Bonus: Talking Feminist Astrophysics with Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Bonus: Talking Feminist Astrophysics with Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Host: Leila McNeill

Guest: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Music: Love Science by Fast Lady

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In this episode of the Lady Scientists bonus series, Leila talks with astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein about intersectionality, history of science, and how scientific knowledge is produced and who produces it.

Show Notes

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Decolonizing Science Reading List

In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe

Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation by Imani Perry


Transcription by

Leila: Welcome to another episode in our Lady Scientist bonus series in which I chat with a scientist about how feminism shapes the work that they do. And for this episode, I'm talking with Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein about intersectionality, history of science, and epistemology in astrophysics. And for now, at least, this will be the last episode in the series. We had some other interviews lined up, but due to various technical problems and scheduling conflicts, we just weren't able to make it happen, but who knows. Maybe we'll surprise you at some point with more in the future. But do go back and listen to the first two episodes of the series so that you can listen to my chats with sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos and anthropologist Emma Backe. And without further ado, let's dive into the interview with Chanda.

Leila: All right. Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy and a core faculty member in the women's studies program at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. But aside from this, she's also been a volunteer editor with the literary magazine The Offing, and she's a writer who's been published in Slate and Bitch, where one of my favorite pieces of yours about Vera Rubin appeared. Also Us, Lady Science, and just a slew of other places. And you also are working on a book right now.

C. P-W.: Yes, I am. The book is tentatively titled The Disordered Cosmos.

Leila: Great. To get us started, why don't you just tell us a little bit more about your work and how you got interested in it?

C. P-W.: Yeah. I guess actually I should say, I was the editor and chief of The Offing, and I'm now the president of The Offing's board. So for anyone listening, we're the only literary magazine with a science department, so I encourage people who are interested in science writing that's literary to consider submitting it to the back of the envelope department at The Offing.

Leila: That's awesome.

C. P-W.: Sorry, shameless plug.

Leila: No, no. This whole thing is kind of plug so go ahead.

C. P-W.: In terms of what I do, I'm a particle cosmologist, I'm a U particle, particle physicist so my research expertise as a scientist is primarily on dark matter and also early universe cosmology, so thinking about what the structure of space-time was when it was less than a second old, and that's really where particle physics and cosmology intersect. And I kind of think about the cosmological timeline: how do we go from the very small, individual dark matter particles to how you make galaxies out of that and get the universe that we now have?

C. P-W.: So it's kind of fun. I get to think about the entire 14 billion year lifespan, the universe and our bubble in the universe. Because maybe we're just in one bubble and an internally inflating universe that's basically infinite. That's what I do on the physics side. And then also I have a secondary expertise in feminist science, technology and society studies, where I'm particularly interested in black women's social locations in physics and astronomy, and how the inclusion and exclusion of black women and other minoritized people impacts what we come to know about physics and how physics operates as a scientific community. And I got interested in that because I'm a black woman in physics and looked around the room and noticed that I was often the only one.

Leila: One of the things that you come back to again and again in your writing is history of science, and I'll say that that's where we met in person was at a history of science society conference. I'm wondering what has drawn you to the history of science and why do you integrate it into your current scientific framework.

C. P-W.: That's a big question. It feels like a big existential question.

Leila: Oh, sorry, I didn't mean for it to be.

C. P-W.: I guess the quick version of how I become known as someone who thinks about history of science and how did I really start informing myself about it--there is controversy over the building of telescopes on Mauna Kea, which is a Hawaiian mountain that has 13 telescope facilities on it. It has been a very successful location for the astronomical community because it is at such a high altitude that you actually eliminate different layers of the atmosphere that can interfere with getting good images with telescopes, so being really high up is really helpful. And there is a problem, which is that it's also a traditionally sacred land for Kanaka Maoli, the native Hawaiian people. And in their epistemic understanding, their world construction, the land is a member of the family, and so doing harm to the land is actually doing harm to the family, and it's felt as if it's harm to a family member.

