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.

The National Academies of Sciences urge affirmative action in med-school admissions

April 26, 2023 • 11:30 am

I present yet another example of a scientific organization engaged in political/ideological advocacy. In this case the organization is the august body of the National Academies of Science, an organization that admits only the most accomplished of America’s scientists. It also publishes the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS), a pretty well respected journal though not of the quality of Science or Nature.

In the latest issue, three authors from Harvard (and Mass General Hospital) argue, well, you can see the claim themselves from the title screenshot below. It’s a political argument, not a scientific one, and is a reaction to the likely dismantling this year of of race-based preferential admission (“affirmative action”) by the Supreme Court. The Justices have already heard a case that began in 2014, arguing that both Harvard and The University of North Carolina violated both the Constitution (the “equal protection clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment) and—for the private university of Harvard—the Title VI provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Private universities can also be sued for discrimination if they receive federal funding.)

There’s little doubt in my mind that PNAS agrees wholly with this op-ed, since it rarely publishes articles like this and also itself has a “progressive” ideological slant. I’m confident in arguing that this is probably the National Academies’ view as well as the authors’ view.

The issue here is that the paper takes an expressly ideological stance by favoring one political outcome (“equity” among doctors) over what is possibly a negative side of that outcome: worsening quality of medical care in America. This is because affirmative action in medical school had led to a substantial gap between the admissions credentials of whites and Asians on the one hand, and Hispanics and blacks on the other. And if admission credentials have ANYTHING to do with the quality of a doctor, then lowering the bar in the way that Aaron et al. suggest—achieving “equity,” or ethnic representation among doctors equal to the proportion of groups in the population—will inevitably result in the decline of the average quality of doctors.

You may, I suppose, suggest that if people have doctors who “look like them”, or if doctors treat patients who “look more like them” better, then increased equity might increase overall health quality. But that is a supposition only, and one with no empirical basis (there’s no need to mention the “dead baby” issue, which has substantial problems). It also doesn’t tell us how far we must lower the bar to achieve equity, and whether lowering the admissions bar that much can counteract any positive effect on healthcare caused by the supposed “looks like me” issue.

As I’ve said, I do favor some form of affirmative action for admission to colleges and medical schools, but more and more it’s taking the form of favoring minority candidates when you’re faced with deciding between candidates who are both qualified and nearly equally qualified. My thinking on this is evolving. But the difference in qualifications among ethnic groups among med-school applicants as well as those who are admitted is sufficiently large that my brand of affirmative action would never come close to producing equity.

Click to read (it’s free):

The paper begins with a flawed argument: that by forcing universities to not discriminate among races, the Supreme Court is practicing unwarranted “judicial intrusion into medicine” (my emphasis)

Given the likelihood that the Supreme Court will end affirmative action, medical institutions must plan how to further diversity without incurring liability. More broadly, the cases follow a pattern of judicial intrusion into the affairs of medicine and health. As with abortion, contraception, health insurance, and COVID-19, the Supreme Court has encroached on the field of medicine, denying expert guidance on what is required in order to achieve a healthy and equitable society. The affirmative action cases are emblematic of a high court intent on opposing racial progress and other forms of social change.

This is bogus. Yes, some Justices may “oppose racial progress”, but what they’ll do if they rule against affirmative action is simply enforce the law and the Constitution.  That is, they will interpret the law as saying that one cannot discriminate among by race, regardless of which races are at issue.  But to say that this denies doctors “expert guidance” to achieve a healthy and equitable society” is mere carping, and beside the point, for you could use the same argument to justify any sort of race-based discrimination, especially if you think feel that “equity” is an outcome more desirable than application of settled law. I find the argument for retaining “expert guidance” risible, for experts are going to differ about what societal outcome is “healthy and equitable”. What they’re really saying is that the Supreme Court is overreaching itself by disallowing discrimination on the basis of race.

