New letter from Adam Gopnik in our “ways of knowing” exchange

April 1, 2021 • 10:00 am

Adam Gopnik has written his third letter (the sixth between us) in our continuing exchange on the topic shown below (click on screenshot to see all the letters, but then scroll down on the site to “Letter 6” to see Adam’s latest.

You may want to read my last letter (Letter 5) in conjunction with his latest one.

Adam defends his views on Darwin and argues that he’s not, as I suggested, projecting his own views onto writers like Dickens and Trollope. (I didn’t argue that; I said he picked from the smorgasbord of literature just those views that he found congenial to his own, and labeled those as “knowledge”). He then begins what will be an interesting discussion: do music and abstract painting give us “knowledge”? His view is “yes, they do.” I doubt I’ll agree!

I’ll respond after I get back to Chicago, and that will be my last contribution. Adam, in his fourth letter, will get the final say.

Some may feel that this is a futile exchange and the issue can never be settled, and of course I didn’t expect a lot of agreement. But my own view is that there has to be a place where the arguments about “ways of knowing” are collected, and I hope this is one such place.

A brain dump from Richard Dawkins

March 12, 2021 • 11:30 am

UPDATE: My friend Andrew says that this book, by paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, was pretty good (click on screenshot to buy):

I’m pretty puzzled by this short Spectator piece by Richard Dawkins, as the pudding has no theme.

Click on the screenshot to read it:

A summary of the contents:

a.) A claim that science is not a social construct, though of course it is in an important sense: The profession of science was constructed by humans, and its “rules,” such as they are, were also formulated by humans, though this was through trial-and-error rather than an a priori Diktat. Even Richard corrects himself here:

Science is not a patriarchal instrument of colonial oppression. Nor is it a social construct. It’s simply true. Or at least truth is real and science is the best way we have of finding it. ‘Alternative ways of knowing’ may be consoling, they may be sincere, they may be quaint, they may have a poetic or mythic beauty, but the one thing they are not is true.

The second and third sentences contradict each other. Science cannot be “true”, just like plumbing or dentistry can’t be “true.” What is considered “true” is what science finds out using empirical methods, and those truths are provisional (though some are nearly certain).  I do appreciate, though, that there are no other credible ways of knowing, for I’m arguing with Adam Gopnik at the moment (he thinks there are).

b.) Richard is baffled by Wokeness.

Strangely, when I have expressed hostility to woke nonsense, a significant reaction from American readers has been: ‘Well, people like you brought it on yourselves.’ Mystified, I dug deeper. Apparently the permissible spectrum of opinion is so all-or-none, so left-or-right, so yes-or-no that you can’t oppose both Trump and the loony left simultaneously. I’m now nursing an urgent worry: President Joe Biden needs to go out of his way to distance himself from this mental virus or he’ll play into the hands of the Trumpers in the 2022 and 2024 elections.

I agree with the last sentence. Biden has done some great stuff, and will do more, but he’s going to make some missteps in the direction of Wokeville. That doesn’t detract for a second from the vast improvement we have in him over Trump, but I anticipate that I’ll have to kvetch about some of his policies in the near future. Right now, though, I’m immensely pleased with our new administration.

Richard also gives a mixed review to Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book Cynical Theories, liking it in general but also finding it “obscurantist.”

c.) Richard has some new books coming out, including a novel. 

This week I find myself in the unusual position of putting to bed two new books at the same time, plus the audio reading of an earlier book, Unweaving the Rainbow. Of the new books, Flights of Fancy is about how animals and humans defy gravity and get off the ground. The second, Books Do Furnish a Life, is a collection of book reviews, forewords, afterwords, book-related writings in general. Some editorial voices were raised against the Powellian title, on the grounds that it sounds retrospective. Fair point, but if you can’t be retrospective when you’re rising 80, when can you?

Happily, there’s no rule against being prospective at the same time. Accordingly I’ve just started work on my first novel. Provisionally called The Genetic Book of the Dead, its scientist heroine reconstructs the genome of australopithecines. Will she actually bring a new Lucy to life after three million years? The bulk of the novel, of course, will explore the social, political, ethical, theological etc implications of such a resurrection.

Ummm. . . novels differ from popular science, and I’m worried that this one will be overly didactic. What made me even more worried was Richard’s statement after it: “This fiction business, it’s harder than I thought. How do you write convincing dialogue?”  That is something that one can improve at, but my view is that you’re either a born novelist or you’re not one. In fact, I know of no good fiction by scientists, though I’m told that J. B. S. Haldane wrote a good sci fi book.

At any rate, I’ve never seen Richard write an essay that didn’t have a theme that was coherent and eloquently espoused. In contrast, thie piece seems like a collection of random thoughts. But Flights of Fancy is the book I most look forward to, though the essay collection should also be good.

NIH accused of structural racism, even though there’s no evidence for it; but director Francis Collins apologizes anyway

March 4, 2021 • 1:00 pm

About a month ago, I wrote two posts (here and here) about a paper calling attention to the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) disparity in funding black versus white investigators (this disparity is real), and the accusations that this is due to structural racism at the NIH (false). There are several sets of data showing that the funding disparity is due to other factors, like choice of research field, as well as suggesting that there is no racism involved in assessing NIH proposals.

And yet now the NIH is saying that the organization, and biomedical research in general, are ridden with “structural racism”, and working to omit racism for which there’s no evidence (indeed, there’s evidence against it).

I’ll briefly reiterate the lines of evidence for lack of racial bias in NIH funding disparities.

a.) An extensive 2019 study in which blinded referees were asked to review genuine NIH proposals with black, white, and female authors, found no evidence of racial or gender bias. Here’s a summary from the study’s authors:

We find little to no race or gender bias in initial R01 evaluations, and additionally find that any bias that might have been present must be negligible in size. This conclusion was robust to a wide array of statistical model specifications. Pragmatically, important bias may be present in other aspects of the granting process, but our evidence suggests that it is not present in the initial round of R01 reviews.

R01s are primary research grants: the most important source of funding for individual investigators. Curiously, nobody seems to pay attention to this study, and I suspect it’s because it doesn’t support the dominant narrative of racial bias.

b.) Another paper in Science Advances showed that the funding disparity was due to two factors. First, black investigators tended to submit proposals for kinds of research, and to research areas, that historically have not had funding rates as high as those of fields involving more “pure research”. That is, the disparity was due in part to choice of research area, not to race. An even large amount of the disparity in funding was the “track record” of investigators: previous research and success in doing well with funded grants. As I wrote:

An earlier study that I haven’t yet seen shows that “track record” (i.e., accomplishments as recorded on the NIH c.v., which includes papers published that resulted from previous grants or other funding) to have an even larger effect on rate of funding. That shows that the track record of black scientists is rated lower than white scientists in funding, but, as we saw above, racism itself, as opposed to this index of previous accomplishment, wasn’t found to contribute to funding scores. Track record is not a funding problem, but a “pipeline” problem whose solution is complex.

This again, seems to not involve racial bias, because these track records are part of NIH proposals, whose evaluation, as noted in a), show no evidence for racial bias.

If then, you want to attain equal rates of funding of black versus white investigators (“equity”), you must either shift the priorities for different areas to get funding, or work on ways to improve the track record of black scientists applying for grants. The latter difference may ultimately devolve to historical racism which creates the “pipeline” problem, but what’s clear is that accusations of racism during the NIH evaluation process itself are unfounded.

Click on the screenshot to read the Science piece, including the director’s apology for “structural racism” for which there’s no evidence:

NIH director Francis Collins, who’s done a good job at the helm, nevertheless had to take one for team diversity and say that there’s structural racism at the NIH. All indented sections are from the article, and I’ll respond briefly.

