Yeah, I read this horrible paper and critiqued it. It’s a bit longer than my usual video, so you might prefer to read the transcript below the fold.
Hey, friends —
Today I thought I’d talk about an unfortunate paper, one that was published several weeks ago and that I was reluctant to contribute to its promotion. I waited quietly — I was busy anyway — to see what would happen to it, and aside from an early flurry of attempts at self-promotion by its authors and fellow travelers, it seems to have fallen into the obscurity it deserves. It’s safe for me to tear into it, then!
The paper is titled “In Defense of Merit in Science”, published in something called the Journal of Controversial Ideas. I had no idea that merit needed defending, or was at all controversial, but it has 29 authors, some of whom have significant prestige. Others are nothing but Intellectual Dark Web sort of cranks, and all of them would be not at all out of place on the fake University of Austin faculty. It’s an expansion of the Grievance Studies nonsense, and Boghossian is one of the authors, while Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay are cited, and if authors are not on the staff of the University of Austin, at least some of them are publishing opinion pieces in Quillette. Basically, it’s a collection of right-wing ideologues complaining about ideology, unaware that it’s ideology all the way down.
The primary author is a chemist from USC named Anna Krylov, so I’m going to refer to it as the Krylov paper, even though it has a swarm of hangers-on all listed in alphabetical order as a testimonial to their agreement with its thesis. They really all should be equally embarrassed.
To make it manageable, I’ve broken up this video into three pieces. First I’ll just take a look at the claims of the paper — is it true that the Social Justice Warriors are taking over and destroying science? Secondly, I’ll offer my personal perspective as a social justice advocate and professor at a liberal arts school. Are we actually trying to oppose Western science and the principle of merit? And finally, I’ll get a bit meta and ask, is the paper “In Defense of Merit in Science” actually meritorious by any objective criteria?
RESENTMENT AND LIES
Let’s take a look at the paper. The abstract has a few problems.
Merit is a central pillar of liberal epistemology, humanism, and democracy. The scientific enterprise, built on merit, has proven effective in generating scientific and technological advances, reducing suffering, narrowing social gaps, and improving the quality of life globally. This perspective documents the ongoing attempts to undermine the core principles of liberal epistemology and to replace merit with nonscientific, politically motivated criteria. We explain the philosophical origins of this conflict [they don’t], document the intrusion of ideology into our scientific institutions [they don’t], discuss the perils of abandoning merit [no one has suggested abandoning merit], and offer an alternative, human-centered approach to address existing social inequalities.
The first big problem, and one that plagues the whole paper, is that merit isn’t actually defined, nor do they discuss how we should recognize and measure merit, which is the crux of the issue. More serious people recognize that measuring merit is complex and difficult. Their whole argument is a kind of naive utilitarianism — if something generates scientific advances and reduces suffering, then it has by definition, merit. There is and will be no consideration of conflicts in those goals: sometimes technological advances will increase social gaps or reduce the quality of life for at least some people. If science and technology make a small proportion of the population incredibly wealthy at the cost of impoverishing everyone else, is that “merit”? The calculus isn’t as simple as they think.
The second big problem is their biased mischaracterization of anyone who disagrees with their simplistic argument. You see, if you point out the internal conflicts with their ideas, and suggest different priorities for society, then you want “to replace merit with nonscientific, politically motivated criteria.” There is no middle ground. You either agree with their priorities whole-heartedly, or you hate merit and science and democracy, and want to reduce our quality of life. Have they considered the possibility that people may have different ideals and value other approaches to improving the world? That balance is also a consideration?
The introduction does not improve on the abstract, having the same glib superficiality. It’s the kind of thing where you think for a moment that it sounds good — of course I value science, and merit, and making people happy and safe — but when you think about it, you realize that they’ve resolved nothing and are just spitting out buzzwords.
For instance, it starts with a volley of Pinkerisms — it literally cites Steven Pinker for this stuff — that this is the best of all worlds, that we’ve improved everything since ancient times, you must be grateful that you were born in this time and place, that we are living in a more just and peaceful world, thanks to scientific progress. It’s safe to write that, since a Bangladeshi garment worker, or a Russian soldier in Ukraine, or a trans teenager in Missouri, or an immigrant working in a slaughterhouse, are unlikely to read the paper and object.
They acknowledge this inequity, at least. It’s just that they respond with rank scientism and a remarkable obliviousness.
Of course, serious problems continue to challenge us; poverty, inequality, wars, and violence persist. Climate change, biodiversity loss, antimicrobial resistance, and pandemic disease threaten global gains made over the past century. However, science continues to be the best tool humanity possesses to address these complex, collective challenges. Indeed, science holds the key to solving these problems—it provides the basis for renewable energy technologies, mitigating anthropogenic impact on the global climate, feeding the world’s growing population, controlling pandemics, and eradicating debilitating diseases.
“Science continues to be the best tool” — but in many cases it isn’t. The best tools are often sociological. If we want to reduce global climate change, we aren’t going to science our way out of it — we need to change our consumption habits, we have to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, we need to eat less red meat, we have to stop stripping the ocean floor of sea life. Technology is part of the solution, but not the whole of it.
Then to bring up the eradication of diseases…we recently went through this, remember? Millions died. Developing a vaccine was essential, but so many people refused to accept basic behavioral changes, like masking, and many still refuse to take advantage of that scientific solution, the vaccine. Again, it’s not as simple as they want you to believe.
They make a token acknowledgment of that fact.
Of course, science alone is not sufficient: science is but a tool that can be used for good and bad. It is our responsibility as a society to use it responsibly, ethically, and effectively.
Whoa. So ethics matters? We’re bringing philosophy into this now? We’re supposed to be defending scientific merit, which we’re pretending is some quantifiable metric we can apply to the solution for any problem, but now we have to incorporate values into it? Sounds like those fuzzy social justice concerns might have some relevance after all.
