Race, Gender, and Science

Let’s say you’re a scientist – I’m pretty sure this isn’t my audience, so it’s a safe bet you’re not.  But let’s say you are… You’re looking at a lake, and you see that there is one portion of the lake where you find mostly male fish with a certain speckled pattern.  This in spite of the fact that this lake is full of this species of fish with plenty of both males and females and a large array of colorings and markings.  You think – this doesn’t make sense, the probability must be really low.  Indeed, you run some statistics and find that the probability of finding only male speckled fish clustered in this portion of the lake is less than 0.05.  That’s statistically significant!  So, you think, there must be something going on here – there must be some causal factor.  In fact, you eventually find that male speckled fish tend to prefer a particular type of food and this area happens to be rich in that food source.  Science!  Nice job investigating that anomaly!

Now let’s say you’re still that scientist.  You’re sitting in a room with your fellow scientists and some policy makers discussing some issue that has regulatory potential.  Let’s say you look around and see that everyone around you, with a couple of exceptions, is a male with a particular coloration pattern (generally, a lack of melanin and often a slight speckling).  What do you do?  Do you look at the probability of this happening in a diverse population, and then look for causal factors?  I doubt it.  More likely, you come up with some explanation for why this is natural and dismiss it.  Then again, you probably didn’t notice it to begin with.  Is it your fault? No, of course not – not in any direct causal sense.  Then again, that you didn’t notice or failed to call it into question is part of the cause, and in that sense, that you didn’t do anything about it is part of the problem.

I am part of the problem…

9 thoughts on “Race, Gender, and Science”

  1. while I appreciate the arc of this gesture I think that there aren’t yet very good answers/models for thinking how lab-based/engineering models should be incorporated into more liberal/humanist democratic concerns and I don’t think there can be a one-size-fits-all solution to such fluid multiplicities, which than raises all kinds of concerns about ‘equal’ treatment under the law/govt. Can we have non-standardized procedures for governance on the books (not that in practice we don’t make it up as we go all the time)?

  2. yes the problem needs to be attended to but in terms that will speak to those involved, there are no really satisfactory ready-made answers so much work to be done if any actual on the ground, at the table, changes are to come about otherwise those in attendance with a working model in hand will continue to carry the day as decisions have to be made every day.

  3. Good post and interesting discussion. Yes, those with working models in hand will mostly continue to carry the day… unless and until it becomes their problem. Sometimes people will even say they care but find themselves entirely unable to actually change things because… well… where does one begin… and so we slip into default mode (e.g. from a recent meeting I was in “well we do care about making gender relations more just but we really have to sort out the financial side of things first… and we know we can do that by not worrying about the gender thing right now… it just makes things a bit more complicated…”) The question is how do you make something into a problem for someone else that they cannot avoid engaging with, but in a constructive manner? And how do you make sure that while searching for the right way you don’t end up achieving absolutely nothing. It sounds like a pathetic strategy but sometimes I feel like smashing stuff. On the other hand, persistent attentiveness to tiny windows of opportunity – and grabbing them – may be quite effective in the long run even though in the short-term it doesn’t add up to much. Make noise. Make it again and again, also with others. Try to do it in different ways, under different conditions. Just keep at it. Struggle Forever! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Andre, Great points! Speaking with a friend about some similar and related issues (which I’ll write about shortly) she made the point that in some cases pushing too hard can make others firm up their boundaries or push back. There is a time for humility and concession, but there are also times for pushing and taking a stand. Understanding when to follow which approach is a skill developed over time – one I’ve only just started to work on. Struggle forever is right, but not always easy.

  4. yes AL that’s along the lines of what I was trying to raise in terms of speaking to people in ways which they can recognize their own interests in, sometimes one might coin a new metaphor that changes the whole gestalt, or one can pull a powerplay, but if the everyday work of diplomacy is to be built on than one needs to employ perspicuous re-presentations that motivate people where/as they are.

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