The Public Deserves the Best Science.
Science Magazine vs Science
Earlier this month Science magazine, whose editor since 2019 has promoted the notion that science is systemically racist and sexist, ran four hit pieces on physics in a single issue. It was claimed that physics is racist and exclusionary, run by a “white priesthood,” and based on “white privilege.”
The articles themselves were inconsistent at best. They promoted a specific viewpoint and sometimes made claims that were manifestly contradicted by their own examples. I don’t want to spend a lot of time here critiquing the specifics, or the magazine in general, because I don’t think either are worth it. But it is worth summarizing some of the misconceptions they promote. If one hears the same things over and over again, even if they are not true, it is easy to begin to believe them. So, it is important every now and then, to step back and question the assumptions on which they are based.
(a) If the representation of various groups in scientific disciplines does not match the demographics of the society at large, the cause must be racism, sexism, or other forms of discrimination.
This is the starting point for most claims of racism or sexism in science, and for the recent rise of “anti-racism” initiatives most closely associated with Critical Race Theory. But one of the most basic things one learns in science is that correlation is not causation. Without some control over confounding factors or some other clear empirical data validating a theoretical model, it is impossible to isolate the cause of this effect. Most areas of human activity are self-selecting. To argue that people don’t become scientists because they are excluded by the scientific community is an extraordinary claim. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This is not to claim that racism or sexism do not exist in society at any level. Nor that examining such demographics might not be useful. But to lay this demographic on the doorstep of science without further justification is inappropriate. Moreover, there is a lot of empirical data that shows quite the opposite. Namely that in societies that are more egalitarian on issues of gender or race, self-selection effects produce as much or more variation in sex or gender ratios in the choice of professions as any other factor, something that clearly can’t be explained on the basis of sexism.
(b) When interviewed, white male scientists cannot provide examples of racism or sexism in their disciplines
In the Science articles, this was taken, as it often is, as manifest evidence of white privilege. One is reminded of one of the ancient ways of determining if someone was a witch. If they claimed not to be, that was good evidence that they might be. Alternatively, it could be because most faculty at universities are acutely concerned about possible discrimination on the basis of race and gender and would root out efforts to discriminate on the basis of either. In these articles, and in most other claims about systemic racism in science, empirical examples of such systematic racism are generally absent. Instead vague anecdotal claims are made.
(c) Anecdotal claims of slights based on ability, or of working in an atmosphere that seemed neither friendly nor inclusive are not in themselves evidence of anything except an atmosphere that seems neither friendly nor inclusive.
For many people, one’s experience in graduate school is full of these sorts of things. Science is an intensely competitive field, and, as I will argue below, it probably should be. It is tempting, to view such a situation as a reflection of discrimination, and to feel victimized on the basis of your race, gender, religion, or other personal identity characteristics. Especially if you are constantly told in training sessions that this must be the reason for any hardships. But it can also just as likely be due to other factors. Also, being criticized for your abilities, however painful that may be, can also be a sign that you need to improve, or consider doing something else. That goes against the current grain, where everyone is supposed to feel they are excellent at all things, or can be. But only in Lake Wobegon are all children above average.
(d) It is claimed that too few programs exist to recruit and retain women and minorities.
This is manifestly wrong. In fact it was remarkable that in the four Science articles, a host of examples of programs that exist throughout academia were described, and numerous individuals who were interviewed for the articles had benefitted from these programs. In spite of this, at the same time, it is argued that such programs can stigmatize people by labeling them in the eyes of others. Actually, sometimes these programs achieve the opposite of their intent. A letter from a female colleague recently expressed this well:
“With the increase of “girls that code” and other programs aiming to attract girls to computer sciences, we have seen a decline in the percentage of women in these fields. Observing from my daughters, they figured out they hate coding early on due to these programs, and now for sure will not go into computer science fields.”
Another critique that is raised is that minority scientists pay a price because excessive demands are placed on them to assist in diversity recruiting and retention efforts. Yet a number of the individuals interviewed for the Science articles, who complained about this, are the very individuals who have lobbied hard for such programs to be expanded. If they were not included, I suspect that omission would be criticized even more. Universities have worked for over 40 years to increase diversity, through affirmative action programs at all levels, and other programming. In 1960, women in science may not have been taken seriously, but that was 62 years ago.
(e) It is claimed that standard merit-based evaluations must be relaxed to increase diversity in science, and that this will strengthen the field.
Once again, standardized testing has its problems, but there is a great deal of evidence that it achieves a number of its goals, in particular ensuring that students who are admitted to programs are not being set up to fail. Also, as a colleague who came from a remote Third World university but scored in the 99th percentile in her GREs, described her experience, getting her admitted to graduate school in the US provided a key opportunity for upward mobility. Moreover, there is little or no objective evidence that talented students or researchers who have a genuine interest in science are excluded on the basis of these measures. It is true that social inequities, financial at least as much as racial, mean that some individuals who, had they access to proper educational resources early on, end up not following a career track in science. But the solution to this is not diluting requirements for researchers at an advanced level.
