Can Science Benefit from More Diversity?
with Sylvester Gates
So much of today’s discourse about diversity boils down to a crude numbers game: How many people who identify as X race or ethnicity are hired by Y companies or gain admission to Z elite universities? DEI advocates suppose that we can measure diversity simply by taking a headcount and filling out a survey. For the most zealous DEI advocates, numerical diversity is an end in itself, and we needn’t bother thinking about its consequences.
But human diversity is far more complicated than a checkbox. When we talk about diversity, we ought to be thinking about the range of human experience and development that emerges from cultures and subcultures that make up our rapidly globalizing society. Truly innovative ideas often come from unexpected places, but simply assuming that a “diverse” hire or student will, by definition, enliven her environment gives short shrift to the benefits our society can reap from true human diversity. Focusing on diversity ought to encourage us to broaden our search for unrecognized talent, not merely to elevate people who happen to fit a given identity-based profile, no matter their abilities.
In the following excerpt from our recent conversation, physicist Sylvester “Jim” Gates makes the case for diversity’s role in spurring scientific innovation. Imagination, he argues, plays a key role in scientific progress. When the imaginative capacities of one culture come into contact with another, it can lead to advances that would otherwise be unthinkable. I find Jim’s case compelling, and yet I do not think that headcount DEI practices are the best way, or even a good way, to seize on the potential of human diversity. For that, we’ll need to do the hard work of searching out talent and to refuse the easy and inadequate path offered by DEI.
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GLENN LOURY: So you don't think that there is a white or European way of thinking, a linear thinking or not being able to see ambiguity or whatever? I'm not the one to try to explain this point of view, because I don't believe in it. Just like they're saying that indigenous peoples have a special kind of cosmology or a special kind of epistemology. I'm asking if you reject that.
JIM GATES: No, I don't believe that, Glenn. I'm 72 years old. I started wanting to be a scientist when I was four years old. I have been working in science since 1977 or maybe '72, depending on which date, bachelor's or PhD. So I've spent 50 years looking at this stuff and thinking about how it works. And what I have found from personal experience is that, yes, these kinds of social ills and moral lapses exist in the sociology around these bodies of work, but not in the bodies of work themselves.
And in particular, the ways of knowing which you refer to, indigenous knowledge, in my experience, at least in the sciences—where the differences occur are actually tied to something that Albert Einstein said. Albert Einstein once made a statement that, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” For many years, this statement puzzled me, because when I first encountered this statement, for me, imagination was what I did as a teenager reading Marvel comic books and drawing comic book characters and reading science fiction. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, that was the use of the imagination as far as I was concerned as a young person. Knowledge was watching the space race to the moon. Knowledge had tangible impact on what happened away from the world of the imagination.
So for Einstein to say that imagination was more important than knowledge was incomprehensible to me the first time I encountered this statement. It was at least a decade before I finally believe I got to what he was getting at. Which comes back to this point about ways of thinking, and I'll tie it back to you in a moment. That sentence is often repeated, but it's part of a larger statement, and the rest of the context of the statement is almost never said. I'm not gonna pay get it exactly, but the sentence sentiments are, “Knowledge encompasses all that we now have observed and know, but imagination encompasses all we ever will know.”
And so the point is that imagination is in fact the driver of knowledge. In the future, we're gonna have more knowledge because we have imagined and then correlated with nature by observation and experiment whether what we have imagined is an accurate description of nature, as far as we can measure. Imagination drives innovation in science. That's what Einstein was getting at, and that's why it's more important because, without it, science would be static and dead and unable to evolve.
Yeah, that's brilliant. Knowledge is the cumulative past accomplishment, but imagination is the future. That's where we're going from here.
Let me get back to this point you made, because where these two seers coincide with each other is exactly in the innovation. You have to bring knowledge to innovation, because you have to build on a foundation, just as Isaac Newton talked about standing on the shoulders of giants. You've got to build on the foundation, but you've got to do things beyond the accomplishment of those who laid the foundation. And the only tool we have for that in science is our imagination. That's what Einstein's identifying.
So now where does demography come into this? This is something that I also thought about for decades before I had an answer. And the way that I got this answer, I'm going to hopefully bring you along in the argument, and you can tell me I'm crazy. But let's look at something else. We're gonna focus on physics, because physics comes at two different levels of knowing. There's physics that I can write in terms of F=MA, a piece of mathematics. There's physics that I observe in the world and an experiment. Both of these things are physics, and one is actually intimately tied to the other. There's a symbolic way of knowing physics and there's an experiential way to to know physics.
So let's ask, is there another activity that humans engage in that has this dualism about it? The answer is music, because music has scores, and that's, roughly speaking, equivalent to what physicists do with equations. And music also is the experience of listening to it and emotionally reacting. So let's look at music as a model, not just for physics, but for all sorts of mathematically based innovation. That's the first thing I posit to people, and let's just consider these two things side by side. If you do that, then something very interesting becomes more clear when you look at music.
