The Public Deserves the Best Science.

A recent blog by the theoretical physicist Lawrence Maxwell Krauss rises interesting questions. I strongly recommend to read it. Here the link:

Krauss puts in discussion this common claim:

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.

Krauss argues that a claim needs evidence to be supported, but in this case there is not only a lack of evidence but also “a lot of empirical data that shows quite the opposite”. For instance, “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”.

He argues that:

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.

He concludes with a question, which is perhaps a bit provocative, but interesting and insightful:

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.

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I find myself taking a centrist stance in these sorts of debates, as I think there is merit to moderate views from both positions.

On one hand, I agree that achieving equitable/representative demographics in academic career outcomes by using affirmative action programs instead of meritocratic selection could reasonably be expected to reduce the scientific talent of the community (according to those selection criteria).

On the other hand, science (in terms of truth-seeking ability) may not be influenced by demographics, but the societal impact of science (in terms of the ability to choose important truths to seek) probably is, and it seems reasonable to expect that society could realize better and more representative benefits if the demographics of scientists were also more representative. One issue is that the current selection criteria are optimized for a certain style of high productivity truth-seeking (publish or perish…), and I’m not sure that there is good empirical evidence that this focus selects for science that maximizes societal impact (or truths for that matter!). I think that more discussion over the goals of publically funded science would be important, as would experimenting with meritocratic selection criteria to identify which criteria are best at selecting scientists that realize those goals.

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A new preprint from @Priya_Silverstein about the value of diversity in psychological science seems relevant to Krauss’s original post. The point that the choice of research topic is influenced by identity seems to support a call for greater diversity.

Like credibility, understanding is aided by increasing the perspectives of researchers and participants involved in psychological research. Expanding the pool of researchers and participants can help ensure that research topics are both more credible and that they examine topics of importance for understanding the patterns and mechanisms that further our understanding. Indeed, there is evidence that the topics that are studied are affected by the racial identity of the authors and editors (Roberts et al., 2020). Targeting the issues that matter to people around the world is one way to improve understanding.

The Role of Values in Psychological Science: Examining Identity-based Inclusivity

Really? To me, it seems to support the Lawrence Krauss’s view. I mean, if you admit that people from different races make different choices, have different attitudes and approaches, then you also have to expect (and to accept!) that groups won’t reflect the demographic distribution. For example, a given race will be over-represented in the group of researchers who study a given subject/topic, while in other disciplines or sub-disciplines there will be a prevalence of another race… And this is in contradiction with the idea that academia should perfectly reflect demographics.
Or maybe do you think that academia needs to reflect demographics, but the single disciplines can be different? or maybe must the single disciplines reflect demographics, but within the disciplines may the single sub-disciplines be different? but why? and who decides where demographics should be reflected and where not?

And what about sport? Sport also does not reflect demographics, for example in some sports like running there is prevalence of black runners… what should we do? introduce special rules to help white runners, so we would have a greater diversity in the final competitions? no? not in sport? why not? Again: who decides when and in which areas affirmative actions are legitimate and where they are not?

There are so many ethical questions, so many problems linked with affirmative actions… Plus, are they really useful? You write: “I’m not sure that there is good empirical evidence that this focus selects for science that maximizes societal impact (or truths for that matter!)”. That’s perhaps true, but actually there is not even empirical evidence that other ways work better. Indeed, as Lawrence Krauss points out: “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.”
Interestingly, the only schools in America where blacks perform equal/better than whites are school where affirmative actions are not applied, as you can read here:

I think that the best thing can we do is to give all the same rights and chances, but imposing that all groups must have the same results and must be equally represented in science (or in other sectors of society) risks to be counterproductive and demotivating ultimately for all, beside being ethically questionable.

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Thanks for continuing the discussion, Lucia, sorry for my slow reply. I recently read Gender and What Gets Researched · New Things Under the Sun which reminded me of this thread. The conclusion is (emphasis added):

The takeaway then, is that representation matters. When a group previously excluded from research enters, it may carry with it research priorities that are better aligned with the needs of the excluded group. Fortunately, as those ideas enter the bloodstream of a research community, it looks like the priorities do get taken up more widely.

I think that this is important because it frames the issue somewhat differently from how Krauss is looking at it: regardless of ideas about fairness and discrimination, representation in research is important because the outcomes matter, and representative research may give better outcomes for more people in society.

The final sentence of that quote is also important and probably represents a middle-path that is more feasible than proportional representation: simply having some representation from each demographic (i.e. ensuring no demographic is completely excluded) in each field might be enough to capture a lot of the benefits of diversity. An example from the main text:

They find that when there are more women studying a particular disease, this also increases the probability that studies include a gender and sex analysis, independent of the composition of the team of coauthors on any individual study. In other words, a team of men is more likely to include a gender and sex analysis if they are working on a disease where more of the scientists studying the same disease are women.


To respond to some points you made:

Or maybe do you think that academia needs to reflect demographics, but the single disciplines can be different? or maybe must the single disciplines reflect demographics, but within the disciplines may the single sub-disciplines be different? but why? and who decides where demographics should be reflected and where not?

