Diversity in Canadian atheist conferences

A few weeks ago, Christopher Hassall and Ian Bushfield published “Increasing Diversity in Emerging Non-religious Communities” – perhaps the first peer-reviewed study of diversity within the atheist community. By looking at the speakers at 48 atheist and skeptic conferences between 2003 and 2014 and noting the proportion of speakers that were male and white compared to all other genders and ethnicities, they were able to produce a very rough measure of diversity in atheist “leadership”. Their results were interesting, and encouraging, and are discussed in detail in my previous post on the study, but as always I couldn’t help but ask: how did Canada do?

There are two ways you can approach that question. How diverse is the Canadian part of the “atheist leadership”? And: How diverse are Canadian atheist conferences? Let’s look at the conferences first.

Out of the 48 conferences in Hassall/Bushfield study, 5 were Canadian:

  • Imagine No Religion 1 (2011)
  • Imagine No Religion 2 (2012)
  • Imagine No Religion 3 (2013)
  • Imagine No Religion 4 (2014)
  • Eschaton 2012

These weren’t huge conferences. Eschaton was the biggest, and the only one to exceed – barely – the average number of speakers at the time it was held:

Chart showing the number of speakers at at atheist conferences between 2003 and 2014.

Number of speakers at atheist conferences.

First the bad news: when it comes to gender equality, the Canadian conferences were… underwhelming:

Chart showing the proportion of female speakers at atheist conferences between 2003 and 2014.

Proportion of female speakers at atheist conferences.

There are two trend lines on that chart, because one of them includes the three Women in Secularism conferences. The thing with those conferences is that all the speakers were women by design… which is fine, but it means they’re not really representative of what conference speaker diversity looks like when speakers are chosen “naturally” (that is, by whomever the conference organizers think will draw the biggest crowd, or get the most media attention, etc., without specifically selecting by gender). Because they skew the results so badly, I did the calculations with and without them.

Whether you include the Women in Secularism conferences or not, the five Canadian conferences did fairly poorly compared to the average trend. If the Women in Secularism conferences are removed, only two beat the trend… barely.

However, their improvement over time is impressive. The four Imagine No Religion conferences form almost a straight line with a strong positive gradient – if Imagine No Religion 5 continued the trend, it would have just over 50% women speakers. I don’t think that will happen, though – looks like only 5 out of 13 (~38%) speakers will be women, which is not bad, but still a bit of a regression. To be fair, though, it’s not easy for small conferences like INR to field a really diverse speaker set.

There is better news when it comes to ethnic diversity:

Chart showing the proportion of non-white speakers at atheist conferences between 2003 and 2014.

Proportion of non-white speakers at atheist conferences.

Once again, there is a strong trend toward improvement in the five Canadian conferences, but more than half of them meet or exceed the trend, and they do so quite significantly. Even better news is that it looks like the trend will continue – it looks like the proportion of non-white speakers at INR5 will be ~23%, which is not bad at all; just about on par with overall Canadian demographics.

So although Canadian conferences tend on the small side, they’re doing quite well at least with regards to fielding non-white speakers. They’re doing less well when it comes to fielding women speakers, but they are trending toward improvement.

What about Canadian speakers?

Well, unfortunately, there’s bad news there. Out of the 630 conference speakers in the study, 46 were Canadian. 65% of them were white males. 28% were white women, and 6.5% were non-white men. There were no non-white women among Canadian speakers:

Chart showing the proportion white male, white female, and non-white male Canadian speakers at atheist conferences between 2003 and 2014.

Diversity of Canadian speakers at atheist conferences.

I suppose we can expect to see improvement in the future, if only because the average age of the men (~47) is so much higher than the average age of the women (~41). There seems to be no real difference in average age between the white and non-white Canadian speakers, though.

So while Canadian conferences aren’t doing a bad job diversifying their speaker rosters, we are sadly lacking in diverse Canadian atheist leadership. I would suggest this should be a focus for Canadian conference organizers; more effort should be spent seeking out diverse Canadian voices.

One last thing I want to point out is that Canadian conferences are vital to the atheist movement in Canada. We need more of them, and bigger ones. This is why:

Chart showing the proportion of Canadian speakers at atheist conferences between 2003 and 2014.

Proportion of Canadian speakers at atheist conferences.

As you can see, if you want to hear Canadian atheist voices, your best bet – by far – is Canadian atheist conferences.

So in summary: Canadian atheist and skeptic conferences aren’t doing that great a job fielding women speakers, but they’re doing a pretty good job fielding non-white speakers, and there is a positive trend toward improvement. Canadian speakers, however, are not very diverse at all – we are in dire need of more diversity in Canadian atheist leadership. Broadly speaking, the conclusion for Canada is the same as the overall conclusion from the Hassall/Bushfield paper: There’s still a ways to go, but we really are making progress.

22 thoughts on “Diversity in Canadian atheist conferences

  1. This post prompted me to examine the male/female mix in Canadian Atheist posts. There six writers who post regularly. Of the six, two (33%) are female.
    The two female writers submitted 432 of the 534 articles posted since January 27, 2014.

    Canadian Atheist needs more writers and more female voices. If you are interested in writing for Canadian Atheist, please contact the administrator via the “Contact” page.

  2. Interesting. At INR4 I thoroughly enjoyed Carolyn Porco, Wanda Morris and Eugenie Scott, they stand out in my mind but I did join the Freethought newsletter list after hearing Margaret? speak at INR4. I’m wary of affirmative action but given equal calibre, then by all means choose a woman. There are proportionately more women in astronomy and we have some good ones in Canada. I hope we do think about Canadian content as in speakers because they become known and invited more because of exposure.

  3. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/meet-astrophysicist-sara-seager-a-canadian-genius/article14539745/

    Sara Seager is one Canadian woman we should strive to have at an INR. Her groundbreaking work on exoplanets and the implications for us of life on other worlds is fascinating. I heard her speak at I believe UBC – excellent! I have no idea of her philosophical standpoint but cannot imagine she’s religious.
    While we don’t want someone spouting religion, it intrigues me how a scientist can be religious, even Jay Gould style of non-overlapping magisteria.

  4. There was a non-white Canadian woman at the Imagine No Religion conference, either 2014 or 2013. Aruna Papp. She may have been counted in these statistics as non-Canadian since I think she’s a first generation immigrant.

    I realize that’s not much but when there are only 3 non-white Canadians counted in these statistics it’s worth mentioning.

    • (Bearing in mind that I didn’t put this data together, and that it is anonymized so I’m just guessing at who’s who…) It looks like she was filed under India, not Canada. I suppose nationality was determined by birthplace.

  5. Great News.

    Women have a more proportional voice in atheism than they do in any of the big three monotheisms.

    Of course, what is really lacking is any real representation by our political class.

    • > Great News.
      >
      > Women have a more proportional voice in atheism than they do in any of the big three monotheisms.

      I would hope that our goal is more ambitious than merely being better than the worst examples one can readily think of.

  6. There’s something odd going on here. The paper is about “diversity” and yet it is primarily focused on gender. I wish it would be clearer about diversity, which ought to include: stances on atheism/skepticism/secularism/(anti)thesim, gender (including intersex and other non-binary trans), race/ethnicity, region, language, sexual orientation, age, relationship status, disability, etc.

    The report says: “The atheist movement originated with a small number of middle/upper-class white men”. No. That’s New Atheism. And ancient atheism. And Atheism+.

    Some of the very first atheists I learned about, in the 20th century, were Madalyn Murray O’Hair (founder and long-serving president of American Atheists) and Ayn Rand. I don’t think they were men.

    It’s dismaying that the least diverse conferences held in the recent years are notable for totally excluding male speakers. You wave aside this sexism with “all the speakers were women by design… which is fine”. Shame. Only a single conference, over a decade ago, had no female speakers. Was that by design? If so, is that OK too?

    This shouldn’t be a math game. If it were, we might blindly set a goal of 50% (based simply on recognizing two genders, or based on actual gender balance in Canada to two digits), and pressure conferences to hit that target. But the goal should be to get the most interesting speakers, whoever they may be. If you can speak, you can speak. It is not correct that simply approaching 50% is an improvement in every case.

    • Randy

      Yes, it would be a worthwhile exercise to examine the word diversity to see what meaning people assign to the word.

      Great comment, please consider becoming a writer for the site; contact me using the contact form.

    • > The paper is about “diversity” and yet it is primarily focused on gender.

      The paper was focused on both gender and race.

      > I wish it would be clearer about diversity, which ought to include: stances on atheism/skepticism/secularism/(anti)thesim, gender (including intersex and other non-binary trans), race/ethnicity, region, language, sexual orientation, age, relationship status, disability, etc.

      If you read the paper, the authors explain quite clearly that they are aware that they are using only a very “blunt” (their word) measure of diversity. They also explain why.

      Besides, you can’t expect a single study to cover every single possible axis of diversity imaginable. That’s ludicrous. If you want to see diversity data on language/marital-status/whatever, you’re free to carry out that study yourself. The authors of that paper have demonstrated how it can be done – all you need to do is fill in the data using the variables of your choosing. I’m sure they’ll even give you a hand (hell, they might even want to *publish* it with you).

      It is better to light a candle than rage at the darkness.

      > Some of the very first atheists I learned about, in the 20th century, were Madalyn Murray O’Hair (founder and long-serving president of American Atheists) and Ayn Rand. I don’t think they were men.

      That is a classic example of confirmation bias via anecdotal data. You can surely cherry pick a handful of prominent atheist women here and there throughout history (though… Ayn Rand? really? what the hell did she ever do for the atheist movement? *being* an atheist ≠ being part of the atheist movement, never mind originating it) – I would add Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example – but the plural of anecdote is not data.

      The fact that atheist women existed does not refute the fact that the atheist movement has traditionally been… and continues to be… heavily male-dominated. You can even see that fact clearly in the most recent “census” data for Canada (not to mention the data in the study itself). Data like that produced by this paper is important for the very reason that it clearly and unambiguously *proves* the existence of a gender disparity, and even quantifies it.

      > It’s dismaying that the least diverse conferences held in the recent years are notable for totally excluding male speakers.

      I’m not sure how you arrived at that conclusion. Did you actually check the data, or is this just a “hunch” you have? Or are you defining “diversity” in some idiosyncratic way?

      > You wave aside this sexism with “all the speakers were women by design… which is fine”.

      I did not “wave aside” anything. I *highlighted* those three conferences and pointed out why they were not good examples of gender diversity… and even provided a version of the results with those conferences removed. By what twisted definition is this “waving aside” anything?

