Is “white empiricism” hindering physics?


My ears always perk up when I hear the claim that there are special ways of doing science (“ways of knowing” if you will), that are practiced by different groups, and that the nature of science would be different, and better, if these groups are included in science.  There is a modicum of truth in this. Nobody denies that, in the past, oppressed people—women, minorities, and so on—have not been given the same opportunities to enter science as, say, white men. And I can think of at least one case in which the interests of different groups, by being different, have enriched science. (I think that the presence of women in evolutionary biology, for example, could have prompted the increasing emphasis on female choice in “Darwinian” sexual selection, though of course males have also done pioneering work in that area and my contention is aguable.)

But in general, though social conditioning may affect which problems one attacks, I don’t think there are special ways of doing science, nor in general do different groups of people practice science in different ways.  I advocate for open access and equal opportunity for all people, but I do that because I see it as immoral to block access to careers for different groups, and also because the more minds that have access to science, the faster science will progress. When women were kept from doing science over the past few centuries, we effectively lost half of the pool of talent that could expand our understanding of the universe, not to mention denying the dreams and ambitions of half the population. And of course that holds for other groups, as well. I advocate equal opportunities for all to do science, but not necessarily equal outcomes, since outcomes could depend partly on preference. But until all groups have equal opportunities, which is a long way off, I think we have to practice some form of affirmative action in science and other professions.

I give this preface because I’m about to criticize a new paper that claims not only that different groups (in this case, black women) have different ways of doing science, but also that black women have been oppressed by an inherent characteristic of science (not of scientists): “white empiricism”, which denies the validity of black women as objective observers of reality. The paper’s author is Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy as well as a faculty member in Women’s Studies at the University of New Hampshire. as well as a writer of popular articles for New Scientist and other venues. Prescod-Weinstein is the daughter of a white Jewish father and a mother from Barbados, so she considers herself both black and Jewish.  I’ve written about her once before, criticizing a Slate article in which she argued, based on James Damore’s Google document (for which he was fired), that sexism is inherent in the practice of science (not just in scientists), and that science cannot be equated with “truth.”

You see a related critique of science in Prescod-Weinstein’s new paper in the journal Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, a publication from my own University of Chicago. You can get the paper for free by clicking on the screenshot below. A free pdf is here, and the full reference is at the bottom.

As I see it, the paper’s big problem is that it sees bigotry and racism as violations of the empirical methods of science—as aspects of science that are violated by “white empiricism”.  But first, what is “white empiricism”?  Here are a few definitions or characterizations of  from Prescod-Weinstein:

White empiricism comes to dominate empirical discourse in physics because whiteness powerfully shapes the predominant arbiters of who is a valid observer of physical and social phenomena. Based primarily on their own experiences, white men, who are the dominant demographic in physics, construct the figure of the observer to exclude anyone who does not share the attending social and intellectual identities and beliefs.

. . . Essentially, white empiricism involves a predominantly white, predominantly male professional community selectively failing to apply the scientific method to themselves while using “scientific” evaluation to strengthen the barriers to Black women’s entry into physics. White empiricism is therefore a form of antiempiricism masquerading as an empirical approach to the natural world.

. . . White empiricism is conceptually distinct from epistemic injustice because it describes a resistance not just to testimony but also to empirical fact. It is strongly linked to epistemic oppression and conceptual competence injustice because it involves a denial of a knower’s competence based on ascribed identity (Dotson 2014; McKinnon 2014, forthcoming; Anderson 2017). White empiricism is the specific practice of epistemic oppression paired with a willingness to ignore empirical data.

. . . White empiricism is the practice of allowing social discourse to insert itself into empirical reasoning about physics, and it actively harms the development of comprehensive understandings of the natural world by precluding putting provincial European ideas about science—which have become dominant through colonial force—into conversation with ideas that are more strongly associated with “indigeneity,” whether it is African indigeneity or another.

Now how is it that “white empiricism” turns out to be a form of hypocrisy, in which white male physicists (and also white female physicists) claim they’re objective when investigating physics but aren’t really objective?  It is because, alongside their “objectifity” in studying the laws of nature, they ignore or dismiss black women’s “lived experience” and claims about the pervasiveness of racism, which are taken to be objective scientific claims.

And here we see the conflation of physics with social justice. To whit:

In string theory, we find an example wherein extremely speculative ideas that require abandoning the empiricist core of the scientific method and which are endorsed by white scientists are taken more seriously than the idea that Black women are competent observers of their own experiences. In practice, invalidating Black women’s standpoint is an antiempirical disposal of data, in essence turning white supremacist social structures into an epistemic practice in science. Therefore, while traditionally defined empiricism is the stated practice of scientists, white empiricism—where speculative white, male testimony is more highly valued than reality-based testimony from Black women—is the actual practice of scientists.

. . . [Jarita] Holbrook holds that Black students are presumed to be epistemically unreliable on the subject of racism, which sends the message that they can never achieve an objective observer status akin to that of their white peers. As Holbrook describes this epistemic dismissal, “When confronted with a racist incident as a person of color, your objectivity is immediately questioned. Are you sure it happened? Are you sure that it was their intention? to flat out: So and So is not racist! I’ve known them for years. Thus, your objectivity is being questioned. … The internal dialogue is that if they do not believe me in this, what do they think about my science? Thus, it erodes the scientific identity that you are in the process of creating”

. . .  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.