Well, I think it might be a good start if disciplines reflected the demographics of the societal groups that are affected by their research outcomes. I’m somewhat doubtful that, in practice, the outcomes of recent theoretical physics/cosmology research influence any group in society (so maybe having demographic representation isn’t so relevant in Krauss’s field), but the article referenced in the text I quoted is about how the racial identity of researchers relates to how race is studied in psychology and claims ‘psychological science must include diverse editors, writers, and participants in the research process precisely because underrepresented psychological scientists might be most willing to examine the experiences of underrepresented groups.’ (my takeaway: increasing the racial diversity of researchers increases the racial representativeness of research). The results of psychology research does get used in policy that impacts the public (i.e. the Behavioural Insights Team in the UK) so, arguably, the public deserves for that policy to be informed by research that is representative of their demographics. If a good way to achieve representative research is to have a diverse group of researchers, then I think diversity should be an important concern.

And what about sport? Sport also does not reflect demographics, for example in some sports like running there is prevalence of black runners… what should we do? introduce special rules to help white runners, so we would have a greater diversity in the final competitions? no? not in sport? why not? Again: who decides when and in which areas affirmative actions are legitimate and where they are not?

This argument seems like a strawman… I guess nobody expects sports to reflect demographics, but also the outcomes of sporting competitions mostly matter for the individuals and don’t influence broader society that much. If you can make a case that elected politicians or government officials shouldn’t reflect the demographics of their constituents (or in a similar situation that has important societal outcomes), then the case against demographic representation would be stronger.

“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.”

I don’t know anything about the results of affirmative action in US medicine, but I think judging it by looking at the strength of students is misguided (although understandable because measures of student quality like test scores are straightforward). I think a better approach would be to look at how the health outcomes of different demographics (both those that are originally under- and over-represented in medicine) were influenced by the affirmative action policy (this is much harder and probably requires complex RCTs, epidemiology, and causal analysis). If affirmative action in medicine convincingly led to worse health outcomes across society, then I would be happy to look into scrapping it.

Hi @Gavin thank you for your answer.

There are basically two points that raise perplexities in your analysis.

Excluded? Your long post seems entirely based on this assumption: there are excluded groups. And I would agree with your considerations if this assumption was true. But this is exactly where I disagree: are there excluded groups?

Sometimes there are, for example in Afghanistan women are excluded from the universities and perhaps in some other countries. These terrible situations should be corrected, of course. But in most of the case, I don’t see excluded groups, I only see under-represented groups. If this gap is a result of a real exclusion (i.e., discrimination or racism), then you have (1) to prove it (allegation with no evidence should not be considered) (2) fight against the discrimination at the root of the gap. I think we all agree about that.

But otherwise? If the gap is simply the result of different attitudes and choices? Should we impose demographic representation anyway? Should we force people to be included/excluded from a discipline just to meet an equal demographic representation?

In order to answer this question, we cannot do cherry picking by selecting studies that show the possible advantages of including “excluded” groups. We need to do a serious analysis looking at both costs and benefits and comparing them. Do the benefits compensate the costs? This is the real question. And here there is my second concern, because I think that imposing demographic representation is very dangerous. It risks to lead to a new form of real exclusion and discrimination.

Unfortunately, this is not only a risk: it is something that is already happening, as you can see in this video by Lawrence Krauss, which presents a long record of injustices and discrimination that have recently happened in several universities precisely in the name of a more equal demographic representation: Is Woke Science the Only Science Allowed in Academia - YouTube Look for instance at the minutes 18 -22. In Canada there are calls for academic positions where you can apply ONLY if you self-identify as woman, transgender, non-binary or if you belong to a racialized group. In other words, if you are a white heterosexual male and identify yourself as a white heterosexual male, either you lie or you’re automatically excluded. Just because you are white heterosexual and male, you are excluded. There is a name for this and is not “inclusivity”. Indeed, here is the real exclusion. I would say it’s a violation of human rights.
Is it acceptable that human rights are violated only because some studies show that a perfect demographic representation may have some advantages? Moreover, the study you mention talks about including excluded groups, but does it prove that demographic representation should be perfect? I mean: what happens if women are only 40% or 30% instead of 50%? Is it provably worse? As far as I know there is no evidence for this.

Don’t get me wrong: I would be more than happy if in medicine or astrophysics there were more women! But if it does not happen, it is not acceptable to discriminate men just to favour women, or to discriminate whites just to favour blacks. It would be unfair and, in most cases, counterproductive for sciences. Even admitting there are advantages, they do not compensate the costs.

About sport:

You guess wrong. There are such expectations instead, as you can see for example here: NHL, its workforce 84% white, sets baseline to up diversity | AP News and here https://twitter.com/AP_Sports/status/1582493338296532992

You’re not much into sport, right? I don’t not why, sport is always so underrated by intellectuals and academics (unless they are sport scientists)! This argument “sporting competitions mostly matter for individuals and don’t influence broader society that much” is the real “strawman” here. An example: many argue that sporting competition between nations can play a role in promoting peace and this idea has been part of the Olympics since its origins in ancient Greece. Actually, sporting competitions has always played a HUGE role for all societies.