Science != Dead White Guys

05Mar10

The argument that gets trotted out time and time again in defense of dragging a wider range of people into the sciences lies along the lines of:

“Different types of people have different approaches to doing science. The more approaches you have in play, the quicker a given problem gets solved. So, increasing the proportion of black/gay/female people in the field will increase the diversity of thought in play, and make all our our scientific problems get solved a lot more quickly!”

Ha.

Ha ha ha ha ha.

Excuse me while I laugh bitterly over here, because this approach to increasing diversity is Really Fucking Racist. And sexist. And heteronormative.

Why? Because it assumes black people think differently about science than white people do. It assumes that women go about calculating things in a fundamentally different way than men do. It assumes– no, in fact, it requires— that all of these underrepresented groups should be given places at the table precisely because they’re so darn’ exotic, and that that dash of difference is going to save the field.

These assumptions– that men think differently from women, and that people of different races have fundamental, un-erasable cognitive differences– are pretty insulting once you stop to think about them.

I shouldn’t be allowed to do science because my warm and fuzzy woman-brain does math differently from a male’s brain. I should be allowed to do science because I’m as good (actually, better) than most guys are at math.

It doesn’t matter what color your skin is: by the time you’ve dragged yourself through years of rigorous training in your discipline, you’re not going to think terribly differently from your colleagues. Diversity of training will certainly foster diversity of thought. Diversity of types of genitalia in the office? Not so much.

So. I’ve (hopefully) dismantled that disingenuous reason for increasing diversity in the sciences. Now what? Am I saying it’s okay that my field remains dominated by white dudes? Do I think diversity has nothing to offer science? Of course not.

The real reason we need a wider range of people doing physics is because we need more people doing physics, period. Science is hard work, and not everyone is suited to it. In fact, very few people are, and I think we’ve already fully tapped the White Dude portion of the population that’s smart enough to handle time-dependent perturbation theory. We need more cooks in the kitchen in order to figure out what the hell the Higgs boson looks like, or how the universe began; if our current efforts were good enough, we’d have already figured this stuff out.

If we’re going to increase the number of minds working on the physic’s unsolved problems, we’re going to have to be less choosy about the skins that they come in.

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