Microaggressions in the Physics-On-Top World of Science

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

Life in the Purity Cult

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

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

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 opening paragraph states that of all the great discoveries of 19th-century physics, only the Doppler effect “is heard daily on the evening news.” But no explanation of why the Doppler effect is mentioned on the news is ever provided.
  • The role of Christoph Buys Ballot in demonstrating the reality of the Doppler effect is described in some detail. But the fact that Buys Ballot was, according to Wikipedia, “best known for his accomplishments in the field of meteorology, specifically the explanation of the direction of air flow in large weather systems” isn’t included. Buys Ballot was the founder of the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute and the first chairman of the precursor to today’s World Meteorological Organization. But in the article, Buys Ballot is a “scientist.”
  • Applications of the Doppler effect in the sciences are discussed in much of the last third of the article. These applications span the disciplines of physics, astrophysics, ultrasound imaging, even cancer research. Meteorology is nowhere to be found. However, metrology is mentioned — a very different discipline just two letters removed from meteorology. That word choice feels almost like a dig… as if a physicist giving his Nobel Prize address in Stockholm acknowledged everyone in his life and career everyone except his long-suffering wife Janet, but did remember to profusely thank his secretary Jan.
  • There is, however, one close call on the mention of meteorology. In an introductory clause at the beginning of three paragraphs on applications of the Doppler effect mentioned above, the author says “Far beyond Doppler weather radar…” Wait, what? Doppler weather radar has not been mentioned in the article yet. Before the author goes “far beyond” that, maybe he should have, you know, mentioned it — and maybe even explained it? “Far beyond” also suggests that discussion of Doppler radar may have been omitted because it is trivial or the reader is assumed to know about it.

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

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

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!)
  • At the first university where I taught full-time, there was a longtime physics professor who delighted in insulting our meteorology majors for being dumber than physicists, wasting their time on a degree to just do something on TV, etc. He just generally made life unpleasant for meteorology majors in his physics classes. He was department chair, so nothing could be done. He saw it as a kind of “tough love” message, especially to the better meteorology majors who “should” be physics majors instead. [It should be noted that some of those dumb or misguided (sic) students are now professors themselves, and one of them won the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. Not. dumb.]
  • This attitude even pervades some parts of the meteorological world itself, especially at the Ph.D.-and-beyond level where Ph.D.s from physics and applied mathematics who cannot get jobs in their own discipline take faculty and research positions in atmospheric science. I have known atmospheric science faculty members at universities who view their own majors in their own departments with a kind of thinly veiled contempt. (Members of microaggressed communities will instantly recognize this self-hatred as a frustrating feature of their own existence — the bullying from the outside leads to bad self-image which perpetuates the problem even within the community.)
  • And, because intellectuals and intellectual wanna-be types are highly susceptible to physics worship, the bullying pops up everywhere, and not just on social media. At my final Rhodes Scholar interview in December 1987, a lawyer on the committee scoffed at my essay in which I described my career plans, asking me sneeringly:

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…

  • “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.
  • “But what about your field’s lack of Nobel Prize winners?” So glad you brought that up! The committee for the Nobel Prize in Physics was, very early on, dominated by geophysicists. The founder of modern meteorology, Vilhelm Bjerknes, was nominated for the Nobel more than once. But then some physicists organized a kind of putsch and got the geophysicists off the committee. From that moment forward, the chances of a geoscientist winning the Nobel Prize in physics have been exactly zero. > Bjerknes never got it, not even when his original 1904 plan for scientific weather forecasting was proven with an electronic computer in 1950 and he lived to see it, at age 88.
    > Similarly, L.F. Richardson, the polymath and inventor of numerical weather prediction and finite-difference numerical analysis applications to engineering and the sciences in the 1910s and 1920s, was not honored with a Nobel before his death in 1953.
    > Worst of all, Edward Lorenz, pioneer of modern chaos theory and visionary of methods of extended weather prediction based on chaos theory that have revolutionized weather forecasting, never got the Nobel in physics despite living to the age of 90 years and nearly 11 months. His groundbreaking chaos theory work was published 45 years before his death, and widely popularized in James Gleick’s page-turning bestseller Chaos: Making A New Science a full 20 years before Lorenz’s passing in 2008.
    So, there’s a reason meteorologists don’t get the Nobel Prize: the physicists refuse to give it to them (and to other geoscientists). Chemists are a little less purity-stricken than their physics counterparts, as the xkcd illustration suggests. Meteorologist Paul Crutzen shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery, with two other scientists, of the mechanisms of chronic ozone loss in the Earth’s stratosphere.
  • “Grr. What about… what about… hey, why do you think you’re so special? (Projection, the #1 tactic of bullies.) We never said physicists were perfect. Don’t you look down on other people, too?” Of course. Scientific snobbery has infinite gradations. It’s like cliques in high schools. Physics just happens to be on top. And university administrations are part of their clique, too: physicists generally get lighter teaching loads, higher salaries, and more respect in the ivory tower than geoscientists do, just because they’re Physicists and we aren’t. Who were you saying is so special, again?
  • “Why are you getting so bent out of shape about something so insignificant? In case you haven’t heard, there are a lot of people more in trouble than you, you… you… white male scientist! So what if we physicists are allegedly mean to you? Who cares? What about equity and justice issues in our society?” This is a logical fallacy known as the tu quoque fallacy, in which an attempt to refute your argument is made on the basis of hypocrisy, e.g., belittling someone’s complaint about not getting their order at a restaurant by saying, “So what if you don’t get your food! People in Africa are starving!” The fallacy is this: one injustice does not invalidate another injustice. And, as someone famous wisely wrote during a visit to my hometown many years ago, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”


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.

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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