Wednesday: Hili dialogue

Happy Hump Day: it’s December 11, 2019, and it’s going to be a cold one in Chicago: at the moment it’s 15° F (-9°C) here, and it’s not going to get much warmer this week. I suspect that Botany Pond will freeze over in the next few days. Poor frozen ducks!

It’s National “Have a Bagel” Day. But the scare quotes around those three words puzzle me. Are we only supposed to pretend we had a bagel? Or are we supposed to have something else instead? Regardless, there are few bagels in North America worth having, with the best of them in Montreal. It’s also International Mountain Day, and Holiday Food Drive for Needy Animals Day. In Argentina, it’s National Tango Day, declared in honor of Julio de Caro (born December 11, 1899, died 1980), a composer, conductor, and musician whose activities on behalf of that genre make him the Argentinian “Mr. Tango.”

Here’s a recording of de Caro and his orchestra from 1927:

There are only 13 shopping days left until the beginning of Coynezaa.

Stuff that happened on this day includes:

  • 1931 – Statute of Westminster 1931: The British Parliament establishes legislative equality between the UK and the Dominions of the Commonwealth—Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ireland.
  • 1934 – Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, takes his last drink and enters treatment for the final time.
  • 1936 – Abdication Crisis: Edward VIII’s abdication as King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions beyond the Seas, and Emperor of India, becomes effective.
  • 1941 – World War II: Germany and Italy declare war on the United States, following the Americans’ declaration of war on the Empire of Japan in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States, in turn, declares war on them.
  • 1962 – Arthur Lucas, convicted of murder, is the last person to be executed in Canada.

He and an accomplice were hanged for murder, and were informed that they were likely to be the last people executed in the country. As Lucas said, “Some consolation!”

  • 1964 – Che Guevara speaks at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.
  • 1968 – The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, featuring the Rolling Stones, Jethro Tull, the Who, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithfull, and the Dirty Mac with Yoko Ono, is filmed in Wembley, London.
  • 1972 – Apollo 17 becomes the sixth and final Apollo mission to land on the Moon.
  • 2008 – Bernard Madoff is arrested and charged with securities fraud in a $50 billion Ponzi scheme.

Notables born on this day include:

  • 1803 – Hector Berlioz, French composer, conductor, and critic (d. 1869)
  • 1882 – Max Born, German physicist and mathematician, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1970)
  • 1899 – Julio de Caro, Argentinian violinist, composer, and conductor (d. 1980)
  • 1908 – Amon Göth, Austrian Nazi war criminal (d. 1946)

You may remember Göth as the evil concentration-camp boss in the film Schindler’s list, played by Ralph Fiennes. And yes he really did take potshots at prisoners his office and the camp grounds, wearing a Tyrolean hat to indicate he was on the hunt. After the war he was hanged for his crimes, but Wikipedia doesn’t mention that they tried three times to hang him, but the first two times the rope was too short. If you want to see the botched hanging, go here and wait till the end. And if you don’t know how power can turn people into monsters, read this:

Göth, described by survivors as a huge and imposing man, personally murdered prisoners on a daily basis. His two dogs, Rolf, a Great Dane, and Ralf, an Alsatian mix, were trained to tear inmates to death. He shot people from the window of his office if they appeared to be moving too slowly or resting in the yard. He shot a Jewish cook to death because the soup was too hot.  He brutally mistreated his two maids, Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig and Helen Hirsch, who were in constant fear for their lives, as were all the inmates. During his time at Płaszów, Göth lived comfortably in a villa, owning cars and horses that he rode in the camp. He had a Jewish cobbler inmate make him new shoes each week.

As a survivor I can tell you that we are all traumatized people. Never would I, never, believe that any human being would be capable of such horror, of such atrocities. When we saw him from a distance, everybody was hiding, in latrines, wherever they could hide. I can’t tell you how people feared him.

— Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig
  • 1931 – Rajneesh, Indian guru, mystic, and educator (d. 1990)
  • 1938 – McCoy Tyner, American jazz musician
  • 1943 – John Kerry, American lieutenant, lawyer, and politician, 68th United States Secretary of State
  • 1996 – Hailee Steinfeld, American actress and singer

Notables who Bought the Farm on December 11 are few, and include::

  • 1964 – Sam Cooke, American singer-songwriter (b. 1931)

Cooke wrote and sang what I regard as the most soulful of all soul songs, the plaintive “A change is gonna come,” released in 1964. That was an appropriate year, for the change did come, at least through the Civil Rights Act. Here’s the original recording:

  • 1971 – Maurice McDonald, American businessman, co-founded McDonald’s (b. 1902)
  • 2008 – Bettie Page, American model (b. 1923)
  • 2012 – Ravi Shankar, Indian-American sitar player and composer (b. 1920)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, the upstairs lodger, who loves Hili, gives her a snack:

Hili: Are you trying to bribe me?
Paulina: A bit.
Hili: That’s the right way to do it.
In Polish:
Hili: Czy ty próbujesz mnie przekupić?
Paulina: Troszkę.
Hili: To jest właściwy sposób, żeby to zrobić.

A meme, and a good one, from Homer Blind WonderCat. Do not trust someone who isn’t kind to animals!!!

Look at this bat from The Wildest Facts!