These statements, particularly the last one, shows 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. She goes on at length about the history of racism in America, and how scientists have participated in it, but I see no examples of any modern male physicists saying that black women aren’t competent to describe and evaluate their own experiences, much less to act as valid students of the laws of physics.

In pursuit of her thesis that racist attitudes violate the very objectivity inherent in science, Prescod-Weinstein adduces some ludicrous examples. One is the theory of relativity, which states that the fundamental laws of physics are invariant under the inertial frame of the observer. Prescod-Weinstein sees racism as violating this canon:

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). . . . 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. It is instead important to examine the way the social forces at work shape Black women’s standpoint as observers—scientists—with a specific interest in how scientific knowledge is dependent on this specific standpoint. As Jarita Holbrook notes, Black students have their capacity for objectivity questioned simply because their standpoint on racism is different from that of white students and scientists who don’t have to experience its consequences.

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, 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.

Prescod-Weinstein is not by any means obtuse, and so I wonder if she sees the fallacy of what she’s doing here, or is so blinded by ideology that she really thinks that Einstein’s theory is explicitly anti-racist.

She also uses string theory as an example of how “objective” study of physics conflicts with racism. She considers why string theory, though in many ways appealing, has failed to gain widespread acceptance in the scientific community and yet is still considered a valid object of study. She gives three reasons why string theory remains viable (her quote):

Surveying what should happen next, there are at least three distinct possibilities:

  • 1. Patience is required, and evidence is coming.
  • 2. String theory has failed to succeed in expected ways because the community—which is almost entirely male and disproportionately white relative to other areas of physics—is too homogeneous.
  • 3. The scientific method overly constrains our models to meet certain requirements that no longer serve the needs of physics theory.

The trouble with the first option is that because of the theory’s structure, parameters could continuously and endlessly change to excuse the absence of evidence: “It is simply in a regime where we can’t currently take measurements” (Dawid 2013, 112; see also Ellis and Silk 2014). This never-ending passing of the buck to higher energy scales that require bigger experiments and more funding is suspect, although there is certainly no universal law that says that finding quantum gravity should be an affordable pursuit.

The second option is effectively unconsidered in the literature. Instead, the case for the third option has been made. This is a curious turn of events. Rather than considering whether structural and individual discrimination results in a homogeneous, epistemically limited community, physicists are willing to throw out their long-touted objectivity tool, the scientific method. In its place, they propose that their sense of aesthetics is sufficient, that the theory holds a kind of beauty (such as high levels of symmetry) similar to other, empirically successful theories such as the Standard Model of particle physics (Polchinski 1998).

What she’s saying here is that it’s distinctly possible that the absence of diversity (e.g., black women) among physicists is a reasonable explanation for why no empirical evidence has arisen to support string theory. That contrasts with explanations 1) and 3), that say, respectively, that we might get evidence for or against the theory some day, or that we should simply accept string theory without empirical evidence because it’s a lovely theory and, by the way, evidence is overrated.

Prescod-Weinstein indicts white empiricism here because, she says, people have gravitated to explanation #3 instead of #2, and by so doing have rejected the empirical canons of science—the need for evidence—rather than accept the possibility that we need more black women physicists. And, she argues, there’s no empirical reason to support #3 over #2—except under white empricism.

I don’t think that’s correct. First of all, she adduces no reason why black physicists rather than white physicists can help provide the ultimate empirical test of string theory. That presupposes that there is a “black” way of doing string theory that white physicists don’t comprehend. Second, I haven’t seen physicists, at least the ones I know, arguing that string theory is correct and we don’t need empirical verification. My own take is that string theory is appealing in many ways but can’t be accepted as true because it can’t be tested in any way that we must know. In other words, possibility #1 is the consensus among physicists, and possibility #2 isn’t that viable because there’s been no demonstration that different ethnic groups or genders have investigatory tools that could solve the issue. (This is not to justify racism in physics, of course. It’s just that diversity is an inherent good, that equal opportunity is a moral imperative, and diversity may advance science not because different groups have different “ways of knowing”, but because the bigger the talent pool, the more likely we are to have breakthroughs.)

But Prescod-Weinstein does believe that what we know about physics would change if more black women participated. Yet she fails to be specific, arguing that “there are contexts in which Black women are epistemically privileged observers”, but not telling us which contexts. Instead, she says this:

Yet there is a way in which feminist standpoint theory can help us think about the gulf between epistemic theory and social practice in physics. Standpoint theory correctly identifies that there are contexts in which Black women are epistemically privileged observers, and I argue that a refusal to accept this fact translates into modified epistemic outcomes in physics, not because the laws of physics are different but because which parts of the universe we understand, and even the very nomenclature we develop to describe our understanding, are impacted by social forces.

