Guest Post: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

I first met Chanda (briefly) when she was visiting the University of Chicago as a summer undergraduate research student. Since then we’ve corresponded occasionally about life as a physicist and which general relativity textbook is the best. She emailed me a thoughtful response to a couple of posts about string theory and the state of physics (here and here), and I thought it would be good to have those thoughts presented as a full-blown guest post rather than just a comment; happily, Chanda agreed.

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A few months ago, Sean posted an entry on this blog addressing his concerns about Dr. Lee Smolin’s (then forthcoming) book, The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. Dramatically titled and well-hyped, Lee’s book was sure to arouse strong emotions and plenty of debate on publication. However, it managed to do that even before it was out, and the commentary on Sean’s entry included correspondence from Lee as well as several other great contemporary thinkers in theoretical physics. The dialogue was inspired, passionate, argumentative, sometimes rude, and always exploratory.

But something was missing. I wondered how there could be a discourse about the marketplace of ideas and about who gets to participate in science without a component that addresses the obvious (at least for those of us with some relationship to the US academic system): the community of scientists in the United States is overwhelmingly homogeneous, white (of European descent) and male. That sounds like a pretty narrow marketplace to me, given that over half of the US population is either female or a member of an underrepresented minority group or both. Surely this must mean that we are under-utilizing our potential talent pool in our drive to better understand the physical world.

As a member of the National Society of Black Physicists’ (NSBP) Executive Committee and Editor of their newsletter, I like to stay on top of the statistics related to these issues, so let me mention a few to satisfy those who like to see data. (All stats are borrowed from the NSF unless otherwise noted.) At the moment, only about 12% of doctoral degrees in physics go to women. The number going to people identified as Black/African-American hovers around an average of 14 per year out of an average 738 total degrees. That’s 1.8% despite making up about 12% of the population. Further investigation uncovers the (to me) monumental tragedy that almost no other field in science and technology is doing worse at diversifying than ours, physics. (See Dr. Shirley Malcolm’s symposium paper from AIP’s 75th Anniversary celebration.)

Knowing all this, I want to share with you how shocking it is to me when I have regular conversations with my peers who express to me that they don’t see a problem. And if they do express concerns to me, a lot of the time it’s guys who want more women in the field because they want to find dates. Sorry guys, we’re here because we’re interested in physics, not you, and on top of that, some of us like women better! And yes, sometimes it’s just a joke, but sometimes it’s hard to tell, and believe me, we’ve heard that one many, many times before. On the topic of seeing more people of color (Blacks, Latina/os, etc.) most often I am met with disinterested silence or an insistence (the knowledge base this derives from is always hazy, in my opinion) that there’s nothing the physics community can do to resolve the issue because the problem is in the high schools and has nothing to do with post-secondary academe.

This attitude is disappointing, to say the least. First of all, the numbers contradict these sentiments. While it is true that there are deeply troubling issues facing the K-12 education system in the US, especially in low-income neighborhoods which are disproportionately populated by people of color, women and other underrepresented groups fall out of the pipeline at all stages, from the post-baccalaureate to the post-doctorate level, and they do so at a much higher rate than white men. Clearly something is happening. What is happening is far too full a topic to tackle here, but perhaps I will be invited to say more about it in the comments section. I invite readers to participate in a knowledge-based discourse about this issue.

On the other hand, if you’re having a hard time figuring out why you should care about diversity, the President of Princeton can offer you a helping hand. In the 2003 Killam Lecture at the University of British Columbia, Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman identified four reasons for why we should care about diversity in science. I paraphrase them here:

  1. If we aren’t looking at the entire talent pool available, scientific progress will be slower by default.
  2. It’s possible that women and other underrepresented minorities will identify unique scientific problems that their majority peers might not.
  3. Science will find it increasingly difficult to recruit the brightest minorities as other fields diversify and therefore look attractive to members of underrepresented groups. An attractive work environment is essential to competing on the job market for the best thinkers.
  4. The scientific establishment ought to pursue diversification as a matter of fairness and justice.
    In a small (statistically insignificant) survey of various scientists and leaders in scientific organizations, I found that the question of “why is diversity in science important?” is addressed in these four points. While point four is possibly closest to my heart, I think that points one and two are two of the strongest arguments out there. (An aside: As I am tidying up this essay, one professor writes me and says that he finds four to be most compelling! I hope that others will agree.)

I would like to reflect on point one in the context of work in theoretical physics, specifically in quantum gravity and cosmology. If we are to take seriously the concept that what we seek in physics is truth and a better understanding, don’t we want to have the broadest pool of talent available to participate in the process? I think this applies to people and ideas alike. Until we have a theory that pulls out ahead of the others, what are we doing arguing about whose theory is doing better? Right now, neither loops, nor strings, nor triangles, nor anything else has ANY data to back it up, so perhaps the best thing we can all do on that front is get back to work.

An aside to that last remark: It’s hard to get to work when no one will hire you. It remains true that even if I do good work in my field, if my field is not strings, I will have a difficult time finding a job in theoretical physics. Some might argue that this is fair because I have made the foolish error of working on a silly (let’s say loopy) theory. But honestly, to those who like to toe that line, I’d like to say that since you don’t have the LHC data in hand or anything else that proves/disproves strings/loops/anything else, at this stage we’re all in the same boat. And what if strings is wrong? Has the physics community gained anything by suppressing and/or ignoring the alternatives?

To speak in more general terms, I could ask the broader question: what has the scientific community gained by choosing not to pro-actively welcome a broad and diverse set of people and ideas into the fold? Well, again there isn’t enough space for the details, but there is increasing evidence from research in science education that supports the point that diversity of perspectives accelerates problem solving.

Moreover, a fellow grad student and active member of NSBP’s sister organization, the National Society of Hispanic Physicists (NSHP), pointed out to me that we can definitely be aware of what the scientific community potentially loses when people from different backgrounds aren’t allowed to participate in science. Laura noted that our society has thrived on the contributions of women like Marie Curie (discovered radioactivity) and Emmy Noether (Noether’s theorem) and African-Americans like Benjamin Banneker (early civil and mechanical engineer, self-taught astronomer and mathematician). At this point, I think it is easy to ask and answer, “what would our world be like without the Marie Curies and Benjamin Bannekers?” Most likely lacking.

But another, equally important question isn’t raised often enough: What are we missing by living in a world where only the Marie Curie’s make it through? A few women and underrepresented minorities have always found a way to challenge the status quo. Let’s face it: physics is hard for anyone. It’s not hard to imagine that it takes a certain type of determined personality to overcome barriers and make new discoveries. What of the rest? The people who didn’t find the right friends and family to help them? The ones who never had a chance to learn physics? The ones who thought that people who look like them don’t succeed at physics? (And yes, they are out there; I’ve met some of them.) Might we be further along in our understanding of dark matter? Perhaps, perhaps not, but until we push harder to integrate, we’ll never know.

At this stage, it occurs to me that many of you will look at my definition of diversity and think it is too narrow. I’ve left out all of the international collaboration that goes on in physics, and surely, isn’t that a wonderful kind of diversity which is plentiful in our world? Yes! One thing that endeared the Perimeter Institute to me almost immediately was the fact that my peer group hails from all over Europe and Asia, and at the lunch table, as many as five or more cultures may be represented. But to me this highlights the problem — if the North American physics community has been able to welcome an international populace with open arms, why can’t they do the same with the diversity that already exists at home?

In the end, perhaps this is not a fair way to raise the question. International members of the physics community also have to confront issues of racism and discrimination. Racism is not a uniquely American problem, nor do people of color suffer alone from it in the US. But I still have a question, then: if the academy is ready to bring those of us who earn Phds into the fold, why isn’t it doing more to encourage more of us to reach that far? Those of us who do make it that far are left wondering why it doesn’t bother anyone else that we are more likely to see a German in our graduate classes than another Black person.

The challenges we face in confronting these issues are not easy. First we must accept there is an issue, a problem. Then there must be open discussion about how we understand the problem. I realize that it is difficult to step into someone else’s shoes and understand where they are coming from. But to an extent, like Albert Einstein before us, we must rise to the challenge of the barriers placed before our understanding and transcend them.

