Sunday, April 30, 2023

In Defense of Merit in Science

In Defense of Merit in Science. D. Abbot et al. Journal of Controversial Ideas, Apr 28 2023.

Abstract: 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.

Keywords: STEM; Enlightenment; meritocracy; critical social justice; postmodernism; identity politics; Mertonian norms

4. The Perils of Replacing Merit with Social Engineering and Ideological Control
4.1. Lessons from History
The universalism of science does not preclude culture and politics from being involved in funding priorities. Funders, whether government or private, expect to receive a return on their investment. Yet politicians should not dictate how science is done, and political agendas should not replace Mertonian norms. History demonstrates the dangers of replacing merit­based science with ideological control and social engineering.16,17,19 In the Soviet Union (USSR), the aberrations of Trofim Lysenko had catastrophic consequences for science and society.17 An agronomist and “people’s scientist” who came from the “superior” class of poor peasants, Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetics because of its supposed inconsistency with Marxist ideology. Dissent from Lysenko’s ideas was outlawed and his opponents were fired or prosecuted. Lysenko’s ideologically infused agricultural ideas were put into practice in the USSR and China, where, in both countries, they led to decreased crop yields and famine.17 Today, biology is again being subjugated to ideology—medical schools deny the biological basis of sex, biology courses avoid teaching the heritability of traits, and so on.29,30 More examples of ideological subversion of science, relevant to physics and chemistry, were discussed in a recent viewpoint.19 Such analysis19 is often dismissed with vague deflections such as “everything is political” and “everyone is biased.” There is an element of truth to these declarations, which can help raise awareness of the potential of scientists to have biases, including biases on politicized topics, and help minimize such biases. However, those making these arguments often use them to impose their own ideological agendas on what can be studied and what kind of answers are permissible.31 It is this sense of the politicization of science that we categorically oppose.
4.2. The Damage Inflicted by Today’s Politicization of Science
The lessons from history are clear: ideological control of the scientific enterprise leads to its decline. The ongoing ideological subversion of STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) education is particularly worrying. Ideological changes in the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand are already under way32–34 and are quickly influencing other democracies. The worst excesses of CSJ ideology are spreading to medicine, psychology, and global public health with worldwide implications.25,26,35–37 For example, in global public health, the ideology manifests in the Decolonize Global Health movement, which calls for dismantling global health, questions research­based knowledge, emphasizes intergroup and international antagonisms, and challenges universalism as an ideal for global health, humanitarian aid, and development assistance.37 CSJ­driven pedagogy can be pernicious, even when proposed innovations appear benign. For example, the proposed curriculum decolonization in pharmacology38 involves teaching about drugs developed from folk remedies and focusing on the contributions of non­Europeans. While such topics might be appropriate for a history of medicine course, centering the curriculum around them, as has been proposed, would be detrimental to training health professionals. The vast majority of today’s pharmacopeia is derived from the research and development efforts of the modern pharmaceutical industry; effective treatments derived from traditional medicine are rare, especially in the era of bio­ and immunotherapies. For example, of the over 150 anti­cancer drugs available today, only three are of natural origin (trabectedin, taxanes, and vinca­alkaloids).39 Decolonizing pharmacology also contributes to the public’s infatuation with traditional medicine, while health agencies report numerous therapeutic accidents involving herbal products not validated following “colonial” standards.40 Such pedagogy also reinforces mistrust toward “white medicine,” feeding conspiracy theories against the pharmaceutical industry, as exemplified by campaigns against COVID vaccines, which, sadly, disproportionately impacted minority groups.41 Scientific research requires dedication, intensive technical training, and a commitment to rigor and truth­seeking. Weakening merit­based admissions, created to identify and cultivate the best and brightest, will have long­lasting consequences for the scientific workforce, discouraging or preventing many promising students from entering the field. Signs of this are already evident. The weakening of the workforce in the U.S. has contributed to that country’s recent fall from the position of world leader in science.15 If the movement in North America to replace merit with ideology in funding42–45 and faculty hiring46–50 progresses, further deterioration in the ability to foster excellence in research in the U.S. is all but inevitable. This does not bode well for the future of science and society globally. Enforcing identity­based hiring is discriminatory,51–53 as it deprives some high­achieving individuals, including economically disadvantaged individuals who are not members of politically favored identity groups, of opportunities they have earned,54–57 thereby potentially damaging morale and engagement. In the U.S., this has resulted in the unfair treatment of Asian­American, Jewish, white, male, and foreign students.32,52,53,56–59 Ironically, replacing universalist principles with identity­based selection risks ultimately harming qualified underrepresented researchers by introducing doubt as to whether they merited their position or were hired for ideological reasons. Attempts to demonize, inflict reputational damage, or silence critics of social engineering practices by characterizing them as racists, white supremacists, or worse46,60–63 is particularly detrimental to the open intellectual environment in which scientific inquiry into difficult social problems thrives. For every incident in which a scientist is targeted, thousands get the message and self­censor.60,61,63 Besides directly impacting the scientific enterprise, the ideological capture of scientific institutions19,31,64 has broad consequences for society. Scientists and scientific institutions have a responsibility to enhance understanding and acceptance of the scientific consensus on matters of public importance. As seen with climate change and COVID­19, once a scientific topic becomes politicized, trust in science diminishes, laying the groundwork for science denial, conspiracy theories, and political opportunism.37 Research has consistently shown that public acceptance of a scientific consensus is driven not by scientific literacy (accepters are no more knowledgeable than deniers) but by political ideology and trust in scientific institutions.65 When scientific institutions issue political position statements and adopt identity­based policies, they alienate and lose the trust of large dissenting segments of the public.66 When prominent scientific journals promote these ideologies through editorials and perspective pieces, they magnify the alienation. Conflicting with the Mertonian principles of disinterestedness and universalism, these manifestos undermine the credibility of science as an objective, disinterested, and truth­seeking enterprise.67

