The Unbearable Whiteness Of Being Empirical

Starla Jackson

Starla Jackson

Starla studies chemicals.

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68 Responses

  1. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    I don’t know. While a bit too over-the-top to be entirely plausible to the discerning reader, I think it was a pretty solid first effort in the Sokal genre.Report

  2. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    Meaning that, say, if most physicists for the last fifty years had been black women rather than white men, different theories might have been pursued, different experiments might have been done, and after all of that we might now have a different understanding of physics.

    This kind of thinking always assumes a relatively recent starting point. If we start introducing WOC as physicists after, say, Jim Crow, then perhaps those experiences would result in unique explorations. But they would still be bound to what came before, which was mostly old white guys.

    In order for WOC to have more fully shaped the nature of our understanding of physics, they would have had to have been doing the physics all along, largely alongside, or in place of the old white guys, and that would mean the societies that shaped those WOC of would be very different, as would their experiences.Report

  3. Avatar CJColucci says:

    There’s nothing intuitively implausible about the general idea that a more diverse scientific community might have had a critical mass of scientists asking different questions and using different techniques, possibly leading to different results, and that they were drawn to these questions and techniques because of their status as [fill in the blank]. (Some scientific techniques do look rather phallic, after all, and may, like all too many phalluses, be misdirected.) There is just, so far as I can tell, no particular reason to believe it. I am willing to be persuaded, but this stuff just doesn’t do it.Report

    • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to CJColucci says:

      …possibly leading to different results…

      The spin on particles might be measured with different tests, maybe getting results faster or slower… but spin is a real world thing. Differ from Mother Nature and you’re wrong. That’s true for the bulk of Physics.

      I can believe faster results, with fewer mistakes made because of less group think, but “less group think in Physics because of diversity” is something that needs to be shown.

      I am willing to be persuaded, but this stuff just doesn’t do it.


  4. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    Soler says that there is a very strong example from the actual existing physics practice—different interpretations of quantum mechanics.

    Aside from the issue you raised, this argument is self-defeating because it demonstrates that where the evidence leaves room for diverse interpretations, the status quo already accommodates them. This evades the actual “put up or shut up” challenge, which is to outline a tenable theory that is being suppressed for no good reason.Report

  5. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    The Bohm example seems an odd one. First in the sense that it remains an area of active work. And second in the sense that (as I understand things) there are no possible experiments that would establish the “correctness” of the de Broglie-Bohm model versus the Copenhagen model. While they will differ in their explanation of why a certain measurement had the value it did, they won’t ever differ on the value itself. Almost all of my background is on the practical side of things, though — I don’t care about the why of Fowler–Nordheim quantum tunneling, only that it happens predictably and we can build solid-state flash memory because of that.

    OTOH, if black women had been in charge of funding, and of conducting, medical research for the last 100 years, there’s little question but what we would be in a different place.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

      OTOH, if black women had been in charge of funding, and of conducting, medical research for the last 100 years, there’s little question but what we would be in a different place.

      Now that is a valid statement. And I think it’s key in that the nature of the universe and how we can understand it is not really dependent upon the identity of those who explore it, but the nature of policy and what it encourages us to explore most certainly can be.Report

      • Avatar InMD in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        Thats just a boring old statement about priorities and resource investment though, so much less exciting.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        It should be easy to reframe that question into one about religion. Are Baptist hospitals, Methodist Hospitals, Catholic Hospitals, and Jewish hospitals different in any significant way?Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to George Turner says:

          starts to write “certain procedures have 10% off” joke

          quits halfway throughReport

        • Avatar InMD in reply to George Turner says:

          I find that the decor and presence/use of quotes from scripture can vary.Report

        • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to George Turner says:

          Off the top of my head – likely significant differences with respect to access to abortion, tubal ligation / vasectomy, medical assistance in dying, quality of care for transgender people, availability of and respect granted to midwives, approaches to addictions and their treatment.Report

          • Avatar George Turner in reply to dragonfrog says:

            But, back to the scientific aspect, I assume they all believe in the germ theory of disease and how to set a broken leg and whatnot. Did different religions result in different heart transplant procedures? Would the body of medical knowledge be much different if you shifted the players around?

            Now certainly there can be big differences in non-Western medicine, such as acupuncture or mystic energies, and in Western countries there are differing approaches to such things as wellness, exercise, or dietary advice, and the effectiveness of various drug or treatment options. But these tend to be things that are hard to definitively test, or where we still await research, data on outcomes, or new breakthroughs.

