With friends like these: Krauss, Quillette, and systemic racism

Krauss & friends

Lawrence Krauss stands exposed as a gullible fool, and it’s sad to see. He’s reduced to publishing in Quillette, of all places, and his claim is that “Racism Is Real. But Science Isn’t the Problem”. He has always had this simplistic view of science as a pure ideal that isn’t touched by, you know, humanity. He’s now irritated that, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, people are turning their eyes towards racism in all kinds of social institutions, and have even dared to demand that the American Physical Society address the failings of physics (I imagine poor Larry stuttering in outrage that I would even write that physics as a discipline has failings). His precious physics doesn’t have a problem!

It sounds laudable. But as argued below, mantras about systemic racism are hard to square with the principles and necessary protocols of academic science. And in any case, overhauling university hiring and promotion aren’t the way to address the fundamental underlying causes of racism in our society. The APS and other scientific organizations have adopted dramatic anti-racist posturing in sudden response to George Floyd’s homicide and the protests that followed. But in so doing, they risk unwittingly demeaning science and scientists, as well as trivializing the broader and more vicious impacts of real racism in our society.

Science has principles! And protocols! Nope, no racism here. The implementation of those principles and protocols is flawless. Nope, no racists in physics (or any other scientific discipline, like biology), and if there were, they certainly wouldn’t be rewarded with the highest honors, like the Nobel prize, for their work. No way. You see, we just apply the Scientific Method, and presto, racism is gone.

Krauss is not alone, but he is certainly relatively rare in that kind of naïve scientific idealism. Most of us are totally aware that science is a human enterprise, constructed and maintained by flawed people, and that we are part of the social structure of the world. Sublime abstractions might be appealing, but they have little to do with the dirty jobs of funding and hiring and interacting with people, all things that Krauss had to have experienced, and must realize have little to do with formulas and recipes and computer programs.

Really, he has this delusional idea that because Scientists do Science, they can’t possibly be racist or sexist. Just possessing the tools of science makes you immune!

Science is furthered by the development of theories that better explain nature, that make correct predictions about the world, and that may help develop new technologies. A scientific theory that can be supported by rigorous empirical observation, theoretical analysis, and experimental results; and which withstands scrutiny and critique from peers; will be adopted by the scientific community, independent of such theories’ origins. If the system is functioning properly, the people who develop these ideas and experiments rise in prominence. The nature of the scientific process requires it to be color-blind, gender-blind, and religion-blind.

This means that science can unite humanity in a way that’s unmatched by any other intellectual endeavor—for it transcends cultures, languages, and geography. Physicists in China and the United States may have vastly different political views and experiences. But at a physics conference, they interact as colleagues.

Somebody should have a word with that Albert Einstein fellow.

The Chinese, Einstein wrote, were “industrious” but also “filthy.” He described them as a “peculiar, herd-like nation often more like automatons than people.” Even though he only spent a few days in China, Einstein felt confident enough to cast judgment on the entire country and its inhabitants, at least in his private journal.

“It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races,” Einstein wrote. “For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

The problem is that science isn’t a cure-all. Often it can be used as a tool for rationalizing one’s biases, and one of the great dangers is when some people, like Lawrence Krauss, get it in their head that being a scientist lofts one above the petty problems of the mob. This is not the first time Krauss has made these ridiculous assertions.

Some scientists, especially vociferously atheist scientists like Krauss, pride themselves in their ability to rise above certain biases, in their work and in social systems at large. They believe that science, as a concept, will safeguard against them.“Science itself overcomes misogyny and prejudice and bias. It’s built-in,” Krauss said last year during a promotional event for one of his books.

It’s outrageous to claim scientists, hard as they might try, are immune to biases. In fact, scientists’ fierce belief that they are exempt from such pitfalls risks blinding them to the possibility that there may be a chance, however small, that they’re not. In the wake of the allegations, Krauss acknowledged that his demeanor may have “made people feel intimidated, uncomfortable, or unwelcome,” and recognized that “the current movement makes clear that my sensitivity, like many others’, can be improved.”

