Tue. Oct 3rd, 2023


The Real News Network

Opinion | Applying D.E.I. to Science

4 min read

To the Editor:

Re “Let Science Be Science,” by Pamela Paul (column, May 5):

Ms. Paul describes how a leading scientific journal declined to publish an opinion article advocating impartiality in science. Her implication is that rejecting a paper equates to rejecting its premise. This is not the case.

Top scientific journals are not dissimilar to the Opinion pages of The New York Times in that the competition to appear in them is intense. The vast majority of submissions are rejected for any number of reasons: The authors’ claims are obvious, trite or poorly argued; they fail to support their claims with rigorous analysis; they are outside the scope or length constraints of the journal, etc.

Public understanding of science is essential for democracy. Misleading readers to score political points with an argument that scientists have exchanged merit and objectivity for progressive ideology is a disservice to science and the public alike.

Carl T. Bergstrom
The writer is a professor of biology at the University of Washington and had a guest essay published in The Times last year.

To the Editor:

“Let Science Be Science” exacerbates the panic over the alleged subservience of academia to so-called political correctness. Pamela Paul thinks science is somehow hijacked if scholars must be alert to the potential impacts of systemic racism and patriarchy on their work.

But is it really the end of free thought as we know it if scientists reflect on their “positionality” (i.e., race, gender, disability status) where relevant? Why is it wrong to ask academicians to consider that dreaded acronym — D.E.I. — as they form collaborations, hire assistants or just ponder the state of their chosen professions?

Ms. Paul seems shocked — shocked!! — at the idea that bias could possibly show up even in the hard sciences. Humanities, she grudgingly allows, could still shelter a few lonely racists, but chemistry? She sniffs about “citation justice” (the need for varied sources).

But we now know of the deleterious effects of medical research focused only on white men; that is not exactly the same thing, but makes the same point. The argument for diversity is not a quota/numbers game; it is about obtaining the best output from the best possible inputs — and isn’t that at the heart of science?

In academia — with its tradition of untouchable, remote, heretofore protected scholars who influence policy every day but about whom we usually know little — can’t we ask professors to help us rethink how our world became what it is? And how to make it better?

Jill Raymond
Silver Spring, Md.

To the Editor:

Kudos to Pamela Paul for her column on “positionality statements” in the physical sciences.

I think such statements aren’t a bad idea for the social sciences, which at their worst are mere debating clubs where the prize often goes to the most eloquent rather than the most accurate. Taking a stab at self-consciously revealing some of their biases and how they affect their arguments might be helpful.

But in the natural sciences, it will mostly be an unnecessary exercise to appease university faculty and administrators who don’t want to appear insensitive to concerns of bias. However, those concerns belong in other areas — not this one.

When science is being done properly, these biases are systematically wrung out of the process. It’s what the scientific process is all about. It’s what distinguishes physical science from other human endeavors.

Positionality statements are frankly insulting to science.

John Norris
Shoreline, Wash.

To the Editor:

That there is a strong bias toward white men in academia is no surprise. As a white straight male scientist, I know that science is weakened because we are missing out on the incalculable potential contribution to knowledge that researchers from backgrounds different from my own could bring absent the inequities of our field and society.

Scientists know that our methodology is designed to be objective, but we are not. Pamela Paul argues for a meritocratic system in research, but given that academic research is governed by peer review (a deeply flawed and biased system), and given the frequent irreproducibility of scientific findings, what we have now is nowhere close to a meritocracy or absolute objectivity.

As scientists we need the humility to admit that we are in desperate need of an influx of new ideas and new ways to improve research. Those come with new and diverse people. Science cannot be objective until we correct this.

Yonathan Goldtzvik
Cambridge, England
The writer is a postdoctoral researcher at University College London.

To the Editor:

Pamela Paul seems either unaware of or unbothered by the ways in which science has been used to marginalize and harm vulnerable communities, and her dismissal of the need to address systemic bias in science is unfounded.

Scientific racism, for example, is sadly not a historical relic. The field of human behavioral genetics thrives on publishing papers clinging to the notion that group differences (read: racial differences) exist in intelligence and other measures of ability, despite countless studies undermining such conclusions. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of the researchers who conduct these studies are white (and predominantly male), and their work has attracted great enthusiasm in the white nationalist community.

Payton Gendron, the perpetrator of the 2022 Buffalo massacre, cited the work of leading scientific proponents of innate racial differences. There is a direct connection between this discredited science and violent extremism.

Obviously, the ideology and opinions of scientists affect the questions they ask and the answers they seek. Diversifying scientific fields is the key to addressing bias in the kinds of studies that are performed.

David Sepkoski
Urbana, Ill.
The writer is a historian of science at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

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