Science Is For Everyone

Science Is For Everyone February 1, 2017


In the years to come, science will be under threat in America as never before. Every branch of science that makes conservatives unhappy, from evolution to climate change, is on the chopping block. Birth control and abortion will be assaulted with religious pseudoscience. Federal agencies from NASA to the EPA to the National Park Service will be silenced by executive fiat, forbidden to speak facts that don’t align with the reigning worldview. And, of course, an indiscriminate immigrant ban is paralyzing the careers of brilliant, dedicated scientists who hoped and dreamed of making a future in the United States.

All in all, there’s never been a more urgent time for a March for Science. Scientists and supporters of science need to speak out and show they won’t give in to fear or ignorance. Their website, still under construction, contains the following language on diversity:

In the past days, scientists have voiced concern over many issues – gag orders for government science agencies, funding freezes, and reversing science based policies. We recognize that these changes will differently and disproportionately affect minority scientists, science advocates, and the global communities impacted by these changes in American policies. Addressing these issues is imperative in understanding how recent developments will affect all people – not simply the most privileged among us. We take seriously your concerns that for this march to be meaningful, we must centralize diversity of the march’s organizers at all levels of planning. Diversity must also be reflected in the march itself – both through the mission statement and those who participate.

At the March for Science, we are committed to highlighting, standing in solidarity with, and acting as allies with black, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander, indigenous, Muslim, non-Christian, non-religious, women, people with disabilities, poor, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, trans, non-binary, agender, and intersex scientists and science advocates. We must work to make science available to everyone and encouraging individuals of all backgrounds to pursue science careers, especially in advanced degrees and positions. A diverse group of scientists produces increasingly diverse research, which broadens, strengthens, and enriches scientific inquiry, and therefore, our understanding of the world.

But even now, in the face of this unprecedented threat and the need to stand together, there are those who are more concerned with their own crumbling fiefdoms. Such is this oblivious and embarrassing complaint from Steven Pinker:

He later tweeted “Glad to see that the March for Science Web site has removed the distractions”, but that appears to be a simple mistake. The diversity statement was moved to another section of the site, not deleted.

As I’ve said before, we need all the brainpower we can get. I agree that science is and must be purely meritocratic. It’s a test of whose ideas best match reality, period.

And that’s why it’s so important to open up the doors and bring everyone in! If a theory is true, it shouldn’t matter whether it comes from the brain of a transgender person, a Latino or a Pacific Islander, a Christian, a Muslim or an atheist. Good ideas can come from everyone, in every walk of life. This isn’t “political correctness” but a core principle of the scientific method, and the Science March’s emphasis on inclusion is a straightforward acknowledgement of it. If Pinker thinks this is “hard-left rhetoric” or, even worse, “anti-science”, it’s a deeply troubling statement of who he pictures when he thinks of a scientist.

When people make this same point about meritocracy but imagine it’s an argument against recognizing diversity, they’re ignoring the context. The current situation, where academia is dominated by white men, isn’t a natural result of sorting by talent. It’s the legacy of centuries of prejudice that kept everyone else out.

And that prejudice is very much active even today, as we can see in identical-resume experiments which show that research labs favor male over female applicants, treating them as more competent and offering more money. STEM faculty members are more likely to respond to inquiries from white men. That’s not even to mention the sexual predators who still lurk in the upper echelons of academia.

The urgent importance of diversity in science is shown even more clearly by the current administration’s racist immigration ban. By design, it excludes people from full participation in the scientific community, based only on where they were born. Already, this ban is ruining lives and careers: people who were planning to move here have had travel plans and job offers put on hold; people who are already in the U.S. to do science can’t leave the country for research projects or participate in conferences, lest they not be allowed back in. To pretend that you can ignore intersectionality while marching against such naked racism is a colossal act of head-in-the-sand foolishness.

Science is a human endeavor, and it should reflect the diversity of humanity. If that’s not the case, that’s the sign of lurking bias that we need to eradicate. The March for Science organizers are doing exactly the right thing by ensuring that all kinds of people are welcomed and their contributions recognized. It’s good for science, good for humanity, and in the long run, it’s how we defeat racist political demagogues.

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