According to reader Barry, who gives a source, this is true. They’re trying to round up the pigeons (excuse the pun) and remove their hats:

Also from Barry, some wave-tossed otters. As he says, “The otters are probably used to this.” Sound up to hear the squeaks!


Tweets from Matthew. First, the daily morning egress at Marsh Farm, with narration by the hyperexcited farmer:


The chief of police of Houston, Texas, speaks truth to power, and isn’t it sad that McConnell has power? Ceiling Cat bless this cop! But, as I heard on the news last night, he’s now in big trouble, denounced by the local police union. Can you imagine?

Make sure you have the sound on for this one:

Matthew and I love murmurations, and this is a particularly good one:

Two tweets from Heather Hastie. First, a cat befuddled by cows:

And a cat befuddled by a squirrel. I don’t understand why the moggie doesn’t just eat it.


Tuesday: Duck report

Last week we stopped giving food to the ducks, and they’ve gradually disappeared from the pond. It was a hard decision, but I didn’t want ducks hanging around a frozen pond all winter, begging for handouts. (My theory is that they will migrate rather than find some other place in our area, but I may be wrong.) Further, I don’t want to have to deal with more than three broods of ducklings next spring, though given that nearly thirty of them fledged this year, lots may return to nest. We’ll see.

The last few days there have been only a handful of ducks at Botany Pond, and today, with temperatures below freezing and the pond starting to freeze over, we have only two cold mallards huddled on the bank. It’s sad to see, but I hope and trust that they, too, will find more salubrious climes. Here they are, keeping warm:

May fair winds guide you to the Mississippi Flyway, O ducks!

“I would like you to do us a favor, though …”

by Greg Mayer

Driving home last night, I heard on the radio a clip of a Republican congressman at the House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing deriding the proceedings for having no memorable catchphrase. He recalled (inexactly) Republican Senator Howard Baker’s famous question from the Nixon impeachment inquiry, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”, and from the Clinton impeachment, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

He wondered what phrase could possibly epitomize the Trump impeachment inquiry, offering some line about there being no impeachable offenses. It’s hard to know what combination of cluelessness, motivated reasoning, and lack of attention could lead him to arrive at this statement, for the catchphrase immediately leapt to mind. For the Trump impeachment, Trump himself has already produced the memorable phrase by which his impeachment will undoubtedly be remembered: “I would like you to do us a favor, though”.

If you’re looking for a quid pro quo, quod erat demonstrandum.

A profile of George Church on 60 Minutes

60 Minutes is the only non-evening-news show I watch on television, but I missed this week’s episode that included a 13-minute segment on Harvard /MIT geneticist George Church. I’ve written about Church before, but only to kvetch about his accommodationism, for he truly has a soft spot for religion, is a big-time accommodationist, and has pronounced that “the overlap between science and faith is vast and fertile.”  I believe I’ve also said that I think his project about “de-extincting” the wooly mammoth is a non-starter, as it won’t really revive that extinct species but merely genetically engineer a modern elephant to look like a wooly mammoth, having, for instance, more hair and longer tusks.

But that said, Church is an interesting guy and a scientific polymath, with all kinds of interests. Fortunately, 60 Minutes has put the segment on Church online, and you can see it by clicking on the screenshot below (I’d watch it soon before it disappears).  The site also has a transcript in case you’d prefer to read than to watch:

Extra segments include a two-minute extract in which Church discusses the money he took from Jeffrey Epstein (he says he didn’t know much about Epstein, though it’s not clear whether the man had already been convicted when Church took his dough), and a five-minute “overtime” segment in which interviewer Scott Pelley asks Church about the ethics of genetic engineering.

Church mentions a number of projects his 100-person lab (!!) is engaged in, including engineering humans so they’re less susceptible to viral infection (at first I thought that wasn’t viable since viruses mutate so readily, but he wants to alter the human genetic code in such a way that impossible multiple simultaneous mutations in the virus would be required to overcome the immunity). That might be dicey, but other projects, like growing human organs from one’s own cell, or rendering pig organs feasible for transplants by engineering out the pig viruses that prevent that), seem more viable. They’re at least sufficiently attractive that investors have put hundreds of millions of dollars behind these projects.

Other projects include genetic engineering to reverse the aging process (it seems to work in mice, and he’s trying now in dogs), and a dating app in which your genome is compared to your partner’s to see if your kids could get any genetic diseases (this is a more sophisticated method of what genetic counselors already do, like telling two carriers of Tay-Sachs disease that there’s a 25% chance that a child could have the syndrome).

It’s an absorbing interview, though perhaps a bit shallow for those of us who already knew some genetics. But it’s still amazing to see the breadth of his interests and research.  He’s also “neuroatypical” and has narcolepsy, so you can see him fall asleep in class.

But all that genetic engineering talk has angered some people, like this one:

But we have to remember that “eugenics” include both negative eugenics (fixing broken genomes, preventing the production of offspring with genetic diseases, curing genetic diseases by injecting DNA) and positive eugenics, which is the engineering of humans with more positive traits, like higher IQs and so on. The former is far less problematic than the latter, which is seen as “playing God”,  but you can’t just dismiss all genetic engineering as undesirable “eugenics” and “wrong”.  Further, Church has an ethicist on his staff and has thought carefully about the ethics of what he’s doing, so he’s not some kind of Hitler.

Let’s face it: genetic engineering of humans is inevitable, starting with eliminating or curing genetic diseases, and there’s nothing wrong with that so long as people think carefully about what they’re doing and so long as the dangers of tinkering with our genome are known and accepted.


