I'm not really all that mysterious

physics vis-a-vis racism and misogyny

Man, Lee Smolin, theoretical physicist to the nth degree, is my hero. The first I had heard of him was his book Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, a discussion of the possible unification of quantum mechanics and general relativity, which covers string theory and loop quantum gravity. I also noted his name in João Magueijo’s book Faster than the Speed of Light.

Smolin’s recent book is The Trouble with Physics, which is a history of grand unification, a critique on string theory, and a critique on the sociology of academia. He is straight up with the dearth of minorities and women getting tenure (something that was all too evident even in the social sciences and humanities when I was at college [see Oscar Campomanes, Enrique Bonus, Amando Cabeza].) He talks about the way that the old-boys network functions, and how faculty hiring at universities is determined:

Even in these frank exchanges, you seldom hear really negative comments. When people have nothing good to report, they will often just say, “Let’s move on. I’d rather not comment” or something mild like “I’m not excited.” But there are times when the mere mention of a name invokes an “Absolutely not!” or “Don’t go there” or “Are you kidding?” or the definitive “Over my dead body!” In my experience, in every such instance the candidate fell into one and often two of the following three categories: They were (1) female, (2) not white, and/or (3) someone inventing his or her own research program rather than following the mainstream. There are of course women and nonwhites who elicit no objections. But, again in my experience, these are cases where the candidate hews tightly to an established research program.

There is heated debate among physicists over why there are not more women or blacks in physics, compared with other fields just as challenging, such as mathematics or astronomy. I believe the answer is simple: blatant prejudice. Anyone who has served, as I have, on decades of hiring committees and hasn’t seen naked prejudice in action is either blind to it or dishonest. There are rules and ethics of confidentiality that prevent me from giving examples, but there are several detailed studies that tell the story. (page 336 of the hardcover edition)

(See, for example, “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT,” vol. XI, no. 4, March 1999…. More information on issues on women in science is available from the American Physical Society… and from the committee on Faculty Diversity at Harvard University….) (page 371 of the hardcover edition)

(Emphasis mine.)

Smolin goes on to talk about how in his experience, affirmative action was never about elevating someone unqualified above others who were. In a tight competition where there is no easy way to judge who should be chosen, this is the only time that affirmative action makes a difference. Like Chris Rock says, “I don’t think I should get accepted to a school over a white person if I get a lower mark on a test. But if there’s a tie? Fuck him! Shit, you had a 400-year head start, motherfucker!”

(Another Chris Rock quote that I think is applicable: “A black C student can’t run no fucking company. A black C student can’t even be the manager of Burger King. Meanwhile, a white C student just happens to be the president of the United States of America!” This is the type of unfairness that affirmative action is trying to remedy. It was never about letting underprivileged minority kids with Ds and Fs into college ahead of the white and Asian kids with As and Bs. It’s about the black and brown kids with 4.0 GPAs but no honors or AP classes because their school didn’t have enough funding for them, who without affirmative action would never get into college because all the spots get taken by white and Asian kids from affluent schools (with sometimes massive grade inflation), with their GPAs of 5.0 because of the 6 honors and AP classes they’re in. Can you really believe that these kids with 5.0s are necessarily going to do better or work harder than these kids with 4.0s? And consider, underprivileged minorities are unlikely to be able to get junior out of academic probation by donating a building like some of these rich folks can. And don’t tell me that never happens.)

So I’m tired of hearing the “level playing field” bullshit, and the stupid idea that racism is over. Most rich people I know didn’t get where they are because of “merit” They damn well inherited their privilege, and don’t try to tell me otherwise.

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