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Intersectionality’s Cosmic Inquisitor

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has made a name for herself as one of STEM’s most implacable activists. Now the targets of her online attacks are fighting back

· 35 min read
Intersectionality’s Cosmic Inquisitor
A promotional still-frame image from University of New Hampshire physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s 2022 TED Talk, How We Could Solve the Dark Matter Mystery.

On July 11, 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden revealed the first awe-inspiring infrared views produced by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). A project more than a quarter century in the making, the JWST represents a technological leap over its 1990s-vintage Hubble predecessor. Since the new sun-orbiting telescope began operation, it’s already yielded a number of spectacular discoveries, including the existence of complex organic molecules in a galaxy over 12-billion light years away.

A 2017 NASA photo showing the deployed primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Here on planet Earth, meanwhile, the JWST provided an occasion to revisit the extraordinary career of its namesake, a former Marine Corps pilot from Tally Ho, NC, who rose through government ranks to become the second most powerful official in the U.S. State Department; and then, more famously, NASA’s administrator from 1961 to 1968, a period during which America first began sending men into space.

Under Webb’s oversight, NASA became a public-sector leader in promoting equal opportunity and racial integration. As famed African-American astrophysicist and book author Hakeem Oluseyi has written, Webb was a “hero of diversity and inclusion in American government.”

Then-NASA Administrator James Webb photographed in the Gemini Trainer on June 4, 1965.

And yet, in the lead-up to the JWST’s launch, there had been a very real possibility that Webb’s name would be stripped from the telescope—ironically enough, based on claims that he was actually a bigot.

The smoking gun, according to Webb’s critics, was a newly publicized quotation, dating to his tenure as Under Secretary to Dean Acheson at the State Department between 1949 and 1952: “It is generally believed that those who engage in overt acts of perversion”—a homophobic reference to gay men—“lack the emotional stability of normal persons.”

The claim took NASA’s own historians by surprise. While it’s common knowledge that homophobic attitudes and policies were scandalously prevalent in early Cold War-era Washington, this was the first time that Webb had been accused of personally demonizing gay men.

The claim was reported in 2015 by media pundit Dan Savage; as well as by Matthew Francis, a physicist and freelance journalist. Francis told readers that he’d learned about the Webb quotation from the Twitter feed of a University of New Hampshire (UNH) particle physicist named Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. In a widely circulated Forbes column, The Problem With Naming Observatories For Bigots, Francis wrote, “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.”

Even as late as Fall 2022, months after the James Webb Space Telescope had begun operation, Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society was still instructing its editorial contributors to excise Webb’s name from any references. Instead, authors were to use the acronym JWST.

Activists demanded that NASA come up with a new name. Prescod-Weinstein herself, appearing as the first listed writer in a co-authored Scientific American article, suggested that NASA honour anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman, on the astronomical basis that “Tubman almost certainly used the North Star, just as it is documented that others did, to navigate her way to freedom.”

A trove of internal NASA documents obtained by a Nature writer indicates that Prescod-Weinstein’s many tweets on the subject were generating considerable chatter at NASA headquarters. This was the heyday of America’s post-George-Floyd reckoning, when statues were being toppled all around the United States. The idea that Prescod-Weinstein and her fellow activists could turn the JWST into the Harriet Tubman Freedom Telescope—while transforming themselves into social-justice legends in the process—didn’t seem that far-fetched.

But it was not to be. In early 2021, the case against Webb began falling apart, in large part thanks to a historical investigation conducted by the aforementioned Hakeem Oluseyi, 56, now a visiting professor at George Mason and Princeton Universities.

After becoming interested in Webb’s back story in 2015, Oluseyi raised the subject with NASA’s leadership during his subsequent stint as Space Sciences education manager for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. As Oluseyi discovered, the case against Webb was based on misinformation that had been added to his Wikipedia entry in 2003 and 2011.

The homophobic quotation in question is real, he learned, but Webb never said it. Whoever first mistakenly associated these words with Webb had apparently confused Webb’s position with that of another State Department official named John Emil Peurifoy, a bona fide bigot who’d helped stir up Washington’s infamous Lavender Scare with lurid tales of a “homosexual underground.”

In late 2022, an independently produced 89-page report from NASA’s chief historian, Brian Odom, backed up Oluseyi’s conclusions, finding that there was “no available evidence” linking Webb to a single action “related to the firing of individuals for their sexual orientation.”

NASA confirms decision to keep JWST name after historical report
NASA says a historical review of actions by James Webb confirmed its decision to keep the agency’s flagship space telescope named after him.

The Royal Astronomical Society backtracked, and began allowing authors to use the W-word. Francis’ column was scrubbed from media sites, and its embittered author wrote a postscript informing readers that he’d no longer be writing about the telescope because “the name choice makes [me] feel excluded from the excitement.” One of Prescod-Weinstein’s co-authors, Lucianne Walkowicz, quit her role on a NASA advisory committee following a failed, last-ditch internal effort to discredit Oluseyi’s research.

The whole activist campaign turned out to be a pointless distraction; and, for those who’d bungled Webb’s historical record, professionally humiliating. At the very least, however, it was over.

But not for Prescod-Weinstein—not by a long shot. Nor for Oluseyi, whom Prescod-Weinstein has spent the last three years attacking in blog posts and lengthy, sometimes obscenely-phrased threads on X (formerly Twitter).

Over time, the UNH scientist has escalated her grievances into increasingly dubious accusations of scholarly misconduct, misogyny, and homophobia, as well as entirely unsubstantiated remarks about sexual harassment.