            One of the interesting things about “Western” medicine is that it’s not really “Western” except that it’s scientific, by which I mean that ideas are tested in a scientific manner. When it first started, ships traveled from Europe and brought back all the medical techniques and drugs used around the world (including Asia) on the assumption that lots of those were probably more valid than medieval leeching. And so they started testing all the world’s approaches to figure out which ones actually worked.

            It shouldn’t have mattered who went out and tested things, just that things were tested, theories were proposed, ideas and methods were examined and rejected or improved on. The key point of science is that if something works, it should work no matter who does it. That’s a fundamental scientific concept, and one that’s sometimes missing from non-Western medicine where a shaman’s beliefs, or heritage, or spiritual connections are part of what makes the magic work. At it’s heart, that’s probably just job security for shamans, witch doctors, and voodoo priests, and perhaps people who get into fringe medicine or lightly regulated fields (for a long time chiropractors were considered equivalent to witch doctors).Report

            • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to George Turner says:

              Sure, they’ll all basically practice modern scientific medicine.

              There will surely be differences from hospital to hospital with respect to how up to date they are on the latest practices, based on the approaches and mentalities of the people running the various wards (not necessarily connected to religion, but probably not entirely unconnected either).

              e.g. one of the hospitals in my city, in their maternity wards, is a big believer in “kangaroo care” – cuddling, basically – which I understand is scientifically validated to significantly lower mortality in preterm infants, improves breathing, body temperature, O2 saturation, etc. compared to keeping the babies in incubators more of the time. Another one has the reputation for being an old-fashioned, whisk-the-baby-off-to-the-next-room sort of operation.

              The former is a secular hospital, the latter a Catholic one. I suspect this is not entirely coincidental.Report

            • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to George Turner says:

              “Western” medicine FWIW is scientific, but science is not its only influence. Capitalism is another major one.

              A lot of traditional herbal medicines are under-studied, if not outright shunned, by pharmacological research. Not because there isn’t potential there, but because if their medicinal benefits are confirmed they couldn’t be patented – precisely because they are (1) traditional, and (2) herbal.

              If there isn’t a rent to extract, it’s much less likely to make it into “Western” medicine.Report

            • Avatar Murali in reply to George Turner says:

              Chiropractors are like witch doctors. They are basically the TCM specialists or Ayurvedic medicine specialists of the WestReport

      • Journal review. “The test population consisted of white males ages 25 to 65” becomes a much more likely reason for a reviewer, and the editor, to reject a paper.

        The first time I encountered the “women were not included in the usability testing” problem was many years ago with a CRT computer terminal. The department had already ordered 50 of the damned things. When the first ones showed up, it turned out that the power supply resonated loudly at a frequency that was above what most men could hear. For about half the women, though, being in the same room with one was painful.Report

  6. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    Bear with me a moment, as I digress through two different fields to make a point.

    The martial arts world is full of what amounts to oral traditions of techniques that have been passed down via some very different groups – some of which actively included women, some of which did not, and likewise for POC. They often are quite different. And yet, you will find techniques that are very similar within each of them. It leaves one wondering if there was borrowing going on. But my conclusion, along with most of the other people I know is that the human body is pretty much the same across the world and there’s only so many manipulations that can be done to it, or ways to attack it.

    I just had a discussion with a friend where she relayed some psychological research that indicated the only information that a body produces vis-a-vis emotion is on two axes: intensity and desirability. As in “That’s strong or weak” and “I want more or less”. These are the physiological components of emotion. Everything else, fear, love, desire, anger, hatred, disgust, joy, is built on top of that. Facial expressions are learned socially.

    Except all these expressions and emotions are understood by everyone. I can watch a foreign film and understand what the actors are feeling. Because there is an important constraint here. Responses are learned, but they aren’t arbitrary. They are limited by what works.

    SO, while I find it quite plausible that if Isaac Newton had been a woman, Principia Mathematica might have been written in a very different way, with maybe a different title, we would still have F=ma. Because that’s how it works.

    I think that science as an institution is easily criticized from a social justice perspective, but I always end up reading critiques that seem to be written by people who don’t understand science, and seem to always end up saying things like “the theory of relativity is the result of masculine urge to domination” which seems to ignore that there is a mass of data that support it, both special relativity and general relativity.

    For instance, MrsJay, who is a nurse, is fond of pointing out how much medical research was done in the 30s and 40s on males only, because of the “confound” of estrus and emotionality. We probably got more than a few things wrong there.

