John Horgan asked 15 people – scientists, social psychologists, philosophers – one question, in a seemingly clever effort to mark the end of 2018:
Unless you are too stoned or enlightened to care, you are probably dissatisfied with the world as it is. In that case, you should have a vision of the world as you would like it to be. This better world is your utopia. That, at any rate, is the premise of a question I’ve been asking scientists and other thinkers lately: What’s your utopia?
Some of the answers are insipid, others are quite revealing and most of them are somewhere in between. But look closer and you might notice that all of them engage with the possibilities in front of them largely on one of three levels: really personal (Solomon, Woit, Maudlin, Volk, Holt), from a great distance (Hossenfelder, Aaronson, Wolfram, Rees, Herbert) or in abstract terms (Chomsky, Dawkins, Deutsch, Hanson).
Some of them also talk about climate change and economic distress insofar as day-to-day issues are concerned. But by and large – with the exceptions of Hossenfelder and Aaronson – there seems to be no deeper reflection on sociopolitical issues, and whether the utopias they seek will make the world a better place for them alone or for all of us.
To be fair, it’s probably the format that doesn’t lend itself to lengthy analyses of our times, what exactly they’d like to improve, why and how they’d go about it. Most answers to Horgan’s question are pretty short; it would be fair to assume Horgan gave his interlocutors a small word-limit so that 15 such answers wouldn’t be that long a read. More importantly, the reason I want to cut the answers any slack is because all the people on the list are (or have been) smart cookies.
Slack for what, eh? At this point, look even closer and tell me you don’t find it odd that there’s just one woman in the list of 15 intellectuals, odder still that all men and women on the list are white people, and odder yet that they’re all from developed nations.
Now ask yourself whether this could be why none of the utopias seems concerned with issues that assail non-white, non-male, non-first-world scholars, that too not because they’re scholars but at a more essential level: because they’re non-white, non-male, non-first-world people. Apart from Hossenfelder and Aaronson (and maybe Chomsky), I don’t even find reason to believe that the intellectuals quoted were thinking of a world beyond their neighbourhood.
I’m aware my anger is more entropy than heat in this context. Horgan probably simply asked 15 famous people and requested they keep their replies short. The famous people responded, and Horgan compiled the responses into an interesting article for the Scientific American. The article isn’t going to change the world, influence leaders (I think) or contribute to governance and policymaking. It’s an interesting read is all it is. But even then it’s not okay that the list has zero cultural diversity and the absolute bare minimum of gender diversity.
If anything, the list could be useful as ‘Exhibit A’ in favour of those with the energy and articulacy to repeatedly push back against the dispiriting assertions of biologist-blogger Jerry Coyne. ICYMI, Coyne recently ridiculed a Princeton University course called ‘Science After Feminism’, which – among other things – proposes to answer two questions:
Is science gendered, racialized, ableist, and classist?
Does the presence or absence of women (and other marginalized individuals) lead to the production of different kinds of scientific knowledge?
These questions have come to symbolise a kind of detector. You hold it up to a person and, depending on how they answer, you can tell which of the following groups they belong to:
- ‘No’ and ‘no’ because there’s not evidence to back these claims up ⇒ you’re one of the devout quants who lives and dies in a data bubble, refusing to acknowledge the effect of cultural forces in our lives
- ‘No’ and ‘no’ because science is not the same as scientists ⇒ you’re one of the rationalists who believes science exists as an absolute truth incorruptible by the practice of some humans
- ‘Yes’ and ‘yes’ because science is meaningless outside of its practice ⇒ you’re one of the rationalists who believes science’s relationship with humans goes deeper than just being a source of knowledge
Coyne is of the second type. (His post even exemplifies the sort of pedantry the people of this group resort to in arguments.)
Horgan’s list goes to show what a difference the representation of non-male and marginalised members of society in the scientific enterprise can make. They don’t simply improve nominal diversity and affirmative action. More seriously, their inclusion influences what knowledge we do and don’t produce through time, and that in turn affects the power-relations within and between different societies. Coyne fails to see that while there could be a scientific ideal for each scientist to aspire towards, the history of science reveals that what we’ve known as science has been inseparable from the people we’ve called scientists at the time.