Our Wall Street Journal op-ed: free at last!

June 2, 2023 • 9:00 am

On April 28,  Anna Krylov and I published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, which I described (but didn’t reproduce) in this post. We, along with several dozen others, had just written a paper, “In Defense of Merit in Science”  (free access), which ultimately found a home at The Journal of Controversial Ideas created by Peter Singer and other philosophers. We found it ironic that the uncontroversial idea that science and scientists should be judged by scientific merit rather than ideology was swatted away by other journals who, as they told us, found the idea of merit “hollow”and even “downright hurtful”. We wanted to point out the irony of seeing the idea of judgement using merit as “controversial.”

The usual suspects disagreed, many of them giving anecdotes in which scientific merit was not rewarded. And yes, there are such cases, but that was not our point, as you can see by reading below.

The Wall Street Journal has a strict embargo policy, but allows authors to reprint their article 30 days after publication.  That time has passed, and so I’ve put a transcript of the article below the headline (clicking on the headlines will most likely get you paywalled). Read the text below the headline:

Until a few months ago, we’d never heard of the Journal of Controversial Ideas, a peer-reviewed publication whose aim is to promote “free inquiry on controversial topics.” Our research typically didn’t fit that description. We finally learned of the journal’s existence, however, when we tried to publish a commentary about how modern science is being compromised by a de-emphasis on merit. Apparently, what was once anodyne and unobjectionable is now contentious and outré, even in the hard sciences.

Merit isn’t much in vogue anywhere these days. We’ve seen this in the trend among scientists to judge scientific research by its adherence to dominant progressive orthodoxies and in the growing reluctance of our institutions to hire and fund scientists based on their ability to propose and conduct exciting projects. Our intent was to defend established and effective practices of judging science based on its merit alone.

Yet as we shopped our work to various scientific publications, we found no takers—except one. Evidently our ideas were politically unpalatable. It turns out the only place you can publish once-standard conclusions these days is in a journal committed to heterodoxy.

The crux of our argument is simple: Science that doesn’t prioritize merit doesn’t work, and substituting ideological dogma for quality is a shortcut to disaster. A prime example is Lysenkoism—the incursion of Marxist ideology into Soviet and Chinese agriculture in the mid-20th century. Beginning in the 1930s, the U.S.S.R. started to enforce the untenable theories of Trofim Lysenko, a charlatan Russian agronomist who rejected, among other things, the existence of standard genetic inheritance. As scientists dissented—rejecting Lysenko’s claims for lack of evidence—they were fired or sent to the gulag. Implementation of his theories in Soviet and, later, Chinese agriculture led to famines and the starvation of millions. Russian biology still hasn’t recovered.

Yet a wholesale and unhealthy incursion of ideology into science is occurring again—this time in the West. We see it in progressives’ claim that scientific truths are malleable and subjective, similar to Lysenko’s insistence that genetics was Western “pseudoscience” with no place in progressive Soviet agriculture. We see it when scientific truths—say, the binary nature of sex—are either denied or distorted because they’re politically repugnant.

We see it as well in activists’ calls to “decolonize” scientific fields, to reduce the influence of what’s called “Western science” and adopt indigenous “ways of knowing.” No doubt different cultures have different ways of interpreting natural processes—sometimes invoking myth and legend—and this variation should be valued as an important aspect of sociology and anthropology. But these “ways of knowing” aren’t coequal to modern science, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise.

In some ways this new species of Lysenkoism is more pernicious than the old, because it affects all science—chemistry, physics, life sciences, medicine and math—not merely biology and agriculture. The government isn’t the only entity pushing it, either. “Progressive” scientists promote it, too, along with professional societies, funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health and Energy Department, scientific journals and university administrators. When applying for openings as a university scientist today, job candidates may well be evaluated more by their record of supporting “social justice” than by their scientific achievements.

But scientific research can’t and shouldn’t be conducted via a process that gives a low priority to science itself. This is why we wrote our paper, which was co-authored by 27 others, making for a group as diverse as you can imagine. We had men and women of various ages, ethnicities, countries of origin, political affiliations and career stages, including faculty from community colleges and top research universities, as well as two Nobel laureates. We provided an in-depth analysis of the clash between liberal epistemology and postmodernist philosophies. We documented the continuing efforts to elevate social justice over scientific rigor, and warned of the consequences of taking an ideological approach to research. Finally, we suggested an alternative humanistic approach to alleviating social inequalities and injustices.