Don’t worry, though, it’s only a momentary flash of introspection, quickly cast aside as they identify the true enemies of reason and science and merit. It’s identity politics.
Fulfilling this responsibility, however, is being hindered by a new, alarming clash between liberal epistemology and identity based ideologies. Liberal epistemology prizes free and open inquiry, values vigorous discourse and debate, and determines the best scientific ideas by separating those that are true from those that are likely not. The statuses, identities, and demographics of scientists are irrelevant to this great sifting of valid versus invalid ideas.
I love the idea that statuses, identities, and demographics shouldn’t matter. Unfortunately, that horse got out of the barn long ago, and it’s convenient that now, long after statuses, identities, and demographics have established dominion over the sciences, we’re going to turn a blind eye to long established biases. The sifting often doesn’t happen, with extant scientists deciding that we shouldn’t disturb the status quo by bringing up how often invalid ideas have been accepted.
Case in point: Anna Krylov and her cronies. It’s a bad sign when your defense of unbiased, valid ideas has to resort to bogus canards to make your point, but that’s exactly what this paper does. For example…
Although there are feminist critiques of how glaciologists have conducted themselves, there is no such thing as “feminist glaciology,” just as there is no “queer chemistry,” “Jewish physics,” “white mathematics,” “indigenous science,” or “feminist astronomy.” Glacial, physical, genetic, or prehistoric phenomena are independent of the positionality of the scientist. By prioritizing the truth value of scientific research, personal influences of individual scientists are minimized.
But of course there is a feminist glaciology! These people clearly haven’t read the paper they are criticizing, since it does make a valid point. I’ll quote Mark Carey, one of the authors, who had to defend his work in the journal Science because so many ill-informed yahoos were raising a ruckus about it.
If one goal of glacier research is to help the people living in places like the Alps and Alaska adapt to shrinking glaciers—and the associated floods, landslides, and seasonal variation in water flows for irrigation and hydroelectricity generation—then it is important to study more than the physical properties of ice. Social scientists like myself work to understand those complex societies, their politics and economies, their cultures, and, yes, their gender relations because patriarchy and sexism marginalize certain segments of the population, just as racism marginalizes indigenous, Latino, and other peoples.
Our paper argues that social science and humanities research can contribute to the development of appropriate strategies for specific and diverse societies to adapt to change. A woman’s experience securing postdisaster aid, rebuilding a home, and raising a family after a glacial lake outburst flood has destroyed her community is different than those of men. And for glaciologist Erin Pettit, the founder of the Girls on Ice program for young women to study glaciology, there is something productive and empowering that happens when high school girls learn science and conduct field research in an environment without boys.
I remind you that the authors of the Krylov paper said, “science alone is not sufficient: science is but a tool that can be used for good and bad.” The experiences of the people and communities who live in the shadow of glaciers are prioritizing a significant aspect of the truth; it’s the team of resentful ideologues who want to hide the complexity of the issues, and resort to the mantra of “ice is ice” and turn glaciology into nothing but a physics problem. It is, in significant part, but the whole is much greater.
They don’t seem to be able to read anything on these subjects with comprehension. One of their frequent claims is that a goal of Critical Social Justice (CSJ) is to destroy everything, not just science, but art and law. You don’t believe me? They make this claim multiple times in the paper.
The CSJ view—that institutions of knowledge, art, and law perpetuate systemic racism and, therefore, must be dismantled, and that merit based criteria in hiring, publishing, and funding must be replaced with CSJ criteria—has been aggressively advanced by many of our academic leadership—university administrators, executive bodies of professional societies, publishers, etc. A search for “racism” in the titles of papers published by the Science and Nature Publishing groups returns hundreds of hits such as “NIH Apologizes for ‘Structural Racism,’ Pledges Change,”73 “Dismantling Systemic Racism in Science,” 74 and “Systemic Racism in Higher Education.” This reflects the axiomatic ideological perspective of CSJ that systemic racism is indelibly etched into every Western institution. The perspective is taken as an article of faith, which is why some have argued that CSJ is more a secular religion than an evidence based science.
Something that jumped out at me is that you may notice that this claim that CSJ wants to “dismantle” institutions of knowledge is unreferenced. I would at least expect a quote from some radical social justice weirdo that they aim to take all of science apart, but they don’t have it. Instead, they dig up criticisms of racism in the titles of papers in prominent journals. This is how they justify that claim, by discovering that many scientists study and oppose racism? Is racism one of the scientific truths that they believe have merit? Are we to seriously believe that Science magazine, Nature magazine, and the National Institutes of Health, some of the biggest scientific institutions in the world, are arguing that they should dismantle themselves? This is rank nonsense. And, as we’ll see, they have to distort and lie about the contents of the papers that they do cite to make their case.
They do this repeatedly. Science…it’s been infected by the humanities!
For decades, Critical Theories had been confined to humanities and Studies departments of universities. But the ideas have spread to other disciplines and the outside world, where they have been picked up by activists and the press. Following the canons of CSJ, science is described as “white” and “colonial” and, therefore, should be dismantled. These ideas now routinely appear in some of the most influential scientific journals without citation to actual data supporting their claims. The apex journal Nature has created a “Decolonizing Science Toolkit,”89 which includes articles such as “Institutions Must Acknowledge the Racist Roots in Science,”90 “Decolonization Should Extend to Collaborations, Authorship and CoCreation of Knowledge,”91 and “Seeding an AntiRacist Culture at Scotland’s Botanical Gardens.”92
See the pattern? First claim that CSJ is about dismantling science, and follow up with a flurry of titles of science articles that mention racism and colonialism as if that’s sufficient to demonstrate the point.