5. The Genesis of the Current Attacks on Merit­based Science The ideological basis of the current attacks on science emanates from certain veins of postmodernism and the identity­based ideologies they have spawned: various CSJ theories, including Critical Race Theory (CRT), related theories of structural racism, and postcolonial theory.3–6,14 These ideologies are increasingly finding their way into politics, culture, and education and are negatively affecting science, medicine, technology, psychology, and global health.15,25,26,34,37 They are not imposed by totalitarian regimes, but spread by activists and abetted by university administrators and business leaders who fail to protect their institutions from these illiberal, regressive ideas.60,63,68 The genesis of these ideologies is often obscure to the public or even to their bearers—e.g., administrators trained in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)—who are unlikely to have read Gramsci, Derrida, Foucault, Bell, Crenshaw, and Delgado. But just as a Soviet apparatchik need not have read Das Kapital to have been an agent ensuring conformity to Marxist doctrine, one need not be fully versed in postmodern or CRT­inspired scholarship to be implementing the ideology. The problems emerge from doctrinaire implementation, not from deep knowledge of the scholarship. Critical Theory and CSJ conflict with the liberal Enlightenment. According to Delgado and Stefancic,5 their characteristic elements include anti­rationalism; anti­enlightenment; rejection of equal treatment, philosophical liberalism, and neutrality in law; standpoint epistemology and subjectivism as the basis of knowledge; and intersectionality. Recently, ideas that emerged from Critical Theory have been aggressively disseminated to the public, notably in books by DiAngelo and Kendi,69,70 now promoted as essential reading in many schools and universities. Critical Theories seek to fundamentally change the practice of science.10,14 Figure 3 contrasts CSJ epistemology with the ideas of the liberal Enlightenment.

CSJ is not an empirical theory, because its tenets are maintained despite their being either demonstrably false or unfalsifiable.3,6,7,10,14 The existence of objective reality, for example, which CSJ denies, is attested to by every successful engineering project, from bridges to satellites, from cell phones to electric cars, ever conducted. The fallibility of “lived experience” is attested to by a wealth of psychological research demonstrating errors and biases in self­reports.71 Yet, CSJ has found its way into STEMM, evoking parallels with the ideological corruption of science of past totalitarian regimes.19 As an illustration, The Lancet published a paper in 2020 titled “Adopting an Intersectionality Framework to Address Power and Equity in Medicine”72—a call to adopt CSJ ideology in medical education and practice. This is reminiscent of the ideological control of science16,17,19 and medicine18 in the USSR. In medicine, Marxist ideology manifested itself in “‘workerizing’ ... [the] apparatus [of medical care]” (i.e., selecting future doctors from the working class, rather than the intelligentsia by means of class­based quotas) and prioritizing medical care for citizens based on class (the proletariat was to be given higher priority than the farm workers; the farm workers, higher priority than the intelligentsia; and so on).18 The CSJ view—that institutions of knowledge, art, and law perpetuate systemic racism and, therefore, must be dismantled, and that merit­based 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 evidence­based science.75 Below we discuss publications making unsupported claims of systemic injustices and attacking merit. Such publications rarely, if ever, provide evidence that observed disproportionalities in the race or gender distribution of a scientific field are the result of present­day structural or systemic racism. Whereas historical events, such as apartheid, slavery, and Jim Crow, are beyond dispute, the extent to which systemic racism influences STEMM or academia today is a contested question.76 Its existence cannot be established by proclamation. In the absence of compelling evidence, these assertions are not scientific; they are dogma. In his book Discrimination and Disparities, 76 Sowell takes to task the central axiom of CSJ—that disparate outcomes for various social groups emerge as a result of discrimination—and presents ample evidence illustrating its fallacy. Sowell’s arguments present compelling counterpoints to the standard set of arguments against meritocracy, such as those presented in The Tyranny of Merit 77 and The Meritocracy Trap.78 Space considerations do not permit a full evaluation of the arguments, many of which boil down to merit systems being imperfect; that is, that there are biases in judgments of merit, that they are not always implemented as promised, and that they risk creating hubris in the successful and despair among the unsuccessful. Our perspective is that, however valid these criticisms, merit­based systems are still immensely superior to alternatives that have either been tried before or are being proposed now.77 Communist systems, for example, which are vastly more egalitarian, produced misery on an unimaginable scale. Can newly proposed alternatives deliver better results? Let us consider an example. In The Tyranny of Merit, 77 Sandel proposes the following approach: identify some minimum standard that constitutes “qualified” for admission to Harvard or Stanford and use a lottery system to select among those. Specifically, he mentions cutoffs that would treat 50–75% of applicants as “qualified,” which stops short of abandoning merit altogether. He justifies these cutoff points by using anecdotal data about athletes who were overlooked by professional teams in early draft rounds, but who went on to have highly successful careers in their sport. But examples of a few overlooked individuals do not imply that merit­based selection is ineffective—indeed, players drafted early are much more likely to go on to professional careers.79 Sandel also seems to presume that identically capable college applicants will suffer if some end up attending lesser schools. However, in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), where education provides objectively assessable technical skills, attendance at a top university provides little advantage in students’ earnings potential. Measured 10 years post­graduation, a top­tier education provided no significant earnings advantage for science majors and at best a marginally significant one for engineering majors.80 Moreover, Sandel seems to be unaware that his strategy, by nature of being based on a lottery, guarantees that many candidates will end up in lesser schools than their equally qualified counterparts, an outcome that a merit system, by its nature, aims to minimize. 

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