C. P-W.: What's tricky about this is that I wouldn't say that all native Hawaiians see it this way, and some people are in support of the building of a fourteenth facility, the 30 meter telescope and some people really aren't. And when I was trying to contextualize the debate that unfolded about this in late 2014 and early 2015, I started asking myself questions about why is science perceived negatively by minoritized communities? Why is it that my mom has always been anxious about the doctor? She came of age with the revelation of the Tuskegee experiment in the black community, so for her, that's really defining. Like, this is what science is. And so, in the process, I started ... I've always been kind of interested in how is science contextualized in society and the question of doing ethical science, and I think that that moment really crystallized for me that the question of doing ethical science always ties back to what has science been in the past, and what can we learn about how science has been so that we can better understand what science should be?

Leila: And the idea of building telescopes-- I'll mention first that you maintain a Decolonizing Science reading list that is chock full of excellent history of science reading, which contains a lot of what you're talking about. This history of building telescopes, of Americans and Europeans building telescopes where they shouldn't be building telescopes, has such a long, a long history that I don't think a lot of people are aware of, and I'm sure that you'll find in the, obviously correct me if I'm wrong, in the astro community are not really aware of that history.

C. P-W.: Yeah and I think what ... speaking of how does history of science get used, I think that what's kind of interesting is that it's not that physicists and astronomers don't learn any history--although history is rarely formally part of anybody's undergraduate curriculum, and it's never formally part of anybody's graduate curriculum, so you can get pretty far as a physicist or an astronomer and never take a formal history of science class. I never did. I never took a philosophy of science class, either. I know some people do, but it's not usually standard.

C. P-W.: But what was kind of interesting about the discussions about the 30 meter telescope--which is still an unfolding thing that's happening in the courts in Hawaii, and there are still protests and it's still not necessarily definitively happening--is how history got used. It got used on both sides, but what was interesting was that a very simplified version of history got used by the pro- T and T side, which is that people who were in support of the building of the 30 meter telescope, the T and T, would say, "Oh, but when Europeans and Americans first came to Hawaii, the king invited them to bring a telescope up onto the Mauna," and they would often leave out the detail that it was a 12 inch telescope. [laughter] I think it was a 12-inch, so something very small and highly mobile. And they didn't install it, they just brought it up the mountain and then took it back down.

C. P-W.: It sounds like, "Oh yeah, the king always wanted astronomy up here." And then when you really think about it, it's like, oh, that's not quite exactly how it went down. And is a 12-inch, or something on that scale, just like something that's over 10 stories and is going to dig into the ground and permanently alter the landscape? This is a naturally formed, geological space, a geological structure that we are planning to permanently carve. There's no going back and that's very, very different from plopping something down on the ground and looking at the sky for a night.

C. P-W.: It's so interesting that people really thought, "Let's historicize this and say in context that astronomy has always been the legacy of Kanaka Maoli people," and I actually think this is something that people on both sides agree with, which is using the stars to navigate to Hawaii and navigate between the islands, for example. There's a difference between Kanaka Maoli doing it for themselves and for their own purposes and Americans and Europeans just saying, "Hey, it's so convenient that the United States colonized Hawaii and they have this great mountain, so let's just build a bunch of telescopes on it." Those are two very different historical narratives about who the astronomy is serving and for what purpose.

Leila: Yeah, so let's get into some of the issues in the scientific community. One of the pieces that I want to bring up that can be kind of a jumping off point to talk about this is one that you wrote in 2016, which was an adaptation of a talk that you gave titled, "Intersectionality as a Blueprint for Post-Colonial Scientific Community Building." The first thing that I want to ask about this is as you point out in the piece that intersectionality is frequently misused, and one of the ways that you point out that it's misused is when people conflate it with multi-culturalism. Can you talk about that distinction between intersectionality and multi-culturalism and why that distinction matters?

C. P-W.: You know, the funny thing about that piece is that I think that probably I say a lot of things in it now that if somebody else wrote it and published it now, I would critique it.

C. P-W.: My relationship to the concept of intersectionality and intersectional analysis has evolved and matured. I'll just start by saying that. But I think that, and actually possibly the point that I make there, I would say my relationships with it is deeper in the sense that people often say ... oh, I've written some tweets recently where I've critiqued people for calling themselves intersectional feminists.