Over time, Prescod-Weinstein has escalated her grievances against Oluseyi into increasingly dubious accusations of scholarly misconduct, misogyny, and homophobia, as well as entirely unsubstantiated remarks about sexual harassment.

This week, Oluseyi sent UNH officials a 61-page complaint regarding Prescod-Weinstein’s behaviour, a copy of which has been obtained by Quillette. The document provides a detailed chronological record of Prescod-Weinstein’s alleged “harassment, bullying, and discrimination”—behaviour that Oluseyi believes runs afoul of the university’s policies.

While Quillette has already reported on the dispute between these two scientists, Oluseyi’s correspondence provides abundant new details concerning Prescod-Weinstein’s online behaviour that have not yet been publicly reported. In one case, Oluseyi alleges, Prescod-Weinstein successfully pressured a well-known author to rescind his offer to provide a promotional blurb for Oluseyi’s then-forthcoming book. Oluseyi also alleges that Prescod-Weinstein prevented him from being hired for at least one lucrative university speaking engagement by falsely suggesting he had sexually harassed women.

Additionally, Quillette has obtained copies of complaints against Prescod-Weinstein recently submitted to UNH by three other scholars. Among these materials is a database cataloguing over 50,000 of the tweets that Prescod-Weinstein posted during the five-year period ending in September 2023.

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.

Taken together, the sources reviewed by Quillette cover dozens of vilification campaigns waged by Prescod-Weinstein, beginning in 2015 and continuing to the present day. In some cases, these attacks were rooted in contentious social-justice issues playing out in the fields of astronomy and physics. But others seem to have been sparked by nothing more than glancing social-media disagreements, jokes, minor rebukes, or a targeted individual’s failure to take what Prescod-Weinstein deemed to be suitable notice of her accomplishments.

While most of Prescod-Weinstein’s documented targets are scientists, others include a reporter, an art-history researcher, an early childhood educator, and the collective fan base of Taylor Swift, which Prescod-Weinstein has publicly suggested shares common features with white supremacists. She calls The New York Times “trash,” the Wall Street Journal “racist,” and the United States “christofascist.” Indeed, a scan of her tweets indicates that she views almost every major institution in American society as being governed by “fascists.” That includes X itself, despite the fact that Prescod-Weinstein tweets, on average, more than 50 times per day.

Partial Excel-formatted catalogue of Prescod-Weinstein’s many fascism-themed tweets.

Her most recently documented controversy erupted three moths ago, when Prescod-Weinstein appeared to have likened Hamas’ October 7, 2023 terrorist attacks to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, in which Jewish partisans rose up to oppose Nazi efforts to transport the city’s remaining Jews to gas chambers.

In at least one remarkable episode, Prescod-Weinstein published a scathing 2,500-word attack on her own “dearest friend, practically [a] family member”—an Asian woman whose desire to discuss anti-Asian racism, Prescod-Weinstein argued, comprised an insidious distraction from the need to protect black people from white supremacists.

The manifesto channeled a dramatic rhetorical style that would become one of Prescod-Weinstein’s hallmarks—a style that serves to cast even minor doctrinal disagreements and critiques as life-threatening acts of personal betrayal:

We were the closest of friends, but that’s not a pass to forget that in a fundamental way, America means we will always lead different lives…Every day my heart has ached because people want to kill me, but that’s always been true. What makes my heart heavy is you. What deflated my optimism about a future of solidarity was that you didn’t love me enough to engage in any that day. Rather than offer me solidarity, you admonished me for not showing up enough for you while people marched down the street [in Charlottesville, VA] chanting death threats to every single member of my family.

Nevertheless, it’s unclear how, if at all, the Durham, NH-based University of New Hampshire will respond. UNH takes an admirably liberal approach to free speech. And there is no evidence that Prescod-Weinstein has performed any act of physical harassment on UNH campus grounds, nor that she systematically targeted other members of the UNH community.

Many campus radicals attract censure by making enemies among their own immediate colleagues and supervisors. But this is a trap that Prescod-Weinstein appears to have studiously avoided.

Notwithstanding her many online feuds, moreover, Prescod-Weinstein has become a widely promoted advocate for women and underrepresented minorities in science. Last year, she was granted tenure by UNH, making her, by her own claim, “the first Black woman in North America—and possibly the world—to earn tenure in either particle theory or cosmology theory.” She developed Particles for Justice, a group of physicists fighting for “black studies and LGBTQ+ visibility.” In 2021, she published an award-winning book detailing, among other things, her campaign against racism and misogyny in academia, earning her the UNH accolade of “literary luminary.” Subjecting this kind of scholar to even the mildest of disciplinary measures would expose UNH to claims that the university was undermining the interests of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Put another way, the scientist’s behaviour presents the school with a problem its administrators likely never anticipated. UNH rules governing harassment, bullying, and discrimination, like those at other universities, are now cast largely as tools to mitigate the harms arising from racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry. It isn’t clear where the boundaries lie when a scholar purporting to fight those problems exhibits offensive behaviour of her own.

One thing that Oluseyi and Prescod-Weinstein agree on is that racism exists in American academia, a problem reflected in the low number of black physicists who graduate from universities. But the two part ways on the question of scale. Ironically, it’s Oluseyi, born and raised in the deep south, who sees the problem of racism as manageable; while it’s the younger Prescod-Weinstein, a descendant of Afro-Caribbean and Jewish immigrants who spent her youth in progressive Los Angeles and Cambridge, MA, who describes racism as an emotionally devastating, life-threatening presence in her daily life.  

A social-media-posted photo of Prescod-Weinstein with a signed copy of her award-winning 2021 book, The Disordered Cosmos.