Collins’s apology is certainly responding to an earlier letter in Cell that basically called the NIH racist in its funding decisions. The indented quotes, though, are from the article above:

Responding to concerns about discrimination against Black people, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins today issued an unusual public apology for what he called “structural racism in biomedical research” and pledged to address it with a sweeping set of actions.

NIH’s long-running efforts to improve diversity “have not been sufficient,” Collins wrote in the statement. “To those individuals in the biomedical research enterprise who have endured disadvantages due to structural racism, I am truly sorry.” The agency plans “new ways to support diversity, equity, and inclusion,” and will also correct policies within the agency “that may harm our workforce and our science,” he added.

As I said, there’s no published evidence for racism at the NIH, and funding disparities are due to other factors. And note that Collins is indicting the NIH, not just “biomedical research” (I can’t speak to racism in the latter, but we’re talking about the NIH, which was the subject of the Cell letter).

What he’s asking for here is equity, that is, equal funding of black and white investigators, not just equal opportunity, which involves proposals judged by merit alone, and without racism. In other words, there is to be a quota of some sorts, attained by either by switching around the NIH’s funding priorities by overemphasizing applied research and downgrading pure research (a major change), or somehow prioritizing black scientists over white ones, which is illegal (see below).

More. I’m not sure whether Native Americans can be considered to be less important than blacks in getting funding given the history of genocide of America’s indigenous people, but I’m not touching that:

Although some observers welcomed NIH’s plans, first described Friday at a meeting of Collins’s Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD), critics fault the agency for not more directly addressing funding disparities between Black and white scientists.

NIH’s move is, in part, a response to last year’s incidents of police brutality as well as the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Black people. An ACD working group on diversity released a report on Friday that calls for NIH to “acknowledge the prevalence of racism and anti-Blackness in the scientific workforce.” The group focused specifically on Black people and not groups such as Native Americans because of the country’s 300-year legacy of slavery and segregation, says co-chair Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State University.

Here are the data on disparities in funding:

NIH has also faced long-standing concerns about racial bias in its funding patterns. A 2011 study known as the Ginther report found Black researchers’ funding rates are 10 percentage points lower than those of white researchers. The latest data show improvement: From 2003 to 2020, the number of basic R01 grants to Black investigators has risen from 52 to 166, and their success rate has doubled to 24%, compared with 31% for white investigators. Still, that is only “incremental improvement,” says Marie Bernard, NIH acting chief officer for scientific workforce diversity.

A doubling of success rate in 17 years seems pretty good to me, and the gap has lowered to only 7%. But that this is characterized as “only incremental improvement” seems weird to me: of course improvement will be incremental, and it will be especially slow if it depends on improvements in science education and opportunities for minorities that start at a young age.

The article notes that the NIH is already committing itself to spending $60 on funding research on “health disparities and health equity”, and is appointing diversity officers at every one of its 27 institutes and centers, as well as improving “outreach about NIH’s diversity training programs”.

But that is not enough, for people are demanding immediate equity in funding:

But many of the planned steps were presented “in a passive, noncommittal way,” Eniola-Adefeso says [she is the senior author on the Cell critique of the NIH]. And her group was disappointed that NIH has not agreed to fund Black scientists seeking R01s at the same rate as white scientists. Some observers have argued NIH could narrow the gap by funding Black scientists whose proposals fall just outside the peer-review score that is the cutoff for funding; the agency already does this for grants that meet an institute’s programmatic goals.

They are demanding funding equity, but that’s hard to do for three reasons. As I noted above, part of the gap is due to different choices between black and white scientists in what areas they apply for, with black scientists applying in areas that are less liable to be funded for everyone. Second, there is the differential track record, and omitting that means ditching an important meritocratic way to evaluate grants: how well the scientist has done. But, as we know, meritocracy is being downgraded in many places, probably for this reason.

Finally, to rate or rank grants using race as a criterion, especially in a government-run institution, is simply illegal.

“That is the immediate action that is needed,” Eniola-Adefeso says. “We cannot wait for more studies. We will lose [investigators] from the pipeline which then propagates this vicious cycle.” NIH’s diversity working group noted that Supreme Court decisions make it difficult for the agency to make funding decisions based on race or ethnicity.

The courts have ruled, in principle, that it’s discriminatory to use race-based funding, at least not in a government system. As I said, there are ways to decrease the funding gap, though they may not be palatable to the NIH itself, which may be why they can make only “incremental” improvements. Other ways mean improving education and opportunity for minorities starting at birth, but talk about incremental change: that will be extremely incremental! But, as I say repeatedly, it’s the only way to effect truly equal opportunity.

But one thing is clear, there is not a scintilla of evidence that the funding disparity at the NIH is due to racism. Collins has nothing to apologize for about the NIH. Why he chooses to perpetuate the narrative of structural racism in his organization, in light of the evidence for no racism (and no evidence for racism itself) is something I’ll leave to others.

Paper in Cell demands that the NIH fund more black scientists; blames racism for disparity. Part 2.

February 5, 2021 • 1:45 pm

Yesterday I wrote the first part of my analysis of the following “op-ed” that was published in Cell. The point of the paper is clear from its title. Click on the screenshot to read it.


Yesterday I addressed the disparity in funding rates between black and white investigators submitting grants to the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—a disparity that is quite substantial (black “principal investigators”, or “PIs”, are funded at only 55% of the rate of white ones). The article above both implicitly and explicitly attributes this disparity to racism: structural racism in science as a whole, racism in the National Institutes of Health, and racism of those people who review and score the grants and decide which ones deserve funding.

Yet the only relevant study addressing the issue of grant evaluation shows no disparity between black and white investigators (or male and female investigators) in ratings given grants. The authors of the study above ignored that finding, though they surely knew about it.  They also ignored a study showing a likely reason for the disparity that has nothing to do with racism: black investigators tend to submit proposals in areas of research that are generally not well funded. (That’s often applied research.) A large part of the disparity is thus due to a disparity of research interests, not to racism.

Further, an even larger amount of the disparity is due to the past record of investigators: papers published, quality of work, types of funding, and so on. While background differences may reflect past racism, this is not an issue of discrimination by the NIH, but a “pipeline problem”: a lack of opportunity for minorities early in life, depriving their members of the ability to build good curricula vitae later in life.

As I also noted, my view has always been to favor affirmative action in hiring, both of students and professors, as well as in other professions. But I think that form of preference has to stop at some point in one’s career, and to me a logical place for scientists is when they begin their first academic job. At that point they’ve been found to be qualified to enter the “science club”, and from then on I think that fairness demands that one see the playing field as level and that preferential treatment should stop.  That does not mean that minority faculty don’t deserve mentorship or consideration of special problems they may have, only that they should be given the respect of being treated identically to everyone else, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or race.

Stevens et al., however, disagree. They argue that the palpable racism of the NIH and its reviewers—a racism for which there’s no evidence—mandate profound changes in how the grants of African-Americans are reviewed. (They don’t mention other groups like Hispanics in their piece.) These grants, they argue, should be given preferential treatment. And if they’re not, the authors claim that this is itself racism.

Here’s an example of one of their recommendations and their response to how it’s addressed. The authors are requesting that the numerical scores given to NIH grants by reviewers, which are the overwhelming criterion for whether a grant is funded, take into account the racial diversity of the group of investigators applying. (Nearly all my own grants, by the way, had only myself as the researchers, with unnamed graduate and undergraduate students put into the budget since they hadn’t been hired.)

We ask: why is “diversity of the investigator team” not a scorable criterion in NIH grant review and priority for funding?
Be careful with responding, because one answer is racist and the other is not.

No, the “wrong” answer isn’t automatically racist because you can argue that diversity of researchers is not a good criterion for grant quality. It is also arguable whether the mission of the NIH should include social engineering as well as promoting good science, and whether equity should have already been engineered before people apply for grants.

