Who Gets to Decide the Difference Between Science and Pseudoscience?
Author Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, PhD, argues that it’s time to decolonize science
We often see science as the pinnacle of objectivity — a disinterested, mechanical practice built on empirical observation and above more subjective ways of understanding our world and what lies beyond it.
Too often, we forget the social and cultural questions embedded in the history of science: Who gets to define science? What social issues get consumed by or pushed out the realm of science? How has science been used in ways that were both helpful and harmful? How has science intersected with issues of race, gender, class, and colonialism?
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, PhD, tackles these questions in The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, her upcoming book on physics and the historical, political, and social dynamics that inform it. A theoretical physicist and assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire, Prescod-Weinstein has been an influential voice in fighting racism, sexism, anti-Indigenous sentiments, and other dehumanizing systems within science.
“In American society, for example, science is often treated as if it is supreme as a knowledge system.”
The book covers a range of topics, from fascinating discoveries in physics, her passion for cosmology, and the struggles she faced becoming one of the few (and in certain cases, the first) Black women in theoretical particle physics and astrophysics. The Disordered Cosmos also tackles the overlooked contributions and unpaid work that goes into the creation of science, and how scientists “are acting unscientifically when they do not acknowledge the history, philosophy, and sociology of their fields.”
Prescod-Weinstein talked to OneZero about, among other subjects, what decolonizing science would look like and how the show Star Trek provides a good metaphor for how the scientific community should interact with the larger world around them. Ultimately, Prescod-Weinstein wants us to see that science is both “a mathematical process and a human, social enterprise.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
OneZero: Why did you write The Disordered Cosmos and what do you hope people get out of it?
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I wanted to give people a holistic look at the doing of physics — what’s awesome about it and what’s not awesome about it. I wanted to tackle the things that we know as well as the community, the institutional and social processes that shape it. But I want people to think with more care about how we name things and why.
There are scientists who think of science as the purest way of understanding the world, above things like social issues, culture, philosophy, politics, etc. Why is that?
It is true that in American society, for example, science is often treated as if it is supreme as a knowledge system. There are things that science does very well. For example, it’s good at describing particle physics. Traditionally, science was bad at understanding ecosystems and that’s something that has only relatively recently changed.
Science has also been bad at understanding gender and sex. Proponents of science as a way of seeing the world would say that what makes science strong is its ability to self-adjust when presented with new data. In theory, that is how science should work. But we are seeing debates like “Are trans women women?” and when scientists make these arguments, they aren’t actually being self-adjusting. They aren’t acknowledging all the scientific data that shows the gender binary is pretty rudimentary. Scientific supremacy is sometimes organized around the idea that Western, white, male ways of engaging with the world are the only ways to engage with the world, and anything else is primitive. But we are continually finding situations where the cis-het normative way of doing things isn’t particularly good.
Your answer speaks to a broader debate in how science is intertwined with social or cultural issues, especially polarizing ones. Why are there certain issues where we would say “the science is evolving” but for others we say that the science is set in stone, or even, that the issue has nothing to do with science?
The demarcation problem (what is science and what isn’t) is always up for debate. But the boundary is actually very hard to draw. Things that we would now classify as pseudoscience were once considered to be solidly scientific work. Even things that many of us now would consider pseudoscience, for example eugenics, are still considered by some people, by some scientists, to be science. Joseph Martin, in his book Solid State Insurrection, said that physics is what physicists say it is. I don’t know if that’s an exact quote but it’s certainly one view of it: Science is what scientists at the time say it is.
But there are lots of different ways we can be thinking of definitions of science: the collection of knowledge that scientists produce, the relations to power within organized professional communities and institutions that constitute the “scientific community.” But we can also see science in the community of people who are interacting with each other. All of those definitions are valid, but they also lead you to have different conversations about what science is and what science is doing.
“The boundary is actually very hard to draw. Things that we would now classify as pseudoscience were once considered to be solidly scientific work.”
In your writing and in other writings you cite, you’ve talked about decolonizing science. What does it mean and what does it look like?
I have mixed feelings about the use of “decolonizing” because it has almost become a word that people throw around. Colonialism has a lot of different structures and impacts. It’s really contextual for local committees, how they have been impacted by colonialism, and how they want to respond to it.
To the extent that we can talk about decolonizing science, it’s about shaking the field of its committed relationship to colonialism wherever it arises. If it’s not in the material sense then it’s kind of bullshit. [Laughs] I definitely think that intellectual work can be part of that, but if you are talking about colonialism in a way that is divorced from the material consequences it has for people, then I don’t know if you are actually confronting colonialism.
In the book you used Star Trek and the Vulcan “Prime Directive” (to not interfere with the internal development of alien species) as a metaphor to think about the paradox of scientific discovery and technological innovation. What would you say is the “Prime Directive” for science and scientists in real life?
The Prime Directive has taken different meanings to different people at different times throughout the Star Trek series. I think the underlying principle to the “Prime Directive” is to be respectful of local context and be minimally disruptive to it.
In the case of the Vulcans, they came to the conclusion that if “pre-warp” society hadn’t developed warp technology then introducing it could be so disruptive that it’s destructive to that society. Now I think about whether they should have been saying pre-warp or “non-warp,” because using the word “pre” suggests a kind of inevitability (it will happen) or primitivity by not having warp. But there can be reasons why a community doesn’t seek to create that type of technology, and that doesn’t make them uninterested in science and technology. It all comes back to the fundamental value of being minimally disruptive, your relationship with society, and not damaging a community’s relationship with itself.