Adventures in Ethics and Science

Since Alice and Sciencewoman and DrugMonkey and Razib are discussing it (and because Zuska has discussed it before, including in real life), I wanted to say something about my reaction to the observation that science blogosphere in general, and ScienceBlogs in particular, seems pretty white:

I’d noticed that, too! And I’d like it a lot if there were more racial diversity among the science bloggers and the blogging scientists.

There would be some clear benefits to achieving more diversity — but there might also be costs, and looking at who would bear those costs seems pretty important.

To me, the science blogosphere is a way to have conversations about science. One sort of conversation that has really taken off involves what it’s like to be in science — to be a working scientist, or someone training to be a working scientist, or someone who has been a working scientist but isn’t any longer. These discussions grapple with the various patterns of professional life that scientists encounter, and how they bump into personal life.

This is a window into scientists’ lives that really didn’t exist when I was an undergraduate. It’s a peek into what it might be like to pursue a scientific career. Blogospheric conversations reveal scientists as actual human beings being passionate about what they’re studying, figuring out how to make their experiments work, navigating workplace politics, and carving out the odd bit of leisure time to do other things. More than that, I think blogospheric conversations sometimes create virtual communities that can provide insight and encouragement — especially useful for scientists who find themselves without anything that feels like a real-life community in their workplace or school. I think a number of the women blogging about science — especially those blogging early in their careers and/or under a pseudonym — have encountered this feeling of community. I suspect it’s even made a real-life difference to some of them to encounter the sympathetic ears and practical advice of their blogospheric peers.

I’ve blogged about this before (here and here), noting that for women in male-dominated scientific fields, blogs written by other women who are facing down some of the same experiences might help alleviate some of the isolation that comes from not having many colleagues who are women. Those male colleagues can’t really understand what it’s like to get through the pipeline as a woman; they got to experience it as men.

One of the things Zuska and I have talked about is why, given the parallel set of challenges experienced by scientists who are “underrepresented minorities” in their scientific fields, there isn’t a visible mushrooming of science blogs with more racial diversity. We had a few hunches:

  • The numbers of such scientists may still be small enough that blogging about working in field X and being of race Y is enough to uniquely identify a blogger — or to narrow down the possible candidates to a really small set. Even using a pseudonym, the blogger would be exposed enough to make certain kinds of venting and soul-searching really risky. If you’re trying to survive in a professional community, taking these risks can seem like a bad call.
  • Scientists who are underrepresented minorities in their fields may have less time for or interest in blogging because of extra demands on their time — being tapped for extra committee work (to help achieve racial diversity within the committees), devoting extra time to mentoring students or doing outreach to prospective students, etc.
  • There may be more racial diversity in the science blogosphere than is readily apparent (i.e., because pseudonymous bloggers are not all white).
  • There may be more racial diversity in the science blogosphere than is readily apparent, but this diversity is less visible because of patterns of traffic and linking (e.g., because the “big blogs” are linking more white bloggers and/or don’t know about the blogs of the non-white bloggers).

As well, if blogging about race and science is anything like blogging about gender and science, one would have to be ready for hoards of trolls (of various degrees) showing up to deny that one could have experienced what one reports experiencing, or to deny that a particular experience could possibly be attributable to racism, or to break out all the Bell Curve-style arguments that we shouldn’t view lack of racial diversity of science as a problem.

I’m guessing that would get old pretty fast.

The large number of women scientists who blog about being women scientists makes it harder — at least for those who read these blogs — for people to assume that the experiences of male scientists can be universalized to stand in for the experiences of scientists more generally. Women in science are using tools like blogs to name their own experiences and to make them visible to others. Soon, it will be hard for men in science to profess ignorance that that their colleagues who are women may have encountered a different landscape (in terms of educational expectations, mentoring, marginalization, even harassment) than they did.

But the experiences of a white woman in science are no more universalizable than those of a white man. To the extent that white scientists have the luxury of being unaware of their own race, and seeing themselves as “just scientists,” they can be utterly blind to the way that race shapes the experiences of non-white scientists.

This blindness doesn’t help to address the factors that might be responsible for creating scientific communities with quite different demographics than the society in which they’re embedded. It doesn’t help the scientists who experience this blindness to be better colleagues or teachers or mentors.

