Doing Physics While Black

If “diversity” is not only good but an essential core ingredient of a quality education, as the current academic mantra insists, then physics — the least diverse of all fields (blacks earned 2% of bachelor’s degrees in 2015) — has a big problem. Now Stanford claims to have a solution.

“Physics faculty and students are working together to make their department a more inclusive community through clubs, courses, and events, a recent university news release proudly proclaimed. “It was no surprise” when a 2016 Stanford undergraduate survey “revealed physics as among the least diverse departments at the university, but “deeper analysis of the survey responses revealed a telling and crucial difference between the answers from incoming students and those on their way to graduation.”

Here’s the core of that “deeper analysis,” and what Stanford concluded from it:

“Many students from all backgrounds and identities come to Stanford excited about physics, and this interest does not strongly depend on race or gender. But we lose a larger number of Black, Latinx and Native students, as well as women of all races, in the first two years of undergraduate study,” said Risa Wechsler, a professor of physics and of particle physics and astrophysics at Stanford University. “A lot of that is due to the lack of community and overall climate. People from underrepresented groups often do not feel welcome in physics classes.”

Here Come the Welcome Mats                                                                  

And so Stanford set out to create a number of welcome mats, such as an Equity and Inclusion Committee and a new student group, Physics Undergraduate Women and Gender Minorities at Stanford (PUWMAS). Significantly, new courses were also added to make “Black, Latinx and Native students, as well as women of all races,” feel welcome, among them:

PHYSICS 41E, a modified version of the basic required Mechanics course. According to the Stanford news release, “Students from underrepresented groups often don’t have the same level of preparation from high school as their majority peers. The difference in preparation is large enough that it may lead students to drop out of the major but small enough that the kind of support offered by this course can be enough to keep them in.” The entry for Physics 41E in the Stanford Bulletin was less circumspect, describing it as “for students with little or no high school physics or calculus.”

PHYSICS 94SI: Diverse Perspectives in Physics

“Have you ever wondered how your professors got to be where they are today? Or what it is like to be a female professor, a faculty member raised first-generation/low income or even a Nobel laureate? Professors of a diverse set of identities and backgrounds will share the story of their lives and career trajectories over lunch, with an emphasis on their personal lives and experiences as undergraduates and graduate students.”

Whom Do We Call a Physicist?                                                                                                                

PHYSICS 93SI: Beyond the Laboratory: Physics, Identity, and Society

“Beyond its laws and laboratories, what can physics teach us about society and ourselves? How do physicists’ identities impact the types of scientific questions that are asked throughout history? And who do we call a physicist? This course seeks to address questions such as these, with an eye to understanding how physics relates to history, politics, and our own identities as young researchers. Students will develop a broader appreciation for where physics comes from, how it relates to themselves, and how they can shape its future. No prior knowledge of physics is necessary; all voices are welcome to contribute to the discussion about these big ideas.”

In the oral argument of Fisher v. University of Texas (Fisher II), Chief Justice Roberts asked Gregory Garre, the counsel for the University of Texas, “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” Mr. Garre was unable to answer, but apparently, Stanford can. Lauren Tomkins, an assistant professor of physics and member of the Equity and Inclusion Committee, was quoted in the Stanford news release asserting that “your identity affects your experience as a physicist and even the physics that you do.”

That point was also emphasized in an open letter to the Supreme Court during Fisher supporting affirmative action signed by 2463 “professional physicists.” “We hope to push our community towards equity and inclusion so that the community of scientists more closely matches the makeup of humankind,” the letter stated ponderously, “because the process of scientific discovery is a human endeavor that benefits from removing prejudice against any race, ethnicity, or gender.”

Although a quick perusal of the signatories reveals that many were not “professional physicists,” the letter was signed by Professors Wechsler and Tomkins, and 26 others with some Stanford affiliation.

Black Victims of Mismatch

It is a common misconception that only a very small amount of racial preference is part of the affirmative action practiced by the most selective institutions, that there are enough talented minorities that the Stanfords, Princetons, and Harvards do not have to lower their standards very much to recruit a sufficient number. As the pending case of Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard has revealed, this is not true; even very selective schools put a heavy thumb on the racial scale. Thus, it is important to emphasize that Stanford would not have a problem retaining minorities in physics if it did not admit minorities with weaker math and science qualifications than their non-minority and Asian peers.

Stanford, of course, will not reveal the degree of preference it awards to preferred minorities. A 1996 article in Stanford Magazine by Peter Thiel asserted that “the average SAT disparity between Stanford’s African-American and white admittees reached 171 points in 1992, according to data compiled by the Consortium on Financing Higher Education,” but that is impossible to confirm now. (A Stanford professor friend of mine once tried to get SAT data, but the only data Stanford would release to him was what it was forced to release to the NCAA. That year, the athletic team with the SAT average furthest below the Stanford average was women’s basketball.)

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Stanford’s concerted effort to diversify its physics department is the failure — one is tempted to say, conscious refusal — even of its “deeper analysis” to recognize and diagnose the problem, leading to a plethora of politically correct but ineffective and inappropriate nostrums to fix it. Even in 2016, and especially now, there was and is no reason to be surprised that large numbers of minority students come to Stanford interested in majoring in physics and other hard sciences but move to less demanding fields before graduating.

The only explanation for that surprise is ignorance (or dismissal) of the accumulating body of solid empirical research demonstrating that minorities enter college with a greater interest in majoring in STEM fields than whites but drop out in far greater numbers. For example, Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono, the expert witness for the plaintiffs in SFFA v. Harvard, has shown that at Duke, 62% of entering black freshman expressed an interest in majoring in natural sciences, engineering, or economics (compared to 61% of whites), but less than 30% graduated with a major in those fields (compared to 51% of whites). In his major study of Duke, “What Happens After Enrollment?” Arcidiacono and his co-authors found that “Over 54% of black men who express an initial interest in majoring in the natural sciences, engineering, or economics switch to the humanities or social sciences compared to less than 8% of white men.”

In a 2009 paper, “Do Credential Gaps in College Reduce The Number of Minority Science Graduates?,” UCLA law professor Richard Sander and Roger Bolus, a statistician at the UCLA School of medicine, found the same thing in a study of “a vast, newly-released dataset on University of California undergraduates.” Students “who have the largest credential gap with their classmates are much less likely to graduate with a science degree,” they found, “compared with academically similar students facing no credential gap…. estimates suggest that a large mismatch reduces a student’s likelihood of achieving a bachelor’s in science by roughly half.”

These “mismatch effects,” Sander and Bolus also found, “are significantly greater at the more elite than the less elite schools …. [A]t more elite schools, most students in the sciences have fairly homogenous training and skills, so that the price of having lower-than-average credentials or preparation could be especially debilitating at the most elite schools.”

Similarly, psychologists Frederick Smyth and John McArdle of the University of Virginia (McArdle is now at the University of Southern California) studied underrepresented minorities at 23 universities who intended to major in STEM fields and found that “45 percent more of the women and 35 percent more of the men would have succeeded in attaining their goals if they had attended schools where their entering credentials had been about average.”

These studies, and others going back to the 1990s, are nicely summarized by Gail Heriot, a University of San Diego law professor and member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, in a long report, “A ‘Dubious Expediency’: How Race-Preferential Admissions Policies on Campus Hurt Minority Students,” and also in the amicus Fisher brief she filed with fellow Civil Rights Commissioner Peter Kirsanow.

