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Diversity in Neuroethics: it’s more important than you might think

By Nicholas Fitz and Roland Nadler**

Nicholas Fitz

Nick is a Graduate Research Assistant at the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia. 

Roland is a third-year J.D. student at Stanford Law School and previously worked as a Graduate Research Assistant at the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia.

**equal contribution

Roland Nadler

The second decade of neuroethics is now well underway. Much like the human brain itself, some of its developmental “critical periods” have run out, but many others remain open. How will we use these remaining opportunities to shape the field?

Junior participants in these spaces should take the initiative to engage with unresolved questions about the nature and structure of neuroethics as a discipline. After all, those of us at the beginning of our careers have a particularly significant stake in the answers to those questions, with most of our academic and professional lives still ahead of us. As we work to integrate society’s growing technological power with best ethical practices and societal values, we must ask: whose practices, whose values?

Last year, in a bid to foster this discussion, we offered three visions for diversity in neuroethics. In that article, we devoted much attention to diversity along intellectual, disciplinary, and political lines.

Today, we offer a few more thoughts on the importance of diversity in neuroethics in the more familiar sense of having a wide array of identities and backgrounds represented in the field.

Chiefly, we hope to convince you that robust identity diversity is beneficial — indeed, crucial — to neuroethics. The field simply could not provide the kinds of insights that it promises if its practitioners were a homogenous group of people speaking comfortably from positions of social power and privilege.

To be sure, neuroethics is off to a strong start in establishing itself as a diverse field. The successes of Neuroethics Women Leaders, especially well-represented at this year’s Society meeting, deserve special recognition in this regard. While there is always room for improvement, we can be glad that neuroethics is not especially male-dominated as disciplines go.

Our purpose in this post, then, is not to allege that neuroethics is insufficiently diverse — though we should and surely can do better. Our aim, rather, is to highlight that our existing levels of diversity are not merely tangential goods. Heterogeneity is in no way incidental to the field’s ability to carry out its job effectively — much less mere window dressing, a matter of appearances.

Much more than simply insulating the discipline from charges of being exclusionary, diversity positively contributes to the mission of neuroethics. Its contribution can be understood in two senses: a generating sense and an inoculating sense.

Bringing a wide variety of personal experiences and worldviews — along the axes of race, gender, socioeconomic status, (dis)ability, and more — to bear on neuroethics acts as a generator for novel perspectives. If neuroethics is to help steer the responsible use of emerging technology and knowledge, it must acknowledge the ways in which that project touches on bias (from implicit identity biases to larger structural inequalities) and on the heterogeneity of lived experience. And it needs a maximally broad pool of perspectives to draw its critiques from: if that pool lacks, for example, the perspective of transgender people, we may go a long time without realizing how our conversations about the relationship between personal identity and the brain skate blithely over flawed assumptions about gender.

Concretely, then, those at the field’s power centers must reach out in support of investigators from a variety of backgrounds. There is much wisdom to be found in a diverse crowd.

From Phillips, 2014

Meanwhile, one of the greatest pitfalls for any meta-scientific discourse is the tendency to interpret seemingly neutral or objective facts in ways that serve established ideologies. This risk is heightened even more when the science under discussion has some claim to dealing with the “essence” or fundamental nature of human beings — as the history of research on race and IQ so chillingly reminds us. Diversity in the ranks of neuroethics helps inoculate us against this threat. Ideology has a characteristic way of quietly infecting the way we talk about “the big questions,” and bringing people who are ordinarily pushed to the edges of the discourse into the conversational spotlight is the first step towards immunity.

As we know all too well from recent work on biological essentialism, stereotyping, and the seductive allure of neuroscientific explanations, contemporary neuroscience does not operate in a vacuum, but rather can reinforce social categories. The fact that neuroscience is science — not pseudoscience like its predecessors, craniometry and phrenology — affords little defense against its potential to serve such unacknowledged agendas. As the late Stephen Jay Gould put it, “Shall we believe that science is different today simply because we share the cultural context of most practicing scientists and mistake its influence for objective truth?” By fostering a mosaic community of practicing neuroethicists, the field can help protect itself — and society — from these side effects of neuroessentialism.

Indeed, neuroethicists are especially well-situated to understand the value of diversity. Given that the literature on the causes and consequences of biased and motivated reasoning is an essential point of departure for neuroethical investigation, those in the field already have access to tools and techniques that reduce these biases. But we still have work left to do.

Our next step is to brainstorm ways to collectively wield these tools, and to do so effectively and responsibly. As we further diversify the field, we have a responsibility to convince rather than foist, and to seek grassroots engagement rather than tokenize. Having lent our voices in this call to action, the two of us writing here — hardly embodiments of the diversity we are extolling, after all — ought to step back and open up the space for underrepresented neuroethicists to helm the conversation. We hope our readers will join us in helping this happen!

Want to cite this post?

Fitz, N. and Nadler R. (2015). Diversity in Neuroethics: it’s more important than you might think. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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