The necessary starting point for the scientific endeavor is the axiom—an assertion that, for sake of argument, is simply accepted as true. Parallel lines, for example, are defined by an axiom (Hilbert’s parallel axiom, to be precise). Set the axioms correctly, and all of geometry—indeed all of mathematics and arguably all of science—follows logically. Get the axioms wrong, and even airtight logic will lead you into a world of error.
What, then to make of this paper, “Observing whiteness in introductory physics: A case study,” published recently in Physical Review Physics Education Research (PRPER), a journal of the American Physical Society (APS)? The authors, Amy D. Robertson and W. Tali Hairston, state their axioms clearly and up front: that “racism and white supremacy are endemic to all aspects of U.S. society.” This includes the teaching of physics, which makes physics education no different from other supposed markers of white supremacy, including “differential incarceration rates, rates of infection and death in the era of COVID, and police brutality.” And physicists are oblivious to the violence they wreak by teaching their subject in a way that “maintains whiteness.” Whiteness in physics teaching must be “made visible,” which Robertson and Hairston intend their paper to do.
As their “case study” turned on a subject I have some experience teaching, I delved into it with some interest. The study involved a close analysis of a six-and-a-half-minute encounter between three students and an instructor as they worked through an exercise in thermal heat capacity—how much energy goes into changing the temperature of something. Physicists teach it because it’s an important demonstration of fundamental principles of thermodynamics. In my experience, students struggle with this: they can parrot the law of conservation of energy, for example, but they have trouble making the law work. So I was interested to see how these students were guided through the process—and to see where whiteness came into it.
Robertson and Hairston painstakingly documented the subtleties of glances and interruptions and how to diagram problems on a whiteboard. Nothing they observed departed appreciably from my own experiences with students. A lot of back-and-forth discussion occurred on how best to think about the problem, how to analogize it with diagrams, where to place boundaries and arrows, and so on. “Whiteness” turned out to be an elusive creature.
Yet Robertson and Hairston found it. As far as I could penetrate their argument, the whiteness shows up in the discussion’s being centered around a whiteboard—focusing attention on an object that, somehow, represents white supremacy. Fortunately, no students seem to have been harmed.
Here we can see the importance of axioms. When I cover thermal capacity, I start with the axiom of the conservation of energy: energy may never be created or destroyed, and any analysis of the problem must follow from that. To arrive at a physically sensible answer, every microjoule of energy must be accounted for, which conservation of energy allows you to do. If, on the other hand, you start with the axiom that physics is tainted by white supremacy and violence, that’s what you will find in thermal capacity. Both conclusions derive from logic and reason, but the erroneous axiom inevitably leads you into an entirely fallacious world, where teaching physics is just as much a product of white supremacy as police gunning down black men in the street.
You would think that physicists, of all scientists, would understand this, but that assumption is hard to square with the content of PRPER. To be fair, PRPER is not a physics journal per se but a journal about physics education. As such, the author list of a typical issue is heavily populated with physics educators, who are prone to chasing trends and following the crowd.
When I read Robertson and Hairston’s paper, I thought (as did David Huber at The College Fix) that it was so over the top and absurd that it must be an Alan Sokal-type hoax. It seems legit, though. The paper acknowledges the support of a large grant to Amy D. Robertson from the National Science Foundation, which was easily verified. She is listed as a research associate professor at Seattle Pacific University, a small Christian liberal arts college that serves as a seminary of the Free Methodist Church. The paper is consistent with Robertson’s other publications. It is composed with the utmost sincerity—sincere nonsense, nevertheless.
Even nonsense costs money to produce. Where does the money come from? Seattle Pacific University is really a seminary, not a research university. Yet over the past decade, it has pulled in $6 million from the National Science Foundation, distributed over 11 grants—an impressive record for such a small institution. Of those 11 grants, Robertson has been principal investigator or co-principal investigator on seven, pulling in a total of $5.2 million in research funding, or 86 percent of Seattle Pacific University’s total haul of NSF funding. The other grants are also concerned with physics pedagogy, with one exception: an $8,415 grant to support a symposium on algal biofuels.
Nothing sinister is going on here, of course. Robertson is simply pursuing an interest and has an impressive record of grantsmanship that has enabled her to do so. She is only one of hundreds of people pursuing the billions of dollars the National Science Foundation is devoting to the diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda. Yet her interest is political, not scientific, which begs the question: Why is the National Science Foundation so generously funding a blatantly political agenda? And why are professional societies like the APS leaping in so eagerly to politicize themselves?
Two reasons: money and power, not so much to individuals but to the institutions that depend upon keeping federal science money flowing into their coffers. Robertson and thousands like her are merely the turnkeys to the spigots. Conformity to the political demands of the Big Science cartel is what keeps the spigots open. And conformity, in current circumstances, demands “proving” that physics has a whiteness problem.