Krauss is also good at kicking the blame to someone else. Physics in higher ed is pure and unsullied, therefore any underrepresentation of black physicists must be the fault of the leaky pipeline.

During the academic strike called for by the APS, it was emphasized that the proportion of black physicists in national laboratories such as the Fermi National Laboratory in Illinois (where one #strike4blacklives organizer works) is much smaller than the percentage of blacks in the population at large. It was implied that systematic racism in the profession was responsible for this, although no explicit data supporting this claim was presented.

In fact, there is a simpler explanation. There are fewer tenured black physicists at universities and laboratories because there are fewer black PhD physicists. There are fewer black PhD physicists because there are fewer black physics graduate students. There are fewer black graduate students because there are fewer black undergraduates who major in physics. This latter fact is a cause for concern. But the root cause lies in inequities that arise far earlier in the education process. These cannot be addressed by affirmative action policies at the upper levels of practicing professional scientists.

He doesn’t cite any explicit data supporting his claim, either. Because he didn’t look, however, doesn’t mean the data negating his assertion isn’t there; the sociology of science gets studied out the wazoo, it’s just that some scientists let their biases dictate what they see. Here’s one example.

Women and men of color represent growing populations of the undergraduate and graduate student populations nationwide; however, in many cases, this growth has not translated to greater faculty representation. Despite student demands, stated commitments to diversity, and investments from national organizations and federal agencies, the demographic characteristics of the professoriate look remarkably similar to the faculty of 50 years ago. Many strategies to increase faculty diversity focus on increasing representation in graduate education, skill development, and preparation for entry into faculty careers. While these needs and strategies are important to acknowledge, this chapter primarily addresses how institutions promote and hinder advances in faculty diversity. Specifically, extant literature is organized into a conceptual framework (the Institutional Model for Faculty Diversity) detailing how institutional structures, policies, and interactions with faculty colleagues and students shape access, recruitment, and retention in the professoriate, focusing on the experiences of women and men of color. A failure to address these challenges has negative implications for teaching, learning, and knowledge generation; consequently, this review also presents research documenting how women and men of color uniquely contribute to the mission and goals of US higher education.

If it were just a leaky pipeline, then increases in recruitment at lower educational levels ought to translate into increasing proportions of minority employment at the topmost levels. It doesn’t. It’s almost as if there is some invisible force suppressing minority participation at the level of practicing professional scientists…I wonder what it could be? Some kind of invisible dark energy? I wonder what we should call it?

Of course, this is Larry Krauss, whose powers of discernment are remarkably limited…while at the same time, he argues that the powers of science are so great that he’d be able to see such a limiting factor. He’s notorious as the persistent defender of Jeffrey Epstein — man, that position hasn’t aged well — who claimed that Science would enable him to instantly detect pedophiles.

“If anything, the unfortunate period he suffered has caused him to really think about what he wants to do with his money and his time, and support knowledge,” says Krauss. “Jeffrey has surrounded himself with beautiful women and young women but they’re not as young as the ones that were claimed. As a scientist I always judge things on empirical evidence and he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I’ve never seen anything else, so as a scientist, my presumption is that whatever the problems were I would believe him over other people.” Though colleagues have criticized him over his relationship with Epstein, Krauss insists, “I don’t feel tarnished in any way by my relationship with Jeffrey; I feel raised by it.”

Apparently, his racism-detection sense is just as finely honed and acute as his underage-girl sense. It was that sense of what is right and proper and just that seems to have gotten him fired from a prestigious position, after all. It has now led him to write an essay denying racism in Quillette.

I wonder if he now feels raised by his association with Quillette? He doesn’t have a very good track record in his friendships.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    “Science itself overcomes misogyny and prejudice and bias. It’s built-in,” Krauss said last year during a promotional event for one of his books.

    Krauss is the same age as I am, and we both went through undergrad and grad school in North America. If he’s saying he didn’t see misogyny at the very least in the physics departments he was in, he’s either a blinkered clueless twit or a fucking liar.

