A bizarre Cornell course about black holes that conflates astronomy and ideology

January 19, 2023 • 11:00 am

I get notices of weird courses like this every day, but this one is special for two reasons. First, it sounds completely off the wall, combining black holes and race. Second, a colleague of mine, Luana Maroja at Williams College, asked an AI bot what the connection between the two areas was, and the bot produced an amusing response.

First, below is the class at the renowned Cornell University, whose description was sent to me by a colleague. It appears to be cross-listed in both COML (comparative literature) and ASTRO (astronomy), though I’m not sure where your course credits go, whether they can apply to the majors, and so on.  The distribution requirements below (LA-AS, ALC-AS, PHS-AS) imply that you can get credit for it in Literature and the Arts, Physical Sciences, and Arts, Literature, and Culture—all in the College of Arts and Sciences. I’m not sure if it really does fulfill a science requirement, but it looks like it.

Realize that I’m not familiar with Cornell’s curriculum requirements for an undergraduate degree, and maybe this course isn’t as bizarre as the description. But remember that course descriptions tend to be fairly accurate, and are written to attract students. Click on the course title to go to the page (the descriptions are identical; it’s just that the course satisfies two different distributions requirements).  

And the same course cross-listed in Astronomy

Here’s the course description and details from the online catalogue:

Course information provided by the Courses of Study 2020-2021.

Conventional wisdom would have it that the “black” in black holes has nothing to do with race. Surely there can be no connection between the cosmos and the idea of racial blackness. Can there? Contemporary Black Studies theorists, artists, fiction writers implicitly and explicitly posit just such a connection. Theorists use astronomy concepts like “black holes” and “event horizons” to interpret the history of race in creative ways, while artists and musicians conjure blackness through cosmological themes and images. Co-taught by professors in Comparative Literature and Astronomy, this course will introduce students to the fundamentals of astronomy concepts through readings in Black Studies. Texts may include works by theorists like Michelle Wright and Denise Ferreira da Silva, authors like Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson, music by Sun Ra, Outkast and Janelle Monáe. Astronomy concepts will include the electromagnetic spectrum, stellar evolution, and general relativity.

When Offered:  Spring.

Distribution Category (LA-AS, ALC-AS, PHS-AS)

Syllabi: none
  •   Regular Academic Session.  Combined with: ASTRO 2034

  • 3 Credits Stdnt Opt
  • 19548 LEC 001
    • MOnline Meeting
    • Feb 8 – May 14, 2021
    • Battaglia, N., Vaziri, P.
  • Instruction Mode: Hybrid-Online and In Person
    This course has two required meeting days.
    Enrollment limited to students who are able to attend in-person classes in the Ithaca area.

In this case the conventional wisdom is right: they’re called “black holes” because they appear black—no light can escape their terrific gravity.  So surely there is no connection between this and race except for the word “black,” but you know that’s enough to drag race into the mixture. This course is clearly part of an attempt to racialize everything, and it sounds like a disaster. Since there’s nothing but a semantic connection between the two areas, it’s probably a poor welding of physics and Black Studies, livened up with the tunes of Sun Ra and Janell Monáe.

It sounds exactly what we used to call a “gut course”, or, in the case of science, “football physics”—a course meant for those who don’t particularly want to learn anything rigorous, but want to have fun and perhaps get an easy “A.” Now of course some offended Cornell person is going to write in and tell me how rigorous the course is, or that I’ve completely misconstrued the contents. To the first beef I’d say, “No it’s not: you’re combining two wholly different and unconnected areas that should not be taught as a single course. You’re also trying to be trendy without rigor.” To the second I’d say, “Well, all I have is the course description, and if I were a student at Cornell who wanted to learn science, I’d run away from this course as fast as I could.” But we always have people to defend any course, no matter how weird it is.

At any rate, Luana decided to ask the ChatGPT about the connection. This is, you know, the AI bot site that students can use to get their essay written by AI. (See here for a NYT article about the bot and the problems it’s causing.) ChatGPT at the link is down at the moment: I’m not sure if it’s active only in the afternoons and evenings, which I’ve heard, or if it’s in abeyance (there are rumors of a lawsuit against it).

At any rate, the question Luana asked is in bold and ChatGPT’s answer is indented below that:

What are black holes and what is the relationship to race

Black holes are extremely dense regions of space that have extremely strong gravitational fields. They are formed when very massive stars die and collapse under the force of their own gravity. Nothing, including light, can escape from inside a black hole’s event horizon, the point of no return.

There is no relationship between black holes and race. Black holes are a scientific concept that is based on the laws of physics, and race is a social construct with no scientific basis. They are not related to each other in any way.

This would seem to make the Cornell course superfluous, wouldn’t it? It also tells us that ChatGPT is somewhat misinformed about “race”, which is not entirely a social construct (see here and here).

Sean Carroll on free will

January 2, 2023 • 11:30 am

Below is a fairly new and short (7 minute) video by the Official Website Physicist® Sean Carroll on free will. As ever, he argues that we do have free will, but it’s a compatibilist form of free will. That is, he accept “physical determinism” as totally underlying our behavior (he means “the laws of physics, which can include purely indeterminate quantum mechanics”), but says that because we cannot predict the future or what we are going to do, the laws of physics aren’t useful in helping us understand or predict our behaviors. The word “determinism” seems to be playing a big role here, conflating prediction with reality, which is why I prefer to use the word “naturalism” now.

As Sean’s said before, his view of “free will” invokes a level different from that involving the laws physics: it’s the fact, as he says, that  “We can talk about human beings as agents making choices, while also agreeing that we don’t violate the laws of physics.” That is, we can’t use those laws to decide what we’ll choose in a restaurant. He argues that each human is a collection of desires, preferences, and values, which are useful in both discussing our behaviors and predicting them, but we’re also  “a collections of neurons and obey laws of physics.” Thus we get the compatibility between physics and “free will”, which of course is not “libertarian” I-could-have-chosen-differently free will.

In that sense, every organism also has free will, although some lack values.

Sean, then, sees his form of free will as an emergent property of neuronal organization and evolution that has given us brains that secrete our behaviors. But he also admits that if we were able to predict perfectly what we would do, then “free will would go away.”

