Glenn Loury and Sylvester Gates: Does diversity itself promote scientific advance?

March 18, 2023 • 12:30 pm

There are two main reasons why people want to promote diversity (both racial and sexual) in academia, and both were raised in the 1978 Bakke decision that allowed the use of racial preferences in university admissions so long as they didn’t involved fixed quotas. The first is diversity as a form of reparations: to allow minorities who had been deprived of equal opportunities because of historical bigotry to gain entry into areas formerly out of bounds, even if those reparations deprive some people of entry who have better on-paper qualifications. In other words, affirmative action.

The other is the view—and the one that proved dispositive in Bakke—was that diversity was an innate good: schools would be better places to learn if the students had a diversity of interests, backgrounds, politics, and so on. I can’t speak about formal demonstrations of that view, but it seems reasonable. Colleges would be boring places indeed if their student bodies were homogenous in background, ethnicity, politics, and geographical origin. There would be no late-night bull sessions or discussions that provided an opportunity to examine one’s own views, and to learn.

This latter view has now seeped into science, and has become the view that diversity in STEMM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) is not only good for preventing a stultifying homogeneity, but is good for science itself. That is, the more diverse the community of scientists (and here they usually mean racially diverse), the more chance we will get those great scientific ideas that can come only from people of diverse backgrounds.

The problem with this view is that although you can make a theoretical argument for it, as Sylvester Gates does in this printed (and also YouTube) conversation with Glenn Loury, there is no real demonstration that racial diversity promotes scientific progress. Of course you can point to advances made by people of all backgrounds in nearly every field of science, but who is to say that ethnically diverse backgrounds and genes themselves promoted this progress? Where are the data? Do different cultures really approach modern science in different ways?

One person who thinks this this is Sylvester Gates, a well-known black physicist famous for his work on supersymmetry. (He was also President of the American Physical Society, recipient of the National Medal of Science, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.)  Gates’s main idea, with which Loury for some reason seems to agree, is expressed in Loury’s intro below:

In the following excerpt from our recent conversation, physicist Sylvester “Jim” Gates makes the case for diversity’s role in spurring scientific innovation. Imagination, he argues, plays a key role in scientific progress. When the imaginative capacities of one culture come into contact with another, it can lead to advances that would otherwise be unthinkable. I find Jim’s case compelling, and yet I do not think that headcount DEI practices are the best way, or even a good way, to seize on the potential of human diversity. For that, we’ll need to do the hard work of searching out talent and to refuse the easy and inadequate path offered by DEI.

Click to read the piece on Loury’s Substack site:

But if you read the précis of the discussion, taken from from the hourlong YouTube conversation embedded below, you find that Gates has no good argument for ethnic diversity being a good way to advance science/ He relies solely on a weak and unconvincing analogy of physics to music.

That’s why I’m surprised that Loury says, in the printed summary, that he “finds Jim’s case compelling”, though he notes that DEI practices involving “headcounts” are not the way to do it. The weird thing is that DEI inititatives are precisely what Gates seems to be suggesting: the more racial (and cultural) diversity we have, the faster STEMM fields will advance. In the end, all I can conclude is that Loury pretends to agree with Gates but really is searching for a way to identify future scientists who will make breakthroughs, and to identify them without using race. But we already are trying to do that! We just don’t know how.

Gates’s argument is based on these theses:

1.) Imagination is what drives science. That is largely true.

2.) Different cultures (and he really means races, African-Americans in particular) have different kinds of imaginations than most scientists who are white (and male).  This may be true, though I have no idea if it is. It is true, though, that different cultures have, on average, different ways of looking at the world.

3.) Because imagination drives science, different imaginations associated with different groups will speed up scientific progress by opening up different ways of looking at the world and raising different questions.

The concatenation of 2+ 3 is the crux of Gates’s argument, and while it could be true, it’s not something that we routinely (or ever!) experience in science. Scientists of all stripes, genders, backgrounds, and ideologies all work the same way, and there’s no particular group that stands out for having “a different way of thinking” (there are individuals, of course, who seem to have qualitatively “different ways of thinking”, people like Feynman and Crick, and they’re usually white men—but that’s just because until fairly recently science was dominated by white men.  One can also think of women who had imaginative breakthroughs, like Nettie Stevens (who discovered sex chromosomes) and Marie Curie, or “people of color” like Ramanujan who seemed to have imaginations well beyond the norm. But who is to say that Ramanujan’s genius came from his background in India as opposed to a felicitous combination of genes that could occur in any group?

The final part of Gates’s argument is this:

4.) Science is like music, with musical scores comparable to the equations of science. And just like different cultures have different types of music derived from different imagination—or is it only different traditions that arose in geographical isolation?—so different cultures could have different ways of approaching science. Gates uses jazz as an analogy:

Let me get back to this point you made, because where these two seers coincide with each other is exactly in the innovation. You have to bring knowledge to innovation, because you have to build on a foundation, just as Isaac Newton talked about standing on the shoulders of giants. You’ve got to build on the foundation, but you’ve got to do things beyond the accomplishment of those who laid the foundation. And the only tool we have for that in science is our imagination. That’s what Einstein’s identifying.So now where does demography come into this? This is something that I also thought about for decades before I had an answer. And the way that I got this answer, I’m going to hopefully bring you along in the argument, and you can tell me I’m crazy. But let’s look at something else. We’re gonna focus on physics, because physics comes at two different levels of knowing. There’s physics that I can write in terms of F=MA, a piece of mathematics. There’s physics that I observe in the world and an experiment. Both of these things are physics, and one is actually intimately tied to the other. There’s a symbolic way of knowing physics and there’s an experiential way to to know physics.

So let’s ask, is there another activity that humans engage in that has this dualism about it? The answer is music, because music has scores, and that’s, roughly speaking, equivalent to what physicists do with equations. And music also is the experience of listening to it and emotionally reacting. So let’s look at music as a model, not just for physics, but for all sorts of mathematically based innovation. That’s the first thing I posit to people, and let’s just consider these two things side by side. If you do that, then something very interesting becomes more clear when you look at music.

I don’t know about you, Glenn, but I have a suspicion that, like me, you like a lot of classical. I like a lot of music, but classical music is among my loves. When I listen to classical music, you can immediately tell the difference between a Grieg and a Satie, and Debussy is like Satie but not so much like Grieg. Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, the great Russian composers. Of course there’s the Europeans—Mozart and what have you. But all of these great forms of classical music are actually subtly different. Chopin is another one, right? So how are they different? Well, they get to be different typically, because composers, in bringing the imagination part to the story, they bring their culture to the story. And in fact, a lot of classical music is actually derived from folk music that the composers must have heard as they were growing up.

Dvořák, for example. It’s interesting you should bring Dvořák to the table, because I’m not sure how many of your listeners are deeply into music, but Dvořák, as you know, made a visit to the United States and was influenced by the music of African Americans.

So the point I’m trying to make here is, the bringing of imagination to the growth of music, and especially classical music, because it’s easiest to see it here, involves the culture and the demography of the people who are engaging in the activity. And what that means is that you get great music, but you get great music that is a blossoming effect. It goes in all sorts of directions, because culture is not a unitary, solitary thing. Different cultures bring different things to the table of the creation of music.

But music is not science, for music is an art unconnected with empirical reality. It’s value is emotional, not its correspondence to reality. But somehow Gates sees science the same way:

One of my early mentors was a Nobel laureate by the name of Abdus Salam. . . the next thing he said to me, I was thunderstruck and totally incapable of understanding. He said—and again, this is not an exact quote, this is an expression of a sentiment—that when a sufficient number of people of the African diaspora enter the field of physics, he was convinced that something like jazz would appear

That was Gates’s epiphany. But I can’t see it. Jazz did develop from cultural differences: it sprang from black American roots nurtured in Africa, and was indeed a fantastic genre of music, adaptable, changeable, and able to cross-fertilize other types of music. Its connection to black culture was palpable and close, and it was pretty much sui generis, nurtured by musical geniuses like Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Coleman Hawkins.