Is “white empiricism” hindering physics?

UPDATE: James Lindsay has an analysis of this paper in a number of successive tweets, starting with the one below. Click on it if you want to see his take. He criticizes a number of points that I either missed or ignored, so I recommend your reading it.


My ears always perk up when I hear the claim that there are special ways of doing science (“ways of knowing” if you will), that are practiced by different groups, and that the nature of science would be different, and better, if these groups are included in science.  There is a modicum of truth in this. Nobody denies that, in the past, oppressed people—women, minorities, and so on—have not been given the same opportunities to enter science as, say, white men. And I can think of at least one case in which the interests of different groups, by being different, have enriched science. (I think that the presence of women in evolutionary biology, for example, could have prompted the increasing emphasis on female choice in “Darwinian” sexual selection, though of course males have also done pioneering work in that area and my contention is arguable.)

But in general, though social conditioning may affect which problems one attacks, I don’t think there are special ways of doing science, nor in general do different groups of people practice science in different ways.  I advocate for open access and equal opportunity for all people, but I do that because I see it as immoral to block access to careers for different groups, and also because the more minds that have access to science, the faster science will progress. When women were kept from doing science over the past few centuries, we effectively lost half of the pool of talent that could expand our understanding of the universe, not to mention denying the dreams and ambitions of half the population. And of course that holds for other groups, as well. I advocate equal opportunities for all to do science, but not necessarily equal outcomes, since outcomes could depend partly on preference. But until all groups have equal opportunities, which is a long way off, I think we have to practice some form of affirmative action in science and other professions.

I give this preface because I’m about to criticize a new paper that claims not only that different groups (in this case, black women) have different ways of doing science, but also that black women have been oppressed by an inherent characteristic of science (not of scientists): “white empiricism”, which denies the validity of black women as objective observers of reality. The paper’s author is Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy as well as a faculty member in Women’s Studies at the University of New Hampshire. as well as a writer of popular articles for New Scientist and other venues. She’s also prolific on Twitter, having tweeted (by my count at 5 a.m.) 132 times in the last 24 hours, thus averaging (with eight hours off) about 8 tweets per hour.

Prescod-Weinstein is the daughter of a white Jewish father and a mother from Barbados, so she considers herself both black and Jewish.  I’ve written about her once before, criticizing a Slate article in which she argued, based on James Damore’s Google document (for which he was fired), that sexism is inherent in the practice of science (not just in scientists), and that science cannot be equated with “truth.”

You see a related critique of science in Prescod-Weinstein’s new paper in the journal Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, a publication from my own University of Chicago. You can get the paper for free by clicking on the screenshot below. A free pdf is here, and the full reference is at the bottom.

As I see it, the paper’s big problem is that it sees bigotry and racism as violations of the empirical methods of science—as aspects of science that are violated by “white empiricism”.  But first, what is “white empiricism”?  Here are a few definitions or characterizations of  from Prescod-Weinstein:

White empiricism comes to dominate empirical discourse in physics because whiteness powerfully shapes the predominant arbiters of who is a valid observer of physical and social phenomena. Based primarily on their own experiences, white men, who are the dominant demographic in physics, construct the figure of the observer to exclude anyone who does not share the attending social and intellectual identities and beliefs.

. . . Essentially, white empiricism involves a predominantly white, predominantly male professional community selectively failing to apply the scientific method to themselves while using “scientific” evaluation to strengthen the barriers to Black women’s entry into physics. White empiricism is therefore a form of antiempiricism masquerading as an empirical approach to the natural world.

. . . White empiricism is conceptually distinct from epistemic injustice because it describes a resistance not just to testimony but also to empirical fact. It is strongly linked to epistemic oppression and conceptual competence injustice because it involves a denial of a knower’s competence based on ascribed identity (Dotson 2014; McKinnon 2014, forthcoming; Anderson 2017). White empiricism is the specific practice of epistemic oppression paired with a willingness to ignore empirical data.

. . . White empiricism is the practice of allowing social discourse to insert itself into empirical reasoning about physics, and it actively harms the development of comprehensive understandings of the natural world by precluding putting provincial European ideas about science—which have become dominant through colonial force—into conversation with ideas that are more strongly associated with “indigeneity,” whether it is African indigeneity or another.

Now how is it that “white empiricism” turns out to be a form of hypocrisy, in which white male physicists (and also white female physicists) claim they’re objective when investigating physics but aren’t really objective?  It is because, alongside their “objectifity” in studying the laws of nature, they ignore or dismiss black women’s “lived experience” and claims about the pervasiveness of racism, which are taken to be objective scientific claims.

And here we see the conflation of physics with social justice. To wit:

In string theory, we find an example wherein extremely speculative ideas that require abandoning the empiricist core of the scientific method and which are endorsed by white scientists are taken more seriously than the idea that Black women are competent observers of their own experiences. In practice, invalidating Black women’s standpoint is an antiempirical disposal of data, in essence turning white supremacist social structures into an epistemic practice in science. Therefore, while traditionally defined empiricism is the stated practice of scientists, white empiricism—where speculative white, male testimony is more highly valued than reality-based testimony from Black women—is the actual practice of scientists.

