Only one week ago from today, I wrote of The Disordered Cosmos, “This book is particularly intriguing because my perception is that it is about physics, astronomy, Star Trek, and how science needs to be a more accepting space for women and people of color. I just bought it yesterday as my reward for making it through the week, and I am so eager to get started!” I had a decently correct idea of what the book actually is, but in no way was I prepared for what I would learn.
My first impression upon beginning The Disordered Cosmos was that the author’s tone was lighter and more conversational than I anticipated for a book about such heavy topics. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is in no way a rigid, authoritarian scientist, which is what my reading in science has led me to expect from its authors. Her informal tone is what drove me to finish this book in only six days instead of the usual 14 to 30. I really enjoyed it for about the first half, and I felt like I was in conversation with the author. It made it pretty easy to read quickly, so halfway through the week, I decided if I keep up my pace I could finish it in time to review it today. Obviously I did, but powering through the second half of this book became harder and harder.
Let me explain. First of all, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is not like other scientists. She is a Black woman, which means that her experience as a particle physicist and theoretical cosmologist is pretty much the exact opposite experience of that of her white male peers in the astro/physics space. But that’s not what makes her different. She is different because she knows about the ugly, oppressive, colonialist, white supremacist underbelly of science, and she is the only person who has ever clued me in on it to this extent. She essentially grabbed the rose-colored science glasses off my face and smashed them into the ground.
Learning that science is beyond flawed, but deeply broken, hurt me specifically because of who I am and who I have become over the past few years. If there is anything that you know about me from reading my blog, it’s that I love science. You might know that I’m not a scientist in any way but that I’ve daydreamed about maybe becoming one once or twice. I see myself as more of a science admirer or cheerleader, cheering on from the sidelines the brilliant scientists making groundbreaking discoveries. I’m a defender of science from creationism and other forms of pseudoscience.
This passion for science came from my exit from religion and its thought-stifling communities and practices. Anyone who has abandoned young-earth creationism in favor of evolution’s explanation of our beautiful, ugly, complex, diverse life forms will know what I mean. You learn that we don’t just know what we know because it was told to us by an authority figure or from a book. We step out of that world and science feels like a door into the cosmos opening before us, with all of the real, evidence-based answers about our universe there for us to discover.
So imagine my dismay when it feels as though this entire vision was a painting on glass that Prescod-Weinstein shattered with a hammer, only to show me scientists stealing Indigenous land, discounting the discoveries of anyone with too much melanin in their skin, and raping their colleagues. This book showed me one of the ugliest industries I have ever seen. The only reason I admired science so much was because I got to watch it from the outside. I had no idea that it was intrinsically linked to colonialism, capitalism, and a toxic thirst for power. Suddenly, the image of a white man staking his claim in the Moon using an American flag was much less inspiring and much more ominous.
I wondered at times, along with Prescod-Weinstein, why she would even want to be a scientist in such a backward, racist, sexist community. But then I remember the first part of the book, “Just Physics” which is described as, “In which the universe is, for a time, human free.” Oh, how I wished I could go back to that section later in the book, before I knew the rest.
In this first section, Prescod-Weinstein gives us a glimpse into the love she has for particle physics. Many other reviewers of this book lamented that they didn’t really understand the scientific nomenclature in this section. I didn’t either, but I’m either used to not understanding books about physics, or I knew that the details about quarks really weren’t what I needed to take with me. I didn’t need any preexisting physics acumen to understand Prescod-Weinstein’s undying love for particle physics. She loves it more than I think I can explain to you. Something about the Standard Model makes this professional PhD physicist so, so happy, and that makes me happy, too.
The reason why this book is not entirely devoted to particle physics, which is a book I’m sure Prescod-Weinstein would much rather have written, is because I think that her scientific surroundings make it hard to focus on just doing what she loves uninterrupted. It reminds me of those times when I am trying to enjoy a book, only to be distracted by noises that are no fault of my own, like other people’s screaming babies and barking dogs. How are you supposed to focus on what you came here to do with all this noise? When the noise is that of Native Hawaiians protesting for astronomers not to build telescopes on sacred land, for Black mothers grieving for their murdered children, or women trying to make their voices heard without sounding too emotional, Prescod-Weinstein halted the objective science talk and turned our attention toward these more urgent issues. Until they have been addressed, science will not be proceeding as it should.
