Identity and SCIENCE!

Every time an article is posted about, say, the gender gap in certain sciences (physics and engineering are particularly bad offenders here), or the experience of LGBTQ+ scientists, the same kind of comment always comes up: why don't we just focus on the science? Why do we need to bring in politics or matters of identity?

I think these kinds of comments are missing the point. Certain types of science, in particular more abstract or fundamental disciplines, don't care about the gender or race or sexual orientation of the scientist. The laws of physics are described by the same equations wherever you are on the planet, regardless of your identity. (More or less - the laws of physics as we've currently formulated them break down at edge cases, such as black holes, and it's not inconceivable that some alien civilisation might have formulated them in a completely different but hopefully mathematically equivalent way.)

However, there is an argument to be made that a theorist's worldview shapes the theories they come up with. This is probably more pronounced in fields like biology or psychology, which are more chaotic and complex. I'm strictly a physics student, so I'll leave these fields to people who actually know about them and I won't pursue this line of argument any further, even though it's potentially very interesting. I'm just mentioning it here because it's worth considering how this might have affected science (and still continues to affect it).

An argument I find easier to defend is this: science does not exist in a vacuum. There is not an ideal form of Science which exists out there beyond time and space. Science is a cultural institution and a cultural method of seeking truth. Science exists in people's heads as a collection of ideas. This is not to say that science is wrong, or that science is no more valid than other forms of cultural knowing - it matches up a lot better with observations and is self-correcting. It's simply to say that rather than science being this perfectly objective, ideal thing, it's made by human society and is thus influenced by our societal prejudices.

That's why politics and questions of identity are important - not because the science itself cares, but because it affects the people involved and their ability to do science. I'm going to do my best not to tokenise people. I'm not going to try and claim that people might have some unique skill by virtue of being a marginalised group - although coming from a marginalised group with the decks historically stacked against you, you need a lot of grit.

What I am going to say is that for all the pain, all the frustration, all the idiocy, all the boredom and all the exhaustion, being able to do science is a gift. It's the gift of being able to see why the world works the way it does and to be able to derive these conclusions for yourself once you have the tools. It's the gift of being around people who share your thirst to learn about the universe. It's the gift of everyone helping everyone else to learn things. Now that I've been given this gift, even if only for a short while, I want to share it with everyone. I want everyone to be able to feel the joy of understanding something about our world.

In order to share this with everyone, we have to pay attention to the barriers standing in front of certain groups and pay special attention to breaking them down. That kind of politics may be unpalatable to you; I understand that. I would also like to believe that science is a truly meritocratic space. But if that's not true - which it doesn't appear to be - believing it is anyway is a disservice who want to do science but who face institutional prejudice against them.

A lot of science is about discarding hypotheses and theories which don't match up with the evidence as well as other hypotheses and theories out there. This isn't always easy; often people are very attached to the old hypotheses and theories, or the new ones are somehow unacceptable. As people passionate about science, we should be making evidence-based decisions. I believe, based on the balance of evidence, that institutional prejudice is the reason that some groups are underrepresented in the sciences and that taking steps to combat this prejudice will help fix this underrepresentation. If you believe otherwise, show me the evidence instead of pretending that science and politics exist separately.