. . . [Jarita] Holbrook holds that Black students are presumed to be epistemically unreliable on the subject of racism, which sends the message that they can never achieve an objective observer status akin to that of their white peers. As Holbrook describes this epistemic dismissal, “When confronted with a racist incident as a person of color, your objectivity is immediately questioned. Are you sure it happened? Are you sure that it was their intention? to flat out: So and So is not racist! I’ve known them for years. Thus, your objectivity is being questioned. … The internal dialogue is that if they do not believe me in this, what do they think about my science? Thus, it erodes the scientific identity that you are in the process of creating”

. . .  In effect, white physicists are considered competent to self-evaluate for bias against other epistemic agents and theories of physics where there is no empirical grounding to assist in decision making, while Black epistemic agents are considered incompetent to bring a lifetime of knowledge gathering about race and racism to bear on their everyday experiences. This empirical adjudication is the phenomenon of white empiricism.

These statements, particularly the last one, shows Prescod-Weinstein’s confusion between empirical studies of physics and evaluation of the “lived experience” of racism by black women. I’m not denying, of course, that some physicists have racist attitudes. But to say that one must accept a black women’s views about racism because science says you must is to equate subjectivity with objectivity, anecdote with scientific consensus. And, in fact, Prescod-Weinstein gives no examples of white male physicists rejecting black women’s views about racism. She goes on at length about the history of racism in America, and how scientists have participated in it, but I see no examples of any modern male physicists saying that black women aren’t competent to describe and evaluate their own experiences, much less to act as valid students of the laws of physics.

In pursuit of her thesis that racist attitudes violate the very objectivity inherent in science, Prescod-Weinstein adduces some ludicrous examples. One is the theory of relativity, which states that the fundamental laws of physics are invariant under the inertial frame of the observer. Prescod-Weinstein sees racism as violating this canon:

Yet white empiricism undermines a significant theory of twentieth-century physics: General Relativity (Johnson 1983). Albert Einstein’s monumental contribution to our empirical understanding of gravity is rooted in the principle of covariance, which is the simple idea that there is no single objective frame of reference that is more objective than any other (Sachs 1993). All frames of reference, all observers, are equally competent and capable of observing the universal laws that underlie the workings of our physical universe. Yet the number of women in physics remains low, especially those of African descent (Ong 2005; Hodari et al. 2011; Ong, Smith, and Ko 2018). . . . Given that Black women must, according to Einstein’s principle of covariance, have an equal claim to objectivity regardless of their simultaneously experiencing intersecting axes of oppression, we can dispense with any suggestion that the low number of Black women in science indicates any lack of validity on their part as observers. It is instead important to examine the way the social forces at work shape Black women’s standpoint as observers—scientists—with a specific interest in how scientific knowledge is dependent on this specific standpoint. As Jarita Holbrook notes, Black students have their capacity for objectivity questioned simply because their standpoint on racism is different from that of white students and scientists who don’t have to experience its consequences.

Statements like that make me wonder if Prescod-Weinstein knows that she’s distorting science in the service of social justice. Einstein’s principle simply states that the laws of physics are invariant under frames of reference, not that “all observers are equally competent and capable of observing the universal laws [of physics].” To say that the theory of relativity shows objectively that racism against black women is unscientific is to mistake the laws of physics with a moral dictum. In other words, Prescod-Weinstein is committing the naturalistic fallacy. Certainly all groups get the same opportunity, should they wish to become physicists, to study the laws of nature, but not everyone, least of all me, is “equally competent.” What Prescod-Weinstein should be arguing is not that Einstein’s theory explicitly makes all people morally equal, but that considerations of well-being and empathy make all people morally equal. Dr. King didn’t need Einstein to convince America that segregation was wrong.

Prescod-Weinstein is not by any means obtuse, and so I wonder if she sees the fallacy of what she’s doing here, or is so blinded by ideology that she really thinks that Einstein’s theory is explicitly anti-racist.

She also uses string theory as an example of how “objective” study of physics conflicts with racism. She considers why string theory, though in many ways appealing, has failed to gain widespread acceptance in the scientific community and yet is still considered a valid object of study. She gives three reasons why string theory remains viable (her quote):

Surveying what should happen next, there are at least three distinct possibilities:

  • 1. Patience is required, and evidence is coming.
  • 2. String theory has failed to succeed in expected ways because the community—which is almost entirely male and disproportionately white relative to other areas of physics—is too homogeneous.
  • 3. The scientific method overly constrains our models to meet certain requirements that no longer serve the needs of physics theory.

The trouble with the first option is that because of the theory’s structure, parameters could continuously and endlessly change to excuse the absence of evidence: “It is simply in a regime where we can’t currently take measurements” (Dawid 2013, 112; see also Ellis and Silk 2014). This never-ending passing of the buck to higher energy scales that require bigger experiments and more funding is suspect, although there is certainly no universal law that says that finding quantum gravity should be an affordable pursuit.

The second option is effectively unconsidered in the literature. Instead, the case for the third option has been made. This is a curious turn of events. Rather than considering whether structural and individual discrimination results in a homogeneous, epistemically limited community, physicists are willing to throw out their long-touted objectivity tool, the scientific method. In its place, they propose that their sense of aesthetics is sufficient, that the theory holds a kind of beauty (such as high levels of symmetry) similar to other, empirically successful theories such as the Standard Model of particle physics (Polchinski 1998).

