Sunday, November 20, 2016

Anti-Asian bias in science

Scientists are a cloyingly liberal bunch. In the wake of this (horrifying) election, seems like every other science Tweet I saw was like
To all my Inuit friends and colleagues: I stand with you. Against fear. Against hate.
Lovely sentiments, for sure, and as a non-white person living in the Philly suburbs at this frightening time, that is welcome. (Although I do wonder who would actually step up if something really went down. Would I? Would I even stand up for myself?)

At the same time, beneath this moralistic veneer, it is of course impossible to deny that there is tons of discrimination and bias in science. Virtually any objective look at the numbers shows that women and under-represented minorities face hurdles that I most definitely have not, and these numbers are backed up with the personal stories we have all heard that are truly appalling. But there is, I think, another less widely-acknowledged or discussed form of discrimination in science, which is discrimination targeted towards Asian scientists.

Asians make up a relatively small (though rapidly growing) portion of the US population. In science, however, they're highly over-represented, making up a large fraction of the scientific workforce. And with that comes a strange situation: a group that is clearly not a small minority, and that is doing well in this highly regarded and respected area, and yet clearly faces bias and discrimination in a number of ways, many of which may be different from those that other minorities face.

First off, what do I mean by Asian? I'm guessing I'm not the only one who feels like I'm checking the "miscellaneous box" when I'm faced with one of these forms and choose "Asian":

I mean, there's a billion Indians and a billion Chinese people EACH out there (not to mention 10s to 100s of millions of other Asian groups), but whatever. Point is, Asians are a diverse group, and I think these different groups face some common and some distinct forms of discrimination. Aside from the various distinctions by ethnic category, there are also distinct forms of bias directed towards Asians coming from abroad as opposed to Asian-Americans. I think all Asians face some measure of discrimination, and in particular, those of East Asian (and within that, Chinese) origin face some of the biggest obstacles.

(I could be completely wrong about this, but I do feel like East Asian scientists face more barriers than South Asians for whatever reason. Part of this may be an matter of numbers: there are simply fewer South Asians in science to begin with. And certainly South Asians from abroad run into trouble, especially a generation ago. That said, as an Indian-American I don't personally feel like I've been on the short end of the stick for racial reasons. Then again, who knows what I'm not hearing, know what I mean? Indeed, I think it's specifically because I'm not Chinese that I've seen mostly anti-Chinese bias, which is what I'll focus on here.)

Exactly what are these barriers? After all, don't the stereotypes of Chinese in the US typically involve words like "diligent", "hard working", "good at math"? Well, I think it's important to realize that it is these very words that implicitly provide an upper limit on what Chinese scientists can aspire to in academia. Consider the following statement I heard from someone (I can't exactly remember the context) that went something like "Oh, they'll just hire a bunch of Chinese postdocs for that, I'm sure." As in "do what they're told", "just labor", "interchangeable", "quiet". Are such sentiments that far from "not independent-minded" or "lacking vision"?

You'd think that these stereotypes may have faded in recent years, and I think that is true to some extent. Then again, take a look at this well-meaning guide from a university in Germany for Chinese/German relationships called "When a Chinese PhD student meets a German supervisor", written by a couple of Chinese PhD students in Germany. I think it actually has a lot of useful things in there, and it would be disingenuous to say that there are no meaningful cultural differences, especially for a foreign student coming to Germany. At the same time, I found some aspects of the guide worrisome:
Through constant discussions, Ming gradually learned when he should obey his supervisor and when he should argue. Ming’s supervisor was very happy when he noticed that the way Ming approached his work had changed and therefore said, “German universities train PhD students to think independently and critically.”
There it is: implicitly, Chinese students don't think independently or critically without extensive German retraining.

And check out this one:
PhD students in Germany are not just students, they often are also researchers and employees at universities. On the one hand, they need to finish their scientific projects independently; on the other hand, they have to teach courses that are assigned by the university or their research groups and they have to do daily organizational work as well. All these tasks require professional qualities. In each research group, every member performs his or her duties according to their contracts.

At the beginning of his PhD, Ming had no plan or agenda at all when he talked to his supervisor, which resulted in aimless and inefficient discussions. After being reminded by the supervisor, Ming began to write agendas for their discussions, but they were always extensive instead of being brief, which made it a laborious task for the supervisor to read. Then the supervisor taught Ming to use bullet points, i.e., to list every question or issue that needs to be discussed with a word or a short phrase.
Right… because I've never had non-Asian students who had these problems with "professional qualities".

