Lee Jussim analyzes the criticism of our paper on science and merit

June 10, 2023 • 11:00 am

Lee Jussim is an antiwoke social psychologist at Rutgers and one of the 29 authors of our paper “In Defense of Merit in Science” (“Abbot et al.”).  As we expected, that paper was controversial, but it’s also been widely read, with more than 100,000 views on The Journal of Controversial Ideas.”

As I said in the WSJ op-ed I wrote with Anna Krylov (the guiding force of the paper), it’s a shame that a paper espousing the view that science and scientists should be judged on “merit” should be seen as “controversial,” but what do you expect these days.? The pushback was considerable. Many people simply rejected the idea of merit, with one of the editors who refused the paper saying that the idea of merit was both “hollow” and “hurtful”.  That, of course, is arrant nonsense.

Others tried to refute our argument by giving examples of science where merit was not recognized, or where bad science was lauded. These anecdotes are also a dumb way to go after our paper, especially because we were making a general argument, not saying that it’s always applied everywhere in science. Still others, like our  bête poilue, P. Z. Myers, dismissed the paper largely on ideological grounds, or used the common by worthless guilt-by-association argument.  PeeZus:

I had no idea that merit needed defending, or was at all controversial, but it has 29 authors, some of whom have significant prestige. Others are nothing but Intellectual Dark Web sort of cranks, and all of them would be not at all out of place on the fake University of Austin faculty. It’s an expansion of the Grievance Studies nonsense, and Boghossian is one of the authors, while Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay are cited, and if authors are not on the staff of the University of Austin, at least some of them are publishing opinion pieces in Quillette. Basically, it’s a collection of right-wing ideologues complaining about ideology, unaware that it’s ideology all the way down.

Well, if the idea that “science should be judged by its merit” is “ideology”, so is the idea that “airplanes should be flown by the most accomplished pilots,” or “a cancer operation should be judged by how well it was able to remove the malignant cells and prevent recurrence.”

But we’ll pass on, as Myers had no arguments against the substance of our thesis.  The quote above, by the way, is one of many collected by Jussim, who has produced a compendium of criticisms of our paper, most (but not all), being unedifying yet often unintentionally funny. I was particularly amused by the muddy and obtuse criticisms of Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of Science who took our paper as an attack on racial diversity which, he argued, was the real way to advance science, and that such diversity would in fact advance science better than judging research and scientists on merit. (I’d argue that intellectual  diversity would be more efficacious.) Here’s are two quotes from Thorp’s editorial:

. . . . the public has been taught that scientific insight occurs when old white guys with facial hair get hit on the head with an apple or go running out of bathtubs shouting “Eureka!”


It has somehow become a controversial idea to acknowledge that scientists are actual people.

But Jussim goes after him more thoroughly, as you can see by reading his essay.

You can read it, with the appropriate refutations of nonsense (and praise for thoughtful criticism) by clicking on his Substack headline below:

Lee can be quite snarky, and here’s an excerpt from his section called “Really stupid criticisms”. Here are two of them (all of Lee’s prose is indented, save for double-indented quotes):

One blogger went on a bizarre rant on the grounds that it was absurd for us to claim that a journal’s failure to publish our article violated our free speech rights.

It would have been absurd, had we claimed it. This delusional critique was by Scott Lemiux, who is described as a professor of political science. Presumably, that means he has a Ph.D. For further insight into why someone with so much education can write something so stupid, I highly recommend Taleb’s The Intellectual Yet Idiot.. . .

Another vein of stupidity is the “straw man” critique. Supposedly, when we argued that many prominent postmodern and critical theory perspectives reject merit and objectivity, that’s a straw man argument, an absurd caricature because, duh, no one is so stupid as to reject objectivity and merit right? This was in some of the PNAS reviews of our article that led to its rejection there, and it was all over academic twitter.