“Coming from the south, where I experienced explicit, unambiguous racism, I developed a sort of racist radar,” Oluseyi told me during one of our interviews. “But once I moved to Stanford [for postgraduate work], I recalibrated it. One of the ways I would suspect racism is if a person spoke as if he or she were superior to me. Well, guess how physicists at top-ranked universities talk to everyone? The lesson I had to learn was, ‘Oh, you’re not a racist. You’re just an asshole.’”

It was during his subsequent research fellowship at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored facility administered by the University of California, Oluseyi says, when his mindset fundamentally changed. In his speeches, he talks about The Day I Forgot I Was Black: “I was sitting in a colloquium, just focusing on the science, when it suddenly hit me: I’d stopped being self-aware about being the only Black person. The subject just never came up.”

Since then, he’s embarked on a series of successful academic, entrepreneurial, and media collaborations with scientists of every imaginable background, and travelled to more than 40 countries, all the while preaching a universalist gospel of science. In the process, he tells me, issues of identity have receded into the background.

A 2023 photo of astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi, taken to promote his keynote speaking appearance at the International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage, and Analysis in Denver.

By his own description, Oluseyi isn’t a stereotypical astrophysicist: He’s a charismatic raconteur with a big, booming voice and a confident style. No matter the subject being discussed, laughter tends to be frequent on both sides of the conversation. Unlike Prescod-Weinstein, who speaks in the house idiom of Harvard Square, Oluseyi’s accent and mannerisms remain exuberantly rooted in rural Mississippi, where he became the first member of his family to graduate high school. “There was an inside joke among Black astrophysicists that I was the only one you could tell was Black on the phone,” he tells me.

Such qualities have served him well as a science communicator, a mainstay of popular science-themed television shows, and a popular $30,000-per-gig keynote speaker. And in 2018, his memoir, A Quantum Life, was picked up for film adaptation in a deal then involving the late Chadwick Boseman. But these same qualities have also made him something of an outlier in the world of physics and astronomy, which, he tells me, can be elitist, unfriendly, and status-obsessed.

(A note on terminology: Many of the scientists named in this article, including both Oluseyi and Prescod-Weinstein, are referred to as both physicists, and, more specifically, as astrophysicists—which is to say, physicists who apply physics principles to analyze celestial phenomena. Many astrophysicists work closely with observational astronomers, who measure the properties of celestial objects. Additionally, both Prescod-Weinstein and Oluseyi are sometimes described as cosmologists—scientists who study the dynamics of the universe.) 

“There’s a sort of organic personality filter for who chooses to pursue astrophysics,” Oluseyi told me. “We’re not known as being the most tactful people regarding human interaction.”

This helps explain the exceptionally divisive nature of the anti-racism campaigns that tore up his field in the mid-2010s, at a time when Prescod-Weinstein was still doing her postdoctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The main flash point was the fate of another telescope—a then-ground-breaking marvel of optics that astronomers had hoped to erect on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, an inactive volcano that soars more than 4,000 meters above sea level. 

In late 2014, and then again in 2015, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project was shut down by Indigenous-led Hawaiian protestors who assert Mauna Kea as sacred land. Several prominent American astronomers had worked for years on the telescope’s engineering design and financing, and had forged partnerships with local Hawaiian stakeholders. When some of these senior scientists urged that construction be restarted, they were denounced by (mostly) younger colleagues, who characterized the TMT as a racist, colonial enterprise.

Artist’s rendition of the as-yet-unbuilt Thirty Meter Telescope.

While the fight played out in many electronic forums, it took an especially ugly form in a closed Facebook group that had been created to promote diversity in the astronomy field, but which had since become dominated by a handful of scholars who’d begun scrutinizing the speech (and even the “likes”) of their fellow scientists. A trove of screenshots provided to Quillette indicate that the tenor of discussion became heated and personal, with accusations and counter-accusations of embracing “white supremacist frameworks.”

Among the most influential participants were Prescod-Weinstein and a Harvard astronomer named John Asher Johnson—well-known in the field for his work discovering small exoplanets (as well as for his status as Harvard’s first tenured African-American physical-science professor).

Johnson had spent several years doing postdoctoral research in Hawaii, which gave him some knowledge of the state’s nineteenth-century colonial subjugation and modern politics. During an interview this week, he told me that his initial engagement with the Facebook group had been based on his concern that senior American astronomers were dismissive of legitimate Indigenous concerns over land use.

Lunchtime Conversation with Prof. John Johnson | Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America | Brown University

The activist-backed Indigenous-led protests were successful: TMT construction was halted and has never been restarted (even as a similarly advanced facility is being constructed on schedule in northern Chile under the auspices of the European Southern Observatory). As Oluseyi puts it, this was Prescod-Weinstein’s “first ‘win’ in the world of astro-woke politics.”

The Facebook group would eventually be closed down, however—reportedly due to the bad blood that had been created during the TMT controversy. By this time, according to one concerned observer who followed the group’s social dynamics, the controlling clique had become “a cult,” complete with “bullying and excommunication.”

In fact, the tempest caused Johnson himself to rethink his style of engagement with social issues. Not only did he quit the Facebook group, but in 2016 he decided to completely terminate his use of social media altogether (which he describes as “an extraordinarily wise decision”).

“I can look back and see now that what I was stepping into was a sort of confluence between a legitimate grassroots [Hawaiian] anti-colonial movement, and a top-down form of wokeism, DEI, whatever you want to call it,” Johnson told me. His private discussions with other astronomers convinced him that social media wasn’t always the best way to conduct a nuanced, “good faith” discussion within scientific communities.