How can I go on loving science—the science that Carl Sagan showed me—knowing also what Chanda Prescod-Weinstein showed me? I’ve come up with the idea that “science” is only one word that in fact can mean many different things. There is the industry of science that is filthy and backward, authoritarian and colonialist. The science that denies those who differ from the straight white cis male standard. The science that rapes. When I call myself, in my blog’s subtitle, “A Skeptic on a Quest for Science”, that’s… not what I mean. Maybe we should not conflate this industry of deeply flawed scientists operating in a white supremacist patriarchy with Science, true science, perfect science. The science that I fell in love with because it does not make mistakes.
As an atheist, I’ve often encountered other atheists asking religious people, “How can you be religious when religion has caused so much harm to so many people?” The religious people usually reply with, “Religion as it is practiced by humans is not perfect, because humans are not perfect. God is still perfect, and I believe that He is good even when religious people are bad.”
I never imagined that I would be asking myself this same question, and giving the equivalent answer, about science instead of religion. But true Science, the version that isn’t riddled with human flaws, is a standard of near-perfect objectivity, albeit one that fickle humans—yes, even scientists—will never reach. I do not admire scientists who steal Indigenous lands and who rape people. I do admire science as a way of learning about the world, and trying to know what is true as accurately as we can. I love science’s ability to weed out quackery and pseudoscience by demonstrating that two variables do or do not have any correlation. I love the democracy and the equality of it all, that if your idea holds up to scrutiny, then it doesn’t matter if you’re Albert Einstein or a Black queer disabled agender Jewish woman from East LA. True Science doesn’t care who you are. Everyone gets an equal chance to see if their ideas will survive skepticism and experimentation.
I think that my made-up justification of loving Science holds water, but even knowing that, this book is leaving me particularly disappointed and unmotivated to praise science as I have been for years. The topics in this book are very heavy, especially if you didn’t know them before and you really don’t know what you can do to help it get better. I don’t. I wish there was something I could do to make flawed science more closely resemble true Science, but I’m not part of the science community and I don’t really have the power or money on my own to do much. I think the most I can do is to tell you to read this book. I mean that especially if you are a white male scientist or if you know one. Listen to what Prescod-Weinstein is telling you, and don’t take it lightly. If you aren’t concerned for the well-being of Black woman scientists, then at least do it knowing that this is life and death for Science itself.
14 thoughts on “Book Review: The Disordered Cosmos by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein”
Re “Learning that science is beyond flawed, but deeply broken, hurt me specifically because of who I am and who I have become over the past few years.” I know you are a beginner in the study of science, but why would you expect science to be any different from all other human enterprises? All of the racism, greed, misogyny and so on played out in science as they did elsewhere. Scientists have perpetrated experiments on human beings without their permission, for Pete’s sake.
Learning this may have burst your bubble by “science” is not deeply broken. Many of its practitioners are, however. In my own experience, whenever my wife had an appointment with our graduate advisor, I would sit outside the door, openly visibly to prevent to deeply demeaning things this man would say to her (Why does a housewife want a master’s degree in chemistry?”) If you think about this, I was born in the first half of the last century. My parents were born in the early years of that century. My grandparents were born after the Civil War but before the turn of the twentieth century. In my family there are three generations, only three, spanning a period between a deep racism and the present.
It was not science that made its practitioners racists, or misogynists, or greedy (for money and prestige). People themselves brought those attributes with them when they entered the endeavor.
This is why I urge, cajole, push for more honest history classes for our young, so they don’t get a skewed idea of what has come before. We need more labor history in history classes. More social history in science classes, etc. Honesty is the best policy and whitewashing our past does not help us deal with the problems that still exist today.
A very good comment. Without science, we would still be afraid of fire.
Dang this is a review. Describing how this book made you feel reminds me a little of how I felt reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. It’s really easy to get disillusioned with all the systems we have in place reading stuff like this.
I just recently heard of that and I’m really interested to read it but also feel like I should take a while until I read another book that makes me feel this way 😫 also “disillusioned” is a good word. I would have used it in place of “disappointed and unmotivated” if I had remembered it haha
I definitely have to read lighter stuff in between stuff like this too!
No, science isn’t deeply flawed. The human species is deeply flawed, and those flaws show in the way that humans practice science.