Richard Delgado was one of the most prominent critical race theorists of the last 30 years. Shall we see what he wrote? Fom Delgado & Stefanic’s 2001 book on Critical Race Theory:

“For the critical race theorist, objective truth, like merit, does not exist, at least in social science and politics. In these realms, truth is a social construct created to suit the purposes of the dominant group.”

Nothing quite says “some prominent critical race theorists reject merit and objectivity” as a prominent critical race theorist literally rejecting merit and objectivity.

Then Lee gives some “Faux sophisticated criticisms,” like this one from Holden Thorp:

This is the Editor in Chief at Science. Publishing this opinion piece in … Science. It is idiotic nonsense.

He then goes on to pull a subtle bait and switch. See if you can catch it:

 One view is that objective truth is absolute and therefore not subject to human influences. “The science speaks for itself” is usually the mantra in this camp.

But the history and philosophy of science argue strongly to the contrary. For example, Charles Darwin made major contributions to the most important idea in biology, but his book The Descent of Man contained many incorrect assertions about race and gender that reflected his adherence to prevalent social ideas of his time. Thankfully, evolution didn’t become knowledge the day Darwin proposed it, and it was refined over the decades by many points of view. More recently, pulse oximeters that measure blood oxygen levels were found to be ineffective for dark skin because they were initially developed for white patients.

Did you catch it? The fact that science has gotten some things wrong or that scientists’ biases have, sometimes, misled them to advance false conclusions, is presented as if it invalidates the reality of objective truths. It does nothing of the kind. Indeed, the way Darwin’s incorrect assertions about race and gender, and the fallibility of pulse oximeters were discovered, was by subsequent scientists debunking false claims and replacing them with true ones. The failures of pulse oximeters was discovered because it was objectively true that they were ineffective for people with darker skin.

The entire notion of scientific validity rests on the existence of objective truth, and without it, science is meaningless. Thorp baited you with the implication that there is no objective truth and switched in scientists’ biases and errors as if it refutes the existence of objective truth. Which it cannot possibly do because to know that an error was made or a conclusion is biased implies that one has access to objective truths that debunk those errors and biases.

Lee then cites a paper that disses Thorp but also gives us some thoughtful criticism:

An excellent essay on this controversy by a bio-ethicist at Merck (which includes some thoughtful criticisms of our paper) puts it this way:

Thorp adopts a questionable strategy known as the motte-and-bailey tactic, employing it fallaciously and deceptively. He presents the easily justifiable opinion encapsulated in “It matters who does science” (the [uncontroversial and easily defensible] “motte”), while conveniently avoiding any arguments that challenge Abbot et al.’s initial claim. Thorp’s unspoken and potentially harder-to-defend propositionthat “merit should (to some degree) be replaced by social engineering or identity-based policies” (the “bailey”) remains unsupported and unaddressed in his discourse.

There’s also a section on “logically incoherent” criticisms, though I think Lee makes a misstep here:

To criticize our paper is to argue that it is bad or unjustified in some way. However, to make these sorts of arguments, the critics must have some standard for truth. If they do not, then they cannot possibly know our paper is wrong, biased, misguided, hurful, or anything else.

Implicitly, then, they believe that getting at the truth is possible because they are making a truth claim when arguing our paper is wrong, hurtful, etc. If we are wrong and they are right, then they themselves are promoting claims that are actually true! That is, their claims have merit, whereas our’s  [sic] don’t. Anyone who believes the critics [sic] claims have merit (including the critics themselves) implicitly accepts our central argument that science has to be judge [sic] on its merits, even if they pose as critiques of our paper.

I’m not sure that’s true, for a critic could claim that science should be judged on a combination of merit and its ability to promote ethnic diversity, and that the “truth” is that society would be better off if science were judged by some combination of the two factors. That is a truth claim that at the same time criticizes our paper.

Finally, here’s an Epilogue that gives you another site with information about the reaction to our paper.

Anna Krylov, the main force of nature behind the merit paper, has also created this website, indefenseofmerit.org, that curates a lot of the essays, blogs, and podcasts discussing our paper. [JAC: see especially the last two sections, giving links to reactions about the paper as well as some quotes about the paper.] Jerry Coyne, over at WhyEvolutionisTrue has a slew of entries on some of the critical responses to our paper (such as herehere, and here).

