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In the World of Astrophysics, One Failed Cancel Campaign Led to Another

When Hakeem Oluseyi exposed false claims about former NASA director James Webb, anti-Webb activists tried to take Oluseyi down as well.

· 8 min read
In the World of Astrophysics, One Failed Cancel Campaign Led to Another
Hakeem Oluseyi, then the space science education lead at NASA, speaking at an Earth Day event on April 20th, 2017, at Union Station in Washington, DC. Photo by NASA/Joel Kowsky.

The December 19th print edition of the New York Times featured a front-page article by Michael Powell under the title (altered slightly for online purposes), Telescope’s Name Ignites Fight on Homophobia. It was a fascinating piece, albeit for reasons that are only tangentially related to either stargazing or bigotry.

The story begins with a group of scientists who oppose NASA’s decision to name its new deep-space telescope after the agency’s 1960s-era leader, James E. Webb (1906–1992). Their claim is that Webb’s name is unsuitable for the honour because he persecuted gay government employees when he worked at the State Department during the so-called Lavender Scare of the early Cold War. But as Powell reports, the case against Webb hasn’t survived close scrutiny.

In this regard, Powell points readers to an investigative project by famed astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi, who formerly acted as NASA’s space science education lead and now serves as president of the National Society of Black Physicists. Oluseyi fact-checked writers such as Matthew Wills, who in 2019 falsely claimed that Webb “oversaw” the purge of gay men at the State Department. In his January 2021 report, Oluseyi demonstrated that this incorrect claim was based on mistaken identity: As it turns out, the departmental bureaucrats who led the campaign against “homosexualism” (as some bigots then called it) were actually John E. Peurifoy and Carlisle H. Humelsine.

Oluseyi similarly debunked a 2015 Forbes article by science writer Matthew Francis, entitled The Problem With Naming Observatories For Bigots, which reported that Webb had stated, “it is generally believed that those who engage in overt acts of perversion lack the emotional stability of normal persons.” As Oluseyi demonstrates, that quote appeared in a 1950 report prepared by Senate committees on which Webb didn’t serve.

I would urge everyone to read Oluseyi’s report for themselves—as it provides an absolute master-class in how a dedicated, intellectually curious person, acting in good faith, can debunk the received wisdom of an entire online subculture. By his own account, Oluseyi had few allies in his fact-finding mission, because denouncing Webb was seen as the ideologically fashionable thing to do. Here, for instance, is Oluseyi’s description of the state of play on a then-active Facebook group dedicated to social-justice issues in astronomy and astrophysics:

A vigorous discussion of Webb’s supposed role in the Lavender Scare had already been underway for six months since the [January 2015 publication of The Problem With Naming Observatories For Bigots]. Based on the comments therein, the community appeared to have accepted that Webb was in fact guilty of the allegations. Since the group was private, its policy prohibits quoting or naming members, so I will not. However, I will say that group members called for confronting NASA and demanding an answer to why they would choose to name a premier high-profile observatory after such an individual. Within the long discussion, I could find only one scientist who questioned the allegations. To be precise, this person did not question them per se, but rather cautioned the group that they should perform their own investigation, get the full story, and verify it in its details prior to confronting NASA. I have found no evidence of anyone having undertaken the task of investigating the story more deeply. But the articles repeating the allegations against Webb have continued.

Oluseyi isn’t a culture warrior (except perhaps by accident). And his investigative report wasn’t written as an explicit attack on the men and women repeating misinformation about Webb. Indeed, Oluseyi didn’t print their names, and was careful to contextualize his conclusions with bridge-building language that emphasized their shared commitment to social justice:

As a Black scientist from the Deep South who’s had to navigate the shoals of a scientific establishment where I’ve not always felt welcome, I imagine how I would feel if I faced the equivalent—a flagship national observatory named after someone who was accused of being a staunch racist and national enforcer of racial segregation. Thankfully, Webb was not the bigoted homophobe who led State Department witch hunts, as rumored.

But of course, no good deed goes unpunished in this kind of social-justice hothouse, where status is earned by leading successful vilification campaigns against heretical colleagues, non-ideologically compliant institutions, and (as in this case) deceased historical figures. Because the required posture is one of militant zeal and unflagging moral conviction, there is no face-saving way for activists to back down from their demands even once the underlying factual claims melt away.

Shortly after Oluseyi’s piece appeared in early 2021, a quartet of anti-Webb scientists—the same ones who’d originally started up a petition to rename the Webb Space Telescope—co-authored a Scientific American article in which they insisted that Oluseyi’s research “changes nothing.” According to the fallback case against Webb that they articulated, the mere fact that Webb was in any kind of leadership position at the State Department meant that he bore personal responsibility for all of the anti-gay social panic then unfolding around him.

That claim is highly dubious according to James Kirchick, the Quillette writer (and podcast guest) who quite literally wrote the book on Cold War-era homophobia in Washington’s corridors of power. As Kirchick told Powell, “It is unimaginable that a high-level functionary [such as Webb] would have stepped in and blocked a broad federal law [against the employment of gay workers] that applied to every agency.” When I asked Kirchick what he thought about the campaign against Webb more broadly, he replied, “the whole thing is bogus … To single out Webb … actually minimizes the Lavender Scare, which was waged by the entire federal government from the President on down.”

