Scholarship in the age of wokism and political correctness

OPINION. PAMELA PAUL. A Paper That Says Science Should Be Impartial Was Rejected by Major Journals. You Can't Make This Up (NYT, May 4, 2023)

Is a gay Republican Latino more capable of conducting a physics experiment than a white progressive heterosexual woman? Would they come to different conclusions based on the same data because of their different backgrounds?

For most people, the suggestion isn't just ludicrous; it's offensive.

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

This sounds entirely reasonable.

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

Instead, the paper has been published in a new journal called — you can't make this up — The Journal of Controversial Ideas. 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.

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

But whatever validity "alternative ways of knowing," "multiple narratives" and "lived experience" may have in the humanities, they are of questionable utility when it comes to the sciences. Some defenders of positionality statements maintain that these acknowledgments promote objectivity by drawing attention to a researcher's potential blind spots, but in practice they can have the opposite effect, implying that scientific research isn't universally valid or applicable — that there are different kinds of knowledge for different groups of people.

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. At the University of California, Berkeley, for example, in the hiring cycle from 2018 to 2019, three-quarters of applicants for a set of five faculty positions in the life sciences were eliminated on the basis of these statements alone. (Grant programs also often require applications for funding in the sciences to include D.E.I. goals.)

Of course, nobody wants to hire a racist. But that's not what we're talking about. For a prospective faculty member to say he is determined to treat all students equally rather than to advance diversity initiatives can be enough to count someone out of a job.

Marisol Quintanilla, an assistant professor of nematology at Michigan State University, was required to take a multiple choice D.E.I. test for continued employment, along with all faculty members; she was also asked to write a D.E.I. statement as part of her annual performance evaluations, which weigh heavily in the tenure process. Several designated answers in the test didn't align with her religious or scientific beliefs, she said. The statement requirement was abandoned in March, but not without a protracted battle. "I've heard colleagues of mine saying they need to get rid of white men in academia," Quintanilla, a Chilean immigrant of mixed ethnicity, told me. "It amounted to clear discrimination. I feel very uncomfortable with this because I think hiring the best qualified candidates would be best for the advancement of science."

Those are just three troubling practices detailed in the new paper. Sadly, they are part of a much larger set of developments.

"What's being advocated are philosophies that are explicitly anti-scientific," Anna Krylov, a chemistry professor at the University of Southern California and one of the paper's authors, told me. "They deny that objective truth exists." Having grown up in the Soviet Union, where science was infused with Marxist-Leninist ideology, Krylov is particularly attuned to such threats. And while she has advocated on behalf of equal treatment for women in science, she prefers to be judged on the basis of her achievements, not on her sex. "The merit of scientific theories and findings do not depend on the identity of the scientist," she said in a phone interview.

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

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

At a time when faith in institutions is plummeting and scientific challenges such as climate change remain enduringly large, the last thing we want is to give the public reason to lose faith in science. A study published last month, "Even When Ideologies Align, People Distrust Politicized Institutions," shows that what we need is more impartiality, not less.

If you believe bias is crucial to evaluating scientific work, you may object to the fact that several of the authors of the study are politically conservative, as are some of the researchers they cite. One author, Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago and a critic of some affirmative action and diversity programs, inspired outcry in 2021 when he was invited to speak at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But to deny the validity of this paper on that basis would mean succumbing to the very fallacies the authors so persuasively dismantle.

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

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