But music is not equations, and you can’t do physics by imagination alone: you have to use the scientific toolkit evolved by trial and error to find empirical truths, and then your findings cross-checked by others. In the end, the value of your work is in how much it advances our knowledge of the universe.  That is very different from the purely emotional value of music, and requires far more than imagination. It requires an imagination that can be leveraged by science’s tookit to find those truths about nature.

Now if we had evidence that different cultures possessed different ways of thinking about science, that would support Gates’s view about diversity and STEMM. But we don’t have that evidence. All we have is a weak analogy between jazz and physics, and that’s all it is: an analogy, and not a strong one.

Everybody in the world now seems to do physics in the same way, although in trying to solve the hard problems, like whether string theory is true, people come at them from all different angles.  Yet nobody has made any advances in string theory, regardless of their sex or ethnicity. Is string theory awaiting its Duke Ellington? I don’t think so. Although I’m not a physicist, it seems to be one of those theories that’s empirically untestable.

In the video below, which is very similar to the printed conversation above, Gates first describes his scientific work and then moves on to the jazz analogy. To his credit, although he says that racism is still around in physics, Gates says that physics is not structurally racist, which it isn’t. But then he moves on to the jazz analogy, saying the same thing as above, and adding this (I may have gotten a few words wrong):

“If diverse cultures engage in a strenuous discipline, what they bring to the table are the subconscious things that sit in your imaginations and then are harnessed to the foundation of the disciplines that you’re trying to grow. And that’s why diversity is of such importance in STEM-based fields.”

But Loury, who says he largely agrees with Gates, asks an important question: how can cultural background make a unique contribution to physics when he, Loury, doesn’t see culture as having had such a big influence in STEMM. Loury brings up three examples of physicists who have made the kind of quantum imaginative leaps that Gates thinks are responsible for scientific progress. (Gates has been weaned on Kuhn and thus thinks that science progresses by revolutionary steps that involve “quantum leaps” of the imagination.) Loury’s examples are Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, and Albert Einstein. How did culture play a role in their genius?

Here Gates is forced into post facto rationalization. Einstein, he said, was a loner and a Jew: an “outsider.” Perhaps the culture of being an outsider (and a Jewish one) led to his scientific genius. What about Newton? Here Gates strains even more at gnats, saying that perhaps Newton’s genius sprung from his being a religious outsider: he was a Trinitarian. Well, that’s a stretch, and is being a “Trinitarian” a cultural difference that can affect one’s SCIENTIFIC imagination?

As for Maxwell, Gates doesn’t even try, for Maxwell was a garden-variety with no clear “outsider-ness”. But the fact is that almost any scientist can be seen to be an outsider in some way, so Gates seems to be advancing an airtight case that can’t be refuted.  But race and “outsiderness” are not identical, and many advances have been made by people who were not cultural outsiders. Lots of scientists were loners, which may be correlated with some degree of autism that leads to progress, or gives them the opportunity to think, but that’s neither culture nor race.

In the end, Loury and Gates agree that scientific advances come from a combination of imagination and serendipity (and of course smarts, or “merit”), but neither advances a way that we can select for those traits. All we can do is judge someone’s ability to produce breakthroughs by their past behavior. And up to now, that seems to have little to do with ethnicity or culture. What is seems to involve is the much-maligned concept of “merit.”

Listen below if you wish. In the end, I find Gates’s argument for the scientific value of ethnic diversity deeply unconvincing, and am surprised that Loury finds his case “compelling.” Compelling how?

30 thoughts on “Glenn Loury and Sylvester Gates: Does diversity itself promote scientific advance?

