Paul L. Caron

Saturday, May 6, 2023

NY Times Op-Ed: In Defense Of Merit And Rigor In Academic Journals

New York Times Op-Ed:  Impartial Was Rejected by Major Journals. You Can’t Make This Up., by Pamela Paul:

[The belief] that science is somehow subjective and should be practiced and judged accordingly has recently taken hold in academic, governmental and medical settings. A paper published last week, “In Defense of Merit in Science,” documents the disquieting ways in which research is increasingly informed by a politicized agenda, one that often characterizes science as fundamentally racist and in need of “decolonizing.” The authors argue that science should instead be independent, evidence-based and focused on advancing knowledge.

This sounds entirely reasonable.

Yet the paper was rejected by several prominent mainstream journals, including The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Another publication that passed on the paper, the authors report, described some of its conclusions as “downright hurtful.” The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences took issue with the word “merit” in the title, writing that “the problem is that this concept of merit, as the authors surely know, has been widely and legitimately attacked as hollow as currently implemented.”

Instead, the paper has been published in a new journal called — you can’t make this up — The Journal of Controversial Ideas. The journal, which welcomes papers that “discuss well-known controversial topics from diverse cultural, philosophical, moral, political and religious perspectives,” was co-founded in 2021 by the philosopher Peter Singer and is entirely serious. This particular paper was rewritten multiple times and peer-reviewed before publication. However controversial one judges the paper’s claims, they deserve consideration.

According to its 29 authors, who are primarily scientists (including two Nobel laureates) in fields as varied as theoretical physics, psychology and pharmacokinetics, ideological concerns are threatening independence and rigor in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. Though the goal of expanding opportunity for more diverse researchers in the sciences is laudable, the authors write, it should not be pursued at the expense of foundational scientific concepts like objective truth, merit and evidence, which they claim are being jeopardized by efforts to account for differing perspectives.

Consider the increasingly widespread practice of appending a “positionality statement” to one’s research. This is an explicit acknowledgment by the author of an academic paper of his or her identity (e.g., “nondisabled,” “continuing generation”). Positionality statements were first popular in the social sciences and are now spreading to the hard sciences and medicine. The idea is that one’s race, sex, relative privilege and “experiences of oppression” inherently inform one’s research, especially in ways that perpetuate or alleviate bias. ...

Another concern is the rise of “citation justice” — the attempt to achieve racial or gender balance in scholarly references. The purpose of a citation in an academic publication is to substantiate claims and offer the most relevant supporting research. Advocates of citation justice say these citations too often prioritize the work of white men. But in a field like chemistry, in which fewer than 30 percent of papers are written by women, according to data from the American Chemical Society, and where the foundational texts are almost entirely written by men, “justice” means disproportionately favoring studies by women, regardless of relevance. Many prominent science journals now recommend that before submission, authors run their papers through software programs that detect any citation bias. ...

A third worrisome development is the statements that researchers are often required to write in order to apply for faculty jobs (and to advance in those positions) describing their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, something my colleague John McWhorter, one of the paper’s authors, has written about in The Times. These are noble goals that in practice, however, can amount to discrimination, and such statements strike many as a kind of political litmus test. ...

It should go without saying — but in today’s polarized world, unfortunately, it doesn’t — that the authors of this paper do not deny the existence of historical racism or sexism or dispute that inequalities of opportunity persist. Nor do they deny that scientists have personal views, which are in turn informed by culture and society. They acknowledge biases and blind spots.

Where they depart from the prevailing ideological winds is in arguing that however imperfect, meritocracy is still the most effective way to ensure high quality science and greater equity. (A major study published last week shows that despite decades of sexism, claims of gender bias in academic science are now grossly overstated.) The focus, the authors write, should be on improving meritocratic systems rather than dismantling them. ...

One needn’t agree with every aspect of the authors’ politics or with all of their solutions. But to ignore or dismiss their research rather than impartially weigh the evidence would be a mistake. We need, in other words, to judge the paper on the merits. That, after all, is how science works.

In Defense of Merit in Science:

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 non-scientific, politically motivated criteria. We explain the philosophical origins of this conflict, document the intrusion of ideology into our scientific institutions, discuss the perils of abandoning merit, and offer an alternative, human-centered approach to address existing social inequalities. ...

Imbuing science with ideology harms the scientific enterprise and leads to a loss of public trust. If we continue to undermine merit, our universities will become institutions of mediocrity rather than places of creativity and accomplishment, leading to the loss of the competitive edge in technology. Thus, we need to restore our commitment to practices grounded in epistemic humility and the meritocratic, liberal tradition.

We need to be vigilant against the dilution of our merit evaluations by biases, ideology, and nepotism. Moreover, as a community, we should continue to invest in mentoring and education to help people develop their full potential. Adopting the guidelines we have suggested does not mean that we ignore the contributions of past racism and sexism to the inequalities we observe today. It means addressing these issues in a fundamentally positive way—not by introducing diversity metrics into funding or hiring decisions, nor by weakening the standards for university admissions and professional advancement, but by investing in the early pipeline, for example, by strengthening educational outreach and programs to increase access to sustained quality education and early exposure to STEMM.

Scientists must start standing up for the integrity of their fields despite the risk of bullying and verbal attacks; donors and funders should condition their support on nonpartisan and rational scientific pursuit. Science as a free pursuit of knowledge untainted by ideological orthodoxies maximally enhances the public good.

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. As we were finalizing the manuscript for publication, the Office of Science and Technology Policy of the White House released a 14-page long vision statement outlining the priorities for the U.S. STEMM ecosystem. 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.

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