“Each of these studies,” she and Kirsanow concluded, “used a different database and methodology. Yet all came to the same conclusion, and the effect they found was substantial. To our knowledge, no one has attempted to rebut any of these studies…. Yet colleges and universities across the country ignore them.” (Emphasis in original)

Yes, Stanford, that means you. Moreover, oddly but revealingly, not even the “open letter” to the Supreme Court during Fisher the “professional physicists,” including professors Wechsler and Tomkins and 26 other Stanford-affiliated physicists committed to “inclusion,” made any attempt to refute these studies, even though much of the letter was devoted specifically to rejecting the arguments in the Heriot-Kirsanow brief. Instead, the “professional physicists” relied exclusively on bombastic ideological drivel:

  • “Blaming affirmative action for our community’s lack of progress … is not only wrong, it is plainly ignorant of what we as scientists have determined must be done to reform our pedagogical and social structures to achieve the long-delayed goal of desegregation.”
  • “The exclusion of people from physics solely on the basis of the color of their skin is an outrageous outcome that ought to be a top priority for rectification.” (Where is this done?)
  • “We hope to push our community towards equity and inclusion so that the community of scientists more closely matches the makeup of humankind.”
  • “The purpose of seeking out talented and otherwise overlooked minority students to fill physics classrooms is to offset the institutionalized imbalance of power and preference that has traditionally gone and continues to go towards white students.”
  • “Unlike Heriot and Kirsanow, we are scientists and science educators who are keenly aware that merely adding students to a pipeline is not enough to correct for the imbalance of power.”
  • The “claims of Heriot and Kirsanow that ‘gaps in academic credentials are imposing serious educational disadvantages on… minority students, especially in the areas of science and engineering’ is misguided…. Science is not an endeavor which should depend on the credentials of the scientist. Rather, a good scientist is one who does good science.” (Well, duh!)

Indeed, so committed are these woke physicists to achieving “desegregation” and “more closely [matching] the makeup of humankind” and correcting “the imbalance of power” that they actually reject the “diversity” rationale for affirmative action. “Minority students in a classroom,” they write, “are not there to be at the service of enhancing the experience of white students.”

How odd — or perhaps just sublimely unaware — to urge the Supreme Court to preserve racial preference in a letter that explicitly rejects the sole justification for affirmative action in higher education on which the Court has relied since Bakke.

Ironic, Unintended Effects

Stanford’s efforts to promote more “inclusion” have some unintended, ironic implications and may even backfire, doing, like racial preference itself, more harm than good:

  • All physics majors are required to take an introductory course in mechanics. Designing a separate minority-oriented course will make the normal, standard mechanics course less.
  • Courses created for minorities show that Stanford implicitly accepts the core argument of the “mismatch” explanation of minority attrition from STEM, that students do better in classes where their qualifications are in line with those of their peers.
  • Like “physics for poets” and “physics for jocks,” watered down physics courses to make it easier for non-science majors to fulfill their distribution requirements, Stanford’s minority-oriented courses will predictably develop a reputation as “physics for blacks,” thus reinforcing the already present stigma attached to affirmative action admits.

I suppose Stanford can pride itself on being a trail-blazer even though the trail leads down a slippery slope.

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

23 thoughts on “Doing Physics While Black

  1. This is the end.
    What else? Not with a bang but a niggling, whining, Progressively self-righteous whimper… the corrupt whisper of deliberate idiocy. The End.

    When Truth surrenders to Demographics….when what is Right and Just is held hostage by Inclusivity….when Quality is trumped by Social Justice…..when an honest-to-God Physics Professor tells us that her primary concern is NOT teaching honest-to-God physics but rather building a “community of scientists (which) more closely matches the makeup of humankind”…..what else can be said but we have lost? It’s over. The Enlightenment…the Triumph of Reason…..the sharp-edged Question which is Science, the unstinting search for Truth, the systematic assembly of human knowledge: it’s done. We’ve stopped. The buzzer’s sounded.

    We’ve turned on backs on all that (why bother?) and embraced in its stead the dogmatic certainty offered by the 4 Headed Progressive God whose mindless & barbaric Yawp echoes endlessly in the dark & empty Sanctum Sanctorum which used to be our Schools. We hear her Woke Priests chant: “The purpose of seeking out talented and otherwise overlooked minority students to fill physics classrooms is to offset the institutionalized imbalance of power and preference that has traditionally gone and continues to go towards white students.”

    What hogwash! What utter racist crap! We should be outraged.