      > Only a single conference, over a decade ago, had no female speakers.

      Correction: only a single conference *in this dataset*… which only goes back to 2003. What do you think you would see if the data were extended back to, say, 1850? The entirety of the dataset lies within an age where we are consciously trying to increase diversity in speakers (as evidence by the existence of conferences like Women in Secularism). You are being incredibly disingenuous to ignore that.

      You are making some incredible leaps to conclusions based on this small dataset over a small period of time, that only measures two variables of diversity.

      > This shouldn’t be a math game.

      Why not? What do you have against math?

      > If it were, we might blindly set a goal of 50% (based simply on recognizing two genders, or based on actual gender balance in Canada to two digits), and pressure conferences to hit that target.

      If you read the paper, the authors explain *in detail* what the goals should be, based on their findings. They do not include your “goal”.

      > But the goal should be to get the most interesting speakers, whoever they may be. If you can speak, you can speak. It is not correct that simply approaching 50% is an improvement in every case.

      Again, the paper explains… *in detail*… the flaw in that logic. But let’s try looking at it from a different perspective.

      Imagine you’re a conference organizer, and it is your job to get speakers that you can be relatively sure will sell a ton of tickets and fill a hall. How would you go about that? Think about it. If you’re a reasonably smart person, who bases their decisions on actual empirical data rather than faithy “feeling”, the logical thing to do is look at past conferences and take note of which speakers drew the biggest crowds and generated the most buzz, then invite those speakers. It’s the perfectly natural and logical thing to do.

      But do you see the problem? If the *initial* group of speakers is not diverse… then the speaker set you choose will *also* be not diverse. And so will the speaker set chosen by the next conference after you, which also does the natural and logical thing. And so on. And, at day’s end, you end up with a perpetual state of non-diversity.

      So how do we fix the problem? Easy. We put pressure on conference organizers to change the equation they use when selecting speakers. Rather than simply *just* looking at past speakers and picking the most popular, now they would *also* have to select a few speakers consciously taking increasing diversity into account.

      All we have to do is keep that up for a few years, and the speakers pool will become more diverse. Once we have achieved parity with population statistics, then we can step back and let conference organizers make their choice “naturally” again… but now the pool of past speakers they are choosing from is a diverse one.

      Simple, effective. I can’t fathom why anyone would object to this plan. Especially considering the mountains of evidence that show that increased diversity in leadership generally improves the quality of work done by a group.

      The only people this wouldn’t be good for are those people who are members of an over-represented group – such as white males – *AND* who are mediocre quality speakers. Because when some spots are “stolen” from white males, they will most likely be stolen from the poor quality and mediocre quality speakers before they’re stolen from the good ones. Yeah, sure, there will be some poor-quality speakers from under-represented groups who get a shot they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise… but simply by law of averages there will also be some very good ones who would never have gotten a shot. And, in time, when parity is reached, the poor-quality non-white non-males who were coasting on the conscious need to fill spots with diversity will cease getting invitations, leaving only the best of both white males and non-white non-males. In other words, overall quality increases, at the expense of a few members of the over-represented group who didn’t really deserve spots to begin with. It’s a win all around.

      Frankly, I have yet to see a sane and rational objection to efforts of this kind. All I ever hear are petulant grumbles of “it’s not ‘fair'” (usually packaged with ad hominem attacks against myself or others, or wild conspiracy theories about “agendas” that feminists have). I am not a sociologist, I’m an engineer, and as an engineer I know that if a scale is unbalanced to one side, you don’t just ignore it and hope it will fix itself, you put extra weight on the other side to account for the unbalance until such time as it is fixed. That’s what *real* fair is.

      • Frankly, I have yet to see a sane and rational objection to efforts of this kind.

        You made a perfectly good one yourself – “there will be some poor-quality speakers from under-represented groups who get a shot they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise”. You may think this argument is outweighed by other considerations, such as what will happen during some underwhelming golden age “when parity is reached”, but that doesn’t make it insane or irrational.

        However, there’s a whole other level to the problem, which is that a “good quality” speaker (one who is eloquent, incisive, well-prepared, etc.) may simply not come up with a talk that most members of a particular audience find to be worth their time. Conference organisers should focus not on inviting a formulaic parade of proven heavy-hitters, but on inviting an interesting mix of speakers that they think likely attendees will want to hear. The members of that interesting mix won’t necessarily mirror the demographic makeup of the attendees themselves, let alone that of the city, province, country or planet (and hell, how do you know which of those geographic levels to pick as the gold standard for your little engineering project?!) in which the conference happens to be taking place.

        Another sane and rational argument: the more any movement (however that word may be defined) fusses over demographic diversity, the less energy it has available to devote to other matters. If you were among the organisers of a conference, I suppose you might be able to cajole, manoeuvre and fulminate your way to a roster of speakers that precisely reflected Canadian demographics, but what would that really achieve? Perfect balancing of some imaginary scale, plus a conference that probably wouldn’t be better attended or better received than any other, and might indeed end up being widely panned because the organisers were busy making sure there were enough black lesbians when they should have been making sure there were enough people addressing church-state issues, or for that matter enough chairs? The more the atheist “movement” concerns itself with the diversity stuff, the less inclined I am to give it my time, effort or money. I can always just stick to writing occasional blog posts that don’t take cheap humanist pieties any more seriously than they take pieties of the religious variety.

        • > You made a perfectly good one yourself – “there will be some poor-quality speakers from under-represented groups who get a shot they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise”. You may think this argument is outweighed by other considerations, such as what will happen during some underwhelming golden age “when parity is reached”, but that doesn’t make it insane or irrational.

          Wow, way to cherry-pick a *fragment* of a sentence, while ignoring not only the point made in the entire sentence, but the entire surrounding paragraph.

          As is already explained in that sentence and paragraph, there are *already* members of the *OVER*-represented group who are getting speaking opportunities they shouldn’t get. That has to be true, unless you believe that white males are statistically better speakers than all other races and genders… which is patently ridiculous. All we are doing is *temporarily* substituting some of the crappy speakers in the *over*-represented group with some crappy speakers… and some *good* speakers… in the *under*-represented group, until we have enough diversity overall that we can start cutting the crappy speakers in *all* groups, ending up with an overall better speaking population.

          That is not an objection that I am merely “weighing against other considerations” then ignoring… that is simply not an objection. There will be undeserving members of the under-represented group given a shot, yes… but far *less* than there are *currently* undeserving members of the over-represented group who are getting shots (because some of the under-represented group who now get a shot will be good, statistically). Even ignoring *every other consideration*… *NOT* weighing them against this, but simply considering this in isolation… this by itself justifies the effort.

          Put as simply as possible: The fact that a few lousy non-white non-male speakers get a shot is not a problem because they simply replace the same number of lousy white male speakers (and then on top of that, other lousy white male speakers will be replaced by *good* non-white non-male speakers, but that would be “another consideration”) – six of one, half-dozen of the other – so this is not a sane or rational objection.

          If you want to see how this actually quantifies, assume that all speakers are white males (for simplicity’s sake) and 10% of them suck. So we consciously replace that 10% with a diverse mix of speakers who weren’t getting a shot before. Naturally, 10% of *those* people suck, too… but that 10% is only 10% of the total speaker population, or 1%. So by cutting 10% of white male speakers – the ones who suck – and replacing them with speakers who weren’t getting a break before, the total amount of speakers who suck has dropped from 10% to 1%. So the fact that 1% of the speaking population are undeserving non-white non-males is moot – they replaced 1% worth of undeserving white males… *PLUS* 9% more incidentally. These are simplistic numbers, of course, but they illustrate that the solution works.

          > However, there’s a whole other level to the problem, which is that a “good quality” speaker (one who is eloquent, incisive, well-prepared, etc.) may simply not come up with a talk that most members of a particular audience find to be worth their time.

          Then they’re not a good quality speaker.

          And if your argument is that they *are* a good quality speaker but just had a bad day so they only *appear* to be a poor quality speaker… well that would imply that we should give poor quality speakers a shot… which seems to contradict the concern in your first paragraph about the inclusion of some poor-quality speakers being a problem.

          > Conference organisers should focus not on inviting a formulaic parade of proven heavy-hitters, but on inviting an interesting mix of speakers that they think likely attendees will want to hear.

          Lovely theory, ruined only by the reality that that’s not actually how human beings work. In the real world, humans are subject to such cognitive biases as the “mere-exposure effect”, or what’s called an “availability cascade”. It basically means people tend to prefer what is familiar… even if it’s objectively worse than the alternatives. That would tend to make people prefer familiar speakers, at the expense of really good alternatives.

          There are actually *several* psychological effects in play that trick us into preferring known speakers – or speakers similar to them – and shunning speakers who are different, regardless of their quality. The way to fight these biases is to acknowledge their existence and then use non-subjective heuristics along with your subjective “feelings” of which speakers will be interesting and popular. Consciously increasing diversity is a tested and proven heuristic – there are dozens of studies that show more diverse groups perform better.

          > (and hell, how do you know which of those geographic levels to pick as the gold standard for your little engineering project?!)

          Wow, man, you’re *really* stretching to find problems here. Just fricken’ average, or get a roundabout figure that’s roughly in the ballpark, geez. Or just fucking pick one, even! It’s not that big a deal. Geez, how you do even manage to put your pants on on a morning?

          Hell, you don’t even need to use population statistics at all if you’re so overwhelmed by them you can’t handle doing so. Just look at the speakers you’ve already chosen and spot what’s missing: “Hm, let’s see… what about aboriginal Canadians? in the 4 conferences we’ve had, none of the speakers have been aboriginal Canadians… let’s try to find one!” Do that enough and you’ll end up fielding a magnificently diverse speaker set. Magic!

          > Another sane and rational argument: the more any movement (however that word may be defined) fusses over demographic diversity, the less energy it has available to devote to other matters.

          That is not a sane and rational argument. That is patent nonsense.

          If a conference has to fill N speaking slots, it will take no more “energy” to select N speakers based on popularity, topic, and availability… than it would to select ½N based on popularity, topic, and availability, and ½N based on popularity, topic, availability, and diversity. Conference organizers *already* agonize over their speakers list, asking questions like “do we have too many bloggers and not enough authors?” It will hardly make a difference to them to also ask “do we have too many men and not enough women?” But, especially if enough of them start doing it regularly, it may make a *huge* difference to the atheist movement in general.

