Yay, physicists!

I do sometimes get annoyed with arrogant physicists (I will continue to snarl at Paul Davies, Templeton scholar and cancer quack), but I have to give credit where credit is due, and a group of physicists wrote an excellent letter to the Supreme Court, on the patent biases the judges expressed in the Abigail Fisher case.

Letter to SCOTUS from professional physicists

Dear Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States,

We are writing to you today as professional physicists and astrophysicists to respond to comments made by Justices in the course of oral arguments of Fisher vs. University of Texas which occurred on Wednesday, December 9, 2015. First, we strongly repudiate the line of questioning from Justice Antonin Scalia based on the discredited Mismatch Theory [1]. Secondly, we are particularly called to address the question from Chief Justice John Roberts about the value of promoting equity and inclusion in our own field, physics.

We share the outrage and dismay already expressed by many other groups and individual scientists over the comments of Justice Scalia, which appear to endorse the claim made in the amicus curiae brief of Heriot and Kirsanow, that affirmative action prevents black people from becoming scientists. We take this opportunity to strongly rebuke this claim and offer a rebuttal.

We object to the use of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields as a paper tiger in the debate over affirmative action. We as professional scientists are in strong support of affirmative action policies. As we work continuously to educate ourselves about the obstacles facing students of color, we see, now more than ever, a need for action.

We are working very hard to solve the ongoing problem of the lack of underrepresented minorities in the professional community of physicists and astronomers. In spite of the misguided claims of Heriot and Kirsanow, that “gaps in academic credentials are imposing serious educational disadvantages on… minority students, especially in the areas of science and engineering,” science is not an endeavor which should depend on the credentials of the scientist. Rather, a good scientist is one who does good science. We hope to push our community towards equity and inclusion so that the community of scientists more closely matches the makeup of humankind, because the process of scientific discovery is a human endeavor that benefits from removing prejudice against any race, ethnicity, or gender. Indeed, science relies heavily on consensus about acceptable results as well as future research directions, making diversity among scientists a crucial aspect of objective, bias-free science [2, 3]. Affirmative action programs that aim to bring the numbers of minority students to more proportional levels are an important ingredient in our ongoing work. Blaming affirmative action for our community’s lack of progress in this regard is not only wrong, it is plainly ignorant of what we as scientists have determined must be done to reform our pedagogical and social structures to achieve the long-delayed goal of desegregation.

Affirmative action is just one part of a larger set of actions needed to achieve social justice within our STEM and education fields. In their brief, Heriot and Kirsanow claim that affirmative action causes fewer minority students to enter technical fields because their completion rates are low. Unlike Heriot and Kirsanow, we are scientists and science educators who are keenly aware that merely adding students to a pipeline is not enough to correct for the imbalance of power. The experience of a minority student in STEM is often much different from that of a white student in STEM [4]. Minority students attending primarily white institutions commonly face racism, biases, and a lack of mentoring. Meanwhile, white students unfairly benefit psychologically from being overrepresented [5]. We argue that it is the social experience of minority students that is more likely to make them drop out, rather than a lack of ability.

Before Justice’s Scalia’s remarks on black scientists, Justice Roberts asked, “what unique perspective does a minority student bring to physics class?” and “What [are] the benefits of diversity… in that situation?” Before addressing these questions directly, we note that is important to call attention to questions that weren’t asked by the justices, such as, “What unique perspectives do white students bring to a physics class?” and “What are the benefits of homogeneity in that situation?” We reject the premise that the presence of minority students and the existence of diversity need to be justified, but meanwhile segregation in physics is tacitly accepted as normal or good. Instead, we embrace the assumption that minority physics students are brilliant [6] and ask, “Why does physics education routinely fail brilliant minority students?”

This is what we see when we look at a minority student in a majority-white physics class: determination and an ability to overcome obstacles and work hard in stressful environments. We see this because we know that many students from minority backgrounds are subjected to social and political stress from institutionalized racism (past and present), a history of economic oppression, and societal abuse from both micro-aggressions and subtle racism. We believe that it is these qualities that make minority students able to succeed as physics researchers.

The implication that physics or “hard sciences” are somehow divorced from the social realities of racism in our society is completely fallacious. The exclusion of people from physics solely on the basis of the color of their skin is an outrageous outcome that ought to be a top priority for rectification. The rhetorical pretense that including everyone in physics class is somehow irrelevant to the practice of physics ignores the fact that we have learned and discovered all the amazing facts about the universe through working together in a community. The benefits of inclusivity and equity are the same for physics as they are for every other aspect of our world.

The purpose of seeking out talented and otherwise overlooked minority students to fill physics classrooms is to offset the institutionalized imbalance of power and preference that has traditionally gone and continues to go towards white students. Minority students in a classroom are not there to be at the service of enhancing the experience of white students.

We ask that you take these considerations seriously in your deliberations and join us physicists and astrophysicists in the work of achieving full integration and removing the pernicious vestiges of racism and white supremacy from our world.


[1] Harris, Cheryl I., and William C. Kidder. “The Black student mismatch myth in legal education: The systemic flaws in Richard Sander’s affirmative action study.” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (2004): 102-105.