What she’s saying here is that it’s distinctly possible that the absence of diversity (e.g., black women) among physicists is a reasonable explanation for why no empirical evidence has arisen to support string theory. That contrasts with explanations 1) and 3), that say, respectively, that we might get evidence for or against the theory some day, or that we should simply accept string theory without empirical evidence because it’s a lovely theory and, by the way, evidence is overrated.

Prescod-Weinstein indicts white empiricism here because, she says, people have gravitated to explanation #3 instead of #2, and by so doing have rejected the empirical canons of science—the need for evidence—rather than accept the possibility that we need more black women physicists. And, she argues, there’s no empirical reason to support #3 over #2—except under white empricism.

I don’t think that’s correct. First of all, she adduces no reason why black physicists rather than white physicists can help provide the ultimate empirical test of string theory. That presupposes that there is a “black” way of doing string theory that white physicists don’t comprehend. Second, I haven’t seen physicists, at least the ones I know, arguing that string theory is correct and we don’t need empirical verification. My own take is that string theory is appealing in many ways but can’t be accepted as true because it can’t be tested in any way that we must know. In other words, possibility #1 is the consensus among physicists, and possibility #2 isn’t that viable because there’s been no demonstration that different ethnic groups or genders have investigatory tools that could solve the issue. (This is not to justify racism in physics, of course. It’s just that diversity is an inherent good, that equal opportunity is a moral imperative, and diversity may advance science not because different groups have different “ways of knowing”, but because the bigger the talent pool, the more likely we are to have breakthroughs.)

But Prescod-Weinstein does believe that what we know about physics would change if more black women participated. Yet she fails to be specific, arguing that “there are contexts in which Black women are epistemically privileged observers”, but not telling us which contexts. Instead, she says this:

Yet there is a way in which feminist standpoint theory can help us think about the gulf between epistemic theory and social practice in physics. Standpoint theory correctly identifies that there are contexts in which Black women are epistemically privileged observers, and I argue that a refusal to accept this fact translates into modified epistemic outcomes in physics, not because the laws of physics are different but because which parts of the universe we understand, and even the very nomenclature we develop to describe our understanding, are impacted by social forces.

It would be nice if she could adduce an example here. Which parts of the universe are susceptible to analysis by a black woman physicist but not a white male? Since there are almost no black women physicists, it would be hard to even think of an example.  As for terminology or nomenclature, well, that has little to do with our understanding; it is just words we use to describe our understanding. Would “the uncertainty principle” be called something else if discovered by a black woman physicist? If so, would it matter? Again, we have no examples—even hypothetical ones.

Prescod-Weinstein does adduce the fight over the 30-Meter Telescope in Hawaii (some scientists want it built, while many native Hawaiians oppose it on grounds of tradition and the claim that Mauna Kea site is sacred) as another example of “white empiricism”, but this is also misguided. The fight is not about the nature of science, but about whether a tool for doing science should be built if it conflicts with local beliefs and practices. I’m not that familiar with the battle, but what I do know tells me that it’s not a battle over the validity of Hawaiians as valid observers of physics. Prescod-Weinstein seems to disagree:

As we enter an era where physics and astronomy are both studied and practiced by increasingly larger teams with wide geographic footprints, these social dynamics will become important in new ways. For example, in the debate about the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, the question of which epistemologies merit legitimate consideration is intimately tied to white empiricism (Swanner 2013; Salazar 2014; Kuwada 2015). White empiricism can help explain why the Thirty Meter Telescope was evaluated so differentially by Mauna Kea protectors and telescope-using scientists, resulting in a specious debate over who was for and who was against science. Protectors, who do not subscribe to white empiricism, have been forced to repeatedly challenge press coverage that tends to assign a higher knowledge prestige to the role of nonindigenous scientists than to cultural knowledge holders of indigenous communities (Fox and Prescod-Weinstein 2019). Future work should unpack this phenomenon further in dialogue with decolonization discourse.

But the native Hawaiian argument against the telescope is not an epistemological stand, unless you think that it’s based on superstition; and in that case it’s not relevant to Prescod-Weinstein’s argument. “Cultural knowledge” here does not refer to scientific knowledge, but to spiritual belief, and thus we are not seeing a conflict about the way to do physics. There may be some racism inherent in the battle, but that’s different from a battle over “valid ways of understanding nature.”

I am growing weary, for I have dissected papers like this before—papers on white glaciology, the racism of Pilates, lattes, and pumpkins, and so on. The difference here is that Prescod-Weinstein is a working physicist with respectable accomplishments in the field. It is a sad testimony to the power of ideology, though, that her interpretation of what science is has been so severely distorted by her anti-white feminism.  Instead of arguing, as I’ve said, on moral grounds, she argues that the objectivity of science itself is in conflict with the supposed dismissal of black women’s experiences of racism, and that such an attitude is not just racist but anti-science.

In view of the paucity of black women physicists with a Ph.D. (there have been only a few dozen in history), what should we do? I agree that there may be a problem here, and my solution is, as always, twofold. First, rectify any inequality of opportunity starting at the ground—the limited opportunities afforded to minorities by living conditions and poor schooling, themselves byproducts of racism. Second, for the time being practice a form of affirmative action, realizing that diversity in the physics community is an inherent good for several reasons (providing role models to eliminate roadblocks to opportunity, for one).

