Friday, 21 March 2014

Diversity: When It's Good & When It's Bad

An interesting turn up this week after the further developments in the big bang theory (not the sitcom), the Daily Mail's Ephraim Hardcastle made an insinuation that two women (scientists Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Hiranya Peiris) were invited to comment on the BBT report on Newsnight for the purposes of gender diversity rather than for their expertise. UCL Professor David Price responded by writing a very good letter of indignation to the egregious Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre (see link at bottom of page for full article)*. Naturally, it’s pretty obvious that Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Hiranya Peiris were brought in for their expertise and not because of their gender – but just as obvious to me is that any pressure felt by institutions to fill a particular gender quota for the sake of diversity is often a case of misunderstanding the true qualities of diversity.

When people extol the virtues of diversity they are often actually arguing against it. Suppose in a think tank there are two men - a white man and a black man, and they disagree on a particularly important issue related to the project. What's the most relevant difference: the difference in their skin colour or the difference in their viewpoint? Clearly it's the difference in their viewpoint. The resultant brainstorming would likely involve a revision of thought for one of them, or maybe a coalescence in which both were able to feed off each other and improve their views to strike a balance. Their diversity in skin colour is inconsequential to the task, just as would be the case if their main diversity was in gender.

Yet whenever we read about positive discrimination and increase in diversity we are usually reading about some attempt to get more women in Parliament or more ethnic minorities in an institution, as though gender or ethnicity are the real measure of diversity not viewpoints and ideas. Of course, you'll be inclined to argue that gender diversity and ethnic diversity brings diversity of perspective, and that's true, but naturally it's better to start with diversity of viewpoint and ideas irrespective of gender or ethnicity rather than starting your focus on gender diversity and ethnic diversity and hope it brings diversity of perspective.

The thing about diversity of viewpoints and ideas is that a balance must be struck. Too much diversity is bad because it leads to erratic thinking. For example, at a science convention I don't want the attendees to be such a diverse bunch that some subscribe to phlogiston theory, or young earth creationism, or astrology - because that involves so much diversity that it contains nonsense. But too little diversity diminishes the variance of innovation, and it stultifies the wider perspective, which is not desired either.

Moreover, it must be noted that diversity in science is not the same as diversity in the whole of the UK. Scientists have a tangibly shared goal of obtaining evidence and testing hypotheses to achieve a consistent body of theories that explain physical reality. A nation doesn't have such a tight shared goal, so it is harder to know the balance.

As a word of warning, it should be noted as well that what people say in the abstract often sounds good when it disguises what is actually meant in the particular. The other day I heard a priest from Northern Ireland state very eloquently that when there is diversity of opinion it is wrong to impose a too rigid standard on one kind of belief. Sounds good, and eloquently put, except that it turns out that he was talking about homosexuality - and the 'too rigid standard' he was worried about was the one that champions the liberty of homosexuals. I heard an Imam extol the virtues of adhering to the law of the land, only to later reveal that he won't be satisfied until the law of the land is Sharia Law. I once heard an American pastor castigate religious extremism with aplomb, until it emerged that the religious belief he found 'extreme' was one that denies a 6,000 year old earth. So be careful to read between the linguistic lines.

Lastly, what sometimes looks like diversity is actually the opposite of diversity. For example, it looks good for diversity that we have multifarious belief systems like Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, Sikhism, and Scientology. But I think they are bad for humanity, and thus, I would love to live in a world in which such beliefs were weeded out of the population by rational enquiry and intelligent scrutiny. That is to say, they look like they increase diversity because they are different, but in fact, I think they are a lot of the same kind of falsehood, and they stifle diversity by locking people into spuriousness that can only retard diversity.

The pros and cons of diversity at a general level
Diversity has its downside of course - it can create tension, make communities inimical to community-spirit, impair social cohesion, and foster resentment because of cultural or linguistic barriers. Plus it creates perverse incentives to artificially engender diversity by legislation, which always brings with it the consequence of artificially disadvantaging others in the process. Further, in championing a diverse mix of people in the hope of eradicating prejudice it can have the opposite effect too, as spending more time with people different from you can cause you to realise how little you have in common with them and how little you like them.

But once people can transcend any feelings of raw tension and insularity they'll find diversity is a wonderful thing (although the fruition can take years). It is great for soliciting opinions, forming think tanks, forecasting, or debating topics, because a diverse array of minds is of huge benefit to the group or project. And that's to say nothing of all the socio-cultural benefits associated with diversity in friendships, integration, learning from one another, employment of skills, cuisine, fashion, art, crafts, engineering, and so on.

Finally, a lack of diversity can also be bad by virtue of the fact that reliance on one thing makes people vulnerable. The Great Irish Famine wasn’t just due to unfortunate infestations in potatoes – it was over-reliance on one single crop that severely added to the plight.  The Irish found to their cost that it is important to diversify, because diversity leads to increased qualitative change. It is largely because of diversity that you can be sure that our technology will continue to progress - we diversify our skills and our imagination by not having an over-reliance on too narrow a range, and this aids the human development in a multitude of ways.

Let's continue to champion diversity - but let's ensure it's the positive kind of diversity that's interested in ideas, viewpoints, personality and broad perspectives, not the spurious kind that has virtually no bearing on these qualities.  

* For a full look at the article mentioned in my opening gambit, see here  

** Photo courtesy of