Updated reactions, pro and con, to our “merit” paper

May 11, 2023 • 9:15 am

I’m still surprised that the paper we published in The Journal of Controversial Ideas, “In defense of merit in science,” got so much attention. Not that it was all good attention: given today’s climate in which “merit” is almost a dirty word, a fair amount of the reaction was negative. But there was enough positive comment that I’m pretty heartened, especially because those who agreed with our thesis—that the quality of science and of scientists should be judged on merit rather than ideology—may well be afraid to offer public support (see below).

At any rate, I’ll post a brief summary of the reactions so far.  First, the press release of the paper has been updated, and you can see it by clicking on the screenshot below.

This site includes a summary of the paper, why it was written, who the 29 authors were, and why it appeared in the Journal of Controversial Ideas.  What’s new are the two sections “Reactions” and “What they are saying about the paper.” The reactions include Twitter threads, newspaper articles (notably Pamela Paul’s recent piece in the NYT (below), which has of this writing an erroneous link in the press release), YouTube videos, and blog posts. The “what they are saying” bit includes quotes taken from various sites. You’ll notice that all the material in both sections is positive; that’s because this is a press release, not a summary of all the reactions on the Internet.  I’ll give some of the negative reactions in a second.

Below is Pamela Paul’s op-ed in case you haven’t read it. What I wanted to point out is that the number of readers’ comments (1785) is HUGE: as far as I can see, it exceeds by several hundred the maximum number of comments that Paul got in any of her previous columns.

Second, it seems to me that there is a big disparity in the nature of the “all” comments (every comment posted by a reader) and the “reader picks” comments—those upvoted by the readers. My quick take is that while the total comments tend to be positive, there is quite a large proportion that criticizes our paper. In contrast, a higher proportion of the “reader picks” comments (again, those that were upvoted) seem to be positive. I haven’t done a count, so I may be wrong. But if my impression is correct, it means that there are many people who liked our thesis but expressed their approbation not by commenting but by upvoting other people’s comments. This would suggest something that I already think: that there are many who agree with us but are afraid to say so publicly for fear of being criticized, ostracized or branded a bigot (or other words).

Click to read:

On to some of the criticism, which I got by asking Anna Krylov, the driving force behind the paper.

First, I want to dispel one criticism that was common: that our paper was rejected from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (as it was) because it wasn’t a paper about science, so it was dumb of us to even submit it there. In fact, it was submitted to PNAS as a Commentary, and they do publish these. To submit a commentary, you have to clear your piece with the editors in advance, showing that it fits the definition of a Commentary, including length. We did do that, and the editors said, in effect, “Okay, submit.” We submitted it and got one positive and two critical reviews, so it was rejected.

That is what we expected, but we wanted to try, for PNAS had already published least three commentaries on similar issues, but all pro-ideology or pro-diversity. The “antiwoke” flavor of advocating merit, we realized, would make our paper hard to publish. But I wanted to quash the claim that we were crazy to send the paper to PNAS because it wasn’t suitable for a scientific journal. Perhaps it wasn’t suitable ideologically, but it was certainly the type of “Perspective” that the journal publishes.

Oh, and none of us ever said that rejection of our paper constituted a violation of our “free speech,” although some of the critics, like Scott Lemieux below, make that claim.  We are not stupid, and know that we don’t have a right to publish our views anywhere.  So I don’t think you’ll see any of us claiming that our free speech was violated by the paper’s rejection. But many of us will argue that our paper got disapprobation largely because it contravenes the quotidian ideology.

That said, here are four website posts that are very critical of our paper: those of Scott Lemieux, Dave KarpfJoseph Shieber at 3 Quarks Daily and William Briggs. I’m not going to summarize or take issue with them; you can read and judge for yourself. Do note, though, that Briggs tends to agree with our thesis, but simply thinks that “the paper won’t change anybody’s mind.”

And here are two critical tweets from “big noises” in the science community. Jake Yeston is an editor at Science. Curiously, he objected to the paper because Anna Krylov had a peer-reviewed paper on science and ideology several years ago, “The Peril of Politicizing Science.” It has a similar theme but is much shorter than the JCI paper. Apparently you’re allowed to write only one paper on a given non-scientific topic in your life.  Your “platform”, I guess, is limited to one speech per lifetime!