But these STEM initiatives are rejected by Prescod-Weinstein as a form of patronizing manipulation of black people for the good of America:

The National Science Foundation (2008) argues that the broader impact of diversity is a worthwhile consideration in granting criteria based on a national need for a strong STEM workforce as the United States undergoes a demographic transition where white-identified people will soon no longer account for over 50 percent of the population. Because white Americans still heavily dominate STEM degree earning and the STEM workforce, American STEM cannot keep up with the demographic changes. These arguments repurpose Black Americans (and other minorities) as tools to serve nationalist needs.

I doubt that the National Science Foundation’s strong STEM programs to increase minority participation in science are designed to “repurpose Black Americans (and other minorities) as tools to serve nationalist needs.” These programs are supported and implemented largely by women, and their avowed purpose is to diversify participation in science and technology. To say that they are designed to turn minorities into slaves of white nationalism is simply ridiculous. For one thing, I doubt that anyone who has been supported by these programs, many of them investigating pure science rather than advancing technology, sees themselves as “tools.” Let Chanda-Weinstein talk to those people rather than pronounce, as a privileged physicist, how they should feel. Does she understand their lived experience?

This paper is not a hoax, though if it had been written by someone else it could be seen as one of the “grievance study” hoax papers produced by Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay. It is a serious attempt at scholarship, and I say “attempt” because it fails on all levels. It is what happens when a “hard” discipline like physics is infected by a “soft” discipline with an ideological agenda, like gender and race studies. The result are specious and insupportable claims like that of Einstein’s theory of relativity explicitly stating that people from all ethnic and gender groups should be treated equally.  And while you’ll find many physicists, including white ones, who refuse to dismiss black women as valid observers of physical reality, I doubt that you’ll find many who cite Einstein in support of such egalitarianism.

It’s always a bad idea to draw moral conclusions from science, for that makes the moral conclusions susceptible to changes in our understanding of the physcal world. If we had only Newtonian mechanics and not relativistic mechanics, would racism be more justified?


Prescod-Weinstein, C. 2020. Making Black women scientists under white empiricism: The racialization of epistemology in physics. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 45:421-447

Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Tony Eales from Brisbane sent some nice arthropod photos—nature red in fang and claw. His captions are indented, and he appends a report on the terrible fires in Australia. .

Fairly recently I caught this little drama in the grass down at my local national park. I was lying on my photography mat hoping something interesting would walk past in the leaf litter and I noticed a small St Andrews Cross-looking spider start building its web between some grass blades, then settle into its cross-shaped pose. I found out this spider is Gea theridiodes.

Shortly after this I noticed an ant-mimicking jumping spider Myrmarachne erythrocephala moving at a rapid clip towards the Gea’s web. I thought, is it going to get caught?

But no, it lined up the Gea with its excellent binocular vision and *bang* it had the Gea in its jaws. The struggle was short and it dragged the Gea off somewhere safe to consume. I also documented this observation in my iNaturalist journal where I again tell the story and there are a couple of extra photos. The link is here.

Everything is on fire here in Australia and, alarmingly, a lot of it is forest that doesn’t normally burn this badly, while some of it is rainforest that hasn’t burned at all for millions of years and probably won’t ever recover. Our climate-change-denying government is having to work really hard to distract us from a string of fires almost continuously along the east coast of New South Wales billowing out enough smoke to turn glaciers in New Zealand pink. Ceiling cat knows how bad things might get when fire season arrives in a month or two. On some days it starts to feel like wildlife photography is just documenting a fast disappearing world.

Tuesday: Hili dialogue

Good morning on a dreary and frigid (21° F, -6°C) Tuesday, December 10, 2019, National Lager Day. Human Rights Day, and, oddly, the Festival for the Souls of Dead Whales.  In Sweden it’s a flag holiday: Nobel Prize Day, when the winners announced last year get their prizes in Stockholm.  In Stockholm, several countries are boycotting the Nobel Ceremony because Peter Handke, who won the Literature prize last year, has been accused of supporting the war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. Finally, there are only two weeks of shopping days until Coynezaa.

Things that happened on December 10 include:

  • 1520 – Martin Luther burns his copy of the papal bull Exsurge Domine outside Wittenberg’s Elster Gate.

Too bad he didn’t barbecue it!

A papal bull

  • 1684 – Isaac Newton’s derivation of Kepler’s laws from his theory of gravity, contained in the paper De motu corporum in gyrum, is read to the Royal Society by Edmond Halley.
  • 1868 – The first traffic lights are installed, outside the Palace of Westminster in London. Resembling railway signals, they use semaphore arms and are illuminated at night by red and green gas lamps.

They left out one detail, as reported by the Guardian:

THE FIRST traffic signal was invented by J P Knight, a railway signalling engineer. It was installed outside the Houses of Parliament in 1868 and looked like any railway signal of the time, with waving semaphore arms and red-green lamps, operated by gas, for night use. Unfortunately it exploded, killing a policeman. The accident discouraged further development until the era of the internal combustion engine.

  • 1884 – Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is published.
  • 1901 – The first Nobel Prize ceremony is held in Stockholm on the fifth anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. (See above.)
  • 1906 – U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt wins the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the mediation of the Russo-Japanese War, becoming the first American to win a Nobel Prize.
  • 1907 – The worst night of the Brown Dog riots in London, when 1,000 medical students clash with 400 police officers over the existence of a memorial for animals that have been vivisected.