    I came to the conclusion some years ago that he’s just another self-promoting arsehole who doesn’t give a toss about anything except his own advancement/fame/wealth.

  2. anchor says

    Intellectual supremacy ~ white male supremacy…there seems a congruence.

  3. says

    Scientific racism does not exist?
    It’s bad science, but if Krauss were right, it would have washed out of use … immediately? Fast?
    Contrary to Krauss’ opinion, bogus/bad science has adherents that circle around and defend it in spite of it being wrong.

  4. Artor says

    “He’s either a blinkered clueless twit or a fucking liar.”
    Why not both?

  5. Nancy martin says

    Let’s not forget the misogyny in the math department either.As an undergrad physics major (early 80’s), I saw it first hand in both math and physics. Luckily, it was limited to one or two staff but when you were the target it was not pleasant.

  6. says

    Krauss argues that the scientific process is under threat, and supports his argument by talking about faculty hiring decisions. This leaves me wondering, does he believe that hiring decisions are a scientific process?? What does the scientific process have to do with anything?

  7. kome says

    Krauss doesn’t care about being right, only about being treated as though he were right. So he feels very little compulsion to critically evaluate his beliefs, to reflect on his own thinking, and to learn. He is, at his core, no different than any other pseudoscientific wackaloon because at the end of the day he is espousing pseudoscientific nonsense about things he has no expertise in. He’s not known outside of science circles for his physics research. He’s known for some science communication about physics generally, but mostly he’s known for stuff outside of his expertise. Namely atheism, but now increasingly issues of discrimination and prejudice. He has no background in any of this, he’s just a knee-jerk reactionary on par with climate change deniers who think that a little snowfall in January means climate change is a hoax.

    It’s very pitiful. He has wasted whatever potential he had to be someone who contributes to a better world. But, it’s no wonder he’s against trying to address systemic racism; if people of color and women were allowed an equal and fair opportunity to attend graduate schools, earn graduate degrees, and enter the markets that require graduate degrees, Krauss wouldn’t be a professor today. Privileged mediocrity fears a meritocracy.

  8. Erp says

    The pipeline leaks all the way. Note it is not just race but also economic class and even family background. Academic families are more likely to produce academics though that might be getting less common or maybe the expansion of academia post WWII is hiding it. This is likely because children and in particular male children were encouraged to have academic interests and family connections were such as to place them in good positions to advance in a field assuming they had any talent.

  9. F.O. says

    When I was getting my physics degree, I was struck that women were consistently getting better votes than men, but only few of them went ahead with a PhD.

    Also, most professors were largely brilliant but very, very dysfunctional humans.

    Academia is fucked up.

  10. says

    This is likely because children and in particular male children were encouraged to have academic interests and family connections were such as to place them in good positions to advance in a field assuming they had any talent.

    Or, if they have money and no talent (see: how Jared Kushner got into Harvard)
    Academic achievement clustering in families can be put down to a few things:
    – Some universities consider if your parent was a graduate, in their admission process (see: how C-average student Marcus got into Johns Hopkins)
    – Some universities offer university-level tuition to the children of faculty (see: how Marcus was able to go to Johns Hopkins)
    it’s not DNA when you see a university professor’s kid go to the same university. It’s just intergenerational wealth-building and privilege.

  11. Bruce says

    Yes. Terms like quark may have a clear definition. But Krauss is messed up by (among other things) falsely thinking that “physics” is A thing. Physics is clearly at least two things. One is equation stuff, where Krauss may be ok to say the scientific method applies. But all the rest of the things physics people do is not this. Things such as reading the names of physics paper authors, meeting colleagues at science conferences and treating them equally, recommending and hiring people: all are sort of physics stuff, but none are the sort of equation stuff where Krauss has any education, knowledge, skills, or experience, let alone any scientific method. The very first test is to notice that equation stuff is not the same as human stuff, and Krauss has heard this criticism for years without ever observing it, still. Sad.

  12. microraptor says

    His comments are like hearing hoofbeats and immediately telling everyone that there’s a tapir.