For myself, teaching a lot of scientists-in-training at a university that is pretty racially diverse (but whose faculty skews whiter), I’d be a lot happier if I could point my students to scientists who look like them, describing their experiences in their own words. Better still would be to have a range of scientists speaking from particular racial identities, educational experiences, career paths, and so forth, so that no single individual is burdened with being the representative of a particular group in science.

Extrapolation from my experiences doesn’t do the job. My experiences have undoubtedly been shaped by white privilege. The only way to understand how it is for scientists traveling without white privilege is to listen to them.

The blogosphere can put us in touch with a lot of voices — many more than any particular geographical location or workplace usually affords us. But despite the blogosphere’s much-touted low barrier to entry, writing a blog is a time consuming (and sometimes emotionally exhausting) endeavor. Blogs can put other people’s experiences right in our face, but only if the bloggers are willing to go to the trouble of articulating their experiences and exposing them to the scrutiny of the interwebs in the first place.

Scientists from underrepresented minorities shouldn’t be saddled with the additional obligation of blogging. Just keeping one’s head down and being a good scientist seems like more than enough work for any human being most days. Arguably, the scientists who have been the beneficiaries of privilege are the ones who ought to bear the costs of remedying their own ignorance.

In the meantime, though, how best to build a bridge for our student cohorts who don’t look like the scientific community as it is now but like the scientific community as it could be?

Comments

  1. #1 Kenny Easwaran
    March 11, 2008

    Are there many science blogs written by Asian-Americans? The only one that comes to mind right now is the mathematician Terence Tao. Given that Asians aren’t as underrepresented in science as other minorities (perhaps including women) this is slightly surprising.

    I also imagine there are still fields of science that are very underrepresented in the blogosphere, especially compared to fields like parts of economics, or theoretical physics. This is less important in many ways, because what field one works on is much more mutable than one’s race, and also because it means that everyone in the field bears this same lack of role models in the same way. But it’s still a potentially awkward phenomenon. If all one’s role models are in a different field, it’s likely to push one in that direction.

  2. #2 Susan B.
    March 11, 2008

    “This is a window into scientists’ lives that really didn’t exist when I was an undergraduate. It’s a peek into what it might be like to pursue a scientific career.”

    I am more and more grateful for this window every day, especially since most of what I learn as a mathematics undergrad is not specifically what mathematicians (and scientists do).

    Unfortunately I can’t add to the diversity of science bloggers, since I’m white, but I’m doing my part as a woman mathematician blogger!

  3. #3 Propter Doc
    March 11, 2008

    Thoughtful post, I like some of the parallels you draw between women in science and race in science. A few things occur to me. Firstly, women = 50 % of the population of people on the planet, so that’s a big minority. If equality happens, then we can expect 50 % of scientists to be female. If science reflects the demographics of the planet, many minorities will still be minorities.
    Then there are cultural issues, access to computer technology and the means to blog. And also linguistic barriers. If we are talking about race in science then we are talking globally, not continentally. We could say that there aren’t many Greek science blogs, but there probably are and we just don’t run in Greek blogging circles, or speak the language, or the Greek scientists are all off enjoying the weather rather than sitting in front of a computer blogging about it. It isn’t an excuse but we should look for deeper reasons as to why these situations happen.

  4. #4 such.ire
    March 12, 2008

    Are there many science blogs written by Asian-Americans?

    Well, there is mine, but my blog isn’t that widely read. I also don’t really talk about my race very often, as I keep my blog from being too personal in case it is found by professors at my university. And frankly, I try to de-emphasize my race as much as possible, so that I don’t get viewed as “yet another Asian-American science student.”

  5. #5 razib
    March 12, 2008

    i’m asian american. i’ve been blogging since 2002. people come and go. ‘universal acid’ for example was asian american (i think he was chinese ethincally).