Leila: Yeah, I saw this.

C. P-W.: I think I've written two threads about it now and I just wish people would read them because I don't want to keep writing them over and over again. The way that intersectionality articulated in Kimberlé Crenshaw's original articles in 1989 and then 1981 is that it is the overlap of different oppressive frameworks or structures, so it's a little bit weird to describe yourself as an intersectional feminist unless your whole shtick is that you're a feminist who overlaps oppressions. This makes me sound like I'm some kind of grammar prescriptivist, I guess, in that I'm very focused on, "Is it adjective?" and, "What does the adjective mean?" or something like that. But I think that what people are doing now with intersectionality, in the way that they use intersectionally, is that they're trying to say, "I'm a multi-cultural feminist," which is I'm a feminist who's for inclusion of people of color and minoritized white people, like white queer people, white trans people, and that's actually what they mean when they're saying that they're intersectional is that they're multi-cultural.

C. P-W.: And I think that it makes sense that this is happening with millennials because millennials were raised steeped in the paradigm of multi-culturalism, that this is all about making sure that the room has lots of variety and diversity and a really, I think, simplified reading of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, that this was all about just making sure that the kids of different colors were all sitting at the same table together. And that's not really what intersectionality is about. I can give a good example of how I would think of an intersectional analysis.

Leila: Yeah, yeah.

C. P-W.: If that's helpful.

Leila: Yeah, definitely.

C. P-W.: The example that Kimberlé Crenshaw gives in her first article in 1989, which I should say by the way, she's not the first person to articulate the idea that different experiences with oppression can overlap with each other, but I do think she has a very interesting way of coming at it. So she comes at it as a law professor, and what she's noting is that in class action lawsuits where, for example, a group of women are suing for discrimination based on gender or sex, that black women were rejected as being representatives of the class because they're blackness meant that they weren't representative of women and when black people were suing ... coming up with a class action lawsuit based on discrimination based on race, black women were again rejected as representatives of the class because as women, they were not considered representative of black people, and so she calls this an intersectional problem, effectively.

C. P-W.: That these two forms of subordination, racism and sexism, overlap to marginalize black women in both the class of women and the class of black people, such that only white women are seen as representative as the class of women and only black men are seen as representative of the class of black people. So that's pretty different from multi-culturalism.

Leila: Since I saw you mention it on twitter, I've kind of seen it everywhere.

C. P-W.: Yeah, it's hard to get away from once you get it in your head.

Leila: Yeah, definitely. I guess the big question here which gets to the reason we're writing this series of interviews is, what does intersectionality have to do with science?

C. P-W.: I think the thing that I was trying to get at in that speech, and I can give a backstory for that speech, the one that you referenced that's now published as the essay, was that I have been asked to give the opening keynote for--or the opening plenary for the inaugural inclusive astronomy conference. And they specifically asked me to talk about intersectionality. So I've been thinking about, okay, I'm going to come up with something where I define the term intersectionality, and I thought it was going to be a very academic, classroom session for a bunch of astronomers, "What does this word mean"? And I realized that it would be better that rather than me giving the talk, a trans astronomer of color should give the talk. And I'm agender so I don't have an internal sense of gender but I do ... I guess I present as femme, and I'm okay with my body, so I consider myself to be an agender cis-sex woman, so I'm not quite trans in the way that people normally envision what is a trans person.

C. P-W.: I started looking around trying to see if I could find someone who would fit that profile who wasn't a graduate student and who was in the field of astronomy and not physics, and realized I couldn't find someone who fit that profile who already had a Ph.D. So I ended up writing to Dean Spade, the very well regarded trans liberation and civil rights lawyer and I asked him, "So I have to do this thing, I'm writing you out of the blue, you don't know who I am. I looked around to see if there was a trans person of color who would want to do this and could do this, what should I do to make sure that trans issues are adequately addressed in this talk?"

