Friday, 17 December 2010

William Briggs doesn't like diversity

William Briggs is a statistician (to the stars, according to his blog). He dislikes diversity greatly.
Suppose then that we have agreed upon a locale; for definiteness, imagine it is the Detroit Red Wings hockey team. What would maximizing “diversity” mean here? Consider only physical characteristic. We’d have to staff the team with the short and tall, the fat and skinny, the able and disabled…but enough. This is obviously absurd. It is idiocy to insist on diversity of characteristic for any profession in which physical ability is important. And this is most professions: orchestra member, line worker, fireman, physician, sportsmen of any kind, jailer, soldier, and on and on. 
We’re done: we have just proved that requiring diversity of physical characteristic for nearly all defined scopes is idiotic and a truly stupid idea. I hope you realize that this is a proof and not an opinion. 
I was alerted to his post by We, Beasties the other day. Kevin made the point that Briggs' assumptions and prejudices about diversity were based on faulty logic:
We want the best doctors, and we know what makes the best doctors, so the only reason women and minorities are under-represented among physicians is because woman and minorities suck at medicine. If you think that the elite professions and schools clearly have an historic, pervasive and systematic prejudice built into their hiring practices then again, you're stupid. Human beings are completely rational, and only make decisions based on maximizing utility, so all the doctors ever hired were the best ones for the job.
I offered in the comments section my own analogy to a rugby union team, which is necessarily diverse in terms of the variety of physical shapes required, though all players require a high degree of physical fitness.

I had some further thoughts, though, based on genetic diversity. Bear with me, because I'm no biologist, this is just a topic I'm interested in.

Genetic diversity is necessary for a species to adapt to, and survive, changes in its environment. The larger the degree of diversity in the gene pool, the more variations there are in the population to be selected. Conversely, a species with little diversity in its gene pool will find it harder to adapt to sudden changes, and runs the risk of becoming obsolete as its environment changes faster than it can adapt. It's clear how evolution can favour organisms displaying greater genetic diversity, and punishing those without.

When artificial selection, that is selection by humans, is introduced, the results can be catastrophic. The potato famines in Ireland, in the 19th century, were caused by farmers planting one variety of potato only. When an infestation turned up that rotted away this variety of spud, there was no genetic variation to fall back on, and millions died or were forced to emigrate as a result.

Unlikely as it might seem, John Varley, the outgoing chairman of Barclays Bank, is a champion of diversity within business organisations, particularly with regards to disability.
Varley says employers should "go out of their way" to help those with disabilities. He says he had his own Eureka! moment at Barclays some years ago when he noticed not many university students with a disability were applying for its summer internship programme. "We set up a dedicated route to encourage disabled people to apply and, to my real pleasure, the top performing person that year, across the entire applicant base, was a disabled person," says Varley. "It's a simple illustration," he adds, "but if we hadn't specifically asked for disabled people to apply, we probably wouldn't have seen such talented people."... 
Companies must listen to staff, he says, because "they are the experts here". He adds: "We absolutely want more people to know that Barclays is a congenial place to work whether you are able-bodied or disabled."
I would have thought it obvious that having a diverse workforce, encompassing a broad range of perspectives, genders, ethnicity, disability, would be a positive advantage to any company looking to get ahead. Not only that, but exposure to other ways of thinking, that you may never have considered otherwise, challenges set thinking patterns, and is a vital force against extremism. Mr Briggs might want to think again.

No comments:

Post a Comment