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Why Science Should Welcome Diverse Voices #WiSTEMspotlight

5th October 2016
By Guest Author

As part of Digital Science’s celebrations for Ada Lovelace Day, for the month of October we are running a series of blog posts where inspiring women and men in STEM are sharing their personal stories. Anyone can get involved and we encourage you to read and share your thoughts using the hashtag #WiSTEMspotlight

rgoozeeRhianna Goozee studied Biological Natural Sciences at Cambridge as an undergraduate, and later completed a PhD in Psychosis Research at King’s College London. Throughout her studies and research, she has always spent as much time as possible writing about science. Finally realising the obvious – that science communication rather than experimentation was more her bag – she left academia to become an editor and writer.  

Life is all a matter of perspective. The direction from which you choose to view it determines what you see. That’s why two people can look at the same object and see two totally different things. Or they may experience the same event and come away with two totally different stories. A person’s perspective is likely influenced by a whole host of conscious and unconscious psychological factors, shaped by both genetics and experiences.

Science is often accepted as an accurate representation of the world, untainted by human desires or experience. Different fields of science may achieve this kind of objectivity to a greater or lesser degree. But philosophers of science argue that, while this is the ideal to which scientists do (or should) strive, science is not actually absolutely objective. Even here, a person’s perspective will play a role.

Besides the influence of human psychological factors, anyone who has carried out scientific research will admit that in practice it is messier, more muddled and less certain than it appears. The scientist must extract meaning from what is often messy data that rarely points to a clear answer. The meaning that is extracted is by its nature subjective, determined by the individual and the team they work with.

Science is not actually about definitive or absolute truth. Science does not offer us the final answer. Instead, it takes what we think we know about something and offers our current best guess at how to explain it. Science is a constant work in progress, and when approached sensibly, does not offer arrogant assurance of absolute truth. It offers evidence-supported theory, that may or may not stand the test of time and further experimentation.

But values and personal biases can affect science at any or all of four main stages:

  1. Choosing what to research.
  2. Gathering evidence.
  3. Weighing up evidence to accept or reject hypotheses/theories.
  4. Disseminating and applying the research results.

Although we might suggest that there are measures in place, such as independent replication, to ensure objectivity in the ways scientists gather and interpret data, it is more difficult to deny that biases affect other stages in the scientific process. In particular, what is researched, what is funded, how studies are designed, and how the findings are used to influence policy are all subject to value judgements.

Science works best when it is viewed as a social process. It should be seen not as a monologue in which a scientist imparts knowledge to others. Rather, it should be a conversation or debate between many people. Ideas that are proposed along with their evidence should be questioned by others, who might wish to present disconfirmatory evidence. They might even propose a different idea, which in turn is subject to questioning. Personal bias is undesirable in scientific reasoning and it’s possible to reduce or eliminate its effects in a social process such as this.

“To investigate a topic deeply and exhaustively, we need a diversity of voices.”

However, this won’t work when such a conversation or social process occurs only between a small minority of people. Especially when these people are relatively homogeneous and so are likely to hold similar viewpoints. To investigate a topic deeply and exhaustively, we need a diversity of voices. We need people with different viewpoints who will ask different questions. We all know that classically science has been a conversation among white, middle-class men. These male-led endeavours have provided us with the wonders of medicine and technology we have today.

However, imagine the possibilities if we invited more different voices to the debate. Voices that can ask new questions that had not previously been thought of. Voices that can provide evidence that wasn’t available to those who have been carrying on the conversation alone. Voices that can provoke, probe, and pester, thereby bettering our best guesses.

Women form more than half the population but have traditionally been excluded from these scientific conversations. The lack of representation of women in science is of course reflected in other fields. Feminism calls for the inclusion of women in all areas of business, culture, and society. Often it seems as though what feminists are saying is, ‘We have a right to play a role in business/politics/science because we are human beings just like you. We want to reap the benefits – let us in!’

“By increasing women’s participation in science we are adding more voices to the conversation.”

I don’t disagree with this stance. Women do have a right to fully access all of these arenas. Why shouldn’t women reap the benefits and wield the power that leadership in these fields can provide? However, I would argue, specifically here in the case of science, that the benefits of including women actually run both ways. By increasing women’s participation in science we are adding more voices to the conversation. This is true of other groups that have been traditionally excluded from science, whether due to class or ethnicity.

“…we need diverse  voices in senior academic positions…”

In particular, we need diverse  voices in senior academic positions, from where people can have the greatest influence in directing what topics require research, what research should be funded, and ultimately how we should use it to influence policy. All of which will make science more relevant to society and the people in it.

“…scientists should welcome all newcomers.”

Women shouldn’t have to wrest the reigns of science from the grips of men. They shouldn’t have to shout to have their voice heard in the conversation. Rather, scientists should welcome all newcomers. They should welcome the opportunity it offers for fresh perspectives, for identifying previously unseen flaws and highlighting previously overlooked topics for investigation. This is why scientists, educators, and policy makers (male and female) should be working together to enable all sorts of voices to be heard in science.

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