Science magazine (you can call it a “journal” if you wish) recently published a surprisingly objective article on “positionality statements,” statements about the author’s background, race, gender, and views that are often included these days along with scientific papers. (Science is usually woke and often doesn’t present both sides of an issue.)
Positionality statements are often quite detailed, intended to give readers an idea of where the author is coming from, even though that’s supposed to be irrelevant in judging science. Another reason quoted in the article is that writing such statements somehow makes the author aware of his or her biases or unconscious reasons for doing the work, or to reflect on what future work they should do given their background. To my mind, that’s weird, as authors should already know that, and there’s no reason to make public your thoughts on these issues.
I’ve written about positionality statements before. Below are three examples I gave, and you’ll also want to read Sally Satel’s article at Persuasion, “Focus on the research, not the researcher.” There Satel suggests that positionality statements may actually be inimical to science as they may condition editors to accept papers out of sympathy, may themselves be biased, and of course violate the dictum that you judge science by, to quote a famoous man, the content of the paper, not the color of the author’s skin. However, Satel says that in one restricted area such statements may be justified:
. . . . positionality statements do make more sense in some narrow contexts. According to Jukka Savolainen, a Professor of Sociology at Wayne State University, positionality statements probably originated in ethnographic research. When we spoke, he told me that “it makes sense to be concerned about the characteristics of individual scholars doing field work when they are the only instrument of data collection and interpretation.” That is, when a researcher is working alone in a foreign culture, it may be worth illuminating possible sources of inadvertent bias.
But of course such statements are widespread in many fields beyond anthropology. None of the three statements I give below are from such papers:
So, here we go (the posts will lead you to the original papers):
From this post:
I (first author) was raised as a Muslim immigrant-origin girl in a small Iowa town and constantly aware that my family was “different.” Having been an educator in PK-12 contexts, my goal in studying developmental psychology was to make the process easier for other youth who, like myself, were intersectionally minoritized and privileged because of religious, racial, ethnic, linguistic, and/or other identities or experiences. I was unprepared for the microaggressions embedded in developmental scholarship rooted in non-inclusive modes of knowledge production that resisted the nuances of the diverse individuals and groups I sought to better understand. . . . I seek to place myself in relationships and contexts to learn and engage in a co-conspiring, co-liberatory inquiry stance.
From another post, a statement about several authors:
Ash T. Zemenick is a nonbinary trans person who grew up with an economically and academically supportive household to which they attribute many of their opportunities. They are now the manager of the University of California Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station, in Truckee, California, and are a cofounder and lead director of Project Biodiversify, in the United States. Shaun Turney is a white heterosexual transgender Canadian man who was supported in both his transition and his education by his university-educated parents. He is currently on paternity leave from his work as a non–tenure-track course lecturer in biology. Alex J. Webster is a cis white queer woman who grew up in an economically stable household and is now raising a child in a nontraditional queer family structure. She is a research professor in the University of New Mexico’s Department of Biology, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is a director of Project Biodiversify, in the United States. Sarah C. Jones is a disabled (ADHD) cis white queer woman who grew up in a supportive and economically stable household with two university-educated parents. She is a director of Project Biodiversify, and serves as the education manager for Budburst, a project of the Chicago Botanic Garden, in Chicago, Illinois, in the United States. Marjorie G. Weber is a cis white woman who grew up in an economically stable household. She is an assistant professor in Michigan State University’s Plant Biology Department and Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, in East Lansing, Michigan, and is a cofounder and director of Project Biodiversify, in the United States.
And one given by Sally Satel in her article below:
Consider the positionality statement by the authors of “Low-income Black mothers parenting adolescents in the mass incarceration era: The long reach of criminalization,” which appeared in the American Sociological Review in in 2019:
“Both authors are middle-to upper-middle-class white women—one is a mother, the other is not. A commitment to antiracist, intersectional, and feminist principles guides our research efforts, and we conducted this work with an awareness of the politics, dangers, and limitations of affluent white academics writing about the lives of low-income Black Americans.”