On a related issue, one of the programs praised in the Science articles was a rare graduate program in Applied Physics at the University of Michigan, which aimed to have all students who were admitted succeed. I don’t see that as a particularly useful goal. Especially in graduate school.
Certainly, in elementary school and secondary school, we would like all students to succeed because we are imparting skills that we think are essential for them to become productive and happy members of society. Less so at the postsecondary level, I think. Most students who are at university probably shouldn’t be there. Or at least a large fraction of them, in my experience, really don’t know why they are there. But for those that are, university should challenge them, and it should also give them a sense of what they are good at and which environments they enjoy. And which they don’t. Not making the grade is not always the fault of others. As Dirty Harry said (in his own sexist way of course), “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
Similarly, while enjoying science is everyone’s right—I have spent a large part of my career trying to spread that joy as widely as I can—being paid to do science is a privilege, not a right. It is largely solipsistic and self-indulgent. What right have we to be supported by the public to simply explore questions that interest us? Science is supported by the public because of the public good it does. That good is not met by employing a rigidly diverse workforce. It is met by producing the best science money can buy. We should reserve that privilege to carry out this public good to those who can best exploit it. No system of culling is perfect, but not all students should succeed, nor should all researchers.
The goal should be to open science so that everyone who is sufficiently talented, and sufficiently dedicated, has the opportunity to try their hand at it. Beyond that, we shouldn’t be expected to do much more. Just as anyone can pay to go to a basketball camp, most of us (especially those of us who are vertically challenged) realize our basketball careers will end there.
Moreover, while a lack of talent should be limiting, so should a lack of interest. And there is nothing wrong with having other interests. Another colleague, a distinguished professor of law wrote in a letter about her experience:
“The notion that not enough women (or URMs or whatever) become scientists because we don’t encourage them is one of the most ridiculous, destructive fallacies out there. I am almost 70 years old and was encouraged CONSTANTLY as a student and young woman to go into STEM because I was good at math and science and really enjoyed them. The encouragement was NON-STOP. Of course, the lab atmosphere in the places where I worked in college and after was stringent – but that was as it should be. To succeed in science you not only have to have the talent for it, but you have to be compulsively interested in it and in DOING it, and monumentally persistent and determined despite numerous setbacks and bracing relentless competition (which, frankly, has an inevitable male inflection). It’s not warm and fuzzy, although it can offer the pleasures of camaraderie if one is ready to accept the terms of interaction. All these programs to recruit more x, y, and z to science, or medicine, just end up producing a lot of underachievers or disappointed drop outs who turn around and cry “discrimination.” The good scientists – male and female – are highly self-motivated. You can’t impart that kind of motivation to other people.”
As far as women being excluded from STEM she added:
“I am not denying that women were seriously restricted until fairly recently – things started to open up here in the late 50s-60s and were definitely very open by the 70s when I came of age. That is now getting to be 2 to 3 generations.”
Indeed, there is no doubt that there was horrendous discrimination in the past. Marie Curie had to leave her native Poland to get access to education. Lise Meitner was not allowed on the research floors of the institute where she worked. But, to paraphrase John McWhorter, “there was ‘then’ and there is ‘now.’ ”
And that is the key point. There may be economic and racial barriers that currently restrict equal opportunity in society. But science itself is not the cause of any induced lack of diversity, nor can it be the solution. To address deeper issues of racism, or sexism, requires addressing societal problems at a much deeper level, and confusing the end result with the root causes is folly.
I should add that these considerations apply to the developed world. In much of the developing world, including Africa, India, parts of the Middle East and Asia, the plight of women is severe. There, in order to improve both the economic and wellbeing of these countries, it is imperative that educational and technical opportunities be opened up for women. In the West however, and many other parts of the world, equal opportunities for women already exist, and indeed, many opportunities now exist for women that don’t exist for men. University populations, for example, are now predominantly female.
We should advocate that the pursuit of science to be welcoming to anyone of sufficient talent and drive, but that is all. As much as we would all like the idea of a diverse workforce, as long as there are no explicit strictures in place within science itself that restrict admission to those within any group, the system works. Sometimes it results in under-representation of certain groups, and sometimes over-representation, such as Jewish scientists in the last half of the 20th century or Asian scientists in the US today. For better or worse, like all professions, there is culling at every level, and if that culling is based on the likelihood of future success, it is not unreasonable.
Science may not always be friendly, collegial, or welcoming, but that may be what produces the best science. Resources are scarce enough that we do the public a disservice by encouraging participation by those who might squander them.
Ultimately, what is the evidence that the current overwhelming imperative to impose diversity is good for science, or good for those who thus attempt to join STEM fields and don’t make the cut? Forty years of ever-increasing affirmative action in medicine has not significantly increased the diversity in the number of medical school applicants, and there is a lot of data that for weaker students, admission to elite programs is a recipe for failure.
Put another way, as harsh as it may sound, we need to ask a question that is currently impossible to ask in polite company, or even impolite company: Why is it so necessary for more women, minorities, and transgender individuals, and fewer white males, to become scientists? Surely the science doesn’t care about melanin or gonads or sexual preferences or identities.