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.
“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.
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 here, here, 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.