    Finally, I often hold out the possibility that such writers are using the same words I use, but mean them in a very different way, that this is a deliberate act meant to provoke me, and produce in me feelings that they identify with as being alienated outsiders to science.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      Finally, I often hold out the possibility that such writers are using the same words I use, but mean them in a very different way, that this is a deliberate act meant to provoke me, and produce in me feelings that they identify with as being alienated outsiders to science.

      This is explicitly a motive for the peculiar writing style of a lot of post-Heideggerian continental philosophy.Report

  7. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Yeah, when I argued for Young Earth Creationism on the beach, one of the things we hammered was the secret hidden agendas of the scientists in charge of gatekeeping science.

    Today, you see similar things with Climate Change science.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird says:

      That, and the whole “well you SAY you believe that evolution is correct, but WHICH evolution? You know there’s like five or six ideas about it, right? And NONE of them can really explain HOW we got all of THIS (waves hand vaguely at the infinite variety of nature)”

      That’s kind of what I got from the bit about “well there are competing models of quantum physics, THEREFORE you HAVE to accept that MY TRUTH is JUST AS VALID AS YOURS”Report

  8. Avatar Road Scholar says:

    Yeah, FWIW, this is a species of equal opportunity dumbassery. Anyone remember conservapedia? They also objected to Einstein’s theories of relativity thinking that it somehow also implied moral relativism.Report

  9. Avatar dragonfrog says:

    I don’t know nearly enough physics to comment meaningfully on the possibility of other fundamental physics theories of equal explanatory power to the ones we use now having been overlooked.

    I figure though, at least a few things (which if I understand right are mostly not what Prescod-Weinstein is arguing) are pretty credible, if not trivial:

    – If the people doing most of the well funded physics work of the past centuries been very different in background, the things that were discovered might easily have been very different – not findings contradictory to what has been discovered in this timeline, but a different distribution of questions to which we do and do not have answers.

    – If the brightest people, not just the brightest mostly-white men, had had access to well funded research labs and careful consideration of their best publications, we would likely have discovered many of the things we know, quite a bit earlier.

    – Different ways of expressing the things we know, with different advantages and disadvantages, might have become the dominant ones – if calculus had been independently discovered by people less white, male, Western European, and Germanic-language-speaking than Newton and Leibniz, we might be using significantly different tools to handle the same concepts – tools that are good fits for different jobs than the ones we now have. Those tools in turn might have led to different uses of calculus being easier or harder, leading to significantly different timelines of accomplishments in engineering, pharmacology, etc.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to dragonfrog says:

      Maybe. If our ancestors had been as egalitarian as we wish we were today, then perhaps we’d have had a vast melting pot of minds tackling the questions of physics and mathematics, and we’d have interesting variations.

      But we’d still have the whole, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. You have to go way back in time and have a fundamental change way back then, which would involve all manner of things in our modern world being different today.

      The way I read a lot of this is, “If the WOC today were doing physics way back then, we’d have different physics”, except the WOC today are shaped heavily by the past we have. If the past was such that WOC were heavily involved in the development of physics, they would be very different WOC today.

      It’s a fun Sci-Fi novel, but that’s about it.Report

    • At least for calculus, Newton and Leibniz are still a useful experiment…

      While both were white males, they developed calculus (largely) independently and from different directions. Leibniz’s notation was much more expressive than Newton’s. Britain’s mathematicians used Newton’s notation while the Continent adopted Leibniz’s. Britain full further and further behind in analysis (the field calculus is a part of) for most of a century until the oldsters died off and Newton’s notation with them. (Well, still used in places in economics even today.) After the Brits adopted Leibniz’s notation, they were as productive in analysis as anyone else. How we think about things shapes what we can think about.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to dragonfrog says:

      Brown people did independently discover many aspects of calculus before Leibniz and Newton.

      Sure, we might have ended up with different notation, but that is neither here nor there. But the same sorts of tools that we are now familiar with were used for their corresponding purposes at that time. Also, quite plausibly Newton’s and Leibniz’s work drew on the earlier work by Arabs and Indians on calculus. They were not quite as anal about citation in those days. If it did develop from the earlier work of Arabs and Indians. Then I don’t think that the trajectory of development of calculus would have been significantly different if it had been all put together in Asia or Africa than in EuropeReport

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Murali says:

        With my math historian and more-generic historian hats on, there are two things about the Leibniz/Newton development versus everyone else. First, differentiation and integration as operations on functions that yield functions and the fundamental theorem of the calculus — those operations are inverses of each other (plus or minus a constant). And second, Gutenberg — it was possible to make so many copies of the work, and distribute them so widely, that some copies were essentially guaranteed to survive.