Without naming names, he adds that some of the TMT’s opponents struck him as channeling the same arrogant rhetorical style as the telescope’s most aggressive defenders:

It was a kind of burgeoning DEI thing that’s now become very common and entrenched, but at the time was fairly new…I was struck by people who were not very thoughtful. [These] were not people who suddenly woke up and started reading the history of American colonialism. These were not people who suddenly started caring about black people living in poor parts of America. They were academics engaging in elite capture of the [protest] process. And I wanted no part of it anymore. So I bailed.

Prescod-Weinstein, on the other hand, seems to have drawn the opposite lessons. In a pattern then playing out in numerous other fields, social-justice dogmas could now be weaponized to flatten, or even reverse, academic status hierarchies. Earning a PhD takes years. But staking a reputation as an anti-racism advocate could be accomplished with a few tweets or a single Huffington Post article denouncing one’s colleagues.

A 1988 Carnegie Institution photo featuring a number of famed female astronomers. Sandra Faber appears third from right.

Indeed, one of the senior astronomers successfully mobbed amid the TMT furor was none other than Sandra Faber, a University of California Santa Cruz scientist who’d recently received the National Medal of Science from then-President Barack Obama. The spectacle of such a legendary figure being mobbed by young scientists, many of whom hadn’t even yet found permanent teaching positions, would have once been entirely unthinkable. But in the mid-2010s, during the first toxic bloom of what later came to be called “cancel culture,” this sort of thing started happening regularly. And Prescod-Weinstein was very much there for it.

In mid-2015, just weeks after the TMT controversy exploded, Prescod-Weinstein spoke at a Vanderbilt University event called Inclusive Astronomy. In her speech, she told attendees that traditional notions of multiculturalism were a dead end for oppressed peoples—just “a means to enhance a neocolonial agenda.” By way of replacement, she endorsed the then-ascendant doctrine of intersectionality, a cartesian model of social justice based on “intersecting axes of identity.”

Helpfully, Prescod-Weinstein presented herself as an example of someone being “marginalized” in at least five different dimensions:

It’s one thing to be marginalized along one axis, say, to be a white ciswoman [a woman who is not transgender]. But the scientific community is an especially dangerous place for people who are not just marginalized along one identity axis, but along multiple identity axes—people like me, who are Black, cisfemale, genderqueer, living with chronic pain, and pansexual, not just one of these things.

But that was just for starters. Soon, new intersectional axes were growing like bamboo shoots on Prescod-Weinstein’s social-media profiles. On the gender front, for instance, the scientist announced that she could no longer “stay silent” about being “agender”—a sort of file-not-found null-set gender category that she described as “genderless.” Eventually, she’d claim that this put her “under the trans ‘umbrella’”—albeit, on its “outskirts.”

What It Means to Identify as Agender
Thinking beyond the binary.

Prescod-Weinstein also reported she was “bisexualish,” a “queer black femme,” a “cissex woman,” and a “Blackqueer” “Blackademic” (with pronouns self-reported variously as either “she/her” or “she/they.”)

She told readers that she suffers from PTSD, that she’s disabled, and that she’s suffered classism. She declared herself to be “Indigenous,” on the basis that her mother was the descendant of Indigenous Africans. She told followers about her Asian husband, a self-described Taiwanese-American “anti-Zionist Jew.” He’d become a cameo character in her online media, trotted out as an authority figure when Prescod-Weinstein was instructing Asians that they were substandard intersectionalists.

Regarding anti-Hispanic discrimination, Prescod-Weinstein claimed that the white nationalists who marched through Charlottesville were a threat to her “Latinx Jewish family members.” Likewise, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers pursuing undocumented immigrants had almost derailed her career, as they’d noisily “chase[d] cholos through my backyard” at precisely the moment when she happened to be studying for the high school exam “that would help determine whether I got to go to Harvard.”

And while Prescod-Weinstein frequently complains about antisemitism, she also claims that the alleged Zionist “genocide” against Muslim Palestinians emerged from the same “white supremacist-Christian nationalist” campaign of “anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity” that targets Blackademics such as herself.

As far as I can tell, in fact, the only marker of intersectional oppression that Prescod-Weinstein has not, at some point, directly or indirectly tried to claim as a marker of her own victimhood is colourism. To such extent as intersectionality may be analogized to an n-dimensional Euclidean space, she has blown well past the 3-D bounds of race, sex, and sexual orientation, and now inhabits something that (by my count), more closely resembles a ten-dimensional hypercube.

Orthogonal projection of a 10-cube, also known as a dekeract or ten-dimensional hypercube.

Moreover, by all appearances, this isn’t an act—at least, not an act that Prescod-Weinstein is performing consciously: She truly does imagine herself to be oppressed in all of these dimensions.

Prescod-Weinstein also appears sincere in her repeatedly asserted belief that her activism constitutes a life-saving act of public service—one that is perpetually leaving her fatigued. The words “tired” and “exhausted” pop up often in her autobiographical writings—as with this lengthy series of tweets about how the white supremacist nature of English grammar had left her “so intellectually exhausted that I can barely write this thread.”

All of which is to say, Prescod-Weinstein’s almost decade-long run as one of STEM’s preeminent social-justice enforcers can be explained as something of a numbers game: By the time she began playing intersectional rock-paper-scissors on social media in the mid-2010s, she could fling down rock, paper, and scissors all in a single tweet.

When attacking Webb, Prescod-Weinstein was “queer.” During her frequent tirades against “white women scientists,” she’s a Blackademic. When denouncing the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP)—at whose meetings she claims to have been sexually assaulted on multiple occasions—she’s a woman. When excoriating her Asian friend (sneeringly described on Prescod-Weinstein’s blog as “the child of a doctor”), she plays the poverty card. When denouncing “settler colonialists,” she’s Indigenous. When seeking to take down Oluseyi for a self-deprecating joke about misunderstanding the Nazis when he was a child, she’s a Jew.