And here’s a NYT comment (and two followups by readers) from geophysicist Marcia McNutt, commenting using her professional affiliation: she is in fact President of the National Academy of Sciences). This was a comment on Pamela Paul’s paper, and although not a “readers selection” comment, it did appear very soon after Paul’s piece was published.

McNutt maintains that we are wrong in implying that ethnicity isn’t an important characteristic of advancing science, citing a single instance of an idea adumbrated by a black woman that raised a question that, perhaps, a women of another race might not have raised. In response, two readers pointed out that this is but one example and doesn’t support the general thesis that more equity in science would advance it faster or that the question wouldn’t have been raised by a woman who wasn’t black; in fact, McNutt notes that the question likely would have been raised by someone else. (Indeed, many assertions and research projects involving underprivileged groups are made and promoted by those of other races.)

For less anecdotal and more critical takes, see the four website posts above. Despite the criticism, I stand by the thesis advanced in the paper, though of course many of the authors disagree to various extents about sub-assertions in the paper (I, for one, still favor a form of affirmative action in judging grants and hires in the sciences.)  But one thing is for sure: there are many people who take issue with the idea that merit should be the main— if not the only—criterion in judging science and scientists, and it is to the good to discuss in the open this view and its opposition.  Our paper. and Anna’s earlier one. were intended to begin this discussion.

39 thoughts on “Updated reactions, pro and con, to our “merit” paper

  1. That paper is excellent – precise, illuminating, empowering – hard to put a finger on it.

    Perhaps a “criticism” is the “supplemental material” should be part of the paper…. and “supplemental” has such a dismissive sound – readers might miss it because it must be downloaded separately.

    Instead : how about a two-part paper – I. and II. I understand journal restrictions and it’s already out, and I like big papers. But anyway.

    Great! I hope there will be more!

  2. The most important thing is that the piece is getting lots of attention. People are afraid to express the reality that facts of the world don’t care who expresses them: the fact that descent with modification (biological evolution), for example, does not depend on whether the scientist is black, white, Maori, lesbian, Republican, or a 19th century English naturalist. It is sad and dangerous that a mob of ideologues has established a reign of terror over those who would tell the truth and those who would defend it.

    The road of progress is long—and it has its ups and downs—but in the long run the road bends toward truth. Your paper is a bend in the right direction.

  3. One small correction — PNAS uses term “Perspective” to describe this article type (which Jerry called “Commentary”). Here is how they define it in their Information for Authors: “Perspectives should identify a critical science problem, provide a state-of-the-art assessment, and offer new insights or a new approach to its resolution. The narrative style may vary, but each Perspective should focus on an important area of research and be accessible to a broad scientific audience. Perspectives may help contextualize findings within a field or add a new dimension to previously published research. Current advances and novel insights are encouraged. To submit a proposed article, select “Presubmission for Perspective.” ” We indeed submitted a proposal and our article was deemed suitable for full submission, peer review, etc.

  4. Like one of the responders to Marcia McNutt’s tweet, I am scratching my head as to why she even tweeted it. She attempts to make a point about the crucial factor of race in her example then undermines it by hedging, saying, “Yes–highly probable.” Far be it from me to criticize a well-regarded scientist—especially one who had a leadership position at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, one of my favorite institutions on earth—but doesn’t she remember about the necessity of isolating the variables? IMO, that tweet should never have been posted.

    1. I agree. It’s just an awful argument and entirely without merit. But it illustrates the desperation with which people cling on to the DEI ideology when faced with facts and common sense. Not only is she cherry picking an isolated anecdote, she then negates the reason for which she mentioned it! Sheesh.

    2. I don’t think her point is obscure. I read it as:

      1) There is evidence that among populations in Africa the onset of breast cancer occurs 20 years sooner than in the US.
      2) Nobody bothered to investigate this discrepancy until a black researcher decided to look into it.

      Seems pretty clear to me. Whether you take that as a valid argument for diversity is up to you, but I take her point: people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds might care about different things, and those interests have the potential to take research in different directions than they might otherwise.

      1. Dr. McNutt may be reaching to make a point. A (male) Ghanaian researcher presented this in 2017. He acknowledged the skew to younger age at diagnosis in African women was well known and thought to be an artefact of the small number of women who live past age 65, the peak age of diagnosis in rich countries. He addresses other factors. Young age is not a novel observation. Breast cancer is less common overall, perhaps because you have to live into your 80s to accumulate the 1 in 8 risk often quoted.

