The Human Equation

In Life by Brian Koberlein2 Comments

There’s been a flurry of discussion about academic diversity recently. This time its about the lack of conservatives in universities, but it could just as easily be about gender, or ethnic and cultural backgrounds, or economic diversity. But why should we care about diversity at all? Isn’t science supposed to be a meritocracy? 

On some level science is a meritocracy. If we think of science as a competition of ideas and theories, then the best and most useful theory should (and usually does) come out on top. Even the most cherished and time-tested model is discarded if new evidence and new ideas leads to a better one. Our process of peer review is designed to filter out weak models and weak evidence. This merit-based approach has been wildly successful.

But while science strives to be fair and unbiased in its testing of ideas, the process is colored by the fact that scientists are human. We all approach the world with a perspective created by our personal experiences, and those experiences are deeply shaped by our socioeconomic, gender, racial and cultural heritage. No amount of scientific training will change that fact. While we can use scientific methods to filter the good scientific ideas from the bad, the origin of those ideas is still deeply dependent on the human equation. Quite simply, the wider we cast our net, the better science and all of us will be served.

Diversity is not a game.

Diversity is not a game.

Unfortunately much of the argument about diversity (pro and con) seems to treat diversity as a game of Pokemon, where the goal is to “catch ’em all.” People who are considered “diverse” are hired for their status, then pushed into the sidelines until they are needed for a Pokebattle. Suddenly a wild committee appears! Hispanic woman I choose you! When diversity is treated as a checkbox it is worse than useless. Not only do you not cast a wider net of perspectives and ideas, you reinforce the view that diversity is worthless. “We hired three racial minorities and they failed to succeed. Typical.”

In order for diversity to succeed we have to connect to a wider diversity of people and perspectives. We need to be challenged by ideas very different from our own, and we need to listen. While increasing the diversity of scientists can allow these kinds of connections to flourish, we should be careful not to focus on satisfying checkboxes. Instead we should focus on ways to build wider connections, and provide opportunities for people with a wide range of backgrounds to flourish. The more we do that, the better science will become in the long run.

It won’t be easy, and it won’t improve overnight. But over time we can learn to listen to new perspectives, to challenge them and have them challenge us. Because the human equation of science is complex, subtle and beautiful, if only we take the time to see it.


  1. Great post!

    In a curious cosmic coincidence, Bee (Sabine Hossenfelder, of the Backreaction blog) yesterday posted “The Holy Grail of Crackpot Filtering: How the arXiv decides what’s science – and what’s not.” Its scope overlaps quite a bit with your post, Brian.

    In astronomy at least, there are – today – two groups of people whose inputs to the profession are extremely limited: amateurs, and citizen scientists (e.g. those who are active in Radio Galaxy Zoo). The extent to which the diversity of their perspectives, and how, differ from that of professionals, is largely unknown.

    For example, Marshall+ (2015) “Ideas for Citizen Science in Astronomy” (in AURA; link: covers *what* citizen scientists (and amateurs; they’re not distinguished) do, but not *what their perspectives are*.

    And with some notable exceptions (e.g. Phil Marshall’s own citizen science project, Space Warps), citizen science-based projects in astronomy are designed, run, and primarily for the benefit of, professional astronomers … few have any non-professionals on The Team, let alone on the Science Team, for example.

    The barriers to getting independent research (in astronomy) done by non-professionals published are truly daunting; unless those researchers first get a PhD (or at least an MSc), and/or team up with at least one professional, their work will almost never see the light of (professional) day (i.e. get published in the likes of ApJ or AJ). Just one tiny barrier: the papers they’d need to reference, to write a paper good enough to be accepted by AJ (say), are for the most part behind paywalls. This is despite the fact that the published research was almost certainly almost completely paid for by them (as taxpayers).

    What perspectives do such non-professionals have, which, if included in the body of astronomy, would enrich it? An obvious one: the huge number of serendipitous discoveries they make!

  2. “We need to be challenged by ideas very different from our own, and we need to listen.” It seems to me that this is entirely opposite to the way current social networks, FaceBook, etc., are designed in that one mostly gets only interactions that one has ‘liked’ or ‘friended’. Basically, they are composed of a huge multitude of relatively small narcissistic groups. Real diversity (not a great tern anymore, but…) requires a change or upgrade(?!) to personal, and ultimately group consciousness first.

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