        Leibniz/Newton lead to differential equations. It’s almost impossible to overestimate how important differential equations have been to the evolution of contemporary science and engineering. It’s conceivable that you could get to something that produces contemporary electrical engineering w/o differential equations, but it’s not obvious that you could.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

          I don’t think you can overstate how important Gutenberg was to propagating the developments of Western science and math. If China or the Middle East had beat Gutenberg to the punch, we’d have a different bunch of names in our engineering texts.Report

          • Avatar George Turner in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            I have doubts about that. China still has trouble with math because of their writing system, and even with computers and ink jet printers, the Middle East produces very few new books, or even translations of books written elsewhere.Report

            • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to George Turner says:

              Where did you hear that? I’ve never heard of Chinese people having problems with math due to the writing system. It’s also not clear to me why that would be the case, when they can (and AFAIK do) just use the same notation used in the West. And China does better than the US on PISA tests, although that’s a very different set of skills than those required to do mathematical research.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                Traditional Chinese and Japanese are read top to bottom, right to left, whereas Western math is horizontal. This made it more difficult to blend text and equations, and makes casually tossing in things like drag =1/2*Cd*rho*S*V^2 quite difficult.

                The other problem traditional Asian culture has a profound reverence of masters and inherited knowledge. That shows up in martial arts, where innovation is difficult because everything is supposed to trace back to a perfect form given at the ancient Shao Lin temple. To innovate is to degrade or diminish, and introduce false teachings.

                A top Chinese scientist realized some of this when he was on a scientific cruise with the scientist who confirmed continental drift. The geologist’s professors were on the cruise and praised him as the best student they’d ever taught. This puzzled the Chinese scientist because in overthrowing static Earth models, the student had shown that his professors taught him falsely. In discrediting their teachings, he should not only have revealed them as frauds, but brought upon them great humiliation and dishonor. The second problem is that if his professors were wrong (mistaken, charlatans, idiots, liars, etc) then how could the student possibly know anything, since all his teachings had been false? Thus, why should anyone pay attention to a word he says, since his lineage is false?

                The Chinese researcher puzzled over this for quite a long time on the cruise before he realized that Westerners do not think at all like Asians regarding such things.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to George Turner says:

                It’s possible to overstate the extent to which the chinese culture revers tradition. In practice the reverence for one’s teachers just is a matter of retconning what the teacher wrote. Even confucius and the confucians used to do this all the time. Confucius would say that he is just transmitting the teachings of the ancient sages, but in fact there were lots of innovations he was peddling as ancient tradition. Respect for lineage and tradition is not about being afraid of innovation. It is about giving your forbears face and credit when you do have a successful innovation.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Murali says:

                So, the early version of “You didn’t build that”?Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Pretty muchReport

              • Traditional Chinese and Japanese are read top to bottom, right to left, whereas Western math is horizontal. This made it more difficult to blend text and equations, and makes casually tossing in things like drag =1/2*Cd*rho*S*V^2 quite difficult.

                From 1955, the People’s Republic has required Chinese to be written left-to-right, top-to-bottom. Western math notation has been almost universally adopted. I assume that readers there get used to seeing math expressions in western fonts and notation embedded into hanzi text.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Michael Cain says:

                Left-to-right writing is quite common in Japan, as well. Probably the norm for nonfiction, although fiction is still mostly top-to-bottom.Report

          • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            China did beat Gutenberg to the punch, by four hundred years.Report

            • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Brandon Berg says:

              My Asian history is lacking. If they beat Gutenberg to the punch, why don’t we see more Chinese influence from back then? Politics? Culture?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                If I had to guess, phonetics.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Jaybird says:

                China actually had a robust printing industry all through this time. They just didn’t rely as heavily on movable type as Europe did post-Gutenberg. I’m not sure why this is. I can speculate about why movable type might be less advantageous for printing Chinese, but nothing really jumps out at me as obviously correct.

                One thing that comes to mind is that with a hundred or so characters, you can have all your characters at arm’s length and just sit there and grab them by muscle memory, whereas with ~3000 characters you probably need to get up and walk around.

                On the other hand, you only need to find one or two characters per word, whereas with European languages you may need several characters per word.

