Institutions’ self-flagellation undercuts their own credibility

October 3, 2021 • 10:00 am

Reader Steve sent a link to a post with a provocative title by journalist Zaid Jilani on Persuasion. Click on the screenshot to read:

The “view” that Jilani discusses—that objectivity and rigor are overrated and even “harmful”, “rooted in racism ableism and classism”—comes from Lauren Farrell, a researcher at the respected Urban Institute. More on that in a minute.

What Jilani means by “undermining”—and he gives a few examples—is that if institutions like think tanks and universities keep denying the existence of truth or the validity of objectivity (it’s all a matter of lived experiences and clashes of power, don’t you know?), and keep characterizing the tools of science and rationality as instruments of oppression, then they undermine their own credibility in two ways.  First, these assertions often look dumb and even racist in themselves—so dumb that they’re sometimes retracted.

Here’s one of the misguided (and ultimately retracted) critiques of rationality that I wrote about (and showed the graphic) in July of last year.  (Jilani’s words are indented)

Farrell is not alone in this view. Last summer, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture published a graphic on its website that depicted “objective, rational linear thinking” as a facet of “whiteness & white culture.” Facing criticism, the museum later removed the graphic, but the fact that one of America’s pre-eminent cultural and historical institutions allowed this to happen is a sign of how far the attack on the scientific method has gone.

Yet objectivity and rigor, far from promoting racism, have often provided the data that serve as the antidote to racism. Look at the example of W. Montague Cobb, an African-American physician and professor of anatomy who used the scientific method to help debunk racial aspects of biodeterminism, which claims that different “races” of people had fundamentally distinct bodies that made some inferior or superior to others.

Second, organizations undermine themselves by their very claim that they are steeped in “structural” racism, misogyny, and other noxious traits. If that’s indeed the case, why would anybody trust them, or believe what they say? Here’s an example from Princeton University:

When the Urban Institute publishes a blog post criticizing fundamental research practices, it undermines its legitimacy as an arbiter of the truth. The same is true when, for instance, Princeton University’s president writes a letter telling the world that “racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton” and that racism is “embedded in structures of the University itself.” Why would the public trust information coming from a racist institution, or one labeling itself as racist when it really isn’t?

Two more examples of Princeton’s suppression of free speech or denial of objectivity can be seen here and here.  I believe somebody reported Princeton to the government for racial bias since the University admitted its own endemic racism, but I don’t think the complaint went anywhere.

Anyway, back to Farrell’s beef against the standards of scholarship and truth-finding. This is what Jilani says:

The Urban Institute is one of America’s most storied think tanks. For half a century, it has produced high-quality research that has helped guide American policymakers as they tackle major domestic policy challenges.

Part of what makes the organization’s work so valuable is that it’s produced in an environment that values rigor and objectivity. Regardless of whether you agree with their policy recommendations or political lean—they tend to argue in favor of progressive solutions—you can count on their research being thorough and reliable.

That’s why it was so alarming to see a recent Urban Institute blog post by one of its policy analysts, Lauren Farrell, that argues that we should rethink the very concept of impartial research. She warned that the research practices of “objectivity” and “rigor” are “harmful” and “rooted in racism, ableism, and classism.”

Click on the screenshot to read Farrell’s post (which, I emphasize, should not be seen as the Urban Institute’s own views):

Below are some excerpts from Farrell’s piece:

Research is a powerful tool to determine fact from fiction. Policies, programs, and solutions are grounded in these facts, making researchers agents for shaping how the world works.

However, long-standing values and practices rooted in racism, ableism, and classism are ingrained in the fabric of research, leaving many researchers unaware of the harm they are causing. Researchers can counteract harmful aspects of these practices by sharing power with the people and communities they study.

Note the undocumented assertion that the fabric of research itself (and I assume she includes scientific research) is infused with racism, ableism, and classism. She includes a link to “neo-eugenic” studies of race, but it’s one link, concentrating almost exclusively the exaggerated and misleading claims of British science writer Angela Saini, whose ideas I’ve criticized before (see here and here).  Beyond that, there’s no evidence that research methods in all fields are rotten with bigotry.

Below is where Farrell goes after research practices themselves. I need not comment; you can look up the links for yourself (Saini appears again) and decide whether you want to distrust all research because it’s deeply rooted in bigotry:

Harmful values and practices include the following:

As for “exclusive funding”, I know that in science, at least, the two major funding agencies, The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, are making huge efforts to fund underrepresented groups as well as promote research in the area of DEI. And a study that everyone ignores showed that an analysis of grant scoring of NIH applications showed no evidence for racial or gender bias. Despite Francis Collins’s assertion, the NIH, at least, seems to harbor no tangible “structural bias”.

I can’t speak for the humanities or sociology, but, knowing academia, I suspect that, like the NSF and NIH, they’re eager to fund minority investigators, hire minority faculty, and study problems of inequality.

As Jilani notes, Farrell’s statement provoked Sarah Wartell, President of the Urban Institute, to issue this statement on September 23 (Farrell’s post went up three days before). It is clearly meant as pushback against Farrell’s claims.

Statement by Sarah Rosen Wartell, President of the Urban Institute

Urban Institute researchers are independent and empowered to share their views and recommendations shaped by their work. Posts on Urban Wire, Urban’s blog, and other products represent individual authors’ views and not Urban policy. The Urban Institute does not take positions on public policy issues.

As an organization, the Urban Institute continuously strives to conduct rigorous, objective research to improve lives and communities. That rigor is a hallmark of what we do. Many researchers at the Urban Institute have been considering how to shape and evolve the research and communications processes to ensure that our work is inclusive and respectful, trying to understand how assumptions and biases may influence our work.

We aim to be a trusted source for insights that help decisionmakers better understand today’s challenges and for evidence that inspires solutions.

What Wartell is doing here is asserting the hegemony of objectivity and rigor in her Institute’s research, implicitly denying Farrell’s accusations. She was forced to do this because, as Jilani notes, Farrell was undermining the credibility of her own employer, the Urban Institute.

All too often the claims that research is rotten with bigotry comes without supporting evidence, and what “evidence” is offered is often the misleading assertions of another person. Of course some researchers are bigots—how could they not be given that their humans. But the notion that the foundations of scholarly research are being consumed by racist termites is ludicrous to anyone who’s familiar with “non-Woke” scholarship as, for example, practiced by scientists.  The research that is dubious, is, in fact, the kind of research that Farrell wants to see: tendentious and ideologically motivated “studies” whose conclusions are determined before the work is done.


For a related take on how universities are transitioning from “teaching to [ideological] training”, read the article below by Justin Sider in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Click on the screenshot (h/t Ben):

45 thoughts on “Institutions’ self-flagellation undercuts their own credibility

  1. This is just bovine excretion! It is using fancy words to dress up nonsense. We don’t even have to go as far as invoking free speech as an idea. “Lived experience” may have validity as far as experience of racism and bias etc goes but what they are basically saying is anything someone feels to be correct is right.

    This is deeply anti-intellectual by putting feelings above objective truth. This is dangerously anti-scientist.
    Where on earth is racism in mathematics or quantum physics for example? These things like a lot of science are about objective truth, racesim and sexism don’t necessarily ever come near them. the famous mathematician Gauss rather famously didn’t realise he was corresponding with a woman because for a long time she pretended to be a man. Yes there was sexism and still may be in institutions but it isn’t necessarily embedded in research. A mathematical equation is sexless.

    1. Aren’t you aware that noted authority Luce Irigaray showed that the Einstein expression is a “sexed” equation because it “privileges” the speed of light? [See: Luce Irigaray, « L’ordre sexuel du discours », in Langages, le sexe linguistique, 1987, p. 110.] The discoveries of our current woke thinkers are built right out of the brilliant advances of postmodernist scholarship..

  2. I read these posts; I will continue to do so; I thank you, PCCE, for your time and great effort. But I am losing hope.

    1. Fortunately the anglosphere’s looming decadence does not necessarily signify the end of liberalism or enlightenment values since there are still countries that have not fallen for woke or nationalistic authoritarianism. I remain optimistic.

  3. By totally avoiding objectivity and rigour in her own piece I guess we at least can’t accuse Farrell of hypocrisy…!

    1. The eminently quotable Oscar Wilde on this: “I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.”

      1. Indeed! I suspect that Farrell subscribes to Oscar’s “Truth is independent of facts always.” The truth of masks (1891, p.22)

  4. In discussing how research is done, I think there are four related, but separate issues that need to be taken into consideration:

    1. In a given field of study, what areas are chosen to be researched?
    2. For the topic researched, is the work done as rigorously and objectively as possible?
    3. How are the research results interpreted or evaluated?
    4. What change in policy, procedure or understanding results from the research?

    Point 1 can and has been biased. If medical research is limited to white men, for example, then it may then be of no value to women and minorities and/or conclusions can be reached about the latter that are incorrect. Objective and rigorous research should be obvious. “Lived experience” is nothing more than an anecdote. Although the research may and should reveal objective “truths,” the meaning or significance of these findings is often accompanied by subjective commentary. For example, the various statistics related to the Covid pandemic may be accepted as objectively true, but their significance is subject to differing viewpoints. Although I think it ridiculous, there are those who think the dangers of the pandemic are overestimated and government recommendations, such as the wearing of masks, are unnecessary. Finally, for research to have any value, the findings need to confirm or change thinking and policies on the issue at hand. Think tanks pour out hundreds of research papers each year on various social issues. They usually include action recommendations. But, if the research is largely unread and, therefore, not debated or acted upon, what good is it?

    In summary, of course, research must be done objectively. But, that alone does not make it of any social value, although perhaps it is intellectually satisfying to the researchers.

    1. I’m not sure why you think that research should be of social value or affect policy. Most “pure research” does not, though it may have fortuitous and unforeseen consequences, like the discovery of mRNA being used in vaccines. But of what social value or policy are studies of the fossil record, or exploring Mars, or finding gravity waves, or any number of “pure research.” It makes us intellectually richer, and wonder at the universe, which I think is enough.

      When most of us evolutionary biologists work, it is out of pure curiosity, and not intended to effect a “change in policy or procedure.”

      1. Pardon my pedantry but I think Prof. CC meant gravitational waves. Gravity waves are just a kind of wave in fluid.

    2. “Finally, for research to have any value, the findings need to confirm or change thinking and policies on the issue at hand.” – only if by “thinking” you mean “knowledge (pure or applied)”. I see that our host has already eloquently critiqued the second half of the sentence and the conclusions you draw from it.

      Perhaps “and/or” would have better included both STEM and social sciences; that said, in the latter, too, knowledge for its own sake surely has value beyond simply providing practical policy applications? After all, what is an esoteric finding now might provide a solid foundation for later understanding and policy?

      The 1619 project would seem to be an example of the alternative track of research that deliberately seeks to “change thinking and policies on the issue at hand” and the results are not universally welcomed or respected. Objectivity and rigour are likely the commonest criticisms, funnily enough.

      1. You will notice that I gave the example of think tanks churning out papers that in many cases go unread. In this instance, these papers have no social value. It is as if they were never written. I should have made it clearer that pure research that has no immediate social value has potential social value. In other words, pure research is often the prerequisite for applied research.

      2. I entirely agree with the view that research that is carried out for reasons of pure intellectual curiosity is of value in its own right and a desirable pursuit that we should fund in a civilised society. There is of course a large area of applied research as well, which seeks to answer practical questions and produce results we can use to improve our lives. There is nothing wrong per se when this latter category of research seeks to change the thinking and policies on the issue at hand PROVIDED objectivity and rigor remain part of the equation. For example I can see a value in social science research into why people are resistant to mask wearing or are more prepared to adopt quack remedies for covid and other diseases than the vaccines and other therapies that have been produced by orthodox science. Potentially, the results of such research could help to find ways of nudging more people to behave more responsibly and that is a good reason in itself to pursue it.

    3. The results of research on a biased set of test subjects would still have an objective reality based on those test subjects. If you try to pass it off as non-biased test subject selection then that is objectively a lie. If Farrell is correct about what she is saying then she is stating an objective fact. Although that would make her assertions a lie. And now it gets confusing.

  5. OK. So research, objectivity, and truth are racist. Are their products also suspect? What about radio, computers, automobiles, engineered structures, cell phones, modern sanitation, the COVID-19 vaccine? Are these all illegitimate products of a rotten methodology? Is the cosmic background radiation is a racist construct and not a real thing? What about the structure of DNA? Does natural selection need to be rescinded? Should the products of science be cancelled. Do we need to start all over?

    Must the research validating racial disparity itself be cancelled? Or is that research OK? If it’s OK, why? Surely it, too, is embedded in today’s racist culture employing suspect methods. Is this research OK because it rejects the objectivity that wokeness decries? If not, what tethers it to reality? Does what counts as evidence now need to pass muster with a new self-appointed tribunal of truth? If so, what are the new criteria? Is humanity leaving the Age of Reason and entering a new age?

    Where does all this end? Where will humanity end up if it no longer has the means to identify threats, solve problems, create new technologies, respond to the next pandemic, act to mitigate the effects of climate change? Once the powers of reason are lost to history, what will become of humanity?

    1. Indeed. We can imagine possible answers to your last question. As someone who reads and writes speculative fiction, I have been meditating on what appears to be a present rapid branching in the lineage of Homo sapiens. We have the majority of humans continuing down the branch of believing in belief, whether it’s belief in woke ideology or belief in a strongman, and a minority going on an offshoot of reliance on rationality. If there’s any hope for a more peaceful, healthier, and happier human society, it must now lie in what I’m terming a Neo-Enlightenment, wherein we sink the roots of the original Enlightenment deeper, grow even taller, and bear even sweeter fruits for the benefit of humanity and all life on earth.

    2. No, America loses a generation, and China comes and eats our lunch. If America had embraced this garbage in the 1920’s and 30’s, this blog probably wouldn’t exist, and if it did, it would be in German.

      1. I hope that StephenB is right and we enter a new Age of Enlightenment, but KD is surely right that the sane rest-of-the-world, China for example, sees our discontent as an opportunity to eat our lunch.

        My guess, you ask (which you didn’t :-))? Science limps along with wokeness as a frictional force against progress. Trust in science (and rationality in general) will return during times of crisis (e.g., pandemic, climate change), but overall progress will be slowed. It was crisis—WWII and the Cold War—that drove the last 80 years of scientific funding and discovery. Crisis will again right the ship… until a new attack on reason takes hold.

        With universities leading today’s charge against reason, we are sailing in very troubled waters indeed.

        1. Wait a minute. Don’t you realize that we are on the brink of a brave new world? In that new world, computers, vehicles, engineered structures, production, vaccines, and medicine will no longer be dependent on the white supremacist tools of objectivity, mathematicsl rigor, and empirical science. Instead, all these things, and the next space ships sent to the outer planets, will be developed and guided by the precepts of Critical Social Justice Theory.

        2. I understand where you and KD are coming from, and surely you have a point, but China is not sane for following strongman Xi. China is instead very clever, practical, and opportunistic. They are indeed poised to eat our lunch. As in most things, Americans won’t change until they bottom out. Or as Abba Eban said, “Men and nations do act wisely when they have exhausted all the other possibilities.” Thus, I hold out hope that after the bottoming-out, we will see a renewal of appreciation for the principles of the Enlightenment. Let us continue to hold these principles dear.

          1. On today’s Fareed Zakaria show on CNN, his take was all about how the last decade was America’s, rather than any of its competitors. Unfortunately, both US political parties are all about doom and gloom. Rather than join the TPP, they are both into Buy American and protectionism.

  6. I read about American History as a hobby but I like to find the best. To do this I rely on the research done by historians who spend many hours, sometimes a lifetime doing the research so I do not have to. When someone like Gordon Wood, spits out a little book this year called Power and Liberty, Constitutionalism in the American Revolution I read it. Wood is 87 years old and has been researching this subject most of his life. I get the benefit of all his research and all I had to do was read less than 200 pages. I read books by Joseph Ellis for the same reason. It is the lazy way of learning the most. It would be the same reason I watch this web site – I do not have time to cover all this stuff.

    1. Since you are interested in the Founders, I would recommend a new, relatively short, book that I am in the middle of. It is called “Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders” by Dennis C. Rasmussen. He discusses how four of the Founders — Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton — had grave doubts that the Republic would survive. Each had a different reason for his trepidation. Much of this fear revolved around the extreme partisanship of the 1790s (this was Washington’s main concern), which, depending on how you look upon things, may have been worse than even today.

      1. I will certainly write that one down. It is certain that Washington had a total falling out with Jefferson and Madison. They were the founders of the opposition party – known as the republicans. Kind of fits I think. Adams and Jefferson began writing to each other during the last several years of their lives and they both had doubts about the survival of the country. The country changed so much by the early 1800s, those founders hardly recognized it.

  7. One field of study already has a long and respected tradition of questioning the value of science, research, objectivity, rigor, and even reason itself, carefully laying out their limitations and pointing instead to the primacy of “lived experience.”

    I’m talking, of course, about “theology.”

  8. I think, at this point, we must consider the idea that these attitudes are adopted rhetorically, with the intent of undermining existing institutions, rather than simply being misguided wanderings in the fields of theory. Science, democracy, the free market, individualism are all seen as part of the same structure that is impeding. . . what? I am not sure anymore. Once it was Freedom or Democracy, but both of those have failed to produce Utopia, so they are now both part of the problem. As someone once said in relation to the Communists, “We loved them for their enemies.” But as Matthew says: “Beware of false prophets who come to you in wool clothing like sheep, but inside are tearing wolves. By their deeds you will know them. Does a man gather grapes from thorns or figs from briars?” (Sorry for the Bible quote, not implying the answer is religion. Matthew just says some things I agree with.)

  9. Just the idea that “serious” people are claiming objectivity and rigor are bad is mind-boggling. They are what every ethical scientist has been striving for the last couple of centuries. Evidently they thought they were doing good science but, instead, they were just maintaining an oppressive power structure.

  10. Scientific research covers a huge range of topics and various examples have been given in the thread which people’s lived experience is utterly irrelevant to the question at hand. In applied research, however, it seems relevant to take account of lived experience of the people the research is meant to benefit. For example, researchers might be looking at ways of reducing prevalence sexually transmitted disease and come up with some potential strategies. Depending on what these strategies are, it is very likely that the diverse ways in which people actually hook up would have some – possibly important – influence on how effective these strategies will be. We need to know what people’s lived experience of sexual encounters actually is. However, contrary to the implied approach of Farrell, this too should be based on rigorous and objective methodology – if we simply listen to a few vociferous people with an axe to grind we could end up making serious mistakes.

  11. Farrell insists that researchers should ‘check their bias’. She is right of course that we all have biases but the recognition of this is one of the key reasons for the success of the scientific method. Protocols such as controlled experiments, replication, statistical analysis, double-blind trials and peer review are all aimed at overcoming our natural biases and tendency to to fool ourselves. Objectivity is rightly a key element of scientific research. If I find myself in need of medical treatment I will certainly be much happier placing my trust in therapies that have been developed using classical scientific methods than something that has emerged out of a muddled approach dictated by political dogma.

  12. It’s true that all kinds of allegations are made without supporting evidence… that’s why I don’t watch CNN. And I’m not one to try to silence people, in fact, quite the opposite, but I do think there should be legal repercussions for people who make baseless allegations against others that end up ruining their lives and careers. The slander/libel laws that we have don’t seem to cover the circus of social media these days.

Leave a Reply