October 15, 2008

Diversity Now

Riffing off the discussion of racist arguments here and on Greg's blog, DrugMonkey asked why ScienceBlogs looks so unlike the rest of the world. Shortly thereafter, Isis the Scientist took a bunch of us to task for advocating for diversity because it would make us feel better. (Utterly incomplete summaries of both posts. Read them and the comments.)

The conversation between Isis and her readers developed into a discussion of bottom-up versus top-down policies to increase diversity in science. After thinking about the matter further, I have to disagree with the dear Dr., and not just over the question of whether I'm "adorable." I want diversity yesterday, and I'm not willing to wait until we get candidates who meet the same qualifications as the current crop of scientists.

Setting aside the social justice issues as givens, I have two very selfish reasons for wanting the inside of science to look the same as the world outside.

  1. It will increase the general trust in science.
  2. It will produce better science.

I’ve been in (probably far too) many discussions about the image problems of science. You know the refrain: “Those arrogant, irrelevant, condescending elitists? Why should I listen to them?” You’ll keep hearing it as long as science looks and sounds like “them” instead of “us.” As long as science doesn’t look like them, people won’t believe it’s working fully in their interest. And they’ll be right.

As long as science doesn’t include some group, it will fail to ask questions of vital importance to that group. Remember how the health of middle-class white men was once assumed to be the same thing as general human health? Nor is it over. What do decision-making and communication studies using undergraduate subjects really tell us about everyone else? Even when they’re replicated more broadly, how does the fact that they’re tailored for this group affect the results?

The best way to fix both problems is to make sure that the inside of science looks as much like the outside world as we can make it. I want everyone on the inside, all the insides.

I want men and women and the transgendered in there. I want people of all ethnic backgrounds. I want immigrants, native-born and aboriginals. I want parents and the childless and the child-free. I want the inspired and the plodders. I want people who came to science as a second or third career and those who have never once wanted to do anything else. I want the specialists and the bumblebees flitting from discipline to discipline.

I want workaholics and part-timers and hobbyists. I want people of all sorts of sexualities. I want grand theorists and precision techs. I want introverts and glad-handers. I want the poor and the economically privileged. I want administrators and people who want to play in the dirt. I want believers and skeptics. I want those whose personal ambition drives them to compete and those who view science as a community endeavor.

I want the followers and the feather-smoothers and the punks and the gadflies. I want gamblers and people who take only solid odds. I want city kids and farm kids and suburbanites. I want popularizers and people who qualify their jargon for precision's sake. I want the disgustingly healthy and the disabled. I want the organized and those who will put ideas together because they pick up two seemingly unrelated papers when a stack tumbles to the floor.

I want everyone. I want people I don’t know I want.

The problem with having a limited outlook is that we don’t--we can’t--know what it is that we don’t know. None of us can know who will ask different questions than we do, important questions. None of us can know how different the world looks from even a slightly different angle, what connections others can see that we can’t. We need this information.

In science--in any endeavor that requires thinking--diversity is not just a nice idea. It's a qualification in its own right. And it's the one qualification that can't be fostered without reaching outside.


Dr. A said...

and the transgendered


Isis the Scientist said...

Stephanie, I still think you're adorable. I've seen pictures and I would totally give you a pinch.

But, here's the issue. It's nice to try to foster an open environment and allow minorities and women into science, but you've got to help them want to get there. Look at the DonorsChoose challenge. There are children in schools (including the one Dr. Isis attended as wee isis) who have no idea what careers are available to them, let alone how to find positive role models -- who have no idea how to begin to acheive things outside of their current spheres and feel hopeless to even attempt it.

From the letter Dr. Isis wrote to Zuska stemmed an interesting line of discussion on whether women were allowed into academia by men and whether this was a source of our oppresion. I would assume the same argument could be made for minorities. Is it enough for the white male to "allow minorities into academia?" or do we need to also focus on the creation of quality talent, especially in population who may not feel they have access to the ivory tower?

Dr. Isis certainly extends her sincerest thank to the white man for letting her come over to play.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Dr. A, thanks. I have my moments. :)

Isis, it is obviously not enough to "allow." I was thinking more in terms of begging and competing. I want more than open. I want the commonly excluded to feel the pull of an acknowledged vacuum.

And I'm certainly not arguing against bottom-up initiatives. They are absolutely necessary. I just don't think that supporting them means we stop telling the people at the top how much they're missing the boat if they don't reach down.