Do read about the riots and the brown dog (yes, there was one) who set them off. Here’s a statue to the Brown Dog, which stood from 1906 until 1910, when miscreants removed it:

  • 1909 – Selma Lagerlöf becomes the first female writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
  • 1953 – British Prime Minister Winston Churchill receives the Nobel Prize in literature.
  • 1978 – Arab–Israeli conflict: Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin and President of Egypt Anwar Sadat are jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • 1996 – The new Constitution of South Africa is promulgated by Nelson Mandela.

Notables born on this day include:

  • 1815 – Ada Lovelace, English mathematician and computer scientist (d. 1852)
  • 1830 – Emily Dickinson, American poet (d. 1886)
  • 1851 – Melvil Dewey, American librarian, created the Dewey Decimal System (d. 1931)
  • 1891 – Nelly Sachs, German-Swedish poet and playwright, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1970)
  • 1960 – Kenneth Branagh, Northern Ireland-born English actor director, producer, and screenwriter

The first photo below the only authenticated photo of the reclusive Dickinson (she was 17 at the time), although the one below that, found in Amherst in 2012, is thought to show Dickinson with her widowed friend Emily Scott, and experts believe that the person on the left is our poet. I haven’t heard reports about that photo for several years.

Those who began pushing up dirt on this day include:

  • 1896 – Alfred Nobel, Swedish chemist and engineer, invented Dynamite and founded the Nobel Prize (b. 1833)
  • 1911 – Joseph Dalton Hooker, English botanist and explorer (b. 1817)
  • 1968 – Thomas Merton, American monk and author (b. 1915)
  • 1999 – Rick Danko, Canadian singer-songwriter, bass player, and producer (b. 1943)
  • 2005 – Eugene McCarthy, American poet, academic, and politician (b. 1916)
  • 2005 – Richard Pryor, American comedian, actor, producer, and screenwriter (b. 1940)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili surveys the surroundings as she ventures out:

Hili: If I see correctly, there is nothing there.
A: It’s better to check everything.
In Polish:
Hili: Jeśli dobrze widzę, to tam nic nie ma.
Ja: Lepiej wszystko sprawdzić.

Elzbieta sent a photo of Leon hanging around with his new brother Mietek:

From Jesus of the Day:

The ArtBasel installation, cat version, credit to @bocaratona, h/t: Stash Krod


From reader Barry: an aerial view of a sheepdog at work. It is mesmerizing!

Three tweets from Heather Hastie. This one is ineffably cute. Cats like warmth!

As the kids say, “Oh. My. God.”

And this cat drinks vapor!

Tweets from Matthew, first the usual morning egress at Marsh Farm as the breakfast bar opens for business:


This one has some interesting comments in the thread that follows it:

Matthew says of this one: “Amazing video. Marsupials are weird.” But to a marsupial, placental mammals are weird! Sound up.

Anybody interested in playing this video game?

Answers to the rock song quiz

Here are the answers to my rock song quiz from this morning, in which you were asked this question:


Here are a few words. Name a rock song in whose lyrics they appear, as well as the singer or group who recorded the song


The words are in bold below, and I found a video of the song that correctly answers the question, including three with the word “chicken” (there are more).  How many did you guess, given that Googling was not allowed?  And I should add that other answers are correct; readers listed several I didn’t know in the comments on this morning’s piece. These songs are simply the ones I was thinking of when I posed the question.

Withers (the common noun, not the singer Bill Withers!) The tune of Dan Fogeberg’s “Run for the Roses” is very good, but I’ll be damned if the lyrics aren’t mawkish and awful:

Granite. I still don’t understand all the lyrics of this song, but Morrison’s voice and phrasing are incomparable, and the music itself is great.

Malt. Who remembers this song? “Lemme put this hamburger down; I don’t want no malt.”  Archie just wanted to dance!

Chicken. (there are at least three correct answers here). And here are three songs containing “chicken”, in decreasing order of quality.  First one: “I was knee high to a chicken.” This is one of my favorite soul songs. As readers pointed out, there are several other songs that have the word.

An equally great song from The Killer:

An absolutely dreadful song that was a big hit.

Starfish. Yes, the word appears in this bubble-gum song from 1966.

Snuff. Here’s a live version of a song that I thought could never be performed live. And yes, Brian Wilson’s song has the word “snuff” in it.

A defense of the banana “artwork”

You all know about the work of “art” by artist scammer Maurizio Cattlean that sold for $120,000 last week in Miami. Called “Comedian,” it consisted of a banana duct-taped to a wall. Actually, a second version sold for $150,000 as well, so Cattelan cleaned up more than a cool quarter million dollars for his fake art.  (See my posts here and here.) The plot thickened when, on Saturday, performance artist David Datinua dismantled the “art” work and ate the banana. He was not prosecuted.

In the face of universal derision of “Comedian”, and bemusement about the bananaphagy, it was inevitable that some snooty critic would artsplain why the duct-taped banana was not only art, but profound and significant art. And that critic is Jason Farago, who works for the New York Times. You can read his unconvincing defense by clicking on the screenshot below.

We first learn that the question of “What happens when the banana rots?” appears to be moot, for Farago tells us that Cattlean had instructed the buyer to replace the fruit every week to ten days. But that doesn’t impress me; it’s like an artist painting a work with paint that fades, and telling you to simply repaint it from time to time. If the original materials don’t matter, then what you’re paying for is an idea. 