[2] Bug, Amy. “Has Feminism Changed Physics?” Signs: Gender and Science: New Issues 28.3 (2003): 881-899.

[3] Whitten, Barbara.”(Baby) Steps Towards Feminist Physics.” Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering 18.2 (2012): 115-134.

[4] McGee, Ebony O., and Danny B. Martin. ““You Would Not Believe What I Have to Go Through to Prove My Intellectual Value!” Stereotype Management Among Academically Successful Black Mathematics and Engineering Students.” American Educational Research Journal 48.6 (2011): 1347-1389.

[5] Bandura, Albert. “Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning.” Educational psychologist 28.2 (1993): 117-148.

[6] Leonard, Jacquelyn, and Martin, Danny B. (Eds.). The Brilliance of Black Children in Mathematics: Beyond the Numbers and Toward New Discourse. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishers. (2013)

Running list of signatures:

Notice to all the apologists for racists who were babbling away in my thread on the case: real rocket scientists think you are obviously full of shit.


  1. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Applause to the physicists/astronomers. I hope the American Chemical Society wrote a similar letter.

  2. says

    Kudos to those involved this is very heartening. Looks like they are up above 400 signatures now and hopefully the list will keep on growing.

    Nerd of Redhead @2 why not get the letter started yourself? We’re happy to help in any way and surely other folks here would be happy to help as well. Professor Myers how about getting a similar letter going amongst biologists as well? You both and others in academia could help push this forward in your own fields of study or at your own university and keep the momentum going. You could reference this letter and echo their sentiments and then just highlight some things from the perspective of chemitry and biology respectively.

    Just thought it would be really amazing if this could take root and blossom into an interdisciplanary movement.

  3. says

    cervantes @ 1:

    Scalia isn’t just an apologist for racists, he is a racist.

    Not only is a racist, he seems to positively enjoy holding contrary opinions and interpreting the Constitution in the most perverse way he can; in every interview I’ve seen with him, the poison toad is positively gloating that ha ha, no-one can touch him because he’s on the Supreme Court so suck it, liberals. He is a disgrace to his profession and to humanity in general.

  4. Scientismist says

    Unfortunately, the physicists reveal their disconnect from American society when they write that they “reject the premise that the presence of minority students [in science classes] and the existence of diversity need to be justified”. The problem is that most members of the SCOTUS (and most Americans) have no idea what science is. Note that one Republican candidate recently stated that the reason global warming is not an important issue is because of his gut feeling.

    Indeed, science relies heavily on consensus about acceptable results as well as future research directions, making diversity among scientists a crucial aspect of objective, bias-free science [2, 3].

    The benefits of inclusivity and equity are the same for physics as they are for every other aspect of our world.

    References [2, 3] are both in support of the benefits women bring to physics. It is not clear that the specific audience here (Roberts, Scalia, and the other conservative Catholic justices) are likely to be open to the suggestion that the benefits of such inclusivity and equity apply to every other aspect of our world.

    Science is a community effort to reveal the best available and probable truths by applying human intelligence to the physical world. When getting to the Truth (upper case) is believed to be more a matter of following the proper traditional forms and rituals in order to reveal an answer already known to a higher intellect, experience may well dictate that the less diverse the collegium of human minds allowed to dabble in the process, the better.

    The job is bigger than just expressing dismay. This is the result of the failure of schools to educate the public in the nature of science itself. When people think scientific truth is a big notebook of facts, what possible harm can come from entrusting that notebook to a priestly class?

  5. Sunday Afternoon says

    Signed – something I am very happy putting my name to, thought I don’t see it included yet.

    Looking through the signatures, I did come across this:

    You can NOT represent me you fucking liberal morons! This country has been ruined by you fucking liberals and are hurt more now! You can clearly feel the continuing degradation of student quality as my fucking liberal university pushing for affirmative actions in adimission. By this you just wasted valuable yet limited education resources on less qualified people, if you admit students based on their race for a fake “equality”, rather than based on their intelligence and/or academic performance! Once again, you fucking liberals CAN NOT represent physicists, and should NOT have done so!!!!!

  6. unclefrogy says

    it is wonderful how with simple clear language the whole question is turned upside down when compared to he questions posed by the justices.
    Exposing clearly the habitual racist white privileged point of view by contrast with actual reality.
    uncle frogy

  7. Sili says

    I hope the American Chemical Society wrote a similar letter.


  8. ougaseon says

    Ironically, there is a great example of the importance of diversity in physics in the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, which just had its construction permit rescinded.

    I can’t help but think if native Hawaiians felt like the astronomy community was an extension of their community this would be much less contentious. Talking about the new telescope as a way of celebrating and extending the traditional importance of Mauna Kea…well could you imagine serious opposition if a great place for a telescope were near Stonehenge? Not likely, because modern, “Western” astronomy feels an extension of the traditional culture of the British Isles.

  9. says

    @Sunday Afternoon at 7:

    Lia Corrales and Joshua Tan, who were both involved in writing the letter, inform me that they are periodically going through new signatures and removing racist spam such as the sample you quoted (which has already been removed).

