Gene Expression

Colored folk in science

Small kerfuffle about the fact that ScienceBlogsTM is so white. Some amusement that I am one of the white science bloggers. In any case, this comment caught my attention:

Second, it is no secret that minorities of most stripes are seriously underrepresented in science. Bloggers are even more pointedly underrepresented in the pool of scientists. (Hard to categorize the “pool” from which the non-working-scientist SBers are drawn, so let’s not even go there). It takes no genius to see that even if minority scientists were more likely to blog that this pool would be pretty dang small.

This is an interesting question. An acquaintance of mine switched from neuroscience to cognitive neuroscience and noted how all of a sudden the Asians disappeared and she was now a cinnamon speck in a sea of cream. Obviously things vary by discipline. How so though? I took data on the proportions of each group represented in the top 50 schools in the faculty for each discipline and compared them to the ratio in the population as given by the 2000 Census. The usage of 2000 data isn’t perfect, but it gives the general sense.

Field for Top 50 faculty Non-Hispanic White Black Hispanic Asian Native American

Earth Science 89.80 1.10 2.10 6.80 0.20

Astronomy 90.70 1.00 1.20 7.10 0.00

Biological Science 83.50 1.20 2.40 12.60 0.20

Psychology 87.30 3.10 3.60 5.60 0.40

Political Science 87.30 4.10 2.70 5.80 0.10

Sociology 82.20 7.90 4.70 4.90 0.20

Economics 82.80 1.70 4.00 11.50 0.10

Math & Statistics 81.10 0.90 1.30 16.60 0.00

Computer Science 73.90 0.70 1.80 23.70 0.00

Electrical Engineering 68.60 2.10 1.50 27.80 0.00

Civil Engineering 77.90 1.80 4.70 15.50 0.00

Mechanical Engineering 70.60 2.00 2.30 25.10 0.10

Physics 85.60 0.80 1.60 11.90 0.00

Chemical Engineering 79.10 2.30 3.20 15.30 0.10

Chemistry 86.30 1.30 2.20 10.10 0.20

Proportion in population Non-Hispanic White Black Hispanic Asian Native American

69.1 12.40 12.5 4.4 0.8

Ratio

Earth Science 1.30 0.09 0.17 1.55 0.25

Astronomy 1.31 0.08 0.10 1.61 0.00

Biological Science 1.21 0.10 0.19 2.86 0.25

Psychology 1.26 0.25 0.29 1.27 0.50

Political Science 1.26 0.33 0.22 1.32 0.13

Sociology 1.19 0.64 0.38 1.11 0.25

Economics 1.20 0.14 0.32 2.61 0.13

Math & Statistics 1.17 0.07 0.10 3.77 0.00

Computer Science 1.07 0.06 0.14 5.39 0.00

Electrical Engineering 0.99 0.17 0.12 6.32 0.00

Civil Engineering 1.13 0.15 0.38 3.52 0.00

Mechanical Engineering 1.02 0.16 0.18 5.70 0.13

Physics 1.24 0.06 0.13 2.70 0.00

Chemical Engineering 1.14 0.19 0.26 3.48 0.13

Chemistry 1.25 0.10 0.18 2.30 0.25

I assume you’re not surprised?

1) There’s a big difference between “Asians” and “Underrepresented minorities.”

2) In most cases Asians are more overrepresented than whites. In fact, there are so many Asians in Electrical Engineering that whites are a touch underrepresented!

3) I perceive two general dimensions in the Asian data. First, one of practicality, and second, another of mathematical rigor. The more “practical” a field is, the more likely Asians are likely to be represented. Therefore, more in engineering than in physics. How many physicists do you know who went into engineering related work when the academy didn’t pan out? For many of them a undergraduate engineering degree would have been the most optimal choice in terms of their career with hindsight. Second, the math aspect explains something like economics vs. the other social sciences. I know that political science, sociological and psychology use plenty of statistics, but econ can verge into applied math when it comes to the obsession with modeling.

So why are ScienceBlogsTM so white? I think it is a supply-side issue, and the dimension of practicality and lesser extent mathematical rigor explains much of it. I’m an Asian American science blogger I suppose, though I don’t think of myself as such normally. One personal data point you might want to know about me is that my parents are not “stereotypical” Asian American parents who take a strong interest in my life choices or academic career path. I have made most of my decisions with little parental input and pressure. Removing these parameters would result in a decrease, I suspect, in the number of Asian Americans going into pre-med and engineering tracks. Not that there’s anything wrong with these avenues, but not everyone really digs the subject matter.

