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Outer space doesn’t care about your pronouns

The good folks at Pink News have decided to ruin the galaxy by attempting to spread social justice throughout the stars.
Libby Emmons and Barrett Wilson Montreal, QC

Up until now, one of the best characteristics of space was that it had no identity politics. Space was space, heavenly bodies were studied and charted, Jupiter’s many moons, named for mythical gods and goddesses, were marvelled at, their orbits mapped. Space was colour blind. But the good folks at Pink News have decided to ruin the galaxy by attempting to spread social justice throughout the stars.

Pink News cites Australian professor Lisa Kewley’s perspective that now is the time for “the participation of women to also actively recruit LGBT+, indigenous, disabled, and chronically ill astronomers.” The drive for inclusivity in the workplace, specifically in STEM fields, is something we’re hearing lots about. From toys that are designed specifically to encourage girls to go into engineering to demands for non-gendered bathrooms so no one researcher feels left out, inclusivity is a buzzword that drives industry.

Kewley’s article in Nature Astronomy emphasizes the importance of attaining diversity of all kinds in Australia’s astronomy field. It’s a wonder they have time to study the stars at all what with the sheer number of inclusivity measures employed by this field. Within this community, there are workshops on “how to bridge cultural gaps,” “international/cultural lunch[es],” “cultural morning teas,” “a convenience room which may be reserved for prayer, meditation, lactation or feeding/caring for infants,” sharing of personal hobbies and interests in professional newsletters, “mental health first-aid training to identify,” “lunchtime yoga classes,” and mindfulness leadership courses.

Much of the success of diversity and inclusion is measured through the giving the Pleiades Awards, recognizing those astronomy societies and universities that have undertaken diversity and inclusivity efforts over a period of years. The idea is that the mere attempt to include and diversify is worthy of award, and that success is evidenced by the striving to succeed.

Kewley states that “As the world prepares for the era of mega-telescopes, improving diversity in astronomy will be critical for maximizing new ideas and ensuring the future success of astronomy departments worldwide.” She writes about the “statistically significant correlation between greater levels of diversity in company leadership and likelihood of outperforming the relevant industry peer group on… profitability.”

From there, Kewley makes the jump that “It is reasonable to infer that greater diversity in astronomy organizations will also produce a greater likelihood of outperforming competition in astronomy key performance measures in discoveries and advances.”

Pink News leapt on this as proof that astronomy needs more LGBT+ people in order to make better discoveries. “A paper published in an Australian science journal has said that hiring diverse astronomers, especially those from the LGBT+, disabled and indigenous communities, is essential for the country’s success in the field.” While there’s no reason to believe that LGBT+ people would make worse discoveries, there’s no reason to believe that they would make better ones, either.

Identity factors themselves don’t drive discovery as much as they influence perspective. The article also points to a viral tweet by a trans activist that features a Hubble telescope photograph of Jupiter in a UV light. The activist saw the colours and perceived it to have the colour scheme of the trans flag, leading the activist to declare that “Jupiter says trans rights.”

Of course, in reality, the fifth planet from the sun doesn’t look like that at all. And Jupiter doesn’t care about your pronouns. These are far from the only claims made about identity factors being an issue in the hard sciences, or humanities, or anywhere in academia and research, really. A recent paper posits that “the exclusion of Black American women from physics impacts physics epistemologies.”

While the going progressive belief is that women leave careers, and careers in science, because they are discriminated against, there is mounting evidence to suggest that these are not even the primary reasons that women veer off career course. Writing for Quillette, Debra Soh doesn’t “deny that sexism exists, but sexism today is not so severe that it stands in the way of a woman achieving a career in science—or any field—if she really wants to. There are countless programs in place that encourage girls and young women to pursue careers in scientific disciplines.” Women reprioritize their lives because they want to. In the most egalitarian of countries, the Nordic ones, there are in fact less women in STEM careers.

All of this effort at sex parity in Australian astronomy is due, in large part, to a 2002 study, “Young Women’s Perceptions and Experiences of Becoming a Research Physicist,” conducted of women under the age of 30 in the U.K. It revealed that 15 percent of them felt they experienced sex-based bias, while 45 percent of their older, female counterparts felt that way. If it was 15 percent in 2002, down from 45 percent, how small must that number be now, 18 years later?

But of course, that’s not the point of all this anti-bias workshopping and ongoing mindfulness education. The point isn’t to ensure that those who are most driven, talented, and determined to succeed in these tough fields have the opportunity and access to do so, but to restructure progress, achievement and scholarship to be about who is doing the thinking rather than what is being thought. We no longer look outward to explore the cosmos, but in. We believe we comprise the universe.

New ways of thinking and new perspectives of problem-solving are important, but there’s no reason to believe that alt gender identity or sexual orientation inherently leads to different problem-solving abilities. Plus, we’re pretty sure space is colour blind.

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Libby Emmons and Barrett Wilson
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