When I first heard word that scientists were grouping together to advocate evidence-based decision making and promote the pursuit of truth, I felt a warm fire in my spirit. A flicker of hope in humanity. And as cliché as that might sound, I really did feel hopeful. Science has helped us reveal many of the wonders of our world, many of the beautiful and intricate reasons why it’s incredible to be alive and sentient in our little corner of the galaxy. I felt hopeful that science would also help us reveal that the world is a better place if we work together to bring safety, equality, and a respect for facts to the top of our list of priorities.
At this time in my life, however, I am no longer naive and disillusioned. I recognize that science has its problems. I’d like to paint my field as a flawless masterpiece, but I would be lying to you. Science is not an equal playing field, and it hasn’t been for a while. Sometimes we cling to the idea that science is a noble and pure pursuit, but unfortunately, our idealism does not align with our reality. Humans created society, and as such, the way we think and act is largely shaped by the societies we create. Science is no different. Humans created the infrastructure for scientific pursuit, from the philosophy of science to the policies that guide its funding and ethics. As such, science is a product of our society. This means science is political. Science is vulnerable. Holding an ideal of nobility may help better motivate one’s scientific goals or applications of knowledge, but sadly, science is not noble. Not in the way humans pursue it.
Have a conversation with anyone from a marginalized group and you’ll realize that not all bridges to scientific pursuit are created equal. Some of us belong to more than one marginalized group, which sometimes means you have to build your own bridges to get across. For example, consider the concept of double jeopardy, a term used to describe the challenges that women of color experience in fields like STEM environments. Women and people of color already face significant challenges in STEM fields, much less a woman who happens to also be a person of color. UC Hastings released a great report on this topic two years ago, and I further discussed the topic on an early episode of the Synapse Science Podcast.
It’s difficult for me to understand how we can get so excited about the grand diversity of plant & animal life here on Earth, yet we don’t make the effort to protect the diversity that exists within our own human species. Some people see diversity as a burden instead of a boon. We want to be unique little snowflakes, but we don’t want to respect or validate the uniqueness of other people. It doesn’t make sense. I understand how it could be overwhelming to learn about the diversity of our species if you start from scratch. We’ve been rapidly exploring the varieties in our race, gender, sexual orientation, neurodivergence, disabilities, and more. Diverse people have always existed, but it is more recently that the details of those diversity have been shared with more of the world.
Understanding these details doesn’t have to be overwhelming, though. Learning about these traits is like learning anything else – you pick a place to start…and you start. Maybe it’s a topic you’re the least informed about. Maybe it’s one that directly relates to someone you know, a family member or a colleague. Start listening to the voices of people who identify with these groups. Read articles written by these people. Think critically and if you react defensively to something, train yourself to pause and evaluate why you feel defensive, why you feel personally offended. But at the same time:
Reminder (particularly for white women, frankly): you do not have to be personally offended for an issue to be problematic or offensive.
— Hanna Marie (@tinysapien) February 25, 2017
If a bunch of people who belong to a marginalized group are telling you that there is a problem in society with respect to their group….there’s a high probability they know what they’re talking about. We cannot afford to be lazy in our understanding of our own species, not when we have the energy to make well-narrated documentaries about how many fantastic species of frogs exist on our planet. Let’s be active in our pursuit to understand the diversity of humanity. And if you find yourself in a position of authority, power, and leadership, this is especially important. Listening to the voices of female scientists, for example, could help you better understand the struggles that we face in STEM fields. So could reading that UC Hastings report or looking up articles written by women in science about their experiences in the lab, at conferences, etc. It would answer this question for you:
Are you a female who thought about doing engineering but decided against it? Why? What can the science community do better? #ScienceMarch
— March for Science (@ScienceMarchDC) February 23, 2017
It is easy to walk along the bridges that others have already built for you and ask the person in the river why they decided to abandon the idea of building their own bridge. But it is more helpful, more humane to help that person up onto your bridge, or to help them build a bridge alongside yours, or better yet, to widen your own bridge so that more people can walk along it.
tl;dr: Dear March on Science, the science community can “do better” by applying evidence-based thinking to its own microsociety. Explore the evidence for sexism in science, analyze it, and develop a solution to reduce it. It’s not easy. But that never stopped brilliant scientists from achieving the impossible before. Don’t let it stop you now.