Pamela Paul of the NYT touts our merit paper

May 4, 2023 • 9:15 am

I’m going to put a link to our “In Defense of Merit” paper here again in case you missed it, but also because it’s the topic of Pamela Paul‘s column in today’s New York Times. I’ve written favorably several times about Paul’s pieces, as she’s an independent thinker, going her own heterodox way against the Progressive Authoritarianism of most NYT columnists. (She used to be head of the paper’s Sunday Book Review).  But imagine my surprise when I woke up this morning to find an email from her site (I subscribe) that was entirely about our merit paper. It’s the second screenshot below:

Click on the link below to see it, and if it’s paywalled I found it archived on another site (I didn’t do it!)

UPDATE: As of 11:30 Chicago time, Paul’s paper has a new title but the same link. Voilà:

I’ll give a few quotes from her piece, which is favorable, unlike many comments on social media (see below).

Note that her first sentence below actually expresses the viewpoint of many ideologues: that the gender/ethnicity of a scientist brings different, ethnic/gender-specific viewpoints to a field, and so “diversifying” science will make it better by incorporating these views. I’ve found little merit in that argument, which I also see as patronizing because it assumes that different identity groups are homogeneous in having ways of approaching science that, on average, differ on average from those of existing scientists. Of course if you expand the number of people having the opportunity to do science, which I favor, you’re going to get new and valuable views simply because of the increase in the pool of scientists. But to say, for example, that Hispanics will improve physics because of a particularly Hispanic way of approaching the field is not only patronizing, but unevidenced.

But I digress. Here’s Paul’s beginning:

Is a gay Republican Latino more capable of conducting a physics experiment than a white progressive heterosexual woman? Would they come to different conclusions based on the same data because of their different backgrounds?

For most people, the suggestion isn’t just ludicrous, it’s offensive.

Yet this belief — that science is somehow subjective and should be practiced and judged accordingly — has recently taken hold in academic, governmental and medical settings. A paper published last week, “In Defense of Merit in Science,” documents the disquieting ways in which research is increasingly informed by a politicized agenda, one that often characterizes science as fundamentally racist and in need of “decolonizing.” The authors argue that science should instead be independent, evidence-based and focused on advancing knowledge.

This sounds entirely reasonable.

Yet the paper was rejected by several prominent mainstream journals, including the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Another publication that passed on the paper, the authors report, described some of its conclusions as “downright hurtful.” The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences took issue with the word “merit” in the title, writing that “the problem is that this concept of merit, as the authors surely know, has been widely and legitimately attacked as hollow as currently implemented.”

Instead, the paper has been published in a new journal called — you can’t make this up — The Journal of Controversial Ideas.

Below Paul echoes what I said above.

Though the goal of expanding opportunity for more diverse researchers in the sciences is laudable, the authors write, it should not be pursued at the expense of foundational scientific concepts like objective truth, merit and evidence, which they claim are being jeopardized by efforts to account for differing perspectives.

Consider the increasingly widespread practice of appending a “positionality statement” to one’s research. This is an explicit acknowledgment by the author of an academic paper of his or her identity (e.g., “nondisabled,” “continuing generation”). Positionality statements were first popular in the social sciences and are now spreading to the hard sciences and medicine. The idea is that one’s race, sex, relative privilege and “experiences of oppression” inherently inform one’s research, especially in ways that perpetuate or alleviate bias.

But whatever validity “alternative ways of knowing,” “multiple narratives” and “lived experience” may have in the humanities, they are of questionable utility when it comes to the sciences. Some defenders of positionality statements maintain that these acknowledgments promote objectivity by drawing attention to a researcher’s potential blind spots, but in practice they can have the opposite effect, implying that scientific research isn’t universally valid or applicable — that there are different kinds of knowledge for different groups of people.

Note that the ultimate in positionality statements is putting your “iwi” (tribe) in a paper touting indigenous Māori science, like this one I discussed the other day. The words in parentheses after each author’s name gives the iwi to which they belong.

This is like putting “(atheist Ashkenazi Jew)” after my name when I write a paper. Or perhaps it establishes the authors’ credibility as Māori because it gives their iwi. Regardless, this kind of stuff is embarrassing; it’s pure virtue flaunting. Do you really have to name your iwi when arguing for the compatibility of Māori ways of knowing and modern science? Shouldn’t the arguments be what’s important, rather than the position of the author. (Indeed, in this paper the authors argue that judging Māori “ways of knowing” cannot be done except for Māori themselves!)

