A psychology professor at Duke University has written a piece arguing that identity politics is a threat to science. “John Staddon is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and a professor of biology and neurobiology” his bio reads. Staddon’s focus is a petition which is currently circulating which claims there isn’t enough diversity in STEM fields because of systemic racism.

The first sentence of the petition…blurs the distinction between systemic racism and racial disparities, as well as raising the emotional temperature with distracting and irrelevant allusions to the BLM protests and the COVID-19 pandemic:

The nexus of Black Lives Matter protests and a pandemic that disproportionately kills Black and Brown people highlights the need to end systemic racism, including in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), where diversity has not meaningfully changed for decades.

Systemic racism is the problem, and the petition knows the cause:

Everyone in academia must acknowledge the role that universities—faculty, staff, and students—play in perpetuating structural racism by subjecting students of color to unwelcoming academic cultures.

That passage is alarming for two reasons: Apparently, we “must acknowledge;” we must admit our collective sin. This is the language not of science, but of the Middle Ages. And just what is meant by “unwelcoming academic cultures?” Are science faculties mean to students of color? Not in my experience. Or are some subjects too difficult for unprepared students, many of whom are “of color?”…

The petition further urges STEM faculty to “abandon the perception of ‘fixed’ student ability.” That sounds nice but assumes an equality that does not exist. Some students are simply smarter than others, and the range is especially great in mathematical ability. An educational system that ignores these vast individual differences will soon fall into mediocrity…

The petitioners also want to change the way STEM faculty are evaluated: “[Our proposal] will require making tenure dependent not only on excellence in research, teaching, and service, but also meaningful contributions to promote equity and inclusion” [emphasis added].

Staddon concludes that, if implemented, these changes would reduce the emphasis on science and increase the emphasis on a kind of promotion based on unrelated social merit. The support for this idea offered in the petition is a study titled The Diversity–Innovation Paradox in Science. The gist of the study is that diversity yields more innovation in science which sounds like it might be a good thing. But Staddon argues the claims of the study aren’t very credible because the design of the way the study defines innovation.

  1. Innovation is defined statistically, not conceptually.
  2. The validity of data is taken for granted, despite recent work showing massive failures to replicate in social and biomedical science.
  3. The effects, while statistically “significant” (that huge sample), are generally small.
  4. The results are correlations only, not causes.
  5. Disciplines that favor individual talent, like math, are mixed indiscriminately with those that favor group work, like oceanography.

The study itself is here if you’re interested. The detailed description of how the researchers defined and identified “innovation” is in an Appendix here. Having skimmed through it, I think the argument Staddon is making is that the study essentially identifies a list of concept words relevant to a given field and then looks for novel pairings of those concepts in the paper. Does a novel pairing of ideas represent innovation? Maybe? Is there necessarily scientific value in these novel combinations? Not necessarily.

Staddon concludes: “If there is discrimination in STEM, judged case-by-case and not million by million, it should be addressed. What should not be done is acquiesce to the dogma of diversity.”

I’ll just add that Bret Weinstein, the biology professor from Evergreen State University, has been warning since at least 2017 that far left politics would eventually come for the sciences once it had taken over the humanities.