Here are some of the changes Stevens et al. wish to make in the NIH system of awarding grants:

  • Diversity of the investigator team should be a score-driving criterion in NIH grant review. This includes race/ethnicity and other forms of diversity such as gender, sexual orientation, and disability.
  • Diverse teams should be prioritized for funding. Until there is no NIH racial funding disparity, all applications from Black PIs must be discussed. These applications should be automatically slated for discussion, prior to the review meeting by an automated system or the scientific review officer (SRO)
  • Program officers/program directors (POs/PDs) should be encouraged and empowered to reevaluate grants of Black PIs that score above the funding pay-line and bring these grants forward to council for funding. We calculate that an average of only ∼2 additional R01 applications from Black PIs would need to be funded per institute to achieve racial equity.
  • More Black PIs should be included on study sections. NIH should institute a minimum number of Black reviewers on each panel and publish a timeline over which this number will represent the US population. We note that some, often in the majority, may voice that this may lead to an unmanageable burden on Black PIs. Yet, the “race tax” is most problematic for service that is not career enhancing. Service on an NIH panel is universally viewed as career enhancing and prestigious, and panel invitations can also be declined. The pool of Black reviewers available for each panel could also be increased if NIH adopted suggestions in the “Beyond 2020: A Vision and Pathway for NIH,” which recommends that narrowly defined organ- and disease-centric panels be replaced with panels that are broader in scope.

    This seems unfair to me, though of course all forms of affirmative action can seem “unfair” to those who are passed over in favor of minorities. What I mean is that preferential treatment of investigators should stop when they are hired as faculty in the first place. Grants should be evaluated completely race-free. (One way to do this, which I mention below, is to eliminate all clues to ethnicity from grant proposals, which in principle should ensure fairness. I favor attempts to do this.)

    You can argue that my point of view is wrong, but it’s the one I take when judging fairness. Giving extra attention to grants from African-Americans, including mandatory discussion of there’s a black PI but not a white one, is unfair. Likewise with the “mandatory reevaluation” of grants of black PIs but not white ones. Anonymity of proposals would also make that completely superfluous—unless you don’t want a “I don’t see color” system but an “I do see color and want to favor it” system. Stevens et al. seem to favor the latter option.

    I do agree that we need more minority reviewers and panelists to ensure that the credibility of our commitment to equality of opportunity be maintained, although my experience is that race and gender are not very useful ways of bringing different views of “quality” to the table. Rather, minority reviewers show our commitment to equal opportunity without promulgating unfairness, and also help ensure that if any racism creeps into the discussions (I have to admit I haven’t seen any in my many years of NIH funding), it will be more easily called out.

    In the end, Stevens et al. provide a list of things that all scientists involved in the reviewing system should do:

    • Score grants of Black faculty well
    • Rescue grants of Black faculty to ensure they are discussed.
    • Consider diversity when scoring the investigator team and innovation.
    • Learn what racism is, especially topics such as “systemic racism,” “racism,” and “antiracism.”
    • Call out and stop all racist statements in review panels and elsewhere. Do not let racist comments pass.
    • Include Black faculty in scientific collaborations and write papers and grants with Black faculty.

      The last two deserve consideration, though in my entire scientific career I have never heard anything remotely close to a racist or sexist statement uttered on a grant review or in a panel. The panel administrators, who are scientists, are chosen for their fairness and competence, and would shut down anything like that in a second. And remember, I entered the system in the early 1980s.

      Including minority faulty in collaborations (#6) is fine, as it’s a form of affirmative action that doesn’t seem unfair, since you get to choose your collaborator and can collaborate with whomever you want. But I would say “Consider including black faculty. . .” as it should not be mandatory. In fact, there are no black evolutionary biologists who work on speciation in Drosophila, so this was never an option for me.

      The first three actions represent preferential treatment of grants based on race, and may be illegal. In fact, “score grants of Black faculty well” is invidious because it means “give good scores to proposals from all Black investigators, regardless of the proposal’s quality” rather than “treat these proposals fairly”. At any rate, I think grants should be treated equally, and even reviewed with the names taken off of them if that is possible (sometimes it’s easy to guess whose grant you’re reviewing). If grants were reviewed blindly at both ends, any accusations of racism would be moot.

      As for learning what racism is, and reading about “systemic racism and antiracism” (#4), yes, I’ve done that, and surely all academics now should understand these terms. But I suspect Stevens et al, based on the rest of their op-ed, have a specific definition of these terms, and one that corresponds to their meaning in Critical Race Theory. And to that I object, for that’s a form of indoctrination into an ideology. All we need to know about racism and grant reviewing is this:  investigators should be judged by the content of their proposals, not by the color of their skin.


      Stevens, K. R., K. S. Masters, P. I. Imoukhuede, K. A. Haynes, L. A. Setton, E. Cosgriff-Hernandez, M. A. Lediju Bell, P. Rangamani, S. E. Sakiyama-Elbert, S. D. Finley, R. K. Willits, A. N. Koppes, N. C. Chesler, K. L. Christman, J. B. Allen, J. Y. Wong, H. El-Samad, T. A. Desai, and O. Eniola-Adefeso. 2021. Fund Black scientists. Cell. DOI:

      Paper in Cell demands that the NIH fund more black scientists; blames racism for disparity. Part 1.

      February 4, 2021 • 10:00 am

      It’s unusual for a science journal to publish a paper indicting the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for racism, but these are unusual times. The journal happens to be the very prestigious organ Cell, in which nineteen women scientists (I believe they’re all women of color) have indicted the NIH for funding black scientists at only 55% the rate of white ones. Further, they explicitly attribute this disparity to racism against blacks. (Asians aren’t mentioned, so I’m not sure whether they were excluded from the data or lumped in with whites.)

      The paper, however, is misguided in several important ways. First, as I mentioned, it blames the funding disparity—which has persisted  for over a decade—on racism, despite the fact that there are several other explanations, two of which have been supported by data.  Second, while the authors cite data that, they say, shows racial bias against scientists, they omit the most relevant data for their contention, which shows no bias against NIH funding of black or female investigators in an extensive trial. They also fail to cite data showing that a lot of the funding disparity is based on racial differences in the kinds of problems investigated, and problems which have different funding rates for investigators of all races. Third, the group (henceforth, “Stevens et al.”) recommends a number of fixes of the system that seem to me manifestly unfair, even as forms of affirmative action. In fact, some of them may be illegal given that the NIH is a governmental organization.

      The automatic ascribing of inequity (differential representation) to racism when there are other hypothesis is what I discussed yesterday as the “Diversity/Bias” fallacy, though I’ve since learned that people have given it another name. I claim no priority: it’s an obvious fallacy, especially to a scientist used to sussing out all possible explanations.

      As I’ve said, I believe in the value of affirmative action in soliciting graduate students and hiring professors, as well as in other areas of social advancement. But I’ve also stated that this kind of preferential treatment in academics, which I see as valuable for several reasons, should stop at the time someone is hired as a faculty member. At that point, since the hired person has been deemed qualified for the faculty/research position, the affirmative action should cease and the candidate should compete for grants, promotions, and honors on an equal basis with everyone else. On this basis I would thus object to the methods suggested by this consortium to boost the scores and funding for black scientists. (See part 2 of this post for those methods.) Stevens et al. also neglect other disadvantaged groups like Hispanics—perhaps because data on funding disparities don’t exist.

      You can see the paper (it’s really a scientific “op-ed”) by clicking on the screenshot below, and you can find the pdf here . The full reference is at the bottom.

      Here are the authors’ statements (indented) that indict the NIH and modern science for systemic racism.

      We are at a historic moment in time: a mainstream awakening to the pain that stems from racial injustice, with our scientific communities openly acknowledging that our practices promote racial inequity and disparity (Barber et al., 2020; Cell Editorial Team, 2020).