          > If you were among the organisers of a conference, I suppose you might be able to cajole, manoeuvre and fulminate your way to a roster of speakers that precisely reflected Canadian demographics…

          Okay, first of all, you keep repeating this ridiculous straw man notion that the demographics have to “precisely” or “perfectly” match population demographics. Who said that? Who even *implied* that? That is not only ridiculous, it is mathematically impossible. How do you even get from “take increasing diversity into account and try to achieve parity with population statistics” to “WE MUST MATCH THE STATISTICS PERFECTLY!!!”? So if i told you to fill up a gas tank, you’d go in there with an scanning tunnelling microscope and make sure that EVERY SINGLE MOLECULE within the walls of the tank is gas?

          Second, I can’t fathom why you think taking diversity into account is such a monumental, gargantuan challenge that merely *TRYING* to do it will negatively impact *EVERY OTHER THING WE DO*. Seriously, it’s not that hard to do. In fact, it’s quite trivial! And for the amount of “extra effort” it requires, the research suggests that we will get an enormous return on our investment. The only thing “challenging” about it is that it hasn’t been done before.

          > … might indeed end up being widely panned because the organisers were busy making sure there were enough black lesbians when they should have been making sure there were enough people addressing church-state issues…

          I’ll play along with the implied idea that *only* church-state issues are worthy of being discussed at an atheist conference – and I’ll say that there are certainly many black lesbians who could address church-state issues quite ably. Surely you wouldn’t disagree with that. I mean, you don’t think that the only people who have something interesting to say on the topic *aren’t* black lesbians, right?

          Your fallacy is in assuming that diversity comes at the expense of everything else, rather than along with it.

          > The more the atheist “movement” concerns itself with the diversity stuff, the less inclined I am to give it my time, effort or money.

          Seriously? For the crime of trying to include everyone, and to reach out to more people thereby, you’re going to *punish* the atheist movement? You think your time, effort, and money are better spent on things that *refuse* to reach out to minorities?

          > I can always just stick to writing occasional blog posts that don’t take cheap humanist pieties any more seriously than they take pieties of the religious variety.

          Between “desiring to change to better include and meet the needs of all people” and “sticking to one’s guns and refusing to change even when the facts show a need to”, the latter seems more like a “religious” position to me than the former.

          Incidentally, I don’t consider “man, it just pisses me off that people care about diversity when I don’t!” to be a sane and rational argument, either.

          • Just a few quick replies.

            All we are doing is *temporarily* substituting some of the crappy speakers in the *over*-represented group with some crappy speakers… and some *good* speakers… in the *under*-represented group, until we have enough diversity overall that we can start cutting the crappy speakers in *all* groups, ending up with an overall better speaking population.

            Or we could skip straight to replacing “crappy” speakers with good speakers, from whatever group. There’s no reason to do it your way unless “we” have already decided that promoting demographic diversity is an important goal in itself.

            …unless you believe that white males are statistically better speakers than all other races and genders… which is patently ridiculous.

            Sure, that formulation is patently ridiculous, but it’s not at all ridiculous to think that some demographic groups might contain a higher proportion of good public speakers as a result of the usual combination of nature and nurture (keeping in mind that nurture includes things like socioeconomic status and opportunities to develop particular skills). A more important point, though, is that there are large variations among demographic groups in levels of religious belief, so not all groups are going to produce good atheist speakers in similar proportions.

            But it gets worse! You seem to want to define speaker quality in an audience-specific way (i.e. a good-quality speaker is one that works well for a particular audience), which is fine. But then it’s quite possible that speakers from a different demographic group than the majority of people attending a given conference will find it more difficult to connect with the attendees, lowering their “quality” with respect to that audience. The bottom line is that one might, actually, struggle to come up with a speakers’ list that meets your standards of appropriate diversity and works roughly as well for the attendees as a parallel list constructed without taking diversity into account.

            Conference organizers *already* agonize over their speakers list, asking questions like “do we have too many bloggers and not enough authors?” It will hardly make a difference to them to also ask “do we have too many men and not enough women?”

            Well, it’s an additional thing to agonise over, especially if the people who think it’s most important to have more women start brawling (not literally, one hopes and assumes) with the ones who think it’s most important to have more people from ethnic minorities, more homosexuals, or whatever. Why give the poor organisers one more headache, on top of all the others? But when I argue that pushing for more demographic diversity is a distraction from more important things, I’m not just talking about the process of putting together lists of potential conference speakers – I’m talking about the whole time-consuming conversation around the topic of diversity. Hassall and Bushfield could have written a paper about something else, for one thing, and you could be writing blog posts about something else (and I could be replying to them!). That’s without even getting into the spasms of self-righteous identity politics that diversity promotion tends to encourage and enable.

            Okay, first of all, you keep repeating this ridiculous straw man notion that the demographics have to “precisely” or “perfectly” match population demographics.

            My point is that even if you did set and achieve such a goal, it wouldn’t be all that helpful. Taking the ideal case is a way of setting aside the practical question of how close you could come to a perfect demographic match, and looking at the exercise in principle. But if you’d rather look at it in more realistic terms, I don’t see how bringing the demographic composition of speakers at Canadian atheist conferences closer to the demographics of (say) Canada as a whole will automatically result in better conferences, a strengthened atheist movement, or much of anything else. It only makes sense as a goal to be actively pursued if you just… happen to love diversity.

            I’ll play along with the implied idea that *only* church-state issues are worthy of being discussed at an atheist conference…

            That’s not what I was saying at all. Since my colourful and flippant way of making the point didn’t seem to work, I’ll just spell it out: focusing on demographic questions (such as “are there enough black lesbians?”) is a potential distraction from focusing on content-related ones (such as “are there enough people discussing church-state issues?”).

            Your fallacy is in assuming that diversity comes at the expense of everything else, rather than along with it.

            Yours is in assuming that diversity will never, or rarely, conflict with other imperatives that both of us would probably agree are worthwhile. When diversity does happen to come “along” with those worthwhile things, then focusing on them will naturally result in more diversity. When it conflicts with those things, we’re confronted with a decision about priorities. I’m just saying that diversity, for its own sake, is an odd thing to put high on the list.

            For the crime of trying to include everyone, and to reach out to more people thereby, you’re going to *punish* the atheist movement? You think your time, effort, and money are better spent on things that *refuse* to reach out to minorities?

            It’s not a question of punishment – it’s a question of not wanting to see resources expended in pursuit of goals that seem ill-chosen at best. Reaching out to minorities is not necessarily the best way to promote sceptical free thought in Canada and weaken the influence of religion, and concocting demographically engineered lists of conference speakers is not necessarily the best way to reach out to minorities. There’s a persistent tendency in Canadian public discourse to talk about diversity as if it were both self-evidently positive and self-evidently important, but that shouldn’t be good enough for a community of tough-minded sceptics!

          • > Or we could skip straight to replacing “crappy” speakers with good speakers, from whatever group. There’s no reason to do it your way unless “we” have already decided that promoting demographic diversity is an important goal in itself.

            Unless you’re aware of a method of determining who is going to be a good speaker without actually giving them a chance to demonstrate by speaking, this comment is nonsense. The problem – the undeniable problem, proven mathematically to exist – is that a certain class of people are getting chances disproportionately more than others. If you were really serious about wanting to find the best speakers, and if you were really serious that race/gender/ethnicity shouldn’t a priori mean that one person is a better speaker than others, then you would accept that we must take steps to give a shot to the people who aren’t being given a shot under the current system.

            That conclusion has nothing to do with weighing diversity over quality – even if quality, and *only* quality, is your goal, it is the only rational conclusion that follows from those facts. It is the exact same type of mathematically-inspired logic you would use even in an engineering problem: If I wanted as many quality widgets as possible, and I knew that quality widgets were distributed evenly among groups A, B, and C, and I saw that we were selecting disproportionately from group A, I know that I could increase our overall quantity of quality widgets simply by selecting more proportionately from groups A, B, and C. The math makes my point for me, and it will not change, no matter how often you keep repeating this ridiculous slander that I’m more interested in diversity than quality.

            > A more important point, though, is that there are large variations among demographic groups in levels of religious belief, so not all groups are going to produce good atheist speakers in similar proportions.

            Your point is based on a fallacy of equating *CURRENT* values with *EXPECTED* values. You’re not going to shock anyone by pointing out that one should expect fewer quality atheist speakers from a group that is highly religious. I mean, duh. The important point is that you should expect that if that group had the same levels of religiosity as the general population, it would have the same proportion of quality atheist speakers. That is, unless you want to argue that certain groups are constitutionally incapable of being quality speakers… which, frankly, would be straight up racism. So obviously if a group is *capable* of producing the same proportion of good speakers, it *should* produce them… unless there’s another problem preventing it.

            In other words, if a group doesn’t *currently* have those levels that we *expect*, that’s an indication of a problem we need to fix… not a sign that we should just shrug and accept the status quo.

            Incidentally, even if one were to ignore the conflation of current and expected values, the fact is that the paper also shows that even taking *existing* proportions into account… even taking existing *atheist* proportions into account *specifically*… the speaker membership is still disproportionate. So even if one were to accept your point, your conclusion is still wrong.

            > You seem to want to define speaker quality in an audience-specific way (i.e. a good-quality speaker is one that works well for a particular audience)…

            You seem to define “audience” as “the people sitting in the auditorium right in front of the speaker”, or – at the most generous – “the people who actually came to the conference”. This is the age of global communication… and in particular, the age of speakers’ presentations being posted online and shared, virally, on social media. A speaker’s audience is everyone they’re reaching out to, whether they’re in the room or not. This is the point of the paper – conference speakers are not selected for study merely because the authors have a fetish for conferences, but because speakership at atheist conferences basically means you’re one of the voices reaching, and probably influencing, atheists at large.

            Your target audience is not merely the attendees… they’re only the first wave. Even if you have an attending audience that is, for argument’s sake, purely white (increasingly unlikely)… and they have no interest *at all* in black issues (unlikely with a progressive audience, even if they are all white)… and they are simply underwhelmed by a stellar presentation that would have had a black audience leaping out of their seats (highly unlikely)… so the presentation you give flops astoundingly… once that video hits the airwaves, the audience that *will* be moved by it will likely eventually see it, which will not only lead to the presentation itself ultimately having its desired effect (albeit delayed), it will also have the secondary effect of making black people more likely to come to future conferences *specifically* to hear that speaker.