It is that last sentence that lays bare what I see as the problems with Sean’s argument. That’s because one thing is for sure: over the coming decades and centuries, as we learn more about the brain, we will be able to use measures of physics independent of “values and desires” to predict more and more of what we do. Already brain-scan experiments using MRI and similar crude techniques can predict what we will choose (in very simple binary-choice experiments) seven to ten seconds in advance. Does this mean that some of our free will has been taken away? This is a kind of free will destined to disappear when we learn more about science.

I do agree with Sean that we talk as if we have free will, and that we act as if we could have done things differently from what we did. As he says, this is because, “given the actual information you have about yourself, you could have acted differently, because the information you have yourself is wildly incomplete”.  And that is true as well. But what is also true is that, at bottom, what we do does depends completely on the laws of physics, and our actions are “emergent” only in the sense that at bottom they rest on those laws. Any “emergence” of behavior isn’t based on some non-physical phenomenon like “will”; it is simply our inability to presently extrapolate from lower to higher levels. But there’s nothing new happening at those higher levels.

So if we’re talking about everyday paralance, I have no real problem with Sean’s conception of compatibilist free will. But I think he avoids the question that obsesses me, which I’d pose to Sean like this:

“Yes, Sean, we don’t know enough about our constituent particles and cells to make complete predictions about our behavior. But, on the physical level, isn’t it true that we could not have done other than what we did?”

I think he’d have to agree with me, because he sees no form of non-physical “will” that, given an exact rerun of physical circumstances, could somehow change the resulting behavior. Ergo I think Sean overly neglects libertarian free will, which, after all, is the form of free will that most people envision. Indeed, when I debate the issue with friends and acquaintances, they are astounded to hear that they could not have done otherwise, even if we feel we could have. Most people do seem to adhere to a form of nebulous, un-physical “will”. And if you tell them “well, given what you know you could have made a choice but you really couldn’t have,” that wouldn’t satisfy them.

Nor would it satisfy the many religionists who absolutely believe in libertarian free will. If you accept Jesus as your savior because that’s compatible with your feelings and desires, but your choice could actually be predicted if you had perfect knowledge about your body and the universe, I don’t think that Christians would say that this alone will bring you to God! For that turns every Christian into a Calvinist!

I also agree with Sean that “we have a responsibility for what’s going to happen next.” It’s a mistake to think that hard determinists like me don’t agree with the notion of responsibility. I just don’t agree with the concept of moral responsibility, for that form of responsibility rests on whether someone could actually have done otherwise, not on whether someone feels they could have done otherwise.

In the end, I think Sean is evading an important question—the one I raised above. Sure, we feel as if we could have chosen differently because we don’t have enough information to make an accurate prediction, but he doesn’t come to grips at all with the idea that given the laws of physics that underlie our behavior, there is no way we could have chosen differently. With complete information, everything is either predictable, or, if unpredictable, rests on quantum indeterminacy that has nothing to do with our will.

And that makes a ton of difference when you think about crime and punishment and when you take people to task for saying “they could have chosen otherwise”. Much of our legal system depends on an assumption of libertarian free will, not compatibilist free will. Certainly all retributive punishment does. And recognizing this fact can and should create big changes in both our judicial system and how harshly we judge other people.  Under hard determinism, people can be viewed as broken cars. When our car is broken, we don’t think it had a choice, but we do things like repairing it or, if it’s dangerous, taking it off the road. You don’t beat it with a sledgehammer for acting badly in line because its nature was to have a wonky carburetor and and broken transmission.

Recognizing the falsity of libertarian free will also leads to a lessening of self-rebuke. Telling yourself “If I had done X, Y wouldn’t have happened” is useful only in rewiring your brain so you wouldn’t do X again. It is not useful in beating yourself up for behaving in a way that you couldn’t have helped.

I wish Sean would take on the issue in all its fullness. Compatibilist free will is different in important ways from libertarian free will, and those differences have huge consequences. (For those who think that there’s no material difference, remember the surveys in which people who are asked whether we have moral responsibility in a deterministic universe mostly answer “no”.) Well, it’s time that they know that we do live in a deterministic universe. I wish Sean would tell people that we could not have behaved differently, even if we feel we could have!

Again, he’s right when he’s talking about everyday notions, but if at bottom libertarian free will is a total illusion, I wish Sean would say it straight out.

I’m not psychologizing Sean here, but I think the big love of compatibilist free will among philosophers comes from a fear of naturalism and a fear (expressed by Dan Dennett, among others), that if we abandon libertarian free will, as we should do explicitly, society will become totally immoral. In other words, the notion of compatibilism is there to keep us in line.

h/t: Barry

Marilynne Robinson again embarrasses herself with an attempt to harmonize science and theology

December 5, 2022 • 10:45 am

I used to like Marilynne Robinson‘s fiction (she won a Pulitzer for her novel Gilead), but over the years she’s increasingly pushed her Christianity into her fiction and, more notably, into her essays. (See here and here for her rants on “scientism”.) And she is a pious Christian; as Wikipedia notes, she even preaches:

Robinson was raised as a Presbyterian and later became a Congregationalist, worshipping and sometimes preaching at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City. Her Congregationalism, and her interest in the ideas of John Calvin, have been important in her works, including Gilead, which centers on the life and theological concerns of a fictional Congregationalist minister. In an interview with the Church Times in 2012, Robinson said: “I think, if people actually read Calvin, rather than read Max Weber, he would be rebranded. He is a very respectable thinker.”

And now she’s in the New York Review of Books (NYRB). This magazine, under editor Bob Silvers, used to be a paragon of literary thought and quality, but since he died it’s come down in the world—though for some reason it always published Robinson’s lucubrations. In the article below (if it’s paywalled, join free for a short time), Robinson tries to derive a theology from science. She fails, not only because you can’t do that, but because she really doesn’t understand science. It’s embarrassingly bad—”dreadful” is too kind a word!

Not only is it really a sermon, not an essay (it’s full of passages from the Bible), but it’s very poorly written—surprising for a Pulitzer-winning novelist.