Yes, there’s a long history of powerful men of European descent stealing ideas from women and from other groups of humans. But we can still love the science, even while being skeptical of the scientists.
This morning, I noticed a post by Jerry Coyne, at his “Why evolution is true” blog. He was complaining that there were social justice warriors in science. Perhaps he has not noticed that there is lots of social injustice in science. As long as there is social injustice, it should be no surprise that there are social justice warriors.
Oh Jerry no….. I liked his book about evolution too.
Yes, this is what I was getting at and trying to understand. Maybe we should not be calling science (the way of thinking) by the same word as science (the unjust industry).
Thinking of someone whose book I liked saying something so backward is something I’ve been wrestling with since contemplating reading A Universe from Nothing after learning the sexual harassment allegations against Lawrence Krause. I’m now learning of the allegations against Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but I just recently watched Cosmos and really liked it and him. Now I don’t know how I can still appreciate the show knowing that.
I agree with Steve, and would suggest that your “made-up justification” is more accurate than the view which was shattered. It sounds like you had, for some reason, idealized the science community just because they were associated with a particular methodology. It is a human enterprise and frought with human failings, and the self-correcting nature of science does not include the moral domain. Science corrects itself with regard to objective observations, and unless somebody figures out how to objectively detect moral facts (don’t hold your breath), the practice is not beholding to a particular moral standard.
That said, I suspect that the science community is generally better at correcting for it’s moral failings relative to society at large, simply because they place a higher value on accountability and justification. So don’t lose hope just because you figured out that scientists are human too.
“The self-correcting nature of science does not include the moral domain.” This echoes some sentiments from the book. Prescod-Weinstein said that physicists act like everything about physics is objective, but in the field of physics, with people, that’s not true. Thinking that doing physics and having morals are two separate categories have caused them to do deeply immoral things where they thought it was just amoral. Their actions do affect people even when they don’t see it.
But good people can do bad science, and bad people can do good science, so there is also a risk of overmoralizing the scientific endeavor to the extent that we throw out useful data on account of the practitioners’ moral failings, or accept bad data on account of our moral agreement with the practitioner. We can recognize the intersection of morality and physics without sacrificing the ideal goal of perpetuating the data which presents the most accurate model of reality.
I guess that is part of being nonbiased with data 🙂 it goes both ways. An idea can be the most correct even if it comes from a bad person. Interesting to think about, and it challenges my willingness to throw out good ideas by bad people. Thank you!
I wanted to respond to a post in which someone had a negative view of science, calling it flawed.
Think about what science has contributed to society and compare that to any other art, including religion, and measure which is more profitable to us.
I don’t know why I was browsing in this book at this time, but here it is.
Carl Sagan 1966
“There’s a reason people are nervous about science and technology. And so the image of the mad scientist haunts our world—down to the white-coated loonies of Saturday morning children’s TV and the plethora of Faustian bargains in popular culture, from the eponymous Dr. Faustus himself to Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Strangelove, and Jurassic Park.
But we can’t simply conclude that science puts too much power into the hands of morally feeble technologists or corrupt, power-crazed politicians and so decide to get rid of it. Advances in medicine and agriculture have saved vastly more lives than have been lost in all the wars in history.*
The Demon-Haunted World (p. 31). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Carl Sagan 1966
What a great book. I know he also talked a lot about how disgusted he is with the nuclear weapons war and how science has been used for evil. But he still loves science and talks so highly of true science (although I know it is easier to do from his place of privilege than from Prescod-Weinstein’s viewpoint)
Since I reached adulthood at about age 45, I have come to realize all the contributions made by the Black community and I have allowed myself to think about all the talent we have ignored, in many fields, because of our biases against ‘others.’ Recently, I learned of the Black women with math skills, without which we may not have been able to put a ‘man’ in orbit around the earth or to land on the moon.
Good science has come from people of all nationalities, ethnicities, skin colors, sexes, and religions. While the moral and ethical values of some of the people involved may not measure up to even our lowest expectations, science has held true. Some people have purposefully abused their position in the scientific community and some have innocently offered faulty research, but the very nature of science has and will eventually produce the true facts.
If a benevolent and loving god made us all, then why did he not make us able to accept each other as fellows, riding the same rock, in the same orbit around the same star. No one’s star is brighter than another.
Are we there yet?