Second, as Chad Orzel notes, there’s a lot of evo-bloggers on this network, and not as much physical science. I think some of this has to do with the mathematical & abstruse nature of these fields. Not that evolution is necessarily non-mathematical, but the basic logic of a rather formal work such as The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection can be fleshed out with relatively good accuracy and even a modicum of precision verbally. In contrast, most of physics has to be communicated with metaphors and analogies, which even if they impart the flavor don’t transmit the substance. Asians are more well represented in mathematical fields, which are not well represented among science blogs in relation to what their heft within academy is.

Finally, there are some specific issues which are known in regards to Asian students and their strengths. They do well on the SAT by overperforming on the mathematical section relative to the verbal or written ones, and are slightly inferior to whites in these areas. I’m sure some of you are faculty and teachers reading this, and feel free to correct me on this point, but I don’t see Asian American culture emphasizing literary talents in the same way as it does mathematical ones. This isn’t some deep or long-standing bias; Chinese intellectual tradition is almost totally literary, with a relatively weak emphasis on mathematical analysis (what there was). Writing a reflective essay on the role of science and society on a weblog cuts into GRE prep-time. Whether you value investment in the former depends on the norms you bring to the table.

I didn’t touch upon underrepresented minorities in these comments because the reasons for their relative dearth among science bloggers, and in science faculty, is far, far, upstream in terms of academic performance and orientation. But, I do think there needs to be some exploration as to why despite the overrepresentation of Asians in science they aren’t thick on the ground in the science blogosphere. I’ve been blogging for 5 years, and do occasional surveys, and Asians represented about 15% of my readership (American). Why aren’t they blogging? Some of them who I know are busy with things which they place greater importance on, e.g., graduating from Harvard Medical School or something trivial like that.

Could there be darker reasons? Sure. I believe that most humans exhibit some racial prejudice, more or less. I also believe people tend to unconsciously be biased toward their own social networks, which often exhibit a like-to-like attraction on a host of parameters, including race. But at the end of the day I think it’s mostly a supply-side issue, and frankly I’m a lot more interested in good blogging about science as opposed to having diversity for its own sake.1 Science is part of human culture so various social issues and dynamics are at work, but, at the end of the day the end-product is the same over the long term irrespective of viewpoint (please don’t get into non-Newtonian physics on me to quibble about this last issue!).

1 – There are some topics, such as particular illnesses which South Asians are susceptible to, to which I bring my own ethnically informed viewpoint. I don’t think diversity of various kinds is a net zero or negative, but, I think it’s a relatively marginal factor when set against the need for informed blogging on specific scientific topics.

Comments

  1. #1 Zeno
    March 6, 2008

    I’m an American of Portuguese descent and my college has always had trouble deciding how to classify me: Am I Hispanic? Non-Hispanic White? I don’t think of myself as Hispanic (since my ancestors fought a war of independence against Spain and dissociated their language, too), but I’m not Anglo. I’m a non-Hispanic Latino…

  2. #2 razib
    March 6, 2008

    hispanic is good enough for gov. work.

  3. #3 Caledoinan
    March 6, 2008

    But the government work is useless and devoid of meaning.

  4. #4 Pierce R. Butler
    March 6, 2008

    Considering the vast geography and varying cultural types involved, shouldn’t “Asian” be subdivided into East, South, Southwest (Arab), and Island categories?

    Otoh, how long until even the Census Bureau has to bow to social reality and recognize some sort(s) of “Hybrid” classification?

  5. #5 agnostic
    March 6, 2008

    An acquaintance of mine switched from neuroscience to cognitive neuroscience and noted how all of a sudden the Asians disappeared and she was now a cinnamon speck in a sea of cream.

    Dude, you’re fucking with our ability to focus here.

    But another dimension is trendiness. This is not related to practicality — you can only tell how practical some hot new field will be when things get figured out and the dust settles. It’s also not related to math rigor, could be high or low.

    One of the running themes in the Stuff White People Like is their sense of adventure / excitement-seeking. You definitely don’t find the same among East Asians… South Asians probably being between but closer to Whites.

    Academic pursuits show cycles of fashion / fads — the waxing and waning of Freudian psychology is a good example. And just like fads in music, where every couple of years a new hybrid comes out with some sexy compound name — electropostpunkcore — the same is true in academia — cognitive neuroscience or human behavioral ecology.

