Diversity Is Not Always Desirable: Part I

I will continue to be away from the computer until (I think) this Thursday. So here is a corrected and amplified classic series, which originally ran in December 2010.

Diversity Is Not Always Desirable Part I Parts I, II, III, IV

The university where I taught this fall is, like nearly every university, terribly fond of “diversity.” Strike that: that should read, “is worshipful of diversity.” Before every meeting held by its leaders, heads are asked to bow, and a prayer goes out to “our commitment to diversity.” At least three separate offices are funded and tasked with insuring compliance with and devotion to “diversity.” This is not unusual; many universities commit considerable resources in this direction. Emails appear regularly advising professors how to “incorporate diversity” into their lectures.

Of course, it is not merely at universities where this idea is paid obeisance. Governments codify diversity affirmatively, and courts and the press routinely send forth troops to count desirable traits among peoples. What’s strange, though, is that “diversity” is never defined. It is always an unspoken idea, a beneficent and mysterious force, certainly, but one which acolytes avoid clarifying.

What could “diversity” mean? And should one seek its maximization? I begin to answer the first question below, but the answer to the second can be given immediately: it is “no.” This answer is obvious, too, which must mean that “diversity” does not mean diversity as defined by the dictionary, but something else. In the latter part of this series, we discover what this something-else is.

Regarding humans, there are only two measurable dimensions of diversity: that of physical characteristic and that of behavior. Circumstance is part of both. One might add that of thought, or of views held. But practically speaking, since it is impossible to know the mind of another exactly, we have to rely on measuring a person’s behavior to infer what they think. (Plus, we can fold views-held into behavior.)

Very well: characteristic and behavior are what we can quantify and “diversity” of these is what we seek to maximize. But we still have to define scope. All humans exist on Earth (and its nearby orbit). Therefore, diversity is already at something like a maximum on the planet (I explain the “something like” later). Evidently, this is not what the politician means when he pines for diversity. Instead, he wants diversity within defined boundaries, like, say, the professoriate, or among firemen within a city, or within board members of a corporation, and so forth. The danger of amorphous borders is high. For example, just when you have the somebody pinned down to these firehouses, he expands his circumference and says, “I obviously meant these too.” But this is a distraction. Insist on exactness of scope in advance and this problem evaporates.

Suppose then that we have agreed upon a locale; for definiteness, imagine it is the Detroit Red Wings hockey team. What would maximizing “diversity” mean here? Consider only physical characteristic. We’d have to staff the team with the short and tall, the fat and skinny, infants and the elderly, the able and disabled…but enough. This is obviously absurd. It is idiocy to insist on diversity of characteristic for any profession in which physical ability is important. And this is most professions: orchestra member, line worker, fireman, physician, sportsmen of any kind, jailer, soldier, and on and on.

We’re done: we have just proved that requiring maximal diversity of physical characteristic for many defined scopes is a bad idea. I hope you realize that this is a proof and not an opinion. The only assumed (as yet unstated) premise is that we wish the members of each of these professions to be “the best” or at least “qualified.” Meaning we want doctors to be the best or qualified doctors, not the best or qualified white doctors weighing over 300 pounds born in Cleveland. We want the best or qualified violinists, not the best or qualified bald violinists. Our proof does not hinge on our imperfect methods of measuring “the best” or “qualified”, either: it is enough that the method of discovering the best or qualified exists and does not itself invoke diversity: part of “the best” and “qualified” includes the idea of minimal competence, suitably defined.

Of course, we’re not truly finished, because there are some definable professions where physical characteristics are not important or are of trivial consequence. An example might be the professoriate at Behemouth University; i.e. those who claim to live lives of the mind. Now, what would maximizing “diversity” mean here? Characteristic first.

The simple proof that requiring maximal diversity of characteristic is misguided is this: we would require that our professors contain members who are brain damaged, who have congenital defects of the brain, who are diagnosed as “learning disabled”, who are senile, who are infantile, and so forth. Notice that none of these are behavioral characteristics; all are physical traits (I discuss behavior later). To maximize diversity means that one must positively discriminate in favor of each possible physical realization. To exclude any is to eschew diversity.