I mean, I think this guide is addressing some real concerns and is probably very helpful (check out the part where they describe how to sort garbage like the locals—sounds like someone had a traumatic experience leading to that particular section). But there are long-term consequences to reinforcing the stereotypes of lack of independence, lack of communication skills and the such. Notice how these stereotypes are all about the qualities people think are required for getting to the next level in academia?

Also, this stereotyping is not the only form of bias and racism that Chinese people face in science. Indeed, because the number of Chinese people in science is so large, they must constantly be vigilant about accusations of favoritism and reverse bias. This can come out in particularly nasty ways. For instance, I recently went to a major conference and had a chat with a rather well-known colleague after a meal. As is standard, we spent some time complaining about annoying reviewers, and all of a sudden, my colleague said "And I just KNOW this reviewer is Chinese." The venom with which the word "Chinese" came out of their mouth really took me by surprise, but I'm betting I'm not the only one who's heard that sort of thing, and more than once. Just imagine hearing this kind of talk about any other racial or ethnic group.

In that environment, is it surprising that it is hard for Asian scientists to break through to higher levels in academia? It seems to me that Asians form an under-over-represented class in science: they are a big part of making the scientific enterprise run, but have got plenty of extra hurdles to jump through to get to the next level, with bias working against them on precisely all those extra, conveniently unquantifiable qualities deemed necessary to get, say, a faculty position. My father is an academic, and was pretty sure that he faced racism earlier in his career, though it's hard to pinpoint exactly where and how. I had a recent conversation with a Chinese colleague who told me the exact same thing: he knows its harder for him for a number of reasons, but it's just so hard to prove. It is the soft nature of this bias that makes it so pernicious, which is of course true for other groups as well, but I feel like we don't think about it as much for Asians because they are so visibly over-represented, so we think "What's the problem?".

All this is not to say that there's been no progress. For instance, at the very conference where my colleague lamented their allegedly Chinese reviewer, I noted just how many of the best and brightest PIs in attendance were Asian, including a large number of Chinese and Chinese-American scientists. Indeed, I just visited a university where my hosts were extremely successful Asian scientists, and they so were warm and welcoming, inviting me to dinner at their home together with a few other Asian scientists, all of whom I really admire and respect. At those times, I think the vision of an inclusive, open-minded scientific community is not only possible, but perhaps attainable.

At the same time, I think recent events have shown that these changes do not come for free. It is a cliché, but it is true that we must all fight for these changes and stand against fear and against hate, etc., etc. Great, that's fine and well, and I'm all for it. At the same time, I think it's important to acknowledge that when it comes down to it, social pressures often make it hard to say something in the moment when these situations arise. Looking back at my own experiences, I think I am not alone in saying that I have more regrets about lost opportunities to do or say the right thing rather than proud moments of actually standing up to what I think was wrong. Just saying "we should stand up to bias and discrimination" is very different than providing a blueprint for how to do so.

As such, all moral grandstanding aside, I think there is an interesting question facing us Asians now as a group. Thus far, I feel that Asian scientists have relied on the goodwill of non-Asians to advocate for us, push our careers, make a place for us in science—and to the many, many wonderful scientists who have supported Asians, including myself, a sincere thank you. But it's important to realize that this means, essentially, succeeding on other people's terms. Those terms have generally been favorable to Asian scientists (and non-scientists) so far, but are there limits to Asian success in that model? Do we need to start asserting our rights more aggressively and in a more organized fashion? A postdoc in my lab, Uschi, has vigorously spoken out for postdoc rights here at Penn, and guess what: it makes a difference. I would imagine that advocating for Asians scientists could result in similar benefits. Should this be part of a larger effort to assert Asian rights on a national stage? After all, while relying on the benevolence of kind-hearted non-Asian scientists has worked okay so far in our little science bubble, if we think that general nerdiness and funny accents are going to save us in Gen Pop, well, take a look at what's going on in the aftermath of this election. Maybe it will require concerted, coordinated advocacy to change the policies and bias that make things difficult for foreigners that science in this country relies on, Asian and otherwise.