Her goal is to “rehabilitate” the antagonism she sees between science and religion. She appears to effect this reconciliation by adducing the wonders of science and evolution as evidence for God, though she spurns the idea of even needing evidence for God (she is of course a believer, but doesn’t need no stinking evidence). She also appears not to understand science.

Her using biological complexity and consciousness as evidence for the Divine comes perilously close to Intelligent Design, though she rejects that idea, too. After all, God doesn’t need to be buttressed with evidence of any sort. But then then proceeds to give that evidence—drawn largely from evolution and quantum mechanics—for many boring pages.

I could quote her at length, but I don’t want to damage your brain.  Here are the first three paragraphs laying out her thesis (bolding is mine):

I have been interested for a long time in theology and also in science. These two brilliant fields of thought have been at odds, supposedly, since the rise of what might be called the modern period, say, beginning in the nineteenth century. For the next one hundred years and more science flourished, applying its model of rationalism to every question, while increasingly religion struggled to find any way to justify its existence in the face of triumphant demystifications of reality. Then an odd thing happened. With one brilliant advance after another, science burst out of the constraints of rationalism and found itself in the terrain of quantum theory, which everyone says no one understands, but which is very robust and has been put to all sorts of practical uses. Rationalism had been choking out religion for generations as it proposed etiologies for the creatures to refute creation myth and ethics for human beings that often ran directly counter to the traditional teachings of religion. For a while nineteenth-century versions of evolution, with sundry determinist implications, survived despite the always more subtle and complex findings in physics, genetics, and other fields.

More recently certain stalwarts of nineteenth-century truth and reason were sure they would at last deliver the death blow to religion. But they lost heart or retired or went to their reward before that mortal blow was struck, if it ever could have been. They may have noticed that science as it advanced did not much resemble their conception of it, but their views never moderated. In the meantime religion was damaged and science was, too, so far as their reputations are concerned. Religion is viewed as ignorant and fear-driven, science as atheistic and arrogant. It is not unusual for people and groups to embrace the harshest characterizations that are made of them, as seems to have happened in this case. This is one more reason why we should speak more generously of one another.

In light of the fact that science and religion are two major pillars of our civilization, it seems there should be some effort at rehabilitation. I haven’t noticed any. Science has felt the consequences of all this in budget cuts and controversies in schools and the refusal of important segments of the population, in critical matters of public health, to accept the views of scientists as offered in good faith. Religion, meanwhile, has been largely overtaken by a belligerency darker and cruder than obscurantism, the very antithesis of theology, whatever it might have to do with faith. At the end of this hard-fought and meaningless struggle nothing was resolved, but there was grave loss on all sides.

First, theology is not a “brilliant field of thought”—not unless you consider embellishing fairy tales a “brilliant” exercise.  My contention is that theology hasn’t “advanced” since the days of Augustine the Hippo (yes, I know the name is a joke). By that I mean that although Biblical exegesis has become less literalistic and more sophisticated, has changed, and has even gotten more “inclusive”, it hasn’t brought us one iota closer towards understanding the nature of God and the divine, much less giving us any evidence for God’s existence or true nature. How could it? It’s all MADE UP STUFF. Science, on the other hand. . . . well, you know what it’s accomplished.

Look at the first paragraph above, where Robinson mentions “etiologies for the creatures” that refuted creationism with rationality. “Etiologies” here means EVOLUTION, but for some reason she doesn’t say that. She’s trying to show off, I guess. In the next sentence, Robinson just gets things wrong:

For a while nineteenth-century versions of evolution, with sundry determinist implications, survived despite the always more subtle and complex findings in physics, genetics, and other fields.

In fact, nineteenth-century versions of evolution became highly modified as our understanding grew, and took a great leap in the 1930s, when the Modern Synthesis fused the young science of genetics with evolution.  I’m not sure what the “sundry determinist implications” are, either.  Evolution is no more deterministic than is physics; that is, it is deterministic save for any truly indeterministic quantum-mechanical influences (perhaps in mutation?), but I don’t think that’s what she’s talking about.  And Robinson is just dead wrong in assuming evolution is less subtle than “physics, genetics, and other fields”, but she’s not even wrong when she says that evolution survived in the face of findings of other fields. In fact, evolution incorporated genetics soon after it was rediscovered in 1900.  Truly, I don’t think Robinson knows what she’s talking about here. What is the sweating writer trying to say?

She’s right in saying in paragraph two that “religion is viewed as ignorant and fear-driven”, though not all religionists are fearful; but if science was damaged by being seen as “atheistic and arrogant”, I haven’t seen it. In fact, as belief in God is waning, public confidence in science is increasing. Below are some data from a 2019 Pew poll. Compare scientists on the top line with “religious leaders” on the bottom. Scientists win!

Science is practiced as an “atheistic” discipline—that is, one that doesn’t need or invoke the supernatural in making explanations—but is it really seen as “arrogant”? It surely is by Robinson, who’s been banging on about “scientism” for years, but if science’s reputation is eroding because of that, well, religion’s is eroding faster.  And nobody is more arrogant than someone like Robinson who strongly believes in the Christian God, and claims to know His nature—without a lick of evidence!  At least scientists can test other scientists’ claims and then show them to be wrong. What would convince Robinson that there was no God, or a god but not the Christian God she worships?

Robinson is, of course, making up a scenario here: there’s no evidence that the public has less trust in science than in religion, and to say that theology isn’t obscurantist is wrong. In fact, Robinson’s whole piece is obscurantist, as is most modern theology (try reading Alvin Plantinga or getting a lucid explanation of why God allows innocent people to suffer physical evil).

Below, Robinson raises the something-rather-than-nothing question to buttress her harmonizing of theology and religion, but then denies that the question constitutes “proof” of God. Again, bolding is mine:

Science has pondered the evolution of the eye as a special problem. In the case of the scallop, that morsel so much a staple of our menus, the emergence of the eye seems to have happened twice—once as a fringe along the shell for ordinary scallop business, and again as two stalks that look straight up so that the creature can find its way back to the shadow of the mangrove forest. This is charming. This is delightful. A courtesy, a solicitude. What an uneconomic deployment of possibility. But that phrase could be applied to humankind, to the whole of creation. After all, why is there something rather than nothing?

