How much diversity of thought do you achieve by promoting diversity of gender and ethnicity?

July 19, 2019 • 11:00 am

A while back I was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (AAAS), an honorific position in an organization that celebrates achievement in scholarship and arts, and promotes them through its quarterly journal Daedalus.  I was of course chuffed to be chosen, but now I see that the AAAS is striving for diversity, but not the kind of diversity it purports to be seeking. Here’s an announcement I got the other day (I’ve left off names and phones numbers as they’re not relevant:


Note that the avowed aim of this initiative is to “ensure that the Academy’s work is informed by, and reflective of, the breadth of intellectual life in the twenty-first century.” And the mechanism for ensuring this is to “increase the diversity of our members and staff.”

Now we all know what this means. “Diversity” means “the relative number of woman and minorities”, though it’s never stated. But you find that out when you take the “member survey”, for you’re not asked about your work or the tenor of your thought, but about your ethnic origin: Asian, Caucasian, Black or African-American, Native Hawaiian, and so on. And that’s it.

The implicit assumption of this initiative is that the most efficient way to ensure diversity of intellectual life is to increase the diversity of sex (or gender) and ethnicity.

Now I recognize that these are connected to some extent. In my own field, the presence of women has put an increased and proper emphasis on the role of female choice in sexual selection, as well as other areas. And of course including underrepresented minorities with distinctive points of view clearly expands the intellectual breadth missing in the bad old days when the Academy comprised almost all white males. As Wikipedia notes, the founders included “John Adams, John Hancock, James Bowdoin, and others of their contemporaries who contributed prominently to the establishment of the new nation, its government, and the United States Constitution.” Early members included Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.

So yes, I do favor a sweeping diversity among the members. To me, that should reflect an equality of opportunity: that all people, regardless of ethnicity or gender, should be considered for membership based on merit and accomplishment. But I also favor a form of “affirmative action” as well, for an equality of opportunity at present may not remediate an inequality of opportunity present earlier on, when women and minorities don’t get the encouragement or resources to start them on an equal footing with everyone else.

What bothers me a bit about the announcement above, I suppose, is the implicit assumption that diversity of gender and ethnicity are roughly equivalent to diversity of intellectual breadth, as well as the remediation of the latter involves asking only about one’s sex and ethnicity. For surely there are aspects of intellectual breadth missed by these factors. In fact, it seems a bit shortsighted to think that one’s sex and ethnicity will be ineluctably connected with certain points of view missing in the academy. After all, women or Hispanics are not all of one mind!

We all know about the conservatives who say “What about diversity of viewpoints?” They are concerned that right-wing voices are missing in college faculties, and that’s indeed the case: the overwhelming number of college faculty sit somewhere on the Left side of the political spectrum. This means that the faculty do inculcate students with a left-wing point of view: something that Jon Haidt has emphasized when he holds faculty partly to blame for the Authoritarian Leftist views of many of today’s students. So yes, I think there is a case to be made for looking for political diversity of professors, and hiring ones whose views aren’t much represented on campus. But not just political diversity: diversity of opinion and other ideology that will give students a real opportunity to adjudicate opposing viewpoints. That, after all, is the main goal of an education.

And so it is with the AAAS. By all means do some remediation if some groups haven’t experienced equality of opportunity. And yes, we do need “role models” from different groups, although I know some readers will disagree with me. (I’ve always favored some form of affirmative action at various levels of academia.) But if the AAAS wants intellectual breadth, can’t it look for intellectual breadth rather than just determining the gender or racial origin of prospective members? Surely there are some mavericks out there—regardless of who they are—who have non-standard ideas worth exploring.

After thinking about this, and taking the survey that gave my “race,” I decided that the “intellectual breadth” aim is largely a euphemism for “diversity of sex and ethnicity.” The Society is striving not just for equal opportunity, but for equal outcome: they are looking for a membership closer to the sex and ethnic composition of America. And given that intellectual and artistic aspiration—unlike, perhaps, interest in physics—seems to be roughly equally distributed among groups, that’s a worthwhile aim. But why ignore the very diversity of thought itself and use sex-chromosome complement and ethnicity as surrogates for “intellectual breadth”?

What makes me cynical about the alignment of the AAAS’s aims with its methods of remediation is the following statement from the Academy’s 2018 “Strategic Plan”. First we have a goal determined by members and the AAAS’s leadership, and then the mechanism for achieving it:

Inclusivity. Promoting broad inclusivity of people and perspectives is of great importance to members and staff. This includes both the diversity of the members and the staff, especially in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, geography, institutions, fields, and professions. As one member stated, the Academy should be recognized as an organization in which, “all people feel included and comfortable with one another.” Members and staff highlight the importance of assessing all the Academy’s practices and activities through a lens of inclusivity and diversity, including demographic diversity, ensuring these values are reflected in all that the Academy undertakes.

. . . . Inclusivity: Continue to increase the diversity of the members and staff, and ensure that the Academy’s work reflects its ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusivity.

It’s pretty clear what they mean by “diversity and inclusivity” here, and it has little to do with intellectual diversity. Granted, they want to include a variety of fields and institutions, which they already do, as well as people from a variety of countries, which they already do in their class of foreign members, but one does not feel excluded or uncomfortable if there are too few members from Idaho, or if there’s a dearth of topologists.