That’s it. We’re finished. Seeking maximal diversity, at least of physical characteristic for any defined scope which does not include diversity as part of its definition—I exclude human zoos, for example—is not desirable. This result assumes “the best” or the “is qualified” premise. But what if we weaken these?

In Part II: What does diversity of physical characteristic mean, and it is possible to achieve it? Parts I, II, III, IV

Diversity Is Not Always Desirable Part I


  1. Speed

    This week’s EconTalk podcast was an interview with a woman (of Egyptian descent) who operates a hair salon near Washington, DC. At the end, she was asked how it came to be that her employees came from (or their parents came from) all over the world. She replied that Washington, by its nature and industry (government) has attracted and is populated with people from foreign lands so naturally her customers and employees are as well.

    True diversity can’t be achieved, it can only be enticed.

  2. JH

    One way to make this world a better place to live is to educate yourself to understand and appreciate the diversity of beliefs, religions, cultures, and human beings.

  3. Rich

    Talking of violinists, have you ever noticed that, in a symphony orchestra, almost all the male violinists lean against the back of the chair and almost all the female violinists don’t? What’s that all about?

  4. Some people think that getting more than one idea about the solution to a problem is a good idea, but this is clearly absurd. Take the problem of oil in the gulf this summer:

    If you believe that it’s important to debate the merits of dispersants vs physical removal of oil, then you must conceded that parachuting obese chickens into the gulf is also a tenable solution. Since I’ve just made up a retarded premise and compared it to the original, I’ve proven that the whole idea of getting different opinions is wrong.

    I’m good at arguments!

  5. Ceri

    Sledgehammer, meet nut.

    Very long post just to ridicule ‘diversity’. As you very well know, it’s code for ‘whatever groups we have previously been prejudiced against’. So it’s code for black, asian, female, disabled, etc. It’s got nothing at all to do with the literal meaning of the word diversity.

    By all means attack ‘diversity’ in the form that means that every photograph on the university website must have a black, an asian, and a female in it. Even in the Engineering Faculty (women, in Engineering? Never happen). You could say ‘It’s weird, isn’t it, that while we must have ‘diversity’, all of the ‘diverse’ people in the pictures are much more attractive than the norm. Just how diverse is that, then?’

    But no, you take the ‘Webster defines diversity as …’ approach, beloved of below-par debate club members everywhere.

    I like your posts about statistics better. (‘I like your funnier early films’). This sort of column reminds me that you’re really just a right-wing nutcase. (Which I’m sure you’re proud to be and won’t consider an insult).

  6. Mike B

    @ceri – I think you’re right about “diversity” being a code, and what it’s code for. But why do we need a code? Why can’t we just say what it is and dispense will the all the hassle, bureacracy, and cost pretending it’s something it’s not?

  7. Ken

    Briggs, while I pretty much agree with the vast majority of your dialogues, I have to note a couple of fatal flaws in your “logic” as follows:

    REGARDING: “…it is impossible to know the mind of another exactly, we have to rely on measuring a person’s behavior to infer what they think.”

    That is FALSE. We CAN know what some people think. In fact not only can we, we actually do and can prove so in a court of law. This is what is commonly referred to as “hate crime” laws, which penalize the individual’s formerly private & personal beliefs & values when they are determined to contribute to some already criminal & already punishable act. As legal statutes provide for knowledge of the content of one’s mind (at least in some situations), the statement is thus false.

    REGARDING: “It is idiocy to insist on diversity of characteristic for any profession in which physical ability is important. And this is most professions: orchestra member, line worker, fireman, physician, sportsmen of any kind, jailer, soldier, and on and on.”

    That too is FALSE (how I wish it weren’t; clearly I’m not fully “on-board” with this “diversity” thing). Just consider the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS), established in 1951. In recent years that bunch advocated, with all seriousness, measures be taken by the US Navy to accommodate young females on submarines staffed by equally young males. Doing so within normal social standards (e.g. no requirement for “hot bunking” in unsegregated quarters, etc.) would necessarily entail removing mission critical subsystems to accommodate females. In other words, DACOWITS decided that it was desireable to increase the risk of death of the crew & total loss of a very significant, costly, and effectively irreplacable military asset to accommodate females.