The first listed author in that Scientific American piece, it’s worth noting, is Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a University of New Hampshire theoretical cosmologist and book author. Through articles such as Science Shouldn’t Come at the Expense of Black Lives, and Making Black Women Scientists under White Empiricism: The Racialization of Epistemology in Physics, Prescod-Weinstein has built a brand as a vocal and implacable advocate for social justice in STEM. She casts her campaign against Webb in religious terms, telling Powell, “this is about who we canonize and who are our real saints … We can’t just exonerate a dead white guy [Webb] who was in the thick of a repressive government.”

In his report, Oluseyi had noted that “the author of the [2015] article references a professional astrophysicist as his original source for learning of the allegations against Webb. This scientist propagated unsubstantiated false information as if it were true without performing proper scientific rigor to investigate its veracity.” As it turns out, the “professional astrophysicist” referenced here is none other than Prescod-Weinstein. We know this because Francis himself divulged this seven years ago:

I confess I didn’t know about Webb’s detailed biography, including his State Department witch-hunts, until very recently; astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein first informed me of his anti-gay activities. It’s easy for white male physicists like me to ignore the less savory aspects of our scientific heroes, but it’s long past time we stopped.

By way of response to Oluseyi’s report, Prescod-Weinstein tweeted a lengthy thread in which she accused him of “writing poorly researched articles that are basically hit pieces on me, and I am fucking tired,” while also cryptically suggesting that the issue was somehow related to a “procedural disagreement” that the pair once had at a 2011 National Society of Black Physicists “business meeting” (a disagreement she subsequently described as being related to a “Hitler-was-a-good-guy joke” that someone had apparently told). She also claimed that Oluseyi “doesn’t like me very much”; that “I have had [Oluseyi] blocked on twitter for a couple of years”; and that Oluseyi was “justify[ing] historic homophobia.” Meanwhile, Francis is promising his readers that he “will not be writing about JWST [the James Webb Space Telescope] or its science,” as “NASA destroyed any enthusiasm I had for this telescope.”

This isn’t really a “cancel culture” story because, notwithstanding these activist scientists’ refusal to admit defeat, James Webb hasn’t been cancelled: Last month, NASA released its own report on Webb’s legacy, with conclusions very much in agreement with Oluseyi’s. And so, “based on the available evidence,” NASA reported in a summary document, “the agency does not plan to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.” Nor has Oluseyi been removed from his prestigious appointment as Visiting Robinson Professor at George Mason University, despite the vicious propaganda campaign against him, which Powell details in his article:

[George Mason University astronomy professor Peter] Plavchan said that in July 2021, as word circulated in academia that Dr. Oluseyi might win an appointment at George Mason, he heard from a professor at a different university who claimed that Dr. Oluseyi had mishandled a federal grant and sexually harassed a woman. Dr. Plavchan said that he reported these accusations to George Mason. Soon Florida Tech [where Oluseyi was then teaching] was combing through records and thousands of emails. They found nothing to substantiate these charges, according to Hamid K. Rassoul, a physics professor at Florida Tech and former dean who took part in the investigation.

Who was this “professor at a different university”? Powell notes dryly that “on Twitter, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein has pushed some of the same accusations by means of veiled references to Dr. Oluseyi.” This includes an August 27th, 2021 tweet, in which Prescod-Weinstein accused certain “academic institutions” (Florida Tech and George Mason, presumably) of playing “pass the harasser” with a certain “harmful” book author competing against Prescod-Weinstein for industry prizes.

It should be noted here that Oluseyi’s A Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey from the Street to the Stars was published just three months after Prescod-Weinstein’s The Disordered Cosmos. Both books detail the career trajectories of black physicists. And one of Prescod-Weinstein’s complaints against Powell is that he did not take note of Prescod-Weinstein’s book awards (which she helpfully lists in an appendix at the bottom of her Substack essay attacking Powell’s article), nor of the fact that her book “won universal acclaim from all reviewers.”

When Powell repeatedly asked Prescod-Weinstein for information that would back up her apparently explosive suggestions about Oluseyi’s behavior, she reportedly stopped replying to his emails—despite having been (evidently) forthcoming when Powell had asked for her views about Webb. Oddly, just as the Times was looking into such claims, “an anonymous person who described having worked in a lab at Florida Tech began sending text messages to this reporter [i.e., Powell], making similar accusations against Dr. Oluseyi.” Powell reports that “several of these claims were demonstrably false, and others could not be substantiated.”

In her Substack response to Powell, Prescod-Weinstein argued that her naysayers’ motives should be situated within what she describes as the misogynistic culture of the organization that Oluseyi now leads—the National Society of Black Physicists. In this vein, Prescod-Weinstein offered a long list of accusations, including that she “was sexually assaulted at NSBP meetings twice.” That’s an extremely serious claim to make, though Prescod-Weinstein provided no further details about the alleged assailants or the circumstances in which their alleged crimes were committed.      

As for Michael Powell, the reporter who put this controversy on the front page of the New York Times, Prescod-Weinstein claims that “since I started writing about my experience with this yesterday, multiple people have reached out to me to share stories of Powell’s inappropriate handling of stories and interviews.”

She provides readers with no names or details, however. Instead, she simply notes that “it is a shame that the New York Times continues to give him a platform to behave like this.” Prescod-Weinstein’s first two cancel campaigns, against Webb and Oluseyi, both ended in failure. Perhaps she’s hoping this third one proves a charm.

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