As for adorable, well, pictures only capture so much. But I'll tell you what. I have a certain amount of travel coming up. If I do any that involves going near a major university that could be MRU, I'll let you know. We can get together for drinks and you can see just how much isn't apparent in the pictures. Deal?

Anonymous said...

I would like to support Stephanie's views. And take issue with Dr Isis. Lets be clear here, many of us have fought tooth and nail to be "allowed" in the door. It has NOTHING to do with talent. It is about gatekeeping.

Nor do we have to create talent in groups that are not allowed in! It is already there.

If this kind of struggle is not part of your experience, you can thank your lucky stars. But for many of us, who might fit into any of the groups mentioned, diversity in science really matters.

Anonymous said...

First, Anon's point about gate keeping is so dead on that it should be framed or tattooed on to everybody or something.

I'm a gate keeper at a university. I don't work alone, but I do strongly influence who gets into an educational program, and I've been in a position doing this with one program or another for 16 years. It is very interesting to see how gate keeping works.

As long as science doesn’t include some group, it will fail to ask questions of vital importance to that group.

Another frame-worthy item, and this should be read carefully and truly understood. Too often I have seen this done wrong. This is not about top down vs bottom up (both of which are needed, no doubt, and no, we don't need to pick one). Rather, it is about simple 'excused racism.'

A very common mistake that I see other gate keepers make is this: If a person has a black face, than that counts as a black face for all others with black faces. Well, it does not.

An industry or educational sector where 10 percent of the otherwise white population are very darkly complected Asians is not even a tiny bit close to an inspiration for African American kids in the middle school down the street. I know people who think this approach to diversity works. They simply do not get it. In fact, this is laughable. To African Americans, a 90% white establishment is a little better than a 100% white establishment, but when, comparing two establishments each of which are Zero-percent African American, well, they are pretty much the same. Yes folks, your average African American can tell the difference between another African American and some dork from India. Honestly.

It is essential to recognize that these categories ... the categories that are discriminated against ... are really made up of emergent collective identities that are the product of self-identification, lived experience, and yes, also dumb racism. (Or sexism/homophobia, etc.) I cringe when a white racist makes some remark about dark skinned people generally, but I cringe even more when a gate keeper makes the same mistake and goes home at the end of the day feeling pretty good about his lily white ass because he "let in" the son or daugther of an upper class privileged non-white but also non-African American family who had all the choices in the world. Yes, that was good, this hypothetical case enhances diversity, but that was too easy and too irrelevant to feel that good about.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thank you, Anonymous. There's nothing I can add to that.

Greg, what are the chances you'll talk more about the experience of gatekeeping? That's not a perspective everyone gets.

And Isis, I owe you an apology. I completely spaced putting believers and nonbelievers on the list. The subject has been talked about so much lately, I just sort of assumed it was there. It's meant to be.

Anonymous said...

Greg, what are the chances you'll talk more about the experience of gatekeeping? That's not a perspective everyone gets.

Well, I'm certainly thinking about it.

Mme Piggy said...

Perfectly put, Stephanie. And I agree, Greg, that a discussion on gate keeping is not only relevant, but necessary. Replace the word "science" with just about any discipline in the academy and we're talking here.

I think it's especially important to point to Stephanie's comment of "I want who I don't even know I want." To me, this is the essence of how we need to be thinking about diversity and the modes of power that are at work in fields who are dominated by one group, and only one group.

Mme Piggy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mme Piggy said...

Sorry for the double comments. I just get so excited about this stuff :)

Anonymous said...

Your second point is one I've been trying to articulate. If I'm assembling a lab, I want the best possible group of people I can get. If my group ends up being 10 white guys (or, more likely in my field, 2 Chinese guys, 3 Indian guys, a Chinese woman, and 4 white guys), then I've almost certainly failed. Why? Because if scientific talent is distributed uniformly (and I have no reason to believe it's not), then the probability of that group being the best possible is near zero.

Sure, the white guys may have stronger math/science backgrounds to start with, simply because of socioeconomic factors. But if we're talking about just-starting-out grad students, they're going to need a lot of training regardless of background. No group has a greater upper bound on ability than any other, so there should be little reason to prefer one group over another based solely on performance to date.

That's why I'm for affirmative action in science programs. It's not about letting people participate. It's about putting together the best group of potential scientists, and acknowledging that people from all groups are going to need a lot of training but that no one group can be expected to "max out" at a lower level.

I hope I made myself clear. I fear that I have failed to articulate myself once again.