The critics reviewed herein are, by many measures, really smart, accomplished people. They are all academics with PhDs, and, often, long lists of scientific publications. Make of that what you will.

One addendum: A colleague and I have a related paper, on the dangers of infusing ideology into evolutionary biology, coming out in two weeks. While it doesn’t have a lot of prestigious authors or Nobel Laureates, it does make claims that I expect to be controversial. That’s because those desperately trying to turn our field into a branch of Social Justice Ideology get furious if you say that it’s a bad idea.

27 thoughts on “Lee Jussim analyzes the criticism of our paper on science and merit

  1. Meyers :

    “… complaining about ideology, unaware that it’s ideology all the way down.”

    … I have to admit, I don’t have a “comeback” for that. If it’s a “deer in the headlights” moment, then it is.

    … I suppose I could ask what that statement means, but how do I know that’s precisely the expected question, with a pre-formulated answer, designed to enlighten?

    1. P.Z. Myers: “I had no idea that merit needed defending, or was at all controversial…”

      There are actually some people who still listen to PeeZee’s babbling nonsense. He once thought he was going to be an intellectual titan, the “fifth horseman.” Instead, the comments on his site are carefully curated so it looks like everyone agrees with his and can tell him right and wonderful he is (hmmm…the opposite of peer review! Novel concept), all so his exceedingly fragile ego can be sufficiently soothed (we’ve seen just how fragile it is over the years). There are few things in the world that make the idea of merit more controversial than the fact that there are people who give consideration to him, a scientist who turned ideologue when he didn’t get the fame and recognition he stamped his feet claiming he deserved.

      1. Well, it’s babbling nonsense, all the way down. So, I suppose we should all be glad some people still listen to anyone.

      1. I wonder what Prof. Myers makes of criticism written by Foucault, Butler, Lacan, and so on. I suppose there’s a distinction to make between criticism and “complaining”.

        So yeah. Myers has a point — or, “point” — not as a dialectical desublimation, nor of the neo-capitalist subtext, but replete nihilistic abjection of the realities. This idea was expressed no more clearly than in The Big Lebowski, in which we are told :

        “Well, that’s just, like, you’re opinion, man.”

      2. I’d be careful with that, Mark. I have difficulty imagining an ideology that’s objectively true in all its claims, some of which have to be values-based. If one adopts an ideology, particularly if one wants to see it triumph over other ideologies inimical to it, its proponents have to be willing to resort to manipulation of the truth. If you wouldn’t lie for your country or your cause, then you aren’t very useful to either in a crisis. Deception is integral to the art of war, and war is fundamentally ideological (or ought to be.)

        Where Myers errs is calling merit and truth-seeking an ideology. That’s why the Krylov and Coyne papers* are so important.
        * I realize neither Anna Krylov nor Jerry considers themselves to be the principal authors of Abbot et al.. I’m just using it a shorthand to refer to the paper and the WSJ op-eds unambiguously but colloquially.

    2. Book suggestion (I actually own this):

      A very short introduction
      Michael Freeden

    3. “I suppose I could ask what that statement means”……………

      Well, that’s the problem with everything PZ Myers write. You may say he has a colorful language, but the reasons I stopped following him years ago can be summarized as such:

      Sometimes he may indeed give a clear statement, which is possible to understand, one may or may not agree with him, but at least his argument are understandable. But more than once in a while his statements are highly unclear or just plain stupid or meaningless.
      Since he also often appear to be a hateful person, disrespectful to people with other opinion than his own, or just plain nasty to many people for disagreeing with him, I just don’t want to follow him any more. I don’t want to give him the attention he so clearly want

    4. It just dawned on me :

      “Ideology all the way down” is, at least very close to, nihilism.

  2. In the early days of Affirmative Action any employer or university that claimed it would accept any “qualified” applicants regardless of race , etc., was demonized. “Merit” is getting the same treatment.