Beyond positionality statements, Paul also finds worrying oft-required DEI statements for jobs as well as “citation justice” (the drive to cite more underrepresented people’s work as a form of scientific reparations).  And she does add our own caveat. Do look at the link in the second paragraph below:

It should go without saying — but in today’s polarized world, unfortunately, it doesn’t — that the authors of this paper do not deny the existence of historical racism or sexism or dispute that inequalities of opportunity persist. Nor do they deny that scientists have personal views, which are in turn informed by culture and society. They acknowledge biases and blind spots.

Where they depart from the prevailing ideological winds is in arguing that however imperfect, meritocracy is still the most effective way to ensure high quality science and greater equity. (A major study published last week shows that despite decades of sexism, claims of gender bias in academic science are now grossly overstated.) The focus, the authors write, should be on improving meritocratic systems rather than dismantling them.

At a time when faith in institutions is plummeting and scientific challenges such as climate change remain enduringly large, the last thing we want is to give the public reason to lose faith in science. A study published last month, “Even When Ideologies Align, People Distrust Politicized Institutions,” shows that what we need is more impartiality, not less.

Paul’s ending, which I’ll talk more about in a second:

If you believe bias is crucial to evaluating scientific work, you may object to the fact that several of the authors of the study are politically conservative, as are some of the researchers they cite. One author, Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago and a critic of some affirmative action and diversity programs, inspired outcry in 2021 when he was invited to speak at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But to deny the validity of this paper on that basis would mean succumbing to the very fallacies the authors so persuasively dismantle.

One needn’t agree with every aspect of the authors’ politics or with all of their solutions. But to ignore or dismiss their research rather than impartially weigh the evidence would be a mistake. We need, in other words, to judge the paper on the merits. That, after all, is how science works.

As expected, objections to our paper, which you can find on the Internet (there are also plaudits!), often rest not on our arguments, but on the names of the authors. I’m sure that almost anyone can find in this list an author they’re not keen on, and of course all of us disagree on some things. But to dismiss our paper, as some have done, because there’s an author or two they don’t like is pure nonsense. It’s a deflection strategy: a way to attack the paper without having to attack its arguments. I’m getting plenty fed up with these “guilt by association” arguments, because they’re not really arguments but simply rhetorical strategies—even a form of defamation by smearing.

But of course there are those who attack our thesis as well, denigrating “merit” as a criterion for judging science or scientists, and even, along with the two editors we quoted, saying that there’s really no such thing as merit. I wonder if those people care whether, when they get on a plane, whether their pilot has gone any evaluation of merit in the form of being able to fly a plane. For many—perhaps most—jobs in society, merit should be the primary characteristic for hiring. (I of course recognize that judging “merit” is often slippery, and, being in favor of some forms of affirmative action, realize that sometimes it’s salubrious to sacrifice a bit—but not a lot—of merit as a form of reparations to an oppressed group. Not all the authors agree on this, of course.)

Finally, let me note that articles on our paper have appeared in two non-English newspapers of repute: Le Figaro (French) and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (German). The screenshots of the articles are below, and I’ll be glad to send pdfs them to any reader who asks. (I also have an English translation of the German article.)


37 thoughts on “Pamela Paul of the NYT touts our merit paper

  1. Congrats again Jerry on this splendid paper! Great to see it getting attention from Pamela Paul.

  2. I echo what Ronald Cate says above; thanks to you and all the authors.Timely, well done and hopefully, effective.

    I’m getting plenty fed up with these “guilt by association” arguments, because they’re not really arguments but simply rhetorical strategies—even a form of defamation by smearing.

    It is also intellectually dishonest. In some cases it makes the person an outright liar.

  3. Another publication that passed on the paper, the authors report, described some of its conclusions as “downright hurtful.”

    If you quoted the “hurtful” comment before, it didn’t register. What a bizarre thing to say. As anyone who has studied the birth of modern Science knows, the first thing that should be discarded in seeking truth are one’s feelings and personal experiences.

      1. I’m sure most of us would like to read the rejection letter from PNAS verbatim! There shouldn’t be any confidentiality extended to moronic appraisals.
        Was the reviewer who claimed ‘downright hurt’ from an oppressed minority?