Gotta say, I felt very weird writing this last paragraph. Does this come across as shrill and ungrateful? Why am I rocking the boat? Making a mountain out of a molehill? Shouldn't we just keep our heads down and focus on our work? These are questions I asked myself as I wrote this as a person who has done well in the system and doesn't really have that much to complain about. But maybe that's just me "being Asian"?

PS: Here's another snippet from the German guide for Chinese students:
The third surprise was that on the same day Ming arrived in Konstanz, the research group threw a welcome party for him and all the group members showed up. At that party, Ming got to know everybody. Besides, there was a discussion about picking a German name for Ming. Based on the group members’ opinions and Ming’s agreement, he was finally named Felix, which indicates optimism and therefore matches his character. From then on, he has had a German name. The thoughtful and warm welcome from his research group touched Ming and he was looking forward to the cooperation with his research group.
Okay, whatever else happens, can we at least agree to stop this forced renaming business?

[Update, 11/20: Apparently, the word Eskimo is now considered derogatory; changed to Inuit, no offense intended.]

Saturday, November 5, 2016

On bar graphs, buying guides and avoiding the tyranny of choice

Ah, the curse of the internet! Once upon a time, we would be satisfied just to get an okay taco in NYC. Now, unless you get the VERY best anything as rated by the internet, you’re stuck feeling like this:

Same goes for everything from chef’s knives to backpacks to whatever it is (I recommend The Sweethome as an excellent site with buying guides for tons of products). Funnily enough, I think we have ended up with this problem for the same reason that people whine on about bar graphs: because we fail to show the data points underlying the summary statistic. Take a look at these examples from this paper:

For most buying guides, they usually just report the max (rather than the mean in most scientific bar graphs), but the problem is the same. The max is most useful when your distribution looks like this:
However, reporting the max is far less useful a statistic when your distribution looks like this or this:

What I mean by all this is that when we read an online shopping guide, we assume that their top pick is WAY better than all the other options—a classic case of the outlier distribution I showed first. (This is why we feel like assholes for getting the second best anything.) But for many things, the best scoring item is not all that much better than the second best. Or maybe even the third best. Like this morning, when I was thinking of getting a toilet brush and instinctively went to look up a review. Perhaps there are some toilet brushes are better than others. Maybe there are some with a fatal flaw that means you really shouldn’t buy them. But I’m guessing that most toilet brushes basically are just fine. Of course, that doesn’t prevent The Sweethome providing me a guide for the best toilet brush: great, deeply appreciative. But if I just go to the local store and get a toilet brush, I’m probably not all that far off. Which is to say that the distribution of “scores” for the toilet brush are probably closely packed and not particularly differentiated—there is no outlier toilet brush.

While there may be cases where there is truly a clear outlier (like the early days of the iPod or Google (remember AltaVista?)), I venture to say that the distribution of goodness most of the time is probably bimodal. Some products are good and roughly equivalent, some are duds. Often the duds will have some particular characteristic to avoid, like when The Sweethome says this about toilet brushes:
We were quick to dismiss toilet brushes whose holders were entirely closed, or had no holders at all. In the latter category, that meant eliminating the swab-style Fuller brush, a $3 mop, and a very cheap wire-ring brush.
I think this sort of information should be at the top of the page, and so you buying guide could say “Pretty much all decent toilet brushes are similar, but be sure to get one with an open holder. And spend around $5-10.”

Then again, when you read these guides, it often seems that there’s no other rational option than their top choice, portraying it as being by far and away the best based on their extensive testing. But that’s mostly because they’ve just spend like 79 hours with toilet brushes and are probably magnifying subtle distinctions invisible to the majority of people, and have already long since discarded all the duds. It’s like they did this:

Now this is not to say those smaller distinctions don’t matter, and by all means get the best one, but let’s not kill ourselves trying to get the very best everything. After all, do those differences really matter for the few hours you’re likely to spend with a toilet brush over your entire lifetime? (And how valuable was the time you spent on the decision itself?)

All of this reminds me of a trip I took to New York City to hang out with my brother a few months back. New York is the world capital of “Oh, don't bother with these, I know the best place to get toilet brushes”, and my brother is no exception. Which is actually pretty awesome—we had a great time checking out some amazing eats across town. But then, at the end, I saw a Haagen Dazs and was like "Oh, let's get a coffee milkshake!". My brother said "Oh, no, I know this incredible milkshake place, we should go there." To which I said, "You ever had a coffee milkshake from Haagen Dazs? It's actually pretty damn good." And good it was.