Chief Justice Roberts: This Is Why Diversity Matters

It's not what you think: just being around people of different ethnicities may literally make you smarter.
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Diversity has been on everyone’s lips lately, but more questions abound than answers.

Like Chief Justice John Roberts’ question in the affirmative action case Fisher v. Texas. He asked, according to the hearing transcript, “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?”

The reply is not forthcoming, no matter your thoughts on diversity. It’s difficult to articulate why an array of ethnicities and their lived experiences would change the study of an objective field like physics or math, compared to, for instance, creative writing or psychology.

In search of some answers, The Huffington Post caught up with social science professors Sheen Levine and David Stark, authors of a recent New York Times op-ed, “Diversity Makes You Brighter.”

They conducted a group of studies on how ethnic diversity deflates price bubbles across Southeast Asia and North America, in which participants simulated trading stocks in either ethnically homogeneous or diverse markets. They found that people performed far better at pricing in diverse markets, and concluded that ethnic diversity might be beneficial because it “facilitates friction that enhances deliberation and upends conformity.”

Let’s break that down. “Diversity makes us smarter because in the company of people that look different from us, we change the way we think,” Levine said.

Is that to say that literally interacting with people of different races can make you smarter? “Yes,” Levine said. “We really tried to isolate ethnic diversity” for our experiment, he said, and found that whether in Singapore or in the U.S. [which have different multiracial demographics], just the mere presence of people of other races ― even if they brought no new experiences ― changed the way other people think.”

In addition, according to Levine, subjects in more diverse surroundings are “more careful scrutinizing evidence and less likely to mindlessly intake what others say.”

Sheen and Levine thus posit an “empirical case for diversity” that is separate from the philosophical and social arguments for it. It’s unrelated to the notion of “reparations for past wrongdoing” that comes with an expiration date, like in the Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld affirmative action in 2003 with the comment that it would become unnecessary “25 years from now.” Levine suggested their performance-related rationale is more evergreen.

It helps that speculating on prices is a relatively objective task. Their experiment design was “based on the desire to study a setting that is seemingly completely unrelated to ethnicity and race,” Levine said. “In a way, we foresaw what Roberts asked yesterday by studying a field with objective true answers,” such as asset prices.

The intended audience for their research, Levine said, is “certainly anyone in business, whether buying or selling assets, or anyone who manages employees,” as well as “those who work in public policy and government and want to improve the way their teams work.” Which is all to say, the classroom is not the endgame for diversity, although it is its most frequent battleground.

But what’s the takeaway for someone who understands the value of diversity, but happens to live in an ethnically homogeneous place? “Move to New York,” laughed Stark.

“No, but really, I suppose you could make sure your city is doing as much as possible to welcome immigrants, welcome Muslim immigrants, refugees, say you’re all for gay marriage,” and so forth, Stark suggested.

Levine added that the internet also provides “many more venues to expose yourself to people who are different from you, even if the difference is just superficial, because that superficial difference matters a lot.”

He acknowledged that “diversity is sometimes awkward because it’s a fact that we gravitate toward people who are like us, which is why many of our friends are the same gender or ethnicity as us.”

But “diversity is like fresh air,” he added. It’s a public good, beneficial for everyone involved.

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