Sunday, January 13, 2008

Diversity is Good!

Scott Page, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, is the author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies. Claudia Dreyfus of the NYTimes probes him on the benefits of diversity:

Sidebar: Scott Page's book has been reviewed by Crooked Timber's Henry Farrell. Three Toed Sloth's Cosma Shalizi has an article that goes into how Page's version of "diversity is good" is different from -- and stronger than -- James Surowiecki's "wisdom of the crowds" and the catch-all "division of labor".

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Q. In your book you posit that organizations made up of different types of people are more productive than homogenous ones. Why do you say that?

A. Because diverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster/better ways of solving it.

People from different backgrounds have varying ways of looking at problems, what I call “tools.” The sum of these tools is far more powerful in organizations with diversity than in ones where everyone has gone to the same schools, been trained in the same mold and thinks in almost identical ways.

The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place.

But if we have people with diverse tools, they’ll get stuck in different places. One person can do their best, and then someone else can come in and improve on it. There’s a lot of empirical data to show that diverse cities are more productive, diverse boards of directors make better decisions, the most innovative companies are diverse.

Breakthroughs in science increasingly come from teams of bright, diverse people. That’s why interdisciplinary work is the biggest trend in scientific research.

Sure enough, the interview gets to what this idea has to do with affirmative action.

Q. The term “diversity” has become a code word for inclusion of racial, ethnic and sexual minorities. Is that what you’re talking about?

A. I mean differences in how people think. Two people can look quite different and think similarly. Having said that, there’s certainly a lot of evidence that people’s identity groups — ethnic, racial, sexual, age — matter when it comes to diversity in thinking.

Here’s the bottom line: I myself am an affirmative action child. I got into the University of Michigan in the 1980s on a program. I’m from a rural part of Michigan. No calculus in high school. So I was given bonus points toward undergraduate admissions.

If the policy had been to consider mainly grades and SATs and not to make room for some geographic diversity, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten in.