For my part, as a Black woman, I would ask my white (and male) peers to remember that many of us (though not all) experience our differences as a negative in this environment. Where I see it as a Black cultural tradition to lend a helping hand even as I continue to achieve my own dreams, others see my commitment to NSBP as a signal that I am wasting my time not doing science. Do my friends who play music in their spare time get this same signal? Moreover, many of us who are women or people of color or both are often involved in efforts to change the face of science. When we are challenged about that by our peers, not only are they standing in our way, but they are also failing to recognize that for many of us, this investment in the community is necessary to our survival, much like someone else might say playing music is for theirs.

Furthermore, where I wish to understand other people’s choices of identification, there are those amongst my peers who have felt they had the right to make my choices for me. I find myself now terrified of mentioning my Blackness in any way, lest I become dehumanized, my personal identity reduced to an object of debate. These are examples of the way my background has been turned into a negative for me. I know others have similar and worse experiences, and surely, this is one major leak in the aforementioned pipeline. My hope is that physics will evolve not only in concept, but also in its sensibilities about who a physicist is and what she looks like. What if we came to value our heterogeneity, to see it as an advantage?

It is important to note that there are white men out there thinking about these issues. I know Sean Carroll is one of them. For me, Professor Henry Frisch at the University of Chicago has been an amazing mentor. His father, the late Professor David Frisch of MIT, was influential in the graduate career path of Dr. Jim Gates, now an accomplished African-American theorist at the University of Maryland. People who take the time to be concerned, therefore, do have an impact. A common complaint that I hear from interested people is that there aren’t enough people with diverse backgrounds in the talent pool when they are choosing grad students, postdocs, and faculty. I believe that this points to a fundamental problem that physicists can help with: somewhere a pool of talent is getting lost, and we need to push harder to find it again by taking a pro-active role in education policy, mentoring (studies show this makes a big difference in minority performance), and anti-discrimination activism.

I hope that many of you will take this to heart and realize that for the sake of science, if nothing else, diversity matters. There’s a lot to be done to change things, and I encourage you to support work that is being done in your community, whether it’s by contributing hours designing a website or giving a tour of your department to local students who wouldn’t normally be exposed to science. Moreover, I strongly urge you, especially those of you who are not from an underrepresented background, to take seriously the idea that not everyone experiences the physics community like you, not everyone has the same ideas, that some people face real barriers to academic progress, and that we’re all better off when we make a genuine effort to listen to and understand the other side.

Before I finish, I’ll make a last comment on the science. One of the ways I’ve seen these divisions hurt us is the way in which we seem completely stuck on some pretty major problems. As it stands, we have a standard model of cosmology where we don’t know what form 96% of the energy of the universe takes, and we only know the barest of details about the properties of dark energy and dark matter. The model is also still hazy on many of the details of the first 400,000 years or so. This is where the quantum gravity community should rise to the challenge of seeking new and unique ways of approaching the problem since the old ones clearly aren’t working. This means we have to encourage new ideas. Even if they turn out to be wrong, we’ll probably still learn something. So to partake in some near trademark infringement, it’s time to “Think Differently.”

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein earned her BA in Physics and Astronomy and Astrophysics (yes, it is gramatically incorrect on her diploma) from Harvard College in 2003. She went on to earn an MS in Astronomy and Astrophysics at University of California, Santa Cruz (2005), where she studied black holes in higher dimensions. She is now beginning a Phd under Dr. Lee Smolin in Waterloo, Ontario, recently dubbed the Geek Capital of Canada. A product of the integrated public magnet schools of Los Angeles, she is proud to be both a Black woman and a physicist.

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73 Responses to Guest Post: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

  1. Pingback: Physics in the US: white males of European descent « Later On

  2. macho says:

    Chanda,

    Thank you. I just received a series of letters from physicists on this topic that were very discouraging — almost all revealed a deeply held belief that the disparity in the percent of men/women in our field is due solely to the “fact” that women are different in their abilities and/or interests and that there is no discrimination or bias in our (physics) culture. Your thoughtful essay from an (unfortunately) unique position is exactly what I needed to remind me of how important it is to continue to work towards achieving a true meritocracy. Good luck with all of your endeavors.

  3. Belizean says:

    Chanda,

    The problem isn’t and under-representation of Blacks and women. It’s an over-representation of Whites and men. Remember, there is a surplus of physicists. Whites and men and should be discouraged from choosing physics as a career (as should anyone interested in eating).