                I don’t know.Report

              • Gutenberg pulled together several things. A lead alloy that made it cheap and easy to cast extremely durable type. Inks better suited to the printing process. And something East Asia never developed, the Gutenberg press. As the press mechanism was improved, it became feasible for a couple of people to do more than a thousand imprints per day, without wearing out the type.Report

              • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                The number of characters is probably the problem, but maybe more so in how it affects litteracy than printing.

                In 1982 the adult litteracy rate was 65%.

                Go back a few centuries and the average “litterate” person only knew a hundred or so characters (elites would know tens of thousands). Enough for basic contracts/communication but not more.

                Structurally that’s going to be really brutal for learning, for dictionaries, and so forth.Report

              • Avatar Zac Black in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Basically, because China was going into a serious decline right as the West showed up (that is eliding a *ton*, but that’s the gist). China, throughout most of human history, has been the most technologically advanced civilization on the planet by a pretty considerable margin.Report

              • I’m inclined to partially ditto Jaybird, here.

                I might add that there was an entrenched bureaucracy from ca. 0 c.e. onward* that had a strong and enforceable interest in making sure that reading and writing were difficult to learn. I add this point as speculation, not an argument I’m willing to die on a hill for.

                *I’m thinking of the beginning of the later Han dynasty. Maybe my chronology is wrong, but certainly by the Song dynasty (ca. 950 c.e. to ca. 1250 c.e.), the bureaucracy existed.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                I’m not a historian either, but believe that why Europe modernized before East Asia is still not really a settled question.

                But also, while “we” (i.e. Europeans) didn’t see much Chinese influence from back then, China exerted a huge amount of influence over other East Asian countries. Japan, Korea, and Vietnam all adopted the Chinese script or some variation thereof, and a huge chunk of the vocabulary of all those languages is derived from Chinese. Classical Chinese was the written lingua franca of East Asia until the early 20th century.

                The main reason that China didn’t have much influence on European culture is that Europe was way over here and China was way over there.Report

              • Avatar InMD in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                It’s a much more tarnished work than it once was but Guns, Germs, and Steel proposed a geographically supported Goldilocks balkanization in Europe that didn’t occur in East Asia or the Indian subcontinent. Essentially big enough groups to create big enough and sufficiently advanced nation-states to compete with each other and push each other further in innovation. Remember the driving forces of expansion, colonization, and exploration were intra-European conflict and advantage seeking.

                From this perspective China was over-unified. One bad leader or conservative cultural tick weighing against innovation could create huge multi century setbacks. A primary example cited is a period of time where deep water seafaring vessels were actually prohibited by the imperial government. Europe on the other hand was a pressure cooker of competing groups.Report

              • ” If they beat Gutenberg to the punch, why don’t we see more Chinese influence from back then? Politics? Culture?”

                I don’t know about “more,” but I’m not sure we see as little as your question implies. Europe was a relatively poor backwater. If we look to south Asia and central Asia (silk road), we might see a stronger Chinese influence. (I’m speculating. I have a working, history 101 level, knowledge of Chinese history, but almost no knowledge of South Asian or Central Asian history.) Add to that the countervailing possibility that there were fewer incentives to expand the way European colonists did in the centuries after the printing press.

                Finally, I think this all is a reminder that inventions by themselves don’t necessarily drive change, let alone monumental change. What also matters is the context and norms in which the inventions appear, the incentives people have to use them in different ways, and the contingent choices made by individuals.Report

  10. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Is there starting to be a Replication Crisis in the empirical sciences?

    Because, if there ain’t, I’m tempted to see this as a pretty decent diversionary tactic. We might have a replication crisis… but, at least, we’re not *RACIST*.Report

    • Starla Jackson Starla Jackson in reply to Jaybird says:

      In bio areas there kinda is. Not as *big* a crisis as like, psychology, but it turns out a lot of papers of the form “this treatment killed 70% of the cancer cells on this plate!” turn out not to replicate.Report

  11. Avatar Frederick Bartlett says:

    Let’s consider music, instead. After all, many scientists are also musicians.
    Music is different in different places. African music is strongly rhythmic, as compared to the harmonic music developed in Europe. South Asian music has many more pitches per octave than European (White) music.
    But the octave is omnipresent, even though scales may be divided up differently; and the octave is based on a measurable physical phenomenon (frequency doubling).
    Also note that European music has conquered the world — for good and ill. While one can hear Beethoven anywhere, one can also hear — indeed, cannot avoid — Nicki Minaj.Report

    • Avatar CJColucci in reply to Frederick Bartlett says:

      I’ve managed to avoid Nicki Minaj without actually trying. Couldn’t name a song of hers or recognize a performance of hers with my eyes closed. Not proud of that, or ashamed, just a fact.
      Get off of my lawn.Report

