Science, Statistics and Racism

Science, Statistics and Racism

Science and Race has had a chequered history. This is something that people of colour do take notice of and report.

In 2018, I was invited to a Scientific Black Tie event with my wife, now 99.9999% of the people were friendly and welcoming however one incident did stand out. At this event most of the caterers were Black and actually the Black caterers outnumbered the Black Scientists.

While I was waiting in the hallway proudly wearing a my ID badge, a white female scientist approach me , handed me her coat and told me to put it into the cloak room. I told her, “I am not one of the staff”, she then asked me “What am I doing here then!” , I then pointed to my badge which stated “President Elect of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications!”. Suitably embarrassed, she turned offer no apology and walked away.

For me, as an established mathematician, I can deal with this as a slight annoyance but the problem is how many young scientists of colour has this lady discouraged, marginalised and ignored?

As I said, Science and Race have had a chequered history. The great Statistician – Karl Pearson comes up with this famous quote

“Statistics is the grammar of all Science”

is inspiring but when he says this as well

“History shows me one way, and one way only, in which a high state of civilization has been produced, namely, the struggle of race with race, and the survival of the physically and mentally fitter race. If you want to know whether the lower races of man can evolve a higher type, I fear the only course is to leave them to fight it out among themselves, and even then the struggle for existence between individual and individual, between tribe and tribe, may not be supported by that physical selection due to a particular climate on which probably so much of the Aryan’s success depended.” (Karl Pearson, 1901, pp. 19-20).

Leaves my jaw on the floor.

This is the man that invented the Chi squares amongst other great statistical techniques.

He is not alone, Fisher and Galton are celebrated in the Science community but to People of Colour- who they see as inferior, how can we?

Scientist today may argue focus on the science not on the history; show empathy and the times are now different. However when we have face recognition AI programs that cannot recognise black people, how can we?

This, in my opinion, is what Scientists of Colour should do. Use these techniques to discover bigger and greater things. If only Pearson, Fisher, etc could see what Scientists of Colour are doing now today. What would they say? People of Colour using their techniques to push the frontiers of science. This proves that Pearson’s et al racist views are sad and wrong.

The argument for the Science Community to be more diverse and inclusive from top to bottom can not be more stronger. I do not have all the answers but we do need to have these uncomfortable conversations if we are going to move forward.