    Blacks and women, perhaps more interested in employment and security, are wisely staying away from physics and gravitating toward medicine and law.

  4. nigel cook says:

    There is far more arrogance in mainstream theoretical physics than probably any other subject, and there is definitely too much prejudice as well. I think personally this prejudice is against a wide range people, and that too many top physicists effectively ‘clone’ themselves by recruiting people of too similar background and thinking.

    I think your conclusion accurately sums up what is wrong with cosmology and the way forward for trying to get a complete quantum gravity. Hope you have a great time with your PhD under Smolin.

  5. Kea says:

    Thanks Chanda and Sean

    I just a wish that a few (actually, quite a lot of) people I know would read past the first paragraph here and actually think about this issue. It would also be nice if they actually thought a bit more carefully about the physics, too.

  6. Sourav says:

    Chanda,

    Considering your points 1 and 2:

    1) What concrete steps should physicists take as a group to remedy this injurious narrowing of the talent pool?

    2) Why would this be the case? Does it not contradict the notion that underrepresented minorities don’t have different abilities? Or, are you arguing that underrepresented minorities have different but equal abilities, due to varying experiences? If so, why?

    Thanks,

    Sourav

  7. Xenophage says:

    Jews are 2.2% of the US population and are excluded from education opportunities and subsequent positions by anti-Semitism. Are there any Jews in science? Are any Nobel Laureates Jewish? If you choose to race beagles against salukis, don’t complain about consistently disparate results.

  8. Logizmo says:

    As a female high school student seeking to enter into the physics field, I would just like to say that there is a lot of support- even bias- towards women entering into this area.
    Of course, I am only at the stage of applying for universities, but I know that when I say that I am interested in physical cosmology, eyes light up.
    For the MIT class of 2005, women had roughly 3 times the chance of acceptance (and that was just for the university, regardless of chosen major). This is simply because the university strives for relative gender balance, and there are many more male students that apply than female.

    I’m not saying there isn’t a problem, just that, from the perspective of a young woman trying to enter the field, I have encountered only support in my endeavours. And I’d like to say thanks to everyone in the community for that.

  9. Alex says:

    Hi Chanda,

    Thanks for bringing up an issue that I’ve rarely heard mentioned. I’m doing a PhD in the UK and have often wondered why there are so few black people taking physics degrees here, when many other minorities in the UK seem to be fairly well represented (atleast in comparison). At the moment, particularly where I am, doing outreach seems to be in fashion which is fantastic, however maybe it’s not going far enough. In the UK the number of students taking physics at high school has dropped by 40% in the last 20 years (Institute of Physics website) and by about 15% since I did it in 2000. When I was taking physics I think I was the only girl in the entire year that wanted to do physics after high school, everyone else was there because they needed physics for med school or to be a vet. Anyway what I mean is in the British government’s desparation to get kids to stop choosing media studies et al, and opt for weighter studies such as physics, that any attempt to promote diversity falls into the background. In the UK atleast, I believe it’s at high school where the main problem lies. Although I’m unsure of what to do about this (except for writing this post).

    Good luck with your PhD!

  10. Sam Gralla says:

    Hi Chanda! So, you went loopy, eh? (“eh” added for canadian emphasis). Lee Smolin was in Chicago a few weeks ago, and he stopped by the relativity office (where I work) for a bit. He mentioned lots of stuff about braiding; I guess that’s what you’re up to, since braiding befits a woman :). (Sorry to make jokes, but at least you haven’t heard that one over and over again like the ‘no dates’ one). Interesting post; I think my own opinions on the issue align mainly with your “individuals who take the time to care make a difference” paragraph. I think that minority science students mainly drop out due to lack of confidence, which is something that is remarkably easily fixed by having an advisor who is interested in his student as a person.

    Anyway, good luck at perimeter!

  11. Haelfix says:

    I more or less disagree with the entirety of the post -shrug- Diversity of culture/gender/(insert group affiliation) is completely irrelevant to progress in science. Diversity of ideas otoh is (to a point obviously, lest the crackpot index breaks).

    I see no evidence that race/gender/sexuality/hair color has any statistical bearing on what type of ideas a person will concoct, ergo the premise is flawed. Indeed the nice thing about science is these arbitrary (and boring) social constructs like ‘culture’ are quite efficiently washed away in the search for truth.