      2. What you say is “people from different ethnic backgrounds” MIGHT care about different things, but one example doesn’t even come close to showing that (by the way, lots of nonblack people have had ideas similar to hers). And do you think race is THE “different background” that promotes science? What about geography, political views, whether your parents went to college, poverty, and so on? The NIH doesn’t want to promote that kind of diversity. No, McNutt wants one kind of diversity: ethnic diversity (and perhaps gender diversity).

        Her point is clear, but she gives NO evidence for it save one anecdote which I could counter with lots of other anecdotes about white people thinking of projects to help people of other ethnicities.
        What you seem to express is the point of view that people of a given ethnic background have an insight into nature that other groups don’t have: they’re homogeneous. That’s palpably ridiculous, and until I see evidence that increasing ethnic diversity at the expense of merit promotes the advance of science, I don’t accept her argument for diversity at the expense of merit.

  5. The blog where Lemieux posts, “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, used to have some worthwhile commentary. But the posts and commentary have become more and more predictable in their responses. The post by Lemiieux and the comments on his post are pretty typical. There is no interest in actually getting an accurate view of what they want to hit out against.

    1. I used to read “Lawyers, Guns and Money” in the dark days after Trump’s election but gradually tired of it. A lot of the blog’s positions were really kneejerk reactions, and Lemieux and company reliably defended all things woke because they assumed anything less would play into the hands of the right wing. Their “nothing to see here folks” attitude is deplorable.

    2. I have some experience with “Lawyers, Guns and Money”. I tried to warn the readers that M. Avenatti was bad news. The response was uncharitable, to say the least.

  6. Dave Karpf is unhinged. I should have been tipped by his opening tell: “I’m so tired . . .”, but I did read it through, every foaming-at-the-moth word, “dudes” and all. Is that how young people talk these days?

    Joseph Shieber gets bogged down in syllogisms and a few anecdotes about bad professional behaviour by individual scientists. He gives a seminar on logical fallacies. In the end he seems more worried that the paper will help Republicans. If there was one of the four whose views you wanted to rebut, his would be the ones I’d be most interested in.

    1. “He seems more worried that the paper will help Republicans.” Yes this is the concern expressed by commenters here at Jerry’s site recently. Utilitarian epistemology (is that a thing?).

  7. I would like to note that Science, where Jake Yetson is editor (as you note), just published a piece claiming there isn’t sufficient scientific data to support the idea that trans women have a physiological advantage over natal women in sports.

  8. I think the paper is absolutely excellent. It’s the clearest, best argued and thorough examination of this topic I’ve ever read. Also, unlike virtually anything else I’ve read on this subject, it references a copious volume of valid scientific evidence. I would usually find a paper of this length a bit of a slog, but this was so well written, I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot too.

    The fact it was rejected by PNAS is absolutely stark-raving nuts, just ridiculous. How any level-headed and unbiased reader can object to it as valid piece of scholarship is completely beyond me. As has been said by others, it’s a damning indictment on the current academic zeitgeist.

    The objections that have been raised are weak and emanate from the same old voices desperately hanging on to a tired agenda. This paper confronts them with the uncomfortable reality: that in the face of nonsense, arguments from reason, evidence and common sense are irresistible. Nevertheless, they’ll keep hanging on to their daft edifice until every single finger is prised free.

    I applaud you Jerry. This is such an important issue, and the paper is a major contribution to the debate. I hope and expect, that in a few years we’ll look back and realise this paper was a key event in restoring sanity to academia.

  9. Every time I read something in this vein, I wonder about the merit-based scientists who are minority and/or female.

    How would you like to be one of those people, who are succeeding on their MERITS, and have everybody looking at you like your work is not credible or substandard because they believe you’re only in your position because of your status, and not because of your legitimate achievement?

    I was a senior in college and then a grad student during the beginning of the affirmative action movement in academia. My senior year I had a professor who was hired as an affirmative action employee. She absolutely had the credentials to be on the faculty, and she had earned those credentials BEFORE the affirmative action hiring. She was one of the best profs I had in my entire academic career, and by rights she should have been there anyway.

    A couple of years later, after getting into my grad program, I was hired to teach at a community college. The person who was director of the college was also an affirmative action hire, and he did NOT have the credentials to be in that position. The requirements were lowered to allow him to be there.