        Ramesh – Upright 2% oppressed Denisovan.

  4. That’s a good piece by Pamela Paul. I love the headline of the French article about the new paper – the Académie Française has a way to go, I think!

  5. It is a true puzzle, really.

    On the modern neo-capitalist view of merit — or “merit” — identity is subsumed as a social construct, leaving two non-binary choices : dialectical desublimation or post-raunch neoabsurdity. In a sense, the subject is interpolated into a subcultural narrative that includes truth not as a pre-text for revolution, but as an obstructionist totality for dismantling.

    [ the above text was written using the following websites as a guide ]: (And links therein)

    I almost put real or fake references, but I did not think misrepresentation of real literature is a good idea – the pomo generator apparently produces fake references.

  6. Kudos.

    … “diversifying” science will make it better by incorporating these views. I’ve found little merit in that argument, which I also see as patronizing because it assumes that different identity groups are homogeneous in having ways of approaching science that, on average, differ on average from those of existing scientists.

    I suppose science would improve by having a more diverse pool of scientists if we drop the idea that they do science in different ways and just focus on information. A gay Republican Latino might know that, in his community, there’s a stigma against certain diseases so they’re going to be underreported in a study. Or perhaps he’d be inspired to devote his career to eliminating a problem particularly rampant in this group. Neither of these examples undermine merit. They’re also probably not what the DEI folks have in mind — unless they’re particularly bad at expressing their views (not to be ruled out.)

  7. To the question of whether the scientists of a particular ethnicity bring new ethnic-specific viewpoints to a field, I think that within physics and math, at least, there have been enough of both South Asians and East Asians in the field so that one should be able to make an empirical assessment about the claim. (Noting that e.g. India is probably at least as culturally different from e.g. China as it is from Western Europe.)

    1. I think there is some merit in a modified version of the claim. Diversity of ways of thinking is good for the creative part of science and math, the generation of theories and hypotheses. It may well be that someone raised in certain cultures would generate ideas that would not occur to people in other cultures or languages. I think for example of Ramanujan whose results were strange and incomprehensibly foreign to the English mathematicians of his day. No one in England had even thought to pose the kinds of problems that Ramanujan solved. Curiously, several of Ramanujan’s theorems were later independently “discovered” and proven by other Indian mathematicians, evidence that something about the Hindu culture facilitated this kind of thinking.

      Nevertheless, once a hypothesis or theorem is generated, it belongs to the wider world to test, and its testing and acceptance should not depend on the ethnicity, gender, or race of the person who generated it or the people who are testing it.

  8. I sometimes think that all scientific papers–sometimes other matters, too–should only be published without names, so people can judge the ideas on their merits, not on an ad hominem (or pro homine or whatever the related positive slant might be) notions. I cannot understand how so many otherwise intelligent people fall prey to such nonsense, calling out a paper because of names among the authors. I don’t think I really WANT to understand, except perhaps in the sense that, to treat a disease most effectively, one must understand its mechanisms.

    Actually, now that I think about it, isn’t “ad hominem” a sexist term? Shouldn’t it be “ad personam”? 😉

    1. If I may put on my Classical pedant’s hat, Dr. Melkor, the Latin word “homo,” though it became “homme,” “hombre,” “uomo,” etc., has a long history of being stretched to include both sexes. The more definite Latin word for man is “vir;” for woman, “femina.” A reminder that the word “persona” means the mask that actors wore in the ancient plays. Of course, we all are still living in a masquerade, so “persona” is entirely appropriate. 🤓😉 back atcha.

      1. Excellent! I remembered the vir et femina part but that was about it.
        And where does homo- to mean “same” come from? Is that from Greek?

    2. I sometimes think that all scientific papers […] should only be published without names,

      I’m pretty sure that has been proposed in the past, and possibly even tried. It didn’t go down well, either with readers or writers.
      Of course, I don’t remember if there were any metrics published of the effect of de-naming papers. I don’t even recall any discussion of what you’d measure in before/after states in order to determine if the experiment has any meaningful, measurable effect.
      Of course, it is possible for an experiment to have no measurable effect even if it has a real, significant effect. You just have to measure and record the wrong things to waste the cost of the experiment.
      Sensible statisticians get paid for delivering the report, before the client gets time to read it.