            Which, of course, translates to future attendees for future conferences from demographics that wouldn’t have been quite as well represented before. And of course, the traditionally well-represented demographics will still be attending (seriously, seeing a few presentations that don’t click with them doesn’t make people who regularly attend conferences stop going – they’ll still have *plenty* of presentations that *did* click with them, not to mention their usual attendee friends to connect with).

            And that was *THE WORST CASE SCENARIO* of the situation you dreamed up, with a string of unlikely assumptions! In the *likely* case – indeed, the common case – the attendees will be quite pleased with the presentation that wasn’t directed specifically at them (especially given that there’ll be other presentations which probably are). They’ll be quite happy to hear new perspectives.

            Increasing the diversity of speakers at conferences is rather like adding vegetarian and non-alcoholic options to a community festival that’s traditionally only served beer and sausages. People who’ve always come for the beer and sausages are not going to be disappointed at the addition of these new options (well, unless they’re petty, entitled assholes, of course). But people who wouldn’t have come at all before because there was nothing for them will now be able to join the party. And, hell, some of the beer-and-sausage people might even discover they *like* the other options (and some of the people who’ve never tried beer and sausages may give it a shot and find they like it).

            > Why give the poor organisers one more headache, on top of all the others?

            Because the whole point of running an atheist conference – aside from assumptions that they’re just doing it to line their pockets or for prestige – is to increase the visibility and influence of atheism. If they’re not doing that, they’re just group masturbation sessions for already committed atheists, in which case there’s no point in supporting them (unless you want to be one of the masturbators, of course).

            And, as I’ve already proven *several* different ways (and as was explained clearly in the paper itself), if the goal is increasing the visibility and influence of atheism, consciously increasing the diversity of its leadership is the rational strategy. It is not only *logically* effective (per the arguments I’ve outlined), it’s empirically *proven* effective (as the citations in the paper explain). This should not be “one more headache”, it should be a core part of their selection process.

            Besides, even if this were just an “extra headache”, it would be a *trivial* one. Compared to the effort they have to put into finding presenters with the right content, verifying their schedule is free, and so on and so forth, the ridiculously trivial step of looking at the half-filled list and saying “hey, there are all white people here… let’s try and add some colour” is utterly insubstantial. You’re really stretching to manufacture an issue here.

            > > Okay, first of all, you keep repeating this ridiculous straw man notion that the demographics have to “precisely” or “perfectly” match population demographics.
            >
            > My point is that even if you did set and achieve such a goal, it wouldn’t be all that helpful.

            So… your point is that the straw man you created isn’t a good idea? Well, can’t argue that.

            I’m flabbergasted that you think trying to diversify your speaker list is such an incredible chore that it will – you imply – weigh down on the *entire* atheist movement… at least the point that you think they’re no longer worth supporting. It’s actually effectively zero work for conference organizers. *They* aren’t going to be doing any demographics or calculations at all. The ones monitoring whether this or that group is under-represented will be the people doing studies like the one this post refers to. The studies produce the data about which groups are not being well-represented, so all the conference organizers have to do is look at the studies’ conclusions – for example, “lesbians of colour are under-represented” – then they know to try seeking out a lesbian of colour for their next conference. Then a few years later, another study is done showing some other group is under-represented, so conference organizers try finding a speaker or two from that group. And so on, year after year, until – over time – the atheist speaker demographics will approach population demographics. And of course, no one conference is required to take into account *all* the under-represented groups – if every conference selects a few speakers from *any* under-represented group. whichever one is easiest for them to find a speaker for, that will do the job just fine. None of that is hard work for conference organizers – in fact it’s so simple, a slow child could do it. So I can’t fathom how it could strike you as so hard that it will ruin the atheist movement so much you can no longer support it.

            > Yours is in assuming that diversity will never, or rarely, conflict with other imperatives that both of us would probably agree are worthwhile.

            It will not conflict, because the underlying imperative of the entire atheist movement is served by diversity. That was explained at length in the paper, but it is also trivially provable by just reasoning about numbers and human nature – separately or together. It *can’t* conflict with the aims of the atheist movement in general – if it did, the goals of the atheist movement itself would be inherently irrational. (Or, put even more dramatically, if diversity conflicted with the goals of the atheist movement, the atheist movement would – by definition – be a racist movement. The atheist movement is not a racist movement – there is nothing about it at all that either supports the idea of racism, or that benefits from it. Therefore diversity cannot conflict with the atheist movement.)

            If you have something that conflicts with increasing diversity, it conflicts with the atheist movement in general. It may serve a particular limited interest (for example, your example of wanting to do a little less work picking out speakers for a conference), or it may serve some offshoot of the atheist movement but not the movement itself (for example, if there were a “whites-only atheist movement”), but in the bigger picture, it can’t be the best thing for atheism overall.

            > It’s not a question of punishment – it’s a question of not wanting to see resources expended in pursuit of goals that seem ill-chosen at best. Reaching out to minorities is not necessarily the best way to promote sceptical free thought in Canada and weaken the influence of religion, and concocting demographically engineered lists of conference speakers is not necessarily the best way to reach out to minorities.

            Here’s the thing. You’ve gone to great lengths to make your objections sound rational… but they’re not. It’s the same thing you see in climate denialism or evolution denialism – they, too, try really hard to sound rational and scientific, putting on a great pretence of being concerned skeptics who just want to consider all the angles that others dare not consider.

            The reason their rationalism is just a pretence is that the science is in. The reasoning has been done. You can accept it or not, but if you don’t you are not being rational about your skepticism unless you *actually* have evidence that it’s wrong… which you don’t; you have nothing but really exaggerated “concerns”.

            The science is in, here too. We have long had evidence from *numerous* studies across *numerous* fields (some of them are referenced in the paper) that diversity in leadership correlates strongly with all kinds of good things – better decision-making, faster responsiveness to surprises and better handling of problems, faster growth, and so on and so forth. You’re trying almost desperately to brush off my interest in increasing diversity as a mere “preference”, but I base my desire for increased diversity squarely on the research. Disdain for increasing diversity is simply unscientific.

            This paper was the final piece of the puzzle. Previous research had shown that diversity would almost certainly be a boon to the atheist movement, but we had no idea exactly where we stood in reality. Were we diverse enough? Or, were we lacking. This paper answers that question: we are improving, but still lacking. (Future studies would look at the problem in less broad strokes, telling us precisely which populations are being under-represented, and by how much.)

            So there’s the data: diversity is good, and we are lacking. What is the logical course of action we should take, given that data? Obviously, try to increase diversity. How to do that? The paper explains, referring to gatekeeper theory.

            There it is, all laid out. None of it is based on an empty-headed “preference” for diversity. The research shows that diversity is almost certainly something we want in the atheist movement – and its (perceived or de facto) “leadership” in particular – and that we’re still somewhat lacking in that department. Reason leads to the desire to do something about it, and (sociological) theory suggests what. There are no flights of fancy there.

            And to preempt any accusations of being “religious” about the conclusions, let me state clearly that they are – as with all rational conclusions – tentative. If and when conflicting evidence or reasoning is presented, they might change. Note: actual conflicting evidence or reasoning, not merely “feelings” that it might be difficult or it might not work or whatever, or just a general distaste for the idea. Unless and until conflicting evidence or reasoning appears, these are the only rational conclusions.

            So, to answer your objection directly: reaching out to minorities *IS* the one of best ways (not “the best way”… why does everything have to be absolutes with you?) to promote skeptical free thought in Canada and weaken the influence of religion, and diversifying the speaker roster (note: not sticking to “demographically engineered” lists… didn’t we already put that straw man to rest?) *IS* the one of best ways to reach out to minorities. That is not opinion. That is not supposition. That is backed up by research, and reason. Denying that conclusion out of hand – without real evidence or solid reasoning to justify doing so – is irrational; it’s denialism.

            > There’s a persistent tendency in Canadian public discourse to talk about diversity as if it were both self-evidently positive and self-evidently important, but that shouldn’t be good enough for a community of tough-minded sceptics!

            I have no interest whatsoever in “tough-minded skeptics”. I am only interested in people who base their beliefs and their thinking on evidence and reason.

            The evidence and reason on this point is overwhelming, if not conclusive: diversity makes us better aware of our surroundings and situation, more responsive to change, more robust in the face of setbacks, faster growing, and smarter. (Yes, research has suggested all of those things as correlated with increased diversity in a group. It’s no accident that some of the top innovative companies in the world are consciously increasing the diversity of their workforce, and their leadership.)

            Skepticism is highly overrated. Skepticism is good if and only if it is subordinate to reason. If you are skeptical without being rational about it, you are simply irrational.

  7. Bertram Russell’s daughter felt a significant degree of distance from her father. In her autobiographical book she describes her father’s atheist leadership quite dispassionately. She was, it seems more a ‘freethinker’ than she was a ‘atheist’.

    This would be somewhat like my own situation; although I would be more ‘non-Christian’ than ‘atheist’.

    It’s not that I’m shy of being an atheist. It’s just more important to me to be non-Christian. I know what stories are. They’re neither history nor archeology. After historians and archeologist have confirmed the absence of data there is nothing other than literature to discuss.

    Atheism, on the other hand, is quite abstract; even though it is most likely the case; given the total absence of any GOD public appearances. Discounting those described inside fake first-century Palestinian literature.

    Diversity? Maybe this preoccupation, with the abstract nature of ill defined divine singularities, is simply cultural baggage inherited predominately by white males.

    There are loads of Arab people, both male and female, who disparage the idea of a divine Jesus Christ.

    This is comparative literature, not science.

    I encourage all fundamentalist Christians (my cohort) to accept the fictional truth regarding all New Testament writings. It would make me very happy to see them lead by example.

    There is no divine singularity, only a material singularity; most likely. Hearing young ladies, who were brought up in the faith, stating this probable fact would not illicit a great appreciation from most atheists.

    What would be very appreciative would be the young women of the future being confidently aware that the story of Jesus is, without a doubt, a story.

    This is when women will become the majority without faith.

  8. @Indi

    Unless you’re aware of a method of determining who is going to be a good speaker without actually giving them a chance to demonstrate by speaking…

    It’s not like random white men get pulled off the street, given speaking slots, and then invited back if they happen to be good speakers. Conference organisers have all kinds of options for spotting likely prospects, ranging from word of mouth (“I know this kid who would make a great speaker…”) to reading books and blogs on relevant topics and developing a sense of which people have the most interesting things to say. Obviously not every “likely prospect” will work out, but one can indeed “determine who is going to be a good speaker” with some degree of accuracy. Are some methods of identifying likely prospects biased, such that likely prospects from certain demographic groups might be easily missed? Sure, probably, and you could make a case for encouraging conference organisers to consciously and deliberately widen the net in demographic terms if the supply of exciting new speakers seemed to be drying up. But that’s actually very different from doing a demographic tally of the speakers and deciding that a problem must exist if the tally is significantly unrepresentative of some target population.