  1. In re the argument that “people from different races/ethnicities etc” bring some special unique wisdom or knowledge that is sui generis and adds to an educational or work environment, I saved this from a few years ago:
    “Denise Young Smith spent almost two decades working her way up in Apple, becoming one of the few black people to ever reach its executive team. She was named vice president of diversity and inclusion, and in 2017 traveled to the One Young World Summit in Bogotá, Colombia.
    “You asked me about my work at Apple, or in particular, who do I focus on?” she said to the reporter. “I focus on everyone. Diversity is the human experience. I get a little bit frustrated when diversity or the term diversity is tagged to the people of color or the women or the LGBT or whatever because that means they’re carrying that around … Because that means that we are carrying that around on our foreheads,” she replied.
    “And I’ve often told people a story—there can be 12 white blue-eyed blond men in a room and they are going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation,” she noted.
    Of course, Ms. Young Smith was first made to issue an apology and then she was gone from Apple within a few weeks.
    The idea of “diversity” as people from different groups or races being invested with special wisdom or skills crashes against the simple fact of the individual: there is no group essence or character that defines any group of humans, everything from intelligence to kindness to writing ability is scattered across humanity, and substituting a group identity for a personal identity tells you absolutely nothing about the individual human.
    The “Diversity” illusion is just another of the sacred myths that humans and societies seem to crave and create.

    1. The question occurs to me: “compared to what?” (I watched a Sowell book talk in which he asks this).

      Diverse compared to what?

      Usually, the idea seems to be to make diversity as diverse as possible – but compared to what?

  2. There would be no late-night bull sessions or discussions that provided an opportunity to examine one’s own views, and to learn.

    As long as there’s weed around, I imagine there will be late-night bull sessions on campus — though I wonder whether the decriminalization of pot has taken some of the frisson out of the experience, which, back in the day, was provided at least in part by the notion that one was engaging in behavior that was at least vaguely transgressive.

  3. “(I) am surprised that Loury finds his case “compelling.” Compelling how?”

    I wonder whether Lowry felt the goosebumps scholars in the soft sciences feel in the presence of a truly accomplished scientist in something harder, something with bones to it?

    Clever-but-inapt analogies are the stuff of bad science, not good. Sandra Harding’s insistence that Western science is a form of rape was such- an analogy that could be applied endlessly without ever answering the question “What does this even mean?” There is no “for instance” to be found anywhere.

    1. P.S. I’ve found it helpful when someone of a postmodern POV uses an inapt analogy in an argument to put on my puzzled look and say “Can you show me an example?”

      My moral core stings a bit when I do this because of the dissimulation- I know full well they can’t give me “an example”- but I rationalize that at least they might go looking for examples on their own and perhaps come to realize there are none.

  4. Yes, imagination is an important part of being a good scientist, but so is ability. Admitting people who are “diverse” but who don’t qualify on ability is unlikely to work, even if they do have imagination.

    1. I’m not sure what these folks even mean by “imagination”, or whether they know what they mean. “Imagination” is like “lived experience” or “social conditioning”- it sounds like an explanation of sorts until you realize it’s only a placeholder for an explanation. It’s something that needs explaining on its own. And it’s by no means a simple concept, as Steven Pinker demonstrated during the decades-long “great imagery debate” he was a participant in.

  5. So what proportion of scientists must hail from a ‘Matauranga’ background, or Shamanism , or with imagination driven by Voodoo?

    I suspect that the diversity approach will end up sneaking ‘other ways of knowing’ into science rather than fresh scientific insights.

  6. If different perspectives, diverse ways of thinking or something similar help make scientific advances, might it be beneficial if scientists got out of the lab a bit more and pursued some of their outside interests?

  7. I question whether the “cultures” of different ethnicities/races are really that distinct from the overall national culture and in such a powerful way as to make a meaningful difference. Perspective is, in my opinion, a personal trait.

  8. Music is a product of culture….the culture of MUSIC, which consists of the music that preceded it, not the human culture. The history of music (western music) can be traced as it accumulated complexity and thus invited more freedom for composers. Each era had its own social context but developed its own new protocols for that period, depending on the musical constraints of that period. Baroque and classical music had their own constraints and that is why we can instantly recognize music of those periods. At a certain point those constraints as well as the social context of the previous period were overpowered by certain music geniuses as well as the changed socio-political environment: Beethoven plus the birth of a post-aristocracy audience, and then, as the bourgeoisie appeared ,music spread from the palace or church into human society and its venues. Music was freed and the awesome Romantic period of the 19th century blossomed beyond comprehension. The use by Baroque composers of well-known hymns and dances, and then by classical composers (Beethoven, Mozart) of folk tunes, anthems, country dances, etc. ( and later by Chopin and even by Wagner,)followed. This was not homage but integration of various types of music into the composer’s own vision within the new freedom.Music is an abstract form and therefore does not “represent” its era or politics or feelings or social unrest or military accomplishment but is INCLUDED in the composer’s dictionary of notes as needed.