But this was too much, even “downright hurtful,” as one editor wrote to us. Another informed us that “the concept of merit . . . has been widely and legitimately attacked as hollow.” Legitimately?

In the end, we’re grateful that our paper will be published. But how sad it is that the simple and fundamental principle undergirding all of science—that the best ideas and technologies should be the ones we adopt—is seen these days as “controversial.”

Mr. Coyne is a professor emeritus of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. Ms. Krylov is a professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California.

21 thoughts on “Our Wall Street Journal op-ed: free at last!

    1. I completely agree. Therefore, I shared this blog post and and the paper “In Defense of Merit in Science” in German blogs and forums. Because the same unhealthy anti-scientific and political-activist tendencies are spreading in Germany as in the USA.

  1. Sadly, it is a well-established truism that people believe what they want to believe. They embrace information they like and reject information they don’t like (“confirmation bias”). As a result, I’ve often heard people argue that morality MUST be god given, or it would otherwise be an arbitrary man-made construction. But that’s like arguing gravity can’t be true, or people would fall off ladders and planes would crash. Too many people are simply unable to understand that their dislike of the consequences of a fact has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on whether that fact is true.

  2. This may be trivial, but I find it strange that the ending reads “Mr. Coyne” and “Ms. Krylov” instead of “Dr. Coyne” and “Dr. Kylov.” or at least, “Professor…” AS professors, you two are doctors in the original, most important sense of the term: teacher, learned person. I know it probably doesn’t bother you, but to me, you’ve earned your titles…by merit, in fact.

  3. I studied biology, here in the USA, years ago. In high school Lysenko was mentioned, almost without context, and little explantion. Simply two statements from the teacher: he was wrong and he rejected conventional genetics. No explanaton of the political ideology, no criticism of the Sovite regime, no mention of crop failures and starvation. I assume the teacher was either not well informed or was scared of giving an honest open explanation of politicized science.

    1. I think your teacher was correct in not providing Lysenko’s background other than a sentence or two. If the teacher did talk about his background then why not for every scientist? The purpose of the class was to teach biology. The teaching of Lysenko’s background is perfectly appropriate, indeed necessary, in a history of science class or a history class on the Soviet Union. But, in a straight science class, the role of the teacher should be confined to teaching the most reliable information currently available. Thus, in a physics class for example, the still valid laws of the universe discovered by Isaac Newton should be taught without any reference to any weird things he believed in.

  4. An excellent piece of writing. It’s unbelievable that it should be necessary – I really hope that the current malaise ends soon.

  5. Iris Young (1949-2006) was a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and she wrote a book titled “Justice and the Politics of Difference”, which contains a paradigmatic argumentation against meritocracy from the perspective of Postmodern Critical Social Justice. She speaks of “the myth of merit” and “the ideology of impartiality”:

    “The ideal of merit distribution of positions is an instance of the ideal of impartiality. Criteria of merit assume that there are objective measures and predictors of technical work performance independent of cultural and normative attributes. But I argue that no such measures exist; job allocation is inevitably political in the sense that it involves specific values and norms which cannot be separated from issues of technical competence. If merit distribution of scarce positions is impossible, the legitimacy of those positions themselves is brought into question. A hierarchical division of labor that separates task-defining from task-executing work enacts domination, and produces or reinforces at least three forms of oppression: exploitation, powerlessness, and cultural imperialism. Some of this injustice can be mitigated indirectly by democratizing workplaces. But the division between task-defining and task-executing work must also be attacked directly to eliminate the privileges of specialized training and ensure that all persons have skill-developing work.”
    (p. 12)

    “If merit evaluation is inevitably subjective and depends on the judgment of evaluators, then merit evaluation will justify hierarchy only if the evaluators are impartial in the strong sense of not being influenced by the social perspective of a particular group or culture. I have argued…that such an impartial standpoint in the public is a fiction. It is equally so in individual institutions. The conviction that evaluators can and should be neutral with respect to groups, ways of life, and cultural norms in the assessment of performance and competence masks their actual situatedness and partiality. …[M]oreover, such impartial, objective methods of evaluation are impossible even with quantified measures and standardized tests.