First, I didn’t know that scallops evolved eyes twice independently, particularly as two stalks that “help them find their way back to the shadow of the mangrove forest”.  Five minutes on the Internet yielded no verification of this, but I’ll let readers see if she’s right there. What’s more important is her last question: a staple of “sophisticated” theology.  Why is there something rather than nothing? Clearly Robinson thinks that means that there’s something because God wanted something, but this question isn’t evidence for God, much less of her Christian God (see Sean Carroll’s take here). And even if it were, then we would have to ask,  “Well, why is there a God rather than no God?” Theologians will do some fast-stepping there!

But Robinson quickly explains that she doesn’t need no stinkin’ proof of God. I’m wondering why she believes in the first place, then:

If I seem to be proffering a version of intelligent design, I want to make it clear that I reject any argument that presents itself as a proof of God’s existence. I think there is a degree of irreverence in the very idea of proof. At the same time, whether or not His existence is a factor in the nature of the world, there is a glory in creation to which the hyperbolic celebrations of Scripture are uniquely appropriate. The Book of Job describes creation as the moment when “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” In the long final speech from the whirlwind, God names the beasts and the natural forces and luxuriates in their power and strangeness, in overwhelming reply to the questioning of His justice. Granting that this is a difficult teaching to absorb, it can only mean that the world, the cosmos, in its infinite particularity, should be seen as a joy to God Himself. Let us say, therefore, that it is recommended to our attention. And it is not without meaning that we are richly capable of such attention, as the arts and the sciences have demonstrated.

She says she’s not offering proof, but she sure as hell is adducing “evidence”! She just euphemizes “proof” with other words: “let us say that it is recommended to our attention”, and “it is not without meaning that we are richly capable of such attention.”  What she’s saying is that the natural world, and our ability to understand it, points towards God.

I really can’t go on further, as I can’t figure out what the sweating author is trying to say, and her essay is so poorly written that I wonder why the NYRB, once a bastion of good writing, printed it. After all, it’s not a thoughtful analysis of anything, but is simply a sermon couched in what Dan Dennett calls “deepities”.

I’ll just leave you with her quantum woo. She reads into quantum mechanics, which we don’t fully understand nor have a good physical picture of, some divine mystery that also points towards  God. Physicists may be amused by her invoking the observer effect (which I think is pretty much defunct) and other quantum stuff that she incorporates into theology. If this is Sophisticated Thelogy®, it is obscurantist, wordy, and impenetrable.

Popular ideas of God have often been essentially anthropomorphic and have tended to limit their conception of His awareness by a standard of the possible that imagined a vastly heightened but basically humanlike consciousness. Now we know that the nature of things is negotiated moment by moment at the level of quantum indeterminacy, that from a subatomic point of view the clay is still in the potter’s hands. We know that an observer, literal or other, can effect this openness to possibility, can cause the indeterminacy to de-cohere, to become one version of the array of possibilities present in any instance. This underlies what we experience as a great constancy.

. . . Then again, if the hypothesis is correct that time and space emerge from quantum phenomena, which are therefore in some sense prior to them, then I find myself failing to imagine Being that is not spatially or temporally local and yet is generative of these conditions for and of our existence. I find myself thinking of the intuitions of the ancient people that there was a time when the world came into being. In Babylonian mythology the god Marduk slays the goddess Tiamat, a giant, raging serpent. He slices her corpse in two and uses half to form earth, half to form sky. Scholars have claimed to find evidence that a tale like this lies behind the serene, magisterial creation in Genesis. And there are glimpses in the biblical creation of the suppression of a primordial chaos, tohu va-vohu in Hebrew, “without form and void” in English. The prophet Isaiah says God will punish “Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”

In the end, Robinson’s views are risible, and an embarrassment to both her and the NYRB. And to think that she won a Pulitzer Prize before she went off the rails and began writing stuff like this!

How low the NYRB has sunk!

Ideology keeps sticking its nose into science: An essay by Anna Krylov

November 29, 2022 • 9:30 am

Anna Krylov, a professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California (USC), has a fruitful sideline in calling attention to the invasion of science by wokeness—much to the detriment of science. I’ve called attention to one of her papers before—a critique of politicizing science that she managed to get published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal.  And she did an interview that I wrote about here. Since then, we’re coauthors—with a gazillion other “concerned scientists”—on a couple of papers on related topics, but it’s hard getting them published since no regular journal will touch anything perceived as anti-woke.

Anna’s latest piece (click on screenshot below) appeared yesterday at the Heterodox STEM  site, a site worth following if you’re worried about how science is becoming a mere appendage of “progressive” ideology. Anna lived and worked in the USSR until 1991, and draws on her experience, comparing the authoritarian forces that squelched Soviet science in her youth with the authoritarianism of the “progressive” left that afflicts and constrains us now. Here’s the abstract, and then click to read the whole thing:

My everyday experiences as a chemistry professor at an American university in 2021 bring back memories from my school and university time in the USSR. Not good memories—more like Orwellian nightmares. I will compare my past and present experiences to illustrate the following parallels between the USSR and the US today: (i) the atmosphere of fear and self-censorship; (ii) the omnipresence of ideology (focusing on examples from science); (iii) an intolerance of dissenting opinions (i.e., suppression of ideas and people, censorship, and Newspeak); (iv) the use of social engineering to solve real and imagined problems.

A couple of quotes:

Much more dire manifestations of the SJW [social-justice warrior] agenda are subverting research and education, most notably, in the life sciences and medicine [15]. Just as happened in  Soviet Russia, the new ideology is declaring entire disciplines—for example, mathematics—racist [16,17]. There are proposals, some already enacted in Oregon and California, that call to “dismantle white supremacy” in the mathematics classroom. How does white supremacy manifest itself in the classroom? By “the focus [being] on getting the ‘right’ answer” and asking students “to show their work.” Google “equitable math instruction” to see what this is all about. These programs are backed by serious institutions, such as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In California, there is a proposal to do away with advanced math programs in schools. Why? Because they are racist. Why are they racist? Because their demographics do not match the state’s demographics. How can we make math instruction equitable? Instead of raising the quality of education for everyone, the SJW favor the path that socialist regimes—real [18] and dystopian [19]—took: bringing everyone down to the lowest common denominator.

For the same reasons, proficiency tests are being dropped, grading standards lowered [20], standardized tests eliminated [21], and so on.

What will the consequences of such policies be? I think they will be devastating, possibly on the scale of Lysenkoism.

Let’s hope not! At least we’re not yet at the stage where the editors of Nature can kill anti-woke scientists, as the Soviets did to the great geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, who dared stand up to Lysenko’s insane theories. For his honesty, Vavilov was sent to the gulag, where he died.

One more quote:

Now we live in the shadows of Cancel Culture. People are being disinvited and de-platformed. Or dragged through administrative investigations and reviews, which is a form of punishment [27]. Dorian Abbot’s case is a good example [7].

Scientific papers are being retracted or self-retracted. Not because of scientific concerns—but because findings are deemed to be offensive to some. Or because they contradict the dominant narrative. Many examples are from biology [15], but this ideological intrusion is not limited to the life sciences [28-32].

The mechanism of censorship and suppression is different from Soviet Russia. It is not administered by the government, but rather by Twitter vigilantes—by outrage mobs who use social media to call for punishment of those whose views they find  objectionable [28].

But mobs alone would not be able to enforce censorship. In Western democracies, outrage mobs do not burn heretics at the stake, at least not yet [28]. They do not retract papers. They do not cancel seminars. People in positions of power do—university presidents, department chairs, journal editors. Bret Stephens called this “Coward Culture” in his New York Times opinion about Dorian’s case [32].

Sadly, some organizations are institutionalizing censorship.

Here is a recent example [29,30]: The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) issued guidelines to its journal editors to “consider whether or not any content [in a submitted manuscript]… might have the potential to cause offense.” The memos and published policies emphasize that it is the perception of the recipient that determines offense, regardless of author intent.

The RSC gave 15 “indicators” of offensive content, which included content that is “[l]ikely to be upsetting, insulting or objectionable to some or most people.” That covers a lot of ground, doesn’t it?

How does that align with the publisher’s mission to facilitate the communication of high-quality chemistry research? This is a subversion of the institution of science by SJW agenda.

One difference between the “science culture wars” of the Scopes Trial days versus now is that now scientists are complicit in their own muzzling. The ideologization” of science comes from both within the field, including journal editors and funding agencies, and without (social media, of course).

Anna uses lots of good pictures to illustrate her piece, and ends with a Jewish joke at the end that she got from me. Below is one photo of the much-maligned Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s darling. (If you don’t know the story of Lysenko, his rise to power, and his strangulation of Soviet agriculture, which led to the death of millions, at least read the Wikipedia article on him.)

(from paper): Trofim Lysenko speaking in the Kremlin to the Communist Party Leadership (1935). Scientists make mistakes, form incorrect theories, and pursue false hypotheses all the time, but what makes science powerful and credible is its ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. In the USSR, the ideology took control over science, which impeded its ability to self-correct, and resulted in the catastrophe of Lysenkoism. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s Anna’s final paragraph about possible solutions.

What can be done? Here are some ideas. First, speak up. Do not submit to bullies. Refuse to speak Newspeak. If you see that the king is naked—say the king is naked. Second, organize. There is safety in numbers. Organizations such as the Academic Freedom Alliance, Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, and the Heterodox Academy, can provide a platform for action and protection against repercussions [46]. Do your share in defending humanism, democracy, and the liberal Enlightenment.

It all starts—like the New Atheism jump-started an increase in secularism—by saying out loud what the ideologues consider taboo.

Sabine Hossenfelder on consciousness and the collapse of the wave function

November 20, 2022 • 12:10 pm

In the video below, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder deals with the deeply weird nature of quantum mechanics—in this case, can human consciousness cause collapse of the wave function? This is connected with famous experiments like the “double slit experiment” or the Gedankenexperiment of Schrödinger’s cat—scenarios where the apparent outcome of a study depends on whether someone is looking at it and measuring the outcomes. For example, if you let photons from a single source go through two slits in a plate, and don’t observe which slit they go through, they form an interference pattern on a screen on the other side, implying that light is a wave, and is going through both slits at once. But if you put a detector at each slit, observing which one each photon goes through, you now get a mirror of the two-slit pattern on the screen: the photons go through one slit and not both. The results, then,  differ depending on whether you’re looking and measuring. As Wikipedia notes:

The double-slit experiment (and its variations) has become a classic for its clarity in expressing the central puzzles of quantum mechanics. Because it demonstrates the fundamental limitation of the ability of the observer to predict experimental results, Richard Feynman called it “a phenomenon which is impossible […] to explain in any classical way, and which has in it the heart of quantum mechanics. In reality, it contains the only mystery [of quantum mechanics].

This kind of result has deeply troubled physicists for years, for it implies that our own brains somehow influence quantum physics and the behavior of particles. How can that be? As Sabine says, if consciousness can do that, it must have physical effects on reality, which doesn’t seem tenable. (The idea also leads to all kinds of quantum hokum à la Deepakity.) And would the consciousness of a worm suffice? How can the nature of reality depend on whether someone is looking at it? Well, there are many solutions proposed, including the many-worlds hypothesis, but I’ll let you read the book at the bottom to get the full story.

This all derives from a persisting dichotomy in quantum mechanics: is it telling us something about what is real, or only giving us a mathematical analysis that, while it works, doesn’t give us the ability to visualize what’s really going on on the particle level?  Bohr and his famous “Copenhagen interpretation” of QM espoused the latter: the “shut up and calculate” version. Einstein and others believed that there is a fundamental reality to nature that must be graspable by our brains, and is only approximated by quantum mechanics.  Or so I interpret.

At any rate, I found Sabine’s discussion somewhat confusing, mainly because you have to know a bit about quantum mechanics and its history before you can understand her presentation. I did, however, like her dismissal at the end of the video of the Penrose/Hamaroff idea that consciousness doesn’t cause the collapse of the wave function, but rather the opposite: the collapse of the wave function, working on “microtubules”in the brain, is itself responsible for consciousness.  Right now there’s no evidence for this, or for the panpsychism that Hossenfelder also dismisses.