  3. I agree with almost everything in the paper.
    The quote from Delgado & Stefanic’s 2001 book on Critical Race Theory, to the effect that for CRT “objective truth, like merit, does not exist, at least in social science and politics,” that quote should have been in main text of the paper (on page 9). It was instead in the supplement to the paper.
    To my mind, footnote 9 should also have been in the main text: “We use the term ‘merit’ to mean the rigor, importance, and validity of a scientific idea or proposition or the accomplishments of an individual.”
    Figure 3, on page 9, comparing liberal and critical justice epistemology, really gets to the heart of the matter. It it is crazy that a paper arguing in favor of liberal epistemology could not get published in a place like the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
    I would be interested in knowing what other journals rejected the paper.
    In any case, Anna Krylov deserves many thanks for drafting/writing most of the paper and presumably doing much of the organizing behind this collective effort.

  4. Many thanks to our host and to this website for introducing us to the Journal of Controversial Ideas, a medium for disputed thoughts like merit in science, and the contentious theorem that there is an objective reality that can be approached through the methods of science. In future, we will have to turn to the J. of Contr. Ideas for “hollow” concepts like force, mass, and motion, or “harmful” concepts like sexual dimorphism.

    Another controversial idea is the autonomy of science and the arts—i.e., their logical structures and thus their standards are independent of ideological/moral standards. This controversial idea has been discussed by the science historian Yves Gingras at: https://journalofcontroversialideas.org/article/2/2/208/htm?ref=quillette.com .
    He concludes as follows: “As the road to hell is paved with good intentions, only time will tell whether the current tendency to impose the values of self-proclaimed moral entrepreneurs on all scientists and other creators (artists, writers, etc.) will really contribute to the production of “better” science, better novels, and better movies through the formation of “better” persons. The history of the relationships between the arts, the sciences, and changing moral values and ideologies unfortunately suggests that this is unlikely.”

  5. I don’t normally comment on these types of posts because I’m not in the academic world but this has me confounded. People are judging the paper on its merits using the argument that merit has no merit.

  6. Lee Jussim is better known for this paper “Stereotype Accuracy is One of the Largest and Most Replicable Effects in All of Social Psychology” (https://spsp.org/news-center/character-context-blog/stereotype-accuracy-one-largest-and-most-replicable-effects-all). My guess is that most folks (including most readers of this blog) would go more for the Google/Wikipedia definition of ‘stereotype’.

    From https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stereotype “A stereotype is a mistaken idea or belief many people have about a thing or group that is based upon how they look on the outside, which may be untrue or only partly true”.

    1. Count me in the Jussim camp. I am perfectly happy to cognitively let person-specific information trump a stereotype, as Jussim says people are quite willing and equipped to do (contrary to stereotype!) when provided with it. Stereotypical accuracy for snap judgements about “friend or foe” are still correct often enough to have contributed to our survival. Indeed the most dangerous stereotypes are those that cause us to not realize that a prima facie friend is really a foe because the person-specific information was discounted or not sought early.

      That’s why implicit bias training is so resented. It requires us to regard as false stereotypes that we believe on good evidence to be true. It causes another type of “false friend” error if the implicit bias teaching is actually taken up and acted upon instead of being ignored once the session has finished.

  7. Amongst the plethora of peculiar, ideologically ambiguous, and largely flawed “reviews” of “In Defense…,” a handful of recent discussions truly stand out, demonstrating professionalism and thoughtful engagement with opposing or “controversial” perspectives. One remarkable example is Spencer Case’s “Micro-Digressions Podcast,” where he engages in a conversation with philosophers Matt Lutz and Alex Byrne. In their critique of “In Defense…,” they predominantly lean towards favorability while illuminating certain philosophical limitations that the article may possess. I highly recommend investing time in listening to their episode titled “Wokeness in Science: Critiquing a critique”… I genuinely hope that Thorp and Myers seize the opportunity to attentively listen to it. You can find the podcast episode at the following link: https://www.buzzsprout.com/956725/13007346-wokeness-in-science-critiquing-a-critique

