Diversity: Science March Edition

Yesterday I attended the March for Science in Washington, DC. It was a good time, and I think it was a worthwhile event matched by numerous other marches worldwide. For those who followed the march’s organization on Twitter and in other media, one of the most visible controversies surrounded diversity and inclusion in the march. Some tweeters are still criticizing the involvement of Bill Nye as a major figurehead in the march. They don’t like him because he’s a white male and they’d rather see more non-white/non-male role models promoted as figureheads in the march. Or they don’t like him because he said something wrong about gender or race at some point. He said some wrong things about science too. He’s not even a “real” scientist. He’s an imperfect and overprivileged white man — he’s the status quo. Isn’t he the sort of thing that protests are against? 

Me at the US Capitol Building during the March for Science

Diversity/inclusion in STEM is a complex subject, and I’m going to have to address it across several posts. For this post, I don’t have time to justify my background or expertise in the subject; I just want to talk about Bill Nye for a minute. I have two little girls, and I would love it if they take an interest in STEM. My oldest has already identified paleontology and entomology as potential careers (she’s also picked “snowman” so take that with a grain of salt). We’re lucky to live in a college town where she has met dozens of female STEM professionals. We have female STEM role models in the family. Check, check and check.

But role models only demonstrate possibilities to a kid. “I could be a blahblahlogist like so-and-so I guess.” The mere existence of a role model is not enough to inspire interest or to perceive that role as desirable. That’s because there’s a distinction between identity and efficacy. One day my daughter, age five, found Bill Nye’s show on Netflix and proceeded to binge watch it for weeks. That’s the missing piece of inspiration. Now she can get back to those role models with a little more context. Now she can maybe have conversations and ask questions. I have no doubt that a non-white/non-male celebrity could be what Bill Nye is, but for right here and right now, he’s a celebrity that people recognize, who has influenced kids across multiple generations to see science as more than nap-inspiring, and hopefully some of those kids are not just the status quo of white males. I just don’t think there is another science celebrity who has the kind of popular reach and recognition that he does. A successful popular movement needs to put celebrities out in front, or else it’s just a bunch of nerds rehearsing their complaints to each other.

Is this scientism?


Is there science happening here? I need a biologist to tell me.

PZ Myers and Laurence Moran say “Physicians and engineers are not scientists” (a point argued with, I think, malicious intent). Meanwhile Jerry Coyne and others think that car mechanics and plumbers are doing “science, broadly construed.” Sam Harris and Steven Pinker suggest (or at least imply) that scientists will ultimately overtake the humanities; Massimo Pigliucci has strenuously critiqued this latter view, calling it “scientism.”

This debate revolves around a basic rhetorical fallacy: the claim that “scientists” have a unique legitimacy attached to their beliefs, together with a claim of demarcational privilege to decide who is and isn’t a scientist. The arational imposition of intellectual privilege is, I think, the essence of the fuzzily defined “scientism” that non-scientists find threatening. It’s threatening because it is a threat. It attacks the legitimacy of entire classes of scholarship, and the Myers/Moran attack on engineers is one example.

This style of argument is used to de-legitimize a perceived opponent, or (as in Pigliucci’s case) to defend the legitimacy of his own profession. Such defenses are, according to Coyne, “defensive” — check out Coyne’s reaction to a historian who proposed that scientists might benefit from studying history. To paraphrase his position: we (scientists) don’t need you (non-scientists), you need us. On this level, the debate has nothing to do with science or the quality of ideas; instead it is a purely sophistic (and egoistic) effort to disqualify others.

I’ll pause now to remind the reader that I’m an engineer. Speaking as an engineer, I think there is a clear distinction between engineering and science: engineers have to actually get things right or they may suffer immediate economic, functional or ethical consequences. Scientists, on the other hand, have to pass their work through a process of critical review by their peers. The latter process is important to the long-term filtering of ideas, but peer review doesn’t have the same falsifying power as a collapsing bridge, an exploding boiler, a crashing train, a killer radiation leak or a misfired missile. So if we’re talking about legitimacy, I’d sooner trust the beliefs of a randomly selected engineer over those of a random scientist.

But Moran and Myers think engineers are something less. They are annoyed by Ken Ham’s claim that creationists can be successful in scientific careers, something that was argued during the Bill Nye / Ken Ham debate. They are so annoyed by the creationists that they are willing to degrade entire classes of scholars in order to win a fake point.

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Ken Ham: making a new generation of Atheists

Bill Nye vs Ken Ham, Feb 4, 2014In just a few days, Bill Nye will go head-to-head with creationist Ken Ham in a debate that has generated a lot of controversy in the online skeptical community. Many are concerned that this debate will attract attention and confer an appearance of legitimacy on Ken Ham’s organization, Answers in Genesis, and its fundamentalist ideas. But I want people to pay more attention, to think harder about this debate, so that they can realize the degree to which biblical creationism is a despicable fraud.

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