    He was a DUNCE. The word “incompetence” does not begin to describe him.

    My personal experience is not a “sample”. But I will go for merit every time. There are meritorious minority and women out there. Maybe we should ask them who and what inspired them, and try to replicate those factors in early childhood and elementary education and mentorships.


    1. Linda, your experiences or anecdotes are not unique. I know of several instances like the professor you described: excellent scientists who doubted their own qualities (and had others question their qualifications) because of the affirmative action climate.

      Unfortunately it’s very difficulty to study these effects and collect data from a representative population of scientists and researchers (rather than folks like you & me telling anecdotes about the problem). I’ve tried to develop research along these lines, and have been urgently advised by colleagues not to ask these kinds of questions out loud because of the reputational damage to me (and because other people would claim to have been harmed by someone asking these questions).

      I kinda hope that the paper by Jerry & Anna and others might provide some cover for others who could propose to study these effects.

  10. The science editor Mr. Yeston objects to the paper’s restatement and expansion of ideas already expressed by Anna Krylov in an earlier paper—in fact, he is so shocked by this that he adds “I am not making this up.” Looking back, we notice that editors of Mr. Yeston’s sensibilities were not in charge of scientific publication in mid-19th century England. A pair of naturalists each presented papers advancing ideas about the origin of species at the Linnean Society of London on 1 July 1858—and then one of them went so far as to publish a whole book on the same idea the following year (I am not making this up). At a lower level, every researcher in the world is familiar with the process of developing and documenting ideas in multiple publications. Could it be that Mr. Yeston aims to protect science (and the journal “Science”) from this insidious process?

  11. I strongly support Norman’s comment #2 above: it is critical to have a very visible and public conversation about these issues and not let the well organized dei folks have free authority in these issues and be seen by non-STEM people as promoting the words and feelings of the larger STEM community itself. As I commented on this site the other day, this gets two views visible. We need more of it and also to move to interactive conversations between the equity folks and equality of opportunity folks. We need to understand what is thwarting equality of opportunity for all and then make progress by moving to fix it!…even if it is (as i suspect) in pk-12 to a significant degree. Please keep at it Jerry, Anna, and friends!

    1. I think your last line there is important to keep in mind in all this. The roots of the problem start all the way back at the beginning, the circumstances people are born into. To really start to fix it all we’d have to do lots of things many on the conservative side don’t like. Universal healthcare for one.

      1. Conservatives like it when babies are born into households with fathers and either parent reads to them. You seem to have more faith than I do in the ability of doctors to fix broken families and improve educational outcomes, other than free abortions. I confess I don’t know the impact of prenatal care on premature birth and complications like eclampsia, other than correlations. If there is evidence that it could help, that would be a place for focused spending. But most black babies are healthy, yet still fall behind at school. I’d spend the money first on some kind of after-school supervision to keep them out of trouble until Mum and Dad get home from work. That sounds too much like police, I suppose.

        1. Liberals like that too. What many conservatives tend to deny, despite overwhelming evidence, is that investing in the citizens that make up your society pays off very well. Universal healthcare is simply one of the many ways to do that. One of the ways that would have a significant positive impact. It’s one obstacle removed.

          1. At enormous cost. Darielle, I worry that you underestimate how much it costs to provide free everything to everybody in a fat, aging society with a shrinking workforce. Doctors are resourceful at finding ever new ways to spend tax and insurance money on ourselves. Canada is the only country in the world that bites that,bullet, with private payment banned for services the state pays for. But we have to use rationing by queue, global budgets for hospitals, and price controls for doctors. And it’s still eating us alive, partly because we can’t control costs of drugs and medical devices as new miraculous remedies are announced every week. They are a global business that doesn’t care that we’d like to get them cheaper.

            England with its NHS is the country that comes closest behind us in “universal” free care but they still allow private care for people who don’t want to wait in line. In all other OECD countries, the state pays for basic free care to the poor but everyone else is either compelled or strongly incentivized (through queuing or restriction on choice) to purchase private insurance. It’s a myth that socialized medicine in Europe is all state paid for. And what is paid for requires high levels of social cohesion which is eroding in countries like Sweden.