Anonymous said...

No group has a greater upper bound on ability than any other,

Except that it has been demonstrated over and over again, and every teacher knows, that women on average are a bit smarter than men. There are good data to show this and there is a handy biological explanation that makes sense.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Anonymous, I think you articulated yourself quite well. The point about everyone needing to be developed is a very good one.

Greg, on average is only on average, as you've pointed out yourself. And I'd really prefer to save discussions and definitions of intelligence for another day, although I'm curious about the explanation. However, who is to say that the biological mechanism you're talking about doesn't confer some other advantage in a scientist?

Mme. Piggy, it's fixed. I fully understand the enthusiasm. For example, had I known you were going to quote me, I'd have made that sentence less painfully ungrammatical. :)

Becca said...

I want people I don’t know I want.
And that, Stephanie, is another reason why you rock.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thanks, Becca. Coming from a tough audience like you, that means a lot.

Anonymous said...

I have always looked at it this way: Exclusion based on superficial characteristics such as race or gender or cultural history is a foolish interference in natural economic forces. That's why I ould never understand racial segregation. These people who refused to serve blacks at lunch counters in the south were not acting in their own economic best interest. It is the same, in my opinion in any field of endeavor.

In political parties, I hate reciting the affirmative action statement, because most people think "Yeah, we're doing our part by reading this thing and now it is time to get to the next order of business."

So, it isn't just science, it's almost everywhere that people are complacent about exclusion. And the next time I hear someone say "well, why don't they just get over with it," referring to gender or race, it will take a great deal of control to not punch them in the stomach.

Becca said...

Mike, if serving one black person at your counter loses you seven white customers (or makes you have to worry if the KKK is going to target your shop, or whatever), it's no longer in your economic best interest.
It's so damn important for people to "belong" that they'll pay money to exclude others.

Not only that, but (and I know this is blasphamy in a capitalist system) a sense of belonging might even sometimes be worth more than money.

I don't know how to keep the good aspects of social belonging while getting rid of the icky exclusionary parts. It may be that it's not completely possible, but I think we can improve.
I figure it's better to have people yelling at each other over their sports teams than killing each other over their skin colors. Of course, then some chimp has to go and kill someone for being a Yankees fan and ruin it for everybody.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about the explanation. However, who is to say that the biological mechanism you're talking about doesn't confer some other advantage in a scientist?

Testosterone induced neuron death in the brain?

Samia said...

"It's nice to try to foster an open environment and allow minorities and women into science, but you've got to help them want to get there."

For some reason this statement made me want to kick a puppy.

Stephanie Zvan said...

I can see that. I bet you can find a better target than a puppy, though.

Brown said...

I think that might have been the first post I ever read by Isis, and I liked it and agreed with it. I agreed with it because of a different conversation I had been involved in as an administrator at an educational institution in which someone was arguing that the use of imagery and personal stories etc. of dark brown skinned people who were Americans of South Asian Ancestry (i.e., using Indians who happened to be scientist/engineers/etc) was a good way of providing role models for African American kids. Because they were all black.

Which it isn't. The African American kids, somehow, mysteriously, know that they are not Indian and not living in the suburbs following daddy and mommy's lead of having been born in a country that offers pretty good educational opportunities to some, but not all, people, depending on race or class or caste or whatever.

But then, later, I realized that Isis had gotten lucky with that one though she does write the occasional good post. Mostly, though, she treats her readers with disdain and I'm not at all shocked that her blog readers are mainly white. Brown people take enough shit on a day to day basis, it is hard to imagine why one would want to take more from a privileged classist who uses her Latina heritage to distract people from her inanity.

Anonymous said...

Latina heritage? No latina could have legs that pasty...

Stephanie Zvan said...

Anonymous, you might want to do some research on where latinas come from. There are plenty whom you'll never know are latina unless they tell you. Ethnicity frequently doesn't advertise itself.

Dan J said...

Dr. Isis mentioned:

Is it enough for the white male to "allow minorities into academia?" or do we need to also focus on the creation of quality talent, especially in population who may not feel they have access to the ivory tower?

Fuck the white men (which includes myself) and what they want to allow or disallow. Women, men, transgendered, human beings of all persuasions, statures, beliefs, skin colorations and origins belong in the sciences, in academia, in industry, in business, etc., if only because their lives are every bit as affected by what happens there as anyone else's.

Unfortunately, I feel largely impotent about the situation when considering my own position.