  13. bcwebb says

    If he was ‘science driven’ he’d be aware of the studies of the problem like:
    which sent identical (fake) resumes for post-docs with different gender and race indicators.

    The gender issue is illustrated by the cartoon with the caption “nice idea Shirley, now would a man like to repeat it so we can pretend its his and discuss it.” In my company women will adapt the strategy of going into management so that they can make themselves heard. That it is possible is good, that it is necessary is not.

  14. garnetstar says

    Although I’m sure that Krauss doesn’t consider chemistry a science (it’s just impure physics, right?), my department also played the pipeline card just a few weeks ago, when some (all white) recent alumni very admirably wrote to us that this department has never had even one Black professor, and asked us to do something about it.

    “Well, it’s the pipeline!”, the department replied. I had to remind them of our (former) colleague, who recently, while musing about teaching general chemistry, told us at a faculty meeting that “Black girls always get C’s.” And no, that wasn’t the reason he’s no longer here–he even continued to teach general chemistry–because that’s not serious enough for the department to do anything about.

    So, as Krauss says, it’s just the pipeline! Move along, nothing to see here, folks.

  15. chrislawson says

    How on Earth can Krauss get away with claiming that the ‘leaky pipeline’ has nothing to do with academic hiring decisions when 90% of that pipeline is directly controlled by senior academics?

  16. chrislawson says

    Krauss’s other big mistake: assuming that because the underlying processes of physics aren’t racist, therefore the people studying those processes can’t be racist. Well by that measure, subatomic particles don’t enjoy music therefore subatomic physicists can’t enjoy music either. This is such a crude and blatantly ridiculous variant of the genetic fallacy that I am utterly astonished a supposed skeptic could argue it.

  17. chrislawson says

    Another stupid mistake by Krauss — assuming that the ‘built in’ evidence-seeking of science means that everything that is done by scientists is perfectly evidence-based. Modern cars have numerous have built-in safety features; doesn’t mean drivers never crash them.

  18. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    It’s so laughable how much the argument hinges on inhuman arrogance, on the thought that people like him are really just more virtuous than anyone else. Without that implicit premise, the argument is obviously nonsense. Either we define science as this pure process that seeks out truth, in which case no one has ever done science for the same reason people don’t find Platonic entities in real life (so the argument explicitly hinges on a kind of essentialism far below his intellectual ability), or science is what scientists actually do and then of course science is racist just like science is sexist and prone to political corruption and prone to the occasional bad paper, because people are flawed.

    But it is very nice to have people show their true colors. In his case, making clear that, sure, he thinks racism is some sort of problem somewhere else, but not one he has to do anything about or that implicates him.

  19. Matt G says

    My brother’s father-in-law has a Ph.D. in chemistry, taught economics at the college level, is a staunch atheist,…and a climate change denier. He perfectly illustrates how your ideology (libertarian) can completely overwhelm the rational parts of your brain. This is intellectually worse than denying racism, sexism, etc. because climatology is an actual scientific discipline! He would also deny racism, sexism etc. in academia.

  20. Knabb says

    Leaks in the pipeline are a pretty terrible analogy, given that leaks are accidental and the actual sorting factors here very much aren’t. This is more a pipeline being intentionally split – and the idea that if a pipe has been split upstream there can’t possibly be a split here only makes sense to people who know absolutely nothing about pipes.

    Personally, I favor the distillation column analogy, where a lot of energy is put in, and on every tray the concentrations change and the lighter compound disproportionately rises to the next one. Accurate descriptions of what’s going on in lower trays in no way mean that the tray in question isn’t doing basically the same thing.

  21. hillaryrettig says

    Krauss, who was forced to leave at least one job because he was sexually harassing students, says there’s no such thing as sexism in physics.

  22. garnetstar says

    Matt G @21, that’s funny! Because, chemists were the first scientists to hypothesize and then prove that increased carbon dioxide would cause the atmosphere to warm. Back in the 1890’s, I seem to recall.

    When meteroogists started to warn the public about CO2 emissions, chemists just said “Yes, we know.” So indeed, your point about ideology overcoming rationality is well proven.