      The evidence adduced above consists of the preponderance of white patients in clinical investigations and medical databases (which could reflect bias and racism), and some claims of grant disparity due to “systemic racism,” which, upon investigating those references, don’t show systemic racism or even any bias against blacks.  More assertions:

      The first study documenting racial disparity in NIH funding hit the field like a shockwave in 2011 (Ginther et al., 2011). This study showed that award probability for Black principal investigators (PIs) in 2000–2006 was ∼55% that of white PIs of similar academic achievement (Ginther et al., 2011). NIH scrambled to study potential reasons for this injustice (Barber et al., 2020; Erosheva et al., 2020).

      Note that they characterize this as an “injustice”, which implicitly means racism, unless the disparity itself is seen as “unjust”. (If you believe in true “equity” with success rates of groups in the same proportion as those groups occur in the general proportion, and disparity of outcome might be considered “unjust”.)

      Here’s an explicit mention of the field’s racism:

      The NIH director and leadership must recognize that its previous approaches, most of which have focused on filling the “pipeline” without simultaneously addressing our profession’s systemic racism, have failed. NIH must change course.

      Direct indictment of racism in the NIH funding system:

      We ask: if racism is present in academia, how can it not be present in NIH grant review and research, which are performed by academics?

      . . . . For example, the NIH should study the cultural competency and unconscious bias harbored by its reviewers, differential review practices and funding disparity between NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF), and why “matching criteria” (Erosheva et al., 2020) affecting the funding disparity gap.

      . . . Silence is complicity. The continued persistence of a racial funding disparity suggests that the scientific workforce, including the NIH leadership, does not understand nor is adequately equipped to recognize and respond to this racism.

      There’s this, including some self-indictment:

      Faculty colleagues, we respectfully suggest that it is time for us to acknowledge that we—yes each of us, including many of the authors here—have unintentionally contributed to racial inequity in our profession. As just one example of the insidious nature of systemic racism, many studies have shown that we judge CVs and resumes differently based on the name of the applicant alone with both racial and gender bias, even if these CVs are otherwise identical (Eaton et al., 2020, Henry et al., 2017).

      And I find this particularly invidious: the authors demand, in their list of anti-racist changes in NIH funding procedure, to score grants higher if the proposal contains diverse (i.e., black) investigators:

      We ask: why is “diversity of the investigator team” not a scorable criterion in NIH grant review and priority for funding?

      Be careful with responding, because one answer is racist and the other is not.

      Seriously? This is a debatable issue, and one answer does not automatically make one “racist.”

      I’ll talk about the c.v. data in a second, and will claim that it’s largely irrelevant to the entire funding procedure of the NIH.

      The paper has one figure arguing that antiracist reviewers are needed to eliminate the funding and career disparity between black and white scientists—implying that racist reviewers expressing “group think” account for that disparity.

      (From paper): Metaphoric illustration depicting current NIH funding procedures, which destroy innovation (left) versus those that incorporate a broad NIH equity policy (red ladder) and/or in which individual antiracist reviewers (red) advance applications of Black PIs, to create innovation (right).

      Note above that the cited evidence for racism in judging grants rests on two papers showing differences when scientists judge c.v.s of black and white investigators. I could access only one of these, the Eaton et al. paper, which does show disparities between sexes and races in hireability, likeability, and judgements of competence when made-up c.v.s of potential postdocs were assessed. (Note that these aren’t grant applicants or potential faculty members being assessed, but postdoctoral candidates.)

      The result: Men were judged significantly more competent and hireable, as postdocs while women were judged more likable. For race, “White and Asian candidates were rated as more competent and hireable than Black and Latinx candidates across departments. Likeability ratings were not found to differ significantly by applicant race.”

      So this does show apparent sexism and racism in assessing c.v.s of graduate students that are made up. However, another survey of faculty and student hiring preferences show that minority candidates and women are preferred above white candidates and males, especially by faculty. (This is for hiring faculty members, not postdocs.) That study was done not using fake c.v.s but assessing attitudes, and if you were wedded to the hypothesis of racism, one could say that the respondents were simply distorting their own views.

      However, all of these disparate results become irrelevant when you look at an important study that, surprisingly, was not even cited by Stevens et al. themselves. It shows, through the use of reviewers assessing (as an exercise) actual NIH proposals whose authors were randomly identified as black, white, male, or female (names were switched around), that there was neither gender nor racial bias in scoring proposals. Since c.v.s are part of NIH proposals, these assessments would include weighing the candidates’ c.v.s and research productivity. Most important, this is an actual study, done in large numbers, of how grant proposals are adjudicated by the NIH (the authors used reviewers who had previously reviewed for the NIH).  The study was published in 2019, so the authors of the Cell piece above certainly knew of it. They just omitted it.

      Click on the screenshot to read.

      I don’t want to go into detail here, but the researchers used genuine NIH proposals that were either funded or unfunded (24 of each), and sent three proposals to each of 412 scientists who had reviewed NIH grants before. The names were changed to reflect names associated with gender or race, and precautions were taken to prevent the reviewers from checking whether the applicants actually existed. You can read this for yourself, but here’s the conclusion from the abstract:

      We find little to no race or gender bias in initial R01 evaluations, and additionally find that any bias that might have been present must be negligible in size. This conclusion was robust to a wide array of statistical model specifications. Pragmatically, important bias may be present in other aspects of the granting process, but our evidence suggests that it is not present in the initial round of R01 reviews.

      It’s puzzling that this result isn’t mentioned by Stevens et al., since it’s the most important study bearing on the possibility of bias in NIH reviewing.

      So if there’s no bias in reviewing, why do black investigators get NIH funding only 55% as often as do white investigators? One possibility, which is supported by another study, is that black investigators choose areas of application that generally have lower funding rates. And, indeed, the paper below supports that (click on screenshot; see a shorter summary here):

      Here’s a summary from the abstract:

      Notably, AA/B [African-American/Black] applicants tend to propose research on topics with lower award rates. These topics include research at the community and population level, as opposed to more fundamental and mechanistic investigations; the latter tend to have higher award rates. Topic choice alone accounts for over 20% of the funding gap after controlling for multiple variables, including the applicant’s prior achievements.

      In other words, black investigators tend to propose “applied” studies, including those involving community intervention, health disparities, fertility, adolescent health, and so on, that are directed more towards solving social problems than other proposals involving “pure” research, and these studies are funded at lower rates—regardless of the investigator’s ethnicity or sex—than are “pure research” studies.   

      Of course, one could argue that this involves bias of a sort as well—bias against applied research. One could also argue that this kind of work is seen as less important because it’s considered an area of interest to minorities.

      Now this factor accounts for only 20% of the disparity in funding between black and white scientists. An earlier study that I haven’t yet seen shows that “rack record” (i.e., accomplishments as recorded on the NIH c.v., which includes papers published that resulted from previous grants or other funding) to have an even larger effect on rate of funding. That shows that the track record of black scientists is rated lower than white scientists in funding, but, as we saw above, racism itself, as opposed to this index of previous accomplishment, wasn’t found to contribute to funding scores. Track record is not a funding problem, but a “pipeline” problem whose solution is complex. But, as I’ve suggested, widening the pipeline—assuring equality of opportunity for all at the outset of life—is the best and most permanent way of treating people fairly.

      The study above suggests at least one route for reducing the funding disparity: upgrade the importance of “applied” research involving community intervention, public health, and so on. Because those fields disproportionately attract black investigators, you could fund more minority scientists simply by diverting more money to these areas. In this way you increase equity without any form of affirmative action. (Of course, upgrading areas that tend to attract minority investigators could be seen as a form of affirmative action.)

      I see this post is getting too long, so I’ll break it into two sections. In this one we’ve seen that the claim of systemic racism is not a data-supported explanation for the lower funding rate of black investigators. What the data show for funding is that race or sex don’t seem to be important, but that track record and choice of research area do. To create more equity in funding then, one has to consider interventions that would improve the track record of black scientists (this is a complex problem that begins well before grants are submitted) or give more money to areas of applied research.