    Thoughtful post, I like some of the parallels you draw between women in science and race in science. A few things occur to me. Firstly, women = 50 % of the population of people on the planet, so that’s a big minority. If equality happens, then we can expect 50 % of scientists to be female. If science re

    i think this is predicated on unrealistic a priori assumptions. to make it general, if a discipline selects for individuals who are several standard deviations from the median along many necessary dimensions then there is going to be a strong likelihood that there’ll be disparate representation.

    to give you a specific example, 20% of american medical students are asian american. my personal experience is that asian americans with a scientific bent face more pressure from their families to go a professional track as opposed to ‘wasting’ their mind on a far less remunerative vocation. a biology phd is one of the least compensated professions for the number of years invested; a medical doctorate is one of the most well compensated. over time you would expect these cultural biases to shift as asian american groups become more dominated by non-first generation immigrants (like the japanese), but there might still be path dependence for a long time (the large number of medical doctors in gen 1 serve as role models for subsequent generations biasing the career choices).

    to examine these issues is good i would think. i probably think return on investment for diversity in most natural scientists is more “on the margin” than most of you, but i probably blog more about tissue matching problems in organ transplantation than i would if i was white and it was far less of a scare for me since there were many more potential matches.

    hey kenny, someone mentioned you at the BIL conference. apparently you’re really smart ;=)

  6. #6 acmegirl
    March 12, 2008

    The numbers of such scientists may still be small enough that blogging about working in field X and being of race Y is enough to uniquely identify a blogger — or to narrow down the possible candidates to a really small set. Even using a pseudonym, the blogger would be exposed enough to make certain kinds of venting and soul-searching really risky. If you’re trying to survive in a professional community, taking these risks can seem like a bad call.

    This is a real issue, and it is especially bad for a person who belongs to multiple underrepresented groups. But it is also a reason to blog, at least for me. As a woman of color with children in a male dominated program in graduate school, I get tired of other people telling me what my life is or should be like. I really wanted to put out there what my life actually is like, and what I think about it.

    Of course, the anonymity that is possible on the internet is very freeing, but I have been struggling with how to discuss any actual science or anything about the day to day of labwork, writing, teaching, etc. because my field is so small, and it seems like it could be really easy to “blow my cover”. It is really difficult to assess the level of risk accurately, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of potential minority science bloggers choose not to even get in the water.

  7. #7 bluefoot
    March 12, 2008

    acmegirl – I can completely relate. As a nearly-middle aged, female, minority scientist, I wish there were a forum for me to be able to discuss what my life in science is like, the things I think about, the things I struggle with, and the solutions that work for me. And getting actual feedback/input from people who deal with the same things? That would be heaven. But having been burned before, and being over-scrutinized in my position anyway because of being female, minority, etc, my assessment is that I can’t take the risk. It’s so damn isolating.

  8. #8 Alan Kellogg
    March 13, 2008

    Bluefoot,

    Do you blog?

  9. #9 ScienceWoman
    March 13, 2008

    A thought for bluefoot and acmegirl and others who may be in similar situations…what about an invitation only google group (or similar) for minority (women?) scientists? Would that be helpful? If you had some way of at least nominally screening who you were writing to, could you get some of the benefits of blogging with fewer of the risks? The problem I can see is recruiting people to join the group, but maybe that is something where (white women) bloggers can help by advertising the group on our blogs.

  10. #10 bluefoot
    March 14, 2008

    Alan – I don’t blog, but would like to. However, like acmegirl, I’m afraid of “blowing my cover.”

    I will have to think about a google group sort of thing. But one of the things I like about blogging is that you get all kinds of people involved in the discussions, all kinds of people thinking about the issues. I wouldn’t want to limit feedback to people in similar situations. Insight comes from everywhere, even from trolls sometimes.

    Hm, sounds like I’ve painted myself into a corner. I have to think about this some more.

  11. #11 acmegirl
    March 20, 2008

    I’ve been thinking about the whole invitation only group idea, and have been going back and forth for several days. Although this may not be my final answer, I’ll put it up anyway.

    Yes, I am afraid of “blowing my cover”. And so it would be nice to know that only sympathetic readers would find my blog. It would be nice to have some outlets that are “protected”. But, I ultimately think that, for me, I need to put my thoughts out there into the big wide world. I want people to know that there are all kinds of people doing science, and I don’t think that can happen if I only “preach to the choir”.

    I have really been thinking lately that, not knowing what the risk is, I have possibly overestimated it. What I’d really like to know is, how much do other bloggers worry about this?

  12. #12 Melatonina
    March 23, 2008

    interesting article. in the philippines there are very very few scientists due to lack of government support and sometimes i think that filipinos are really not inclined into science.