    1. The two major arguments in “Wokeness in Science: Critiquing a critique” are the following:

      Firstly, Abbott et al. fail to transcend the understanding of science championed by Karl Popper, thereby neglecting to address certain limitations inherent in Popper’s theory, thus weakening their argument and undermining the impact they intend to generate. While I concur with this viewpoint to a large extent, it is noteworthy that a more comprehensive exploration of the philosophy of science could have bolstered the paper’s strength yet does not substantially undermine the core hypothesis presented in “In Defense…” which remains substantively valid.

      Secondly, while avoiding strawmanning, Abbott et al. do not sufficiently engage with a more charitable rendition of critical social justice theory. From a philosophical perspective, it is generally expected that a counter-argument refutes a steelman version of the opposing position. In a previous essay of mine (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/holdens-motte-thorps-bailey-simon-lucas/), I alluded to the benefits of interpreting critical social justice theory in a more benevolent manner, encouraging thoughtful contemplation on addressing biases and leveling the playing field. Moreover, this approach necessitates a more thorough defense of the conceptual foundations underpinning prevalent conceptions of “merit.” However, it is important to note that “In Defense…” was arguably intended as a critique of institutions like university administrations, HR departments within big tech companies, or large parts of the general public, who often adopt the most extreme versions of critical social justice theory as unquestionable dogma.

  8. Jussim’s piece is excellent.

    And Bergman’s whole “misleading lay readers about how science works” point? He is damn right, that is bad. He should know better than to do it.


  9. Thanks to Lee Jussim for trawling through such sludge, so that we don’t have to.
    These shoddy attacks at least have the merit of making clear who the most vocal enemies of real science are. “Intellectual Yet Idiot” is a good phrase; I tend to use “educated fool” to describe such people.

  10. Orwell had a germane comment on this “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them”

  11. Imagine the wokerati existed before Newton. Mathematica Principia would be dismissed as a rape manual [I didn’t make that up, the wokerati did, google it], and a manual for straight white males [biological males not transgender males] for taking over the world and imposing white supremacy on it. It would not be outlawed from being printed but nobody would print it because cancel culture and even if they did, no store would stock it, because cancel culture and even if they did, noone would buy it because cancel culture and noone would teach it because cancel culture. And in lieu of the white supremacist Newtonian explanation of the seasons we would have the Maori wakapapa explanation of the seasons, mother something and father something and children something having a war or something and therefore cold, warm, wet, dry, hot seasons.

    And the rest of the world would get a hold of the rape manual and in less than a hundred years would rule the world which the wokerati would deny since only straight white males could do such a thing. Just like black slavery can only exist in a white supremacist culture, except that that is a history lesson and black slavery still exists, but only in black and brown cultures (Sudan). But who am I as a white person to impose my white supremacist views on such matters?

  12. “Another vein of stupidity is the “straw man” critique. Supposedly, when we argued that many prominent postmodern and critical theory perspectives reject merit and objectivity, that’s a straw man argument, an absurd caricature because, duh, no one is so stupid as to reject objectivity and merit right?” – J. Coyne

    Well, no one except all the professors who subscribe to the following statement:

    “As the most powerful modern philosophies and theories have been demonstrating, claims of disinterest, objectivity, and universality are not to be trusted and themselves tend to reflect local historical conditions.”

    (Levine, George, Peter Brooks, Jonathan Culler, et al. “Speaking for the Humanities.” /American Council of Learned Societies, Occasional Paper No. 7/, 1989. p. 18. Online version: http://archives.acls.org/op/7_Speaking_for_Humanities.htm)

  13. In woke academia, Michel Foucault is a Jesus-like figure. As for the question of objective truth, he is not an outlandish linguistic idealist, according to whom reality consists of nothing but words (and sentences and texts); but he clearly rejects the objectivistic correspondence theory of truth, and the extralinguistic reality he acknowledges boils down to an alethically and epistemically irrelevant noumenal “background noise” behind the power-driven discourses, within which truth and knowledge are constructed or produced.