Again, I must ask — where are these “canons of CSJ” claiming that “science…should be dismantled”? They aren’t listed in the references at the end of the paper. Instead, we get a collection of papers from the journal Nature — which, I promise you, isn’t planning to deconstruct itself anytime in the foreseeable future — that talk about the historical racism that is unquestionably present in science, that argues that colonial exploitation of indigenous peoples existed and continues to exist, and that the botanical collections in British museums were the result of unacknowledged contributions from talented native peoples.
Tell me…what is wrong with that? The paper sure doesn’t explain. It’s just paranoia and indignant histrionics about how including historical context does great harm to science, somehow. Reading this paper overall gives the impression that they really, really want everyone to shut up about racism, we should sweep it under the rug, we need to pretend that history and culture have never ever influenced science. Colonialism is good, don’t you know.
One other small point: they constantly refer to social justice as “CSJ,” or Critical Social Justice. This is a conceit that seems to have been popularized by the grievance study people — they noticed that the term Critical Race Theory was effectively demonized by right-wing propaganda, so sure, let’s stick the word “Critical” in front of everything we don’t like. It’s mildly annoying.
I could go through this paper paragraph by paragraph and see the biases exposed, but in the interest of giving their argument a fair shake, I’m going to skip ahead to a whole section on page 16 in which they make a somewhat more specific claim, that CSJs think “Merit based policies should be replaced by identity based policies.” They don’t actually support that idea. At best, they can argue that identity should be one factor, in addition to merit, in rewarding scientific contributions.
So Krylov and others say
Major scientific journals such as Nature, Science, and their sister publications regularly publish opinions, editorials, and letters to the editor calling for increasing the number of women and selected minorities among tenure track faculty, graduate students, award recipients, conference speakers, and editorial boards. In response, scientific institutions have begun implementing identity based practices and social engineering. 52,62,107,108
Some faculty hiring committees are prioritizing diversity over merit or even using ideology as a filter by, for example, eliminating candidates solely based on DEI statements.47,48,51
This is actually true, in part! We do want to foster diversity, but no, it doesn’t override merit and quality of faculty. For example, when we at my university are doing a job search, we include this little bit of boilerplate in our ads:
Morris values diversity in its students, faculty, and staff. Morris is especially interested in qualified candidates who can contribute to the diversity of our community through their teaching, research, and /or service because we believe that diversity enriches the University experience for everyone.
We also have members of our search committees go through training to recognize implicit bias. When we are reviewing applications, our choices are subject to review by the administration: did our final candidates reflect the distribution of applicants in the pool? We have a whole bunch of science-based procedures to prevent our biases from influencing our selection of the best people for the job.
We also expect diversity, equity, and inclusion statements, because faculty at our university (but perhaps not at the University of Austin) are expected to work collegially with diverse colleagues and students. We might even eliminate candidates solely based on their DEI statements: we would not be able to assess them if they didn’t write one, and if their statement was something along the lines of “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” then yeah, we’re not going to hire them. Do they think we ought to employ white nationalists or something?
I think the answer would be yes, because there’s also a subtext here that has to be addressed. Here’s an example: they dislike affirmative action, among many other things, but don’t really make a good argument against it.
Some form of affirmative action might be effective in college admissions, when students do not yet possess demonstrated credentials and many have lacked educational opportunities. However, when preferential selection goes overboard, e.g., when the mean scores on admission criteria of affirmative action students is a standard deviation (or more) below those of students admitted under conventional standards, the practice becomes counterproductive in helping underrepresented groups to advance.131
The important bit in that paragraph is the claim that it’s problematic when we let in affirmative action students, that is, minorities, with scores that are a standard deviation below those of other students. I would argue that admission criteria aren’t the rock solid scientific metrics you might imagine them to be, and are also subject to historical and cultural biases, but OK, let’s see the evidence. There’s that citation #131, which I assumed would be an example of low-scoring minority students getting in where they don’t deserve, but surprise, surprise. It’s from an article titled “An American Crisis: the Lack of Black Men in Medicine,” in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities. Here’s what it says!
We conducted an analysis of American Association of Medical Colleges applicant and matriculation data. Our analysis compared the 1992–1993 GPA scores of white males to the 2013–2014 GPA scores of Black males. The results indicated there that there were no significant differences in GPA scores of Black males in 2013–2014 compared to white males’ GPA scores decades before.
Whoa! It doesn’t support the claims of the Krylov paper at all!
This is the kind of behavior I’d expect from a creationist — they’re comfortable with mangling a scientific conclusion to say the opposite of what the author intended. But these are supposedly competent mainstream scientists, outright misrepresenting the ideas of the papers they cite.
I think I’ve made my case: this is a bad paper, full of vaguely defined terms, poorly supported claims, and dishonest distortions of the evidence. It should be an embarrasment to the authors, but since it feeds on and supports their twin motivations of resentment and entitlement, they’re not going to apply any kind of critical faculties to their work.
But who am I to criticize? I’m one of the social justice warriors they despise, employed as a professor at exactly the kind of university they hate. I freely admit to my position.
TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION
I am a professor at the University of Minnesota Morris, a public liberal arts college with a reputation for being relatively diverse and tolerant. Almost 20% of our student body are native Americans, and I specifically applied to work here because it was a student-centered university with a real appreciation for the breadth of knowledge. I believe in the importance of the humanities and social sciences and arts, in addition to the sciences, as an essential recipe for a good education. It’s a great place to work and is highly appreciated by a majority of our graduates.
You might be wondering how we must suffer for having to dance to the tune of Critical Social Justice, and how dreadfully denigrated the concepts of Western science must be here, and how savagely we must downplay merit in job applications, and tenure and promotion decisions. At least, if you’d read the nonsense in that Krylov paper you might think that.