      However, the Cell paper of Stevens et al. suggest affirmative-action interventions instead: when evaluating grants, we should give black investigators higher scores, special interventions, and different treatment. In the next and final bit of this analysis, I’ll discuss these recommendations.

      h/t: Luana

      Stevens, K. R., K. S. Masters, P. I. Imoukhuede, K. A. Haynes, L. A. Setton, E. Cosgriff-Hernandez, M. A. Lediju Bell, P. Rangamani, S. E. Sakiyama-Elbert, S. D. Finley, R. K. Willits, A. N. Koppes, N. C. Chesler, K. L. Christman, J. B. Allen, J. Y. Wong, H. El-Samad, T. A. Desai, and O. Eniola-Adefeso. 2021. Fund Black scientists. Cell. DOI:

      Readers’ wildlife photos

      February 1, 2021 • 8:00 am

      Today we have some science-themed photos by Joe Routon, and some lagniappe: an art photo with a cat. Joe’s IDs and captions are indented; click on the photos to enlarge them.

      Here are a few science-related photos that I made on trips to Italy. The first shows the bell tower in Venice where Galileo tested his telescope.


      This sign at the top of the bell tower tells about Galileo’s demonstrating his telescope to the Doge.

      The burial place of Galileo is in Santa Croce Church in Florence. Here is his tombstone.

      Pertaining to anatomy, which artists began studying in Italy around 1500, I’m posting my photo of the sculpture of St. Bartholomew in the Duomo in Milan.  Bartholomew, one of Christ’s twelve apostles, was skinned alive and then beheaded for his Christian faith. His crime was converting the King of Armenia to Christianity.  The drapes surrounding him are his skin.

      A must-see in Milan is the National Museum of Science and Technology of Leonardo da Vinci that houses working models of Leornado’s inventions.

      Around 1590, Galileo is said to have dropped two different sized spheres from the leaning Tower of Pisa to demonstrate that their rate of descent would be the same.

      In Vinci, where Leonardo was born, there is a museum with working models of several of his inventions. Near the museum is this statue of the Vitruvian Man.

      Lagniappe: A photo Joe sent earlier.

      I made this photo at the convent of San Marco in Florence, Italy. The Last Supper was painted in 1482 by Domenico Ghirlandaio. The cat, sitting patiently behind Judas is obviously waiting for someone to toss him a scrap of food. In an almost identical setting of the Last Supper at the Franciscan Church of Ognissanti in Florence, Ghirlandaio omitted the cat.

      Googling cats, I learned that in the Bible cats are often a sign of pending misfortune and could indicate someone is being deceitful or cunning, which would be appropriate in the painting, since it’s seated behind Judas. Or, perhaps, the church’s main priest wanted his pet cat immortalized.

      JAC:  Did you spot the kitty?  Here it is!

      Principles of ethical investing

      December 29, 2020 • 9:15 am

      by Greg Mayer

      Investment policies–that is, where and for what reasons individuals and organizations place their money–have been at times invoked as a way to either encourage good behavior or sanction bad behavior. The most prominent example I know of is the campaign for divestment of assets from companies that did business in South Africa, which took place during the late apartheid era. Apartheid of course did end; I don’t know what role the divestment campaign had in this outcome. I imagine it is something historians have studied, but I don’t know the conclusions reached. The most prominent such campaign now is directed against Israel.

      For individuals, picking stocks, market timing, and day trading are generally bad investment strategies. (“Bad” in the sense that you can’t reliably make money that way.) But large institutional investors have enough money, time, and expertise to vet investments for the behavior of the companies and assets involved. CalPERS, the California state employee retirement and benefit system, which manages a portfolio worth more than $400 billion, for example, has a fairly detailed set of Governance & Sustainability Principles.

      Last month, on November 13, I received the following message from the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE), indicating that the Society wanted to develop its own set of principles. (I’ve removed links to SSE’s internal web pages and information about individuals.)

      Dear Gregory,

      Earlier this year, at the request of SSE Council and the Finance Committee, SSE formed a committee to develop a set of ethical principles to guide the Society’s investments, which have a current value of ~$4.3M (learn more on the Financial Reports page). The committee’s proposed ethical principles can be found in this document.

      To develop this set of principles, the committee surveyed the principles of other societies and considered different elements of a policy that are consistent with the mission of the Society and the values of our community. The goal of the committee was to develop a set of principles, not to specify exactly how to invest, which will be determined based on these principles in consultation with our investment advisors. We also note that using ethical principles to guide investing does not necessarily reduce financial returns and may even increase them.

      We value our members’ feedback on these proposed ethical investing principles. Your input will help Council decide how to manage SSE’s investments and overall financial plan moving forward. Would you be willing to review the 1-page principles document and provide feedback in a short survey?

      Or click here to view the document:

      Or click here to view the comments form:  We will be collecting comments until November 30th, 2020. Thank you for your participation!

      The draft principles were as follows.

      Ethical Investing principles

      The Society for the Study of Evolution is committed to investing in ways that support companies whose business practices promote environmental sustainability and social justice and whose governance promotes transparency. The SSE will use these values to guide investment decisions.

      Environmental values

      The Society for the Study of Evolution favors investment in companies that

      • Foster the protection of biodiversity.
      • Contribute to preservation of a safe, liveable, and stable climate.
      • Avoid increasing the risks associated with climate change.
      • Limit the use and discharge of toxic chemicals and pollutants into the environment.
      • Encourage practices that avoid overexploitation of terrestrial, aquatic, and natural resources.

      Social values

      The Society for the Study of Evolution favors investment in companies that

      • Respect and promote human rights, dignity, and well-being.
      • Protect personal data and respect customer privacy.
      • Foster an inclusive environment for all workers regardless of background or personal characteristics.
      • Improve and adopt anti-racist policies.
      • Follow practices that respect the dignity and rights of workers, including the ability for collective action by workers.
      • Strive to reduce disparities in economic and educational opportunities.
      • Respect the autonomy and voices of local communities and indigenous people.

      Governance values

      The Society for the Study of Evolution favors investment in companies that

      • Have a Board of Directors reflecting the diversity of communities they serve.
      • Ensure that financial reports are regularly reviewed by external auditors overseen by Board members who are not employed by the company.
      • Follow international standards to guard against fraud and corruption.
      • Commit to fair wages and equitable sharing of profits.

      I wrote back to the Society on December 23:

      When I received your invitation to participate in a survey concerning proposed investment principles for SSE, I began filling out the survey, with my initial response being that it was OK, but with minor changes. But as I attempted to compose a response, my “but” overwhelmed my “OK”, to the point that it became hard for me to see how the entire notion of a set of principles could survive.

      Some of the principles are straightforward accounting principles– using external auditors, for example. The “Environmental values” do touch on some areas in which SSE could be said to have expertise– evolutionary biology is, after all, the study of the temporal and spatial patterns of biodiversity and the processes that generate them. But I note that these values are expressed without any endorsement of specific policies. “Foster the protection of biodiversity” is sufficiently broad that it might be a worthy principle to endorse. Ariel Lugo, who maintains that introduced species foster biodiversity, and Peter Marra, who argues that introduced species are a great threat to biodiversity, could both agree. I happen to think Marra is nearer to right on this, but I wouldn’t want the SSE to proclaim one or the other. On biodiversity, evolutionary biology does have disciplinary expertise, and intellectual standards for the evaluation of evidential support for propositions, so I could see some reason for the SSE to have something to say in this area.