So what we see above is both self-flagellation and virtue signaling, but does it help you assess the science? Not to my mind. The papers are already of a woke tenor, and to learn that the authors are themselves engaged in confessional identitarianism doesn’t help you judge them better. All you can say is, “Yes, the authors are minoritized or aware of their status as outsiders,” but does that help you judge the results? Nope. Maybe it helps the authors to examine their own viewpoints, as the Science article below avers, but they can do that on their own time. It needn’t be splashed all over a paper. As Sally noted:
Currently, only one journal I could find—the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering—requires positionality statements. Others, like the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, “encourage” but don’t require them.
Click on the screenshot below to access the Science article, which you can also find archived here:
Here are the “pros” as quoted in the article,:
“It’s an invitation to think more broadly about what your role as a researcher is in the work that you’re trying to understand,” says Alejandra Núñez-de la Mora, a biological anthropologist at the University of Veracruz. She published a 2021 paper in the American Journal of Human Biology arguing that reflecting on one’s positionality can pay off in future work, helping researchers address inequities such as “parachute research,” unchecked power dynamics, and gaps in inclusivity. If you’re an astronomer, for example, think about where your telescope is, she says. “Are you part of that community? Is that telescope put there with knowledge of the people who call that place their land?”
To that I’d say, “okay, fine: keep it to yourself and, if you need to say it, publish it elsewhere”. This isn’t anywhere near Satel’s exception above, as your positionality doesn’t affect your astronomical results.
Positionality statements also benefit readers, supporters say, peeling back the curtain on researchers’ decisions that would otherwise remain invisible—from what questions they pursue to how they interpret their data. “It’s not just that we want to know about people’s socially constructed identities. That’s not the point,” says Julie Martin, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, which has required positionality statements since July 2020. “The point is how do those and your worldview affect the decisions you make in the research?”
Again, this has nothing to do with the published research itself, which reflects what’s done after the author has winnowed down the questions. And really, is the author the person to judge this question? Doesn’t a therapist need to help with this? At any rate, let those authors ponder it on their own, for this is a subjective reflection on behavior, not science.
Please, sir, can I have one more?:
As for [Genevieve] Wojcik, she says reflecting on her positionality has helped her realize her identity is inextricably linked with her work, enriching it and shaping the directions it takes—including, for example, her work to design genetics studies to be more inclusive of multiracial individuals. “I’ve sort of come into the notion that who I am can actually make my work better and lead me to question things that hadn’t been questioned before.”
Here’s Wojcik’s positionality statement:
Genevieve L. Wojcik (she/her): I am unsure as to how I identify, as my experience as a biracial individual in the USA has largely been defined by what I am not, instead of what I am. My mother immigrated here from Taiwan and my father’s parents from France and Poland. My research interests in genetic epidemiology for diverse, and specifically admixed, populations have been partially motivated by my background to ensure that discoveries will also benefit my loved ones, whether family or friends, with increased urgency for my multiracial children.
This is again a statement about motivation that, while perhaps Wojcik was insufficiently reflective to know this stuff before she wrote it out, has no bearing on the paper.
And the cons:
But others question the statements’ value. “I find it amazing that [publishing positionality statements] is becoming so widespread without any evidence that it actually achieves what it sets out to achieve,” says Patricia Nayna Schwerdtle, who studies global public health at Heidelberg University and coauthored a February critique of the practice in Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Indeed. And it might even be counterproductive, as Satel notes above. One of the worst effects of this tsunami of wokeness is that it encourages one to judge science by immutable characteristics of people or their irrelevant views on politics or ideology. Below you can see a study in progress that’s designed to find out whether positionality statement achieve what they’re designed to do, which is almost invariably to increase the diversity of scientists or encourage new ideas. But that study seems to have serious problems.
