heterodox: the blog
Why Viewpoint Diversity Also Matters in the Hard Sciences
Heterodox Academy was founded to encourage viewpoint diversity in the academy. It is clear that research on political hot button topics benefits from viewpoint diversity. What about the hard sciences? These are more objective – the mass of the Higgs boson is uncontroversial in a way that the Affordable Care Act is not.
For this reason, viewpoint diversity may not seem important in the hard sciences. If everyone agrees on the laws of nature, and there is no Republican Quantum Mechanics and Democrat Quantum Mechanics, why does it matter if around 90% of scientists are on the political left?
There are several reasons why the hard sciences also benefit from viewpoint diversity:
The first reason is that good science requires, above all, excellence, and excellence requires science to attract the best people from whatever background. Consider a fictional scenario Sam is a bright right-leaning undergraduate thinking of a career in astronomy. On a summer internship, Sam is having lunch with the astrophysics research group when a professor makes a comment about how Republicans – or Tories, or Brexit voters – are stupid and closet racists. Everyone else at the table laughs. Irrespective of the level of Sam’s intrinsic talent, the laughter around the table may end any desire to pursue astronomy as a career.
What does it matter if Sam leaves the subject? After all, there are many more aspirant scientists than there are tenured faculty positions – and this would still hold even with complete political homogeneity. However, brilliant scientists are brilliant in their own unique way. One of the great pleasures of science is the chance to collaborate with excellent scientists from all over the globe. The more scientists I have met, the more I appreciate the many unique ways there are to be world-leading. There is no one true model of the good scientist. Different problems require different skills. Leading a large collaboration is different from acute mathematical insight is different from insightful design of an experiment. A scientist perfect for one problem may be hopeless at another.
I am not a psychologist. But, our political differences surely come, in some part, from the many, varied and wonderful ways that our minds tick. The different ways our minds tick allow us to be creative in different ways. It is no longer a source of frustration to me that colleagues can intuit results I struggle with, as I know the same is also true in reverse.
Given the known diversity of ways to do great science, there are probably also many more that we cannot directly imagine. In that the culture of science is welcoming only to the Right Sort of People with the Right Sort of Opinions, it shuts the door to those who think differently – and in doing so reduces the number of keys that get tried in the apparently intractable locks of important and difficult problems.
The last reason is prosaic but important: big science requires money on a scale that can come only from national governments. The discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN and the discovery of gravitational waves by the LIGO collaboration necessitated financial support of a size going beyond private philanthropy and over timescales reaching across several periods of the political cycle. Such science can only happen, and will only happen, if a successful funding case can be made over a period of time to governments of all political hues.
Politics is messy, hard-fought and partisan. At its best, science rises above this because it involves universal truths that are independent of views on how to arrange the polity. But, when the scientific community draws politically from only half of the population while communicating a vibe that the other half is not welcome, it obscures its universality and becomes vulnerable to partisan politics. In doing so, science suffers, as ambitious long-term projects are reduced to bargaining chips in a short-term political calculus.
HxA member Joseph Conlon is Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford and a tutorial Fellow at New College, Oxford.
 The Times Higher Education reported (with the caveat that the survey was self-selecting) that for the 2015 UK general election, between 10 and 15% of UK science academics planned to vote for a right-of-centre party (either Conservative or UKIP). This compares with a figure of around 20% for business and law, and between 2 and 5% for academics in humanities and social sciences.
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