C. P-W.: And Dean said something really interesting to me, he was like, "You need to talk about what science has been to people of color and to trans people of color." So he made that comment to me and at the same time, all of the stuff about the 30 meter telescope in Mauna Kea was unfolding and I was like, I'm going to be giving a talk to this group, I should really be talking about colonialism as well, and so what really came out of that was I wanted to talk about what connects intersectionality with colonialism and also with the ... I'm very visible in pressing civil rights issues of our time, which is black trans women's right to move through the night, and that kind of thing.

C. P-W.: That was kind of how it all came together, but I think that as we're thinking about what is intersectionality and what is it's relationship to science, what kind of came out of that whole thought process for me was the power of intersectionality as an analytic framework. For us to start thinking about how power is distributed and impacts people disparately in our community. Really kind of what I came to is not just what you would call an intersectional analysis but also ... Patricia Hill Collins, around the same time the intersectionality articles came out, articulated what's called matrix and domination theory in her seminal book, Black Feminist Thought and ... I think what I really started to think about is that intersectionality gives us a framework for looking at, "How does our community actually function? And how do race and gender, and other ascribed identities, shape how our community functions and shape how people get treated within our community?"

Leila: History comes into play with that as well, right? That was some of the things you mentioned in that piece, was that the way that scientific communities have been built and the way that they largely identify is still strongly connected to a white, European way of doing science, or constructing science, or thinking about the world and thinking about other people.

C. P-W.: Yeah, I mean I think that part of what we're really grappling with is that history is passed down to physicists and astronomers as we're going through our education, but definitely in the form of hero worship which is, "This is the Schrodinger equation, now let's learn a very simple story about who Schrodinger was." [laughter] "This is Einstein's equation. Let's learn a simple story about who Einstein was. He's a hero."

C. P-W.: And so of course, when this is all you learn about history of science then things get framed around who gets remembered, and so we remember the victors, right? They say history is written by the victors, and so that's definitely true in physics. We transmit our sense of who our community has been via these very simplified tales of where equations come from. Or if your professor happens to really love Einstein, then maybe you're going to learn a little bit more about Einstein, but maybe you only hear a sanitized version, so you don't hear that Einstein was an anti-racist activist who said that racism was a disease of white people, And then also you maybe don't hear that Einstein treated his first wife particularly badly, and you don't hear that maybe he was having affairs with various black women in the Princeton area, right? This is something that people hypothesize. There are all these other tidbits, [and] the physics community chooses what history physics students hear about and in some sense, we're very ignorant about what our community has actually been like.

C. P-W.: And this all kind of serves to shape the image of the great white male scientist and the great white male scientific community that multi-culturalism is now being brought to bear on. So now for the first time, the little minorities are also being allowed to learn science, and maybe one day, they too can be great just like the great white men have been.

Leila: There's something that I've noticed in conversations about quote, "Getting more women and minorities into STEM" end quote, is that there is a focus on one, representation, just this idea of evening out the numbers, so to speak. Or there's two, this focus on an economic advantage. For instance, it's beneficial for the economy of institutions or the economy of the nations to tap into a larger candidate pool. But this seems to miss something much deeper about the way knowledge is produced and has been produced in the past. My question for you is, how do you see the participation of black women, and Latina and indigenous women, for example, shaping the production of scientific knowledge itself?

C. P-W.: Yes, I think that this is a really interesting point because one of the things that goes unpacked here is that we often talk about, "What is the value of minoritized people to science?" and nobody really ever says, "Well, what's the value of white men to science?" [laughter]

Leila: [laughter] That is perfect, yes.

C. P-W.: Nobody's ever trying to quantify, "Are white men valuable? Should they be included?" No Supreme Court justice has ever been like, "Should white men even be in physics classrooms?" Which John Roberts totally asked that during the second Abigail Fisher affirmative action case. "Should black people ... What is the value of a black student in a physics classroom?" I'm paraphrasing but it was awful.

Leila: Right.