    Even setting aside the influence of religion, there’s no reason to think that members of all demographic groups should be equally interested in speaking at conferences, or even equally likely to be good public speakers. How many activities, from lacrosse to lepidopterology, are engaged in by even an approximately “representative” slice of Canada’s population? How many professions have a “representative” set of practitioners? The proportion is probably pretty small, for any reasonably narrow definition of “representative” – partly because members of different groups tend to have different opportunities in Canadian society, but also because they tend to have different interests and aptitudes. Even if you take the line that the differences in opportunity are unfair and should be actively counteracted, which I’d argue is only partly true, the differences in interests and aptitudes remain in place to give the lie to simplistic assertions that demonstrating demographic unevenness among conference speakers or some similar grouping is tantamount to demonstrating the existence of a problem. In other words, people ain’t widgets.

    This is the age of global communication… and in particular, the age of speakers’ presentations being posted online and shared, virally, on social media. A speaker’s audience is everyone they’re reaching out to, whether they’re in the room or not.

    This is the best point you’ve made in this exchange, and I do take it seriously. Still, the set of people who are likely to attend a conference OR watch a video of a presentation from that same conference is likely to be demographically skewed in all sorts of ways.

    …speakership at atheist conferences basically means you’re one of the voices reaching, and probably influencing, atheists at large.

    This, on the other hand, is a lot less convincing. Many, many atheists have probably never attended a conference or watched a conference video in their lives. I rarely watch them myself, as I don’t have the time and patience.

    Increasing the diversity of speakers at conferences is rather like adding vegetarian and non-alcoholic options to a community festival that’s traditionally only served beer and sausages.

    Sure, and then there’s the vegan option, the halal option, the gluten-free option, and the annoyance of dealing with the guy who insists that dinner is “anti-Semitic” because there’s a halal option but no kosher option. And before you know it, half the kinds of sausage and beer that were available in the good old days have been crowded out because sixty percent of the budget is going on “options” that hardly anybody wants, and the “community” event degenerates into a shouting match over whether it’s acceptable that the fucking tofu may not be entirely GM-free. Meanwhile, a few sensible souls have just given up, and are having a stimulating conversation at the Bavarian restaurant on the other side of town.

    Okay, that was a bit of a caricature. But now that I’ve had my sardonic fun, here’s the serious point – to me it just seems thuddingly obvious that, the more parameters you try to nudge in some preferred direction, the more compromises are necessary and the more difficult and complicated the task at hand becomes. Demographic diversity is a parameter, so of course trying to increase it will detract from some other things one might reasonably want to do (even if it also brings some incidental benefits). No, increasing demographic diversity in a roster of conference speakers probably isn’t going to be an “incredible chore”, but doing it while simultaneously keeping everything else up to snuff is unlikely to be “zero work”, either. I mean, sometimes it’s going to be difficult to find a “lesbian of colour” (bright orange?) who is available and interested, and has something worthwhile to say – and then gosh darn, when you do find one, she’s an expert in more or less the same area as the Samosian of transparency to whom you’ve already promised a slot, and then what do you do?

    We have long had evidence from *numerous* studies across *numerous* fields (some of them are referenced in the paper) that diversity in leadership correlates strongly with all kinds of good things…

    Which studies do you have in mind? You keep repeating claims like this, and it’s about time you put some cards on the table. You could even, probably, get a good post out of it – it’s an interesting issue, and obviously relevant to all sorts of things. My prediction is that the evidence (setting aside any rose-tinted spin that may be lurking in Introduction and Discussion sections of otherwise solid academic papers) will turn out to be a lot more nuanced and ambiguous than you’ve been implying, but I’m prepared to be convinced otherwise.

    Or, put even more dramatically, if diversity conflicted with the goals of the atheist movement, the atheist movement would – by definition – be a racist movement.

    You think that’s “dramatic”?! (I can almost hear the ominous drum roll and sharp intake of breath before the darkly intoned word “racist”.) I think it just demonstrates that whatever “definition” of racism you’re using must be so broad as to be basically vacuous.

    You’ve gone to great lengths to make your objections sound rational… but they’re not. It’s the same thing you see in climate denialism or evolution denialism…

    So you think the case that increasing demographic diversity will lead to “all kinds of good things”, or at least have some kind of significant positive effect, is strong enough to be mentioned in the same breath as the case for anthropogenic global warming, let alone the case for evolution? Again, let’s see the studies. And I’m not going to great lengths, I’m just calling it like I see it.

    I have no interest whatsoever in “tough-minded skeptics”. I am only interested in people who base their beliefs and their thinking on evidence and reason.

    Tough-minded scepticism is basing one’s thinking on evidence and reason. Sure, scepticism can be carried to irrational extremes, but it’s essential to look critically at the underpinnings of claims and ideas – especially ones that seem intuitively attractive – rather than simply accepting them. Kick the tires before you get into the bloody car. Or if you forget, hop out again and give them a few swift kicks while the driver is stopped at a traffic light of colour (red). You could still do that with respect to this whole diversity thing!

    • > It’s not like random white men get pulled off the street, given speaking slots, and then invited back if they happen to be good speakers.

      You’re going around in circles here. I’ve already explained that psychological biases make methods where organizers pick speakers they *feel* will be good are fundamentally flawed.

      If the existing model of “conference speaker” is disproportionate, then there is no fair* way to select a conference speaker without tossing that model aside and using other means to select speakers… specifically, using a proportionally-weighted selection process to eliminate bias. Of course, doing that *literally* is extreme, so a practical compromise is necessary. That compromise has been explained.

      * I’m using “fair” in the mathematical sense – as in a “fair die”, ie, unbiased – not in the playground sense.

      > > …speakership at atheist conferences basically means you’re one of the voices reaching, and probably influencing, atheists at large.
      >
      > This, on the other hand, is a lot less convincing. Many, many atheists have probably never attended a conference or watched a conference video in their lives. I rarely watch them myself, as I don’t have the time and patience.

      Even if you haven’t you have *CERTAINLY* been exposed to their ideas second-hand… or third-hand… or fourth-hand… generally indirectly. When an atheist conference speaker does something that influences the atheist movement, you don’t necessarily need to be at the conference or watch the video yourself to be affected, and influenced, by it.

      > But now that I’ve had my sardonic fun, here’s the serious point – to me it just seems thuddingly obvious that, the more parameters you try to nudge in some preferred direction, the more compromises are necessary and the more difficult and complicated the task at hand becomes.

      I can’t imagine why that seems obvious. I’m an engineer – i live and breathe decisions about increasing or decreasing complexity in systems – and it’s not obvious to me.

      First of all, to repeat the point yet again, there is no “complexity”. The job of the conference organizers is *trivially* more complicated by taking diversity into account. I even demonstrated that by example.

      But adding a new feature to a system does not necessarily make that system more difficult or complicated to manage. If you want a simple example: consider a maintenance hatch on a machine. A machine *with* a maintenance hatch is obviously and undeniably more complex than an identical machine without one. And it is, technically, one more thing that can fail – the hatch can get stuck, or something could get jammed in the latch so it can’t close properly, or the door could get sheared clean off. Yet despite that added complexity, let me tell you right now with absolute conviction: the machine with the added complication of the maintenance hatch will be *MUCH* easier to use and maintain.

      And that’s not an isolated example. If it were really true that adding any complexity to a system makes it more difficult and complicated, then we’d still be using only hand tools like hammers and saws. But we’re not; we’re using pneumatic power tools in most shops, fully or partly automated machine tools in some. Adding complexity is a *good* thing if – and only if – the benefits you get from that added complexity outweigh the costs. But that isn’t exactly that rare an occurrence. As a writing tool, a computer is much more complex than a typewriter… or a quill – but i’m going to bet you’re not going to say it was a mistake, or not worthwhile, to upgrade.

      To bring the analogy home, it seems to me that for all the extra “complexity” that it requires to try to make your speaker roster more diverse, there are so many *benefits* you get that it more than balances out. Just off the top of my head, it will make promoting the conference easier – not only can you advertise your awesome speaker list, you can also proudly proclaim your commitment to diversity… which it seems to me will be quite appealing to the generally progressive atheist audience. Not only that, you can expect ticket sales to be much easier, because you can – of course – expect the usual attendees, but you can also market to these newly-represented groups. You could expect to get a few people from those groups showing up – if only to support the speaker that represents them. And that’s just considering the *local* benefits. And these are just the benefits to the conference itself… don’t forget about the benefits to the atheist movement as a whole that come with increased diversity.

      Again, even if *none* of those benefits happen, the “cost” of adding diversity concerns to your selection process is negligible. But getting at least *some* benefits is essentially a certainty, so adding diversity considerations is definitely worthwhile.

      > I mean, sometimes it’s going to be difficult to find a “lesbian of colour” (bright orange?) who is available and interested, and has something worthwhile to say – and then gosh darn, when you do find one, she’s an expert in more or less the same area as the Samosian of transparency to whom you’ve already promised a slot, and then what do you do?

      Find another one. Or pick another underrepresented group. Or put the word out to the net for ideas and suggestions. Or, hell, in the absolute worst case where you really can’t afford to spend any more resources searching… give up – it’s not *that* big a deal.

      The point is to *TRY* to increase the diversity of your speakership, which, the vast majority of the time, won’t be that hard to do. But if you really can’t find someone, it’s not the end of the world. Assuming sincere effort, failure is not a crime. Some other conference will probably give that bright orange lesbian a slot instead of the transparent Greek, so there’s no reason to lose sleep over it.

      > Which studies do you have in mind? You keep repeating claims like this, and it’s about time you put some cards on the table.

      I’ve already mentioned, several times, that there are citations in the paper with this evidence. My cards have been sitting on the table gathering dust for some time now.

      But alright, because i know if i don’t actually drop some links on the table you’ll probably insist that i can’t back up what i’ve been saying – even though you could just as well do the same google search yourself – here we go.

