Identity Politics Is Taking Over Astronomy

Ian Oxnevad

Editor's Note: This article was originally published by Real Clear Science on November 30, 2021, and is crossposted here with permission.

Now even astronomy has to be intersectional.

Astro 2020 is the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) outline of astronomy’s top priorities for the next ten years. Astro 2020 thinks the search for diversity is as important as the search for extraterrestrial life, and it dutifully recites the importance of “specific steps that the agencies can take towards increasing diversity, equity and sustainability.” The panelists who contributed to the report paste the party line onto astronomy’s actual subject matter: “I’m excited to see that there is a strong focus on building an astronomy and astrophysics workforce that is diverse, inclusive, and equitable in the report. I am looking forward to seeing how the exoplanet field evolves as we work toward the goals outlined in ‘Pathways to Habitable Worlds’ scientific priority area.”

Professional astronomy has adopted the ideology of identity politics and cheerfully utters non-sequiturs to link diversity, inclusion, and equity (DEI) to exoplanet evolution. Its obeisance to identity politics gets deeper by the day. In December 2019, the prestigious journal Nature devoted an entire section to DEI in astronomy. Filled with articles on development aid to African astronomers, astronomy outreach in Mexico, and safe spaces to mitigate power and privilege problems in in the field, much of Nature’s coverage reads more like a journal from the social sciences and management rather than astronomy.

Astronomers and official astronomical professional bodies have joined in the radicalization of sciences. During the 2020 riot season, thousands of scientists took part in #ShutdownSTEM and refused to hold classes or publish research for a day as a way to ‘protest against racism.’ The American Astronomical Society (AAS) also endorsed #ShutdownSTEM. A year after the 2020 riots, astronomy’s politicization has gained steam. 

Some astronomers have decided to “decolonize” astronomy. In 2013, the Kuiper Belt Object, an odd-looking planetesimal made of two separate rocks smushed together, was named after the Powhatan word for “sky.” Using Powhatan rather than Greek and Latin monikers for celestial bodies is part of a broader attempt to “decolonize” and de-Westernize astronomy as a field. The scholarly removal of the West from astronomy draws from critical theory and history. Talks such as Haverford College’s discussion of Isaac Newton and the colonization of India delegitimize Western scientific achievements, while work by Smith College links the “commercialization of space” to threats facing indigenous communities by means of light pollution. Astronomical research attacking Western history and capitalism is the latest iteration of an academic discipline following identity politics and socialism to guide research.

At Cornell University, students concerned over racial oppression in the stars can take a cross-listed course on “Black Holes: Race and the Cosmos” that explores the question of whether there is a “connection between the cosmos and the idea of racial blackness.” Pomona College has developed a mandatory event on “Decolonizing Physics” for students studying physics or astronomy.

It is true that astronomy as a field is overwhelmingly male and white. A 2018 study done by the American Astronomical Society (AAS) found that among the total pipeline of students and scholars in the field, 82% of those in the astronomical profession were white while only 2% are African-American. The AAS condemned this statistic as “unsustainable.”  On page 52, the AAS Task Force on Diversity calls for astronomers to implement “Safe Zones” and training on “privilege” and “allyship.” Nowhere does the AAS consider that individuals make their own decisions about their careers, and that African-Americans (or any other group) might, in proportion to their population, care less for careers in astronomy. Nor does the AAS take the time to call for equal standards for all professional astronomers. It is unfair to astronomers, as it is in every discipline and profession, to impose race or sex quotas on available jobs.

The ivory tower implications of politicized science and STEM fields guided by identity politics will lead to real world consequences. Just as throwing out “racist math” rules for an "equitable" alternative will result in poorly engineered bridges, an astronomy profession guided more by identity politics and cultural Marxism rather than scientific evidence could produce a distorted view of our solar system and the cosmos.

Ian Oxnevad is Program Research Associate at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Jongsun Lee, Public Domain

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