    Moreover science is quite close to a meritocracy. If you’re ideas are good, you will rise to the top, if they are not, they will sink and you won’t get many publication citations and you’re search for a job will suffer. This quite independant of ones group affiliation.

  12. Steuard says:

    Thanks for posting on an important topic. On the whole, I agree with what you’ve said: I think that we share a moral responsibility to make sure that every person has the opportunity to achieve all that they can in our field, regardless of their race, their gender, or for that matter their research focus (within limits on that last one). The benefit to the field of including them, while significant, is secondary.

    I just have a couple of quibbles. First, at a small conference on women in science that we had in Chicago a year or two ago, I could have sworn that someone presented detailed data showing that the pipeline for women in physics does not leak at any point between “declared physics major” and “got tenure”: current disparities seem to be mainly due to lag time. (If anything, I seem to recall that the fraction of women actually improved slightly along the way, though it may not have been statistically significant.) The big leaks in the pipeline seem to be between high school physics classes and intro college physics classes, and perhaps also between intro physics and declaring a physics major. So while we clearly want to do better at every stage, the main problem seems to be very early in peoples’ physics career. (On the other hand, I haven’t seen any similar data on the pipeline for minorities, and I won’t venture a guess on how similar that situation is.)

    And second, I did find it a little odd to see your essay mixing and perhaps connecting the two issues of “fairness to underrepresented groups” and “fairness to underrepresented ideas”. Both issues are of course very important for us to confront as a field, but I’m not at all convinced that they are related. (And that’s not just because I don’t want my support for string theory to label me as a racist and male chauvinist. 🙂 )

  13. I like this discussion, though agree the original post conflated diversity of views with cultural/racial diversity. I note nobody worries why there are so few Muslims in science; guess why?
    Actually, diversity in the upper echelons matters little compared with the disaster of K-12 education in the USA, which spends more money per capita than any other nation on it. We aren’t getting what we pay for, folks, and diversity talk is a mere deflection from that central problem.
    On blacks in physics: I wrote an entire novel depicting a black particle experimenter, set in my own department: COSM, still in print. So of course I got roundly attacked because the woman didn’t have standard views on academic & political matters. (Some even accused me of giving her my views!) Others attacked me for even presuming to depict others of different sex and culture.
    I learned a lot from this. And will never attempt such a novel again.

  14. astro says:

    Logizmo,

    It’s encouraging to hear a young woman interested in science who feels that they are being supported by “the system” and not just one or two particularly nice folks. One followup question… Is your impression that most young women such as yourself are receiving a similar type of support? Or do you feel that only a subset of women (e.g., maybe those who act uninterested in non-sciences, or those who prioritize their career relative to their family) who “fit the mold” of more senior physicists (either because they’re naturally that way or because they’re willing to adapt to become physicists) are being supported?

    Enjoy MIT. It’s a lot of work, but it can be a great experience. It’s the most stimulating environment that I’ve been a part of.

    Best of luck,
    astro

  15. M says:

    Chanda, I enjoyed reading your insightful, thought provoking article. You have obviously thought pretty deeply about the complexities of the issue of representation in physics; the kinds of probing questions you asked don’t come without a combination of serious contemplation and some experience in being a target of discrimination. I hope that many readers will give your questions the considered thought that they deserve, even if they don’t agree with some of your ideas.

    It was somewhat disheartening to see the ready dismissal of your essay by someone like “Haelfix,” who seemed to ignore your deeper questions because he didn’t agree with your premises. I thought his reasoning was especially questionable when he stated that, I see no evidence that race/gender/sexuality/hair color has any statistical bearing on what type of ideas a person will concoct, ergo the premise is flawed. He apparently thinks that if he isn’t aware of evidence, then it doesn’t exist. The falacy of this reasoning seems obvious; if he isn’t aware of the evidence, then all he can justifiably say is that he isn’t aware of it (i.e., such evidence may or may not actually exist outside his awareness).