In some cases, Prescod-Weinstein’s conviction in her own oppression becomes so intense that the abstract dogmas of intersectionality start to cross over into the realm of psychology—as in an emotional blog post in which she claimed she’d become a “marked” woman because she spoke “truth to power.”

Prescod-Weinstein reports that she’s received “death threats from people who don’t like what I have to say” (a claim that I find credible given the threats that Quillette’s own female contributors have endured). But her most vividly described anxieties do not involve online critics, but state actors.

In one unusually morbid blog post, she ominously warned followers, “If I Die In Police Custody” (that’s the title), “it will not be because I killed myself. It will be because I was neglected during a medical emergency or worse because the police had created one.”

Lapsing into a messianic style, Prescod-Weinstein wrote that her self-prophesized demise would create “a pathway to creating a safer world.” She also instructed her followers that they should create a hashtag to honour this future sacrifice; and that they should assign blame for her demise to unbelievers who ignored the dark vision she’d just described.

It’s an unsettling piece of writing, shot through with delusions of grandeur that may help explain other aspects of Prescod-Weinstein’s behaviour. But to give the woman her due, it hardly sounds concocted or cynical: When it comes to the religion of social justice, the least that can be said of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is that she’s a true believer in her own sainthood. 

I’ve never met Prescod-Weinstein. She didn’t reply to my interview request, nor to the list of questions sent to her several days ago, through multiple electronic channels, regarding the issues discussed in this article. But she’s been blogging and tweeting about herself for many years, thereby creating a densely detailed autobiographical paper trail in the process. Tracing the evolution of her views isn’t difficult.

In one eyebrow-raising 2020 paper, Prescod-Weinstein purported to invoke Einstein’s principle of covariance to argue that black women are victimized by something she calls ‘white empiricism’

In the late 2010s, Prescod-Weinstein began to style herself as a “self-taught Black feminist philosopher,” and secured a cross-posting in UNH’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department. Since then, she’s steadily transformed from a scientist who’s interested in social justice, to a social-justice activist trying to root her arguments in science.

In one eyebrow-raising 2020 paper, for instance, Prescod-Weinstein purported to invoke Einstein’s principle of covariance to argue that black women are victimized by something she calls “white empiricism”—“a bifurcated logic that serves white supremacist traditions in science while deontologizing marginalized Black women physicists.” In her 2021 book, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, she defended the existence of nonbinary gender identities on the basis that sub-atomic particles “are neither simply point-like nor simply wavelike” in their studied behaviour.

In her 2022 TED Talk, similarly, she compared the effect of dark matter on stars and galaxies to an invisible nonbinary person wearing a suit and a hat. “The presence of the invisible enby [nonbinary person],” she explained, “is governing how the suit hangs in space-time.”

Subtitled still-frame image from Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s widely viewed 2022 TED Talk, How We Could Solve the Dark Matter Mystery, in which the University of New Hampshire scientist explained the effect of dark matter on celestial bodies by reference to what she described as an invisible nonbinary person wearing a suit and a hat.

In the penultimate chapter of The Disordered Cosmos—titled, Black Feminists at the End of the World—Prescod-Weinstein described our planet as teetering on the edge of apocalypse, in need of black feminist salvation. Its opening vignette features her dying maternal grandmother exhorting Chanda to fulfill the dreams of their ancestors: “Survive, survive, thrive, and take us—and all you can—with you.” The next chapter, which describes the author’s own “Freedom Dream” for planet Earth, ends with a secularized Jewish prayer to the “Universe of our stellar ancestors,” rendered in both Hebrew and English.

Needless to say, the literary tone of Prescod-Weinstein’s online trolling is less lofty. Yet it channels the same ersatz religious zeal, with the author often whipping herself into a sort of fugue state, expanding her accusations apocalyptically as the text proceeds.

Some good examples of her technique may be found here, here, here, and here. But in selecting a representative case study for analysis, I’ve opted for her February 9, 2016 attack on Erika Christakis, then an Associate Master of Yale’s Silliman College. At the time, Christakis was being targeted by social-justice mobs who’d smeared her as a racist, after she’d written an email questioning whether university administrators should be lecturing adult students about Halloween costume selection. (Full disclosure: Erika’s husband is Nicholas Christakis, a Quillette contributor whom I have interviewed for our podcast.)

A 2008 photo of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (centre) in Toronto, demonstrating in support of American political scientist Norman Finkelstein.

The example highlights the effectiveness of Prescod-Weinstein’s propaganda style particularly well because, as subsequent reporting would demonstrate, she had no factual evidence to work with: Christakis hadn’t said or done anything improper, let alone racist. Just the opposite, in the email that had sparked the controversy, she’d taken pains to express her understanding of the vulnerabilities that students might experience in the face of culturally appropriative costumes. And the whole episode is now properly held up as a cautionary tale of campus social panic.

In the first four paragraphs, Prescod-Weinstein builds trust with the reader, reciting a list of her own academic credentials, and offering a description of the underlying facts that, while heavily torqued, isn’t (yet) completely dishonest. Her style here is stern and authoritative, the text peppered with legal references and links to (presumably relevant) academic studies.

In paragraph five, the pivot begins: This isn’t just about Halloween, is it? Rather, it’s about Christakis’ failure to ensure the safety of non-white students. And who among us cannot spare a thought for the safety—indeed, the lives—of non-white people? That’s right: racists. 

