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Dean's Message

Photo by Richard Morgenstein

The Role of Diversity in the Production of Knowledge

October 2019

In early October, a federal judge ruled in favor of Harvard University’s admissions process. Now, the Supreme Court will take up the ruling. This recent court case raises a recurring question in higher education: what makes diversity valuable? 

Anthony Kronman, former dean of Yale Law School, raises this question in his new book, The Assault on American Excellence. His answer is bracing and provocative: he concludes that diversity is a “destructive force” in higher education, undermining the excellence of our faculty and students.

I profoundly disagree with Kronman on this point. Although there are quite a number of possible responses to his argument, I want to use my dean’s message to highlight one particular objection, which focuses on the production of knowledge, which is, after all, the core mission of a research university.

According to one theory of knowledge production—call it Cartesian—knowledge is created by great individual researchers pursuing their own projects. Universities identify excellent individual scholars and empower them with resources, including time and the freedom to pursue their ideas. Explicit attention to social factors like diversity in hiring, in this view, represents external interventions into the process of discovery and the creation of new knowledge. Whether such external interventions are justified depends on their costs and benefits.

But this Cartesian view largely misrepresents how we make knowledge. Knowledge production is fundamentally a social undertaking and is promoted by the different skills, life experiences and perspectives of inquirers. Not only is any single researcher limited in time, energy, competencies and resources, but also, and as importantly, individuals on their own are unreliable thinkers.

Indeed, it turns out that the most highly trained scientific researchers are as prone to the same cognitive biases as everyone else. Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Twersky explore such biases in their wonderful book Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (1982). For example, we are each prone to assign greater evidential weight to work produced by ourselves rather than others; evidence produced by our own specialties rather than work produced in other specialties; and evidence that supports our own research programs rather than undermines it.

Happily, even though no individual researcher can fully transcend her own cognitive biases and limitations, collectively we may be able to do so. But doing so depends upon our social practices of inquiry being structured in such a way that enables us to correct for, or at least balance, these biases. And just as a theory will be rejected if its proponents falsified their data, the justification of a theory is compromised if the scholarly community’s processes of inquiry that led to that theory systematically excludes or discounts the views of those who have access to a different set of relevant evidence, or who would provide alternative critical perspectives that correct the biases of that community’s membership. Helen Longino’s Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry (1990) makes the case for this position.

Much more could be said about the relationship between diversity and research excellence, including calling attention to the biases that influence our very ability to recognize excellence. In Michele Paludi and William Bauer’s well-known 1983 study, “Goldberg Revisited: What's in an Author's Name,” groups who were told that a paper’s author was “John T. McKay” assigned it a much higher ranking than groups who were told that the same paper’s author was “Joan T. McKay.” Such biases undoubtedly play a role in judgment and have to be explicitly counteracted.

Consider also how the diversity of inquirers has led to new research questions in many areas: for example, the presence of greater numbers of women in economics has influenced the field of labor economics as well as our understanding of the economics of the family. And pathbreaking work by feminist historians has shed new light on what we know about the past.

In short, I am convinced that we need a diverse community to be excellent in research; in fact, on the social model of knowledge production, diversity is actually internal to the production of knowledge and not an external constraint or trade off with respect to it.

Consider this a short and incomplete précis on a very important topic.

My thoughts above reaffirm the importance of a democratic cast to our research. I want to close my message by calling out another issue important to democracy writ large: voting. I have expressed these thoughts before, with my colleagues, in an op-ed.

I hope that you will encourage your students to register to vote. They can do so by going to Stanford.turbovote.org.

With best wishes,

Debra Satz
Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences
Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society
Professor of Philosophy, and, by courtesy, Political Science