of reality. Indeed, even modern science 100 years ago – after the development of general relativity (1915) but before the modern understanding of galaxies (1920s), the discovery of the expansion of the universe (1930s), of the cosmic microwave background radiation (1965), and of the accelerated expansion of of the universe (1998) – is vastly inferior to our present-day understanding of cosmology.
One more quote on Prescod-Weinstein’s claim that black feminist theory can change the content of physics knowledge (and the ethnicity of physicists):
Finally, what about the more ambitious claim, made by Prescod-Weinstein in her conclusion, that “Black feminist theory intersectionality should change physics – and not just through who becomes a physicist but through the actual outcomes of what we come to know”? Alas, this claim is simply plucked out of the blue in the conclusion; not the slightest argument or evidence is provided, in the body of the article, that Black feminist theory, or indeed any feminist theory, has had or will have any consequences for the content of physics. And why on earth should it? The subject matter of feminist theory is human relations; it is very remote from the subject matter of physics. The relation between the two subject matters could be, at best, one of distant analogy. In fact, Prescod-Weinstein concedes that, despite four decades of trying, feminist ideas have not yet had any significant effect on the substantive content of physics (Schiebinger 1999, 178–179; Rolin 1999; Bug 2003). The claim that feminist theory (intersectional or otherwise) will in the future change the content of physics – and not merely the social structure of the physic community – is nothing more than a promissory note, unbacked by any assets.
At the end, Sokal asks why on earth should we care about critiquing a slight and deeply misguided paper conflating science and social justice? Because, he says, it has three bad side effects. The first is that it will “engender sloppy thinking”, promoting the idea that it’s okay to reject sound reasoning if its conclusions are not “politically congenial.” (This is a point that Luana and I made in our paper on the ideological subversion of biology, and it was also made by Orwell in his famous and essential essay on “Politics and the English Language“.) Second, the sources cited by Prescod-Weinstein often don’t say what she says they do, and this again reflects sloppy thinking as well as a tendency of social-justice advocates to support their arguments with either flawed data or other people’s misguided arguments. Most important, Sokal argues that Prescod-Weinstein’s repeated assertion that physics is strongly and systemically racist may well discourage black students from going into physics:
Beyond the purely intellectual flaws of half-baked philosophies of science, these “antiracist” screeds may also have a negative practical effect: namely, discouraging some talented Black students from entering or remaining in physics. Obviously, any exaggerated portrayal of racism in a particular community is likely to deter Black students from entering such a purportedly inhospitable environment.
When all is said and done, Prescod-Weinstein (2020) does contain some correct claims, even if they are correct only in a very limited way and are anyway not novel.
As I said, I think Sokal’s paper is an excellent critique, marred only slightly (and perhaps not at all) by Sokal’s bending over backwards to be charitable to Prescod-Weinstein. But he’s adhering to Dan Dennett’s tactic that if you’re going to take down a paper, first try to see what merit there really is in the paper’s arguments, and lay that merit out. That is supposed to give your own views more credibility, and it probably does.
It seem, at least for me, that Prescod-Weinstein’s paper has very little merit, if any. Her claim of widespread and strong racism in physics is not supported, and neither is her view that the presence of not just black people, but black women in science will cause a sea change, expanding our knowledge of the universe and, perhaps, finally allowing us progress in seeing if string theory is true. Yes, more diverse people in physic—increasing “viewpoint diversity”—will certainly expand the way physicists approach problems, but Prescod-Weinstein’s argument that the important diversity is black women espousing intersectional feminism has no support.
It is shameful that such a misguided paper has accrued so much uncritical support. The widespread citation and approbation for the paper surely reflects the inability of people to think rationally about arguments when they involve ideology, and also the tendency of people to not look too hard at arguments that are politically congenial. The paper is a good example of the ideological erosion of physics.
h/t: Alan Sokal, for calling my attention to his paper