The Problem of the Notion of a [Diversity] Science

Replace the “diversity” tag above, with your favorite tag, be it Black, Green, Gay, Feminist or whatever. For much of science the problems are clear. What is “gay” number theory, or “feminist” crystallography besides nonsense.

A friend pointed me at this essay on First Things entitled, The Myth of Scientific Objectivity. There is much to unpack there, but I’d thought I’d offer a few thoughts. My notions of philosophy of science and how science works to put my cards on the table are much influenced by Michael Polanyi especially this book, Personal Knowledge. I think some of the insights from that book would do to criticize and quiet the problems that arise such as Mr Wilson’s example, a ‘feminist’ sociologist examining the “good” features of divorce, which requires ignoring much of the obvious. Mr Polanyi points out that much of science is, contrary to popular notions, a process which we can’t explain but have to learn for ourselves. One of the features of this explanation of how science works it that there is an essential step which Mr Wilson doesn’t mention.

Mr Wilson points out that the scientific process is not the abstract inductive or deductive process, but one of a collection of personal insights for which the advocate of that insight then gathers data to support and convinces other that he/she is correct. I think the part missing here is that the person who has this insight has become, through years of work, skilled at the ways of thinking and methods in solving problems in the particular field of research that their insight is not uninformed but instead based on a collection of personal history and knowledge in that same field. The aesthetics of what comprises good science in any particular field is taught and learned and makes an essential feature to the progress of science.

Diversity in and of itself has impact on fields of science, as you would expect, only as much as the social aspects of human life are the within the scope of inquiry in that branch of science. If you are studying how flagella propel microorganisms in fluids, then your notions of gender and race exactly irrelevant. But within sociology, psychology, and such arguably have contributions that might be possible from other social points of view. But those insights gleaned from those fields likely are as impermanent as the social conditions in which they are implanted. One the other hand, inquiry into the nature of elliptic curves over the rational numbers … not so much. The insights gleaned will not fade as social conditions change nor will the truths discovered be dependent on any features and facets of  human society.

I might note, that there is a good counter argument to Mr Polanyi’s ineffable nature of scientific knowledge, in that computer science and programming may be an answer to what is and what is not ineffable. See for example, this text. If you can teach a computer to do the thing you are trying to explain how to do, then you understand it at a level which is no longer ineffable. Your program is the explanation.

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  1. Boonton@gmail.com says:

    If you are studying how flagella propel microorganisms in fluids, then your notions of gender and race exactly irrelevant.

    I don’t think anyone actually would disagree with this statement, but is this statement important or is it a red herring?

    Let’s say that studying flagella is a very important thing. Say we have established an Institute of Flagella Study, IFS, which has 10,000 people working at it trying to unlock the flagella’s secrets.

    Would diversity in this operation matter? I suspect it does. Given thousands of universes, I think you would find the universes where most of the 10K scientists were hired based on connections to Jerred Kushner’s friends and family, their output would be less impressive than universes that followed some type of Google like process of trying to find the most flagella minded of scientists.

    Might it be possible an IFS staffed by unqualified cronies might get more lucky than dedicated scientists? Sure, but if we’re going to be with odds we should reject that long shot and go with the better odds.

    Now that we excluded that option, what about all the options where IFS is staffed by scientists but what type? Should they all just be the ‘best of the best’? Would it matter if they ended up 99% male or white or whatever?

    Well interesting thing I heard about search and learning algorithms. They get better if you introduce noise. Here’s a thought experiment from Nicholas Christakis. You have an environment of hills, valleys and one tall mountain. You randomly place 4 people handcuffed back to back and blindfolded in it and tell them they must find the highest point. One simple method they could use is take turns taking one step forward in each direction. If that step increases their elevation, take another one, if it doesn’t try a different direction. The only problem with this method is that they are likely to end up on top of one of the hills and not the mountain…unable to move since any step will lower their elevation. Introduce some ‘noise’ such as being open to taking ten steps downwards and you’ll greatly increase their ability to map the entire terrain and find the actual highest point.

    Our hypothetical IFS is presumably trying to find the largest secrets of the flagellum. Unfortunately we do not already know the flagellum’s secrets so when they tell us they have found it, we cannot know if they really did or if they just got themselves on top of a minor hill.

    In this sense then diversity is a management tool added to ensure the team is ‘stirred up’ and has people one it whose views will clash and generate ‘noise’ in their discovery process.

    We can note the US Constitution does this too, except it uses geographic diversity. Back in the day it might have been the case all the smartest people were clustered near Philadelphia, NY and Boston. Nonetheless the Constitution didn’t allow all of them to just be in the gov’t, the House and Senate forced geographic diversity…if South Carolina had dolts and PA had 10 geniuses, that didn’t matter PA only got 2 Senators which meant the Senate couldn’t just be ‘the best of the best’. Back then ‘identity politics’ probably was deeply tied to geography so what we really had and still have was diversity.

    I think where people falter here in this discussion is resorting to scientism in an area where science has actually spoken very little. The top 10,000 thinkers on the flaggellum may not be the optimal team to study it. When people complain about diversity measures at places like Google, they often make an assumption that ‘science’ has proven ‘the best engineer’ is the one who should get the job….but if you’re hiring hundreds of engineers you aren’t really focused on any one, instead you’re trying to find the optimal team and that’s not necessary as simple as selecting the top test score or grades or whatever easy metric someone might pull out.