Save Physics from Physicists: Bias and Extraordinary Claims

I am a physicist, in no small part because I believe that physics is a fascinating topic to study. These facts carry important implications, such as that I must also care about the process by which physics research is carried out, the people who perform research in physics, and what effects our research can have on the world. The latter of these underscores the sobering importance of the moral implications of physics research— we cannot afford to feign that our work is “neutral,” that it has no place in relation to the ethical calculus by which we understand how we must act with respect to each other.

I am continually exasperated by the wholly insufficient job that the culture of physics does at serving and supporting those furthering the cause of physics. This is to say nothing of how poorly the culture of physics ensures our relation to the rest of the world is in keeping with good ethics and morals. I often express this exasperation with what has almost become a kind of resigned catchphrase: “save physics from physicists.” Put differently, I contend that the culture of physics is acutely and dangerously broken in many ways. In this post, I will explore one of those ways in a vain attempt to provide context to that exasperation, with the naïve hope of turning my disappointment towards positive change. After all, I am a physicist of the precise sort that physics needs saving from.

I propose that a core tenet of the philosophy and practice of physics is that of criticality: we must be skeptical of new claims, we must reexamine old claims, we must break down our understanding of the world and problematize it at every level to develop new understandings. We apply this tenet quite well, modulo some notable exceptions, to some aspects of our research efforts. Where we fail, however, is in applying that criticality not only to our understanding of the world, but to the process by which we arrive at that understanding.

The myth behind this is that physicists are already rational, hence obviating the need for introspection in the practice of criticality. This myth creates no small room for occluding and even oppressing biases to hide, safe from challenge by any cultural examination.

To see an example of this in action, let us consider an important fact about our world: it is a fact, plan and simple, that there are fewer women than men currently engaged in the practice of physics research at academic institutions. Insofar as physics research is carried out by people, this fact is thus a highly relevant one to any search for truth, even if we are to set aside the massive ethical implications of this fact.

When presented with this fact, however, it is common to hear claims made to rationalize this fact away. There are many such claims, but in this post, I will focus on one particular example: the claim that perhaps women are simply “less interested in physics.” To take this claim as the default position, as anything other than the extraordinary claim that it is, is wholly and entirely incompatible with rationality and criticality. Indeed, let’s examine for a moment what one must also believe in order for the interest claim to be seen as a reasonable default:

In particular, first subordinate claim further demands that we believe that the rampant and institutionalized sexual harassment and assault of physics students and researchers has no impact whatsoever on how women decide upon their careers. In 2016 and in the United States alone, we have seen three physicists commit grievous acts of sexual harassment against their students severe enough to draw the focus not only of the national news media, but of the United States Congress. (From the view of preserving grant money, it is a very bad thing for your field to be known to the Congress as being perfectly OK with not investigating criminal acts of harassment.) These are far from the only such incidents to occur in our field; our institutions continue to protect many more harassers in full knowledge.

Even if one is not familiar with these facts about physics, the point stands still more clearly. One should assume as a default that sexism and harassment are problems in physics, precisely because we are not more rational, nor immune to the endemic disregard for women that characterizes so many other fields of academic study. Indeed, why should physics be so dramatically different from biology, medicine, information security (content warning for explicit sexual content), anthropology, and philosophy, all of which have been shown to be perfectly comfortable with defending sexual harassers and punishing their targets?

If we are to adopt the myth of rationality, then, we are ignoring the massive body of evidence that says that our rationality is compromised; that we are biased. This bias does dramatic and immediate harm, and is directly responsible for driving people away from the research that they love. As reported by the Institute of Physics, endemic bias in physics erodes the quality of mentorship and supervision provided to female students, further cementing these biases. Even denying the existence and extent of sexism in physics is a key microaggression, and has demonstrable health impacts for physics students.

This harm is by no means limited to sexism, of course, but extends to wherever the culture of physics entrenches the biases that blind us to our moral duties. What else to call it but a moral crisis that 49% of transgender physicists are actively subjected to exclusionary behavior? What is it but an unforgiviable failing of our civic duty to say nothing in the face of centuries of violent and oppressive racism?

How can we expect physics to survive as a discipline when we are so manifestly careless with respect to its practitioners? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be quite simple: we cannot. After all, the moral issues notwithstanding, ignoring endemic bias can be devestating to a community. To move forward, then, we must shed the belief that we are already rational and engage our research with the criticality that is morally demanded of us at every step. To do anything less is neither fair, effective, morally justifiable, nor sustainable.