      But many of the proposed principles lie far afield from the values of science in general and evolutionary biology’s particular expertise. And it’s in those areas where evolutionary biology has the least to say that the principles try to say the most. Three examples.
      “Improve and adopt anti-racist policies.” Anti-racism, sadly, is not opposition to racism, but a particular racialist ideology espousing an essentialist view of “races”, according to the ideology’s own notions of what “race” means. Anti-racism, which is fundamentally racialist, is sometimes even overtly racist. SSE should have no position on “anti-racism” whatsoever.
      “Follow practices that respect the dignity and rights of workers, including the ability for collective action by workers.” ​I personally believe that the decline of unions has been a major factor in the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few in the United States, and that this lack of equitable distribution of the fruits of economic progress is the greatest problem facing the United States. Its solution is of the utmost consequence for the future of the country as a democratic republic. But why would SSE have a position on this? If an evolutionary biologist in the United States supports his state’s anti-union “right to work” law, this has no necessary relation to his work as an evolutionary biologist. Why should such a person have his political views on an issue unrelated to evolutionary biology be repudiated by SSE? I don’t expect or want SSE to endorse my views on “right to work” laws, and I equally don’t want it to condemn the opposite view.
      “Respect the autonomy and voices of local communities and indigenous people.” ​This is perhaps the most bizarre of all. Why should SSE have a view about the proper relations between levels of government? Are local communities always, or even usually, right about political, social, and moral issues? South Carolina wanted local autonomy over slavery in 1860. During the civil rights era, it was Federal override of the autonomy of local communities that brought about social progress. And what about today? We’ve seen wealthy local communities put up gates and threaten protesters with weapons– is that what SSE respects? And what about the wider world? Does SSE have an opinion on the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, many of whose local residents want to be annexed to Armenia? The indigenous people of Hungary seem eager to keep out refugees– it’s their blood and their soil– does SSE respect this, too? Whether local autonomy or higher-level intervention has done more to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice has varied from time to time and place to place. SSE need not engage with the question of under what circumstances local autonomy promotes justice, because it should have no opinion or policy on the matter at all.
      There is, of course, a sort of reductio ad Hitlerum– “You wouldn’t want to invest in Krupp gun works or the makers of Zyklon-B during World War II,”– and, of course, you wouldn’t. But extreme cases make bad law, and do not provide a basis for the proposed principles.
      A scientific society may legitimately advocate for science and for scientific values, especially as they pertain to the disciplinary expertise and intellectual standards of the society. But it is no part of the remit of such societies to take up positions on general social, political, and moral issues. Indeed, one of the values of science is to not allow popular passions, fashions, and prejudices to color what should be epistemic considerations.
      I realize that this comes after the deadline of November 30, and thus will not influence the form of whatever policy you adopt; the response timeline, coming as my campus prepared to move to all virtual instruction over Thanksgiving, did not leave time for a considered response given my other commitments at that time. With the semester now over and with time to address the issues, I share my views with you in the hope that they might add to your understanding of them; feel free to share this with your colleagues among SSE’s officers and committees.

      I received a cordial reply saying that all feedback will be considered.

      Some sort of policy, such as following accounting principles, is desirable, but that sort of policy almost goes without saying. (I belong to several scientific societies; I don’t know what, if any, formal policies the other societies have.) But such a policy should address universally accepted accounting and governance principles, and perhaps concerns for which the Society possesses special disciplinary expertise and intellectual standards.

      Have any readers encountered similar quandaries with organizations and institutions with which they are involved?

      Richard Dawkins on truth and “ways of knowing”

      December 19, 2020 • 10:45 am

      It’s been a while since I’ve seen an article by Dawkins appear in a magazine or newspaper, but now there’s a new one on the nature of truth and knowledge in The Spectator (click on screenshot for free access). Yes, it’s a rather conservative venue, but you’re not going to see The Guardian publishing critiques of theology and postmodern denial of objective truth. And Dawkins does take some pretty strong swings at Donald Trump, e.g. “For him, lying is not a last resort. It never occurs to him to do anything else.”

      The article first defines what scientists mean by “truth”, and then attacks two areas that dismiss that definition—or at least offer alternative “ways of knowing”:

      What is truth? Richard begins by analogizing scientific truth with the “the kind of truth that a commission of inquiry or a jury trial is designed to establish.” He adds this:

      I hold the view that scientific truth is of this commonsense kind, although the methods of science may depart from common sense and its truths may even offend it.

      I like that idea—though Massimo Pigliucci will be enraged—because it shows there’s no bright line between scientific truth and the kind of truth that people establish using “common sense”, which I take to mean empirical inquiry whose results people generally agree on. Truth is simply what exists in the universe and can be found by common assent. That’s with the proviso, of course, that there is a reality to be found, and one that’s independent of us. I’ll take that as a given, and don’t want to argue about it. And, of course “common assent” means, in science, the assent of those capable of evaluating data.

      Finally, while truth is always “provisional” in science, there are some truths so well established that we can regard them as “not really that provisional”. These are the truths whose reality you’d bet thousands of dollars on. It’s unlikely, as I say in Faith Versus Fact, that normal DNA will some day be shown to be a triple helix, or a water molecule to have two atoms of hydrogen and two of oxygen. This is a point that Richard makes as well, and one we should keep in mind when we debate those who argue that, “Well, science is tentative, and can be wrong—and has been wrong.” To wit:

      It is true that Newton’s laws are approximations which need modifying under extreme circumstances such as when objects travel at near the speed of light. Those philosophers of science who fixate on the case of Newton and Einstein love to say that scientific truths are only ever provisional approximations that have so far resisted falsification. But there are many scientific truths — we share an ancestor with baboons is one example — which are just plain true, in the same sense as ‘New Zealand lies south of the equator’ is not a provisional hypothesis, pending possible falsification.

      Bad thinkers. Finally, the two groups Richard excoriates for rejecting the notion of scientific truths are the theologians on one hand and the PoMo-soaked philosophers and Critical Theory mavens on the other. First, the theologians, who by now are low-hanging fruit:

      Theologians love their ‘mysteries’, such as the ‘mystery of the Trinity’ (how can God be both three and one at the same time?) and the ‘mystery of transubstantiation’ (how can the contents of a chalice be simultaneously wine and blood?). When challenged to defend such stuff, they may retort that scientists too have their mysteries. Quantum theory is mysterious to the point of being downright perverse. What’s the difference? I’ll tell you the difference and it’s a big one. Quantum theory is validated by predictions fulfilled to so many decimal places that it’s been compared to predicting the width of North America to within one hairsbreadth. Theological theories make no predictions at all, let alone testable ones.

      Nor has theology ever, by itself, established a single truth about the universe. I keep asking people to give me one, but they either can’t or bring in truths that are empirical and can be verified not by revelation or dogma, but only by observation and testing. Ergo, theology is not a “way of knowing.”

      And then the poor PoMos and Critical Theorists get their drubbing (remember, the roots of Critical Theory are in the filthy humus of postmodernism):

      A more insidious threat to truth comes from certain schools of academic philosophy. There is no objective truth, they say, no natural reality, only social constructs. Extreme exponents attack logic and reason themselves, as tools of manipulation or ‘patriarchal’ weapons of domination. The philosopher and historian of science Noretta Koertge wrote this in Skeptical Inquirer magazine in 1995, and things haven’t got any better since:

      Instead of exhorting young women to prepare for a variety of technical subjects by studying science, logic, and mathematics, Women’s Studies students are now being taught that logic is a tool of domination…the standard norms and methods of scientific inquiry are sexist because they are incompatible with ‘women’s ways of knowing’. The authors of the prize-winning book with this title report that the majority of the women they interviewed fell into the category of ‘subjective knowers’, characterised by a ‘passionate rejection of science and scientists’. These ‘subjectivist’ women see the methods of logic, analysis and abstraction as ‘alien territory belonging to men’ and ‘value intuition as a safer and more fruitful approach to truth’.