And of course that’s what these charlatans are purveying: ideas, and ideas that aren’t particularly novel. In the case of Farago, who doesn’t really know what Cattelan intended, he simply confects an idea that sounds plausible:

First, I have been dismayed to discover that for a work that has been endlessly photographed and parodied over the course of its one-week life, almost nobody has discussed that it is not just “a banana.” It is a banana and a piece of duct tape, and this is a significant difference. “Comedian” is not a one-note Dadaist imposture in which a commodity is proclaimed a work of art — which would be an entire century out of date now, as dated as a film director mimicking D.W. Griffith. “Comedian” is a sculpture, one that continues Mr. Cattelan’s decades-long reliance on suspension to make the obvious seem ridiculous and to deflate and defeat the pretensions of earlier art.

Suspension via duct tape, in particular, has a history in Mr. Cattelan’s art. Perhaps the most important antecedent for the banana sculpture is his notorious “A Perfect Day” (1999), for which Mr. Cattelan used duct tape to fasten his dealer Massimo De Carlo to a white wall, who stayed taped above the ground for the show’s opening day. The banana should be seen in the context of this earlier work, which places the art market itself on the wall, drooping and pitiful.

Okay, so we have a two-note Dadaist imposture. And I’m not buying it as art, for why is “suspension” anything beyond the idea that “if I hang up this thing, it mocks the art market”? It’s not obvious, nor is it profound. But mocking the art market is not art; it’s the equivalent of writing a piece that mocks art, or putting the words “the art market is ridiculous” on a piece of paper and hanging that on the wall. Further, how does this “deflate and defeat the pretensions of earlier art”? Which earlier art, exactly? Surely not van Gogh or Rembrandt. How about the fur-lined tea cup or the “R. Mutt” urinal? (These were, by the way, not one-note pieces either, as the former has a cup, saucer, a spoon and fur, and the latter has a signature).

Farago goes further to try to fend off the people like me who laugh at him for making up meanings for artworks and turning facile ideas themselves into “art”:

But perhaps you have read all this and thought: this Times critic is as bad as the poseurs at the fair! In which case you have already anticipated my second point: Mr. Cattelan directs these barbs at art from inside the art world, rather than lobbing insults from some cynical distance. His entire career has been a testament to an impossible desire to create art sincerely, stunted here by money, there by his own doubts.

Umm. . . .now we learn that the taped banana is art because Cattelan is an artist. Had he not been one, the banana would not have been nearly as significant! Or so we are told. Again, I’m not buying it. So Cattlean is stunted in his desire to create real art, “stunted by money” (seriously—with $270,000?) and “by his own doubts.” Well, many artists, among them van Gogh, had doubts, but still created works that resonate with us emotionally. Cattelan has created what Farago sees as a whiny, self-referential reflection on failure. Fine, but that’s self-help, not art.

Finally, Farago compares Cattelan unfavorably to Banksy, the street artist who recently sold a painting that self-destructed on the auctioneer’s wall. To Farago’s mind, Bansky (who at least can draw) is not an artist because he mocks others rather than himself. Again, fine, but why does that make the taped banana art as compared to Banksy’s provocative murals?


Actually, real artists are not out to hoodwink you. What makes Mr. Cattelan a compelling artist, and what makes Banksy a tedious and culturally irrelevant prankster, is precisely Mr. Cattelan’s willingness to implicate himself within the economic, social and discursive systems that structure how we see and what we value. It makes sense that an artist would find those systems dispiriting, and the duct-taped banana, like the suspended horse, might testify to his and all of our confinement within commerce and history. In that sense, the title “Comedian” is ironic — for Mr. Cattelan, like all the best clowns, is a tragedian who makes our certainties as slippery as a banana peel.

Farago should take his own words to heart here, for he has avoided implicating himself in this Bananagate scam. In fact, he’s defended the banana as serious art. Farago, with his pompous pronouncements and confected “explanations” of art,  makes himself part of the system that has led to the ruination of the art market. It is people like Farago, who sees “Comedian” as profound, that has created its value. Should he hang a tear sheet with his column on the wall and sell it for big bucks?

The last sentence of Farago’s piece, above, is simply a Deepity that sounds good but says nothing. Do all good clowns really render our certainties less certain? Does W. C. Fields or Charlie Chaplin do that? The last sentence is simply a show-offy way to end a column. Farago should be writing for the New Yorker, where that type of clever but shallow bon mot is the hallmark of the magazine’s prose.

Rock song quiz

I have some things to tell you (that’s a riff on a Thomas Wolfe short story), but am putting the finishing touches on my Jesus and Mo foreword, and so—as Captain Oates said—I may be some time.  But here’s something to occupy at least the rock and roll aficionados among you.  It’s no fair Googling trying to get the answers to these questions; you need to rack your own brain. It’s a test of how much you know about old rock and roll, not about how well you can use Google.

Here’s the question:

Here are a few words. Name a rock song in whose lyrics they appear, as well as the singer or group who recorded the song

You’re allowed to put the answers in the comments, but if you want to participate do not read the comments.

Withers (the common noun, not the singer Bill Withers!)



Chicken (there are at least three correct answers here)



I’ll post the answers (the songs themselves, if I can find them on YouTube) at 2:30 p.m. Chicago time.