  12. Avatar Steve Sailer says:

    “It is just this common basis of agreement with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys. Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as “the truth” exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as “Science”. There is only “German Science,” “Jewish Science,” etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, “It never happened” — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not such a frivolous statement.” — George OrwellReport

  13. My comment digresses from the topic of the (very well-thought-out) OP and discusses my discipline, U.S. history. When I was in grad school, ca. 10 years ago, one big fault line was between cultural historians and those who called themselves “empiricists.” By “empiricists,” the probably didn’t mean “I believe all knowledge comes from sense perception,” but something like, “my evidence is better than the mostly linguistic and ‘textual’ evidence that cultural historians use.” This “better” evidence usually was something quantifiable or at least a fact that that had a more or less one to one relationship with the sources.

    The cultural historians tended to counter 1) that “textual” and linguistic evidence cues us in to ways of knowing about people and history–and especially marginalized people–that “empiricists'” evidence slighted or left unexplored or unacknowledged. In that context, someone who argued something along the lines of what Prescod-Weinstein seems to argue would have a plausible point. (I agree, though, that while that point works well in history, science is different.)

    Even though I tended to be more sympathetic to the “empiricists” than the culturalists, the divide between them always bothered me. The two groups didn’t seem nearly as mutually exclusive as their more ardent champions seemed to think (or act like) they were. I was also annoyed at the “empricists'” use of the word “empirical” to make some sort of question-begging claim about the worth of their own evidence and also as a way to avoid answering the very defensible critiques the culturalists had to offer.

    Again, this is a tangent. I’m not nearly scientifically literate enough to comment knowledgeably on the debate that Starla describes. I’m just adding my 20 cents.Report

  14. Avatar Stephan Eckner says:

    For everyone interested in the history of the different interpretations of quantum mechanics I highly recommend Adam Becker’s book “What is real?”. He shows how the success of the different interpretations were contingent on politics (McCarthy in Bohm’s case), institutions (people being discouraged from chosing the foundations of quantum mechanics as a research field) and even the character of single scientists like Niels Bohr. It is a fantastic book on a fascinating topic.

    So, yes, scientific progress is contingent on all these things. However, I find it hard to believe that skin color should play a role in this. Not because I don’t accept that racism exists in the scientific community. Of course it does. But because I refuse to accept that non-white scientists think differently from white scientists. In fact, I would consider such a proposition as racist in and of itself.Report

  15. Avatar Johan Richter says:

    If all physicists were black women, would physical theories look different? I would say several things in response to that question:

    Firstly, the question is unanswerable since the hypothetical situation is not specified enough. How did it happen that white men did not become physicists in this alternative world, and how does the selection/recruitment mechanism decide which black women made a career in physics? I mean, black people in global society may have certain different experiences than white people in our society on average, but in the hypothetical world where all physicists are black then maybe they don’t have that experiences. And while there may be personality differences between men and women on average with a biological basis, maybe they are suppressed in this hypothetical society, or the selection mechanism for who becomes a physicist ensures that the personalities of those who become physicists are identical to current physicists in all relevant ways. Honestly the question seems to invite stereotyping on racial and gender grounds. (I will add that lots of SJ activism invites sloppy stereotyping.)

    Secondly, I would say that I am more on the side of the inevitablists, I think that the major physical theories would look pretty much the same in any society that successfully conducted research in physics.

    Thirdly, if you state it in enough generality, anyone will agree that scientific advances could look different in another society or if different people happened to become scientists, and not just because science might have advanced more or less. I don’t think anyone would deny that theories might occasionally be formulated differently, or that there might be a different emphasis in what questions are pursued, if our society was different, or different people happened to become scientists. That truism does not mean there is anything wrong with how science is pursued now.Report

    • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Johan Richter says:

      How did it happen that white men did not become physicists in this alternative world, and how does the selection/recruitment mechanism decide which black women made a career in physics?

      Yeah. This is what I always ask when people assert the world would be different if the gender ratio of the leadership was flipped: How does that happen?

      If you’re proposing a world where there’s been a matriarchy for quite a long time, and we’re recently seeing that challenged…no. I don’t see any reason that the women in that would wouldn’t have basically the same beliefs as men in this one, barring a few that hinge on biological differences like reproductive issues, and maybe slightly less praise of random violence due to less acceptance of testosterone poisoning, but we’d probably get some equally stupid thing to replace it.

      The genders tend to think differently from each other precisely because of what side of privilege and oppression they live on.

      And it’s the exact same thing with black people. I mean, sorta obviously…if literally the entire world’s skin color was the other way around, if the history of white people was the history of black people and the history of black people the history of white people, I seriously doubt anyone would argue things would be different. (Except sunscreen would cost ten times as much and be carried in the ‘ethnic’ section…assuming it’s been invented at all.)

      However, once we stop about hypothetical worlds where different people are magically in different places, it becomes clear that different groups have different psychological experiences from how they interact with the rest of society, which gives them different points of view.

      That is the concept of promoting ‘diversity’. It’s not saying that other groups are right or wrong, it’s saying ‘Different life experiences make people have different solutions.’.

      That truism does not mean there is anything wrong with how science is pursued now.

      Anything that hinders considering different points of view _is_ a problem with science.

      Whether this is anything to do with racism per se, or just scientists being unable to consider new viewpoints, is not particularly clear, but it does happen. Science just decides something is right, and works on it for years, ignoring everything else. This has been a problem of science literally from the start, and is very very slowly getting better…and still fails.

      Spoiler alert: String theory is indeed a bunch of silliness. It’s basically just ‘Can we make these two systems mathematically work together’, which is somewhat akin to saying ‘You were in LA and then in New York, and so I can prove you traveled from LA to New York by creating a map showing roads connect them’. First of all…there are near-infinite roads I could have took, and second…we already knew I was in both places, the question is actually is _how_, and you are clearly just guessing! There are fifty different people guessing different routes! String theory, at this point, only exists to keep people working on string theory employed.

      The problem, of course, is that a lot of cranks claim exactly that sort of thing also, inventing conspiracies against their dumb ideas. And, just as big a problem, a lot of reasonable scientific theories actually do get dismissed as crack science…for example, continental drift.Report

      • Avatar veronica d in reply to DavidTC says:

        (Except sunscreen would cost ten times as much and be carried in the ‘ethnic’ section…assuming it’s been invented at all.)

        Just as an aside, black people can get sunburns.Report

        • Avatar DavidTC in reply to veronica d says:

          Yeah, a lot of black people have skin that is light enough to get sunburned. There’s actually some sort of scale out there of types of skin that show likelihood of sunburn, and you can, in theory, calculate what SPF you need off that. (Which…no one uses.)

          But if you assume a world where skin color is literally the opposite of ours, I was thinking that the darkest skin would hypothetically be considered the most desirable, and it’s rather unlikely for people with that skin color to get sunburned.

          So using sunscreen, or needing it at all, could be treated as a negative. It could indicate you didn’t fit into the classic standard of beauty because your skin wasn’t dark enough, even if you were black. Or even for people with white skin…the proper thing to do is to be as tanned as possible, to get your skin darker. Using sunscreen would be like…a black woman keeping and caring for her natural hair instead of having it straightened. Having skin that light is unprofessional, they should go get tanned to be in the workplace.

          So sunscreen would be some sort of…weird thing, maybe it’s in the ethnic section, maybe it’s needlessly expensive, maybe no one even came up with it, or just invented it recently and it’s made of toxic materials. White people, perhaps, pass down family recipes for it, or there are a few white-created companies that make it.

          But, anyway, I was just being silly, trying to figure out what dumbass ways a flipped phenotype world would do to discriminate.Report

          • Avatar CJColucci in reply to DavidTC says:

            a lot of black people have skin that is light enough to get sunburned.

            Everyone can get sunburned, including my dark-skinned wife, who is far more diligent about applying sunscreen than I am.Report

            • Avatar DavidTC in reply to CJColucci says:

              Okay, this appears in some dispute in medical science. Some places assert it’s possible to have skin dark enough that it will not sunburn, some places assert even the darkest skin can sunburn.

              I have no further knowledge.Report

              • Avatar Frederick Bartlett in reply to DavidTC says:

                I once met a Navy vet. He had worked shirtless on the deck of a carrier under the South Pacific sun and felt horrible afterwards.

                He went to the medic, who diagnosed sunburn. He couldn’t believe it. And his skin was certainly the darkest black I’d ever seen.