    “Foucault rejects the idea that sentences are made true by how things are in the extralinguistic realm. Extralinguistic reality neither determines nor guarantees truth, the discursive currency of sentences. Peculiar as it may sound, truth is not about how things are beyond discourse; truth is about what goes on in discourse. For Foucault, then, questions about truth are questions about the histories of discourses and about present discursive practices; they are not questions about how sentences depict states of affairs. However, this is not denial of the world; it is assertion that extralinguistic reality plays no epistemic role in the determination of what is deemed to be true or to constitute knowledge; it is not the determinant of currency in discourse.” (pp. 28-9)

    “Foucault says much about truth because it is basic to his project to counter the traditional objectivist conception of truth.” (p. 82)

    “Foucault detaches truth from how things are, claiming that truth is produced within discourse and so does not constitute or represent some relation to how things are.”
    (p. 102)

    “Foucault’s position is basically that there are no truths, no facts of the matter, independent of societal and disciplinary truth-establishing practices. Foucault rejects Searle’s idea that facts are “the nonlinguistic counterpart of true statements stated in language,” that “the word ‘fact’ evolved so that you would have a word for the nonlinguistic counterpart of the statement in virtue of which the statement is true” (Rorty and Searle [“Rorty v. Searle, At Last: A Debate”] 1999, 35). Beliefs and sentences do not match up to /anything/ extralinguistic in being true, whether “nonlinguistic counterparts,” or reified facts. For Foucault, what determines sentences as true is entirely internal to discourse and consists of the practices that allow certain things to be said and disallow certain other things being said. Truth is a status given to some beliefs and sentences. This is the point of Foucault’s claim that regimes of truth each have procedures and designated authorities that determine what is true (Foucault 1980b [Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings], 131). Establishing a sentence as true is not a matter of ascertaining that the sentence accurately represents something extralinguistic; instead, it is a matter of sanctioning a sentence’s use in a discourse, including its use in sanctioning the use of other sentences.” (pp. 126-7)

    “For Foucault, an articulated belief or sentence being true is a matter of it achieving a certain status through complex discursive and practical procedures, not the belief or sentence corresponding to extralinguistic reality.” (p. 128)

    (Prado, C. G. /Searle and Foucault on Truth/. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.)

  14. Lee Jussim’s final critique – people attack the paper because it supposedly has no merit, thus validating the value of merit as a criterion – seems to be analogous to the level-1 attack on postmodernism: “you say there is no objective truth, and it’s all just a power play. That’s a truth claim you’re making! Checkmate, postmodernists!”
    I don’t think that’s quite good enough. The postmodernist position can be defended on its own terms: it doesn’t care if its truth claim is true, it only cares about its effects in terms if power. (So, who cares if merit is important, as long as we manage to discredit the authors.) So the level-2 attack on postmodernism would be “okay, by your own admission, you don’t care about truth and consistency, and all your statements are power plays. On what grounds would you object if the powers-that-be dragged you to a secret prison and shot you, seeing how you present a threat to them?” At this point, woke postmodernists point to the bedrock of their moral truth: oppression is bad. And, in the absence of any objective standards of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate use of power, ANY use of power is oppressive and bad.
    I think that’s the point where woke ideology ultimately becomes contradictory and incoherent. Surely, the chief editor of Science wields considerable power, and any judgment he makes is, in the absence of “truth” or “merit” as a standard, an act of oppression. Stepping down and handing the reins over to someone more oppressed doesn’t help, it only kicks the can down the road. The only consistent course of action would be to destroy the credibility of “Science”, thus dismantling the hierarchy of scientific prestige… and as I write this, I’m beginning to wonder if that is what’s happening, intentially. Kind of like you shouldn’t be surprised that government isn’t working properly if you elect politicians whose position is “government is bad and can’t get anything right”.
    Sorry for rambling. This stuff makes my brain hurt…

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