Diversity Debate, Science / Tech, Top Stories

Racism Is Real. But Science Isn’t the Problem

In his June 9th eulogy for George Floyd, Reverend Al Sharpton said, “What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country, in education, in health services, and in every area of American life.” The metaphor goes to the suffocation of hopes, dreams, and basic rights among many black Americans, in part because of inequities in American society, and in part because of direct experiences with racism.

Several days later, the American Physical Society (APS), which claims to represent 55,000 physicists working in the United States and abroad, quoted Sharpton’s statement in announcing its solidarity with the “#strike4blacklives” campaign. The group declared that “physics is not an exception” to the suffocating climate of racism that Sharpton described; and that the APS would be closed for regularly scheduled business on June 10th, so as “to stand in support and solidarity with the Black community and to commit to eradicating systemic racism and discrimination, especially in academia, and science.” And the APS wasn’t alone. The strike was embraced by many scientific groups, national laboratories and universities. Throughout scientific disciplines, combating systemic racism has become a rallying cry.

It sounds laudable. But as argued below, mantras about systemic racism are hard to square with the principles and necessary protocols of academic science. And in any case, overhauling university hiring and promotion aren’t the way to address the fundamental underlying causes of racism in our society. The APS and other scientific organizations have adopted dramatic anti-racist posturing in sudden response to George Floyd’s homicide and the protests that followed. But in so doing, they risk unwittingly demeaning science and scientists, as well as trivializing the broader and more vicious impacts of real racism in our society.

* * *

Science is furthered by the development of theories that better explain nature, that make correct predictions about the world, and that may help develop new technologies. A scientific theory that can be supported by rigorous empirical observation, theoretical analysis, and experimental results; and which withstands scrutiny and critique from peers; will be adopted by the scientific community, independent of such theories’ origins. If the system is functioning properly, the people who develop these ideas and experiments rise in prominence. The nature of the scientific process requires it to be color-blind, gender-blind, and religion-blind.

This means that science can unite humanity in a way that’s unmatched by any other intellectual endeavor—for it transcends cultures, languages, and geography. Physicists in China and the United States may have vastly different political views and experiences. But at a physics conference, they interact as colleagues. The thousands of physicists who work at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, where I’ve worked in the past, hail from perhaps as many as 100 countries, speaking dozens of languages, and embrace vastly different faiths and political persuasions. Yet they’ve worked together to build the most complex machines ever devised, behemoths whose millions of separate parts function flawlessly on scales down to less than a millionth of an inch.

Large Hadron Collider workers celebrate the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. Photo by CERN.

The claim that science per se is not racist is not the claim that no scientists are racist; nor that physicists of color never experience racism inside or outside of academia. My own PhD supervisor, who happened to be black, advised me that if I rented an apartment in the Boston neighborhood of Bunker Hill (as I considered doing for a short time), he wouldn’t feel safe visiting me. But such personal experiences, awful as they are, don’t primarily explain the under-representation of minorities in academic departments. The more fundamental problem isn’t the culture of science, but rather that many people of color get driven away long before they might experience this culture in the first place.

Between 1993 and 2005, I was chair of a university physics department in Cleveland, Ohio. The dismal situation in many inner-city Cleveland public schools struck me as a disgrace. At one point, when we renovated our building, I got permission to send some of our older elementary physics equipment to a nearby local, primarily black, public high school. In spite of the special nature of the school, which was for gifted students, it didn’t even have enough science textbooks to go around.

When I went to talk to students at a local inner-city school where my ex-wife volunteered, the children asked me what a scientist did. They didn’t have the slightest idea of what trajectory they could take to become one themselves, or whether it involved education beyond high school. The topic seemed so alien as to be beyond any of their realistic aspirations. Situations such as this remain common in many areas of the United States. And as long as they persist, there is little likelihood that the demographics of PhD scientists will reflect the underlying population.

During the academic strike called for by the APS, it was emphasized that the proportion of black physicists in national laboratories such as the Fermi National Laboratory in Illinois (where one #strike4blacklives organizer works) is much smaller than the percentage of blacks in the population at large. It was implied that systematic racism in the profession was responsible for this, although no explicit data supporting this claim was presented.

In fact, there is a simpler explanation. There are fewer tenured black physicists at universities and laboratories because there are fewer black PhD physicists. There are fewer black PhD physicists because there are fewer black physics graduate students. There are fewer black graduate students because there are fewer black undergraduates who major in physics. This latter fact is a cause for concern. But the root cause lies in inequities that arise far earlier in the education process. These cannot be addressed by affirmative action policies at the upper levels of practicing professional scientists.

