Stop promoting the work of straight, white scientists, you guys

The title of this Washington Post piece from over the weekend isn’t quite as crazy and worthy of mockery as it might seem at first glance, though it winds up heading down a bit of a rabbit hole. “Why these professors are warning against promoting the work of straight, white men.” Is that really what’s going on here? Well… sort of.

Academics and scholars must be mindful about using research done by only straight, white men, according to two scientists who argued that it oppresses diverse voices and bolsters the status of already privileged and established white male scholars.

Geographers Carrie Mott and Daniel Cockayne argued in a recent paper that doing so also perpetuates what they call “white heteromasculinism,” which they defined as a “system of oppression” that benefits only those who are “white, male, able-bodied, economically privileged, heterosexual, and cisgendered.” (Cisgendered describes people whose gender identity matches their birth sex.)

Mott, a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and Cockayne, who teaches at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, argued that scholars or researchers disproportionately cite the work of white men, thereby unfairly adding credence to the body of knowledge they offer while ignoring the voices of other groups, like women and black male academics.

I’ll initially take the unusual position of acknowledging that citations in the scientific community’s Publish or Perish environment are an ongoing concern. Getting your work peer reviewed (for what that’s worth these days, anyway) and published in any prominent venue is tough enough. But having your paper cited as a reference by others repeatedly definitely can be of help in your career. It’s a fact all over academia and even in certain aspects of the private sector. If the largest publications consistently go to the same sources over and over again I can see how that would be viewed as disadvantageous to up and coming scientists.

If that’s where the authors of this paper had stopped there wouldn’t be much to argue about. But the entire thing goes pear shaped when you begin dragging in issues of race, gender and sexual orientation. This is particularly true when you begin tossing out phrases such as, “the views and knowledge that are represented do not reflect the experience of people from other backgrounds.” Wait a minute… weren’t we talking about science a minute ago?

Does the atomic weight of carbon change when measured by men and women? Does a Bunsen burner lit by a lesbian scientist produce more or less heat than one ignited by her straight colleague? In short, when you publish the findings of your work, aren’t you delivering scientific facts which are the same no matter who was involved in the work?

It’s attitudes such as this which immediately take what might otherwise be a valid complaint and set it up for mockery. We can certainly have a debate over whether enough women or other minority students are going into and excelling in the STEM fields and becoming scientists. And I’d go so far as to say it would be worth digging around in the universities to find out if those minority students and researchers are being published at equal rates. But once the work is done and published, it’s all equally worthy of citation if the results are valid and useful.

Perhaps a better approach would be to encourage researchers to make sure that they’re looking at a wide enough field of research material with an eye toward using lesser known, but valuable sources rather than relying on the same source material all the time. That could promote the work of all up and coming researchers and spread around the pool of knowledge. But saying you need more gay biologists being represented absent any comment on the quality of the work takes a potentially valuable argument and buries it in the weeds of political claptrap.