    But if, as Scientist, you truly believe the parameters you’ve established for entry are somehow biased… you strive – as scientist NOT to introduce that much more bias, but rather to make those parameters more absolutely colorblind, more gender-blind, more rigorous, more strict, more ethnically indifferent. You scrub them clean of socio-cultural warp and you focus instead on Academic Quality, Intellectual Talent, & Quantitative Excellence. You admit, blindly, only the very best without a clue as to their demographics. There is no other way.

    And if at that point, they’re all White or all Male or all Hispanic or all Female or they all grew-up in inner-city Detroit, all gay, all obese, and all gluten-sensitive – so what? Who cares? How could it possibly matter if we what we value above all & everything is Quality as measured & produced by brilliant physicists?

    And the good news in all that – given whatever demographic distribution which would be created by a rigorous Quality Filter? Anyone can win. It doesn’t matter if you’re a tall, skinny, albino vegan from Des Moines who speaks with an Alabama accent….if you’re good, really good, you get in. You graduate. And you spend your professional life pushing the discipline that much further down the road to learn.

    Anything else is treason and the triumph of unreason.

  2. At some point we have to stop drawing broad conclusions from the experiences at these elite and very non-representative institutions. Face it, Stanford’s freshman physics classes are full of students who scored a 5 on both AP Physics B and AP Calculus BC exams. That is the “community” most likely to become physics majors, and those are the people who make the “climate.” In the US, there are probably less than twenty African-American students per year with those qualifications. Stanford would be fortunate to get one or two.

    Our efforts should be concentrated on middle school and high school education for all, and more conscientious matching of students with programs in which they are likely to flourish and prosper.

    And we should use less selective and more representative colleges and universities as our guideposts as we assess the challenges that face us, as well as the progress we are making.

  3. I wonder to what extent the campus atmosphere of fervent identity politics plays a role in moving students away from more demanding fields and into those that deal precisely with identity issues. It would be interesting to know what majors those minority students who abandon physics end up with.

  4. Affirmative action is a total disaster to the intended beneficiary, as should be obvious to anyone with the slightest understanding of human nature.
    Young human beings tend to focus their attentions and their efforts on areas of their worlds in which they they excel among their peers. To take promising and reasonably talented young folk and place them among peers who are future Nobel Prize winners is almost sure to push them toward abandoning their interest in physics. It quickly becomes obvious to them that they are not going to distinguish themselves in this group no matter how hard they try. And many with poorer than average work habits will fail miserably, and correctly blame their failures on their being mistreated by society. That this mistreatment comes from those whose who take pride in their supposed virtue in bringing about the mistreatment.
    And these do-gooders justify their behavior by observing and internalizing the failures of these minority victims (something they can never mention) to conclude that the minorities favored are actually inferior and need their own absurd interventions.
    The big winners are orientals apparently discriminated against, who are forced at all levels to attend schools in which they are the best students, with the encouragement that this fact rewards that status.
    Affirmative action was invented to control the number of Jewish students at elite schools, where it had the same positive effect on them. At every school they were heavily represented among the most talented students, because they were prevented from attending more prestigious schools, which greatly enhanced their performance and their prestige.

    1. Don’t forget the impact that affirmative action has on a super-talented minority student, as opposed to, say, a super-talented minority basketball player. If the basketball player is shooting 40% 3-pointers and 90% free throws, the coach is urging the student to keep practicing, to get better, to be the best in the world.

      The student at that same (high) achievement level in academics is told the exact opposite: that performance is good enough–you can go to whatever Ivy League school you want. Think about that–there is virtually no achievement level at which a white or Asian student would ever receive that advice. After scoring 1400-1500 on the SAT, white and Asian students will often be urged to take it again and keep trying to improve. I suspect that it would be extremely uncommon for a minority student to get that same advice from a guidance counselor.

      This is a tremendous disservice to the ones who could be our next Albert Einsteins and Neils Bohrs.