    1. I agree completely; and I would add that the imagination of individual composers is manifest in what my music teacher at school all those years ago called their ‘fingerprints’. Once you get used to it, you can tell that a given piece is by Beethoven or Brahms or Sibelius or Shostakovich within a few seconds of hearing it, even if you’ve never heard it before.

      That’s great, and is part of the endless diversity of music. Quite possibly the process of inspiration in science benefits from a similar diversity of imagination. But the real impact of science is in what comes next: the hard business of turning inspiration into hypotheses that can be tested by the evidence. People tend to underestimate how much effort and discipline this takes, and the extent to which it involves the ruthless rejection of alternative imaginative ideas that don’t account for the evidence.

    2. What is a musician without an audience?

      Mozart needed jobs, writing music for his clients, and by extension his audience. I’m not sure he wrote it for fun.

      It is not clear to me what music with us never had much of an audience. I think lots of music dies because it never had an audience.

  9. Comment disappeared?

    Wanted to share a title I came across – looks interesting :

    Thomas Sowell
    Affirmative Action Around the World : An Empirical Study
    Yale University Press

    … have not read yet.

  10. These discussions would be more interesting and useful if the discussants didn’t conflate race and ethnicity. They are two very different things.

  11. If someone being an ‘outside’ (racial or otherwise) then it would show in their work. If some Algonquin Physicist has a revelation that turns out to be a valid insight, spurred on by a perspective of the world based on the fables he was told as a child, or his cultural upbringing…

    Then it would show in his work. At which point, we’re right back to meritocracy. This is an absolutely simple discussion. Merit. End of story. This is what these ‘diversity’ people are always dancing around. It’s one thing to make sure people are actually being hired based on merit, without being descriminated against for their background or race. It’s another to suggest that race itself is somehow a useful trait that should go ahead of merit. Whenever Race is, itself, a merit, then the person is still being judged on merit. Whenever it isn’t a merit (the vast majority of the time) then to make decisions based on it is racism.

    Besides, this idea of different cultural imagination seems really shakey to me. In the arts? Sure! But in Science? Especially something as theoretically minded as Physics? You have to decouple yourself so much from a casual layman understanding of the world that any cultural influence on your thinking is going to be negated. The Scientific Method may have been developed primarily by europeans, but it is not a european way of thinking. Most people who are culturally european are not raised to think in the highly critical manner of science. Cultural passions may drive research, like many Christian scientists who sought to glimpse the mind of God. I’m sure there is at least one Italian Chemist out there who cares very strongly about the exact properties of olive oil under 350 degrees. But their research must still fall into the fundamentally foreign to all cultures scientific method.

    I don’t believe this man is a malicious racist. But he is a racist. And if he ever hires the less competent man for the job, just because the better man wasn’t ‘diverse’, then his racism is hurting people. And it is hurting science. I’d hate to see a world where the next Newton got turned down again and again for being a straight white male christian.

    1. Really butchered that first sentence. Should read…
      “If someone being an ‘outsider’ (racial or otherwise) was of research benefit, then it would show in their work.”

  12. I worked for 20 years at a major software company with a global customer base. We valued diversity in the workforce because our customers were culturally diverse. We had slightly different versions of our software for the various markets in order to comply with the diverse ways that people do things. We could commit major faux pas if we didn’t pay attention. Having a diverse workforce directly helped us meet customer needs. There was a direct link between workforce diversity and success in the marketplace.

    I’m willing to be convinced that the practice of science, too, benefits from a diverse group of practitioners. But the evidence needs to better than an analogy with music. If diversity is so valuable, it shouldn’t be that difficult to provide some good examples. It would be up to the claimants to provide that evidence.

    Whether diversity per se improves the practice of science or not, I emphatically support giving people of all backgrounds an equal opportunity to engage in the scientific enterprise. All those with the inclination and aptitude should be welcomed into the profession. Scientists from all backgrounds can contribute great things when given the chance.