I just finished this book, which is really all about the observer effect and whether quantum mechanics tells us something about what is real in the world. It’s not too hard going, and is a fascinating story going from Heisenberg up to modern disputes about the many-worlds hypothesis. And it’s heavily historical, showing how the charisma and intelligence of Neils Bohr all but shut down the debate for many decades. Of all the books on quantum mechanics that I’ve read, this is the clearest, and the one that best describes the disputes over what QM means. I recommend it highly. Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site.

(h/t Steve)

The Fine Tuning argument for God: a selection of refutations (and a few supporters)

November 19, 2022 • 12:45 pm

Most of you surely know the fine-tuning argument for God: the claim that the physical constants of the Universe are such as to permit the evolution and existence of life (especially H. sapiens), and the concatention of so many salubrious constants is improbable—too coincidental to reflect anything but a Great Designer. (Its proponents claim that any alteration in these constants would make life impossible.)

This hourlong video interviews proponents and opponents of this argument for God (mostly opponents). They include philosophers, physicists, and believers. Here’s a list. Anybody whose name you recognize in the list below, save perhaps (Lennox and Craig) isn’t convinced by the argument.

Sir Roger Penrose
Sean Carroll
Alan Guth
Carlo Rovelli
Hans Halvorson
Justin Something
Chris Hitchcock
Barry Loewer
Graham Priest
Daniel Linford
Tim Maudlin
Simon Saunders
Niayesh Afshordi
Alex Malpass
Kenneth Williford
William Lane Craig
John Lennox
Abhay Ashketar
Lee Smolin
Stav Zalel
Rafael Sorkin

Nearly all the people interviewed reject the argument, largely on the grounds that we simply cannot calculate a priori what the probabilities are of the constants of nature being what they are, and there are alternative explanations for life that are purely naturalistic.

Sean Carroll makes the point that even thinking that there is fine-tuning that allows for the existence of life, that presupposes naturalism, because “God does not need the laws of physics to allow certain physical configurations to exist in order for there to be life. God is infinitely powerful; God can do whatever. The only theory under which the physical conditions need to be exactly right to allow for complex chemical reactions and biology and life and so forth, is naturalism.” I’m not quite sure about that argument, however; how do we know that God’s creation could occur unless the laws of physics were what they are? Could God really create humans in a universe with different physical constants, constants that He determines?

I do recommend watching the video; it gives you plenty of ammunition against those who wield the argument, but examines the argument from various sides, including what theological assumptions go into it. (The problem of evil is offered as a defeater for a God who would create a universe containing humans.) The arguments go further into string theory, multiverses, the cosmological constant, Boltzmann brains, and Lee Smolin’s “cosmological selection” argument for fine-tuning.

In the end, you will likely reject the fine-tuning argument (even the moderator says that there’s no justification for accepting God from this argument), but you’ll also be impressed about how much we still don’t understand about cosmology.

Three awarded Nobel Prize in Physics (and a contest)

October 4, 2022 • 8:00 am

Three physicists working independently, from France, the U.S., and Austria, have nabbed this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for work on quantum entanglement. (Note the international character of the awardees.) All three share equally in the prize, a total of ten million Swedish kroner (about $1.3 million US. It’s not a munificent amount, but the value to one’s career an esteem in inestimable. The winners will henceforth always be designated as “Nobel Laureate [name here].”

What did they win for? Well, you can read about it at either the Nobel press-release site (below) or the NYT article below that; click on either to read. Trigger warning: quantum physics! The award has to do with quantum entanglement, a phenomenon that I can barely understand but that Einstein dismissed as “spooky action at a distance.” Beyond that, even the physicists who wrote me about this don’t fully understand the accomplishment that was honored, for which entanglement is just the starting point.

From the NYT:

A summary from the NYT with a good explanation of entanglement (I’ve put it in bold below):

The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zeilinger on Tuesday for work that has “laid the foundation for a new era of quantum technology,” the Nobel Committee for Physics said.

The scientists have each conducted “groundbreaking experiments using entangled quantum states, where two particles behave like a single unit even when they are separated,” the committee said in a briefing. Their results, it said, cleared the way for “new technology based upon quantum information.”

The laureates’ research builds on the work of John Stewart Bell, a physicist who strove in the 1960s to understand whether particles, having flown too far apart for there to be normal communication between them, can still function in concert, also known as quantum entanglement.

According to quantum mechanics, particles can exist simultaneously in two or more places. They do not take on formal properties until they are measured or observed in some way. By taking measurements of one particle, like its position or “spin,” a change is observed in its partner, no matter how far away it has traveled from its pair.

Working independently, the three laureates did experiments that helped clarify a fundamental claim about quantum entanglement, which concerns the behavior of tiny particles, like electrons, that interacted in the past and then moved apart.

And the accomplishments of the three, also from the NYT:

Dr. Clauser, an American, was the first in 1972. Using duct tape and spare parts at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., he endeavored to measure quantum entanglement by firing thousands of photons in opposite directions to investigate a property known as polarization. When he measured the polarizations of photon pairs, they showed a correlation, proving that a principle called Bell’s inequality had been violated and that the photon pairs were entangled, or acting in concert.

Clauser looks as if he won it for demonstrating the phenomenon of entanglement fifty years ago, but, according to Wikipedia, entanglement of photons was experimentally demonstrated in the year I was born.

The first experiment that verified Einstein’s spooky action at a distance or entanglement was successfully corroborated in a lab by Chien-Shiung Wu and a colleague named I. Shaknov in 1949, and was published on new year’s day in 1950. The result specifically proved the quantum correlations of a pair of photons.

Wu won the Nobel Prize for that, but what was entangled was “parity,” not “polarization” (several aspect of photons’ properties are entangled). But Wu and her colleague’s experiments seem to have demonstrated the violation of Bell’s inequality in 1949.

More from the NYT:

The research was taken up 10 years later by Dr. Aspect, a French scientist, and his team at the University of Paris. And in 1998, Dr. Zeilinger, an Austrian physicist, led another experiment that considered entanglement among three or more particles.

