A couple months ago my friend Kenny Gibbs wrote a great post about diversity and science for Scientific American. I want to reflect on this sentence (emphasis in original):
Science workforce diversity refers to cultivating talent, and promoting the full inclusion of excellence across the social spectrum.
I like the words inclusion and excellence there. The institutions of science, like all institutions, impose formal and informal requirements to foster excellence. That inevitably means including some people and excluding others. And that’s okay. People who can’t solve differential equations almost certainly will not become successful physicists, and so they get weeded out at some point. That type of exclusion makes sense.
But the requirements to become a scientist haven’t always made sense. Feminist critiques of science have argued (persuasively in my humble opinion) that the science has often imposed false barriers. That is, science had–and has–requirements that exclude some people even if they would excel as a scientist, thereby hurting both science and those excluded.
The most obvious historical examples are race and gender. Just being a woman or having black skin banned you from science. We’re thankfully past those days. But even though such obvious impediments have dissolved, many argue that science still imposes false barriers. Perhaps the best example is the culture of science. Computer science doesn’t necessarily have to project a geek image. But it does, effectively discouraging many women (and men!) from engaging.
So when people like Kenny talk about making science more inclusive, they often mean changing (among other things) the culture of science. These discussions understandably focus on race, gender, sexual orientation, and physical disability. Wherever people lie on these dimensions, the argument goes, shouldn’t prevent them from thinking scientifically and becoming a scientist.
While I see the merit in this approach, I’m starting to wonder if those of us who care about an inclusive science have to go one step further. The idea of scientific thinking itself may be a false barrier and must be interrogated.
At first glance the notion that scientists must ‘think scientifically’ seems reasonable. But that’s only if we scientists define and deploy the term fairly. It’s not reasonable if we define it with arbitrary criteria unrelated to anyone’s ability to do science. The history of science gives us reason to pause. At one point scientists said women, merely by being women, couldn’t think scientifically. We said the same about Jews and blacks. We’ve routinely defined the term to mean that entire groups of people were incapable of it. Although it appears scientists no longer define ‘scientific thinking’ so unfairly, what if we still do, but we’ve just shifted our target?
Which finally brings me to my hobbyhorse: creationists. According to one prominent journalist, creationists are “utterly unmoored from science, rationality, and reality.” Many scientists agree with that sentiment. They believe that creationists cannot think scientifically. I would put it differently. It’s not that creationists can’t think scientifically. It’s that scientists have–yet again–defined it to unfairly exclude an entire group of people. We’ve transferred our intolerance to certain types of Christians. And like we’ve done in the past, our own arguments lack evidence and are unscientific. We never really had any real evidence women couldn’t think scientifically. And we don’t any such evidence about creationists today.
Given our consistent inability to meaningfully and fairly define the concept, I’m inclined to abandon it. Insisting on ‘scientific thinking’ seems to me to be another way to enforce an exclusive culture. I’m not convinced it’s meaningfully different from insisting people in computer science embrace geek culture.
Who cares if people can think scientifically? What matters is whether people can do scientifically. And we know as a matter of empirical fact that creationists, whatever the flaws in their thinking, can often do science just fine. They can do physics. They can do chemistry. They can do geology. They can even do biology!
And besides, one of the more powerful arguments for diversity is that having scientists with different ways of thinking leads to better science. Kenny uses this line of reasoning himself: “When trying to solve complex problems, progress often results from diverse perspectives…People from different backgrounds do, on average, tend to approach work and problem solving differently. These differences can bring new perspectives needed to promote innovation.” So if diverse perspectives and problem solving approaches is what we’re after, why limit ourselves? Why not welcome people who think in all sorts of ways, whether or not their thinking is formally deemed scientific? Why shouldn’t science even be open to people who don’t ‘think like a scientist’?
A good friend of mine recently posted a great Huffington Post article on her Facebook feed. The author, a mother of two teenage girls, described how she came to realize that combating stereotypes can go too far. In her well-meaning desire to show that girls don’t have to be (for lack of a better term) girly, she forgot that some want to be girly. She closes with a profoundly important message:
I want to live in a world where wearing lip gloss and understanding quantum physics is not mutually exclusive. I want it to be normal for baking and welding to coexist on a hobby list. I want women to feel like they can leave the house without makeup, but if they choose to wear stilettos, they aren’t lowering their IQs.
Some girls like Barbies, makeup and the color pink, and some do not. Both types of girls can become scientists. Neither should have to change who they are to do so. Similarly, some Christians believe in evolution and some do not. Christians in both groups can also become scientists. And just like girls in science, they shouldn’t have to change who they are to do so.