15 October 2013

Diversity in Science

"First rate minds try to surround themselves with first rate minds.  Second rate minds try to surround themselves with third rate minds."  That is a pragmatic point for today's topic.  Whether I'm a first rate mind myself, I enjoy being around them.  And it's obvious that science does best when we have the best people involved.  My actual starting point is the morality that it is wrong to discriminate against people for who they are.

What brings this up, and out of my usual range of posting, is events over the weekend that happened to Danielle Lee, @dnlee5, a biologist and blogger at Scientific American.  Early in the process, she gave an interview and said: “If that many people were going to come out in support of me, I’d rather it be in support of one of the missions that’s going to make me redundant. I am trying to make myself redundant, truth be told. It is a lonely place to constantly be the only one like you in science,” "  One such mission being increasing diversity in science.

Very normal for my posting is the message 'you can do science'.  But that doesn't touch preconceptions people might have about who 'you' can be (quick answer: anyone).  I've heard that the common image of a scientist is a middle-aged white man with bad hair, wearing a lab coat.  Fortunately I'm nothing like that -- I've never worn a lab coat.  I've also heard that it's better to talk about living people than people like George Washington Carver and Marie Curie (still ... go read their biographies).

I'll limit myself even further, just to people that I've met personally.  The fact that I know these people does not mean (I'm looking at the nitwits* who might have snuck in to the room) that there's no discrimination in science any more.  It does underscore the fact that it's unconscionable.  If you don't accept the moral argument, then because of the pragmatic -- these are first rate people you would be refusing to let do good work.  I won't be listing names for all, which is something of a question.  On one hand, taking away someone's name is more than a little depersonalizing and can be offensive in its own right.  On the other, I've heard more than once from people that they don't like to be trotted out to be 'the woman' or the like -- that they just want to go do good science, a privilege accorded the pale males who just want to go do good science. 
  • Warren Washington is an African-American man who has won many awards, and been a leader in climate modelling.  He was also the doctoral advisor to Claire Parkinson.
  • Claire Parkinson a woman who has been studying sea ice for decades now, and wrote a book (now in second edition) on climate modeling with Warren Washington.  Also wrote a very good book solo on the history of science and math.
  • Margaret Davidson   A woman who has been director of both NOAA's Coastal Services Center and its National Ocean Service.  She lead (we met about the time she started so I know it was her idea and plan) the CSC towards and in its approach of working with communities as opposed to issuing edicts.  (NOAA being furloughed, her bio is offline).
  • Jamese Sims An African-American woman who did her thesis on modeling hurricane intensity and now works in NOAA/NWS on relating weather information to health and safety.
  • A blind PhD cognitive psychologist.  As much as I read, I boggle at someone who takes in entire textbooks by listening.  We played cards once, which I think is hard if you can't see them.  (Braille doesn't cover the fact that you can't 'see' them all at once.)  Much better card player than me, too.
  • A gay, disabled, African-American man.  There's an article about straight white male being the lowest difficulty setting for life, by John Scalzi.  This guy has been playing on the grandmaster setting.  And has remained amazingly not-bitter.  I'd last maybe a few weeks in his place.
  • James West  an African American man, inventor of the microphone that's used in several billion devices (you probably have several yourself), member of the National Inventor's Hall of Fame.
  • Jeanette Epps is an African-American woman, astronaut, inventor, engineer.
  • A female Muslim scientist from India -- we talked, well before 9/11, about the concept of jihad and what it meant.  She talked; I asked questions and listened to answers.  She said that the jihad was an internal matter -- the struggle with yourself to live a virtuous life.  I've since heard this from a number of other Muslims.
  • A Hispanic male mathematician/oceanographer
  • A Hispanic female observational oceanographer
  • A Hispanic female numerical hurricane modeller (was also a summer student of mine)
  • A transgendered, gay, man -- another for playing life on the grandmaster setting.  Incredibly broadly talented across math/science/engineering/technology _and_ languages. (Human ones as well as computer ones.)
And many more.  This list is biased towards African-Americans and women because it was prompted by an African-American woman's experiences.  It has long been obvious to me that first rate minds come in all packages, from all backgrounds.

Second rate minds try to surround themselves with third rate minds.  They can't cope with people who are as or more talented and hard working than they are.  If they must encounter a first rater, they're the ones fastest to reach for the bigotry encountered by @dnlee5.

* I'd be using stronger language except for this blog's language standards.

1 comment:

Kevin O'Neill said...

You'd probably enjoy reading this blog essay, We Have Always Fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative by Kameron Hurley I ran across it while chasing down links related to the @DNLee5 story.

"Half the world is full of women, but it’s rare to hear a narrative that doesn’t speak of women as the people who have things done to them instead of the people who do things. More often, women are talked about as a man’s daughter. A man’s wife."