    I think it is extremely unlikely that someone like Haelfix could have written a similar essay no matter how hard he tried, and no matter how good his writing skills are, simply because there is a lack of direct experience that catalyzes the necessary thought. To me, his comment is anecdotal evidence that there is definite benefit to getting ideas from people with a wide variety of backgrounds in order to understand important problems and get a range of different possible solutions. Certainly this example is not one in the realm of physics, but it seems pretty clear that career success (as opposed to likelihood of significant discovery) in theoretical physics is much more likely for someone with a competitive attitude and a built-in preference for popular problems and popular prejudices. Widening the talent pool to include others who take a different approach can be very beneficial when current ideas aren’t working well, and underrepresented groups may have something to offer there.

    (From now on, I will assume that it is desirable to increase the representation of underrepresented groups, not just in physics but also in other economically or intellectually rewarding scientific/engineering careers. Those who disagree should feel free to just tune out.)

    I wish I could see a good way of addressing the problem of underrepresentation of various groups that wouldn’t require significant change in either (or both) the society-at-large or underrepresented culture-at-large. (I will use the term “culture” loosely when referring to a group; hopefully it will be clear that I refer to the popular customs, norms, advantages and challenges of that group that can distinguish it from other groups. If there were no such “group culture,” there would be little merit to arguing that different groups have different things to offer.) From my experience and general understanding, some cultures within the United States put a significantly higher premium on doing well academically and in pursuing knowledge-oriented careers than other cultures. On the other hand, some groups are better represented at the low end of the economic spectrum, and may also over-represent the single-parent households or teen-aged parents.

    (To avoid misunderstanding I think I should emphasize I am not saying that single parenthood or teen parenthood is part of any group culture, since it cuts across all groups, but for any number of reasons some groups have a higher prevalence, and this has its attendant consequences for average economic or educlational success of the group. Single-parent households have additional challenges in raising children, if for no other reason than one parent is usually the only source of income. Teen parents have a difficult struggle in getting more than a high school diploma or two year community college degree without significant help from other family members.)

    It seems obvious that a single-parent family that is basically just trying to survive will be much less likely to raise a future physicist or other scientist/engineer than a well-off, highly educated family that has an expectation that the children will eventually obtain a bachelors or advanced graduate degree. Furthermore, if the general culture of a group is such that a small percentage of its members attain graduate degrees, then it is hard to believe that many younger members of the group will not see a PhD as somewhat out of reach. If someone with ambition tries to rise significantly higher than the perceived norm, but finds that their friends ridicule them for trying to “show them up” academically (as often happens in at least one underrepresented group, from what I have heard from members of that group), then the group itself becomes part of the problem.

    That seems to be the backdrop against which efforts to bring greater representation in physics must overcome. It is hard to change a culture or subculture that doesn’t see a driving need to change, and the failures of the “War on Poverty” in the 1960’s show that there are limits to what government as a whole can accomplish in bringing about change. To be sure, we should do what we can, but at least part of the problem lies inside the cultures that are underrepresented, and that will require a lot of persuasion by a number of role models. This is to me a strong argument in favor of increasing representation by some groups in the professoriat of academe — it increases the number of role models who can show it is possible and acceptable to “break out of the mold.” Secondarily, greater representation in academe will make it easier for others outside the underrepresented group to believe that the group is also capable of being successful in scientific fields, although I think that could be less important than service as role models.

    The other thing that Chanda brought up that seems potentially valuable is the availability of mentors. Not only can mentors help navigate through difficult challenges and boost confidence, they can also serve as additional examples of people in the underrepresented group who have “made it.”

    The problem of underrepresentation seems to run deep and will be difficult to change in a sustainable way. Getting rid of discrimination will be a start, but alone it won’t be enough. The problem probably isn’t intractable, but surely it will be very difficult to fix.

  16. Elliot says:

    Chanda,

    While I agree that the underrepresentation is an issue and strongly support multiple steps to increase the inclusion of women and minorities in the physical sciences, I find your second point above implicitly divisive. To suggest that it is “possible” that women/minorities will identify unique scientific problems that their white male counterpart may miss, suggests a social or even genetic predisposition to a way of thinking which I think is counterproductive to your overall goal. Science is science. You may want to rethink this particular point because it opens the door to those who will suggest just the opposite, that white males “possibly” will identify unique scientific problems that women/minorities will miss.

    I hope you view this comment as constructive criticism, not an attempt to undercut your primary thesis, which I fully agree with.