C. P-W.: And it was so bad that my fellow black physicist, Jedidah Isler is a professor at Dartmouth College now, wrote a response in the New York Times because it was such a painful moment. What was interesting to me about the comment that he made, though, was I felt ... I was pretty angry at people for being shocked, because I felt like that was the question that people were always asking, which was, "What is the value of these...?" When you say, "Oh, we're losing expertise," or "We're losing all of these great minds," that you're placing a premium on the heads of black people, and I feel like in an American context, that's a pretty ugly practice that, in fact, we have spent the last whatever it is now ... 160 years trying to grapple with the idea that it was normal and reasonable to place a premium on, or place a value on the heads of black people.

C. P-W.: And I think that we don't recognize it like this because the way that we learned about slavery is typically through, oh, they were just in the fields picking cotton or they were in the kitchen, brainlessly cooking. Not like, these were people who were experts at agriculture and in fact, some of the Africans who were kidnapped, were kidnapped because they were known for their expertise. I think that when we talk about diversity and inclusion and that's what this discourse really is, is the diversity and inclusion discourse.

Leila: Right.

C. P-W.: We're really thinking about, "Why should people be allowed or disallowed to do something?" And for me, the basic thing is always that people should be allowed because they're human, and I shouldn't have to justify my existence anymore than that. I should be able to be mediocre. I don't think you can get as far as, for example, I won't say myself, but as Jedidah, as an ivy league professor without being extraordinary, but I don't think that that same requirement falls on the white men that we're competing with on the job market, to be extraordinary. I think that you can be mediocre and think that that's okay, unless you're somehow from a marginalized community, and then you have to be extraordinary.

C. P-W.: So I think that that's part of the conversation that we're having, and I want people to interrogate, is that the way we should think about it? What if we shifted to a human rights framework instead of an economic or intellectual economy framework?

Leila: Another thing I wanted to ask you about was in 2016, you were a principal investigator on a Foundational Questions Institute large grant, "Epistemological Schemata of Astrophysics, A Reconstruction of Observers." Can you explain a little bit about that project and some of the questions that you explored in it?

C. P-W.: Yeah, so the basic idea in that project was to start thinking about and flesh out these exact questions of when we talk about intersectionality, and what intersectional framework can bring to science, and to bring to bear on the question of black women's participation and indigenous women's participation in science. What does that mean? What is the conversation we're having? What are the facets of that conversation, and what are the things that need to be accounted for as we're thinking about these questions?

C. P-W.: So one thing that come out of it is a paper that I have coming out in the Journal of Science in ... I think it's slated to come out in the winter 2020 issue. It's so amazing that in physics, you submit a paper to a journal, it gets accepted and within a month and a half, it's published online and it's so different in the humanities and social sciences, where that paper was accepted in June of 2018 and it will be published in January of 2020. [laughter]

C. P-W.: This paper is essentially introducing a concept that I call white empiricism, and what I'm very particularly interested in is how white supremacist traditions impact how knowledge production occurs in physics, because traditionally when you look at texts about feminist science studies, they often stay away from trying to analyze physics, because the laws of physics are universal, and so what can they possibly have to say about how the knower of the information matters if the laws of physics are universal? This didn't quite jive with my experience, which is that who you are as a scientist really does impact how your science happens and what kind of science you do, so I wanted to start theorizing around that and really ask questions about empiricism.

C. P-W.: So the concept of white empiricism is essentially the idea that white supremacy does have an impact on how empiricism is practiced in physics, and that in fact, white supremacy limits the epistemic reach, the knowledge system reach, of the practice of empiricism because, for example, black women's testimony about our experiences with discrimination in the field is ignored, and being ignored really factors into black women deciding to leave the field, and deciding not to stay in academia, and deciding not to practice as physicists even in industrial jobs. So that actually ends up shaping what kind of work gets done because hey, if someone leaves the field, they're not there to follow up on their dissertation, so maybe that's a whole line of thought that now gets ignored.

C. P-W.: And at the same time, in the string theory community, for example, there's a whole debate going on about whether the lack of empirical evidence for string theory means that we need to use a post-empiricist or a rationalist standard that string theory rationally makes sense and can be deduced from some first principles that we accept and so therefore, empiricism and empirical evidence is no longer important. Data is no longer important. And it's just so interesting that physicists can decide that data doesn't matter when it's convenient for one way of thinking, but that there's never enough data when black women are talking about their experiences.