  5. I like the idea behind the PHYSICS 41E class. A lot of kids, whites included, coming out of high school may not have had a good exposure to higher end math. Lots of school don’t offer it or if they do its low quality. I was lucky to have had a teacher in the 80’s who had a masters and who could TEACH the subject. If you were willing to put in the work.

  6. But we lose a larger number of Black, Latinx and Native students, as well as women of all races, in the first two years of undergraduate study,”

    It couldn’t possibly be that the very special treatment of the B, L and N students have become entitled through the course of their elementary and high school careers, which runs like a head-on wreck into (A) the very large amount of work required to learn the subject matter, and (B) the fact that in Physics there actually are Wrong Answers to problems. Could it?

  7. If you want to build a Orwellian dystopia which the Left taken by Marxists want, then every consistent measurable tool must be destroyed.

  8. I was talking with someone in physics just the other day about this, where I work, not Stanford. I have a very good idea where this is coming from, at least from the point of view of the science faculty. Well-intentioned people seeing black (or other minority) students start out interested in science, then doing poorly and dropping out. The biggest part of the problem, of course, is that these students have been admitted with lower academic and test credentials. Since these measure real things, this group of students inevitably does poorly. The faculty (who probably are not aware of the lowering of admissions standards, or not aware of just how substantial it is), profess to be mystified (probably) and concerned to something (undoubtedly). But no one dare to speak about the elephant in the room.

    The mismatch cascades to all levels of schools, so students who would do well at USC do poorly at Stanford, students who would do well someone else do poorly at USC, and so forth.

    I do fault the faculty somewhat, though. I have seen them admit Ph.D. students who were grossly less qualified than the “regular” grad students. These students almost inevitably do poorly, and drop out or are forced out. Sometimes they are very bitter. The faculty who enable this travesty by and large have a short memory of the damage they have done with their good intentions. New faculty come along too, and they have good intentions, and want to enjoy the wonderful feelings of racial virtue. So the cycle of destruction continues.

    Apart from admissions standards, the only way this kind of special program stuff can work is if (1) academic standards are not lowered and (2) everyone of every race and both(!) sexes is allowed to participate. I believe Berkeley has done some of this, not necessarily in Physics. Maybe Stanford too.

  9. Once upon a time, I was a physics (and math) major at Purdue. Quite simply, I lacked the mental discipline necessary to complete the degrees, but on the other hand what I learned was invaluable. Seeing stories about “racial” and “gender” disparities in physics and math infuriates me. Precisely NONE of us were interested in keeping women and minorities out; in fact quite the opposite (especially women–keep in mind 18-22 year old boys, especially geeky ones who never got a second look from girls in high school; we were always THRILLED to talk to girls who could geek out with the rest of us). As I recall, Indian students were overrepresented compared to “default” white American boys, such as me, and not once did this ever strike any of us as “problematic”, to use a moronic in-vogue buzzword. In the end, we only ever cared about “can you do the problem”. Having some Women’s Studies majors tell us that we were misogynist or racist….well, those of you with hard science/engineering backgrounds know what happens when someone who has no idea what he or she is talking about starts lecturing you. “Stubborn” is not a strong enough word.

  10. Here is something I learned as a Stanford physics parent. The students going into physics at elite schools don’t just enter with HS calculus. The vast majority, in my observation, have multiple calculus and dif eq classes at a college level–most often taken at local universities—coming out of high school. These people are not only smart, but focused and driven over a long period of time. This is a tough race to enter—even for those that have the background. Dreamers, sure, but the work and persistence are for very few. Unless you are some kind of genius, weak or no prep is a recipe for failure–white, black, or whatever.

    1. Physics Dad, your comment matches my experience in the 1970s. My peers who would go on to succeed in physics at elite schools had already had at least one full year of college-level Calculus for math/physics/engineering majors by the end of their junior year of high school. Some, but not all, suburban high schools at the time offered a year of Calculus (paced to be the equivalent of one semester of college Calculus) and that class was intended as the senior year mathematics course for the school’s most proficient math students.