As I said, I’m in favor of increasing the representation of underrepresented groups in the AAAS. But in the end, I think the goal should be to give people an equality of opportunity (which must start at the beginning of childhood) rather than striving mainly to ensure an equality of outcome. And how on Earth did intellectual breadth get lost in this endeavor?

21 thoughts on “How much diversity of thought do you achieve by promoting diversity of gender and ethnicity?

  1. Isn’t the whole idea that different races think differently the core tenant of the white supremacist types?

    1. Yes it is:

      19thC White Racist

      “White Mans Knowledge (eg ‘Western Science’) is not for native peoples, they lack the stamina and mental makeup to be successful in it.”

      21stC SJW (aka Neo-Puritan)

      “Western Science (eg ‘White Mans Knowledge’) is mentally and spritually harmful to indigenous peoples, it should be replaced with other ways of knowing”

      All of which leads to a Native American(?) student using Mormon apologetics to ‘prove’ that horses never became extinct in the Americas because the native peoples say theyve always been there.

    2. I’m pretty sure different ‘races’ do think differently, for whatever reasons.

      (By ‘think differently’ I don’t mean their brains are wired differently, I mean their worldviews and attitudes to life are different. It’s probably an environment/cultural thing, and I suspect could change in a few generations).

      But most white supremacists seem pretty thick, to me.


      1. There is a suggestion- which I read in a book by Daniel Tammett (sp?) – that the language itself plays a significant role in quantitative reasoning.

  2. It is solving a problem by starting at the finish line. Reminds me of the recently debated old political problem of segregation in public education. The answer they came up with was busing but many years later most people would ask, what was that? It was very controversial with lots of opposition and it never worked. The right way to fix the problem would be to create an equal education everywhere in all schools. Another impossible solution for many reasons, leased of which is who really runs and funds the school systems. That would be the states. I could go on but what is the point. In a state government run system there is no equality and never will be. The compromise made in 1786 has never been addressed and maybe never will.

  3. I think the message of inclusivity is a garbled form of the goal of not excluding people, which was the traditional issue. No one should be excluded from participation in academia (or other gainful pursuits) because of their sex, gender, race, class, religion, etc. It’s somewhat different to turn that into a goal of inclusivity, which seems to merely be a form of tokenism. When you add to that the fact that academia is seemingly enforcing an ideological conformity, the non-exclusionary goal seems to be lost. I don’t think you need an exact ratio of conservative or liberal professors, but a party-line faculty is no good.

  4. I don’t know if AAAS has much influence over equalizing opportunity broadly speaking. They are basically there to announce life’s winners. If they could do something on the side to encourage better schools, I’m sure they would consider doing that, but there isn’t really much they can do about that. So, a move like this is about the best we can expect. At least they will be doing something to make sure qualified people aren’t overlooked, and they might create a pool of role models for minority children to emulate. It is up to everyone else to roll up their sleeves and promote equality across the species.

  5. You hint at “…or if there’s a dearth of topologists.” In an institution that actually did focus on representation of a breadth of intellectual endeavor, how should (or could) this be approached? AAAS is unusually broad in it purview (my father was a member so I heard a fair amount about it), so it would seem challenging to pose a metric for “breadth.”

  6. They are concerned that right-wing voices are missing in college faculties, and that’s indeed the case: the overwhelming number of college faculty sit somewhere on the Left side of the political spectrum.

    Might this not be due in part to self-selection, in that educated rightwingers (especially those of a libertarian bent) may be drawn to more personally remunerative fields such as banking or high-finance or entrepreneurship?

    1. I suspect it’s because colleges certainly try to select for higher intelligence*, and any intelligent, non-aligned thinker is more likely** to end up gravitating to the Left of centre than the Right.



      *insert cynical caveat about the failure rate
      **I said ‘more likely’, not ‘certain’

  7. Ethnic and gender(sex) diversity cannot be in any way related to I intellectual diversity because, as we have been told, there is no difference whatsoever between races/ethnicities or genders/sexes, right?

    (Obviously I’m being a smart ass, but I know someone will misunderstand me anyway)

  8. It sure feels like they are carefully laying the groundwork for admitting some new members who might not otherwise qualify. I don’t the process for membership, though, or whether that is even possible.

  9. It’s the same everywhere. My company continually talks about diversity of viewpoints and perspectives but has never once attempted to measure them. The metrics actually used in the executive reports are proportions of race, sex, and sexual orientation. And we deal primarily with technology that is used the same way by all groups of people, so I don’t see how they can infer one from the other.

    Given that all-female or all-black groups are not said to lack diversity – and indeed are sometimes held up as models to emulate – I cynically feel that “diversity” rarely means diversity, but instead a reduction in whites and males.

    True diversity of viewpoints and perspectives I can get behind, but not this veiled “actually race and sex, except that we don’t want yours” kind of diversity.

  10. Nitpicking a minor typo, but it does change the meaning. When you wrote, “when you take the “member survey”, for you’re asked about your work or the tenor of your thought, but about your ethnic origin”, didn’t you mean to write “for you’re not asked about your work”, etc.?

  11. Those termites are becoming more brazen. An academy whose members are chosen on merit is now openly indicating it will in future choose members to make up quotas, thus making future academicians wonder if they are there because of their scientific contributions, or just their sex, colour or orientation. We nave become inured to university appointments being made on this sad basis, but perhaps the universities have been consumed and the termites need a new food source.

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