Here’s what life really is like living under the thumb of a liberal social justice campus.
We are requested to include a land acknowledgement in our syllabi and our professional presentations, and the administration even includes boilerplate text that we can use. Note the word “request”: we are not required to do so, and most of us are more than willing to express our debt to the Dakota peoples. This is something of a minimal, token nod in their direction, so you’d have to be exceptionally mean-spirited to complain about it. The Krylov gang complains about it.
By offering this land acknowledgment, we affirm tribal sovereignty and express respect for Native peoples and nations. The University of Minnesota Morris is located along Owobopte Wakpa—a place from which Dakota turnips have been dug river—on the edge of mashkode akiing—prairie land. This land has been cared for and called home by the Dakota people, and later the Ojibwe people and other Native peoples, from time immemorial. Our state’s name, Minnesota, comes from the Dakota name for this region, Mni Sota Makoce—the land where the waters reflect the skies. Acknowledging the land and our history in this place is an offering of solidarity with and respect for Native nations and peoples. In doing so, we—The University of Minnesota Morris—reaffirm our commitment to our responsibilities rooted in the history of our campus site as a Native American boarding school, our distinctive mission as a public liberal arts college within Minnesota’s land-grant university, and our federal recognition as a Native American-Serving Nontribal Institution.
There’s a lot of history imbedded in that statement, and part of being here is an awareness of what it all means. Yes, this place was founded as an Indian boarding school by the Catholic church. I suppose it’s a burden that we aren’t allowed to forget that, but it’s part of the truth. It wouldn’t be meritorious to neglect our history. One of the buildings of that school still stands on campus.
We are a land-grant college. What that means is that we are a beneficiary of the Morrill act, a 19th century law that gave railroad tycoons an incentive to build rails across the wilderness, in return for giving them vast tracts of land all across the American west. They also had to set aside a fraction of that to the state, which could use the revenues to fund educational institutions. This land was taken away from the native people, and then, curiously, the government gave it away freely to European immigrants.
We are a colonial institution built on the bones of the people who came before us. We have to recognize this. The funding of our college was derived from land confiscated from the Dakota people in the mid 19th century, which led to them being confined to small reservations, forcing them to give up their way of life to become farmers, kidnapping their children and sending them to boarding schools like ours, and making them reliant on the non-existent generosity of US Indian Agents. Famine triggered the Dakota War of 1862, a bloody and brutal conflict on both sides.
The United States of America is a profoundly racist country. It hurts to admit this, but part of the merit of science ought to be an ability to witness uncomfortable truths, and make amends. The Dakota War ended with the defeat of the tribes at the hands of the US Army, and then we got the largest mass execution in the US, with 38 Indians hanged at a giant gallows. Isn’t technology wonderful? The bodies of the dead were then used for medical study. The Dakota leader, Little Crow, was shot by a farmer later. His body was scalped, and the scalp sent off to the Smithsonian Institution. His head was chopped off and paraded around the town of Hutchinson before being sent off to the Minnesota Historical Society.
Science was not an innocent bystander. The butchered remains of the Indian dead were not returned for burial until the 1970s.
This is not ancient history, either. The University of Minnesota continues to profit from the resources taken from indigenous peoples, and you can read more about it in the Truth Project, a study made to examine the relationship between the university and the tribes of Minnesota, which found “persistent, systemic mistreatment of Indigenous peoples by the University of Minnesota.”
The price of being a CSJ is fairly minimal: land acknowledgments, campus signs in both English and Anishinaabe, tuition waivers for all American Indian students (given that I think all students ought to be tuition exempt, that’s not any cost at all), the idea that we should respect our students’ cultures, no matter where they’re from, and awareness of the tragedy of our ancestor’s colonialist confiscation of the land. I’m more than willing to pay that.
To the authors of the “merit” paper, this is not only too much, but that anyone who recognizes that history and the trauma of racism is faking it. Here’s one of the authors, McWhorter, exhibiting extreme insensitivity:
The notion seems to be that practitioners and scholars, across disciplines, must devote a considerable part of their time to putatively antiracist initiatives. It’s a bold proposition, but given how shaky its actual justification is, it is reasonable to think that lately this devotion is being imposed by fiat, as opposed to being an organic outpouring. And if the price for questioning that notion is to be seen as sitting somewhere on a spectrum ranging from retrogressive to racist, it’s a price few are willing to pay. One is, rather, to pretend.
I guess anti-racists can’t possibly be sincere. Truth is, we don’t devote as much time as the subject deserves to anti-racism. I teach genetics, a subject with a long history of deplorable biases, and I spent one week of the semester on why racist genetics is wrong — time which was also spent applying what they learned about the actual science of genetics to racist pseudoscience. None of this was imposed by fiat. There is no university requirement that every class must include an obligatory session of racism bashing, so yes, it was organic and voluntary. The idea that anyone who disagrees with your right-wing ideology is just pretending is grossly offensive, and says more about McWhorter’s beliefs than anything about me. Oh, you can’t imagine someone being honestly anti-racist? Then screw you, McWhorter.
One other thing: the idea that being on the CSJ side means you’re anti-merit. That’s bullshit. I still get yearly performance reviews where I’m asked about my teaching, my research, my service to the university, and I have to submit these forms summarizing my work to date. Nowhere on these forms is there a question about my identity (it’s reduced to my social security number, if you must know), and nowhere is any administrator looking at me and saying, “You’re white, no raise for you this year.” I still give grades, but they’re based on performance, not skin color. No one in this very liberal university is even suggesting that we stop assessment, even though that’s a word that terrifies every professor, because it involves paperwork.
WHERE’S THE MERIT?
The “merit” paper had a struggle getting published, and was rejected by many editors, the authors claim. Now most of us, if we were trying to publish and editors kept bouncing it back at us and telling us that it was unacceptable, might stop and think that maybe the problem was ourselves, not the editors. That’s the whole point of publishing, isn’t it? To get feedback from your peers about the quality of the work?
Not to these clowns. They got rejected ONCE, by PNAS, and had decided a priori that of course their paper was meritorious, so therefore everyone else was wrong. How awkward. They had to resort to publishing in what was, at best, a fringe journal with the primary criterion of how controversial a paper was, rather than on its merits, and tried to fluff it up with an op-ed on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, a disreputable cesspool of bad conservative nonsense, and finally dumped it in the Journal of Controversial Ideas, which seems to mostly publish right wing trash.
Then they wrote an afterword calling it “ironic”. Only in the Alanis Morisette sense of the word, I think.
Perhaps the grandest irony of them all, and the saddest commentary on the state of academia, is that this article, defending merit, could only be published in a journal devoted to airing “controversial” ideas.147 As we were finalizing the manuscript for publication, the Office of Science and Technology Policy of the White House released a 14page long vision statement outlining the priorities for the U.S. STEMM ecosystem.148 The word “merit” appears nowhere in the document. In February, 2023, The National Academy of Sciences released a report titled “Advancing Antiracism, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in STEMM Organizations: Beyond Broadening Participation.” The report describes merit as a nonobjective, “culturally construed” concept used to hide bias and perpetuate privilege, refers to objectivity and meritocracy in STEMM as myths, and calls for merit based metrics of evaluation to be dismantled.149
Consider this: maybe just defending the magic word “merit”, while only vaguely defining it, and claiming that everyone who opposes racism is against merit, was considered a non-meritorious article? It was bad, sloppy, and dishonest, and that’s why it wasn’t accepted. What they want is a kind of affirmative action to privilege papers that favor a conservative viewpoint. It is the height of hypocrisy to demand that everyone else must meet their high standards, while waiving them for themselves.
Speaking of dishonest, that White House vision statement has the word “Excellence” right there in the title. They might want to consider investing in a thesaurus or dictionary over there in wingnuttia.
As for the NAS article, it’s 360 pages long. I only skimmed it, but it was easy to find where Krylov and pals were misrepresenting the work. Here’s what the NAS said about “culturally construed”:
STEMM organizations also express and transmit their cultures through processes such as hiring, admissions, tenure and promotion, and other activities that identify new members and promote those within. Conceptions of merit and excellence in doctoral admissions, for example, are not given or objective, but rather culturally constructed over time within disciplinary communities that have been mostly non-Hispanic White and mostly male; thus, the metrics of merit and excellence that institutions privilege in admissions reproduce cohorts of students who resemble what came before (Posselt, 2016). Faculty hiring and tenure committees make decisions using inherited norms of legitimate scholarship and scholarly behavior for one’s field, which are often themselves biased toward qualities that purport to be race neutral (Posselt, 2018; Gonzales, 2012). These norms can mask biases that affect “objective” processes, which, in fact, are socially and culturally constructed over time within disciplinary communities that have been homogeneous in terms of race and gender.
Um, yes? That is correct. The Krylov article also failed to give a conception of merit that was not culturally constructed; I find it hard to imagine a definition of merit that can say that one person is better than another that isn’t thoroughly larded with subjective positions.
I must emphasize that one point:
Conceptions of merit and excellence…are not given or objective
That’s the key issue here, and it’s one the Krylov paper glosses over and does not address. What is merit if not a culturally constructed metric? It’s right there in the final paper they cite, the fundamental problem that they simply ignore, writing a paper to defend “merit” without giving an objective definition of this thing that they claim is impartial and objective and essential to science.
By the way, the only places where the report uses the word “dismantle” is in reference to dismantling racism, not merit-based metrics. Those aren’t synonyms, although I suspect the authors think they are.
One last thing from that NAS paper…actually the first thing, since it comes from the preface.
This report provides no simple answers to racial obstacles that date back beyond the origins of American history. The authors—a consensus committee of experts appointed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—were selected for their deep engagement on issues of antiracism, diversity, equity, and inclusion in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine (STEMM); as such, we are well aware of the challenge in using evidence-based action to remedy unfair systems, structures, and institutions that advantage some and disadvantage others on the basis of race and ethnicity. Undaunted, we tackled our charge to identify racist and biased conditions that create systemic barriers and impede the full talent pool of our nation from pursuing and advancing in STEMM careers. This report recommends actionable strategies, based on the scientific evidence reviewed herein and based on the lived experiences of practicing STEMM scientists, engineers, and medical professionals.
Keep in mind that this lengthy NAS report is one of the key examples used in the Krylov paper to show that CSJ supporters are abandoning the “liberal” ideal of assessing the evidence and rewarding merit…but it is written by a consensus committee of experts in STEM and uses the SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE to recommend ACTIONABLE STRATEGIES. They Krylov gang are hypocrites. If they were serious about the importance of evidence and merit, they would accept the conclusions of this work. Unless they’re actually admitting that “merit” is a subjective phenomenon, that “merit” might mean one thing to the National Academies of Science and something altogether different to a group of self-appointed cranks who resent the whole idea of social justice. But that would completely undermine their whole paper!
I guess I should mention the terrible Wall Street Journal op-ed by Coyne & Krylov. It’s even worse because it distills the Krylov paper into a shorter, more readable summary of their bad ideas in a way that will be read by many more people. Once again, it uses the word “merit” like a pointy sharp knife, oblivious to the possibility that it’s much more diffuse and not quite as crystalline as they imagine, while demonizing anyone who introduces values and greater concerns into the argument as people who hate science. So…they compare Social Justice advocates to…Trofim Lysenko.
The crux of our argument is simple: Science that doesn’t prioritize merit doesn’t work, and substituting ideological dogma for quality is a shortcut to disaster. A prime example is Lysenkoism—the incursion of Marxist ideology into Soviet and Chinese agriculture in the mid-20th century. Beginning in the 1930s, the U.S.S.R. started to enforce the untenable theories of Trofim Lysenko, a charlatan Russian agronomist who rejected, among other things, the existence of standard genetic inheritance. As scientists dissented—rejecting Lysenko’s claims for lack of evidence—they were fired or sent to the gulag. Implementation of his theories in Soviet and, later, Chinese agriculture led to famines and the starvation of millions. Russian biology still hasn’t recovered.
Yet a wholesale and unhealthy incursion of ideology into science is occurring again—this time in the West. We see it in progressives’ claim that scientific truths are malleable and subjective, similar to Lysenko’s insistence that genetics was Western “pseudoscience” with no place in progressive Soviet agriculture. We see it when scientific truths—say, the binary nature of sex—are either denied or distorted because they’re politically repugnant.
This is absurd hyperbole, malicious and stupid. You can’t equate a broad-based social justice movement to a single terrible man given great power by a tyrannical autocrat. No one is being sent off to a gulag. What we have is a consensus among a large number of scientists that racism is wrong, that we cannot grow the scientific enterprise if we continue to discourage and exclude a significant proportion of the population. It’s about opening the doors and welcoming more people into the work, and about repudiating the bad ideas of the past, which is the only way to grow.
I hate to break it to Coyne and Krylov, but one of the basic principles of science is that it is malleable — we don’t possess absolute truths, but instead are constantly striving to reach the truth, and that our interpretations are subject to revision at all times. Those interpretations are necessarily subjective, since they’re formulated by human beings and shaped by context and history. We have so many examples of this truth from the history of science, such as race “science,” eugenics, the exclusion of women from science, and now this ongoing resistance to acknowledge past wrongs. The virtue of science is that it adapts and corrects itself; the weakness of conservative thought is that it resists necessary change and always supports the status quo, no matter how fallacious it might be.
It is Coyne & Krylov who are rejecting the evidence now. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine assembled a whole book by multiple qualified authors to present the evidence for systemic racism and its deleterious effects on science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine, and these two jokers dismissed it out of hand because it didn’t support their vague ideas about the magic of “merit.” They wrote a paper so bad that it couldn’t be published anywhere except in a fringe journal full of crank conservative opinions, and now they’re going to lecture us on merit and science and accuse everyone who disagrees with them of being Lysenkoists.
I’m going to agree with them on one thing, though: letting ideology run roughshod over the data and evidence is wrong and bad and should be deplored. It’s just too bad that the paper they wrote is oblivious to the extreme ideology that drives their own opinions.
OK, that’s enough. That was seriously one of the worst papers I’ve ever read, and I read creationist drivel — it’s just that the Krylov paper actually has some respectable authors attached to it, although their respectability is greatly diminished by their association with the racist apologetics in this badly written paper.
Odd that a paper about diversity in science should fail to even mention a possible effect of having a homogeneous scientific workforce. When minorities are not represented in the grant approval process, grants may get approved that treat minorities unfairly. Krylov et al’s paper made no mention of the Tuskegee study of syphilis, or of other medical “experiments” on members of under-represented ethnic groups. Any review article that fails to review such an important aspect of the issue lacks merit, by any definition of the term, and was rightfully rejected by PNAS.
On the other hand, I think the authors actually wanted a rejection letter. Being rejected allowed them to scream “victim of social justice warriors” and got them a high-visibility WSJ editorial, which generates more views than an editorial in PNAS. The entire article was a scam, designed to gin up outrage over a fake issue.
Further evidence that this was intended as a scam: PNAS has an Impact Factor of 12.8. If one’s article is rejected there, it would be common behavior to aim for a less rarefied platform, say, one with an IF of 6, or 8. Still highly respectable, but an easier target. Krylov et al didn’t do that – they went straight from the heights of PNAS to the “Journal of Controversial Ideas” which isn’t really even a science journal at all. The whole thing was a scam designed to give them a mechanism for crying “censorship”.
Now, they do have a point. Ethnicity and race are obviously irrelevant and that can be proved by a lack of deleterious numbers of walrus harvests in Dodge City, a lack of impact on irrigation losses of corn harvests in Nunavut from glacial losses or Ebola cases in Bangladesh.
I do wonder what they’d refer to being excessively accumulated in both Tokiamura criticality incidents… Probably a dog whistle that it never would’ve happened if old white men ran things there or something.
I wonder how much it cost them to get this drivel published? I’m also willing to bet that quite a few of the signatories on the paper likely never even heard of the paper in question. All of the fingerprints are there.
I’m also curious as to what an assay of their brains would show, as far as mercury residual. For indeed, they’re as mad as a tragically proverbial hatter!
PZ, this video is an excellent (meritorious, even) piece of work. Too bad it was concering such a sketchy paper already destined to the dustbin.
The science of teams (including team science) has been pretty unanimous and conclusive: diverse teams outperform homogenous teams; and people from underrepresented backgrounds tend to produce the majority of innovative productive new directions for science and engineering.
These clowns are as anti-science as you can get, to ignore literally hundreds of research articles from domains as varied as military team to business teams to student group projects to scientific labs or collaborations, carried out by hundreds of independent researchers – including cishet white guys! the only demographic that these fuckwits think matters!
Let’s call these idiots what they really are: science deniers and pseudoscientists.
Ah yes, the scientific meritocracy.
I invite readers to visit the Wikipedia page on scientific misconduct cases and marvel at how many of these cases involve people in powerful senior positions, or people who continued to publish clearly fabricated data sometimes for decades before being caught out. And these are only the cases we know about — a little familiarity with Retraction Watch makes it pretty damn clear that there is a huge submerged chunk of misconduct iceberg out there sitting below the waterline, and most of the time the institutional response is to protect perpetrators right up until it becomes completely untenable (and sometimes even a bit beyond that).
I also invite readers to look at the other side of the coin: meritorious researchers who do not get rewarded, including women who do not receive equal credit for their work and women who find their career pathways blocked by barriers that have nothing to do with their talent as investigators, or the loss of Black and Asian graduates to the postgrad scientific community in the US as well as in the UK (even more here on UK racial discrepancies in science).
These are not the marks of a functional meritocracy.
Pierce R. Butler says
The University of Minnesota Morris is located along Owobopte Wakpa—a place from which Dakota turnips have been dug river…
Wokeness causes words to fall into oblivion! Run away! Run away!
PZ Myers says
No words are missing. The translation is “a place from which Dakota turnips have been dug” river, analogous to our modern “Pomme de Terre” or “potato” river. It just needed som more punctuation.
@ #2 wzrd1
“they do have a point”
but if they wear a hat it won’t show.
Lack of diversity also often means ignoring the outgroups. For instance, in linguistics in the English speaking world assuming the conclusions drawn from studying English (and perhaps a handful of other languages usually Indo-European) are the norm for human languages. Or in medical science, that conclusions from studying males usually “white” are the norm while females or non-whites are special cases (or why gynecology exist but not really a major specialty for male health).
I’m also looking forward to seeing their definition of ‘merit’
I’ll pay attention when they quantify it.
vereverum @ 8, I was thinking more along the lines of a hammer putting things back into round…
But then, I was rather good at that, having to fix bent rims or fenders over the years.
Although, some heads are distinctly harder and denser than mere metal. Mine sure is…
Raging Bee says
Is this paper embedded in Pinker’s “Free Speech Is Totes Important” NFT? (Don’t bother looking that up, it’s not like it would add any “value”/”merit” to the NFT.)
Too bad [the OP] was concering such a sketchy paper already destined to the dustbin.
We can’t assume that’s where it’s “destined” to go; there are plenty of right-wing obscurantist hacks who would be quite happy to pick it up and run with it (i.e., my state’s governor, who only won that job by running with “Critical Race Theory”).
News to me.
Where is merit mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution?
This is an assertion without proof or data which makes it useless.
Science is powerful and the basis of our modern civilization, taking us from the stone age to the space age.
Is science built on merit? News to me.
It is based on methodological naturalism, meaning that it ignores the supernatural as not being capable of empirical study. Science is empirical, generating hypothesis and testing them over and over again to approach asymptotically the truth.
You can say a lot about what science is, but being “built on merit” whatever that means isn’t one of them.
Another assertion without any proof and this is just wrong anyway.
All these idiots are doing is stringing assertions without proof or data together and proving nothing except that they are mindless right wingnuts wishing they were living in the 1950s.
I’ve only gotten through the first three sentences and already can tell this is pure trash. Three assertions without proof or data and a lot of what they claim is just wrong.
Raging Bee says
However, when preferential selection goes overboard, e.g., when the mean scores on admission criteria of affirmative action students is a standard deviation (or more) below those of students admitted under conventional standards, the practice becomes counterproductive in helping underrepresented groups to advance.131
Do they cite even ONE instance of this actually happening? Or are they just assuming that it’s totally impossible to bring minorities into any institution without sacrificing “merit” or intellectual quality? Such an assumption would have to be based on the belief — the BLATANTLY RACIST belief — that all minority applicants are intellectually inferior to all White male applicants.
Raging Bee says
Where is merit mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution?
I don’t recall seeing any mention of it in John Locke’s treatise either.
“All men are created equal” doesn’t exactly prioritize “merit” either.
Social justice has nothing whatsoever to do with with “undermining the core principles of liberal epistemology and replacing merit with nonscientific, politically motivated criteria.”
Social justice is justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.
They just made up a flimsy strawperson and then murdered it.
You can have liberal epistemology, merit (whatever that means), and social justice.
In fact, you could make a better argument that you absolutely need Social justice for liberal epistemology and merit (whatever that means).
Meritocracy, the very argument initially tried to be wielded against that upstart, a Jewish patent clerk from Switzerland named Einstein.
After all, what merit would he have had at that time?
What meritocracy without true merit actually gets is brain drain, to where such idiocy doesn’t exist.
Just one more attempt to drive our nation farther into developing nation levels. What these tools, like their various other peers fail to realize is, their masters scraps are few and far between and that the master’s dog will eat better than they.
I say we ship the lot of them to an island. Then, have the navy sink the island.
These right wingnuts are also Trans haters.
Their scientific truth is just wrong and this was known 50 years ago.
Intersexes exist in the human population at high enough levels that we even have a name for them, intersexes.
They also just ignore that sex and gender are two different things. Some people have gender identities that don’t match their sex asssigned at birth.
We call these people Trans people.
They exist whether Coyne and Krylov like it nor not.
OMG! Look at this quote from the paper:
It’s true that the principle of universal gravitation persists in General Relativity, but the rest of this sentence is so wrong as to have been good enough reason to demand a rewrite right there. The Wikipedia entry on the subject is much better:
The authors of this paper don’t know a damn thing about General Relativity and its differences to Newtonian gravity. Black holes are indeed derived from the mathematics of GR…but they can also be derived from Newtonian physics, and the earliest known report of this is by John Michell as far back as 1784! He called them ‘black stars’, but the principle of a body so dense that its escape velocity is greater than the speed of light is the same under Newton or Einstein, and the maths even resolves to the same value for the critical radius (r < 2M). Laplace was not aware of Michell’s work and replicated it in 1796. And in no way was GR based on Einstein’s interest in extending gravitational theory to ‘new phenomena such as black holes’, especially as black holes were first observed in 1964, long after GR was published in 1915. Essentially the authors here are just throwing around terms to make themselves look clever, but have no understanding of either the physics or the history of physics they are referring to. When a published article contains descriptions significantly less accurate than the relevant Wikipedia entries, something has gone very, very wrong.
And here is the key paragraph from the paper (An American Crisis: the Lack of Black Men in Medicine) referenced in support of that claim:
That paper also refers to this 2015 paper, Racial Diversity in the Medical Profession: The Impact of Affirmative Action Bans on Underrepresented Student of Color Matriculation in Medical Schools which shows:
They have reported the opposite of what those papers found. This is, to put it bluntly, rank academic dishonesty.
Huh, is it not “ironic” that a paper claiming to be focused on merit seems to have no actual merit in it whatsoever?
Hang on. Didn’t Lysenko ignore the findings of science to promote an untenable ideology that lead to disaster? Aren’t they ignoring science to promote their own ideology. Her’s a way to trim that long author list. They could all change their surname to Lysenko.
If this is the first sentence in their article, then they are making a false start. Merit has nothing to do with democracy. On the contrary, the whole point of democracy is that everyone has a say in how a society is run. Making merit the central pillar is in opposition of democratic values.
PZ Myers says
Yes, that is the very first sentence of the abstract, and I agree–it’s ignorant bullshit.
StevoR @ 21, not at all, instead, it’s depressingly familiar.
garydargan @ 22, I have a better way of trimming that list – verification of participation. Far too frequently authors listed never heard of such a drivel paper, but had their names unknowingly included.
Tabby Lavalamp says
We know the whole “merit” argument is BS because there have been, hold on to your hats, studies. All else being equal, “John Smith” will more likely just have their resume read than “DeAndre Washington”. Blind auditions increased the number of female members of orchestras dramatically. And let’s not forget the advantages of being a legacy when it comes to just getting into a university at all. How many spots at Harvard could be taken by people with actual merit that are now filled with mediocre failsons?
Jim Balter says
No one who whines about merit ever thinks they aren’t the ones who have it.
No, but it’s a central pillar of racism, slavery, misogyny, xenophobia, and other forms of supremacist ideology.
Similar to creationist claims that evolution or the scientific method are articles of faith. But hey, sOmE hAvE aRgUeD, so it must be true.
Those studies on orchestra recruitment are amazing. Even in blind auditions, highly talented women players were missing out…until someone realised that people wearing high heels, i.e. almost always women, could be heard clacking on the hard floor as they walked on stage to perform. As soon as they put carpet down, the bias against women disappeared.
SC (Salty Current) says
Tabby Lavalamp @ #26:
Related to this, I read it a long time ago, but I recall Jerome Karabel’s 2005 The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton describing how these schools were so afraid of having “too high” a proportion of Jewish students that they basically concocted the notion of the “well-rounded” boy (of course) as a key admissions criterion to justify a preference for lackluster St. Grottlesex WASPs and others who couldn’t compete academically. Then they sent people out to the Midwest to recruit farm boys. The project for several decades was pretty openly anti-intellectual.
Kry me a river.
lcuddy12 . says
Meritocracy is defined in the footnote where the authors first mention the term:
They also have an entire section on applying merit where they talk about its parameters and how it should be measured:
@ ^ lcuddy12 . : Okay so how then do you define and weigh up “rigor, importance, and validity” in objectove rather than subjective terms. Like “merit” that seems very much in the eye of the beholder. Whose veiw of rigor and importance etc .. determined how?
Letters from reviewers? Which reviewers chosen how, based on what? Baised in hoew many possible ways?
Have you even heard of the word paradigmn and the name Thmoas Kuhn? ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Kuhn )
Your thoughts on Structuralism and post structralism?
lcuddy12 . says
@ StevoR First of all, you’re shifting the goal post by attacking their actual definition of merit. Myers said they didn’t define it or talk about how it should be measured; they did. He was wrong.
Secondly, your argument that merit and terms like objectivity are in the eye of the beholder is straightforward subjectivism or relativism (depending on how you would expand your reasoning). Sure you want to defend that in a scientific context? To just take one example, if merit, objectivity, etc., were in the eye of the beholder, it would be difficult to see how we could have had experts during Covid. Objectivity is actually just subjective, right, so why not listen to Joe Rogan over Eric Topol?
The concept of merit is not necessarily incompatible with Kuhn’s paradigm shift argument. Kuhn, after all, denied that his view amounted to relativism – at worst it’s a very sophisticated form of relativism. Take his point about the incommensurability of paradigms. One of the examples he uses is the juxtaposition of the fluidity theory of electricity (popular among scientists in the 1800’s) and the theory of electromagnetism. Merit in these two cases might be slightly different around the edges, but many of the core ideas involved would be the same: publications, accomplishments, originality, etc.
Just because something is difficult to define and clarify does not necessarily mean that it’s subjective. To think otherwise is to engage in a type of perfectionist fallacy, where one erroneously argues that either a concept is perfect, or we can throw it out entirely.
Although Myers clearly did not use the principle of charity in his evaluation of the authors’ paper, I will use it with him. He actually doesn’t seem to be saying that merit is purely in the eye of the beholder. Rather he seems to be saying that merit is more difficult to define and that it should include considerations of social justicy stuff too, and from his point of view the authors didn’t define it or clarify it (they did, though). It’s too bad because in the paper, the authors take care to talk about this difficulty, using different examples of how to apply merit. Probably Myers and the authors have more in common than he thinks in this regard.