    If South and East Asians are more risk-averse re: career choice (e.g., more likely than Whites to choose professional schools over PhD programs), then they’ll be less willing to stake a bunch on what could be an academic fad.

  6. #6 agnostic
    March 6, 2008

    Maybe I can clarify. Particle physics has known practicality – low, electrical engineering has known practicality – high, but affective cognitive neuroscience has unknown practicality.

  7. #7 razib
    March 6, 2008

    hm. assman, well, it seems faddishness would be something that can distinguish poli sci and cognitive science. poli sci is a “safety valve” major which isn’t practical, while cog sci is an new major which isn’t necessarily known to be practical.

  8. #8 B.B.
    March 6, 2008

    So you don’t think that differences in race and intelligence plays a part in the demographic distribution of ethnic groups in scientific fields? Reading through the older posts on GNXP.com, you seemed to advocate the idea that heritability of cognitive traits played a central roll in numerous sociological outcomes. Have you abandoned this position or doesn’t it really apply in this instance?

  9. #9 razib
    March 6, 2008

    Have you abandoned this position or doesn’t it really apply in this instance?

    i don’t think it can explain the big diff. between E.E. and physics in terms of demos of whites and east asians.

  10. #10 jim
    March 6, 2008

    Bright Asian immigrants (and children of recent immigrants) tend to have less powerful social networks and less family wealth than equally bright native whites. These Asian immigrants look for a more credentialed career path that relies less cultural skills.

    Many of the brightest whites I know eschewed science and engineering grad school in favor of fields like finance, business, and law. They could have easily handled the mathematical rigor … but didn’t think the reward was worth the effort.

    I think some whites in the “softer” sciences choose those fields for a similar effort-reward calculation, but many simply can’t handle the more difficult math and rigor of the hardest fields. I think many of the brightest whites simply choose more lucrative careers. I think the cognitive elite of Asians is more likely to spend their 20s toiling away in grad school than getting rich on Wall Street.

  11. #11 TGGP
    March 6, 2008

    You are technically Caucasian. I’m surprised the anonymous picture-linker put it up anyway.

  12. #12 razib
    March 6, 2008

    TGGP, but i’m not white. european that is. that’s what that means really, no matter its technical definition.

  13. #13 Alan Kellogg
    March 6, 2008

    Razib,

    From your picture it is obvious you are a pirate. A bandana wrapped around the head and a parrot on the shoulder are the only things you need to complete the picture. The swarthy skin, the piercing gaze, the piratical ‘stache all join together to give a picture of a pirate chieftain roving the Spice Islands for treasure and lusty British ladies. I can see the love scene right now, shot in close up so people don’t spot the milk crate you’re standing so you’re not talking to her breasts.

    How many other pirates are the Borg hosting?

  14. #14 Umlud
    March 7, 2008

    What about us Hapa? We are underrepresented minorities!

  15. #15 Umlud
    March 7, 2008

    As for your “practical” point (point #3). I don’t see a whole lot of Asians queuing up to be in the environmental management field (which, as we all know, is very different from environmental engineering). Maybe it’s just because I’m in Michigan – where there is a relative dearth of Asians – but even here Asians are ‘over-represented’ in many of the Engineering fields.

    If what you said is true, then the extremely applied-science fields of wildlife management, forest management, fisheries management, agricultural management, etc. should be similarly ‘over-subscribed’ by Asians. However, they are not. I personally feel that this is due more to the image of these fields being more “blue-collar” jobs, and justified with ideas that they require lesser levels of technical expertise; are less-funded because they are less-”sciencey”; are too heavily associated with advocacy; etc.

    What do you think?

  16. #16 razib
    March 7, 2008

    are less-funded

    why is something that is less-funded practical? practical = reliable source of lots of money, not helping-the-world. that’s why stupid asian americans often major in business and do something like accounting.

  17. #17 Karl
    March 7, 2008

    The dominance of Asians in electrical engineering lead me to think that white people are going extinct at higher levels of engineering education. Minorities dominate vastly in excess of their proportion in the general population.

  18. #18 racenerd
    March 11, 2008

    LOL… if you scroll over the pictures on that site the popup text thingy that appears says “White” for all but a few of them. the text for you says, “Can’t be sure, but he looks pretty white” and pharyngnulalalalla’s is pretty nasty… “White, and ugly to boot.”