Hardly Quantifiable: Belonging and Empowerment at the Periphery of Science

On Friday, November 14, Dr. Stith gave two informational and eloquent talks at Vassar College that touched upon two inseparable topics: science education and public engagement. Both lectures reflected a disparity in communication – the first with how teachers interact with students, and the second with how scientists are often hesitant or unable to communicate with the public about new discoveries and knowledge. The discourses that emerged from the audience’s questions were informed by Dr. Stith’s lifelong commitment to physics research and physics education. He is no stranger to the world of physics or conversations on how science education and outreach can be challenged and improved to bridge gaps across a growing number of divides. As a black man who is committed to physics education and research, Dr. Stith’s experiences inform the intersections between race and physics education, and this particular perspective molds his work.

The first presentation, titled “How People Learn: Implications for Teaching and Education Policy,” communicated his decades long contributions to physics education research, a field fondly shortened (as is often the case in science) to PER. PER is extensive and features a vibrant, supportive community of scientists and educators, such as all the individuals – professionals, researchers, students – who comprise the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). Frankly, diving deeply into the field is an extremely worthwhile endeavor, one which at Vassar is inextricably connected to the Physics and Astronomy department, and the education that I have received as a physics and astronomy double major. Yet, this article is not a response or conversation on the merits of how best to teach kinematics or build an effective, DIY demonstration for Gauss’s law.

In the classrooms and conversations constitutive of my scientific education, marginalizing and oppressive forces are rarely discussed, despite an overwhelming focus on the physical forces that shape the natural world. Social and cultural forces, not quite as quantifiable as Newton or Einstein might desire, veil science as a lived experience, constituted not just by data collected in a lab, or equations forever extant on a chalkboard, but by the hands and minds manipulating those instruments in the lab. A different kind of thinking emerges when these non-physical forces are integrated into the inescapably political consciousness of researchers; a science that is most certainly steeped in the experiences of individuals dealing with a culture that will push and keep silenced voices at the periphery of their fields, or erase their contributions altogether.

On this front, Dr. Stith, in his first lecture, provides insight: “When students come to your class, they bring a life of living with them and they have a model that has worked for them for their entire life. And they will keep that model until you do something to show them that their model is incorrect.” While referring primarily to how students often begrudgingly let go of their scientific misconceptions, his comment nonetheless illustrates an understanding of students as human beings shaped by social forces; people participate in identity formations that extend well beyond the white, cis-male canvas against which their success in science is conceived, judged, and fortified. Hearing this made my day, because several physics and other science faculty were present. There is a lot of work to be done in holding Vassar College accountable to this reality. It must recognize that students bring all different models with them as they begin and continue with their science education. Dr. Stith’s talk laid the foundation for strengthening support for students.

A short while after the first presentation, Dr. Stith gave his second talk, aptly titled “Reaching out to the Public – A Necessary Dialogue.” Focused on the very real need for scientist training in media relations and the importance of communication with the public across all disciplines, this presentation highlighted efforts at AIP to engage the public’s interest in science, and build a sort of scientific Associated Press, an initiative called Inside Science. Stith started the Inside Science News Service (ISNS) to ensure that as many broadcast markets as possible could have vetted (peer-reviewed) science newscasts. He stressed that communication is vital to science. In my experience, an uninformed public and similarly carefree and unengaged scientific polity quickly stalls the platforms and programs that drive forward innovation, creativity and research. And divides as expansive as those Stith mentions are not friendly to questioning and upending dominant narratives of science.

In my experience, between the stories that constitute the lived experience of science – through which it is socially constructed – and the rest of society, there exists a great void separating science from all other forms of cultural and identity-based reflection and expression. Science is a narrative, that has unfortunately, if not unexpectedly, emerged from oral tradition, to pen strokes and key strikes, and come out a white-washed product of centuries of oppression. And it is into this narrative that I locate and place myself at the forefront of the problematic issues to which Dr. Stith alludes.

I am a white, cis-male at an elite, predominantly white liberal arts college. I could not place myself any closer to the oppressive heart of the issues that plague science so constitutively. I cannot speak for, nor will I ever experience, the oppressions that indiscriminately target bodies who identify differently than the standard to which I belong.

The history of science has been relegated to and remains a backdrop of history, a history to which it is often tacked like a note on a bulletin board. This science has a story that is necessary, but that typically emerges and terminates as a rationally grounded series of snowballing accomplishments – nothing more than a story of causal progress. Peeling back its exterior, the dominant threads of this story touch upon white, cis-male “struggles” with religious and political institutions, and uniformly all notions of the scientist as a living subject, let alone one constituted as anything but white and cis-male, are quickly cast aside.