It would be nice if she could adduce an example here. Which parts of the universe are susceptible to analysis by a black woman physicist but not a white male? Since there are almost no black women physicists, it would be hard to even think of an example.  As for terminology or nomenclature, well, that has little to do with our understanding; it is just words we use to describe our understanding. Would “the uncertainty principle” be called something else if discovered by a black woman physicist? If so, would it matter? Again, we have no examples—even hypothetical ones.

Prescod-Weinstein does adduce the fight over the 30-Meter Telescope in Hawaii (some scientists want it built, while many native Hawaiians oppose it on grounds of tradition and the claim that Mauna Kea site is sacred) as another example of “white empiricism”, but this is also misguided. The fight is not about the nature of science, but about whether a tool for doing science should be built if it conflicts with local beliefs and practices. I’m not that familiar with the battle, but what I do know tells me that it’s not a battle over the validity of Hawaiians as valid observers of physics. Prescod-Weinstein seems to disagree:

As we enter an era where physics and astronomy are both studied and practiced by increasingly larger teams with wide geographic footprints, these social dynamics will become important in new ways. For example, in the debate about the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, the question of which epistemologies merit legitimate consideration is intimately tied to white empiricism (Swanner 2013; Salazar 2014; Kuwada 2015). White empiricism can help explain why the Thirty Meter Telescope was evaluated so differentially by Mauna Kea protectors and telescope-using scientists, resulting in a specious debate over who was for and who was against science. Protectors, who do not subscribe to white empiricism, have been forced to repeatedly challenge press coverage that tends to assign a higher knowledge prestige to the role of nonindigenous scientists than to cultural knowledge holders of indigenous communities (Fox and Prescod-Weinstein 2019). Future work should unpack this phenomenon further in dialogue with decolonization discourse.

But the native Hawaiian argument against the telescope is not an epistemological stand, unless you think that it’s based on superstition; and in that case it’s not relevant to Prescod-Weinstein’s argument. “Cultural knowledge” here does not refer to scientific knowledge, but to spiritual belief, and thus we are not seeing a conflict about the way to do physics. There may be some racism inherent in the battle, but that’s different from a battle over “valid ways of understanding nature.”

I am growing weary, for I have dissected papers like this before—papers on white glaciology, the racism of Pilates, lattes, and pumpkins, and so on. The difference here is that Prescod-Weinstein is a working physicist with respectable accomplishments in the field. It is a sad testimony to the power of ideology, though, that her interpretation of what science is has been so severely distorted by her anti-white feminism.  Instead of arguing, as I’ve said, on moral grounds, she argues that the objectivity of science itself is in conflict with the supposed dismissal of black women’s experiences of racism, and that such an attitude is not just racist but anti-science.

In view of the paucity of black women physicists with a Ph.D. (there have been only a few dozen in history), what should we do? I agree that there may be a problem here, and my solution is, as always, twofold. First, rectify any inequality of opportunity starting at the ground—the limited opportunities afforded to minorities by living conditions and poor schooling, themselves byproducts of racism. Second, for the time being practice a form of affirmative action, realizing that diversity in the physics community is an inherent good for several reasons (providing role models to eliminate roadblocks to opportunity, for one).

But these STEM initiatives are rejected by Prescod-Weinstein as a form of patronizing manipulation of black people for the good of America:

The National Science Foundation (2008) argues that the broader impact of diversity is a worthwhile consideration in granting criteria based on a national need for a strong STEM workforce as the United States undergoes a demographic transition where white-identified people will soon no longer account for over 50 percent of the population. Because white Americans still heavily dominate STEM degree earning and the STEM workforce, American STEM cannot keep up with the demographic changes. These arguments repurpose Black Americans (and other minorities) as tools to serve nationalist needs.

I doubt that the National Science Foundation’s strong STEM programs to increase minority participation in science are designed to “repurpose Black Americans (and other minorities) as tools to serve nationalist needs.” These programs are supported and implemented largely by women, and their avowed purpose is to diversify participation in science and technology. To say that they are designed to turn minorities into slaves of white nationalism is simply ridiculous. For one thing, I doubt that anyone who has been supported by these programs, many of them investigating pure science rather than advancing technology, sees themselves as “tools.” Let Chanda-Weinstein talk to those people rather than pronounce, as a privileged physicist, how they should feel. Does she understand their lived experience?

This paper is not a hoax, though if it had been written by someone else it could be seen as one of the “grievance study” hoax papers produced by Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay. It is a serious attempt at scholarship, and I say “attempt” because it fails on all levels. It is what happens when a “hard” discipline like physics is infected by a “soft” discipline with an ideological agenda, like gender and race studies. The result are specious and insupportable claims like that of Einstein’s theory of relativity explicitly stating that people from all ethnic and gender groups should be treated equally.  And while you’ll find many physicists, including white ones, who refuse to dismiss black women as valid observers of physical reality, I doubt that you’ll find many who cite Einstein in support of such egalitarianism.

It’s always a bad idea to draw moral conclusions from science, for that makes the moral conclusions susceptible to changes in our understanding of the physcal world. If we had only Newtonian mechanics and not relativistic mechanics, would racism be more justified?

_______________

Prescod-Weinstein, C. 2020. Making Black women scientists under white empiricism: The racialization of epistemology in physics. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 45:421-447



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