Tuesday, January 10, 2017

And We Settled for Mediocrity

This, y'all:
This got me thinking again about a revelation I had not long ago, but admittedly not long enough ago. I'm going to explore some tough truths here. So before I get going, let me explicitly state some of my working assumptions. First, I believe that all humans, no matter how one cares to group them, whether by race, religion, physical ability, gender, sexuality, possess the same distribution of intellectual abilities. For example, I believe that a group of 100 undocumented, Lutheran, Latinx transwomen have the same distribution of mental talents as a group of 100 straight, cisgender, white, atheist men. Can I prove this beyond doubt and within 0.1% precision? Nope, probably not. But it's an historical fact that the biological and social sciences in Europe and US America have focused on this question for most of their existence, with the explicit aim of proving the superiority of the latter group. Given that these fields have thus far failed to find evidence to support the superiority of one group over the other, I feel fairly confident in this assumption. 

Anyone disagree with this assumption? If so, please read no further, because A) you won't find much that you like in what follows and B) "This...person I am not trying to convince".

My assumption of equality naturally leads to the conclusion that the lack of any specific group from academia or any other intellectual pursuit is not a natural outcome, but instead due to actions that keep them out, not because they can't do what is necessary to be there. Our society tends to focus on words that describe the state of being at the exclusion of the actions that lead to that state. This is why we focus on diversity, and the lack thereof, while going out of our way to avoid naming the features of our societal landscape, and the actions of people who traverse that landscape, that exclude specific groups of humans and leads to a reduction of diversity that would otherwise be present. Since groupings of people are meaningless when selecting for things like intellectual acumen, creativity and general talent, a paucity of diversity is an unnatural outcome that must be the result of factors extrinsic to the missing groups.

I hope that I have lost many of my readers thus far. Okay, now for the hard truths.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.

One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific culture is something that was somehow attached to the practice of inquiry at its inception and remains throughout time in order for that practice to be what it is.

One can find evidence of this belief in astronomy in heavy reliance on "tradition" within departments for practices including admissions policies; examination formats and course requirements; and daily social interactions such as astro-ph discussions and Q&A during/after seminars. Appeals to tradition are most frequently raised in defense of the status quo against calls for change (see discussions around dropping the Physics GRE requirement for admissions to Astronomy graduate programs). These appeals imply that our scientific discipline functions as a viable scientific field because of the ways in which scientists interact, and as a result science requires those ways of interaction in order to function at all. A change to the way we do science will necessarily lead to a weakening or breakdown of science itself. 

There is some truth to the linking of interaction and the functionality of science, but the truth is more subtle. First of all, in full disclosure: I've never been a fan of traditions. This is probably because I, as a person of color, can (relatively) clearly see the ways in which traditions benefit white (cisgender, ablebodied, straight) men at the expense of others. But before I could name this particular aspect of the culture of science, I did what I often do when my thinking about a subject is unclear: start with the definition of the word in question. There are many definitions, including definitions specific to biology lab work that don't serve this essay particularly well. Also, definitions can be biased given that one demographic is in charge of printing dictionaries. That said, here's a pretty good hybrid that will serve as a working definition: