Microaggressions in the Physics-On-Top World of Science

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Found at https://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/purity.png

Life in the Purity Cult

I’m a meteorologist. I shouldn’t have to apologize for that. But everyone in my field does at one time or another. I have a Ph.D. from a famed public university. I did a post-doc at a renowned Ivy League university, and worked in an internationally recognized NASA institute. I do research at a major research university that helps your plane rides be less bumpy, and reduces deaths and damage from windstorms. I’m not “that weather guy on TV,” but I have taught people you may have seen on a national network or two.

But that’s not good enough.

Its not good enough in the purity cult of capital-S Science, as so aptly captured by xkcd creator Randall Munroe (see above). In that strange world, meteorologists (or, for those who work in climate as well as weather, “atmospheric scientists”) rank below both the physicists and the chemists in the pecking order. We work with biologists (biometeorology), psychologists and sociologists (e.g., human responses to natural hazards), which taints us even further in the eyes of the Scientists who judge from above.

And so, to be clear, this essay isn’t about some jerk on social media making fun of meteorologists for “being wrong 90% of the time.” That’s a daily occurrence that’s part of the noise of being disrespected in the “war on expertise.” This essay is about highly educated physical scientists who have a blind spot a mile wide and two miles deep about their own scientific colleagues like me, who have made the “mistake” of being in my discipline. And not just my discipline, as I’ll expand on below. It’s part of a larger pattern.

A Concrete Example

If you’re going to complain, at least do it with a verifiable example — that’s my philosophy.

In the March 2020 issue of the peer-reviewed, 72-year-old American Institute of Physics magazine Physics Today, there is a story entitled “The Fall and Rise of the Doppler Effect,” by a distinguished research professor of physics and astronomy at Purdue University. It is a fine article about the history of scientist Christian Doppler and the evolution of understanding (and misunderstanding) of the effect he discovered in 1842. It is engagingly written, educated me on several details, and is one of many reasons why I enjoy receiving Physics Today as part of my membership in the American Meteorological Society.

This article is also a classic example of the blind spot that some physicists have for meteorology, and the ways in which meteorology is slighted by some physicists, perhaps even subconsciously. It’s part of their professional upbringing.

And, just to be clear, it’s by no means the worst example. It’s just one concrete example of what you might call “microaggressions” by physicists against disciplines that they are taught not to respect. One definition of “microaggressions” is: “brief and common daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental communications, whether intentional or unintentional, that transmit hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to a target person because they belong to a stigmatized group.” That’s what I’m talking about here: brief, subtle omissions and digs, not necessarily consciously done but commonly done, that demean the meteorologists who dare claim to be scientists just like physicists.

The Doppler Effect, Sans Meteorology

You’d think it would be hard to write an article in a physics journal that is read by thousands of meteorologists without once mentioning the word “meteorology.” If you’ve heard of this effect, you probably heard about it from a degreed broadcast meteorologist during a forecast or a severe weather event. Doppler radar is used to detect, for example, rotation inside of possibly tornadic thunderstorms, and even debris lofted by tornadoes that are or have been on the ground. But in 3,373 words (close to 10 pages of single-spaced 12-point font text), the author achieves the nearly impossible. A search for the word “meteorology” turns up nothing.

Is this because the author was avoiding covering well-trodden ground in Physics Today? Unlikely. A search of the archives of this venerable magazine returned just five hits in 72 years when looking for “Doppler effect” “meteorology” “radar.” Only three of those were in the past quarter-century. Two of them have a single sentence or passage about Doppler radar. The other was an education article in 1997, long before the most recent advances in Doppler radar such as dual-polarization radar. So, from all indications, the author of the March 2020 piece would not have been instructed to steer clear of mentions of Doppler radar. Those mentions just didn’t happen.

Well, not explicitly, at least. There are several tantalizing close calls in the article:

  • The opening subhead refers to the Doppler effect being “so pervasive that we stake our lives on it…” It is? How? That’s never explained.

The end result of this six-page journal article in a relatively high-impact journal is to bowdlerize thestory of the Doppler effect by excising any explanation of the primacy of it in meteorology. Why would someone do that? Wouldn’t it make for more interesting reading? A cool radar picture for the article? Maybe some tornado debris in the sky and on radar? Why would an author go out of his way to avoid mentioning and discussing applications of the Doppler effect to something seen and heard “daily on the evening news,” not to mention all over the Internet? That’s nonsensical.

Maybe he didn’t know anything about meteorology, you’re thinking? That’s easily cured — Purdue has a well-known atmospheric sciences program right on its campus! Hell, Purdue even has a Doppler radar on the roof of its atmospheric sciences/engineering building right across the street from the Physics Building at Purdue. Immediately across Northwestern Avenue. Travel time: 20 seconds on foot, if there’s traffic. No, ignorance is not an acceptable excuse.

Something other factor was at work, a voice in the author’s head that consistently downplayed and even “disappeared” meteorology from an article about the Doppler effect.

The Purity Cult’s Blind Spot: One Possible Explanation

Those who experience and study microaggressions would agree, I think, that the offenders often unknowingly reveal the root causes of their biases in their own words and actions. So, let’s take a closer look at the article.

Precisely where meteorology should have been highlighted as an application, in the “Far beyond” sentence already noted, here’s what the author says. It’s kind of an explanation for what is, and what is not, interesting from a typical physicist’s point of view:

“Far beyond Doppler weather radar, the effect’s applications extend from the ultrasmall… to the ultralarge…”

This telling statement gives us insight into the purity cult that exceeds even xkcd’s. Let me explain.