Sentence by sentence, Prescod-Weinstein keeps amping up the tone until, by paragraph ten, Christakis has become a full-on sociopath. (“The email she wrote was toxic and literally harmed the health of marginalized students.”) By paragraph eleven, the author might as well be speaking in tongues, describing Christakis’ evil as so monstrous that it escapes even Prescod-Weinstein’s ability to comprehend or describe: “I can’t imagine being that cold … mean, and profoundly racist.”

Masterfully, Prescod-Weinstein saves the real kicker for the end—a surprise third act, in which the author suddenly is overcome by her own irrepressible benevolence, and declares herself willing to imagine that Christakis—the racist psychopath from just a few paragraphs up—is actually “a warm person who made a very serious mistake.” Perhaps, just perhaps, there’s hope for absolution, so long as Christakis “acknowledges” (which is to say, begs forgiveness for) her ignorance.

It’s a brilliant way for Prescod-Weinstein to stick the landing, as it draws the reader back to the intended star: Prescod-Weinstein herself. As Christakis exits the stage, it is not an expression of anger that the author betrays, but rather one of disappointment and weariness, following yet another emotionally exhausting confrontation with the forces of white supremacy. 

Race and Social Panic at Haverford: A Case Study in Educational Dysfunction
Sydney. London. Toronto.

I’ve been working at Quillette for seven years, with much of that time spent covering academic scandals and feuds at various universities, many involving exactly this type of ruthless social-justice level boss. None of those figures, in my view, could match Prescod-Weinstein’s skill in the art of character assassination. Her remarkably long run as online enforcer—nine years and counting—is no accident.

Prescod-Weinstein’s rhetorical methodology isn’t just brutally effective as a weapon, but also as a shield—one that, till recently at least, helped insulate her from criticism. For how many fellow academics would dare call out her behaviour—or even go public with any but the most fawning assessments of her published work—knowing that they could thereby become the next Erika Christakis, the next Hakeem Oluseyi, the next “dearest” Asian-American bestie being denounced as “cold … mean, and profoundly racist?”

But there’s one enemy that Prescod-Weinstein can’t dispatch with online attacks or intersectional sophistry: the march of time. The radicalized form of social-justice dogma she espouses, like all political cults, is a young-person’s game, a means for freshly graduated firebrands to discredit the old order and take their jobs.

That certainly suited Prescod-Weinstein back in 2015, when she hadn’t yet landed a permanent academic posting. But she’s now 42 years old, a tenured middle-aged professor with a large media profile and a string of prizes. To such extent as American academia really is the dystopia she claims it to be, Prescod-Weinstein is now part of its well-heeled establishment.

This inevitable changing of the guard was presaged in an obscure but telling recent tiff involving a young Rochester Institute of Technology astrophysicist named Rebecca Larson, who not only had the chutzpah to call Prescod-Weinstein out as “elitist and condescending,” but even played Prescod-Weinstein’s po-faced hauteur for laughs. (Declaring that this upstart had no right “speaking to me like this,” Prescod-Weinstein retreated to a new thread, wherein she proceeded to run through her usual attack script.)

Age and seniority also played to Prescod-Weinstein’s disadvantage when she tried to take on a young Swedish scientist named Beatriz Villarroel—an assistant professor at the Nordic Institute of Theoretical Physics who, at the time, was still a postdoctoral researcher in the field of exoplanets. The episode figures prominently in one of the complaints filed with UNH:

Dr. Villarroel [had come] into Dr. Prescod-Weinstein’s crosshairs because she decided to conduct research and publish with Dr. Geoff Marcy, a leading exoplanet researcher. Marcy voluntarily retired in 2015 from his position at the University of California Berkeley, following complaints about inappropriate behavior that allegedly occurred multiple years prior…Since her initial attack in 2021, [Dr. Prescod-Weinstein] claim[ed] falsely that Dr. Villarroel was a participant in ‘rape culture’ (Marcy was never accused of rape or assault)…Dr. Prescod-Weinstein engaged in [further] harassing behavior [when] Dr. Villarroel filed a request with the International Astronomical Union [IAU] for protection against [previous] harassment.

Prescod-Weinstein’s attacks would become progressively more agitated, not only regarding Villarroel, but also third parties who appeared sympathetic to Villarroel’s position. The UNH scholar claimed that the political views of Villarroel—who’d just won the L’Oréal-UNESCO Prize for Women in Science—were “fucking trash”; and that Marcy had “physically assaulted” her friends. (In fact, an extensive University of California investigation found no evidence that Marcy had assaulted anyone, let alone multiple members of Prescod-Weinstein’s social circle.)

Prize to promising astrophysicist - Stockholm University
Beatriz Villarroel at Nordita is one of two researchers to receive this year’s L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science Prize in Sweden. She has initiated an astronomy project with citizen science to identify missing light sources in the night sky.

Villarroel isn’t one to be silenced, and fought back in writing. What’s more, the IAU actually responded to her plea for protection with new rules against “bullying or harassment of an individual, including complainants, their allies, alleged or sanctioned offenders, or those who work with them or have worked with them.” While the wording has been watered down from a previous draft that would have provided more protections for someone in Villarroel’s situation, the fact that an international scientific body has taken any steps at all to address Prescod-Weinstein’s brand of social-justice trolling is significant.

Guest Post: Beatriz Villarroel on her personal experience with “Guilt by Association” harassment in Astronomy
A call for increased compassion and respect for rights in academia.

