It happened again this week. Another list came out documenting the top 20 most influential voices on climate change or something like that. For the most part, I have found such lists to be marketing gimmicks. However, several of them claim to be based on data and analytics. Unfortunately, those lists often omit people of color and women. As an African-American scientist, I thought it would be instructive to share why this happens.
Before I head down this road, let me be clear that this article is not written because of “sour grapes” for not being on some list. I actually do appear on them from time to time. I have been humbled to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2021. I also receive my share of recognitions. Those who know me understand that my end game is not about honors or lists. My goal is to do the best science that I can and make sure it is accessible. The intent of this article is to highlight some things to be cautious about with these lists and to fundamentally reveal institutionalized biases that might not be on your radar.
To be fair, many of these lists begin from seemingly reasonable methodologies. They are often based on things like the number of scholarly publications or citations in the peer review literature. Aaaaaah, but therein is the problem. For example, new studies are revealing biases in how scientists of color are funded. Scientific funding is critical to producing publishable scholarship. Additionally, climate and other physical sciences have a longstanding representation problem. Though academia is not the exclusive home of climate scientists or stakeholders, I can basically count the number of Black atmospheric sciences professors at major U.S. universities on both of my hands (me included). It is not much better for Hispanic or Native American scholars. A 2021 article published by Science declared that atmospheric sciences (which includes climate and meteorology) are overwhelmingly white.
It is also overwhelmingly male. Historically, the population of climate scientists publishing in the literature has been men. Using the academia metric, a 2015 study found that women make up 17% of tenure-track or tenured professors in atmospheric sciences departments. The study also concluded that trends in graduate school suggests a continued scarcity of female representation within the field. To make matters worse, a 2021 study found that women are judged more harshly or perceived differently than male climate science counterparts when they make statements in the media. I am certain that my colleagues like Katharine Hayhoe, Jacqueline Gill, Kim Cobb, and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson are somewhere nodding and saying, “Yep.”
At this point, you may be asking how all of this relates to these lists. Since there is a well-known representation problem in this field, most of the peer-reviewed literature and citations (as measured by various indices) are going to dominated by scientists who have been active in the field for a longer period of time. When counting numbers or citation metrics exclusively, this clearly introduces a sample bias in terms of gender, race, and other forms of representation.
To counter that bias, some lists have resorted to using more contemporary metrics involving social media. However, this approach brings forth a different challenge. For example, many people found it odd that Katharine Hayhoe was not on the most recent top 20 list of climate change influencers. Professor Hayhoe, however, tweeted this week, “Their initial lists included trolls so I asked them to remove me….” Many scientists have grown weary of algorithms and methodologies based on engagement on social media sites, blogs, and online media. As I have written in previous articles, such platforms can provide outlets, shares, Retweets, and engagement for virtually anyone irrespective of their credibility on the topic. This link directs you to a quick guide that I wrote about consuming scientific information online.
My colleague Michael Mann, who was in the pinnacle spot on the most recent list, tweeted, “While I’m honored to be the top of this list of climate influencers from @Onalytica , I’m frankly shocked to see many key voices missing from the list, particularly those of female and BIPOC communicators.” I thought about generating my own list in this article but at the risk of omitting people, I decided against it. However, you should know that voices like Mustafa Santiago Ali, Catharine Coleman Flowers, Joseph Ortiz, and Shanondora Billiot are out there too.