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Making Black Women Scientists Under White Empiricism: The Racialization of Epistemology in Physics [Top 100 research & commentary of 2020]

This article is part 7 of a series reviewing selected papers and associated commentary from Altmetric’s list of the top 100 most discussed and shared research and commentary of 2020.

The #56 article1 in Altmetric’s top 100 list for 2020 takes on the question of how the exclusion of Black American women from physics impacts ways of knowing in physics. Article author Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an American and Barbadian theoretical cosmologist, and is both an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy and a Core Faculty Member in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of New Hampshire2.

In the article, Prescod-Weinstein uses the concept of prestige asymmetry in physics to develop the concept of white empiricism to discuss the impact that Black women’s exclusion has had on physics research. Empiricism in the philosophy of science emphasizes evidence, especially as discovered in experiments to test hypotheses and theories, as a fundamental part of the scientific method3.

Prescod-Weinstein reports that prestige asymmetry is evident in the way in which advances in particle physics are treated as major intellectual achievements, while advances in condensed matter are regarded as mere material, technological achievements. However, the majority of Black American women who have earned PhDs in physics, astronomy, and related fields have done so in areas on the “wrong” side of this prestige asymmetry. The most highly esteemed field, high energy physics theory, has only seen about six completed PhDs by Black American women, with a greater (although still disproportionately low) number going to Black men.

On top of this, people from minorities are discouraged from pursuing lines of work that are considered especially intellectually challenging, and their absence from these lines of work is then put forward as evidence of their lack of adequate preparation or competency.

Prescod-Weinstein alerts that white empiricism undermines a significant theory of twentieth-century physics: General Relativity. Albert Einstein’s profound contribution to our empirical understanding of gravity is rooted in the principle of covariance, which is the simple idea that there is no single objective frame of reference that is more objective than any other. All frames of reference, all observers, are equally competent and capable of observing the universal laws that underlie the workings of our physical universe.

Given that Black women must, according to Einstein’s principle of covariance, have an equal claim to objectivity regardless of their simultaneously experiencing intersecting axes of oppression, Prescod-Weinstein advises that we can dispense with any suggestion that the low number of Black women in science indicates any lack of validity on their part as observers. She states that it is instead important to examine the way the social forces at work shape Black women’s standpoint as observers – scientists – with a specific interest in how scientific knowledge is dependent on this specific standpoint.

The area of quantum gravity is put forward by Prescod-Weinstein as an example to support her argument in regard to prestige asymmetry and white empiricism. Quantum gravity is a physics sub-discipline considered by many to be the pinnacle of physics prestige, objectivity, universality, and culturelessness. However, Prescod-Weinstein contends that the discourse about the quantum gravity model of string theory provides an example of how white supremacist racial prestige asymmetry produces an antiempiricist practices among physicists, that is, white empiricism. She states that in string theory, extremely speculative ideas endorsed by white scientists but which require abandoning the empiricist core of the scientific method are taken more seriously than the idea that Black women are competent observers of their own experiences.

As argued by Prescod-Weinstein, this invalidation of Black women’s standpoint is an antiempirical disposal of data, in essence turning white supremacist social structures into a scientific practice. She states that therefore, while traditionally defined empiricism is the stated practice of scientists, white empiricism – where speculative white, male testimony is more highly valued than reality-based testimony from Black women – is the actual practice of scientists.

What does this mean for knowledge management?

Prescod-Weinstein proposes that her insights in regard to prestige asymmetry and white empiricism should change physics – and not just through who becomes a physicist but through the actual outcomes of what we come to know.

She advises that future work should unpack this phenomenon further in dialogue with decolonisation discourse. RealKM Magazine has identified the decolonisation of knowledge and knowledge management (KM) as being one of the important new initiatives underway that are shaping the future of KM as an organisational endeavour, professional career, and research discipline.

Astronomy is a sub-discipline of physics, and as a cosmologist, Prescod-Weinstein puts forward the debate about the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii as an example of the relationship between white empiricism and decolonisation. She states that white empiricism can help explain why the Thirty Meter Telescope was evaluated so differentially by Mauna Kea protectors and telescope-using scientists, resulting in a specious debate over who was for and who was against science. Protectors, who do not subscribe to white empiricism, have been forced to repeatedly challenge press coverage that tends to assign a higher knowledge prestige to the role of non-indigenous scientists than to cultural knowledge holders of indigenous communities.

Header image: Thirty Meter Telescope blockade on Mauna Kea. Occupy Hilo on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

References:

  1. Prescod-Weinstein, C. (2020). Making Black women scientists under white empiricism: the racialization of epistemology in physics. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 45(2), 421-447.
  2. Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.
  3. Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Also published on Medium.

Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes (www.bruceboyes.info) is editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (www.realkm.com), and a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and project management consultant. He holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction, and his expertise and experience includes knowledge management (KM), environmental management, project management, stakeholder engagement, teaching and training, communications, research, and writing and editing. With a demonstrated ability to identify and implement innovative solutions to social and ecological complexity, Bruce's many career highlights include establishing RealKM Magazine as an award-winning resource, using agile and knowledge management approaches to oversee an award-winning $77.4 million western Sydney river recovery program, leading a knowledge strategy process for Australia's 56 natural resource management (NRM) regional organisations, pioneering collaborative learning and governance approaches to support the sustainable management of landscapes and catchments, and initiating and teaching two new knowledge management subjects at Shanxi University in China.

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