* * *

The author, left, with Richard Feynman, in 1976.

In the early and middle decades of the 20th century, explicit forms of anti-Semitism were ingrained in the culture of many American physics departments. None other than legendary theoretical physicist Richard Feynman narrowly avoided rejection by Princeton because his background was Jewish. The head of the Princeton Physics Dept, H. D. Smyth, wrote to a colleague who’d recommended Feynman for graduate school: “One question always arises, particularly with men interested in theoretical physics. Is Feynman Jewish? We have no definite rule against Jews, but have to keep their proportion in our department reasonably small because of the difficulty of placing them [professionally].” (His colleague signaled assent, but added that Feynman’s “physiognomy and manner, however, show no trace of this characteristic and I do not believe the matter will be any great handicap.”)

How was this endemic anti-Semitism overcome? Thanks to the opportunities afforded by high-quality public education, students such as Feynman were able to shine in university. In spite of his background, he was accepted to Princeton’s graduate school, and went on to win a Nobel Prize and become one of the greatest physicists of his generation. This paved the way for another generation of Jewish theoretical physicists, including Sheldon Glashow and Steve Weinberg. As these future Nobelists rose to the top of their profession, anti-Semitism in academic hiring and promotion disappeared.

When I attended the Nobel Prize ceremony in 2004, there was only one female Nobelist on stage. The head of the Nobel committee candidly explained that there was a reason for this: Nobel Prizes usually are given for work done decades ago. And until relatively recently, there were far fewer women working in the science fields.

He indicated his hope that decades in the future, as more women thrive in these professions, their representation on stage at Nobel Prize ceremonies would increase. But he also emphasized that quality, not diversity, would remain the chief factor governing the awarding of prizes, and that diversity would follow organically as the participation of women in each field grew.

Such an approach counsels patience. Unfortunately, the rush to respond to George Floyd’s murder by wholesale condemnation of existing disciplines instead serves to encourage new forms of campus bureaucracy. The University of California, Berkeley, which already may have more diversity and equity assurance officers than almost any other public university, for instance, responded to recent protests by announcing the creation of yet another senior administrative post: Executive Director of Civil Rights and Whistleblower Compliance.

Accompanying this movement is the imposition of new demands on junior faculty that can impede their ability to do science, and sometimes serve to prevent departments from hiring the most productive young scientists. Many hiring committees and granting agencies demand equity and diversity statements from young scientists seeking faculty positions. Examples have been published of highly productive scientists whose grants have been rejected not on the basis of science, but because their diversity proposals were insufficiently detailed. “Could Albert Einstein get a job today at the University of California–Berkeley?” asked one Forbes columnist recently. “Or Enrico Fermi, or Robert Oppenheimer, or John von Neumann? With the University of California’s (UC) experiments in diversity screening underway, the answer is that their job applications could stall before a faculty hiring committee reviewed their academic qualifications.”

Assistant professors of physics cannot solve racial inequality in our society. The professional responsibility of individual scientists, especially young scientists, is to do the best science they can, and to train their students as best they can. It is not to become part of a social movement, however well-intentioned that movement may be.

As unfashionable as classically liberal ideas have become, I believe that good science is what should govern grant-proposal assessment and faculty hiring, with equal treatment for all, and quality alone being the final discriminator. Yes, the scientific community is part of the broader social fabric, and does not constitute a silo unto itself—which is why, in a democratic society, scientific results should be communicated broadly outside of academia. But this principle should not require that all scientists, especially young scientists, take time out from their research to actively engage in outreach programs designed to further social goals. These programs can be useful, and deserve to be encouraged among those with an appropriate interest and aptitude. But they are not to be confused with a scientist’s core work.

Part of the current problem arises from a misplaced notion that has become prevalent in the public dialogue about racism. It has been most clearly espoused by historian and National Book Award winner Ibram X. Kendi, who has argued that one is either racist, or anti-racist. Simply being “non-racist” is unacceptable. While Kendi may be a compelling writer, this claim presents a false dichotomy. One might wish to require that anti-racist policies be adopted in law, while at the same time adopting a race-neutral posture in professional contexts. Indeed, I believe that such an approach is central to the work of a scientist.