The University of New Hampshire’s Code of Ethical Conduct guarantees a “safe environment” free of “discrimination and harassment,” as do other similarly worded UNH policies. Whether Prescod-Weinstein’s behaviour amounts to discrimination or harassment is a matter of opinion. But the more significant barrier that Oluseyi and the other complainants face is that the policies’ wording would appear to confine their ambit to the protection of UNH’s own faculty, staff, and students. (Earlier this week, Quillette sent a list of questions to UNH officials, seeking clarification on this point, and other issues related to the complaints against Prescod-Weinstein. This article will be updated if and when the university responds.)

As noted above, Prescod-Weinstein tends to do her online sniping at long range, and has generally avoided stirring up local controversy. Despite her national media profile, in fact, she’s remained a surprisingly obscure figure on her own campus. A politically connected conservative UNH professor whom I interviewed told me that he’d never even heard of her until she publicly suggested that the 10/7 Hamas terrorists were comparable to World War Two-era Jewish partisans. A veteran New Hampshire reporter, who’s been covering the state for two decades, told me something similar.

UNH administrators may well conclude that, to such extent as Oluseyi has a claim against Prescod-Weinstein, it’s one he should pursue through civil litigation. And if he goes that route, he may well have a case.

On Twitter, Prescod-Weinstein has repeatedly suggested, on no cited evidence, that Oluseyi sexually harassed students during his tenure at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT). In doing so, she appears to be rehashing a debunked decade-old claim that—as documents reviewed independently by both Quillette and The New York Times illustrate—was investigated and dismissed by Oluseyi’s then-FIT colleagues. When Oluseyi was named George Mason University’s Visiting Robinson Professor in 2021, that university, too, performed its own due diligence, and, as the evidence reviewed by Quillette indicates, came to identical conclusions.

Tweet images included in Hakeem Oluseyi’s 61-page complaint to UNH regarding Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, which he contends serve to falsely characterize him as a sexual harasser.

Until now, Oluseyi told me, the high costs associated with litigation have deterred him from taking the legal route. But it’s a decision he may revisit if Prescod-Weinstein continues to attack him online.

On the other hand, it’s not clear to me that a lawsuit would even be necessary, since Oluseyi has already succeeded in publicly exposing Prescod-Weinstein’s methods—both regarding her specific attacks on him, and her modus operandi more generally.

As noted in our 2022 Quillette coverage, the fight that the two scientists waged over the James Webb Space Telescope attracted the attention of New York Times reporter Michael Powell, whose lengthy investigation into the affair ended up on the front page of the newspaper’s December 19, 2022 edition. (Full disclosure: Powell, who is now at the Atlantic, is someone I’ve met at social events in New York, and whom I’ve interviewed on the Quillette podcast.) The article proved a double blow to Prescod-Weinstein, in that it not only reported her role in spreading Wikipedia-sourced misinformation about Webb, but also indicated that she appeared to be encouraging the spread of false claims about Oluseyi.

True to form, Prescod-Weinstein responded with a lengthy screed against Powell, in which she accused him of being “so anti-Black, so queer-phobic,” and suggested he was destroying the “cosmic dreams” of black children. (She also accused Powell of failing to seek adequate input from female scientists. On this score, I should note that at least two of the UNH letters of complaint shared with Quillette were authored by well-known female scholars.)

In keeping with a pattern she’d been following since the mid-2010s, Prescod-Weinstein worked herself into a verbal frenzy, at one point even suggesting that Powell was knowingly inviting death threats against her. She also excoriated Powell for failing to fully catalogue her “national prestigious awards.”

Just as Prescod-Weinstein had hinted that she’d heard from (unnamed) people that Oluseyi was a sexual harasser, she was now claiming to hear from (unnamed) people that Powell was a malicious journalist who badgered his sources. This is in keeping with her 2015-era claim to have heard privately from (unnamed) “native students” who’d supposedly suggested to her that construction of the TMT would cause them to flee the field of astronomy. Just a few weeks ago, while denouncing “Zionist Jews,” she tweeted about the many (unnamed) “Arab and Muslim students” who supposedly had come to her for “counsel” about whether “there’s a place for them in American science.”

Of course, even journalists sometimes use anonymous sources (as I have done in this article). But Prescod-Weinstein seems to have an eerie knack for recruiting them en masse. Indeed, it would surprise me if she won’t soon be telling us about some similarly mysterious legion of wounded souls offering claims against me.

Prescod-Weinstein’s 2016 manifesto on intersectionality starts off with a quote from Audre Lorde (1934-1992), a black lesbian writer, academic, and activist: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.” Whatever one may think of intersectionality as a formal analytical framework, that adage strikes me as true. None of us are two-dimensional cartoon characters. All of us are a complicated mix of good and bad impulses, privilege, and hardship—Prescod-Weinstein, included.

Intersectionality as a Blueprint for Postcolonial Scientific Community Building
(This is an edited version of a speech that I gave to the Inclusive Astronomy conference in June, 2015, and an extension of thinking that…

In that spirit, here are some other things readers should know about Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. She really did grow up in a poor home. She’s had a complicated relationship with her mother. She suffered a horrible bicycle accident during her college years, which led to many surgeries and chronic pain. She genuinely loves science, and is obviously good at doing it. She’s co-authored numerous peer-reviewed papers, such as Constraining Bosonic Asymmetric Dark Matter with Neutron Star Mass-Radius Measurements, which I have neither the training nor intelligence to understand. Much of her book is worth reading: When she sticks to real scientific topics, Prescod-Weinstein is an excellent writer.