    2. The flip side of this is how truly terrible a K-12 education most Black children get.

      Here in Massachusetts we are going to spend $1.4 Billion (“with a “B”) more for K-12, with most of it going to the urban (mostly minority) schools — the Governor is proposing literally doubling state aid, on a per-child basis, to these schools. And it’s not going to do a damn bit of good because no one is willing to talk about standards and academic rigor.

      Most folks would not believe how incompetent (and stupid) most teachers are. This is true everywhere, with the difference being that education isn’t valued in the Black community — instead of taking the enrichment classes at the local college on Saturdays, they’re playing basketball with their buddies. Their parents didn’t teach them Algebra, Geometry, & Trig (aka “help them with their homework”), and they were socially promoted without ever having learned it.

      This is the soft bigotry of low expectations and the only thing that will change this will be changing K-12, and we’re not willing to do that.

      1. If the parents aren’t helping enough, that doesn’t mean the school is failing. The school is probably doing a heroic job with the amount of work the students put in, and the requirements for “inclusion” of trouble makers and the inability to track enough to give the smart kids a chance to learn.

        Letting the schools track and to exclude troublemakers will help and will be the best the schools can do. From there, it’s up to the parents and the abilities of the students.

  11. In my electrical engineering class, we had one black student, a woman. She was bright off the charts and an excellent student, always prepared. She set the high end of the curve. I don’t know what happened to her but I’m sure she went on to be an excellent engineer. The color of her skin mattered not. She didn’t need any remedial education. She did not require special attention. She had a strong grasp of mathematics. In other words, she was totally prepared for a STEM education. That is what it takes. Allowing anything short of that is an insult to people like her. Demand the best and you’ll get the best. Sounds like Stanford, a school that formerly demanded the best, is ready to hurt its reputation in the cause of chasing a politically correct unicorn.

    1. Really bright black students in the end tend to laterally transfer to jobs that have higher pay but shorter, easier hours, organization directors or the like. There is a big demand for such blacks.

  12. I forget which Justice said it but the way to stop racism is to quit giving racial groups special benefits. Treat everyone alike. Kinda like “equal protection under the law” doncha know. A concept I would have thought that SCOTUS would be familiar with.

  13. Back in the day when I started my physics degree in Canada, for the first year introductory course, we started in September with over 20 students. By May, there was, as I recall, 5 of us left. This was in a lily white Canadian community college. Nothing I read here about Stanford sounds all that different from what I saw 40 years ago. The fundamental problem is physics is hard. That will never change.

  14. I’d hate to be an astronaut needing life-saving advice from space only to find a “C” student answering the phone while they’re trying to calculate a re-entry descent from space.

  15. Physics “for students with little or no high school physics or calculus.”

    This is like teaching SCUBA diving to people who don’t know how to swim or having your first hike being the entire Appalachian Trail. Or putting Pop Warner players into an NFL game.

    If they haven’t had Calculus, their Trig, Geometry, & Algebra likely isn’t enough, and you cannot teach physics without math!!!!

    You can teach principles of physics without it, and the value of such a course taught to non-science majors should not be dismissed. But expecting someone to major in Physics without a solid math background is like expecting someone to make it onto an NBA team without being able to dribble.

    For example, if you don’t understand sine curves, you will never understand AC Power — you may understand not to connect the phases together, and what happens if you do, but not why. It’s that simple.

    And it’s not fair to the students, either.
    We’re setting kids up to fail.

    1. Ummmm…u don’t need 2 know how 2 swim 8n order 2 scuba dive. The reds of scuba diving: breathe thru the regulator, do not hold ur breath, depth and buoyancy control, and do not ascend too quickly. Being able 2 swim helps…but it is not necessary.

    2. Once upon a time, there were schools to take bright students and give them the knowledge and skills necessary to thrive in a university. What were they called? Later, California offered guaranteed admission to UC for students who first went to community colleges for lower division classes, allowing the students to ‘get their feet wet’ before throwing them in to sink or swim. Now, we just do social promotion. It’s not like you actually need to do science now, hire a programmer to make the model come out right.

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