Now, about the differences in qualifications of candidates. Here’s what the article says:

As of 2015, there is estimated to be a deficit of about 114,000 Black and 81,000 Hispanic doctors compared to what one would expect from proportions of the US population. This dearth is at least partially historical: Racial and ethnic minorities were excluded from attending medical school and joining medical organizations, such as the American Medical Association (AMA). In 1900, 11.6% of the US population was Black, compared with 1.3% of physicians. In 2018, 12.8% of the population was Black, but only 5.4% of physicians. Over 120 years, then, the fraction of Black physicians has increased by only 4 percentage points. This lack of representation emphasizes why the fate of affirmative action is essential to securing a racially and ethnically diverse physician body in the United States.

Affirmative action helps compensate for systemic inequities throughout childhood and young adulthood that impede the significant steps required to apply to and be admitted to medical school. The current biggest gatekeeper to medical school admission is the Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT®), whose notable racial and ethnic disparities are well documented (57). As of 2022, Black and American Indian/Alaska Native medical school applicants have an average MCAT® score of 497.4 and 498.7, respectively, which is about one standard deviation below the average score for White applicants of 507.9. Although these disparities do not mean that the test makers intentionally discriminate by race, they reflect the systematic disadvantage facing racial and ethnic minorities applying to medical school.

Note the claim that there is “systematic disadvantage”, which to many means “structural disadvantage”: something about the tests themselves that give racial and ethnic minorities a disadvantage. If it’s social circumstances: poverty, poor education, and so on, then that’s a different matter, though one that still must be considered. This is symptomatic of the whole failure of the authors to see the dimensionality of the problem.

What holds for MCAT scores (still required for nearly all med school admissions) also holds for grade-point averages. These recent data come from an admissions consulting service, Shemassian, which notes that race certainly does matter when applying for medical school: 

And data on those who matriculate among four racial groups divided by MCAT scores and grade point averages. The differential rates of acceptance among groups is striking.  Asians in particular have a hard time getting in, being accepted at only about 10% the rate of blacks in the leftmost category.

This is from the American Enterprise Institute (couldn’t they use skin-pigment neutral colors for the bars?):

Now one could argue that one standard deviation in MCAT scores doesn’t mean that, on average, a lower-scoring individual is less qualified to be a good doctor than a higher-scoring one. But if that’s the case, why use scores at all for determining who’s qualified? And if qualifications have any correlation with quality of medical care dispensed later in life, then they could have titled the article, invidiously, “Attacks on affirmative action threatens quality in medicine.”

To me, qualifications for medical school are like qualifications for being an airline pilot in one way: once you make it, you’d better be good, as you’ll have a whole lot of lives in your hands over your whole career. If you say we should lower the bar for going to med school, would you say the same thing for pilot training? If not, why not?

At any rate, the main issue with the article is that it doesn’t even discuss the possible tradeoff between the quality of American healthcare and ethnic equity among American doctors. Perhaps they feel that equity among doctors will, as I said, outweigh any bad effects of lowering the bar for med-school applicants. Or perhaps they feel that equity in a profession even outweighs the concrete benefits that the profession is supposed to confer on society. (That is, equity among doctors is more important for society than the overall quality of healthcare.) One could make both of these arguments, but the problem is the authors don’t. They simply feel that affirmative action is an affront to medical care and to American society, and that equity is a virtue that’s above American law. Indeed, opposing affirmative action is equated, throughout this article, as identical to endorsing white supremacy:

But because the Supreme Court may now deem consideration of race itself to be discrimination—even when it would benefit a racial group and society as a whole—the Supreme Court may stipulate a rule with far-reaching effects across the US healthcare industry. This would not be the first Roberts Court decision to re-interpret civil rights laws as protective of White people, as opposed to the subordinated groups these laws were meant to protect. For example, in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District (2007), the Supreme Court held that voluntary school desegregation plans in Seattle, WA, and Louisville, KY, violated the Equal Protection Clause. Although this clause was created to help remedy racial discrimination after the Civil War, the Supreme Court used it to impede efforts to address systemic racism. In this case, Chief Justice Roberts famously quipped, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” thereby imparting a “color-blind” reading on a clause aimed at racial progress. The Roberts Court’s belief that color-blindness will end racism overlooks the more structural and systemic forms of racism that are likely the biggest propagators of disadvantage today. At the same time, the color-blind approach invalidates policies aimed at racial progress like affirmative action, thus entrenching the benefits of Whiteness.