            Public health—immunizations, clean drinking water, control of contagious diseases, some screening for neonatal diseases, maybe prenatal care as I mentioned—is a.good investment. There are doubtless lots of other ways to invest in the population. But individual health care is pure consumption spending, a transfer of wealth from earners to the healthcare industry. There is no payoff or dividend, nothing investment-grade about it. If you spend too much on it, you won’t have any left over for those many other investments you want to make.

              1. No worries Leslie.

                On Universal healthcare, I understand your arguments and appreciate that you have experience in medicine. However, statistics from many different sources over many years comparing US healthcare and outcomes with other countries, and my own experience, is convincing.

            1. I’m originally from the States, but have lived in Germany for forty years. I’ve had cancer three times. I have two handicapped children. One was born prematurely (not related to the handicap) and while travelling in another country. Another healthy child had complications at birth. We have received excellent health care, with total costs probably over a million here and what would be several million in the USA. (Part of the problem in the USA is not just the lack of coverage but the inflated costs, which also inspires people with no interest in medicine to become physicians, like my former fellow pupil who at 17 didn’t know that girls can fart.). Apart from some token fees, we have paid nothing at all directly; it is all covered by insurance. And, no, we have no private insurance. Your characterization of health care in many European countries is completely unrealistic.

              1. I certainly respect your own experience, Phillip. My characterization for Germany is based on my reading and understanding of how the Sick Funds work. It’s certainly true that healthcare in the United States costs more than anywhere else in the world. Both prices and volumes are very high. Socializing it affordably would require that many fewer people would be working in it and those who remained would have to lower their expectations. One man’s cost is another man’s income.

              2. Then you have not understood how they work. Can you read German? (I suspect that there is little information in English.) Have you ever been to Germany? Do you know anyone who lives there? Who has been in hospital there?

                Socializing it affordably what not require what you say. It would mean that physicians earn a good but not ostentatious wage and it would mean that for-profit insurance companies would be replaced with non-profit organizations. Health care in the USA is the most expensive in the world, but the quality is pretty far down the list. A lot of the money goes into profits for insurance companies and inflated costs which benefit shareholders and people with salaries which are way too high.

            2. Dear Leslie.
              I have experience here in Canada, Nova Scotia of private medical care, I required treatment which was unable to be provided by NS Health in the time scale required by the consulting physician and he recommended a private facility and the only requirement was a referral note from my GP.
              The whole business was fast and excellent and I really cannot understand the reasoning behind it being disliked or forbidden as you say and I understand the arguments for and against. However if you have the resources and can relieve the State system then I think it should be allowed.
              We emigrated here back in 2006 from the UK where we used both private and state health care so we are familiar with both systems. It is expected here that you pay for your dental treatment, which in the UK we did not, so why not other medical treatment?

  12. One comment I would like to make as a frequent “up voter”: Often I find previous comments capture what I would like to say and often more thoroughly and eloquently. In such a case I will “like”/up vote the comment rather than just throw in another 2 cents worth. It is not to remain anonymous. I am not sure it *is* anonymous to up vote. I don’t consider myself cowardly but I will cop to lazy.

    1. I sometimes both comment and upvote, so it isn’t necessarily the case that those who upvote are unwilling to post their own thoughts.

      In terms of anonymity, upvotes are likely not anonymous to the website hosting the article, but they are to readers of the comments. Of course, some sites allow usernames that conceal the identity of the commenters, although I believe The Times (of London) recently abandoned that policy and requires real names now. (I’m not a subscriber, so I don’t know how vigorously that change is enforced.)

  13. Afrocentric pseudohistory has been gaining traction in the US mainstream since the 80s. A few years ago, the latin student’s association at (i think it was, but not sure now)University of New Mexico threatened a lawsuit if the school didn’t stop teaching that the Olmec civilization came from Africa. Many of those who know better are afraid to push back because they don’t want to be labeled racist. It happened to historian Mary Lefkowitz.

    1. Thanks for this, starfleet dude. A key sentence in Thorp’s post is: ” Science has had enormous trouble building a workforce that reflects the public it serves.” I daresay, the great majority of the public has little or no serious interest in science, and little ability to do scientific work. A science workforce that accurately reflects this distribution (as Thorp would appear to favor) will be an interesting experiment. We eagerly await the results of similar experiments in other realms, such as sports, acrobatics, violin performance, dentistry, neurosurgery, and aircraft piloting.

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