      Obviously I don’t keep a list of studies on every topic I know to be studied in my head or bookmarked. (Seriously, if i asked you to produce studies that show radiation causes cancer, could you do it?) I know you’re not actually going to read any of these, so i won’t put too much effort into looking for them, but for my own academic pride i’m going to stick to peer-reviewed academic studies… eschewing the many, many, many informal studies done by the various consulting firms, polling organizations, and think tanks. I just did a quick, half-assed search, limiting the results to the last 10 years.

      So, right off the bat, here are some examples from the business world that show increased diversity increases the bottom line:
      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141006114053.htm
      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090331091252.htm

      Okay, maybe that’s due to the fact that smarter and better companies are more likely to have diversity policies. So here’s a study showing that more diverse companies are doing more innovative work:
      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140319085430.htm

      Now, that study actually takes the causal question into account, but still, maybe there’s *still* something about those companies that makes them more innovative, and *that* makes them put more effort into building diverse teams. So try this on for size: this study of doctors shows that merely learning in diverse environments produces better results:
      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080909205615.htm

      And this study shows that that effect isn’t merely due to some schools being better than others – it holds right from infancy:
      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/09/140910185915.htm

      And if the point hasn’t been hammered home enough that it is specifically the group diversity that has benefits, here’s a study showing that diverse groups of mediocre minds can *outperform* non-diverse groups of smart people:
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15534225

      Here are some studies that focus specifically on *how* diversity improves group effectiveness. The first one’s an article, not a study, but it’s written by a study author explaining the result of her own studies and others – that the way diversity works isn’t what you’d expect (people bringing different expertise to the table), but rather merely *having* diversity makes people work better in a group:
      http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/

      Here’s one that focuses specifically on the way white people (more generally, the dominant race in the current location) adjust their behaviour when the group is diverse, which leads to better group work:
      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/04/060410162259.htm

      And finally, here’s a study showing the flip side – specifically *avoiding* diversity actually makes teams worse:
      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140108154242.htm

      But in general, read any article in a scientific context about the impact of diversity, and they’ll say it flat out: the data is in, and it has been for generations.

      > You could even, probably, get a good post out of it – it’s an interesting issue, and obviously relevant to all sorts of things.

      That would be rather like writing a post pointing out that the sky is blue.

      You keep implying that the reason so many people are fixated on diversity is because of some kind of zombie-like groupthink, or worship of a quasi-religious idea… they just like it because it “sounds nice”, without ever having given it any serious critical thought. But from my perspective, that’s ridiculous. From where I’m sitting, the benefits of diversity are a long-established fact. And I mean *LONG* established. Actual properly conducted scientific study of the topic may be relatively recent – “recent” as in the last 70 years or so (I know they’ve been studying diversity benefits since at least the 1950s) – but the idea is *OLD*. Multiculturalism was originally part of the pragmatism movement of the late 19th century.

      Hell, i remember being taught in school that a diverse group performed better than a non-diverse one. One of my first-year engineering courses was entirely about the engineering design process, and covered such things as how to put together a design group, how to brainstorm, etc. etc. – the “textbook” was a package of photocopied excerpts from books and papers on the various topics, so there had to have been something in there about the benefits of group diversity. So the studies were done and this was established consensus since 1996 at least.

      This is not news to anyone. This is a well-established, well-studied, well-evidenced, and well-known phenomenon, and it has been for generations.

      > > Or, put even more dramatically, if diversity conflicted with the goals of the atheist movement, the atheist movement would – by definition – be a racist movement.
      >
      > You think that’s “dramatic”?! (I can almost hear the ominous drum roll and sharp intake of breath before the darkly intoned word “racist”.) I think it just demonstrates that whatever “definition” of racism you’re using must be so broad as to be basically vacuous.

      That’s because you really didn’t put any thought into what i wrote. It’s actually merely a tautology. *ANY* group whose aims *conflict* with diversity is… by definition… a racist group. (Granted, i’m using “racist” as a catch-all term for all forms of bigotry, because i can’t be arsed to list every form of ethnic/racial/religious/national/etc. bigotry that exists. I would think that point is obvious, though.)

      > Kick the tires before you get into the bloody car. Or if you forget, hop out again and give them a few swift kicks while the driver is stopped at a traffic light of colour (red). You could still do that with respect to this whole diversity thing!

      You could just as well say that for any scientific consensus… and it would be just as ridiculous. “You still have time to doubt this whole climate change thing!” “Don’t just accept that old comfortable notion of evolution – kick the tires before you jump on that bandwagon!”

      Dude, the science is in. Accept it, do actual science to try to refute it, or accept the “denialist” label; those are your options. I’ve gone with option 1.

      • If the existing model of “conference speaker” is disproportionate, then there is no fair* way to select a conference speaker without tossing that model aside and using other means to select speakers… specifically, using a proportionally-weighted selection process to eliminate bias.

        Well, yes, IF the model is disproportionate (and hand-waving arguments about psychological biases cut in all directions – some people, after all, seem pretty darn biased towards novelty, and yes, diversity) and IF proportionality in whatever sense you’re using the term is either a priority for its own sake or sufficiently helpful in pursuing other priorities to be worth trying to cultivate. Those are two big IFs!

        When an atheist conference speaker does something that influences the atheist movement, you don’t necessarily need to be at the conference or watch the video yourself to be affected, and influenced, by it.

        To a point, but I’d argue that there are far more effective channels of influence, notably writing books. Of course many people who end up speaking at conferences are influential for other reasons, but the conference speaking in itself isn’t necessarily more than a small part of what makes them influential. In many cases it’s probably more a recognition of their influence.

        …the machine with the added complication of the maintenance hatch will be *MUCH* easier to use and maintain.

        But it won’t be easier to design, will it? Making a list of conference speakers is more like designing a machine than using one.

        The added hassle and complexity of incorporating demographic diversity as a “specification” in the “design” process might not be large, and might pay off in other ways, as you say. But that’s a judgement call, dependent on circumstances.

        *ANY* group whose aims *conflict* with diversity is… by definition… a racist group.

        Putting asterisks around “conflict” doesn’t make it any easier to work out how you’re using that word, which may be the problem here. Demographic diversity has well-documented downsides as well as upsides (a little more on that below). If a group decides that the downsides would be more detrimental to their aims than the upsides are helpful, and decides as a result to limit diversity in its ranks, does that count as conflict? Does it count as racism? My answer to the second question is “no”, but my answer to the first is “yes, at least arguably”.

        But on to the interesting part…

        I know you’re not actually going to read any of these…

        I generally enjoy our periodic discussions on Canadian Atheist. I’d enjoy them more, though, if it weren’t for the bluster and condescension that often seem to waft over from your side of the table. What on Earth made you think you knew that I wasn’t going to read the articles you linked to? I didn’t pore over every word, but I did look through them with some care.

        Some of them are honestly kind of beside the point. Did you click through to the actual text of that PNAS article about diverse problem solvers, as opposed to just reading the abstract? It’s quite specifically about what the authors call “functional diversity” (“differences in how people encode problems and attempt to solve them”) and the authors are exquisitely cautious about the applicability of their results to what they call “identity diversity”. Their most unequivocal statement about the latter is the following: “…we need to be acutely aware that identity-diverse groups often have more conflict, more problems with communication, and less mutual respect and trust among members”. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

        Then there’s that one about how the “effect” of exposure to diversity “holds right from infancy”, which is actually saying that babies from English-speaking families who hear adults speaking Spanish become more prone to imitating the actions of Spanish-speaking adults than they would otherwise be. It’s interesting, but pretty damn narrow. Similarly, the one about medical students only claims that students who learn in ethnically diverse environments end up feeling better equipped to deal with ethnically diverse patients, and more likely to see access to healthcare as a basic right. The one about “avoiding diversity” is actually about the behaviour of individuals within diverse teams, not the relative performance of diverse vs. non-diverse teams.

        A couple of those Science Daily pieces do sound like they describe studies that found genuine positive effects of diversity in business settings, though I’m frankly suspicious of the one that claimed a 15-fold difference in sales revenue between the most and least racially diverse firms – I wouldn’t be surprised if the study failed to control for company size, or some other relevant factor, but I don’t have easy access to the paper. I’m also semi-impressed with the Scientific American article, which concedes the point about diversity causing fractiousness but argues that the fractiousness tends to lead to better thinking.

        However… I got interested enough in the subject to do some poking around on my own, and there are lots of studies out there that found much less evidence for the benefits of diversity.

        …read any article in a scientific context about the impact of diversity, and they’ll say it flat out: the data is in, and it has been for generations.

        This is almost precisely what the literature doesn’t say. Article after article, especially in the business literature (which is mostly what I’ve been looking at) insists that the evidence that demographic diversity is beneficial is decidedly equivocal. One article arguing that demographic diversity (including diversity in age and education level, in addition to more usual suspects) is neutral rather than detrimental in workplace settings even has a title that begins “Defying conventional wisdom”! That may be unusually pessimistic, but the introduction to another article (PDF here) captures what seems to be the prevailing sentiment:

        “Does diversity help organizations perform better? Ask many organizations today and the answer is a resounding “yes.”…Ask about empirical support for the claim that diversity has a positive impact on business performance, however, and the answer is a more tentative “maybe.” Research examining the impact of demographic heterogeneity on workgroup performance as well as overall organizational performance has produced mixed results at best.” (The ellipsis leaves out quite a bit of text elaborating on the way “organizations” have hopped on board that diversity bandwagon.)

        Some of the scepticism may just stem from academics trying to make their own research look more significant by dismissing the existing literature as inconclusive, but the “sky is blue” level of consensus that you’re asserting is present simply doesn’t exist in the technical literature – not even close. The evidence is mixed, complicated and open to differing interpretations, as is often the case in the social sciences. If you still don’t want to do a post about the issue, I might put one together myself, now that my interest is piqued.

        You could just as well say that for any scientific consensus… and it would be just as ridiculous. “You still have time to doubt this whole climate change thing!” “Don’t just accept that old comfortable notion of evolution – kick the tires before you jump on that bandwagon!”

        The thing is… I have kicked the tires of evolution, and I still give the tires of climate change a kick now and then. Both sets of tires hold up beautifully! In each case there’s a highly persuasive underlying logic backed up by a large mass of empirical facts. With this diversity stuff, that just isn’t the case.

        • > Well, yes, IF the model is disproportionate (and hand-waving arguments about psychological biases cut in all directions – some people, after all, seem pretty darn biased towards novelty, and yes, diversity) and IF proportionality in whatever sense you’re using the term is either a priority for its own sake or sufficiently helpful in pursuing other priorities to be worth trying to cultivate. Those are two big IFs!

