What is the purpose of an anthology of science writing?

Dec 07 2009 Published by under Public Perception of Science

Sheril Kirshenbaum and DrHGG recently wrote posts expressing their disappointment at the selection of authors that Richard Dawkins included in the Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. Neither of them was pleased that only three female authors were included in a book that featured 83 excerpts of writing by scientists.

Dawkins explained, in a comment left on Sheril's post, why the numbers worked out the way they did:

It is a collection of writing by good scientists, many of them dead and very distinguished. I am not one of those who thinks men are genetically better equipped than women to become distinguished scientists. Presumably for other reasons, it is a regrettable fact that the great majority of distinguished scientists of the past 100 years, as measured by Nobel Prizes, Fellowships of the Royal Society, numbers of science publications, etc, have been male. That imbalance, and not an imbalance in my preference or my choice, is what is reflected in the anthology.

Dawkins response does not seem to have pleased everyone - or, possibly, anyone - who was unhappy at the extreme gender imbalance. It certainly didn't please Tara Smith:

I call shenanigans. First, Dawkins also claims that he is "...not one of those who thinks men are genetically better equipped than women to become distinguished scientists." Therefore, he must know that it's other factors that have led to larger numbers of men than women in the top ranks of the scientific enterprise--one of these factors being a nasty feedback loop. Women lack role models in the upper echelons of science, leading more of us to think that perhaps this isn't the place for us, which is reinforced by examples such as this anthology. While Dawkins may not support such an attitude, his incredibly male-dominated collection, and his "too bad, so sad, that's just the way it is" response to this criticism reinforces this conclusion.

Reading the critiques, Dawkins' response, and the comments that have been left on the various posts so far, I can't help but wonder just what the people involved in this discussion - particularly Dawkins and his defenders - think the purpose of an anthology of science writing is.

According to Dawkins, the book "is a collection of writing by good scientists, many of them dead and very distinguished." That's a perfectly good explanation of what the book is, but it's not an explanation for why the book is. To be fair, Dawkins did not offer that quote as an explanation for why the book exists. He did not, in fact, offer any explanation as to what he wanted to accomplish with the anthology - which is more than reasonable, given that he has not (until now) been asked for one.

Looking at the comment Dawkins left in his own defense, however, I suspect that the purpose of the book was simply to be a collection of writing by good scientists, many of them dead and very distinguished - presumably for the pleasure of those of us who enjoy reading such things. I certainly get the impression that even if Dawkins had more in mind, many of his defenders do not expect anything more from the book.

That view is clearly expressed in one of the comments left on Tara's post:

ARJ has hit the nail on the head perfectly. I would have thought an anthology of science writing was just that - not a forum for correcting any perceived inbalances in gender, nationality, race, age, etc, etc an nauseum.

If you are concerned with some sort of sexism etc, how about you stop being sexist yourself. Stop insisting that science writing be selected on the grounds of who wrote it and what their gender may be, rather than the apparent criteria used by Dawkins, which appears to be based on quality.

As Tara pointed out, it is a regrettable fact that the lack of female role models can discourage women from going into the sciences. This, unfortunately, really does create a feedback loop - a lack of role models leading to a lack of women going into the field leading to a lack of role models. An anthology of writing by good scientists, three of whom are female, does nothing to break that loop.

This is disappointing, because it would have taken little effort to improve the ratio slightly, and because it could have very easily been done without compromising the quality of the works that were included. Tara suggests that Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard could have been included. I would not have been at all disappointed by the quality of an anthology that included something by Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey. For that matter, Dawkins could have very easily included a second Rachel Carson piece - there are many authors in Dawkins anthology who appear more than once.

Let me be clear here - I am not remotely trying to argue that Dawkins should have made sure that his book's author base were an exact reflection of the diversity seen in the world as a whole, or even that it should have reflected the diversity seen in science today. I am also not remotely trying to suggest that authors should have been included solely on the grounds of their gender. I am also not trying to suggest that it is only important to worry about gender imbalances - I've focused on gender because it's much easier to identify gender from a list of names than race. But it's likely that the same criticism could be applied there, too.