Eva Olsson, a member of the Nobel Committee for Physics, noted that quantum information science had broad implications in areas like secure information transfer and quantum computing.

Quantum information science is a “vibrant and rapidly developing field,” she said. “Its predictions have opened doors to another world, and it has also shaken the very foundation of how we interpret measurements.

The Nobel committee said the three scientists were being honored for their experiments with entangled photons, establishing the violation of Bell inequalities and pioneering quantum information science.

“Being able to manipulate and manage quantum states and all their layers of properties gives us access to tools with unexpected potential,” the committee said in a statement on Twitter.

Two physics mavens who wrote me about this admitted they didn’t fully grasp what the Laureates had shown.

One said this:

Hell. I don’t even understand the title of the physics area of this year’s award. My days are over!

And the other said this:

Whoooosh … right over my head !  I have absolutely no idea what they are talking about!

Readers are welcome to clarify.  But it’s quantum mechanics, Jake, and if you think you understand its physical interpretation, as Feynman said, you don’t. That’s what’s so fascinating about the area. The math seems to absolutely predict what you see, but to translate the mathematical results into language that corresponds to our everyday experience is nearly impossible.

Here’s the one-hour live announcement:

And our contest, based on the failure of readers to guess who would win all the Prizes in a given year. I’m thus restricting the contest to one prize only. To wit:

The Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded early Thursday morning (US time). Who will win it?

The first person who guesses the correct answer and puts it below in a post gets an autographed copy of either WEIT or Faith versus Fact, personalized to their liking and with a cat or other animal of their choosing drawn in it by me, PCC(E).

Put your choices below. The contest closes at 8 pm Eastern US time on Wednesday (tomorrow).

The DART mission: A U.S. spacecraft will hit an asteroid this evening (7:14 EDT), trying to change its orbit

September 26, 2022 • 8:00 am

Note: because I have several items to bring to your attention, the “readers’ wildlife post” will be suspended for today, but will resume tomorrow.

Today—to be precise, at 7:14 p.m. EDT (6:15 Chicago time)—is the day that the DART mission (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) culminates in a NASA spacecraft, launched last November, crashing into a small asteroid in orbit around a longer one. The goal, as my friend Jim Batterson writes below, is to see if humans even have the ability to deflect an asteroid, comet, or any smallish body heading for a collision course with Earth. (This asteroid isn’t on a collision course; this is just a test.) If you want to see the upshot, I recommend going online at least fifteen minutes at the time given above. (Actually, you should be able to see a small image of the asteroids an hour before the crash.) The the news of the mission’s success or failure will take about 45 seconds to reach the earth, as the signal must travel 7 million miles at the speed of light.  The link you want to watch is at the bottom as an embedded YouTube video.

I am absolutely amazed that we can even try to do this, especially because the collision is guided automatically rather than manually (see below) and was calculated precisely using Newtonian physics. And note the asymmetry of the collision: as the Associated Press reported:

“This really is about asteroid deflection, not disruption,” said Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist and mission team leader at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, which is managing the effort. “This isn’t going to blow up the asteroid. It isn’t going to put it into lots of pieces.” Rather, the impact will dig out a crater tens of yards (meters) in size and hurl some 2 million pounds (1 million kilograms) of rocks and dirt into space.

The size of a small vending machine at 1,260 pounds (570 kilograms), the spacecraft will slam into roughly 11 billion pounds (5 billion kilograms) of asteroid. “Sometimes we describe it as running a golf cart into a Great Pyramid,” said Chabot.

Jim “Bat” Batterson is an old college friend who worked for NASA for many years and has kept me informed about the DART mission. He kindly offered to summarize the mission for me, and the indented bit below is what he wrote. Thanks, Bat!

Asteroid Impact Test Mission September 26, 2022 (Impact at 7:14 PM)

Jim Batterson

The DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) is scheduled to be completed today, September 26, 2022, at 7:14 PM EDT. DART is an international space mission led by NASA and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Its mission is carry out the first in situ test of the theory that an asteroid on a collision course with the Earth can be deflected by the momentum of an impacting spacecraft into a new trajectory that will miss Earth.

This test involves spacecraft hitting a near-Earth asteroid that is NOT on a collision path with Earth. The impacting spacecraft has been journeying toward the double asteroid system, Didymos and its moonlet Dimorphos, since its November 2021 launch from Vandenberg AFB in California.  The target, Dimorphus, the smaller of the two asteroids, is about 500 feet across. The impact will occur approximately 7 million miles from Earth, so pictures and data should be available in near real-time.  A smaller companion spacecraft is programmed to miss the asteroid and and to try to photograph the impact.

The path over the past 10 months to a rendezvous millions of miles from Earth has involved yet another extraordinary engineering effort to guide a spacecraft through the perturbing effects of gravity from planets and the varying solar wind in the otherwise benign vacuum of space.

NASA has been following Near-Earth Objects in space for many years to prepare for any genuine predicted impact and to ensure that humans in space are not threatened by these objects.  Part of the NASA research program has also included determining whether redirecting a certain size-class of objects that might be on an Earth-intersecting trajectory—and which could cause catastrophic harm if they were to impact Earth—by hitting the object with a spacecraft while the object is still far away from Earth. The large distance allows a small change in trajectory of the target to result in missing Earth by a wide shot.

While mathematical models and simulations have been very encouraging over the years, DART is the first actual in situ physical test of the theory.  The theory is just simple Newtonian mechanics—much like the strategy of billiards in which a ball is hit into another ball and both balls change speed and direction.  But in the DART experiment, one ball, the asteroid, is 8 million times more massive than the other. This is much like trying to change the trajectory of a bowling ball by impacting it with a grain of sand.  Because the amount of change in direction depends on not just the masses, but rather on the momentum (the product of mass times velocity), the smaller object (the spacecraft) must be moving very fast to impart any significant momentum to the asteroid.  That will be the case tonight as the refrigerator size, 1000 lb. craft will crash into the asteroid at ~15,000 MPH!