      That way madness lies. As reported by Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh in The Nation in 1997, the social psychologist Phoebe Ellsworth, at an interdisciplinary seminar, praised the virtues of the experimental method. Audience members protested that the experimental method was ‘the brainchild of white Victorian males’. Ellsworth acknowledged this, but pointed out that the experimental method had led to, for example, the discovery of DNA. This was greeted with disdain: ‘You believe in DNA?’

      You can’t not ‘believe in DNA’. DNA is a fact. . . .

      While different groups of people have different interests, and that may lead them to work on areas that reveal truths heretofore hidden, that doesn’t mean that there are different ways of knowing. Barbara McClintock, for example, was touted by her biographer Evelyn Fox Keller as having a special female-linked “feeling for the organism” that led to her Nobel-winning studies on mobile genetic elements. I don’t buy that thesis, but there may be some truth to the claim that female evolutionists helped emphasize the important role of female choice in sexual selection.  If so, that means that different aspects of a problem may appeal to different groups, but in the end the truth or falsity of ideas are established the same way by everyone. McClintock did her science the way everyone else did, as do those who study sexual selection. There may be many ways of thinking, but only one way of knowing. 

      And that way of knowing is what I call “science construed broadly”: the use of observation, testing of hypotheses, attempts to falsify your theory, experiments, and so on. Science has more refined methods than, say, an electrician trying to find a glitch in house wiring, but in the end they both rely on a similar set of empirical tools.

      Richard will of course be faulted for attacking the beloved notion of “other ways of knowing”, but in the end he’s right. And of course there are all those people laying for him, who will claim he’s arrogant in giving science such hegemony over truth. He attacks this head on:

      Some of what I have claimed here about scientific truth may come across as arrogant. So might my disparagement of certain schools of philosophy. Science really does know a lot about what is true, and we do have methods in place for finding out a lot more. We should not be reticent about that. But science is also humble. We may know what we know, but we also know what we don’t know. Scientists love not knowing because they can go to work on it. The history of science’s increasing knowledge, especially during the past four centuries, is a spectacular cascade of truths following one on the other. We may choose to call it a cumulative increase in the number of truths that we know. Or we can tip our hat to (a better class of) philosophers and talk of successive approximations towards yet-to-be-falsified provisional truths. Either way, science can properly claim to be the gold standard of truth.

      Amen! I’ll finish with a quote I used to begin Chapter 4 in Faith Versus Fact. It’s from Mike Aus, a former preacher who left the pulpit after admitting his atheism on television. Since then he hasn’t fared well, but he did produce one quotation that I think is telling:

      When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.

      h/t: Eli

      American scientists are mostly Democrats, with almost no Republicans. Is this lack of diversity a problem?

      December 10, 2020 • 9:45 am

      A letter to the editor appeared in the latest issue of Nature, decrying the political uniformity of scientists (click on screenshot below to access though I’ve put up the whole thing). And the link to the Nature poll described in the letter’s  first line is here, but the survey was not of Americans but of Nature readers from throughout the world.

      However, there’s no doubt that, among American scientists, Democrats still greatly outnumber Republicans. The latest data I can find are in a 2009 Pew poll showing that not only are American scientists mostly liberal, but that there’s a huge disparity between the politics of scientists and of the American public in general. I suspect that, given what’s happened under Trump, this disparity has only increased. The data in 2009:

      Most [American] scientists identify as Democrats (55%), while 32% identify as independents and just 6% say they are Republicans. When the leanings of independents are considered, fully 81% identify as Democrats or lean to the Democratic Party, compared with 12% who either identify as Republicans or lean toward the GOP. Among the public, there are far fewer self-described Democrats (35%) and far more Republicans (23%). Overall, 52% of the public identifies as Democratic or leans Democratic, while 35% identifies as Republican or leans Republican.

      This disparity exercised Andrew Meso, a British computational neuroscientist (he’s also black), who wrote this letter:

      Now Dr. Meso is mistaken that the Nature poll was of “US scientists”, but it doesn’t matter, for the “misalignment” he describes is still true. As an academic, I have long been aware of this, for the disparity exists not just in science, but in academia as a whole.

      Meso’s implicit argument that we need to increase political diversity doesn’t carry near as much weight as an argument for greater gender and ethnic diversity, for there’s not a good argument that Republicans were oppressed in the past, nor that there is discrimination against Republican students being accepted to grad school or being hired as professors—at least in science. I’ve been on many hiring and student-acceptance committees, and not once have I ever heard of a candidate being touted or dissed because of their politics. Indeed, we never even know their politics! (This may not hold for faculty in areas like economics or sociology.) And I’ve never heard of a scientist being denied promotion or tenure on the grounds of their politics.

      So it’s hard to make an argument that the dearth of Republicans in American science is due to bias or discrimination. Nor does the ideological slant seem likely to affect science: as I read somewhere (but can’t lay my hands on the reference), scientists’ politics don’t affect the nature or quality of their research.

      Why the disparity between scientists and the public, then, if it’s not bigotry? Well, perhaps it’s preference.

      For reasons we can speculate about, perhaps those with a conservative bent are less likely to go into science, or remain in science if they start studying this. Perhaps those with a liberal bent are more attracted to the empirical method and the techniques of science. I have no idea if this is right, but feel free to speculate.   But I’ll make one point: if people think that the differential representation is due to preference rather than bias, and it’s a preference based on political affiliation (which may be correlated with other traits), why are we so eager to assume that other differential representations, like those involving gender or ethnicity, are based solely on bias and bigotry rather than preference? As we know, this kind of representation is automatically assumed to be based on prejudice, but I’ve always said that we can’t assume that without the needed research.

      Finally, is Meso right in raising the alarm that the Democratic “elitism” of American scientists could turn other Americans—many of whom are Republican—against science or against going into science? (He conflates “judging science” with “going into science” in his final paragraph.) If he were right, this in itself would be a form of preference, but could also involve bigotry if conservatives sense that scientists don’t like their politics.  And yes, Republicans are more anti-science than Democrats, though the difference has been exaggerated, but not to the extent that would explain the differential representation in science. To me, it seems more likely that the disparity is based on a preference connected to political affiliation, but that’s just a guess.

      Finally, Meso’s conclusion—that liberalism in scientists turns others against science and against going into science, presumes that the public actually knows how liberal scientists are. But they don’t seem to, at least according to that Pew report:

      Most Americans do not see scientists as a group as particularly liberal or conservative. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) say they think of scientists as “neither in particular”; 20% see them as politically liberal and 9% say they are politically conservative.

      If there’s no evidence in science of bias against Republican scientists or students, then there is no need to engage in affirmative action to bring them on board—unless they somehow bring a scientific point of view absent among more liberal scientists. But I can’t see one. (It’s not that evident amongst ethnic or gender groups, either.) But the reason I’m in favor of affirmative action is not so much to bring a diversity of ideas as to act as a form of reparations for those who were denied equal opportunity. And the reparations view, while holding for women and people of color, doesn’t seem to hold for conservatives.

      But my dislike of affirmative action for Republicans in science doesn’t hold for college students, for I think ideological and political diversity is an innate good among undergraduates, as it stimulates discussion and exposes students to other ways of thinking. So while I can’t support a case for “affirmative action” for more Republicans in science, I can do so for college students. As for professors outside of science, I’m not so sure. It’s useful for students to be exposed to various political views, or lines of thought, from their professors as well. I can’t see hiring professors because they’re Republicans, but I can see making an effort to incorporate conservative points of view into academic departments.  Since we scientists are supposed to keep our politics out of the classroom, though, we don’t need to make this effort.

      Should scientific journals strive for “diversity” of reviewers and authors?

      November 17, 2020 • 12:00 pm

      The New York Times recently had a piece by their new and woke science reporter, Katherine J. Wu, which is basically an indictment of science journals for not keeping track of the “diversity” of authors and reviewers of the papers they publish or reject. The implicit message is that science journals are racist, discriminating against papers by minoritized authors.