From my friend Anna, quoting a paper on which there were many coauthors, including me:
But some researchers think airing this information in the literature violates a central tenet of science: that a researcher’s work should be judged independently of who they are. Spotlighting a scientist’s identity represents a “bizarre turn back to [the] Dark Ages,” says Anna Krylov, a chemist at the University of Southern California who wrote an April critique alongside 28 co-authors in the Journal of Controversial Ideas. “It was not a good time when people were treated by their attributes and not by their achievements, not by their merit,” Krylov adds.
Some of the many authors of our paper have discussed positionality statements via email, and I have to say that there was no sentiment in favor of them. But what do you expect from a group of authors making the case that science should be judged by its merit alone? Some of us amused ourselves by confecting positionality statements that we would have appended to our own JCI paper. Here’s mine:
“Jerry A. Coyne is a lugubrious old white Jewish male, descended from Ashkenazi ancestors, who doesn’t think this paper has a chance of being published.”
Positionality statements encourage readers to judge papers not by their merit alone, but by characteristics that distort your judgements about the merit of the research, and that merit is really the way science should be judged. Even if your astronomical results come from using a telescope that indigenous people claim sits on their land, this affects the scienfitic results not one whit. Issues like politics, indigenous rights, and so on, can be argued out in other places, but shouldn’t pollute the scientific literature, since they’re ideological and political questions.
Another concern is that positionality statements serve only as virtue signaling and gloss over deeper issues, such as the reproducibility crisis in science. They seem like a “last ditch effort before you publish your paper,” Nayna Schwerdtle says. Instead, researchers should strengthen upstream solutions, such as open science and participatory research, she argues.
Well, the reproducibility crisis is not something that needs addressing in a given paper, since whether or not a paper’s results are reproducible depends on other papers yet to be published, or on a literature review.
One of the biggest arguments against positionality statements is that there’s no evidence that they accomplish anything save for the authors’ statement that it made them reflect their motivations, something I largely doubt. Here’s what the new article says:
At least one team of researchers is studying whether these statements have their intended effect. Rose Oronje, a researcher at the African Institute for Development Policy, and her colleagues at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine are evaluating the results of publishing reflexivity statements—a similar practice that encourages researchers engaged in global collaborations to consider how their work acknowledges the communities involved.
The team is reviewing published statements in global health journals and interviewing authors and journal editors to gauge whether this measure at the time of publication has the power to shift researchers’ mindsets and lead to more equitable practices. Publication guidelines can provide powerful incentives for scientists to effect systemic change, Oronje says. “When you start there, it becomes very easy for us to want to do it, because we want to publish.”
Now tell me, given that this involves self-report about whether one’s mindset shifts in result to woke and subjective statements, whether there can be any result other than “yes, these statements work!”? Given the history of research that goes against what “progressives” want, like the retraction of a Nature Communications paper showing that female-female mentorships may actually hurt women’s scientific careers, I’m not optimistic. And how can you judge whether positionality statements create more equitable practices given that the Zeitgeist itself is pushing “more equitable practices”. There’s a correlation/causation issue here that will be almost impossible to resolve. How do you separate the temporally increasing trend towards practices that progressives consider “equitable” from the effect of positionality statements? I don’t see how.
In the end, science should be judged by merit alone, not by race, gender, politics, ancestry, sexuality, or family history of the scientist. In a few cases, which fall under the Satel Exception, as when you’re doing work that could be thought exploitative, as in anthropology or collecting organisms in other countries, it may be useful (and sometimes required) to show how you complied with required or recommended practices. And maybe—just maybe—you can mention inadvertent biases or problems with the research. But those are very restricted, much less subjective, and often aren’t even positionality statements!
Positionality statements are likely to be biased and self-serving. I have to say that if they’re of any value to me in science, it’s that when I see them I tend to avoid reading the paper. If you want to indulge in narcissism or self-flagellation, leave it out of your paper, and do it on your own time!
But kudos to Science for publishing a pretty objective article on this issue.