As my own experience shows, steps taken by academic bureaucrats to actively signal a posture of anti-racism often can be facile or counterproductive. I was chairman of a physics department for 12 years and witnessed several examples in this vein. In one case, our department had an opportunity to recruit an exceptional senior black physicist who was the spouse of a faculty candidate being recruited by another department. Yet my appeals to the diversity gurus at the university fell on deaf ears, because the potential recruit was born in Tobago. For purely geographical reasons, he wasn’t on the list of suitably underrepresented minorities. In other words, he wasn’t the “right kind” of black physicist.

As is now widely reported, the response of academic and scientific administrators to demands to root out systemic racism in academic science have created an academic environment where free speech and open inquiry—the hallmarks of good scholarship—are being threatened. Recently, a distinguished chemist at a Canadian university was publicly censured by his provost for an article he’d published in a distinguished journal, concerning factors impinging on the success of organic synthesis as a field of research and education. His crime was having an opinion about merit-based science and the impact of affirmative action policies on university hiring and research procedures. He stated that “each candidate should have an equal opportunity to secure a position, regardless of personal identification/categorization. Hiring practices that aim at equality of outcome [are] counterproductive if it results in discrimination against the most meritorious candidates.”

In normal times, such a statement might at most provoke vigorous debate. The same goes for his questioning of “the emergence of mandatory ‘training workshops’ on gender equity, inclusion, diversity, and discrimination.” Yet given the current climate, it was not surprising that this professor was instead censured by his university provost; and the editor of the journal in question removed the paper from its website, apologized for having published it, and suspended two of the journal’s other editors. The publication of a special issue of a chemistry journal being published in honor of the author’s 70th birthday was cancelled and mention of his body of work was eliminated from another journal.

Last week, the senior VP of research at Michigan State University, a physicist named Stephen Hsu, was removed from his position—despite numerous academics from around the country signaling support for him in an open letter—after a Twitter campaign falsely smeared him as a “vocal racist and eugenicist.” His crimes? First, his research involved using computational genomics to study issues that included how human genetics might be linked to cognitive ability. Second, as VP for research, he had supported the peer-reviewed research of an MSU psychology professor who’d studied police shootings, and whose data, analyzed by accepted methodologies, supported the idea that there is less statistical evidence for racial bias than is often reported.

Learning and scholarship require an environment in which hard questions can and should be asked, and in which informed research and debate lead us to better understandings of the world around us. If our efforts to combat the underlying racism in society end up marginalizing those who raise sensitive issues and prioritize knowledge over hashtags, the entire basis of higher education will be undermined. Whether such a tradeoff is worth it is, at the very least, debatable. But it seems that this kind of debate is no longer allowed.

I freely acknowledge that science as a discipline has its roots in a societal history rife with racism, sexism, and religious intolerance. But the same is true for the entire intellectual fabric of modern Western society. Will we need to destroy the pyramids because they were built by slaves, or remove the statues of Isaac Newton from physics buildings because of his religious intolerance?

This is where the current movement leads. If the label of systemic racism is universally applied across academic disciplines while we tear down everything that is connected through time to the darkest periods of history, then the legacy of the Scientific Revolution itself risks being lost amid the rubble.

 

Lawrence M. Krauss, a theoretical physicist, is the president of the Origins Project Foundation, and the author of the forthcoming book, The Physics of Climate Change.

Featured image: The Compact Muon Solenoid within the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, photographed in 2019. 

Comments

  1. A Juevo!

    Orale we need more adults in the room. But damn, i fear for homies career now.

    I am down for brown. But not at the cost of some young guerros dreams.

    As for my black brothers and black sisters, we gotta get real and speak power to words, me intiendes?

    The average IQ for an African American is 85. And those gangstas in the hood, they need a Mother%##$*@n father figure, yo. Some strong dude to set the tone.

    Racism? Name one corporation that is prejudice in hiring because someone is black. No, there isnt structural racism in the USA. There is poverty, and there are horrible schools beholden to teachers unions. And there are broken families. And hand out dependent communities. And there are drug and alcohol issues. But none of the causes of poverty in the USA is ‘structural racism’.

    Y’all want to help a brother out? Thats noble.

    Build more universities, and make some room for a few African Americans with sub-par credentials. But dont rob Peter to pay LaTisha.

  2. Christopher Hitchens pointed out Al Sharpton as an example of the kind of respect a con man, criminal, and extortionist can get in America if he only calls himself “reverend”.