    I can recall “diversity” being celebrated in downtown Detroit (long before “white flight”) as ethnic festivals along the waterfront area by Cobo Hall/Arena. Polish day, Italian day, German day, etc. with associated dress, music & food (I recall the Germans being particularly fond of “diverse beer,” but I suppose that’s going above & beyond the call of duty for diversity). At any rate, we were all proud of our respective heritages & relished the history (most of us being mutts, composed of a polyglot of nationalities & colors — just like our current president, by the way). We were also proud of being citizens of the USA — that flag was always present even when the nationality du jour was being celebrated. We were all the sum of our heritage, a homogenous mass resulting from the “melting pot” and that sum was “American” (with that term reflecting ‘citizen of the USA’ rather than all the Americas, as some pissants will nitpick).

    Which shows that “diversity” is a fluid term.

    Today what “diversity” seems to mean by those ever-so-tolerant liberal leftists is to mean: we need to “unmelt” our heritiages from the “melting pot” that is the USA and establish a body of discrete & separate groups that must also all get along as discrete & separate groups. If one beleives the Tower of Babel story literally or as allegory, it illustrates what history has shown repeatedly how such views turn out.

    Which is clearly their intent — these are insecure, unhappy, angry people (invaribly from some sort of abusive childhood) that are intimidated by anyone that is truly happy or prosperous, or even capable of indepence & self-sufficiency without being intimidated by that state. Their goal is to bring everybody down to their level of misery & self-loathing.

    And they’re succeeding. Nibble by nibble….

  8. Dear Ceri Sledgehammer,

    Oh my, you have found another nail. Hit it, hit it!

    Dear Dr. Briggs,

    Your thesis above fails to consider informatics and the various statistical indices of diversity, such as Shannons Index where H’ = [(sum across i) Pi.ln.Pi.] – [(S – 1)/2N]. We can measure the (alleged) diversity of Cornell and the local fire department and hold them accountable for their scores. This is a new growth industry for statisticians now that eugenics has become unpopular (well, not as popular at it was during the Roaring Fascist decades).

  9. Ray

    Diversity is the new affirmative action. The beneficiaries of diversity will eventually have a stigma like affirmative action students and employees. There is always the suspicion they weren’t good enough to make it on their own ability.

  10. Ray, if you keep suspecting someone of not being good enough even when they’ve proved it beyond doubt, then who’s got the problem?

  11. mrcreosote

    So, in the hockey analogy – taken to its logical conclusion, they should all be goalies?

  12. AndrewK

    So the average proportion of women on Fortune 500 company boards is 15% and 10% of company boards have 0 women does this show they are (a) choosing the best candidates no matter their gender, or (b) choosing to eschew diversity and only choose men even if that means they miss out on the best, or (c) women are less capable. You’re the statistician you do the sums.

  13. Thanks for coming by my place Briggs, I appologize if I mischaracterized any of your positions, and I’m glad you clarified. I’m not sure if you planned on going back, so I’ll just re-iterate part of what I said there.

    You said: “in brief: what I offered in Part I was an explicit proof that diversity of physical characteristic is impossible—if we accept ‘the best’ premise”

    You did not prove this, unless your definition of “diversity” is binary. If “diversity” means “the state where nothing can be more diverse,” then of course it’s impossible – but this reduces the argument to complete pedantry. Taking the Rugby example, if a team has 20% enormous guys, 70% middle-size, and 10% tiny guys, this team is more diverse than a team of 100% enormous guys, but less diverse than an infinite number of other combinations. This is not surprising or interesting.

    Most philosophical proofs begin with a precise definition of terms, and in this case you seem to have assumed a definition of diversity (without explicitly stating it) that bears only superficial resemblance to the common usage, and then rail against your definition in an effort to discredit the common usage. This is intellectually disingenuous and pretty transparent.

  14. StephenPickering

    I see the pursuit of Diversity as an attack on the identity of the individual. The Diversity Agenda requires that people be assigned (without their consent) to (largely arbitrary) categories. However, if you can accept that each human being is a unique individual, then all groups are equally diverse.

  15. Ender

    In Part II: What does diversity of physical characteristic mean

    This is where you need to start. How can you find a “simple proof that requiring diversity of characteristic is idiotic” if you haven’t defined what ‘diversity’ in this context means?

    You’ve chosen to treat ‘diversity’ as if it means ‘the full range of every possible characteristic’ whereas the only diversity that proponents propose is ‘the full range of people with characteristics irrelevant to doing the job successfully”

    So you’ve successfully disproven the suggestion that we need a diverse group of people with every possible characteristic included.

    You have not successfully disproven the suggestion that we need a diverse group of people that can actually do the group, without favouring special interest groups such as white people, and men.

    No one advocates the former, it’s self evidently wrong. People advocate the latter.

  16. DAV

    I remember way back in the 60’s when in certain circles it was considered conformist to not conform to the non-conformist dress code. Nothing really changes it seems.


    I presume then that means not favoring or catering to special interests such as Blacks, Hispanics, Croatians or the Criminally insane as well? How does one go about determining that special interests are not being favored without enforcing quota membership? Aren’t quotas implicit catering? I believe this is what Briggs was getting at.

    I remember an incident that happened in the 70’s when I was employed at a minority owned firm. One day, the president of the company, a black, was informed by an OEO rep that he wasn’t employing enough minorities. He pointed to his secretary, a Chinese woman, and asked “What about her?” The rep said, “She doesn’t count.” Would have been funny if he wasn’t actually serious.

    That’s diversity for you.

  17. Kierra


    Given that secretaries are generally lower-paid, lower-prestige positions in a company which are almost always women, it’s not at all surprising that having a minority in that position did not count. I suspect having an African American or hispanic man or woman as the janitor would also not count.

  18. Ender

    “I presume then that means not favoring or catering to special interests such as Blacks, Hispanics, Croatians or the Criminally insane as well?”

    Absolutely. Which of those special interest groups do you want to favour or cater to?

    “How does one go about determining that special interests are not being favored without enforcing quota membership?”

    That is a very interesting question, and a very difficult one. How does one determine that a Somalian immigrant who sets up a vastly succesful import company which coincidentally employs 42 Somalians and 1 White guy is not doing so just because those are the only people who applied/were qualified?

    “Aren’t quotas implicit catering? I believe this is what Briggs was getting at.”

    If it was (and I’m not saying you’re definitely right) then he didn’t do it succesfully. He did not mention the word “quota” even once, and how does showing that “maximised diversity” is an insane idea imply anything about quotas?

    If he wants to attack quota-led diversity policy then he needs to do just that. Attacking a kind of “diversity” that no-one advocates does not do that, or anything else.

  19. KevinH

    Apparently, you’ve forgotten the important difference between ∃ (existential quantification) and ∀ (universal quantification).

    It’s perfectly reasonable to say that there are some criterion that are bad to diversify over in some jobs, that is a LONG way from proving that there are NO criteria that it is good to diversify over for all jobs.

    You use a concept of diversity which no one actually uses. It would be equivalent to randomness. It’s a common mistake to bring colloquial terms to an extreme and then argue based on that, but it doesn’t produce good results.

    If you want to talk about ‘proofs’ make sure you are using ∀ type arguments, not ∃. Unfortunately, I can actually give you a proof that no ∀ type argument will work: The world is too complex to completely understood by one person, so it is best to have people with diverse knowledge sets.

    It’s most productive to be much more subtle in your arguments, but also becomes much harder. For example, there is tons of evidence out there that we DON’T know how to select for “the best”, but instead are biased by unfortunate social/ factors such as the color of someone’s skin. Current diversity laws may not be the best way to combat that bias, but showing real evidence to the contrary is more like a lifetime of work rather than a blog post.

