Physicists at MIT and SUNY Stony Brook recently announced findings that the total surface area of two black holes was maintained after the two entities merged. While this research was a welcome confirmation of both Stephen Hawking’s work and the theory of general relativity, it failed to address a crucial matter: what were its racial implications?
That is a lacuna that an astronomy course at Cornell University aims to prevent. “Black Holes: Race and the Cosmos” asks the question, “Is there a connection between the cosmos and the idea of racial blackness?” Anyone familiar with academia’s racial monomania knows the answer: of course there is! Though “conventional wisdom,” according to the catalog description of “Black Holes: Race and the Cosmos,” holds that the “‘black’ in black holes has nothing to do with race,” astronomy professor Nicholas Battaglia and comparative literature professor Parisa Vaziri know better.
Battaglia and Vaziri puncture the “conventional wisdom” by drawing on theorists such as Emory University English professor Michelle Wright. Wright’s book, The Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology, invokes “Newton’s laws of motion and gravity” and “theoretical particle physics” to “subvert racist assumptions about Blackness.” The Cornell course also studies music by Sun Ra and Outkast to “conjure blackness through cosmological themes.”
In 1996, New York University physicist Alan Sokal published a paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” in one of high theory’s holiest of shrines: Social Text. Sokal’s article drew on efforts among comparative literature and American studies professors to deploy scientific concepts toward a postmodern end: showing science to be a mere power play designed to silence “dissident or marginalized communities,” in Sokal’s words. “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” cited such postmodern giants as Andrew Ross and Luce Irigaray on topics like “oppositional discourses in post-quantum science” and “gender encoding in fluid mechanics.” The paper itself proposed a new theory of quantum gravity that could serve as the basis for a “postmodern and liberatory science.”
Sokal’s paper was a hoax. Like the high-theory sources it cited, it mauled the underlying science while obscuring its scientific illiteracy with vast clouds of theorese. Yet it was accepted for publication, apparently without raising a scintilla of doubt among Social Text’s editors.
To the outside world, Sokal appeared to have dealt a lethal blow to academic nonsense. Yet postmodern theory continued to spread unopposed through every last humanities department and many a social sciences department, breeding generations of ignorant but self-righteous armchair revolutionaries.
In 2017, three academics, including Portland State University philosopher Peter Boghossian, again tried to shame the humanities sector into serious scholarship. They submitted 20 theory-drenched fake articles to various cultural studies, gender studies, and social science journals. Four were published and three accepted for publication before the hoax was exposed. “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” published in Cogent Social Sciences, argued for understanding the penis not as “an anatomical organ but as a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity.” Climate change is one of the most damaging effects of the conceptual penis, argued the article. Another published work analyzed the rape culture of dog parks.
This time, the academic world fought back. Portland State University declared Boghossian guilty of violating ethical guidelines for conducting research on human subjects. Boghossian should have notified the editors of the target journals that he was going to submit to them a deliberately nonsensical paper, according to the university. Under threat of firing for noncompliance, Boghossian was ordered to undergo training in how to do such research.
The humanities and much of the social sciences have been beyond parody and beyond shame for a long time. What’s different about “Black Holes: Race and the Cosmos” is its co-listing in an actual science department. The course fulfills Cornell’s science distribution requirement, touching as it does on such concepts as the electromagnetic spectrum. It is not surprising that astronomy would be an early adopter of race theory, and that Cornell would lead the way. Many astronomy departments have been on the forefront of campus identity politics, eliminating the physics GRE as a requirement for graduate study, for example, on the ground that it has a disparate impact on female, black, and Hispanic students. Cornell’s astronomy department will not even allow prospective graduate students to submit the general GRE or the physics GRE. Cornell’s engineering department accepts female undergraduates at over two and a half times the rate of male students, to yield an engineering class that is majority female. This is hardly an accident. Twice as many male as female intending engineering students apply for admission; the average male math SAT score is significantly higher than the average female score, and males predominate at the upper reaches of the curve.
Today’s academic charlatanism consists in part in mistaking rhetoric for knowledge and words for things. This sleight of hand is particularly prevalent in matters relating to race. Hunter College professor Philip Ewell argues that the concept of tonal and harmonic hierarchies in music theory is a stand-in for pernicious racial hierarchies. (See the forthcoming article on race in classical music in the summer issue of City Journal.) Black business school students at USC protested in 2020 that hearing a professor use the Mandarin phrase for “that”—“nèi ge”—constituted racial harassment, since the Mandarin phrase can sound like the dread “N-word.” The professor was sent on leave for “marginalizing, hurting and harming the psychological safety” of USC’s students, in the words of the business school dean.
Seeing specters of racism everywhere, the racial avengers are tearing down every institution associated with Western civilization, simply because of its “whiteness.” Science had stood as a guard against such metaphorical, magical thinking. Bit by bit, it is succumbing.
Photo by National Science Foundation via Getty Images