Physicists as a rule, and the adoring public that has looked up to physics since Einstein and then the Manhattan Project, find meaning, importance, and value in the worlds they cannot see. That is what fascinates them: the ultrasmall subatomic world, and the ultralarge cosmological universe. In either one, they “touch the face of God” or an acceptable substitute. Leon Lederman spoke of the Higgs boson as “the God particle.” The public and those who write for them laud the Hubble Space Telescope in explicitly religious terms, and its images and other similar images are viewed as holy.

If the ultrasmall and ultralarge worlds are special and God-like in their eyes, then what about the scales of the world in-between, those immediately perceptible to us? To frame this question visually using the video by the remarkable Eames couple (and book by MIT physicist Philip Morrison), in “Powers of Ten” what about the world immediately around the picnic blanket and the people on the blanket? What about the grass and soil and rock beneath it, the nearby lake, the city of Chicago, the North American continent, the globe, and the sky above it all? These are the domains of the geosciences, sometimes called less felicitously the earth, atmospheric, and oceanic sciences. They are, in part but scarcely in whole, applied physics fields that study the scales of the universe that we directly perceive.

Physicists as a rule, and their many fans, worship the unseeable and denigrate the seeable. What is around us and under our feet and above us is neither ultrasmall nor ultralarge, so it is not ultrainteresting to them. It’s mundane in the literal and Latinate sense of the word — “of the world.” Whereas quarks and galaxies are otherworldly. And otherworldly is better than worldly. It’s holier. (Why? That’s not explained.)

Now everything should be coming together. Why do many physicists reflexively underrate and downplay the geosciences and change the subject back to superstring theory or dark matter? Because the latter two are holy and invisible to the naked eye. To study what is all around us is to be less than brilliant, to be less than fully a scientist — to be kind of lazy, even. That’s the stereotype I have routinely encountered from some physicists in my 32 years of schooling, post-doc’g, researching and professoring as an atmospheric scientist.

Not The Only Example

By now, some readers are in high dudgeon and fully on the defensive: “How could all of this be teased out of one Physics Today article? You’re arguing from too small a sample size!”

That’s a familiar response to anyone on the other end of microaggressions who dares to speak up. This is just one concrete example, yes, but scarcely the only one. If I may:

  • In the great scientific detective story T. rex and the Crater of Doom, geologist Walter Alvarez chronicles how he and his father, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez, discovered the reason that the dinosaurs went extinct. But in the book, prior to their collaboration, the younger Alvarez recounts how his physicist-dad had lamented Walter’s pursuit of geology as a career. It was strongly suggested by Luis that Walter was wasting his life on that geoscience. (That is, until the two of them together make one of the celebrated discoveries of 20th-century science through an interdisciplinary geology+physics effort!)

Isn’t meteorology more of a trade than a profession?

And because I was already browbeaten at that young age, and a polite Southern boy to boot, I didn’t retort, “No, it’s a highly complex physical science, unlike your trade of being an ambulance-chaser.” I was nice, and they decided to send a pre-med student to Oxford instead. But why was a career as a meteorologist, which I have since pursued as I promised, and which has led me to a professorship at a major university — why was that the subject of ridicule during a final interview for a world-famous post-graduate scholarship? If I’d been a physics major, that mocking rhetorical question would not have been asked.

And that’s just a quick sample. So please stow that “small sample size” argument.

But What About…

What I just said, which is a kind of pre-emptive strike against the microaggressors’ first line of defense, just makes them madder. So they opt next for Whataboutism:

  • “But what about your field’s lack of rigor compared to physics?” Meteorologists don’t take as much physics, but close to the same amount of math. And a slew of applied physics-type courses in meteorology. And some of us are highly skilled computer scientists as well as meteorologists. The geosciences require breadth as well as depth.

Conclusion

The dominant culture in America is supposed to be in “listening mode” at this moment in history. The dominant culture in academia and research is, and has been, the Physics-On-Top culture. It would be nice if some physicists could read this and listen and understand how their little jokes, sneers, rejections, tepid letters of recommendation, etc. etc. aimed at geoscientists are microaggressions that add up to making geoscientists’ careers less fulfilling than they should be. I will leave academia earlier than I would have otherwise, and will pursue a very different path someday, just to get away from it. Think of it as a kind of “pipeline problem.” Science is hard enough to do without getting treated like a second-class scientist just by virtue of your discipline.

And, to make clear the scale and context of the problem: what I have described about myself is tiny compared to the microaggressions that women scientists face. Then double that for women geoscientists. Quadruple it for scientists of color, both men and (quintuple) women, (quintuple) LGBTQ+ scientists, and up it to sextuple for geoscientists in those categories. Septuple it for those who also come from socioeconomic conditions that don’t teach you the ways of academia and research until you’re already immersed in it. And all this is still in the ivory tower, which is in many (not all) ways more inclusive than American culture at large. This is a microscopic blip in the age of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, and so many others.

I know this. I’m simply using my privilege as a white male professor to call out some ivory-tower behaviors (by no means the worst) that have long passed their expiration date. Behaviors that go on daily and your typical physicist probably never thinks about, because — as that Physics Today article concludes, “he could not perceive it.” For those: this is your wake-up call, like the first blast of the trumpets from a train car full of trumpeters.

Written by

A geography professor and meteorologist at UGA in Athens, GA. I write about news, sports, weather, climate, education, journalism, religion, poetry, the South.

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