    Within the hierarchical division of labor, evaluators of merit are usually superordinate to those they evaluate, occupying positions of relative privilege. Their criteria of evaluation often emphasize norms of conformity which contribute to the smooth maintenance and reproduction of the existing relations of privilege, hierarchy, and subordination, rather than neutrally evaluating only technical competence and performance. The hierarchies of privilege in our society are clearly structured by race, gender, and other group differences, moreover, so evaluators are most often white heterosexual able-bodied men, and those they evaluate from other groups.”
    (p. 205)

    (Young, Iris Marion. /Justice and the Politics of Difference/. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.)

    1. Seems her argument boils down to people aren’t perfectly objective when evaluating merit, so she throws up her hands and says that means merit itself is useless. Meh. Dull and rather stupid argument. Merit is assigned by humans and humans are imperfect, that necessarily means so is any kind of merit. So, what is the alternative? How does one decide if pilots are qualified? Surgeons, lawyer, carpenters, electricians, financial advisors? What does qualification even mean if we reject the idea that merit cannot be assessed and is “useless”? Perfection should never be the enemy of the good. The sweating professor has spent far too long gazing at her own navel and so this is what she spews. The proper thing to do is to ignore her.

      1. Yeah, reading that reminded me very much of reading academic theology. Lots of unwieldy “terms of art”, lots of words period, very serious and “high brow” in manner, all in service of a very simple, usually silly, argument.

        It also dawned on me for the first time, I can be slow, that the whole post modernist enterprise, and its offshoots, were (are) inspired by the same sort of incredulity that inspires so many religious believers to deny reality in favor of their dogmas. It’s like a small child having a fit when they can’t get their way. They want fundamental truths, and if they can’t have them then no one else, like science, can have any truths of any kind.

    2. Young doesn’t argue that merit-oriented decisions should be replaced by a random lottery. Her alternative is a democratic “politics of qualifications”:

      “Merit distribution of positions of reward and privilege can legitimate a social hierarchy only if criteria for determining people’s qualifications assess their skills and competences and not whether they belong to a certain group, behave in certain ways, or conform to the evaluator’s preferences and purposes. I have argued, however, that in fact the criteria used for evaluating and ranking individual qualifications are usually value-laden, as well as normatively and culturally specific. From this argument I draw the conclusion that practices of certifying people’s qualifications, and ranking those qualifications, are always political.

      The ideology of merit seeks to depoliticize the establishment of criteria and standards for allocating positions and awarding benefits. Controversy about schooling, credentials, tests, and admissions and employment policies should be sufficient to show that this depoliticizing effort fails. Especially in a society where most people depend on collective institutions to provide them with work and livelihood, the rules and policies that determine and apply qualifications are inevitably political. Once we understand merit evaluation as political, then important questions of justice arise beyond distribution, questions about who should decide on qualifications and by what norms and principles.” (pp. 210-11)

      “In contrast to the merit ideology, I claim that decisions that establish and apply criteria of qualification should be made democratically. …I argued that democratic decision-making procedures are a necessary condition of social justice, both as a means to self-development and the minimization of domination and as the best way to arrive at substantively just decisions. Since the filling of jobs and offices fundamentally affects the fate of individuals and societies, democratic decision-making about these matters is a crucial condition of social justice.
      …I also acknowledged that democratic procedures alone are often insufficient to ensure just decisions; thus democracy must be constitutional, limited by rules that define basic rights and norms. Democratic decisions about criteria for job qualifications and about who is qualified should be limited by fairness. As I understand it, fairness in such decisions includes the following: (1) Criteria for qualifications should be explicit and public, along with the values and purposes they serve. (2) Criteria should not exclude any social groups from consideration for positions, either explicitly or implicitly. (3) All candidates for positions should be given thorough consideration, according to formal procedures which are publicly announced. (4) People with particular group affinities, social positions, or personal attributes may be preferred, but only to undermine oppression or compensate for disadvantage, and never to reinforce privilege. Just who should be included in the public entitled to deliberate about and determine the criteria of qualification for particular positions must vary with the kind of position. …I will argue that all major workplace decisions should be made democratically; in accord with such a principle, certainly those who work in an institution should participate in decisions about the criteria of qualification for positions and who is qualified. Does this mean that every employee in a multinational corporation must participate in writing the job description and making the hiring decisions for every other employee in the corporation? Obviously it cannot mean this; principles and procedures of representation must be worked out in this democratic process as in all others, and decisions of general policy are more important than particular applications. It does mean, however, that peers and co-workers should have a significant voice in determining the criteria of qualification for the kinds of jobs they do, and in deciding who their peers and co-workers will be. A primary privilege that now distinguishes professionals from nonprofessionals is that the former often participate in these decisions, while the latter rarely do so. Even many professionals, however, do not have the right to determine the qualifications their co-workers should have; while their job may include defining and evaluating the qualifications of their subordinates, their own qualifications and those of their peers are defined and evaluated by superiors. Where relations of superordination and subordination remain in a democratic workplace, subordinates should also have a voice in determining the qualifications their bosses should have.” (pp. 212-3)