  3. Regardless, a rational assessment of the situation should acknowledge she was wearing a short dress in a public place, about a sensitive time of the evening surrounded by rapacious males, so should have realised she needed to be held to a high level of carefulness in her fashion statements…

    There fixed it for you.

    It’s simple. Hsu is entitled to free speech. The moral wrong was committed by his harassers, not him.

  4. For those interested in the reasons behind the cancellation of Stephen Hsu, here is a summary of the research into police shootings that he made the mistake of publicising:

    Whilst police brutality is a problem, it would appear to less of a problem, in terms of race, than the media’s black-only reporting of police brutality would have us believe. There are many aspects of policing that desperately do need reform- most notably shifting federal funding mechanisms away from activity driven incentives- perhaps then older Black men and women would find themselves less frequently hassled for ‘driving while Black’.

  5. Anti-racism, anti-fascism etc. are very cheap nowadays. You don’t have to be a hero to be a part of it. Actually, today it rather takes courage to resist this social pressure.

    Robert P. George, professor of law at Princeton University, reports in a thread on Twitter:

    I sometimes ask students what their position on slavery would have been had they been white and living in the South before abolition. Guess what? They all would have been abolitionists! They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly against it.

    Of course, this is nonsense. Only the tiniest fraction of them, or of any of us, would have spoken up against slavery or lifted a finger to free the slaves. Most of them—and us—would have gone along. Many would have supported the slave system and happily benefited from it.

    So I respond by saying that I will credit their claims if they can show evidence of the following: that in leading their lives today they have stood up for the rights of unpopular victims of injustice whose very humanity is denied, and where they have done so knowing:

    (1) that it would make them unpopular with their peers,

    (2) that they would be loathed and ridiculed by powerful, influential individuals and institutions in our society;

    (3) that they would be abandoned by many of their friends,

    (4) that they would be called nasty names, and

    (5) that they would risk being denied valuable professional opportunities as a result of their moral witness.

    In short, my challenge is to show where they have at risk to themselves and their futures stood up for a cause that is unpopular in elite sectors of our culture today.

  6. Gee, you stop in for the first time, and immediately dump on the comment stream. No need for you to lower yourself. You can leave whenever you would like.

  7. Krauss makes the point that early education is critical (not-critical theory) to the advancement of black phyicists, but oddly does not address the current attack on STEM that seeks to destroy science education altogether. Arguing that there is or isn’t racism in science is a discussion we could have had a decade ago, but we are way past that now and the country is under attack from a Maoist-like hysteria that threatens to turn our society into an totalitarian hell. Even my local Woke city council has opened the door to struggle sessions. Millions suffered and died in China, in Russia, in Cambodia etc as a result of this phenomenon - will we allow it to take over not just science, but every aspect of our lives as well? The time to speak out and speak out strongly against BLM, Critical Race Theory and so-called “Social Justice” was yesterday.

  8. So you come on here and disparage people with ad hominem attacks and then complain about a supposed lack of reasoned discourse… oh, the irony!

  9. The trades pay very very well these days. I pay my equipment operators $70 an hour, and unlike salaried folk, i pay 12 hours when they work 12 hours. Weekends are time and a half. Sundays double time. Being out doors, working with ones hands, making a difference, and seeing the fruits of ones own labors are rich rewards.

    My guys clean up neighborhoods after fires. My guys repair broken water mains at 2 am. My guys work as a crew, and have each others back. They regularly make $1000 a day, and they know their efforts make a difference.

    I spent 10 years in University. Did the community college thing. Graduated debt free. And then my career ran into endless anti-white guyisms. I got around the roadblocks, but it just got old dealing with anti male this and anti white that.

    Honestly i wish i had just become a full time Fire Fighter or high end race car fabricator or taken up farming.

    Just sayin, there are rich rewarding paths other than university.

  10. @Geary_Johansen2020: My thought exactly! :slight_smile:

    In a way, QC is a refuge and gathering place for, as you said, dissenters and contrarians, for people who can think independently and whose moral compass keeps working, even when most of society around us is marching in lockstep in an unfortunate direction.

    There were such people also in other dark ages, but today the internet allows us to find each other and exchange experiences and ideas. This is one of the places where the light of reason and sanity can be kept alive.