          The first “if” was proven in the study; that was the whole point of it. The second “if” is conventional wisdom (which you continue to deny, but see below).

          And no, psychological biases don’t “cut in all directions”. That’s not how they work. In fact, that’s literally the opposite of how they work. That’s why they’re called biases and not “psychological random perturbations”. *Nobody* is “biased towards novelty”; that’s gibberish. There may be people who prefer novelty and who actively pursue it, but that is *NOT* a psychological bias, that is *IN SPITE OF* what is perhaps the most powerful psychological bias: confirmation bias. (In fact, once you are aware that confirmation bias exists and is so powerful, deliberately seeking out novel things is a very rational strategy to combat it.)

          > But it won’t be easier to design, will it? Making a list of conference speakers is more like designing a machine than using one.

          I would say making a list of conference speakers is more like building a machine than either designing or using one. The design part – determining the heuristics, or *how* to select speakers – is done at a much higher level; conference organizers don’t do studies or draft theories about the best way to select speakers, they just select speakers. The actual implementation – the selection of speakers – is relatively mechanical, simply applying the heuristics. And of course, the running of the machine is obviously the running of the conference.

          But regardless, design *is* often made easier by the addition of complexity. I suppose that sounds absurd to a layperson, but it’s really true. For example, engineers frequently break systems up into smaller functional components – at significant additional complexity cost to the overall design – to make design easier. Another example, from software engineering, is test-driven development, where not only do you have to develop the code itself but also the tests in parallel – around twice the work (if not more), not counting the fact that you have to structure the whole system to allow all of this, which is not trivial – but overall you save *MUCH* more time by not having to hunt down obscure bugs lodged somewhere in a huge, complex system because they’re caught early by the tests.

          (In fact, one can often spot newbie engineers by the *lack* of complexity in their work. They usually try to tackle everything monolithically to avoid any extra complexity, which makes their job much harder, and frustrates the hell out of more experienced engineers who have to work with a clunky, spaghettified design rather than a more complex but nicely segmented one.)

          > > ANY* group whose aims *conflict* with diversity is… by definition… a racist group.
          >
          > Putting asterisks around “conflict” doesn’t make it any easier to work out how you’re using that word, which may be the problem here.

          I’m using the word in the standard English verb sense, of which – as far as I’m aware – there is only a single sense (not counting metaphorical uses, of course). If you have a group, that has aims, and population diversity is incompatible, or at odds, with those aims, that group is a racist group (again, using “racist” as a catch-all for bigotry against skin colour, ethnicity, culture, etc.). In fact, that is the *definition* of a racist group: a racist group is one whose aims conflict with (racial, if using “racist” in its most pedantic sense) diversity.

          Which is not atheism. Atheism’s goals do *not* conflict with diversity; the movement wants to reach everyone regardless of race. That’s why it is not a racist movement.

          > If a group decides that the downsides would be more detrimental to their aims than the upsides are helpful, and decides as a result to limit diversity in its ranks, does that count as conflict? Does it count as racism? My answer to the second question is “no”, but my answer to the first is “yes, at least arguably”.

          That is quite obviously racism – like, crystal clear. You can put it in concrete terms to make it even more obvious: “It will be better for our group if we don’t allow too many black people to be seen in our upper echelons.”

          And unless the group itself is racist, it is also quite obviously a conflict. If the aims of that group are not limited by diversity – ie, that group intends to work for/with all people, regardless of race, gender, etc. – then that is obviously and undeniably conflict. It’s as simple as: Group aims to reach everyone; group decides to flip off some… that’s a conflict! Again in concrete terms: if that group actually wants to reach all people including black ones, then not allowing black people in the ranks is *obviously* in conflict with that aim (on the other hand, if it has no interest in reaching black people or specifically wants to avoid doing so, then there will be no conflict… but then the group itself is racist to begin with). You have to do substantial mental gymnastics to make it appear anything but obvious.

          One of two things must be true about a group like that. Either (a) it really is true that diversity conflicts fundamentally with the aims of the group itself; or (b) diversity does not conflict fundamentally with the group’s aims but something about the current situation creates a tactical pressure to avoid diversity. In other words, either whole point of the group is racist (case a), or those particular people at that particular time are adopting racist tactics to forward the group’s fundamentally non-racist aim (case b).

          Case (a) is open-and-shut; the whole business, from the ground up, is fundamentally racist. That would be the case if the group’s aims are *specifically* to avoid dealing with black people. Case (b) is not fundamentally racist – either their aim is to deal with everyone regardless of race *or* their mandate isn’t about dealing with people at all (so race is irrelevant) – but it is a case of people adopting a tactic that *is* racist, by its very nature.

          It is *sometimes* effective in the short term to adopt tactics that contradict the strategy, but that is *only* true if those tactics are carried out surreptitiously and denied or disavowed after the fact – which proves that they’re immoral – and you’re taking a great risk that it won’t blow up in your face in the long run.

          Put another way, even if it were advantageous in the short term for an atheist group to adopt a racist tactic, it would be immoral, and risky, and they would be well-advised not to broadcast the fact that they’re doing it. For example, if some conference wanted to disallow Jewish speakers because it might inflame the local antisemite population and make having a peaceful conference difficult, it *might* work out better for them in the short term… but it might work out *much* worse in the long run (imagine if people figured out that’s what they were doing), and either way they’d be better of keeping quiet about it.

          > I generally enjoy our periodic discussions on Canadian Atheist. I’d enjoy them more, though, if it weren’t for the bluster and condescension that often seem to waft over from your side of the table.

          One who repeatedly accuses others of blindly excepting popular whims just because they feel good really should not attempt to play tone judge.

          > What on Earth made you think you knew that I wasn’t going to read the articles you linked to? I didn’t pore over every word, but I did look through them with some care.

          So… I was right.

          (And to answer your question: What made me think you weren’t going to read the articles was: (a) there were a lot of them; (b) there would be little point, because they are technical articles and you are not equipped to read them; and (c) it would make no difference because you are not basing your “skepticism” of the idea on anything rational, so it will surely continue to exist regardless of what the articles say anyway.)

          > Some of them are honestly kind of beside the point.

          Okay, first of all: I picked them out using a rapid, limited search and only gave them the most cursory reading (because their details didn’t matter to my point, which you missed).

          Second: the point of providing them, which you missed, was not to have a debate with you about whether those papers prove the claim *itself* – because neither you *nor* i are qualified to assess that literature (your attempts notwithstanding) or have that debate. It was to provide proof that the benefits of diversity is conventional wisdom. Which they do, several times over (but ironically, the *best* evidence for that point is a paper you found yourself! more on that shortly).

          Third: You’re being more than a little ridiculous with your expectations. The point I’ve been repeating is that the idea the diversity improves the performance of groups is *CONVENTIONAL WISDOM* – it’s *long* established knowledge. Think for a moment about how you would go about showing someone else that something is long established knowledge. Suppose I were sitting here irrationally denying, say, special relativity; suppose I were doggedly insisting that I don’t believe *everyone* accepts special relativity. How would you show me that I’m wrong?

          Would you produce the studies from way-back-when that actually showed the now established results to begin with? If you did that, I could dismiss them by saying recent research might contradict it. And I could easily produce a modern paper or two that challenges it (for example: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0262407911628832), which would necessitate you having to chase down the papers that rebut *that* and so on and so forth ad nauseum. (FYI, that paper is actually one of the papers (though not one of the peer-reviwed ones) from the famous OPERA fuck-up a couple years back. Their faster-than-light neutrinos were just an artifact of a cable not being fully screwed in.)

          To avoid that hassle, what about simply using the most modern papers you can find that mention the commonly-held knowledge and treat it as such? Ah, but there’s a catch: people usually don’t publish papers with titles like “Obvious fact is obvious” or “Well, turns out that effect observed years ago is still there”. They publish papers that (they hope) shake things up – that either attempt to challenge the conventional wisdom or, at the least, introduce some nuance to it. Cutting edge science is, after all, noisy and messy. Still, that shouldn’t matter, because all you’re trying to demonstrate is that the phenomenon is well-known, well-established, and widely-considered to be true (as actually evidenced by the fact that so many people are either challenging it or trying to figure out the nuances of its boundaries).

          But apparently that’s not enough to convince you (or you just missed the point), so once again I ask: what would *you* do? If I were irrationally refusing to accept what you know to be common wisdom, how would you go about proving it to me? Seriously. Would you link to articles in major magazines that repeat the claim (http://www.forbes.com/sites/ekaterinawalter/2014/01/14/reaping-the-benefits-of-diversity-for-modern-business-innovation/)? Would you link to textbooks (https://www.boundless.com/business/textbooks/boundless-business-textbook/human-resource-management-12/diversity-in-human-resources-84/how-does-a-business-benefit-from-diversity-400-381/)? Maybe the work of universities (http://faculty.ucmerced.edu/khakuta/policy/racial_dynamics/Chapter5.pdf) or governments (http://blog.dol.gov/2013/07/22/diverse-perspectives-a-competitive-advantage/)? What would it take – if I were irrationally denying relativity and you were me – to convince you?

          While you mull that over, there’s this:

          > One article arguing that demographic diversity (including diversity in age and education level, in addition to more usual suspects) is neutral rather than detrimental in workplace settings even has a title that begins “Defying conventional wisdom”!

          So… to be clear… I’ve claimed that it is conventional wisdom that diversity has significant benefits… and the evidence you produce to counter my claim… is a paper titled “Defying conventional wisdom” (whose conclusion is ultimately merely that the diversity benefits of conventional wisdom are influenced by task complexity).

          Honestly, my head is so sore from the nuclear facepalm just now that I can’t even think of what to say about that. I guess I’m done here? You don’t seriously *still* refuse to accept that this is conventional wisdom, do you?

          > The thing is… I have kicked the tires of evolution, and I still give the tires of climate change a kick now and then. Both sets of tires hold up beautifully! In each case there’s a highly persuasive underlying logic backed up by a large mass of empirical facts.

          Oh, bull-fucking-shit. ^_^; You do *not* seriously have the theoretical foundation to meaningfully assess either climate change *or* evolution. I mean, if i asked you whether water vapour or carbon dioxide was a stronger greenhouse gas, would you know it was water? Do you know why CO2 is the bigger problem, despite that? Do you know about the vapour window?