Two more points. First, the authors reply on the deeply flawed Implicit Bias Test, one that’s been rejected by most psychologists as not measuring anything meaningful and even as counterproductive in reducing bias:

Affirmative action’s loss may result in medicine and healthcare that look substantially less diverse. And any loss of diversity could be self-perpetuating. Through their presence and contributions, racial and ethnic minorities help make spaces more accommodating and inclusive to people from differing backgrounds. For example, testing of implicit bias using the well-validated Implicit Association Test has revealed that African-American physicians have far less implicit bias than White physicians  Racial and ethnic prejudice, prolific throughout medicine, impact physician–patient communication, treatment decisions, and patient outcomes. A less racially diverse pool of providers could bring heightened bias toward racial and ethnic minorities, leading to a spiral effect, in which medical spaces become less varied across the board.

That, of course, is purely speculative.  And remember that when affirmative action was first implemented in the Sixties, it was supposed to be a temporary expedient—a few decades at most. In the Grutter v. Bollinger decision in 2003, in which (by a 5-4 vote) the Supreme Court allowed some consideration of race in college admissions, liberal justice Sandra Day O’Connor said this:

“Finally, race-conscious admissions policies must be limited in time. The Court takes the Law School at its word that it would like nothing better than to find a race-neutral admissions formula and will terminate its use of racial preferences as soon as practicable. The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

Note that she later clarified that she didn’t mean to set a firm deadline. But I think we know now, from the institutionalization of both affirmative action and DEI programs in colleges, that affirmative action and “racial preferences” will—are intended to—last forever. 

Finally, the authors suggest the obvious: that medical schools should start trying to find ways around the upcoming changes in law to maintain a diverse medical profession:

The affirmative action cases before the Supreme Court raise serious questions about the future of a diverse medical profession and the integrity of healthcare itself. In advance of the decision, medical programs that value diversity and accept federal funds (or are government institutions) would be wise to consider alternative paths to create a racially diverse student body without explicitly considering race. With some strategizing, they can preserve some racial diversity while keeping to the letter of the law.

I’m trying to be charitable here, but it sounds like me that they want to circumvent the law in some way by “strategizing,” but that might not be possible if the Supreme Court rules that you can’t use correlates of race as proxy data for admissions. But the authors don’t like even that strategy!:

Many medical schools will be driven to alternative metrics, or proxies, to attain racial diversity. Such proxies could include family history, experiences of discrimination, socioeconomic status, and geography. However, proxies are limited for at least two reasons. First, they may poorly approximate race. For example, experiences of discrimination may seem to correlate with race, but they have frequently been claimed by White applicants, including in the Supreme Court’s historical affirmative action cases. And, second, the upcoming decision may prohibit not only consideration of race, but also similar metrics.

So what do we do if we want the body of physicians to “look like America”? My view is not to lower standards or devalue merit, but invest in giving minorities and other disadvantaged people equal opportunities to achieve. And, as I always say, that’s a much harder task than just lowering merit bars . Sadly, throwing money at schools doesn’t seem to work. Reducing income inequality might, but we all know that Americans don’t want that. Right now I don’t know what the solution is; perhaps all we can do is call attention to the problem and hope that better minds can create equal opportunities. (Even that won’t work, of course, because so long as there is inherited wealth, there will be inherited privilege.) 

But back to the article. I conclude that it is not a contribution to solving the problem. It neglects important issues, brings up irrelevant ones, makes unstated assumptions, and, above all, injects ideology into science.