      Click on the screenshot to read the article:

      Wu’s implicit assumption is twofold. First, that a paucity of diversity—which of course means ethnic diversity, but minus Asians since they are surely overrepresented among authors—reflects racism on the part of scientific journals and reviewers.  There is no consideration of whether a lack of diversity may represent simply a paucity of minority authors and reviewers. That itself may reflect racism, past or present, that narrows the opportunities of would-be scientists, but the article implies that it’s racism acting on Ph.D. authors trying to submit papers.

      The second assumption is that more ethnic diversity in journals means better science. Well, that’s true in the sense that the more people who get the opportunities to become scientists, the higher the average quality of the science that is published. But I’m not at all convinced that members of any group, be they groups involving genders, religions, incomes, or ethnicity, have a special “point of view” based on their group identity that makes them do science differently. Science is science, and I don’t feel that Hispanics, say, have a different “way of knowing.” (There may be one exception here, that I’ve mentioned before: I think women scientists are responsible for shifting the focus in sexual selection from male traits alone to female preferences as well. But many men were also involved in this shift). In the end, the best science comes from giving everybody equal opportunities, not practicing remediation based on race at the publication level.

      But the question is whether journals should be publishing more papers by members of minority groups. That is, is there a bias against, say, black or Hispanic authors that needs to be rectified by that form of “affirmative action” on the publication level—taking steps to accept more papers by minority authors?

      It’s my opinion that the answer is “no”. This presumes that a paucity of papers by such authors is prima facie evidence for bias, when it may reflect only a paucity of minority-group members in the field, or of minority scientists submitting papers, or submitting fewer papers,—rather than reviewers deliberately discriminating against papers by minority authors.

      It may be worth investigating this issue, but I consider it hardly worthwhile for two reasons.  First, figuring out whether a paucity of papers from minority group members is due to racism at the reviewing level is very hard to do, though not impossible (see below). More important, it’s certainly true that the disparity between the proportion of minority-group members in the population and the number of papers published by members of that group is due largely not to racism but to an underrepresentation of Blacks and Hispanics in science. Figuring out why that disparity exists is the best way to achieve more proportionality in science, if that is your goal. And that’s really where our efforts should be going.

      Here are the data given in the NYT piece from two scientific organizations showing disparities between population proportions and publication/reviewer proportions. The article makes the point that most journals, though, do not keep records of the ethnicity of authors and reviewers. (To clarify for non-scientists, when scientists submit papers to a journal, those papers are sent to several reviewers—usually two or three—who are experts in the area of research. Based on the reviewers’ assessment of the paper, the editor then decides whether or not to publish it. If the decision is “yes,” there is often some revision of the paper required, either in the discussion or the scientific analysis.)

      I’m going to discuss authors here, not reviewers, because it is the quality of authors‘ work that, by and large, constructs the quality of the journal. How do we know if a journal is discriminating against minority authors? You can’t simply use a difference between the proportion of people in the field, or the proportion of people submitting papers on the one hand, and the proportion of papers published on the other, as a criterion for bias. That’s because members of different groups may submit papers less often, or of lesser quality, and that this would lead to differential representation that would not reflect racism. Bias must be proven, not assumed.

      There are two ways to solve this problem. The first is the equivalent of doing “blind” auditions for orchestras—auditions in which those seeking an orchestral chair perform behind a curtain. That “blind” system removes all bias against sex or race. To do this with a paper, you simply remove the names of the authors, their institution, and the acknowledgments from the manuscript, so the reviewers don’t know who wrote the paper. (There are, of course, ways to guess, like if an author cites herself repeatedly, but in many cases this will indeed lead to quality appraisal ignorant of the author’s race or gender.)

      I hit upon that system in the late 1970s when I was a postdoc, full of piss and vinegar and concerned that papers were getting preferentially published not because of race, but because of reputation. My idea was that famous people had an easier time publishing their papers than small fish (like me!). I wrote letters—real letters—to the editors of about 30 journals in my field, proposing that manuscripts be reviewed blind this way. I got only one response, and that was from an editor who said that he preferred knowing the authors, because famous authors were more likely to submit better papers! That may be true on average, but it’s not the best way to ensure the quality of papers in a journal! In fact, famous authors may get by more easily with shoddier work because of their reputations.

      At any rate, some journals have now wisely decided to adopt the blind-author technique, and more power to them! It seems to me a step in the right direction to eliminate animus not just against groups of people, but against your scientific “enemies” or in favor of your scientific “friends”. (Believe me, this kind of bias is rife in science.) While you can get around this system by guessing, I think it does help ensure objective reviewing and thus higher-quality papers. (I should add that the NYT music critic opposed blind auditions because he said that while it increased the proportion of women in orchestras, it didn’t eliminate racial inequities; his view was clearly that equity trumped orchestral quality.)

      The other way would be to do an experiment submitting identical sets of manuscripts with fake names that give clues to the gender or ethnicity of the authors. If manuscripts with women or minority authors are rejected more often than the same manuscripts with “white” or “male” names, that surely indicates bias. This was what was done in a laborious study of grant reviewing, using made-up “black”, “white”, “male” and “female” names on identical proposals. The study showed no evidence of racial or gender bias in grant evaluation. Needless to say, you don’t hear much about this study, even though it was a good one, as the results went against people’s certainty that there must be sex and gender bias in reviewing.

      That experiment could be done with paper reviewing too, and really must be done before you can start making implicit accusations of bias.  But I favor the blind-reviewing technique. You don’t have to do any experiments to see if that one makes things more equitable because, by eliminating a source of bias from the outset, it almost has to. It is my feeling that a “fake name” study wouldn’t show evidence of bias in pubication, but that’s my feeling alone. Better just to practice blind reviewing rather than speculate or do experiments.

      In the end, my feeling is that affirmative action should not be applied to reviewing papers by people who already have doctorates, and, while I believe in affirmative action, I think it has to stop at some point in the hierarchy. My point comes after faculty hired hiring. I think it’s okay and useful to take race and gender into account when hiring junior faculty, as well as in college and grad-school admissions, but that’s where it stops. Ethnicity and gender should not be a consideration in getting tenure, full professorships, or in getting papers published—areas where merit alone should be the only criterion. Again, this is my view, and others may disagree.

      Some of those who disagree think the whole system of a scientific meritocracy is flawed—that there isn’t even a scientific meritocracy. The NYT article says that:

      Publishing papers in top-tier journals is crucial scholastic currency. But the process is deeply insular, often hinging on personal connections between journal editors and the researchers from whom they solicit and receive manuscripts.

      “Science is publicized as a meritocracy: a larger, data-driven enterprise in which the best work and the best people float to the top,” Dr. Extavour said. In truth, she added, universal, objective standards are lacking, and “the access that authors have to editors is variable.”

      To democratize this process, editors and reviewers need to level the playing field, in part by reflecting the diversity that journals claim they seek, Dr. Kamath said. “People think this is a cosmetic or surface issue,” she said. “But in reality, the very nature of your scholarship would change if you took diversity, equity and inclusion seriously.”

      This whole section is to imply that there is little correlation between the merit of a paper and the chance of its being published. I think that’s a foolish conclusion, with the caaveats that Wu gives meant to imply a weak correlation at best. This is not my experience in reviewing papers or assessing published papers. Yes, sometimes a terrible paper gets published in a good journal, and a great paper gets rejected by a good journal, but there is surely a correlation between the quality of a paper and the chance that a. it will get published, and b. that it will get published in a prestigious journal.

      No, to democratize the process, just do blind reviewing. That will go a ways toward eliminating bias. But even in the absence of that procedure, journals would be hard pressed to construct a system that would give preferential publication to papers by ethnic minorities. Regardless of what Katherine Wu thinks, science largely is a meritocracy, at least when it comes to publication, and I don’t think it would be good for science as a whole to bump papers up or down based on the race of their authors.