          The “tire-kicking” you’ve done is simply reading stuff written by people you consider trustworthy, and that agrees intuitively with your own worldview. They probably mentioned that there were piles of papers providing evidence for these things, and you just accepted it – you never once demanded of them that they provide you papers, and you never once actually read any of the papers they did happen to provide to verify it. Have you *ever* read a research paper on climate change? Critically? (As critically as you read those papers on diversity?) No, of course you haven’t.

          That is not “tire-kicing”; or if it is, it’s just as effective as literal tire-kicking is at determining whether a car is in good running condition. If enough writers you trusted were more vocal about the benefits of diversity, you’d accept that too, and consider your acceptance of it perfectly rational. You’ve pigeon-holed the idea as something held by people you don’t take seriously – *that* is why you don’t take it seriously… not because it is pending some sort of review (which, be honest, you’ve never done for anything else, and is never going to happen for this).

          There is nothing wrong with accepting something on authority without actually doing the “tire-kicking” yourself, provided that authority is sound. It would be absurd to expect *anyone* to “kick the tires” on everything they believe, and utterly unnecessary. In fact, anyone who attempted to tackle the research literature on a topic without a proper theoretical grounding, knowledge of the basics, and expert guidance is frankly an idiot. The biggest anti-evolution idiots or climate deniers are often the ones who think they can do the science themselves, and don’t just accept what the experts say. I would be *highly* suspicious of anyone who claimed to have “kicked the tires” of evolution or climate science without a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field *at least*.

          • Okay, once more into the breach, I guess. With some concern for brevity.

            *Nobody* is “biased towards novelty”; that’s gibberish. There may be people who prefer novelty and who actively pursue it, but that is *NOT* a psychological bias…

            It’s a personality trait that can have a considerable, pervasive effect on behaviour. I’d call that a psychological bias in the vernacular sense, if not in the technical sense – but the point is that some people do indeed gravitate towards novelty as a matter of temperament, whatever word you want to use to describe that gravitation. It stands to reason that such people would want some new names on their hypothetical speakers’ lists.

            I would say making a list of conference speakers is more like building a machine than either designing or using one. The design part – determining the heuristics, or *how* to select speakers – is done at a much higher level; conference organizers don’t do studies or draft theories about the best way to select speakers, they just select speakers.

            So “designing” a car, as you’d use the term, means doing studies and drafting theories about the best way to make a car? I would have thought it meant specifying the exact physical form of a particular new car that others would then build, but hey, you’re the engineer.

            Your discussion of complexity in design is interesting, and I’m glad to have read it – but it doesn’t seem to address the specific kind of complexity we’ve been talking about, which boils down to added requirements that the design has to fulfill (like a maintenance hatch, or demographic diversity).

            Regarding racism, I think I’ll stick with my original diagnosis of unhelpfully broad usage, although perhaps the way I originally put it (“basically vacuous”) was a bit much.

            One who repeatedly accuses others of blindly excepting popular whims just because they feel good really should not attempt to play tone judge.

            For one thing, that’s an issue of substance, not tone. For another thing, I don’t think you’re blindly accepting a popular whim because it happens to feel good, or at least I don’t think you’re as shallow and gullible as those words imply. I don’t really blame you for buying into a popular opinion that is grounded in some evidence (i.e. not a whim) and seems to resonate with strong moral and political commitments on your part (i.e. not exactly just feelings). You do seem to have convinced yourself that the case for the benefits of demographic diversity is stronger and better-established than it really is, but that’s hardly a mortal intellectual sin. For another thing, it’s not your tone I find objectionable, it’s the attitude you seem to bring to these discussions – the way you’re so habitually quick to jump to the conclusion that people (not just me) who disagree with you are being irrational, or talking gibberish, or whatever. It’s rarely justified, and it comes across (at least to me) as pretty damn arrogant and abrasive.

            On to the more interesting stuff…

            Suppose I were sitting here irrationally denying, say, special relativity; suppose I were doggedly insisting that I don’t believe *everyone* accepts special relativity. How would you show me that I’m wrong?

            To start with, not *everyone* accepts that the Earth is more or less spherical as opposed to flat. The issue is not universal agreement, but justified general consensus within a community of qualified researchers – I say “general” because you can find a few cranks with PhDs and out-of-the-way academic positions holding out against damn near anything.

            How would I persuade someone that this level of justified consensus is likely to exist in the case of special relativity? Well, there are well-referenced, readily available, reasonably accessible treatments that describe the main empirical evidence. Even Wikipedia says that special relativity is “the generally accepted physical theory regarding the relationship between space and time”, and goes on to provide a detailed discussion with plenty of references. (By comparison, the article on the “business case for diversity” says, just under the “Benefits” heading, that there is a “lack of documented evidence for the claimed benefits to the organisation and the individual”.)

            Of course, that’s just Wikipedia. However, it’s easy to find articles and presentations on special relativity that are written by evidently highly-qualified people and that discuss the supporting evidence in clear, confident and fairly detailed terms, with reference to specific experiments (here and here, for instance). Could they be the work of cranks or fraudsters? Well, sure, in theory – but the more sources like that you find, the more convincing an idea starts to look.

            Also, there’s a fine crop of research papers by physicists, like this one, that are concerned with testing specific predictions of relativity at increased levels of precision. Even if one doesn’t understand the physics (and I certainly don’t claim to), the papers are clearly written with the intent of further strengthening the empirical foundation for a powerful and widely accepted theory, and perhaps testing for tiny anomalies that might lead on to new theoretical insights. Special relativity is obviously being treated in these papers as a heavyweight champion who is expected to ritually demolish a hapless opponent, not as a struggling journeyman fighter being given one more grudging chance. You really don’t need to be a physicist to see that – you just need to have a passing acquaintance with some key concepts and points of reference (like my vague notion that the Michelson-Morley experiment was an early test of the invariance of the speed of light, involving some kind of giant reflective wheel) combined with a bit of horse sense for how the scientific process works and how scientists write. The social sciences literature is even less impenetrable, because it’s more discursive and less relentlessly mathematical. Knowing a bit of statistics and field-specific jargon helps, though the latter isn’t hard to pick up given a little patience.

            So… to be clear… I’ve claimed that it is conventional wisdom that diversity has significant benefits… and the evidence you produce to counter my claim… is a paper titled “Defying conventional wisdom” (whose conclusion is ultimately merely that the diversity benefits of conventional wisdom are influenced by task complexity).

            You’re misunderstanding. I don’t know if you have access to the full paper, but the very first line of the abstract makes it clear what “conventional wisdom” they have in mind: “Conventional wisdom in the diversity literature holds that job-related dimensions of diversity are the domain of positive performance, whereas demographic dimensions of diversity are the domain of negative performance effects.” By “job-related dimensions of diversity” they mean diversity in things like educational background and experience, whereas by “demographic dimensions of diversity” they mean diversity in things like sex and race. Demographic diversity is the kind we’ve been talking about, and it’s the kind the authors say is conventionally held to be “the domain of negative performance effects” (in other words, detrimental). The finding about task complexity pertains specifically to job-related diversity, which is not what we’ve been talking about.

            You do *not* seriously have the theoretical foundation to meaningfully assess either climate change *or* evolution.

            There you go again with your condescending assumptions. I actually do know evolutionary theory very well, and I draw on it constantly in my academic work. I know much less about the science of climate change, but it did come up regularly during my undergraduate courses, especially the one on meteorology. That was more than 15 years ago, and I no longer have facts like the relative contributions of various greenhouse gases at my fingertips, but I have sat through and understood fairly careful presentations of the evidence even though I’d now have to look up many of the details. Since then I’ve read papers on specific aspects of climate change now and then, and yes, I’ve read them as critically as I’ve been reading the diversity stuff (i.e. in an attentive, but not prosecutorial, sort of way). They all take the basic phenomenon for granted and concern themselves with working out various details of it, which is a pretty good indication that a strong consensus exists regarding the foundations. That just isn’t the case with respect to the recent literature on demographic diversity.

            My real point, though, is that one doesn’t even need that kind of background to get a pretty good sense of how an idea is regarded in a particular scientific field, which is the level of tire-kicking I’m recommending. I’m not suggesting that we, as rational thinkers, have no business believing anything unless we’ve fully understood and critiqued the relevant peer-reviewed literature – that really would be setting the bar too high, and (except perhaps in a few rare cases) indulging in too much paranoia about the motives of scientists. But when confronting claims that sound wrong or suspiciously exaggerated (and I’d argue that your paeans to the value of demographic diversity certainly fall into that category, keeping in mind that very few things in the social sciences are all that cut-and-dried), it certainly pays to take a look at what the experts are actually saying. That means looking for high-quality journalism on the subject and maybe dipping into the peer-reviewed literature. The latter really isn’t as daunting or difficult as you seem to think, especially if one looks mostly at the Introduction and Discussion sections of papers to get a sense of how researchers are approaching a particular topic. After all, you did all right with the Hassall and Bushfield paper that started us on this whole conversation, although I still think you gave it an easier ride in some respects than you should have.

            Having put some time recently into looking at papers, government reports and the odd popular article on diversity (including your latest few links, which are a mixed bag), I’m confident that I’m right to say the evidence is nuanced, complicated and a lot less clearly supportive of the virtues of demographic diversity than you’ve been suggesting. I’ll get around to posting my take on it eventually, although there are other things I want to write about first (including, perhaps ironically, Alfred Russel Wallace and his independent “discovery” of natural selection). One thing that does jump out, though, is that demographic diversity is far less obviously valuable in most contexts than diversity in traits such as training and experience. Even studies that are positive about demographic diversity often (though not always) explain the positive effects in terms of a putative correlation between demographic diversity and other kinds of diversity. But hell, why not try to cultivate the latter directly, if you care about diversity so much? If you want to improve the quality of atheist leadership by reaching out to groups that are underrepresented in the “movement”, try conservatives, farmers and seniors.

  9. We at Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics are planning a conference in Winnipeg for Sept 19th and 20th. One of our goals right from the beginning was diversity and it has not been difficult to find speakers that are diverse in gender and ethnicity/race. Our website for RiverCity Reasonfest will be up soon.

    • Yes, no one with a modicum of sense *really* believes that taking diversity into account makes organizing a conference measurably harder. Don’t take the concern trolling seriously.

      Once you get the site up, you should send a message to one of the writers here – we’ll post about it to help get the word out.

      (Unfortunately, I don’t think I have comment moderation privileges, so I’m not sure I can fix the posting problem.)

      ((Scratch that, looks like it’s already been fixed!))

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