  11. I’m sorry that this forum looks like a “mostly extreme right-wing and white nationalist boilerplate” to you. I don’t want to deny your perspective, although I would classify the center of gravity here more as ‘center-right’, with a fairly wide range in both directions, including left-wing liberals and even the occasional progressive.

    It seems to me that here on QC there are both: reasonable discussions mixed with heated arguments. If you don’t let the latter bother you too much, you can have really good, interesting, insightful conversations. At least that’s my experience and one of the reasons I like coming here. Either way, I always welcome people who are interested in reasonable, civil discourse.

  12. In 2003 the Human Genome Projected was completed. The 99.9% ‘cant we all just get along’ conclusion was announced. Woohoo!

    And then Neanderthals got their Genome Project. Guess what?!

    Now we know there are several species of proto-human that have hybridized with Sapiens. And those hybridized humans then bred with other unlike hybridized humans.

    New discoveries about the evolution of Homo Sapien DNA are found every year. The picture points to vast differences between human groups. West Africans populations have DNA from a proto-human ape ancestor unique to them. Some populations in Australia and South Asia have DNA (4-6%!) from Denisovans, an archaic protohuman descended from a very distant ape.


    As we now know Europeans are around 2% Neanderthal. And the Neanderthal DNA gives some advantages when it comes to disease resistance.

    Sapiens seem to be a collection of very distinct humanoid species.

    Never mind differences in skin color. There are very significant differences in human physiology between groups.

    Did you know there are humans in Papua that can process blue green algae and produce their protein source in their guts?

    Did you know 1 % of Europeans are immune to HIV?

    Groups in high altitudes (Sherpas) have adapted over millenia to process oxygen better. Same in the Andes. And the Dolomites (according to alpinist Rhinehold Messner)

    Some local Asian groups (Sama) have evolved to hold their breath for shockingly long times underwater. Like 7 minutes. Some can see underwater better. From Wikipedia:
    More than a thousand years of subsistence freediving associated with their life on the sea appear to have endowed the Bajau with several genetic adaptations to facilitate their lifestyle.[82][83] A 2018 study showed that Bajau spleens are about 50 percent larger than those of a neighboring land-based group, the Saluan, letting them store more haemoglobin-rich blood, which is expelled into the bloodstream when the spleen contracts at depth, allowing breath-holding dives of longer duration.[84][83] This difference is apparently related to a variant of the PDE10A gene.[83] Other genes that appear to have been under selection in the Bajau include BDKRB2, which is related to peripheral vasoconstriction, involved in the diving response;[85] FAM178B, a regulator of carbonic anhydrase, which is related to maintaining blood pH when carbon dioxide accumulates; and another one involved in the response to hypoxia.[83] These adaptations were found to likely result from natural selection, leading to a uniquely increased frequency of alleles that are distributed among eastern Asian populations.[83] Members of another “sea gypsy” group, the Moken, have been found to have better underwater vision than Europeans, although it is not known if this trait has a genetic basis.[86]

    Then there are the Melanesians. They seem to have DNA from yet another undescribed humanoid.

    We are all humans and must live on our one planet. But we need to be honest and admit there is great variation, both from hybridization and local adaptation. Nothing wrong with that.

    Parting shot:
    Ernst Mayr: “Are species realities of nature or are they simply theoretical constructs of the human mind?”

  13. Mmm, no. An echo chamber doesn’t help anyone. I’ll admit a distaste for filibustering, when someone comments perhaps too often and at too great a length, but everyone gets a voice. Marginalizing, condemning, censoring … is that really “moderate”?

  14. I’d about given up on finding a truly open forum that could respectfully and incisively parse complex ideas and opinions. Cant and ideological purity seem the fashion of the moment, even if in a decade that fashion will look like the ‘polyester leisure suit’ in retrospect … am I revealing my age? Quillette is a godsend. Thanks to all who support and contribute to it. I just joined you.

  15. Hello, my name is DrZ. I am an extremist and have been so for at least 3 decades. I believe in school choice, I believe that blacks are held back by the bigotry of low expectations and welfare dependencies. I believe that black on black homicides are a tragedy and need to come to an end. I believe that liberal (aka Democrat) politicians in the U.S. use the black vote to get elected and then dump on these constituents.

    I have tried to dump this extremism by reading articles by people who disagree with me, Al Sharpton, Juan Williams and the like, but I end up becoming ill and nearly pass out when I do so.

    Perhaps I can join Extremists Anonymous. I will see if there is a local group, but you know, trying to join such a group in California could be lethal.

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