    Furthermore, there’s the whole social utility vs individual utility problem, which really comes down to assumptions and not math. You could try to prove that one was best for both, but again that’s a tricky thing when societies last for thousands of years and humans have temporal discounting.

  20. DAV

    There were comments here this morning. Now there are none. Didn’t know they evaporate in sunlight.

  21. Briggs


    Not transparent? Interesting. I claim that it is (or at least, will be, by the time the essay is finished). Would you agree with me that the term as used by its acolytes is opaque, malleable, and means “Whatever the hell we say it means”?

    To be clear: I started with (and certainly will not end with) the plain English meaning of the word: diversity means maximum possible state of difference as measured by some thing. It is the “thing” that is of interest. I do not believe that diversity means something like to include just one of a thing (say all whites, and a token non-white). I later, in Parts II and III, adjust diversity to mean “proportional representation”, which I think is common enough.

    I notice that you ignored my comment about the rugby team, and that you purposely self limit your diversity (which you have also not defined). I said to Sports-team guy, “would you accept those without legs on your rugby team in the name of diversity? The blind? The catatonic? Newborns? Your error is common: you create, without explicitly defining, a limited, pre-set definition of characteristics that you feel are important, ignoring all others. “

  22. Briggs


    Your comment is irrelevant to the question of whether diversity is possible.

  23. Kevin

    Another Kevin on the site…indistinguishable to the readership, but with a different e-mail address. Confusing.

    Briggs, generally I agree with you that the term “diversity” is malleable and means little. I liked the motto they came up with at WSU, Vancouver when I was faculty there. “Many faces, one vision.”

  24. mbabbitt

    People of the diversity movement really don’t believe in diversity. They believe in sameness of opinion, their opinion, but with variations on the ways it gets presented — for them, ideological sameness trumps all. For example, they don’t truly believe in diversity of religion; they just like the wishy washy diversity branches of religious traditions they agree with. Diversity implies difference and some differences cannot be reconciled: a group of people who believe and foster the abuse of women cannot coexist with another group that treats women as equals of men and protects them from abuse. So diversity only works if it superficializes/minimizes differences and pretends they don’t really matter. The divesity and coexistence dogma is a symptom of denial and superficial wish fulfillment — and ultimately allows evil more places to reside without challenge. Despite utopian dreams, it will always be a messy world; you have to make difficult moral choices everyday or find yourself in the future paying a horrible price.

  25. Steve E

    Isn’t university the opposite of diversity?

  26. Ray

    I live in Fairfax, VA and there is a high school of science and technology here. The diversitycrats are always in high indignation mode because most of the students are asiatic and caucasian. Black and hispanic students are not represented in proportion to their percentages in the local population. The diversitycrats are always demanding that more black and hispanics be admitted to reflect the same percentages as in the population. The diversitycrats want a uniform diversity.

  27. Dagnabbit! mbabbitt said it first – and over a year ago, at that:

    “People of the diversity movement really don’t believe in diversity. They believe in sameness of opinion, their opinion,”

    So true. Diverse opinions are not only shunned, they are vilified. It’s also evident diversity of the person does not equate to like-minded individuals being encouraged to commingle. Strange critters, these diversicrats.

    @ Steve E. No, you may be thinking of “uniformity”. The word derives from “guild” or “body of scholars”, I believe.

  28. DAV

    Steve E’s comment sounds funnier, though. It was a nice try but “university” seems to mean “community” as in universitas magistrorum et scholarium — a community of scholars and teachers (masters).

    It also seems that orthogonal thinking is not in line with diversity.

  29. Dave

    My question is can diversity be measured or compared? Lets take as an example a ‘team’ of two people. Let’s say we have one man and one woman, both white. How diverse are they? What about two men, one black and one white. Are they more or less diverse than the white man and woman? What about two white men, one American and one Chinese? Is sex a more ‘powerful’ diversity factor than skin color or national origin? Lastly, is a white woman and a black man more or less or equally diverse as a black woman and a white man?

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