If you subscribe to Sky & Telescope magazine you will have noticed that half its issues over the past six months featured discussions of diversity in astronomy. The October 2020 issue had a “Spectrum” editorial by The Staff titled “Amateur Astronomy for All”. The December issue featured a “Focal Point” column by Dara Norman called “Time to Get Serious”. The letters section of the February 2021 issue was dedicated to reader responses to the October editorial and to the general lack of diversity in astronomy.
Apparently, no progress has been made in regard to diversity in astronomy, ever. Norman points out that—
while the total number of physics and astronomy professors increased from 2008 to 2016… the number of Black and Hispanic professors remained at the same tiny percentage of the academic work force
—namely 0.6%, combined.* In other words, there are effectively zero Black and Hispanic professors. That is truly remarkable. Note again that the number of professors has increased. So even though new positions have been created, making openings for more minority professors, the percentage did not change. Norman remarks on how—
Even in 2020, I am often the only Black scientist at a conference, on an advisory panel, and in my workplace.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Our Faith and Science pages feature an interview with NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps (click here for it), who is an alumna of Lemoyne, a Jesuit school. In that interview Epps talks about how both she and her sister majored in science back in the 1990s. She notes that at the time they really did not think it was anything unusual, and she remarks on the lack of progress made in the decades since—a Black woman astronaut/physicist like her should not be a big deal now, she says, and she would like for things to be more like what she and her sister thought, that “of course, this is what we all do”. Her comments echo my own feelings and experience. When I was in college and graduate school there were African American students majoring in science and engineering. And of course there were; there had been big Civil Rights breakthroughs a couple decades earlier, after all, pulling down the barriers that had kept these folks out. Duh!
But no. No progress has been made. And I doubt that more of the same sorts of diversity-promotion efforts that have been done for decades (and mentioned in the Sky & Telescope letters and commentaries—“a feature article on a Black Astronomer!”) will alter things. If astronomy wants to be more diverse, it should consider changing its culture.
Consider culture and religion. Religion occupies a place of particular importance for many Black and Latino Americans—who are more likely than others to attend church regularly, to report that religion is important to them, and to express orthodox or traditional religious beliefs. So say Robert Putnam of Harvard and David Campbell of Notre Dame in their 2010 study of religion, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. More recently, in responding to a 2019 Pew survey in which people were asked the following—
Which statement comes closer to your own views, even if neither is exactly right: “Humans have evolved over time” OR “Humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time”?
—59% of Black Protestants chose the answer that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.
My experience teaching astronomy to a diverse population of college students over the years bears this out. I recall one young African American woman who was willing to speak her mind against the Big Bang theory, forcefully, but cheerfully and skillfully, amid a class that mostly disagreed with her. I recall another African American student, a man in his late thirties who had seen his share of troubles, urging his fellow students who were advocating non-theistic opinions to consider that a scientific theory about how the universe came to be is “not much to hold on to” in tough times.
Astronomy students advocating non-theistic opinions are a team on their home turf. They know Sagan and “The Pale Blue Dot”; they know Galileo and “But Still It Moves.” Astronomy’s culture is theirs.
We can discuss the flaws in those home team views, but that is not enough. I am a well-published scholar of the history of astronomy, determined to run a class friendly to all students—but what is one class and some historical or philosophical analysis against a prevailing culture? That cheerfully bold young woman is unlikely to pursue astronomy when astronomy is the turf of people who are confident that her views are, at best, quaintly misinformed.
But hers are not the views of the uneducated. American Grace notes, for example, that “overall levels of church attendance among African Americans have been rising” in concert with more African Americans obtaining college degrees. It also notes that, more than any major religious group in America, Black Protestants are “religious traditionalists,” and this is “especially marked among middle-class college graduates.” (Likewise, they note that Latino Catholics tend to be more orthodox in their views than non-Latino Catholics.) In all likelihood, our young woman will obtain her degree; she will attend church; she will remain skeptical of the Big Bang theory—and she will not become a Black, female astronomer, amateur or professional.
What changes in astronomy’s culture might encourage students like her to embrace astronomy?
One change might be for astronomy to wish to remember its history. Benjamin Banneker discussed faith in his almanac. Johannes Kepler wove prayers of praise to God into his scientific works. The NASA women in “Hidden Figures” were all active in their churches. But astronomy books discuss Kepler’s work without reference to his faith, while highlighting Galileo’s troubles (and even portraying his opponents as science deniers). They feature Banneker’s almanac but not what is in it. They tell a story of astronomy that is both inaccurate and unlikely to draw our young woman to the field.
Another change might be to approach controversial topics with different stories. Ole Römer’s discovery of light’s speed could be one such story. This discovery was accidental, a result of a careful study of Jupiter’s moons for their usefulness in timekeeping, but it raises profound questions: in a universe formed rapidly by a Creator, stars would not appear in Earth’s night sky for years (contrary to Genesis) unless their light in route to Earth was simultaneously created, in which case the universe at its moment of creation would have the appearance of significant age. This idea that astronomers judge the age of the universe from its appearance today can be very helpful to those who hold traditional ideas about its age. The Römer story does not involve scientific theories of origins—allowing for thoughtful and respectful discussion, with less chance of touching “hot buttons” and more chance of persuading people to stick with astronomy.
A third change is to reconsider the way language is used. Language can matter. When Pew reframed their question a little differently, so that people were asked this—
Which statement comes closest to your view: “Humans have evolved over time due to processes such as natural selection; God or a higher power had no role in this process” OR “Humans have evolved over time due to processes that were guided or allowed by God or a higher power” OR “Humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time”?
—only 27% of Black Protestants chose the answer that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Adding some nuance, adding an opportunity to recognize God, cuts in half the percentage of respondents who seemingly “reject evolution”. Astronomy should keep this in mind as regards astronomy classes, books, and magazines; it should seek to phrase things in ways that do not prompt people to think that science conflicts with their faith.
There are surely other cultural changes that might help astronomy address its diversity problem. Such changes will not appeal to some in astronomy who are quite comfortable on the home turf. But “more of the same” will change nothing.
*Norman does report the figure as 0.6% (or, specifically, 0.2% for one and 0.4% for the other). I have looked at some numbers and suspect that figure might be a typo, and the correct value a still-very-low 6%.
P.S. After posting this, I found that Sky & Telescope in fact has a recent feature on Benjamin Banneker. And it makes no mention of Banneker and religion. For two instances of Banneker writing on religion, visit our Faith and Science site: