‘Scientific thinking’ as a barrier to diversity in science


A couple months ago my friend Kenny Gibbs wrote a great post about diversity and science for Scientific American. I want to reflect on this sentence (emphasis in original):

Science workforce diversity refers to cultivating talent, and promoting the full inclusion of excellence across the social spectrum.

I like the words inclusion and excellence there. The institutions of science, like all institutions, impose formal and informal requirements to foster excellence. That inevitably means including some people and excluding others. And that’s okay. People who can’t solve differential equations almost certainly will not become successful physicists, and so they get weeded out at some point. That type of exclusion makes sense.

But the requirements to become a scientist haven’t always made sense. Feminist critiques of science have argued (persuasively in my humble opinion) that the science has often imposed false barriers. That is, science had–and has–requirements that exclude some people even if they would excel as a scientist, thereby hurting both science and those excluded.

The most obvious historical examples are race and gender. Just being a woman or having black skin banned you from science. We’re thankfully past those days. But even though such obvious impediments have dissolved, many argue that science still imposes false barriers. Perhaps the best example is the culture of science. Computer science doesn’t necessarily have to project a geek image. But it does, effectively discouraging many women (and men!) from engaging.

So when people like Kenny talk about making science more inclusive, they often mean changing (among other things) the culture of science. These discussions understandably focus on race, gender, sexual orientation, and physical disability. Wherever people lie on these dimensions, the argument goes, shouldn’t prevent them from thinking scientifically and becoming a scientist.

While I see the merit in this approach, I’m starting to wonder if those of us who care about an inclusive science have to go one step further. The idea of scientific thinking itself may be a false barrier and must be interrogated.

At first glance the notion that scientists must ‘think scientifically’ seems reasonable. But that’s only if we scientists define and deploy the term fairly. It’s not reasonable if we define it with arbitrary criteria unrelated to anyone’s ability to do science. The history of science gives us reason to pause. At one point scientists said women, merely by being women, couldn’t think scientifically. We said the same about Jews and blacks. We’ve routinely defined the term to mean that entire groups of people were incapable of it. Although it appears scientists no longer define ‘scientific thinking’ so unfairly, what if we still do, but we’ve just shifted our target?

Which finally brings me to my hobbyhorse: creationists. According to one prominent journalist, creationists are “utterly unmoored from science, rationality, and reality.” Many scientists agree with that sentiment. They believe that creationists cannot think scientifically. I would put it differently. It’s not that creationists can’t think scientifically. It’s that scientists have–yet again–defined it to unfairly exclude an entire group of people. We’ve transferred our intolerance to certain types of Christians. And like we’ve done in the past, our own arguments lack evidence and are unscientific. We never really had any real evidence women couldn’t think scientifically. And we don’t any such evidence about creationists today.

Given our consistent inability to meaningfully and fairly define the concept, I’m inclined to abandon it. Insisting on ‘scientific thinking’ seems to me to be another way to enforce an exclusive culture. I’m not convinced it’s meaningfully different from insisting people in computer science embrace geek culture.

Who cares if people can think scientifically? What matters is whether people can do scientifically. And we know as a matter of empirical fact that creationists, whatever the flaws in their thinking, can often do science just fine. They can do physics. They can do chemistry. They can do geology. They can even do biology!

And besides, one of the more powerful arguments for diversity is that having scientists with different ways of thinking leads to better science. Kenny uses this line of reasoning himself: “When trying to solve complex problems, progress often results from diverse perspectives…People from different backgrounds do, on average, tend to approach work and problem solving differently. These differences can bring new perspectives needed to promote innovation.” So if diverse perspectives and problem solving approaches is what we’re after, why limit ourselves? Why not welcome people who think in all sorts of ways, whether or not their thinking is formally deemed scientific? Why shouldn’t science even be open to people who don’t ‘think like a scientist’?

A good friend of mine recently posted a great Huffington Post article on her Facebook feed. The author, a mother of two teenage girls, described how she came to realize that combating stereotypes can go too far. In her well-meaning desire to show that girls don’t have to be (for lack of a better term) girly, she forgot that some want to be girly. She closes with a profoundly important message:

I want to live in a world where wearing lip gloss and understanding quantum physics is not mutually exclusive. I want it to be normal for baking and welding to coexist on a hobby list. I want women to feel like they can leave the house without makeup, but if they choose to wear stilettos, they aren’t lowering their IQs.

Some girls like Barbies, makeup and the color pink, and some do not. Both types of girls can become scientists. Neither should have to change who they are to do so. Similarly, some Christians believe in evolution and some do not. Christians in both groups can also become scientists. And just like girls in science, they shouldn’t have to change who they are to do so.


  1. Nice post. One addition. The fact that some people can’t solve differential equations is often, in most cases, based on negative exclusion as well. Time and time again, we see that such “abilities” described as smartness or intelligence correlate with things that don’t make sense – like neighbourhood or socioeconomic level. But we know that rich kids aren’t necessarily smarter than others. No. In fact what is happening is negative inclusion and exclusion at such a fundamental and early, educational level that it produces what you observe later in life as an ability to do differential equations by some and an inability by others. Now, don’t get me wrong; in actuality, some people can do it and some people cannot do it right now. However, this speaks nothing of their potential to do it, nor of whether they would have been able to do it had systemic educational exclusion hadn’t been in place.

