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.
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.