Leila: Yeah. The last question that I have to just kind of round out things is kind of just a fun question. Who are some of your ... I guess, what are some of the works or figures that you come back to often?

C. P-W.: I would have to say one of my biggest influences right now, two of my biggest influences...I would say Christina Sharp's In the Wake is a book that I think I think about every day, and she's really trying to think through the idea that slavery is a phenomenon that continues to ripple through time and space and travels with us, so we live in the wake. What's interesting is that when I was reading the book, I messaged her and was like, "Christina, you know this is a science, technologies, society studies book?" And she was like... [inaudible], and I was like, "Yes, I'm here to inform you that your book is an STS book."

C. P-W.: Because she's thinking through even the way that ship building technology was adjusted, and there was pressure to adjust ship building technology to make boats more ...the engineering of boats more efficient, so that slaves, enslaved people, and the goods that they were being forced to produce would move around the Atlantic triangle more quickly.

Leila: Oh, what the fuck.

C. P-W.: Right. Also, modern actuarial science--there is the [inaudible] where the crew makes the decision to drown kidnapped enslaved Africans because they don't have enough water, and they can take the financial hit because the insurance they'll get for the lost cargo.

C. P-W.: There all these things, like that's like the history of insurance. That's a math thing. There's history of engineering there. There's all this stuff happening and then you're really thinking about the question of waves and how do you think about waves in relation to how these stories carry with us and how that works as an analogy. I would say that In the Wake has been incredibly influential for me in thinking about what are the social forces that I am responding to, and what is the social context that physics exists in, which is in the wake of slavery.

C. P-W.: I would say the other anchor that I've been engaging with a lot, and also similarly feel intimidated by, is Imani Perry. Her book, Vexy Thing, which just came out last fall in response to the question of how do we define patriarchy, and what is the history of patriarchy. She basically opens up ... So she's a J.D. Ph.D. Because she's intimidating. That's totally why she did it, just to intimidate me. [laughter] She gives this phenomenal history of personhood, and who gets constructed as a person, and I think certainly in this question of when is empirical evidence needed, and who is believed as an observer, and who is believed as a scientist, who is collecting data that they can therefore present, that this is intimately tied to who is seen as a person, entirely. Who is socially defined, within a legal framework by white dominant society, as a person.

C. P-W.: I think that that's really interesting. So it's worth noting in relation to this kind of personhood question that it's not that all string theorists agree that we should throw empiricism out the window. I actually think it's kind of a vocal minority that's been having this debate, but it's considered reasonable to allow them to publish about it in Nature and other major publications because they are people, they are seen as people with brains, and I think with black women, there's really this question: are they people with brains? Can we treat them like people with brains? And I can think of many examples, and I think pretty much every other black woman physicist can think of examples of times where they were not treated as people with brains, and it was totally because people couldn't imagine us as thinkers. That was like a really long answer but I get really enthusiastic about Imani Perry and Christina Sharp.

Leila: No, that's great. Well this was great as well. I'm really glad that we were able to schedule this so that we could have you on the show. We'll keep an eye out for your book which you're working on.

C. P-W.: Yeah, my editor's keeping an eye out for it too. It's honestly, it will be spring of 2021. It'll be a little bit, but the white empiricism paper will be out in Science probably in the winter of 2020 issues. I do hope people will pick it up and read it. It will be open access. I made sure of that. Part of what the grant money paid for was making the article open access.

Leila: Perfect. Hopefully when one of those next publications of yours comes out, we can have you back on the show. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and to share your experiences and your expertise with us.

C. P-W.: Yeah, thank you for having me on and for being patient with me as we planned out the scheduling and everything.

Leila: And that's going to do it for us. I'm going to put a link to Chanda's Decolonizing Science reading list in the show notes, so be sure that you check that out, and as always, thanks so much for listening and following along with the series. If you liked it and would like more, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts and let us know, and be sure that you hit that subscribe button wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode 19: "Siri, play me that episode about digital assistants. Please."

Episode 19: "Siri, play me that episode about digital assistants. Please."

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