    Regards,

    Elliot

  17. anon says:

    ‘Science is science.’ – Elliot

    That’s really objective, wise, and highly informative 😉 Particularly over controversies 😉 Einstein suffering racist anti-semitic abuse in Germany leading to the book ‘100 Authors Against Einstein’ and other rubbish. It isn’t a question of race, but of cutural diversity. The less diversity of researchers, the less diversity of science. What part of this is beyond people?

    Also Haefix should note that it is ‘not even wrong’ and ‘wrong’ hype/noise (no matter WHO generates it, or how many followers they have) which is the harmful‘crackpotism’. If you are going to define anuthing unorthodox as crackpot, goodbye science. Einstein wasn’t orthodox in 1905, he got rid of mainstream ideas. That isn’t going to happen with a sneering scientific elite who all sing from the same hymn book or textbook. Can’t you see the problem?

  18. Matt says:

    Nice article Chanda. I just have to repspond to some things in the comments.

    Haelfix,

    Moreover science is quite close to a meritocracy. If you’re ideas are good, you will rise to the top, if they are not, they will sink and you won’t get many publication citations and you’re search for a job will suffer. This quite independant of ones group affiliation.

    This argument is right in some sense – I do believe that good ideas will consistently rise to the top in physics. The problem with it is that it ignores the timeframe required to come up with genuinely innovative ideas.

    Every young scientist has to face the issue of problem choice, which can be as important to innovation as good technical ability. By this I mean, do you work on a well-established set of problems that the community of scientists has deemed important, or do you “follow your own nose”, which could mean making up your own new direction, or working on problems that are currently regarded as of minor importance? If you choose the former direction, then provided you have good technical ability, there should be no problem quickly rising to the top if your ideas are good enough. If you choose the latter direction then it is likely that you will have trouble attaining quick recognition for your work, regardless of its quality. I have no doubt that good ideas will eventually be recognized, but the timeframe in which this happens may be far longer than the usual time required to get postdocs, faculty positions, etc. In fact, you may even not even live to see the day that your ideas become accepted mainstream science, like poor old Boltzmann for instance.

    Now, this may be naive, but it seems to me that people from cultures underrepresented in science will likely have a different view on which questions are the most important, so they may be more likely to pursue the latter route. This does not mean that they will necessarily come up with ideas for the solution to such problems that others could not have thought of, just that others would be less likely to be doing that work in the first place.

    Xenophage,

    Jews are 2.2% of the US population and are excluded from education opportunities and subsequent positions by anti-Semitism. Are there any Jews in science? Are any Nobel Laureates Jewish? If you choose to race beagles against salukis, don’t complain about consistently disparate results.

    Coming from a jewish background, I find this argument quite offensive. If being Jewish somehow gives me a genetic advantage in doing physics, then maybe I should get less credit than others for any accomplishments I might make, since they could be put down to genetics rather than to my genuine hard work. It also ignores the fact that the vast majority of the Jewish community that I grew up in seemed to be or roughly the same average intellect as the rest of the population (and that’s being charitable to them).

    Personally, I think that an important part of the reason why there are a lot of Jewish people in science is because we come from an immigrant culture. Being different from the establishment around you, naturally leads to a questioning of one’s own beliefs, and also a healthy skepticism of the beliefs of society in general. In this regard, it is interesting to note that many of the most important contributions to knowledge from people with a Jewish background came from people who rejected their religion and were more or less secular, e.g. Einstein, Marx. On the other hand, I know of no major contribution to science from a Rabbi.

    If this is true then it is another argument for diversity, because surely people from other immigrant cultures will also have their own unique contributions to make. The rise of Asians in science seems to confirm this to some degree. Perhaps the reason why Jews seem to be overrepresented compared to other groups has more to do with historical accident than anything else. We have just been in a better position to interact with the scientific establishment for longer than most other groups.

  19. noname says:

    I want to start by explicitly stating that I think the lack of minorities and women in physics is a real problem, and a difficult one. However, I personally find some of the suggestions in this email offensive. In arguing that lack of latinos/blacks/women in physics slows down science, you’re specifically stating that these minorities are somehow inherently better at driving science. Even if you choose to say that it’s not that these minorities are better, they’re simply different, you are still advocating that there is some aspect of science minorities can do better than white males and vice versa. Simply put, that statement is both racist and sexist.