    1. Awesome! Thanks. You’re right…there is a lot of negative exclusion that takes place. But I didn’t want to get into educational inequality there.

      I suspect you and I would disagree on to what extent intrinsic (for lack of a better term) ability plays in scholastic achievement. I think it plays a non-trivial role.

      But nevertheless…completely agree systems educational exclusion plays a big role in the final outcome.

  2. The scientific problem with Creationism is simple: it doesn’t specifically guide scientific research. Rather, its purpose is apologetic, mostly presented in the form of negative arguments that supposedly defeat evolutionary theory. If Creationism is truly scientific as its proponents often claim, then let’s see some science guided specifically by Creationist ideas. I’ve yet to see such work in an extended research program; the best they can do is some one-off bit of research that seems to create some new excuse about why Creationism doesn’t work as science.

    1. Thanks for your comment as always Robert. But I wasn’t talking about the scientific validity of creationism. I was arguing whether *creationists* (i.e. the people) are any less capable of rational/critical/scientific thought than others. The evidence suggests they are not.

      Or to be stronger, and to quote my boy Dan Kahan, people who say they don’t believe in evolution know as much about science as those who say they do not.

      Happy Thanksgiving!

      1. Praj, you wrote: “So if diverse perspectives and problem solving approaches is what we’re after, why limit ourselves? Why not welcome people who think in all sorts of ways, whether or not their thinking is formally deemed scientific? Why shouldn’t science even be open to people who don’t ‘think like a scientist’?” I answered those questions: Creationism doesn’t help with any of that, scientifically speaking.

        Think about genomics, for example. Our knowledge of our genome, and those of other species, stems directly from applying evolutionary theory. Creationism doesn’t help here; it hinders us, because it provides no direction for fruitful research into genomics.

        Now, if Creationism offered some insight into novel research directions that yield fruitful results, then let’s get going with applying that insight. But as near as I can see, Creationists aren’t interested in such application. Their focus regarding Creationism seems to steer more towards evangelism and apologetics, and away from actual scientific research.

        1. Hi Robert. Thanks again. If you carefully read my post, you will see that I do not use the word ‘creationism’ even once. I consistently use creationists, including the passage you quoted from me. In fact, throughout my writing I stress that I care more about people than anything else.

          I am not arguing that creationism offers something to science. I argue that the people who believe in creationism can contribute. You consistently avoid wrestling with the evidence I have offered for that argument.

          Please re-read my comments policy! I have never been interested in debating the science of evolution.

          Hope you had a good Thanksgiving.

      2. Praj, you wrote: ““So if diverse perspectives and problem solving approaches is what we’re after, why limit ourselves?” Creationism is a perspective that claims a particular problem solving approach. Unfortunately, it doesn’t produces fruitful scientific research results.

        I’m aware that your policy states that you don’t discuss the scientific merits or disadvantages of Creationism. However, since you clearly wrote “diverse perspectives and problem solving approaches,” apparently meaning to include Creationism and not merely people who accept Creationism, then I have to raise this point, again.

        1. Sorry Robert, but that is not correct. My entire post, and also Gibbs’s post that I referenced, is about diversity of scientists–i.e. people. Here are the sentences right before and after the ones quote:

          1. And besides, one of the more powerful arguments for diversity is that having scientists
          2. (Quoting Gibbs) People from different backgrounds do…
          3. Why not welcome people
          4. …science even be open to people

          Every single sentence there references people. At no point did I imply that creationism was a perspective to be brought into science.

      3. Praj, here’s the sentence again: “So if diverse perspectives and problem solving approaches is what we’re after, why limit ourselves?” There’s no mention of people there.

        Obviously, you know what you meant. I did not. I apologize, and I’ll leave it at that.

  3. Thanks for your fair and inclusive post as to who can do science. Isaac Newton was a creationist. Where he differed from present-day Creationists is that he read the first chapter of Genesis as the description of a series of end points of creation. Everybody lives in the world pictured in the first chapter of Genesis so it really should not be an issue how long or by what process the Creator got us here.

    If Robert Little eats turkey today he should be reminded that it was paleontologists and not evolutionary theorists who showed that he is eating a descendent of dinosaurs. As for genetics, the science Robert Little is mentioning is selective breeding not all the coding that takes places in cells. As far as I know evolutionary theory was blindsided by the fact that life is digital and not analog.

    Please remember to thank someone today for your existence, even if it is only your parents.

    1. Newton was obviously uninformed about evolutionary theory, since it didn’t exist at that time, for all practical purposes.

      The vast majority of paleontologists accept evolutionary theory. Many apply evolutionary theory explicitly in their work, and a few are well-known evolutionary theorists. Certainly it wasn’t the Creationists who discovered that birds are dinosaurs, biologically speaking.

      I note your failure to address my comments concerning genomics. Please note that genomics is related, but is not equivalent, to genetics. At best, selective breeding is incidental to genomics.

      Evolutionary theory was never “blindsided by the fact that life is digital and not analog.” Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, the basis for population genetics and for the so-called “Modern Synthesis” of evolutionary theory, recognizes the discrete genetic nature of morphological determination.

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