    Also, Joshua informs that some signers may not be able to see their own signatures immediately after adding it due to how Google uses cookies. If you clear your cache and then go to the link with signatures ( https://docs.google.com/document/d/1YtjzV72hVCfIcnSn9RTqmpHBx2YxXqEm14dLH-LhbdM/edit?pli=1 ), it should appear.

  10. Sunday Afternoon says

    @michaelbusch at 12:

    I’m not surprised that some cleanup is required. Thanks for the note about the cookies, I’m guessing that was the cause – all present and correct now.

  11. Sunday Afternoon says

    @ougaseon at 11:

    could you imagine serious opposition if a great place for a telescope were near Stonehenge?

    Actually, I can – there were lots of protests in the ’90s at the building of roads through ancient woodlands (c.f: Newbury bypass, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swampy). There have been similar discussions/objections to a new road near Stonehenge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonehenge_road_tunnel

    A rough parallel to the Mauna Kea situation is if there were large scientific installations built at the top of Mt. Olympus in Greece (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve_Olympians).

    The way the observatories in Hawaii were structured is very colonial. Foreign scientists & institutions set up, run (including sending people on multi-year assignments from the remote host institution) and manage the facilities, and then a steady stream of visiting observers would travel to use them (myself included in the ’90s).

    For example:
    Keck is run out of California (http://www.keckobservatory.org/about/board).

    UKIRT (http://www.ukirt.hawaii.edu/) and the JCMT (http://www.eaobservatory.org/jcmt/) were originally run out of the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh (http://www.roe.ac.uk/).

    UKIRT is now managed by the University of Hawaii (yay!, local!) and JCMT has become part of the East Asian Observatory.

    Subaru (http://subarutelescope.org/) is run out of Japan, where “Subaru” is the Japanese word for the Pleiades star cluster (as seen in the logo of the car maker).

    The problem of a conspicuous number of visiting astronomers has reduced due to much improved telescope automation and huge improvements in networking bandwidth (yay! fibre-optics!) to move data (I hand-carried my data on Exabyte tapes after my observing runs – magnetic tape, remember that?). These improvements reduce the need for astronomers to be physically at the telescopes working with the telescope operators. There is still significant need for technical personnel to be at the telescopes, for example to deal with the cryogenics required by many instruments.

    For a while I thought the telescope and local community relations had improved. Clearly the 30 Meter Telescope, with planning coordinated in Pasadena, CA (http://www.tmt.org/about-tmt), has exposed the problems again.

  12. Athywren - Frustration Familiarity Panda says

    Late comment:
    I have very little to say, I just wanted to quote this:

    We hope to push our community towards equity and inclusion so that the community of scientists more closely matches the makeup of humankind, because the process of scientific discovery is a human endeavor that benefits from removing prejudice against any race, ethnicity, or gender. Indeed, science relies heavily on consensus about acceptable results as well as future research directions, making diversity among scientists a crucial aspect of objective, bias-free science [2, 3].

    And then say this:
    Fuck yeah! Supporting the best and brightest among us can only serve to benefit the sciences in the long run. Letting skin colour, gender, religion, whatever, serve as an excuse to deny that support can only weaken us. That’s not to say that the sciences don’t benefit from the input of the best of the whitest, but it’s certainly unreasonable to expect them to be all we need.
    Obviously there are basic ethical reasons to work to neutralise the effects of prejudice in pretty much all of society, but it really does seem to need to be repeated for some people that affirmative action isn’t weakening us. It’s not letting the unworthy and incapable in ahead of worthy, capable, white men, it’s supporting the worthy and capable who face barriers put up by cultures of white men.

  13. says

    The form has now been closed. Hard-copy versions of the letter are in route to the offices of each of the Supreme Court Justices, with a total of 2419 signatures on each. Thanks goes to Lia Corrales for arranging that!

  14. rrhain says

    While I certainly agree with everything that was said in the letter, I do have an argument for why we need diversity in physics classes (as well as every other class):

    Eventually you need to apply what you’ve learned.

    One of the things any good education will give you is the requirement that you actually practice what it is you were taught. That’s why good science classes have labs. It’s one thing to understand the theory behind something, but it’s another to actually put it to use. And when you get far enough along in the subject, they’re going to say, “OK…now you come up with the lab.”

    It makes us for a better society when we have more people of different backgrounds put that task. You start thinking about what problems you could solve given the tools you’ve been given. If the only people who have the tools all come from the same background, they’re going to be thinking of the same kinds of problems. It won’t likely occur to someone who comes from a society where water is clean and readily available to consider how to use physics and chemistry to develop a way to treat water. Not impossible, mind you, but someone who comes from a background where that’s a real problem is more likely to apply their knowledge to that problem.

    So the reason we need to have as broad a population as possible learning about this stuff is that you can only pay attention to what you’re actually paying attention to and nobody can pay attention to everything. In order to solve a problem, you need to be aware of it and nobody is aware of everything.

    The point of a physics class isn’t simply to pass that one class because it’s a requirement to graduate.