March 2016 Edition, pages 10 and 11…
Dear Justice Roberts,
In recent oral arguments, you wondered skeptically what a black person’s perspective could possibly bring to a physics course.
I am a white male physics professor who has taught at state-sponsored educational institutions and, for 11 years, in a historically black college for women (Spellman College, specifically). Allow me to enlighten you. The term used in cognitive science and social psychology is “stereotype threat.”
When people talk about role models, they are using a common layman’s term related to stereotype threat. The simple idea is that if you never see people who are like you in a discipline, you are far less likely to see that discipline as part of yourself. In fact, experiments have been done to trigger stereotype threat. Students’ behavior in performing a given task will change if they are reminded of the stereotype of people like them. If they are reminded of being women, or ethnic minorities, they will be more likely to behave like the cultural stereotype of that group, and their performance will correspondingly decline.
I’ve been a physicist for more than 30 years, and in that time I have only known two black female physicists. My black female students had stereotype threat on a regular basis. People like them are conspicuous in physics largely by their absence.
Physics is a European invention and an adopted child of Asian culture. My black female students could not see themselves in the world of physics. I learned that there is a way to address that, but I had to radically alter my conception of my job. Instead of teaching the conceptual structure and logic of physics, I really needed to help students to see a physicist in themselves.
I no longer see myself as teaching physics. Instead, I see myself helping people become physicists, even if only briefly. And that means a great deal more than just the dry body of facts and concepts that you, Chief Justice Roberts, seem to have in mind. Physics is a culture, with norms of behavior, practice, communication, legitimate argument, and rational critique. One learns to inhabit that culture the same way one learned to inhabit American culture: developmentally, in practice with and gathering feedback from a more expert practitioner, whether parent or professor. You did exactly the same thing in law school. How much of the practice of law is contained in the statutes? Or even in the Constitution? If I teach someone only the dry facts of the statutes, will that person be an expert lawyer, or does that expertise come from collision with real life and divergent opinions?
That perspective in turn has profound effects. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the only way to get a professional position in physics was to be closely associated with someone who was already there. The profession was closed. That is partly why Albert Einstein ended up in a patent office. And people on the inside viewed physics as basically a solved problem, with maybe a little tidying up needed around the edges.
It was a group of outsiders who blew physics open again, people who were not part of the establishment: Einstein, Ludwig Boltzmann, Werner Heisenberg, and Paul Dirac. They were the creators of quantum mechanics and relativity.
Today, in my opinion, physics is stuck in a similar rut. There has been no truly new idea since electroweak unification in 1972. String theory has been wandering around in search of something to describe, but it is now held together by politics. It failed its first big observational test—by getting the effect of dark energy exactly backwards from what it actually is. And in any case, string theory is not essentially new, just a continuation of a line of thought that began in the 1930s.
Some confirmation of the idea that the relative lack of diversity of physicists limits physics comes from the work of Kevin Dunbar.1 As part of his studies on expertise in science, Dunbar has shown that the most productive and innovative research by far comes out of the most heterogeneous groups, those with the most diverse backgrounds. That diversity provides a broader range of ways of thinking about a problem, not just multiple copies of the same way. Physics now is largely composed of a bunch of people with the same backgrounds. I’ve no doubt that a dose of “outsiderness” would help crack open the groupthink again.
You should think about that. You have too damn many Harvard alums on the court.
But even if physics doesn’t get blown open again, having to really think carefully about stereotype threat and how to navigate around it has radically changed my little corner of physics. And you won’t find any mention of physics culture in the physics textbooks. They don’t mention how physics is done, only what it is. Physics is seen as a thing, not as a process. The perspective I adopted—that I am not teaching physics but rather enabling the development of physicists and helping people to see “physicist” as part of their identity—is not just applicable to reaching black women, and it is a perspective I continue to keep foremost in mind after having left Spelman (for the record, because the administrators no longer value perspectives such as mine). It has become a part of my view of the culture of physics.
You may regard this as a friend-of-the-court brief, though obviously I have no idea how to do that properly.
Article References URLs and PDFs: http://scitation.aip.org/content/aip/magazine/physicstoday/article/69/3/10.1063/PT.3.3092?activetab=comments
How Scientists Really Think in the real World: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0193397399000507