    1. “I’m willing to be convinced that the practice of science, too, benefits from a diverse group of practitioners. But the evidence needs to better than an analogy with music.”

      I would go a step further. Science has such a long, proven track record of success, that if it could benefit so much from the diverse ethnicities of its practitioners, it must have already done so, and this hypothesis shouldn’t need such analogies to prop it up. And if all you have to offer is such analogies, that (I would argue) is evidence against the hypothesis. If diversity could hypothetically add so much, and we’ve already come so far, why do we even need such analogies? The analogies could hypothetically help us recognize solid examples, but if there are no such examples, the analogies come across as shallow attempts to support an idea that doesn’t stand well on its own.

      1. I agree that bringing forward such a lame analogy would be evidence against the hypothesis if the person making the claim were the best the proponents had to offer. I doubt that there is much more to it, but am willing to listen to (or read) a better argument is there is one. I’m not holding my breath.

  13. Comment #12 opines: ” I’m sure there is at least one Italian Chemist out there who cares very strongly about the exact properties of olive oil under 350 degrees.” A wonderful book that mixes Chemistry, Italian-ness, “lived experience”, a few fables, and much else, is Primo Levi’s “The Periodic Table” (1975, English translation 1984).

  14. When scientific propositions become part of one’s ethnic identity, the truth suffers. My usual reaction when reading about long-forgotten ethnic rivalries in science (they seem somewhat common in the 19th century), when researchers from different countries favored different theories, is to shake my head. The Nazi ideas about German and Jewish science are of course the most infamous example of this.

    The strongest argument for distinctive scientific styles is that this prevents bad ideas from taking over the world. For example, I hope the bad English of the Japanese makes their doctors less receptive to the denial of biological sex that is fashionable in the US. But this does require separation, which is hard in a globalized world.

    Classical music does not need to be true, but I question that its success owes much to diversity. Of course, in the 19th century especially, there were composers who tried to create distinctive national styles. But most successful composers knew other successful composers (a few hot spots like Vienna and Paris account for many of them), and they were typically exposed to a similar range of music. Nevertheless, they developed distinctive styles (see e.g. the reaction to Wagner; it was not just French composers who disliked him). I would also question that nationalist music really captured some ethereal national character. One doesn’t need to be German to appreciate Weber, Polish to understand Chopin or Russian to get Rachmaninoff.

  15. Gates: “Different cultures (and he really means races, African-Americans in particular) have different kinds of imaginations than most scientists who are white (and male).”

    But is the cultural divide between African and non-African Americans as big as it used to be? I would venture that a white American and black American probably have much more in common with each other than with someone from Hungary or Sudan.

    Nowadays hip-hop is the most popular form of music in the United States, and TV and the internet have removed many regional cultural differences. The US is arguably more diverse in color but less diverse in culture. I don’t think racial differences in the US guarentee differences in imagination.

    1. I wonder whether those who claim there is such a thing as a “black mind” that is fundamentally different from a “white mind” also believe that black brains are fundamentally different from white brains? If Gates has such great insights into the inner workings of brains, I’m sure neuroscientists would love to hear from him.

      At least perhaps he could describe in some detail how, say, the mathematics and physics of waves are different in the minds of black and white scientists. If such fundamental differences exist, it shouldn’t be hard to find some examples.

      Examples should come first, then generalities. And when generalities are offered, they should always be supported with examples. Or is that view too “white”?

  16. I would find this “diversity is good for science” argument a lot more persuasive if the people making it applied it in more areas than just race/ethnicity and gender. The people making this argument usually are the same people who advocate political homogeneity by mandating DEI statements for all job candidates. All of the ways that racial diversity is possibly beneficial to science would apply at least as much to political diversity. Maybe more so, because I think the difference between liberal and conservative philosophies is more fundamental than the cultural difference between black and white people, or between men and women.

  17. It’s interesting that none of these discussions ever take an international perspective. After all, science is done by many, highly diverse cultures, all over the world! The idea that it is all done my white men is completely false when looked at globally. As such, it’s not clear why racial disparities in a single country should be seen as anything more than an expression of different local preferences.

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