  9. Congratulations! It’s super important that the larger news outlets pick up and amplify your paper on merit. This is good news.

    Positionality statements make we want to throw up. Many years ago when I was in graduate school, a professor in my department commented that geology journals used to publish pictures of article authors and he lamented the end of that practice in the 1970’s. He missed the practice because he said that one can learn a lot about the author from his or her picture. I know what he meant by this, and it wasn’t good. He meant that he could ascribe a value to the article simply from what the author looked like. This is precisely why geology journals ended the practice so long ago.

    This is what positionality statements do today and, again, it’s not good. Positionality statements allow readers to judge papers simply on the basis of ethnicity, sexual orientation, indigenous status, skin color, and political affiliation. Are you kidding me? How is this different from allowing racists to judge the value of an article simply by looking at an author’s picture? Positionality statements do not advance science. They advance the rot that science tried to expunge many decades ago. Positionality statements take science in absolutely the wrong direction.

    1. It’s quite common in formal and traditional Māori contexts for self-introductions and identifications to show respectful relationships to the places and people from which the speaker comes, eg,

      My mountain is …
      My river is …
      My tribe is …
      My sub-tribe is…

      These tribal affiliations sometimes appear in English news reports along the lines of ‘Judge Mere Ihimaera (Ngati X, Ngāi Y)…’

      To my European ear, this is tedious, irrelevant and time-wasting, but then it’s not my culture; I agree when PCC asks, ‘Do you really have to name your iwi when arguing for the compatibility of Māori ways of knowing and modern science?’ but also recognise that giving tribal affiliations is just a formal Māori practice.

  10. “But of course there are those who attack our thesis as well, denigrating “merit” as a criterion for judging science or scientists, and even, along with the two editors we quoted, saying that there’s really no such thing as merit.”

    This reminded me of Ayn Rand’s, ‘Atlas Shrugged’, where some people were given positions of power based on their need rather than their merit, and those who were capable were scorned for being capable. We are in big trouble if that is the route society is heading.

  11. Equivalently to the idea that merit in science is a hollow idea, in the news media the idea has gained a foothold that journalists should renounce objectivity. See here + a rebuttal:

    Leonard Downie Jr.: Newsrooms that move beyond ‘objectivity’ can build trust. Washington Post, Jan 30, 2023
    The author, a former executive editor of The Washington Post, is a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

    Clive Crook: To Regain Trust, the News Media Need Objectivity. Bloomberg News, Feb 26, 2023
    Being objective will also help in the search for truth, which reporters claim to be interested in.
    Authorities in the news industry, whose reputation is near a record low, have a novel idea to restore public faith in their work: They can improve trust, they say, by renouncing objectivity. This is not something that would have occurred to me.

    Americans’ Trust In Media Remains Near Record Low. October 18, 2022

    A yet unpublished paper on where dismissing the idea of merit in science will lead:
    Cory J. Clark, Calvin Isch, Jim AC Everett, Azim F Shariff: Even when ideologies align, people distrust politicized institutions. University of Pennsylvania
    In three studies (two preregistered; total n = 3,490 ideologically balanced U.S. adults), we examined attitudes toward 40 institutions, organizations, and groups of professionals (e.g., journalists, scientists, the Supreme Court, the World Health Organization, professors, police officers, doctors, the Catholic Church, banks, pharmaceutical companies, psychologists, Facebook), and tested the associations between (1) perceived ideological slant (the percentage of people in those institutions that lean politically left or right), (2) perceived politicization (the extent to which political values impact the work they do), and (3) public trust and willingness to support and defer to the institution’s expertise.
    Higher congruence between participant ideology and perceived institutional slant predicted higher trust and deference. And higher perceived politicization of institutions consistently predicted lower trust, often with large effect sizes. Similar patterns were observed between institutions, such that the institutions perceived as the most politicized were also the least trusted, with a very large effect, r = -0.76. Studies 2 and 3 found that perceived politicization also predicted lower support and willingness to defer to institutions’ expertise. Across studies, these negative relationships were observed among both participants who shared and opposed the institution’s ideological slant. In other words, even left-leaning participants were less trusting and less willing to support and defer to left-leaning institutions that appeared more politicized, and even right-leaning participants were less trusting and less willing to support and defer to right-leaning institutions that appeared more politicized. Studies 2 and 3 attempted to experimentally manipulate perceived politicization and failed to do so. We thus post this preprint in hopes of initiating discussion of these findings and identifying promising avenues for future research and possible interventions.