    The problem of women and minorities in science is a very real one. The problem is, however, of an ethical nature, and has nothing to do with physics. It concerns only whether we develop a culture that is equally welcoming to all human beings, regardless of sex or race.

  20. Dylab says:

    Coming from a jewish background, I find this argument quite offensive. If being Jewish somehow gives me a genetic advantage in doing physics, then maybe I should get less credit than others for any accomplishments I might make, since they could be put down to genetics rather than to my genuine hard work. It also ignores the fact that the vast majority of the Jewish community that I grew up in seemed to be or roughly the same average intellect as the rest of the population (and that’s being charitable to them).

    I don’t think the reasoning here is solid. Obviously an idea being offensive isn’t relevent to its truth but I don’t think it should be offensive. The abilities one has are the same regardless of what group you are in. A nobel physicist who has the genetic disposition to be smart deserve the same credit regardless if he was an Ashkenazi jew or a member of the bushmen tribe.

    I haven’t done a lot of research (or any) but this article at a very scholary website *cough* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashkenazi_intelligence disagrees with your intuition. I know IQ tests are a controversial matter, though.

  21. Dylab says:

    This is somewhat offtopic. Has anyone seriously look at difference in science as a result of cultural differences.

  22. Annie says:

    noname — That’s not really the argument at all. Chanda is not saying that “X group is better at science than white males.” She’s saying that if one accepts the premise that X group is (or can be, if we fix the system) as good at science as white males, then one also has to accept the premise that by tossing out the cream of the crop in group X, you water down the average in the field of physics. The argument is that, by leaving out large components of the population in the United States, you’re leaving out some of the best minds in the United States.

    Let’s say that there are 10 truly mind-blowingly brilliant young minds with a bent towards physics in the United States right now (just because it’s a convenient number for applying percentages). If we assume that all abilities are inherent equal — as you advocate in your response — that means that about 1 of those incredible physicsts is of African descent, and about 5 are women. And if things continue as they have been, we’ll lose most of the non-male non-white contributions. By eliminating women & minorities from the running, through subconscious bias or conscious discrimination or subtle discouragement or just terrible elementary education, you’re tossing out some of the most *brilliant* candidates in favor of candidates who look more like established faculty. You’re tossing out a portion of the cream of the crop based on something that has nothing to do with ability.

    THAT’S inherently sexist and racist. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Chanda’s argument that, by pushing people out just because of what they have down their pants & what color it happens to be, you are eliminating potential.

  23. Ambitwistor says:

    Since then we’ve corresponded occasionally about life as a physicist and which general relativity textbook is the best.

    Is there more than one correct answer to the latter question? 🙂

  24. Ambitwistor says:

    Gregory:

    So of course I got roundly attacked because the woman didn’t have standard views on academic & political matters. […] Others attacked me for even presuming to depict others of different sex and culture. I learned a lot from this. And will never attempt such a novel again.

    As it happens, I’m re-reading Cosm at the moment. I wish you’d reconsider. I think it’s important to have “non-standard” depictions of scientists in fiction, and almost no one is doing this. If you’re getting attacked for it, that just points to the need for this kind of discourse; I can think of other SF writers who have been attacked for their characters’ politics, among other things, and I’m glad they didn’t stop writing such novels. For what it’s worth, Cosm has one of the best portrayals of a working scientist I’ve read.

    P.S. I’m puzzled by the part in Cosm where Max Jalon says an inverse-cube tidal force implies an asymmetric mass distribution, since a spherical body has an inverse-cube tidal force law. Or did I misread it?

  25. noname says:

    Hi Annie.

    That was a very nice reply. Nonetheless, after rereading the original post I still feel that the original argument was closer to what I posted before. The argument you present is much better, though I’m still not convinced. If the subpopulation your choosing is the 10-sigma people who are simply brilliant, then it is unclear that the race/gender statistics of the population as a whole are relevant for describing them because you have a very peculiar selection function.

    At any rate, I truly feel that this is a very real problem that is, in essence, an ethical one. I just don’t think we as humans should condone a culture that is biased against a particular race or gender. I find this to be a much more compelling argument for change. I don’t need to be logically convinced that discrimination is counterproductive, I just think it’s wrong, and I would hope most people would agree.