                And, yes, he really was sunburned.Report

          • Avatar George Turner in reply to DavidTC says:

            Skin tone and skin lighteners are a social minefield in India, due to caste distinctions and a rich diversity of genetic backgrounds. The products are popular (and thus many Bollywood stars would appear in ads for them), but then those same Bollywood stars end up on apology tours for appearing in such ads because who whole concept of whiter=better is racist, or castist, or whatever you want to call it. They have the really serious social issues (it’s a long and shocking list) that we mostly pretend we still have. They’re trying to keep young girls in school after puberty, while we’re apparently forcing rich women to ride Pelotons.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to DavidTC says:

        However, once we stop about hypothetical worlds where different people are magically in different places, it becomes clear that different groups have different psychological experiences from how they interact with the rest of society, which gives them different points of view.

        That is the concept of promoting ‘diversity’. It’s not saying that other groups are right or wrong, it’s saying ‘Different life experiences make people have different solutions.’.

        But if you have true diversity, you soon lose those differences in life experiences and diversity eventually ends up not accomplishing anything. For example, at one time there was a population of humans with robust (wide) skulls and a population with gracile (narrow) skulls. I suppose that sometime in the distant past, in the interests of diversity, we decided that every woolly mammoth hunting party and village council should include representatives of both groups.

        So now, when someone is casting a movie, they could ensure diversity by including someone with a robust skull (Helena Bonham Carter) and someone with a gracile skull (Nicole Kidman), but I don’t think it still confers any significant difference in perspectives. Diversity either quits working because experiences no longer reflect what you were using as a basis, such as skull type, hair color, race, or national origin. The Democrat debate state wasn’t significantly more diverse because of Beto O’Rourke’s Irish-American perspectives, although a hundred and fifty years ago it might have been.

        At the higher levels, diversity sometimes is little more than Star Trek putting a different alien mask on the same bit-part actor for different episodes. Have to make a diverse Supreme Court nomination? Hey, this time lets pick an 3rd generation Asian liberal judge from New York who went to Yale, then Harvard Law, then clerked for Sandra Day O’Conner, sits on the DC circuit, worked on Constitutional law, wrote opinions indistinguishable from our last five nominees, and whose comes from a family of federal judges. The court will still only have members from the same upper-class East Coast background who followed a very narrow sliver of the legal profession, but one of them will look kind of Asian.Report

        • Avatar DavidTC in reply to George Turner says:

          Well, all that is true, but the fact remains that woman still have fairly different life experiences than men, as evidenced by the fact that they have statistically significant different opinions on many things.

          In fact, weirdly, the people who don’t seem to like diversity as an end into itself are often the first people who _do_ assert that women have different lives. Sometimes by asserting they are fundamentally different, and sometimes by asserting women often make different life choices. For example, if you ask about the pay gap, it’s because women don’t take their career as seriously as men.

          Which means…they actually do have a different life experience, with differing points of view they can bring to the table!

          Same with different races, again often with the conservative arguing that they have different social experiences that often leads to a different outcome in life. Which…gives them a different point of view, right?

          Now, there are obviously situations that can homogenize people, and you’re right that upper-class education is one of those. And what’s we’d probably be better off doing is figuring out how to bring non-upper-class educated people into politics, instead of someone who has almost exactly the same life experiences as everyone else, but a different race.

          However, even there…there’s still some level of difference. It is basically impossible for someone in the current world to have gone through life without their race making some impact on them.

          Again, we can figure this out pretty easily just by asking people their political opinions, or any sorts of opinions, really.

          The Democrat debate state wasn’t significantly more diverse because of Beto O’Rourke’s Irish-American perspectives, although a hundred and fifty years ago it might have been.

          Yes, but it isn’t that Beto O’Rourke doesn’t have anything to contribute from his heritage, it’s that the Irish-American POV is already extremely well represented in politics. Even if he’s the only one on the debate stage, it’s still plenty represented in general.

          There are still a lot of groups that aren’t well represented in mainstream politics, or science, or in corporate leadership, or…wherever people are suggesting we should have diversity. It’s not always the same groups, and sometimes it’s not the groups that com in as ‘diversity’, which is…dumb. But often groups trying to do things are often made up of people with nearly identical experiences.Report

  16. Avatar DavidTC says:

    Incidentally, in case anyone is wondering, the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics is clearly relational quantum mechanics. 😉

    It sorta is intuitively how people think quantum mechanics should work anyway, the Schrodinger Cat experiment for the entire universe, and what’s more, it doesn’t violate relativity, like Bohm and Many-Worlds does. Or just…literally not explain anything, like Copenhagen.Report

  17. We inhabit a present shaped by a non-egalitarian past. That puts a burden on us to reshape the present and future in a more equitable manner, but also to ameliorate the bad effects of prior discrimination. Failure to do both, is by itself, maintenance of the past.Report