  23. Rob Grigjanis says

    garnetstar @24: Yeah, Svante Arrhenius

    Originally a physicist, but often referred to as a chemist, Arrhenius was one of the founders of the science of physical chemistry


  24. samsparx says

    “Science itself overcomes misogyny and prejudice and bias. It’s built-in,” Krauss said last year during a promotional event for one of his books.

    Unfortunately, this is not an axiom. Science could overcome misogyny and prejudice and bias, but it would need to both be able to identify and measure those elements in order to rectify their presence. The assumption that science adjusts for such things automatically implies, at the very least, that the data that science uses is not subject to those things, and that is not a sustainable position. One needs only to look at how well AI is doing in that regard to tell that bias implicitly exist in datasets unless actively counteracted. Far better to see it as an opportunity for study rather than a solved problem.

    One might also say that farming overcomes unspherical cows, and be equally correct. The devil, and the opportunity to learn, is in the details.

  25. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Krauss: “The nature of the scientific process requires it to be color-blind, gender-blind, and religion-blind.”

    This is true as far as it goes, but science, like seatbelts, only work when they are used. If you want to have a scientific view of bias, you have to apply the scientific method to the subject. That means that you have to be willing to have your ox gored. You have to be willing to entertain as a hypothesis that science as it is practiced by you and your peers is not color or gender blind. You have to look at the evidence–the lack of women and minorities in science, and you have to be willing to entertain the explanation that they are driven out by systemic bias in the way we think, even in the way we perceive. You have to question everything. And if you aren’t willing to do that, you may be a good physicist in the sense that you push the boundaries of your particular, narrow discipline forward, but you really aren’t a good scientist.

    At some level, Krauss must know this. He must see his colleagues, who are perfectly fine physicists, but also embrace religion. One wonders why he cannot turn his critical thinking skills upon himself. Wouldn’t he be a better scientist–and a better physicist–if he did?

  26. Anton Mates says

    The nature of the scientific process requires it to be color-blind, gender-blind, and religion-blind.

    I honestly have no idea what Krauss means by this. He can’t mean that practicing scientists are required to be color-blind, gender-blind, and religion-blind, because it’s trivially easy to come up with a long list of eminent scientists who were anything but. (Aristotle, Alhazen and Agassiz cover all three bases, and that’s just picking from the A’s!) He can’t mean that scientific institutions are required to be those things, because most Western universities, academic societies and government research programs were off-limits to women, black people and non-Judeo-Christians until at least the early 20th century. And he can’t mean that the modern scientific community has magically achieved 100% freedom from the biases and prejudices that plagued their forebears for the last 2550 years, because…well, that’d be stupid. So does he mean anything at all, other than “I don’t wanna confront my own biases and you can’t make me?”

    This means that science can unite humanity in a way that’s unmatched by any other intellectual endeavor—for it transcends cultures, languages, and geography. Physicists in China and the United States may have vastly different political views and experiences. But at a physics conference, they interact as colleagues.

    It’s rather precious that Krauss thinks the full spectrum of human cultural diversity is spanned by “Chinese professional physicist” versus “American professional physicist.” Like, do Chinese artists and writers and human rights activists and musicians and civil engineers and doctors and business execs and Christians and comics/animation fans not interact as colleagues with their American counterparts? Is it only our scientists who have learned to communicate productively with the inscrutable denizens of the mysterious Orient?

    There are fewer tenured black physicists at universities and laboratories[…]because there are fewer black undergraduates who major in physics. This latter fact is a cause for concern. But the root cause lies in inequities that arise far earlier in the education process. These cannot be addressed by affirmative action policies at the upper levels of practicing professional scientists.

    Um. Even if Krauss’ claim about “the root cause” of black under-representation was correct, which it’s not, are practicing professional scientists not involved in the earlier education process? Is it really so hard to imagine that we might end up with more black physics undergrads if there were more tenured black physicists to serve as instructors, advocates and role models? This is educational theory 101 here.

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