The topic of race and gender bias has been experiencing a flare-up in scientific social media over the past week. For example, lots of folks have been talking about a panel discussion involving Neil Degrasse Tyson, where he was asked whether genetic differences between men and women might explain the relative under-representation of women in science. He responded with a more-or-less reasonable statement about his own experiences growing up as a black kid who wanted to be a scientist:
I’ve never been female, but I have been black my whole life. So let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective, because there are many similar social issues related to access to equal opportunity that we find in the black community as well as in the community of women, in a white male dominated society…When I look at, throughout my life – I’ve known that I wanted to do astrophysics since I was nine years old on a first visit to the Hayden Planetarium…I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expression of these ambitions. And all I can say is, the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist, was, hands down, the path of most resistance through the forces of nature, the forces of society. Any time I expressed this interest, teachers would say, “Don’t you want to be an athlete?” I wanted to become something that was outside of the paradigms of expectation of the people in power. So, fortunately, my depth of interest was so deep, and so fuel-enriched, that every one of these curveballs that I was thrown and fences that were built-in front of me and hills that I had to climb, I’d just reach for more fuel and I kept going. Now here I am, one, I think, of the most visible scientists in the land and I want to look behind me and say, “Where are the others who might have been this?” And they’re not there. And I wonder, what is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not simply because the forces of society had prevented at every turn? — helpfully transcribed by Dynamic Ecology
Tyson tells a story here I’ve heard before from black colleagues. Sure, there’s racist bullshit in the world but it’s mostly just annoying and insulting — just one of many manifestations of General Stochastic Assholism (a theory I’ll be working out in greater detail in forthcoming posts). Real racism of course has existed in the US, a product of our unusual history, but a combination of strong financial incentives and public disapprobation has eliminated almost all overt discrimination, especially in academia. So it’s not a question of overt racism keeping kids like Tyson out of science, but rather that people don’t expect black kids to want to be scientists, and subtly push them in other directions, and generally folks grow up never thinking that they could go into these “white guy” careers. Another twist on the idea I’ve heard from both women and minorities is that, because science is historically dominated by white guys (specifically upper-crust white guys from Europe and the American Northeast), it’s very uncomfortable for other types of people to socialize with the establishment, and therefore folks have a tendency to just avoid the whole institution.
I find this idea of subtle disincentives, caused not by intentional bias but rather by me just being me with no malice aforethought, much more compelling and concerning than your typical hysterical liberal conspiracy theories — you know, that evil fat white pigs are conspiring in smoke-filled rooms to keep the black man down and turn women into docile breeders. No, the notion of subtle bias bothers me because it presents me with a moral decision without an obvious solution (I hate things like that). First, I certainly don’t want to drive away any qualified people who want to learn my trade, regardless of race or gender. But at the same time I’m not really interested in changing my personality or how I live my life to accommodate people from other walks of life. In other words, I enjoy doing “white guy stuff” like drinking craft beer and watching Babylon 5 reruns more than I care about benefiting society. I’m relatively inoffensive (or so I think) and feel like what I do outside of business hours isn’t fair game for my already over-intrusive profession.
So yeah, I feel like I probably ought to think about this “subtle bias” issue. But as I think seriously about the topic, it seems like “subtle bias” should apply to a lot more people than just the left-wing darling oppressed groups like non-Asian minorities and women. Hell, I feel like it applies to me, since being a Southern non-liberal I’m like a turd in the swimming pool when I socialize with my academic colleagues. I actually had a labmate explain to me once how my ancestors were able to stop being backward nitwits because of the invention of the air conditioner — talk about subtle fucking bias, and this was from a friend! I grew up in a world where my “people” were pretty much the only ethnicity it was still okay to mock in the public media. We were inbred, ignorant, over-Christianized, racist hicks. I wonder how many of my age cohort never considered careers like mine because of that? Perhaps, then, if we’re thinking about subtle, inadvertent bias keeping people out of science, we should think about other groups than just racial minorities and women — rural people? Ex cons? Combat veterans? Smokers? People with kids? Republicans? How many unsung Darwins exist in these less sexy populations, for whom no outreach effort is expended?
Ask yourself, gentle Academic, whether at any point in reading the last paragraph some part of your brain came up with a reason why my feelings as a Southern white man are irrelevant, or perhaps why I even deserve to be made uncomfortable, perhaps because of atavistic guilt for the imagined sins of my stereotyped ancestors…
Another thing that bothers me is that Tyson basically described a self-selection process rather than an externally sourced discriminatory process. People are convinced they can’t succeed in a field, and so they don’t try. But everyone is exposed to nay-sayers of one sort or another — again, General Stochastic Assholism in action — but why do some people ignore the haters and become successful?
Well, when I get bad reviews, rejection letters, or deal with listening to an in-lab conversation about how stupid Southerners are, my family usually pats me on the back and encourages me to keep going (ed. note: is this a classic example of Enabling?). Indeed, when I talk to folks from other walks of life who have made it in science, I often hear about how influential their close family was. Here’s a quote from a recent conversation I had with Vernon McIntosh, a biotechnologist with whom I went to grad school:
I actually remember the exact moment that it first occurred to me that I could consider a path into a “white” career. Ebony Magazine did an article on this hot new neurosurgeon named Ben Carson. My dad actually found this guy’s e-mail address (which was quite a feat back in 1990). Dr. Carson was so excited to be a mentor that he wrote me letters, sent copies of his book etc. So for me, it took a world-famous neurosurgeon to give me a clue that science was a thing that black people could do successfully.
So two observations here: first, familial support was important, and second, a prominent black role model willing to interact was important. Might I humbly suggest that we should focus on these two factors to increase minority (and female) participation in science? And might I suggest that there are systemic flaws in the business of science that hurt both of these factors?
Specifically, academia insists on absolutely deracinating people before accepting them. We move people around from city to city, sometimes from country to country, for a decade or more before finally letting them settle down. How many of us even have real friends — not just colleagues — any more? I have one — ONE! — person I’m not related to that I see on a daily basis and can talk to about things other than work. And even that will disappear if I’m fortunate enough to get a faculty position, assuredly hundreds of miles from here, which is hundreds of miles from where I went to grad school, which is hundreds of miles from where I grew up… Can there be a more family-hostile environment? I was fortunate enough to find an awesome wife and have kids before settling into this masochistic lifestyle. But if I hadn’t?
You want more women in science? Find a few mothers who made it to the top echelons and focus on their families instead of just their work. Hell, give fellowships that come with day care or are restricted to moms (or even dads). You want more black people? Focus on letting people find work near where they grew up — like Neil Degrasse Tyson — so they can continue to be role models for their communities. Take the stigma away from hiring in-house, for gods’ sakes! But if that’s impossible, then you just have to accept the fact that rational people who want to live happy lives are very likely to shun academic science like the plague.
Again, from Tyson’s interview: “So before we start talking about genetic differences, you’ve got to come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity.” Well, Dr. Tyson, before you can convince me there isn’t equal opportunity, you’ll have to convince me that a sensible person should choose a career in science. If you want broader participation in science, focus on making the scientific life less crazy and more amenable to people who want to live like “normal people” within the social milieu that produced them. More moms and dads, more kids, more home towns, more backyard gardens, more friends who aren’t scientists, less moving, less bitching, less ridiculous political infighting, less stress and pressure. Please?