I am not disappointed because Dawkins failed to bend over backward to make sure that the scientists included in his anthology matched some sort of set of diversity statistics. I am disappointed because Richard Dawkins, a man who is as gifted and talented a communicator of science as anyone alive today, clearly failed to consider the message that his choice of authors might send to quite a few of his readers, and the good that might come from putting a bit of thought into finding even one or two more talented scientists to include in the anthology who were not white men.

7 responses so far

  • Sigmund says:

    Why single out women scientists in particular?
    How many African American science writers were there on the list?
    How many East Asian science writers were included?
    What about the group whose numbers are enormously over-represented in the list - Jewish scientists - should Dawkins have only included a few, just to keep the numbers proportional?
    Looking at the list of included authors and the pieces chosen its clear that its heavily influenced by Dawkins own interests (evolutionary science) and is essentially a historical source of writing on this subject. Clearly 'white men' have predominated in this field - and in particular white men from wealthy family backgrounds who have had the chance of a good education at a top university.
    There have certainly been women who have made significant discoveries in this and related scientific disciplines - Barbara McClintock and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard come to mind, but being a good or even brilliant scientist does not necessarily make one a good writer (Nüsslein-Volhards own writings, for instance, make notoriously difficult reads for the general public).
    Larry Moran criticized the list of authors last year when the book came out - although not for reasons of political correctness, more for not including some of what he considered to be good science writing. I suppose it just shows that such matters will always be subjective.

  • Leilah says:

    Excellent summation - one of the best I've seen so far.

  • Dan says:

    Interesting thoughts Mike. For myself I think that it is a useful exercise for every intellectual to build a list of excerpts and quotes that express ideas pertinent to their own intellectual growth. Dawkins is famous, so he gets to publish his. I have my own, created for my own use and shared on my blog. It's not an anthology, but still a collection of ideas articulated.
    I notice now that out of 55 thinkers on my list, only 5 are women. Interesting to note. I don't know why that is. I suspect that if I think about it - and I am starting to with this post - I can come up with at least a handful of other brilliant thinkers who happen to be women that I should include in my list.
    But it is interesting to note that in just about all lists of intellectual authors and speakers, greater attention is usually afforded to men. With each such list of thinkers being so unbalanced, it is no wonder that many people come away thinking that women just aren't as intellectual - it looks like a sampling bias to me.

  • Anon says:

    My first thought on looking at the list was that Dawkins and I have very different pictures of what is included in "Science". I have to agree with Sigmund that it appears biased by Dawkins' own preferences--both of what areas of science to include, and what the best science within those areas is.
    As an aside, one of my favorite writers within my science, from about a century ago when it seems that all writing was more formal, was Mary Calkins. Unfortunately, my favorite example of her writing comes not from her psychology, but her philosophy (she was, at separate times, president of both the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association); her "Philosophical Credo of an Absolutistic Personalist" is just beautiful writing. I disagree with it, ultimately, but I can't help digging it out every now and then to just read that gorgeous writing.

  • Anonymous Coward says:

    "I am not disappointed because Dawkins failed to bend over backward to make sure that the scientists included in his anthology matched some sort of set of diversity statistics. I am disappointed because Richard Dawkins, a man who is as gifted and talented a communicator of science as anyone alive today, clearly failed to consider the message that his choice of authors might send to quite a few of his readers, and the good that might come from putting a bit of thought into finding even one or two more talented scientists to include in the anthology who were not white men."
    Seems to be a distinction without a difference. Seems disingenuous and rings false. Especially given:
    "I've focused on gender because it's much easier to identify gender from a list of names than race. But it's likely that the same criticism could be applied there, too."
    So let's see, you don't think Dawkins should have been forced to meet some diversity makeup of the world then or now, you just think he needed to include more women, and you suspect more "names" from different races. In the meantime, you're just going to make a fuss about the women, because their names are easier to pick out than the racial names.
    At least one of us is very confused about what you're trying to say.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Has anyone done an anthology of writings of female scientists? Seems that would not be unreasonable to do.

  • James says:

    Does anyone know how strong the feedback is between a lack of _female_ role models and the choices of potential female scientists?