I’m going to put a link to our “In Defense of Merit” paper here again in case you missed it, but also because it’s the topic of Pamela Paul‘s column in today’s New York Times. I’ve written favorably several times about Paul’s pieces, as she’s an independent thinker, going her own heterodox way against the Progressive Authoritarianism of most NYT columnists. (She used to be head of the paper’s Sunday Book Review). But imagine my surprise when I woke up this morning to find an email from her site (I subscribe) that was entirely about our merit paper. It’s the second screenshot below:
Click on the link below to see it, and if it’s paywalled I found it archived on another site (I didn’t do it!)
UPDATE: As of 11:30 Chicago time, Paul’s paper has a new title but the same link. Voilà:
I’ll give a few quotes from her piece, which is favorable, unlike many comments on social media (see below).
Note that her first sentence below actually expresses the viewpoint of many ideologues: that the gender/ethnicity of a scientist brings different, ethnic/gender-specific viewpoints to a field, and so “diversifying” science will make it better by incorporating these views. I’ve found little merit in that argument, which I also see as patronizing because it assumes that different identity groups are homogeneous in having ways of approaching science that, on average, differ on average from those of existing scientists. Of course if you expand the number of people having the opportunity to do science, which I favor, you’re going to get new and valuable views simply because of the increase in the pool of scientists. But to say, for example, that Hispanics will improve physics because of a particularly Hispanic way of approaching the field is not only patronizing, but unevidenced.
But I digress. Here’s Paul’s beginning:
Is a gay Republican Latino more capable of conducting a physics experiment than a white progressive heterosexual woman? Would they come to different conclusions based on the same data because of their different backgrounds?
For most people, the suggestion isn’t just ludicrous, it’s offensive.
Yet this belief — that science is somehow subjective and should be practiced and judged accordingly — has recently taken hold in academic, governmental and medical settings. A paper published last week, “In Defense of Merit in Science,” documents the disquieting ways in which research is increasingly informed by a politicized agenda, one that often characterizes science as fundamentally racist and in need of “decolonizing.” The authors argue that science should instead be independent, evidence-based and focused on advancing knowledge.
This sounds entirely reasonable.
Yet the paper was rejected by several prominent mainstream journals, including the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Another publication that passed on the paper, the authors report, described some of its conclusions as “downright hurtful.” The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences took issue with the word “merit” in the title, writing that “the problem is that this concept of merit, as the authors surely know, has been widely and legitimately attacked as hollow as currently implemented.”
Instead, the paper has been published in a new journal called — you can’t make this up — The Journal of Controversial Ideas.
Below Paul echoes what I said above.
Though the goal of expanding opportunity for more diverse researchers in the sciences is laudable, the authors write, it should not be pursued at the expense of foundational scientific concepts like objective truth, merit and evidence, which they claim are being jeopardized by efforts to account for differing perspectives.
Consider the increasingly widespread practice of appending a “positionality statement” to one’s research. This is an explicit acknowledgment by the author of an academic paper of his or her identity (e.g., “nondisabled,” “continuing generation”). Positionality statements were first popular in the social sciences and are now spreading to the hard sciences and medicine. The idea is that one’s race, sex, relative privilege and “experiences of oppression” inherently inform one’s research, especially in ways that perpetuate or alleviate bias.
But whatever validity “alternative ways of knowing,” “multiple narratives” and “lived experience” may have in the humanities, they are of questionable utility when it comes to the sciences. Some defenders of positionality statements maintain that these acknowledgments promote objectivity by drawing attention to a researcher’s potential blind spots, but in practice they can have the opposite effect, implying that scientific research isn’t universally valid or applicable — that there are different kinds of knowledge for different groups of people.
Note that the ultimate in positionality statements is putting your “iwi” (tribe) in a paper touting indigenous Māori science, like this one I discussed the other day. The words in parentheses after each author’s name gives the iwi to which they belong.
This is like putting “(atheist Ashkenazi Jew)” after my name when I write a paper. Or perhaps it establishes the authors’ credibility as Māori because it gives their iwi. Regardless, this kind of stuff is embarrassing; it’s pure virtue flaunting. Do you really have to name your iwi when arguing for the compatibility of Māori ways of knowing and modern science? Shouldn’t the arguments be what’s important, rather than the position of the author. (Indeed, in this paper the authors argue that judging Māori “ways of knowing” cannot be done except for Māori themselves!)
Beyond positionality statements, Paul also finds worrying oft-required DEI statements for jobs as well as “citation justice” (the drive to cite more underrepresented people’s work as a form of scientific reparations). And she does add our own caveat. Do look at the link in the second paragraph below:
It should go without saying — but in today’s polarized world, unfortunately, it doesn’t — that the authors of this paper do not deny the existence of historical racism or sexism or dispute that inequalities of opportunity persist. Nor do they deny that scientists have personal views, which are in turn informed by culture and society. They acknowledge biases and blind spots.
Where they depart from the prevailing ideological winds is in arguing that however imperfect, meritocracy is still the most effective way to ensure high quality science and greater equity. (A major study published last week shows that despite decades of sexism, claims of gender bias in academic science are now grossly overstated.) The focus, the authors write, should be on improving meritocratic systems rather than dismantling them.
At a time when faith in institutions is plummeting and scientific challenges such as climate change remain enduringly large, the last thing we want is to give the public reason to lose faith in science. A study published last month, “Even When Ideologies Align, People Distrust Politicized Institutions,” shows that what we need is more impartiality, not less.
Paul’s ending, which I’ll talk more about in a second:
If you believe bias is crucial to evaluating scientific work, you may object to the fact that several of the authors of the study are politically conservative, as are some of the researchers they cite. One author, Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago and a critic of some affirmative action and diversity programs, inspired outcry in 2021 when he was invited to speak at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But to deny the validity of this paper on that basis would mean succumbing to the very fallacies the authors so persuasively dismantle.
One needn’t agree with every aspect of the authors’ politics or with all of their solutions. But to ignore or dismiss their research rather than impartially weigh the evidence would be a mistake. We need, in other words, to judge the paper on the merits. That, after all, is how science works.
As expected, objections to our paper, which you can find on the Internet (there are also plaudits!), often rest not on our arguments, but on the names of the authors. I’m sure that almost anyone can find in this list an author they’re not keen on, and of course all of us disagree on some things. But to dismiss our paper, as some have done, because there’s an author or two they don’t like is pure nonsense. It’s a deflection strategy: a way to attack the paper without having to attack its arguments. I’m getting plenty fed up with these “guilt by association” arguments, because they’re not really arguments but simply rhetorical strategies—even a form of defamation by smearing.
But of course there are those who attack our thesis as well, denigrating “merit” as a criterion for judging science or scientists, and even, along with the two editors we quoted, saying that there’s really no such thing as merit. I wonder if those people care whether, when they get on a plane, whether their pilot has gone any evaluation of merit in the form of being able to fly a plane. For many—perhaps most—jobs in society, merit should be the primary characteristic for hiring. (I of course recognize that judging “merit” is often slippery, and, being in favor of some forms of affirmative action, realize that sometimes it’s salubrious to sacrifice a bit—but not a lot—of merit as a form of reparations to an oppressed group. Not all the authors agree on this, of course.)
Finally, let me note that articles on our paper have appeared in two non-English newspapers of repute: Le Figaro (French) and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (German). The screenshots of the articles are below, and I’ll be glad to send pdfs them to any reader who asks. (I also have an English translation of the German article.)