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?