Constraining bosonic asymmetric dark matter with neutron star mass-radius measurements
Neutron stars can accumulate asymmetric dark matter (ADM) in their interiors, which affects the neutron star’s measurable properties and makes compact objects prime targets to search for ADM. In this work, we use Bayesian inference to explore potential neutron star mass-radius measurements, from current and future x-ray telescopes, to constrain the bosonic ADM parameters for the case where bosonic ADM has accumulated in the neutron star interior. We find that the current uncertainties in the baryonic equation of state do not allow for constraints on the ADM parameter space to be made. However, we also find that ADM cannot be excluded and the inclusion of bosonic ADM in neutron star cores relaxes the constraints on the baryonic equation of state space. If the baryonic equation of state were more tightly constrained independent of ADM, we find that statements about the ADM parameter space could be made. In particular, we find that the high bosonic ADM particle mass ($m_χ$) and low effective self-interaction strength ($g_χ/m_ϕ)$ regime is disfavored due to the observationally and theoretically motivated constraint that neutron stars must have at least a mass of $1 \, \mathrm{M_\odot}$. However, within the remaining parameter space, $m_χ$ and $g_χ/m_ϕ$ are individually unconstrained. On the other hand, the ADM mass-fraction, i.e., the fraction of ADM mass inside the neutron star, can be constrained by such neutron star measurements.

As I’ve noted, even her social-justice agitprop betrays a certain cunning brilliance of form and technique. I learned a few tricks from her, in fact. That sudden flip she performed in the third act of her Erika Christakis takedown, for instance—why, I’m doing some version of it right now, aren’t I?

And she’s obviously not wrong that sexism and racism exist in science. I was a scientist (of sorts) once, and saw it firsthand. Putting aside Prescod-Weinstein’s lurid hyperbole about the “fascistic” oppression she supposedly endures, I have no doubt she’s been victimized by at least occasional slights based on sex and race—the sort of thing that someone who looks like me never has to worry about.

Sins of the Past | The Walrus
Had Twitter existed twenty-five years ago, I would have ruined my career prospects a thousand times over

But Prescod-Weinstein’s strongest claim to our sympathy doesn’t lie with her identity. Rather, it lies with the fact that she came of academic age at a moment when oppression became a mark of status and power. The sort of person who succeeds at getting into Harvard University and becoming a theoretical physicist is the sort of massively intelligent, obsessively ambitious high achiever who constantly measures herself against others. In this context, it’s easy to see the appeal of intersectionality—a doctrine that allows young scholars to tally up their traumas as if they were standardized test scores.

Unfortunately, intersectionality often comes with an embedded requirement of self-pity, since the conceit of multi-dimensional oppression requires an outwardly projected attitude of misery to match

Unfortunately, intersectionality often comes with an embedded requirement of self-pity, since the conceit of multi-dimensional oppression requires an outwardly projected attitude of misery to match. All professional fields are flecked with narcissists who noisily project their problems and anxieties on external actors. But intersectionally programmed academic subcultures are unique to such extent as they reward individuals for this kind of behaviour—behaviour that any otherwise-situated emotionally functional adult would regard as unsettling, or even pathological.

Prescod-Weinstein’s ideologically mandated sense of persecution has clearly taken a toll on her as much as her online targets. A constant theme in her writing is how utterly depressed and angry she’s become. Humor is completely alien to her world, except when she’s complaining about it. When she describes her adult life, moments of happiness are introduced only as brief cut scenes, almost immediately interrupted by some newly awakened horror.

Even her celebratory boasts have a distinctively joyless quality—never more so than in a 2023 blog post announcing that she’d received tenure; good news that she turns into grist for yet another lachrymose meditation on her own oppression:

The gruesomeness of this particular political moment…is such that I kept my bid for tenure a secret lest any political actors try to make an example out of me. I didn’t talk about the death threats I received, or the harassment my department chairs weathered because of people who claim to care about “American freedom” but don’t like it when I use my free speech. These same people are doing everything they can to claw back any civil rights gains that queer people, people of color, and women as legal classes have won over the last century. As a Blackqueer and Jewish agender woman, I am the outspoken and non-compliant bogeyman they are worried about. I am the thing they want to snuff out.

Among my research materials lies a picture that’s stuck with me—a September 2011 group photo featuring physicists from the executive boards of the National Society of Black Physicists and its Hispanic counterpart, the NSHP.

Everyone is smiling, including Oluseyi, then the NSBP’s Acting Executive Administrator, and, just a few feet away, Prescod-Weinstein, who was then just starting up her MLK Postdoctoral Fellowship at MIT: two rising stars of science beaming for the camera, unaware that within a decade, they’d be leading opposing factions in a messy front-page culture-war squabble over a $10-billion telescope.

Photo from a joint 2011 NSBP/NSHP meeting in Austin, TX, featuring Hakeem Oluseyi (third from left), and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (fifth from left).

According to an appendix contained in Oluseyi’s complaint, he first met Prescod-Weinstein in 2009, thanks to an introduction from a mutual acquaintance—astrophysicist Jarita Holbrook—who’d observed that the two scientists shared a “common interest in promoting racial justice.”

By Oluseyi’s account, however, Prescod-Weinstein seemed to dislike him from the get go. And within a few years, they were butting heads over NSBP election protocols (a complicated subplot covered in well-documented detail by Oluseyi’s materials). In 2018, Prescod-Weinstein complained to NSBP officials about the aforementioned joke that Oluseyi had told during a speech at the group’s annual meeting. By the time the JWST controversy reached fever pitch, her claims against Oluseyi started blurring into conspiracy theories—as when she suggested that he’d become a pawn of “NASA HQ.”

And yet, Holbrook wasn’t wrong in her assessment: Oluseyi and Prescod-Weinstein really do have a lot in common. Both brilliant. Both ambitious. Both persuasive. And yes, both passionate in their quest for social justice—even if that quest has taken them in two completely different directions.

Fifteen years after their first meeting, it seems clear which one chose the more promising path.

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