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The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

The American Physical Society views the existence of White Privilege in physics as being both scientific and not scientific.

· 5 min read
The Unbearable Whiteness of Being
Photo by Artturi Jalli on Unsplash

A little over a year ago, I tweeted about what seemed to be a ludicrous article that had just been published in the prestigious physics journal Physics Education Review (a Physical Review journal) titled “Observing whiteness in introductory physics: A case study” (Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 18, 010119 (2022)).  The article claimed, among other things, that the use of whiteboards was an example of “whiteness” in physics. It seemed so silly that when I wrote about it again a month later in a Substack post, I stated that when I had first read it, I thought it was a spoof paper written by Peter Boghossian or one of his colleagues, to see whether this kind of content could now make it through the refereeing process today, even in hard science publications.

I wasn’t alone, and the paper generated a reasonably large negative outcry from the physics community, so much so that the journal Physical Review Physics Education Research (PRPER) felt the need to publish an editorial defending the article, arguing that “advancing equity is critical for physics.” In response to the current of negative responses, they added, “The Physical Review invites constructive and respectful criticism of published articles in the form of Comments.” (Comments are short articles published in the journal that respond to previously published articles.)

But that wasn’t enough. The American Physical Society, which publishes Physical Review, went much further.  On the back page of their monthly APSNews (The Back Page) in May, titled “Productive scientific discourse demands respect,” the editors stated, “we condemn the highly inappropriate and harassing emails and social media responses to the paper, some of which appear to have little basis in the content of the article.” They then issued a threat: “The APS Ethics Committee regularly reviews and responds to allegations of harassment and related misconduct. In some cases, these behaviors may lead to the revocation of APS awards, prizes, leadership positions, and/or disqualify candidates from consideration. Individuals who violate the APS Code of Conduct may be excluded from participation in APS meetings.” As a palliative, they reprinted the statement from Physical Review inviting “respectful” Comments.

Shortly after that, several physicists wrote to the authors of the APSNews piece, including the then APS president, Frances Hellman, expressing concerns about its tone, which seemed to suggest that any discussion of the paper on social media would be interpreted as harassment, and questioning whether a Comment in PRPER was an appropriate forum for fully discussing the paper. Their objection notwithstanding, the APS president nevertheless urged them to submit an article to Physical Review for publication as a Comment, which they then agreed to do. But what eventuated is like something out of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22.

In June, four physicists from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Cal Poly Pomona submitted a Comment for publication. As per normal procedure, the journal sent this Comment to the original authors to review.

A month later, the original authors had not yet responded, which is somewhat unusual. The Comment was then sent by the journal to two referees, both of whom wrote reports, one of which was longer than the Comment itself. In response to these reports, the editor rejected the Comment on the grounds that it was “framed from the perspective of a research paradigm that is different from the one of the research being critiqued.”

This is a remarkable statement. Essentially, the editor’s rejection implied that while the Comment was written from a scientific framework, the PRPER article, despite being funded by the National Science Foundation, was not. Yet, somehow, this fact had not disqualified the original article from being published in PRPER in the first place. Moreover, it also effectively immunized it against scientific criticisms in a scientific journal! It is worth noting that neither of the referees who had rejected the Comment addressed any of the technical issues it raised about problems with the methodology described in the original article.

The authors of the Comment were undaunted, however. They contacted the authors of the APSNews Back Page article, including the APS president, complaining that despite the fact that the PRPER editorial, the Back Page article, and the APS president all indicated that the appropriate forum for discussion was through Comments, this forum was not being made available by PRPER.

The APS president suggested that the Comment authors appeal the editor’s decision. The authors then submitted a formal appeal to the PRPER’s editor-in-chief, who sent it on to an editorial board member and one of the original referees. However, the appeal was rejected, and the claim that a scientific critique was not appropriate for a non-scientific paper was upheld.

Finally, as a last-ditch effort, they appealed the rejection to the editor-in-chief of all of Physical Review. He, too, rejected their appeal with the statement “the role of Comments in the Physical Review is to refute or correct specific results in the articles upon which they are focused. In this case, your Comment was a broader commentary on the nature of all studies conducted like those in the original article. For that reason, I do not believe that your concerns should appear in this context.”

At no time did any of the editors or referees address any of the scientific or technical details in the Comment itself. Rather, all parties at the APS and Physical Review argued that scientific analysis could not be used to critique papers that weren’t scientific—even though, presumably, all papers that appear in PRPER should, by definition, be scientific.

In their appeal, the Comment’s authors had tried to circumvent this ridiculous inversion of logic by arguing that even if the original paper did not use scientific paradigms, there was significant value in using a scientific paradigm to critique it in order to highlight possible weaknesses or problems with the original argument. Even that didn’t fly.

In a masterstroke of suppression of speech, the American Physical Society and Physical Review have together devised a strategy to ensure negative comments about this paper cannot appear officially anywhere in print. The American Physical Society decided that The Back Page was not an appropriate place to write a critique, because only scientific critiques were deemed sufficiently respectful, and those should be published as Comments in Physical Review. Physical Review, in turn, decided that a scientific critique of the paper was not appropriate for publication because the original paper wasn’t scientific.

This is what I meant by the Physical Review version of Catch-22. If you critique the scientific basis of a paper claiming that “White Privilege” exists in physics teaching, then you are being scientific; but if you are being scientific, you cannot critique a non-scientific paper!

Out of frustration, the Comment’s authors have posted their paper to the public physics archive, along with a history of its attempted publication.

What is unfortunate about this bit of nonsense is that Physical Review serves as a sort of officially sanctioned scientific archive in Physics. When a (flawed) paper that suggests “White Privilege” is endemic in physics teaching is published in Physical Review without any subsequent refutation, this gives additional ammunition to those who, without an otherwise firm scientific basis, continue to try to paint Physics as systemically racist.

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