Grounding my identity and these oppressions in the language of science, I know that I cannot formulate an all encompassing solution to the socially silencing forces constitutive of science. It is not in my place to try, despite how the privileges of my liberal, scientific education inform me of my inherently objective, “problem solving prowess.” I am aware, however, in no small part due to my relationship with Dr. Stith, that there are real ways to empower individuals who have for so long been shackled in the classroom and the lab – liminal spaces of science

Dr. Stith’s second lecture concluded with a call for empowerment. While he focused on the need to train scientists to interact more productively with mass media, I had an opportunity to ask him how he saw it possible to bridge gaps and challenge unquestioned notions of race and gender in the sciences. To paraphrase, he succinctly explained how these gaps can be seen as opportunities to infuse science with care, support and belonging. In science people need to feel like they belong: in a PhD program, at the undergraduate level, in high school. Without a framework that raises all three to the pinnacle of scientific culture, the white cis-male narrative will continue to run amok.

Stith’s tactic is engagement. In my understanding, if the culture of science actively engages – i.e. employs, values, and refers to indiscriminately – those who practice its methods and situate themselves in its “objective” search for a physical understanding of reality, a sense of belonging follows. Engagement must happen with students, teachers, researchers, and the public – there is an overwhelming need for civic engagement across the physical sciences.

Science, as I understand it, is constituted by an on-going and perpetually unfulfilled need to explain the natural world in a methodologically consistent and objective manner. Yet, objectivity in science has thus far been defined through the lens of the white cis-male, often of wealth and means beyond the average citizen. The objectivity of science that has for so long been hoisted to the pedestal of civilization and progress is a white, cis-male objectivity, normalized across the disciplines of science, and held up as the one and only measure of “true science.” Accomplishments of anyone not affiliated with its oppressive roots risk being broken upon the anvil of a white, cis-male world.

Upturning this dominant narrative is crucial if the work of scientists who do not identity as white cis-males is to be properly valued, and a sense of belonging subsequently grown from the seeds of those merits. Rupturing the dominant narrative is not a simple task. I have observed a real stranglehold, of which I like to consider a dying grasp, on what constitutes real and meaningful scientific work. To fight this stranglehold can mean making attempts to mimic and pass as the oppressor;coping by allowing oneself to be kept and imprisoned at the periphery of science; or protesting against these oppressions and most likely being written out of history altogether.I can only hope to allude to these mechanisms in writing, as my privileges and position within the dominant narrative remains unambiguously present and places me outside of the scope of these experiences.

Luckily, scholars far more informed than myself are doing good work to incorporate an intersectional perspective in the study and practice of the sociology of science. While working at the American Institute of Physics this past summer, the graduate research assistants who I was working with directed me towards the work of researchers, such as Maria (Mia) Ong, who are giving voice to the experiences of women of color in the sciences and simultaneously injecting new discourses into the culture of science. I was also introduced to collections of work, such as The “Racial” Economy of Science, edited by Sandra Harding, that question and dissect modern conceptualizations of science.

By nurturing an atmosphere conducive to constructing a holistic sense of belonging, where no one has to choose to either pass and shed their identities, or forever be imprisoned at the periphery of science, Dr. Stith’s visit to Vassar calls for empowerment in science that is long overdue. Empowerment that will lead to students and researchers who are confident in the model of social consciousness with which they imbue themselves, their work, and their environment. Science can no longer be justified as a socially and culturally objective discipline. It was built upon a white-washed narrative copied from the textbooks of patriarchs, despots, tyrants, bigots, and racists, and replicated in the academy, industry and classroom.

In light of the recent refusal by a St. Louis grand jury to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown; the lack of indictment in the trial of Eric Garner’s murderer, Daniel Pantaleo; the murder of Tamir Rice; the murder of John Crawford III and subsequent lack of charges in that case; and the countless other victims of racialized police brutality, the struggle to create a future where all social narratives surrounding identity are as important as ever – even in the sciences. The policing of black and brown intellects inherently emerges from the policing of black and brown bodies, and vice versa.

I do not want my reflections on Dr. Stith’s talk to erase or speak for individuals who, as I recognize, face an uphill battle to locate, speak for, and convey themselves and their experiences. I offer only one perspective on Dr. Stith’s message and his decades of experience bridging gaps across identities and understandings, and I encourage others to consider science as a social space constituted by a spectrum of identities and narratives.

Acknowledgements: I want to give a huge shoutout to my good friends Yasmeen Silva and Ben Slaw for setting aside time out of their already busy days to give me feedback on this article, as well as Alex Trunnell for sharing her audio recordings of Dr. Stith’s lectures.

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