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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