Race, sex, LGBTQ+: Why science does in fact need and benefit from diversity

I’ve been following the diversity campaign of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Very consistently, the comment sections of their Facebook ads get flooded with people accusing the AAAS—publisher of one of the most prestigious academic journals, Science—of not understanding science, or how to properly advocate for it.

They claim that diversity in race, sex, and more is unnecessary; that it doesn’t lead to better science. I may be overstepping myself, but these people seem to believe that all or most of the straight white males like myself made it on their own, and that the lack of diversity is a natural sorting. In reality, discrimination is a real thing that has led to the lack of diversity in most successful career areas, including academia.

That fact aside, there are reasons why science benefits from diversity irrespective of the social justice aspects

Humans ignore most of the information they encounter unconsciously. Instead, your cognition has developed algorithms and heuristics for deciding what information is important and what is irrelevant. Based on personal development, we all pay attention to slightly different information and/or look at the same information from a different paradigm.

As the philosopher of science Peter Godfrey-Smith (2009) mentions in his book, there is an innate “theory-ladenness” in science (and everything else) whereby an observation of data is  affected by the beliefs, perspectives, and biases of the scientist doing the observing. This extends to what facts a scientist sees relevant when constructing a theory, or deciding what to observe in the first place.

Science as practiced by the scientific community is pretty good at weeding out bad observations and data. But based on biases, perspectives, and personal interests, some areas may be left unobserved or unconsidered altogether.

The value of diversity in science doesn’t come from a post-modernist perspective where a person thinks the facts literally change according to who is looking at them; the value instead comes from fewer total facts getting ignored because people with one background are catching ones that were inadvertently overlooked by people with another.

With that in consideration, it is no surprise that medical research into female anatomy, ailments, and other issues was horrifically lacking when the field was almost exclusively males.

Unfortunately, when pseudoscientists, “climate skeptics,” anti-vaxxers, and other similar groups talk about diversity in science it isn’t because of genuinely caring about science. It is because good science hasn’t supported their folk-beliefs, superstitions, or other pre-existing sacred cows. They think it is more likely that there is a grand conspiracy of scientist against “the truth” rather than that they may themselves be lacking in information.

When they advocate “diversity” they mean lowering scientific standards so low that their nutty pseudoscientists are allowed to talk with as much authority as real ones on the public and professional stage.

Worse, these people (especially “climate skeptics”) are often against the good type of diversity. They refuse to even acknowledge even minor discrimination against sexual and ethnic minorities (or they day the discrimination is right and proper).

Conclusions

But there is not a conspiracy. Scientists are not perfect, but one scientist’s mistake quickly get exposed by the work of others, leading to a natural selection-like system in which good ideas stay around, and bad ones get weeded out. Crock like “climate skepticism” or “intelligent design” gets relegated to irrelevance not because scientists are conspiring against it, but because it can’t withstand the scrutiny that was subjected to it when it was considered.

Diversity in thought and people are two sides of the same coin. Both are beneficial to science. However, when pseudoscience gets pushed aside it isn’t because of an intolerance of thought diversity, it is because it has failed to meet reasonable standards.

Sources mentioned:

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2009). Theory and reality: An introduction to the philosophy of science. University of Chicago Press.

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