And left to fail by those who would claim to be its champions
Two weeks ago I wrote about scientific fraud. Last week, Joomi Kim published an excellent, excruciating piece on the failure to correct error in science—even error that is known, has been publicized, and which renders the results of new science—some of which human health and safety are relying on—suspect at best, obviously flawed at worst. I highly recommend this piece.
These two pieces—mine on outright fraud, Dr. Kim’s on more subtle pollution of the scientific literature—reflect problems in the state of science that far predate Covid. But then Covid arrived, and revealed all sorts of new issues.
The last two and a half years have been surprising, to put it mildly. A pandemic. Authoritarianism in places that we thought were fonts of democracy. Mass formation. People betraying their most cherished and foundational beliefs, while proudly proclaiming that they were, are, and shall forever remain the good guys. Others looking away ashamed, if they admit it to themselves, ashamed as the realization dawns on them that yes, they’ve been had, but worse than that? When they were at their most confused and compliant, they threw the courageous under the bus.
One thing that has become all too clear since early 2020 is that most smart and educated people have no experience with or understanding of science. By this I don’t mean that they don’t understand the Krebs cycle or thermodynamics, or that they have never run a PCR. The vast majority of us don’t, and haven’t. But grokking science sufficiently that you understand how claims are made and assessed, and can see where the loopholes exist, should be mandatory for anyone who thinks that they are smart and educated. And yet, while nobody at a fancy cocktail party would admit to being illiterate, people will proudly proclaim their innumeracy. There’s no comparable word for it, but the fancy party goers similarly reveal their failure to understand science when they make pronouncements like “Follow the Science!”
Here is a slight caricature of thinking I have heard in the past two years from people, intellectuals mostly, who believe themselves to be critical thinkers who bring a skeptical eye to all that they assess:
Intellectual: I believe in the importance and value of the category of things called X.
Entity: Hey! Here’s a new product that we like to call X. Try it. You’d be a fool not to.
Intellectual: That’s the one for me! Anyone who doesn’t accept this newly branded X is clearly anti-X in all of its forms. My work here is done.
Entity: So too is mine.
Specifically and most frequently, I have heard this formulation trotted out where X = Covid vaccines. It seems that as soon as this new product was called a vaccine, that’s all it took for a whole suite of intellectuals to say “welllll it’s quite obvious really, if you don’t take this vaccine, then you’re an anti-vaxxer.” Is it really so difficult to see that slapping a label on something doesn’t inherently make the label true? It’s just as absurd and anti-scientific to say “trust all treatments labeled X” as it is to insist that we “believe all women” (or black people or Latvians or democrats or whatever).
An intellectual who follows the authorities in all things scientific and medical may be unlikely to put up a yard sign that proclaims “In this house, we believe that science is real,” but only for snobbish reasons. They just know, in their heart of hearts, that science is real, and that they don’t need to put up a sign to prove it. And yet, in the houses of these intellectuals, they may think that they believe that science is real, but there’s nothing in their assessment of sciencish authorities that suggests that they have any idea what it means to think scientifically.
I had occasion, this week, to reflect on a conversation that I had in 2017 with a smart young woman. This was a woman with no background in science, but plenty educated, a woman who was sensitive to the concerns of the social justice crowd, sufficiently that she felt it incumbent to argue that science was a patriarchal mess. This conversation took place in the immediate aftermath of the “google memo” penned by James Damore, in which Damore argued, correctly, that women have agency and are not identical to men. Women will, therefore (Damore’s argument continued) be likely to make decisions that are not identical to those that men make, and this might manifest in things like the highly skewed ratio of men to women among software engineers. This highly skewed ratio, he argued, is not inherently evidence of bigotry1. For this he was, of course, called a bigot. And so it goes2.
The conversation that I had with the young woman, however, did not, unlike the public discourse on the topic, go off the rails. She was curious about my take on women in science, having heard me talk about the evolution of sex and sex differences, and how the downstream effects manifest in various cultural contexts. She wanted to know if I thought that it didn’t matter that women were underrepresented in so many scientific domains. First, I explained that, in WEIRD countries in the early 21st century, the idea that women are broadly underrepresented in academic science and medicine is not true. It has been true in the past, of course. And women are still in the minority in engineering and math, for instance. But look to the fields with a focus on people or other organisms—e.g. medicine, veterinary science, organismal biology—and find a skew towards women. This fits, of course, with the research finding that, on average, men are more interested in things, while women are more interested in people3.
All of that aside, however, the young woman’s question weighed heavily on her: Do I think that representation in science matters? Shouldn’t science—and all fields—reflect the same demographic makeup as the population?
The point that I made to the young woman that got her attention was this:
Diversity among scientists does matter, but not for the reasons that you think.
Diversity in science does not matter because it will change what answers will be generated to existing scientific questions. The scientific process, employed correctly, should allow any appropriately skilled person to get the same answer to a given question as anyone else. Regardless of the demographics of the scientists doing the work, the result should be the same.
Where diversity does matter is in which questions get asked. Different people, with different life histories and demographics and interests, will ask different questions. Science generally doesn’t answer the questions that don’t get asked. Often, the most important questions have been missed at first, for they were thought obvious, or ignorant, or uninteresting.
In their 1938 book, The Evolution of Physics, co-authors Albert Einstein and Léopold Infeld wrote:
The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.
Insight comes in many forms. The greater the diversity represented among those engaging in scientific thinking and research, the better. That doesn’t mean that it ought be a central goal. And it certainly doesn’t mean that people from different lineages or with different chromosomes are expected to come up with different answers to the same scientific questions. But insight might well vary with background. And all good scientific endeavours ought prize insight.
The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution.
Let’s not jump right to the solutions—the methods, the tools, the tech—before we fully understand the landscape that we are in. Let’s allow everyone in on the conversation and the process who wants in. But let us question mightily those who claim the right to entry based on immutable qualities rather than on the quality of their thinking, or those who #FollowTheScientism and think that being in lockstep is somehow compatible with scientific inquiry. And let’s stop at the door those who would merely destroy or critique. Tearing things down is easy. Building lasting structures that both work and enhance human flourishing—that is a far harder task. We should stop giving so much of our attention to those who merely know how to divide and destroy, and consider instead the observations of those who are trying to create, discover, and build.
Natural Selections is a reader-supported publication. Become a paying subscriber, and receive audio reads of Tuesday posts, and other perqs.
See also the event at Portland State University that I did with Damore, plus Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian, in February 2018, in which at about 19 minutes in, activists storm out, attempting to destroy the sound equipment en route (they failed).
Su et al 2009. Men and things, women and people: a meta-analysis of sex differences in interests. Psychological bulletin, 135(6): 859-884.