  12. Take any number of woke positions (the myth and harm of meritocracy, America is awash in white supremacy, sex is a spectrum, words are violence, etc.). I am still having a difficult time determining the proportion of true believers, to cynical opportunists, to bandwagoners, to “allies” motivated by fear, to fearful people cowed into silence, to silent people hedging their bets until they see how the power struggles hash out in their organizations.

    One thing seems certain: we have a distressingly high number of educated people in professional life who will say all manner of nonsense or falsehood if it garners them the praise or power they covet.

  13. Here is still another instance of what the Abbott et. al. paper addressed. At the University of Washington, the School of Oceanography has circulated its DEI Plan, which recommends measures to insure correct thinking among the faculty, such as:
    “The School Leadership and the DEI committee will convene annual training sessions for the entire faculty and postdoc communities, to be held at special faculty meetings, and in which attendance is expected and rewarded (e.g. can be mentioned included in annual activity reports)>. Example required training can include “How to avoid microaggressions”, “Mentoring and being mentored”, “Leading with a racial equity lens”, “Civility and Sensitivity Training”, “Cultural Awareness Training,” among others.”

    Further down, The Plan includes one item that explains much of the faculty motivation, or at least acquiescence, in these activities: “DEI contributions will be considered as a high-priority component of service for faculty. ” Lest anyone not connect the dots, The Plan lists membership in a DEI Committee as one of the high priority components of service. [These are used to determine faculty salary increases. By the way, some of such salary increases are labelled as being for “merit”.]

  14. An example of forced diversity backfiring: Many years ago [25 or more] I was a friend of a professor [science field] at a highly rated university – one where just about anybody would love to get a tenure track appointment. Well, his department had such an opening and he was on the search committee. They narrowed it down to two candidates, one male, one female. They would have loved to hire both, but had to choose one – basically a coin flip situation. But they went with the male. Why? They figured that the way the political scene was going, they could hire a man now without much backlash, but in three or four years when the next opening would come up, it was likely that it would be politically impossible to hire a man, and they really wanted this guy. They just hoped the female would still be interested then, because they really like her qualifications too.

  15. Congratulations! This is terrific. I’m glad to see this article becoming accessible to news outlets that many people read.
    Thank you for getting it out there Jerry!

  16. The majority including the most racist I believe have never asked what colour were the individuals who invented, discovered, developed a medicine or apparatus that saved them.
    I can entertain the positional statement “Fuck off” and DIE (oops!) if you’re offended, so am I.

  17. Of course, the war on merit is vile. However, it is also racist. For various reasons (some historical, some not) Asians and Jews have succeeded by merit for a long time. I have seen a claim that there were 1,000 Jewish doctors in NYC by 1900. The name ‘Amy Chua’ (‘World on Fire’, ‘Tiger Mom’, etc.) is reasonably well known (for good reason). However, her father was the real Asian overachiever. Leon Chua was (is) a major innovator in transistor theory and invented “Chua’s circuit”.

    Racial quotas will hurt Asians and Jews in medicine and all other fields. Indeed, they already have. Harvard has imposed (unofficial but quite real) quotas on Asians for years. Years ago, Harvard (and Yale and many other schools) imposed Jewish quotas.

    These days, racial quotas go well beyond universities. The Biden administration has imposed racial quotas across the board. For better or worse (worse), DEI really means racial quotas.

    For some actual numbers, see “For Asian Americans, a changing landscape on college admissions” (

    “Lee’s next slide shows three columns of numbers from a Princeton University study that tried to measure how race and ethnicity affect admissions by using SAT scores as a benchmark. It uses the term “bonus” to describe how many extra SAT points an applicant’s race is worth. She points to the first column.

    African Americans received a “bonus” of 230 points, Lee says.

    She points to the second column.

    “Hispanics received a bonus of 185 points.”

    The last column draws gasps.

    Asian Americans, Lee says, are penalized by 50 points — in other words, they had to do that much better to win admission.

    “Do Asians need higher test scores? Is it harder for Asians to get into college? The answer is yes,” Lee says.”

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