The last human input guiding the spacecraft will occur about four hours before scheduled impact. That’s when when the image of the asteroid gets centered in the field of the craft’s onboard digital camera by ground controllers using hydrazine thrusters for orientation.  Because the craft is closing in on the asteroid at about 4 miles per second, and it takes the better part of a minute for a round trip of a radio signal between Earth and the spacecraft, from that point on the DART craft maneuvers totally autonomously using its hydrazine thrusters to keep the target image centered in the camera’s field of view..  We should see pictures taken from that camera during descent as well from a companion spacecraft designed photograph the impact and any post-impact disturbances at and above the surface of the asteroid.

I don’t know if these raw data images will be made available to the public in near real time or only after some image processing.  Any resulting momentum change will be detected by a change in orbit characteristics for the twin asteroid system as calculated from Earth-based observations.

The latest information I have (as of September 25) is that impact should occur at 7:14 PM EDT on Monday, September 26.  The mission is scheduled to be covered live on NASA TV starting at 6:00 PM EDT.  Go to NASA TV at https://www.nasa.gov/nasalive, or just click below [JAC: check the news in case there is any change in time, though I don’t expect one.]



You can see pretty complete background information  at scitech.

Finally, Jim wanted me to give this caveat about what he said, and adds that he welcomes any corrections:

 I think this is pretty close to being correct, but I was more of an airplane/spaceplane guy – not an orbital or outer-space guy. So You might add the caveat that this is from my study of publicly available mission documents, back of the envelope calculations, and general accumulated knowledge of NASA missions in general from a thirty-year career that ended in 2008.  Without peer review I cannot attest to total accuracy, but as you say: I try my best.

JAC: some pictures from the BBC:

The spacecraft zeroes in:

(From NASA):

The relative sizes of the target and projectile:

The expected perturbation of Dimorphos’s orbit. Note the accompanying LICA Cube that will photograph the impact (if it occurs). If there’s no impact, there will be a second chance later as the DART craft returns. The AP notes that “Little Dimorphos completes a lap around big Didymos every 11 hours and 55 minutes. The impact by Dart should shave about 10 minutes off that.”

Here’s a four-minute video about the mission and how scientists will watch the impact and measure its effect:

Finally, a short AP film that starts with November’s launch:

Sabine Hossenfelder disses the multiverse

September 11, 2022 • 10:30 am

In this 17-minute video, physicist and science popularizer Sabine Hossenfelder discusses the concept of the multiverse, one that’s popular with many physicists (and laypeople)—but one, she says, for which there’s no evidence. (It’s also a topic of her latest book; see an excerpt here and get a link to the book below)

Reader Steve sent me the video link with the note (reproduced below with permission), referring to Sean Carroll, who’s an advocate of the multiverse.

The latest from our friend, Sabine. As much as I like and admire Sean Carroll, I am convinced by Sabine’s argument…for now.

I’m putting her new book on my reading list.

The video is pretty clear, so I’ll just give the take-home message briefly.

To Hossenfelder, the problem with mulitverse theories is that they all “Postulate the existence of unobservable entities”.  That is, although the multiverse is an outcome of some mathematical physics, there is no way physicists have found to test it—to make observations that would make its existence more or less likely.  If it ultimately can’t be tested, she says—and I agree—then it can’t be considered a scientific theory. (This is also true of string theory.)  Now we don’t know if somebody in the future will come up with a clever way to see that the universe keeps splitting into more and more universes every time something happens, but until they do, to quote Laplace, “we have no need of that hypothesis.” I’m glad, however, if some physicists are working on a way to test it. However, Hossenfelder says that there is no observation even in principle, that physicists can make to test the existence of the multiverse. That may change. And of course a failure to find ways to detect multiverses does not mean that they do not exist, of course. Like the idea of an unobservable God, we simply can have no confidence in their existence.

Hossenfelder then considers whether the multiverse theory is science, religion, or pseudoscience. She’s already dismissed science, but argues that the theory either pseudoscience or religion, depending on how you use it. One quote:

“If you assume that unobservable universes exist, and write papers about them, then that’s pseudoscience. Because this is exactly what we mean by “pseudoscience”—pretends to be science, but isn’t. If you accept that science doesn’t say anything about the existence of those universes, one way or another, and you just decide to believe in them, then that’s religion. Either way, multiverses are not science—they’re like Tinker Bell, basically: they exist if you believe in them. 

Hossenfelder thinks that the fundamental error that physicists have made is thinking that multiverses exist because they’re an outcome of mathematical physics.  In other words, “The big problem with the multiverse idea is that physicists are confusing mathematics for reality.”

Finally, she takes on four objections to her own view, but dispels all of them.

Adjudicating this argument is above my pay grade, but I do know that no physicist has found a way to test the predictions of multiverse theory. It’s still a theory widely discussed (Sean Carroll talks about it quite often, and I believe it’s discussed with approbation in his 2017 book The Big Picture). But if scientists, after arduous effort, eventually can’t see a way to find evidence to test it, it will eventually disappear as a matter for serious discourse in physics.

Hossenfelder is an excellent presenter of physics, and passionate about her views. The only flaw in her presentation is that she seems a bit nervous—or perhaps she’s just being very serious and passionate.  A more relaxed presentation would be a better one, but not a lot better.

I also like her because, as I discussed exactly two years ago, she’s a hard determinist with respect to free will. She doesn’t seem to be a compatibilist, either, though she does agree with some compatibilists in thinking we shouldn’t worry about our lack of libertarian free will.  But I don’t think she’s dug deeply enough into the consequences of rejecting “naturalism” (my new word for “determinism”. There are serious social implications, notably in the judicial sphere, to rejecting libertarian free will. Below the fold you can see some of what I wrote about her video on free will.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to see a debate between Hossenfelder and Sean Carroll (who’s a bit of a compatibilist) on the multiverse, on free will, or both?  In such a debate both sides would be smart, rational, quick, and, of course, polite. It would be a delight to watch.

Enough—watch this:

Here’s Sabine’s new book (click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site), and you can get a peek inside at that site:

Click on “continue reading” to see some of my discussion of Hossenfelder’s take on free will.

Continue reading “Sabine Hossenfelder disses the multiverse”

Another STEM field, particle physics, gets woke

September 5, 2022 • 11:30 am

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!