      (Young, Iris Marion. /Justice and the Politics of Difference./ Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.)

    3. Well her assertions are pure bupkis. Especially in the natural sciences, traditional criteria for merit (ie, publication record, citation index, grantsmanship) directly translates to societal good! Having been in academia all my adult life, I can describe a large number of cases where I’ve watched high-merit researchers produce volumes of undergrads with peer reviewed papers (which provides a huge boost to their prospects), productive grad students who are enabled to move on into post-docs and later into faculty positions or industry, and technicians with continued employment (and that ain’t common or easy!). As a result of these highly talented persons I see direct benefits to economic success of dozens of people that they support, with great assistance to their career prospects and even family stability.
      Meanwhile, there are other faculty who are less meritorious. Although hired into research tenure track positions, their productivity is decidedly sparse. Their publications are fewer and of lesser impact, and the numbers of people that they benefit are far fewer. Many of these people sort of crash and burn and their lab is taken over by another faculty member. The personnel that did research under them are definitely thrown to the wind, and it can be pretty bad for them, in fact. I’ve seen this play out many times.
      So merit does matter.

  6. We can see the truth of what is argued in the Merit paper alongside the truth in David Brooks’s essay in the Times on the deep problems with our college admission system, which does not really prioritize merit, although it feeds into beliefs about qualifications.

  7. An eloquent and (sadly) necessary article. How did it go down with the WSJ’s readership? I assume they allow comments on op-eds.

  8. Reference to postmodernism and Critical Social Justice Theory reminds us that the new Lysenkoism began in the ivory tower just like the original. It should be understood that the campaign by Lysenko & Co. started off as a seemingly arcane scientific dispute in the 1930s (see the histories by Medvedev and by Soyfer). This controversy masked a power-play by a cohort of careerists within the academic establishment. This group (notably Lysenko’s close ally I. I. Prezent) took to broadcasting their position in Party publications—analogous, in a way, to the harangues in some of our woke-captured magazines and, of course, our social media. The Soviet public and the Soviet ruling nomenklatura absorbed the view that Mendelian genetics was a fascist plot in the same manner that naive Americans today pick up the notions that standards of merit are a racist plot, that any criticism of DEI is a Republican plot, that sex is a spectrum, etc..

  9. Meanwhile, at the end of the day, all of those who rejected your paper will turn to restaurant reviews to decide where to go to eat.

  10. Young (at least as quoted in the comments here) seems to be saying that academic and professional appointments and selections are often done on the basis of favoritism of one sort or another, and that those at the top have more power than they should have. I’m sure many people, looking back on their careers, would find reasons to agree with this assessment. Concerns about lurching too far in a postmodern, reality-questioning direction, without sufficient regard for scientific rigor, are certainly warranted. But concerns about institutional prejudice, favoritism, and ideological protection of the status quo are also warranted. To put it another way: I would hate for Queer Theory to subvert actual scientific learning; but I also hate that my queer and trans friends have reason to fear for their safety and their right to exist.

    1. I’m not sure what you’re replying to here, but the point of our article is that merit is not given the weight it deserves in science. Saying that it sometimes isn’t, and that there is favoritism, is not a refutation of our argument. Also, NONE of us is calling for harassment of anybody in the workplace. Do you seriously think we’re calling for people to make queer and trans people feel unsafe? If you think this, you didn’t read our paper.

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