I don't know about you, Glenn, but I have a suspicion that, like me, you like a lot of classical. I like a lot of music, but classical music is among my loves. When I listen to classical music, you can immediately tell the difference between a Grieg and a Satie, and Debussy is like Satie but not so much like Grieg. Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, the great Russian composers. Of course there's the Europeans—Mozart and what have you. But all of these great forms of classical music are actually subtly different. Chopin is another one, right? So how are they different? Well, they get to be different typically, because composers, in bringing the imagination part to the story, they bring their culture to the story. And in fact, a lot of classical music is actually derived from folk music that the composers must have heard as they were growing up.
Dvořák, for example. It's interesting you should bring Dvořák to the table, because I'm not sure how many of your listeners are deeply into music, but Dvořák, as you know, made a visit to the United States and was influenced by the music of African Americans.
So the point I'm trying to make here is, the bringing of imagination to the growth of music, and especially classical music, because it's easiest to see it here, involves the culture and the demography of the people who are engaging in the activity. And what that means is that you get great music, but you get great music that is a blossoming effect. It goes in all sorts of directions, because culture is not a unitary, solitary thing. Different cultures bring different things to the table of the creation of music.
One of my early mentors was a Nobel laureate by the name of Abdus Salam, who made it possible for me to spend around five consecutive summers in Italy, where he was the director of the International Center for Theoretical Physics. The first time I met Abdus, which was around May sometime in the period of '77 to '80—and I'm not quite sure when, I'd have to go back and look at my records—I gave a talk. He was in the audience, and after my presentation, he invited me to his office, and the first thing he said to me was, “I didn't know that you were black.” Now you know me a little bit, Glenn, and I'm not quite right, and so my thought—I didn't say the following, but my thought was, “Because I don't write mathematics in Ebonics” or the equivalent of Ebonics. I don't use that to do my mathematics.
But the next thing he said to me, I was thunderstruck and totally incapable of understanding. He said—and again, this is not an exact quote, this is an expression of a sentiment—that when a sufficient number of people of the African diaspora enter the field of physics, he was convinced that something like jazz would appear. And it took me a decade or more to understand what he meant by that statement. It's the same thing that I just explained in terms of classical music, that when you let diverse cultures and demographics engage in a strenuous discipline, when it comes to the creativity, the things they will bring to the table are the subconscious things that sit in their imaginations and then are harnessed to the foundation of the discipline that you're trying to grow.
That's what he meant. But it took me over a decade to understand that. And to me, this is the fundamental reason why diversity is of such importance if you are looking at STEM-based fields. Because when you get to the point where you need creativity? As I said, in my experience, creativity is driven by imagination. Imagination is irrational. It's in your subconscious. It's embedded in your culture. That's what diversity is trying to do. That's why it is important in something like STEM, at least from my side of observations, over a lifetime of trying to do science.
Thanks for having Jim Gates on your show. Anybody who crossed paths with him back in the day easily recognized his love for math. I had to smile when I noticed that he's still wearing his MIT class ring (aka Brass Rat).
As much as I respect Jim Gates and his accomplishments, his take on diversity rang hollow with me. One can't innovate at a high level until they’ve mastered the basics of their craft. Charlie Parker was run off the bandstand early in his career. Legend has it that drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal in his direction after he got lost in the middle of a tune:
Parker had plenty of imagination, but he hadn't mastered his craft to the extent that he could hold his own with experienced jazz musicians.
Pick any creative field you want and you'll find that most of the greats had mastered the fundamentals of their fields before their creativity kicked into high gear. People who understand chemistry, for example, are often better bakers and cooks than most. People who began their musical careers studying classical music are often better innovators than most. Chick Corea, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Ramsay Lewis, and Ron Carter immediately come to mind. Interviews with studio musicians who play pop music paint a similar picture. The musicians who are most in demand and who play on the best recordings almost all know how to sight-read music at a high level. They play high quality instruments. They understand songwriting, chord structures, key changes, etc. They understand the recording process. They can easily adapt to the needs of an artist and/or record producer on the fly.
Diversity doesn't carry much weight unless it's paired with "chops." This is especially true when it comes to STEM fields. I can't speak for physicists, but engineers can quickly sense if a colleague isn't good at what they do. They'll give the benefit of the doubt to somebody who's green, but has potential and a good attitude. They'll ignore anybody who can't do the work or who seems determined to do things their way even when it's obvious that they're not accomplished practitioners who've earned the right to be stubborn. .
The number of degrees in physics awarded to Black graduates is steadily increasing. In the past, HBCUs played a major role. Today, the majority of physics degree come from PWIs.