An Old Argument Returns

Pamela Paul is standing up for MERIT in scientific publishing. Of course, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but her friends in the Intellectual Dark Web gave her a convenient press release to work from.

My colleagues who publish in professional journals have mostly responded to Paul, rather than to the paper and press release she is working from. The paper is inappropriate for the one journal she mentions, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, because the PNAS publishes short technical papers, and this is a long polemic.

I’ve thought that scientific journals could benefit from publishing more polemics, but polemics on chemical and other scientific issues. That’s not what this paper is about. It is about practices in journal publishing that the authors disapprove of. They frame their polemic in terms of merit versus identity.

It’s an old and discredited argument.

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.

Sounds good, although not to those of us who recall when “merit” was used to describe the practices that landed white cis male scientists into the best jobs because of the “merit” of their study with a white cis male scientist networked with other white cis male scientists and the recommendations of that network.

Orchestras were similarly constituted for a long time, producing a uniform aesthetic of white male faces in black formal wear on stage, led by one of the same. Then they decided to turn to merit by holding auditions with the auditioner behind a screen. We now see a much greater variety of faces in orchestras.

The stereotypical argument made by Paul’s heros is to limit the pool of scientists to those imbued with that undefined “merit.” But one might expect that opening the pool, as was done for orchestras, would bring greater merit to the scientific enterprise because more meritorious people would be available. (Thanks to Tom Levenson for this simple argument in a Twitter conversation last night.)

Jake Yeston, an editor at Science magazine, made the point that a broader base of personal histories can improve the process of deciding what scientific issues to work on, using the historically understudied issue of waste from chemical processes and how it is disposed of. Which is frequently near minority communities.

The paper sets up “liberal” straw men, implying that there is a stark choice between “merit” and “identity,” again a very old and discredited tactic. This is another reason for a journal to reject it, even if they were willing to accept a long polemic. The authors should clearly state and support their argument as the bulk of the paper. And misrepresenting the viewpoint one is arguing against is not acceptable. There’s more that’s wrong with the paper, but this is a blog post, not a full critique.

In the press release, the authors use the word “merit” as their strong sword against their critics. How could anyone be against merit in science? It’s a silly defense, particularly given the historic accretions of prejudice to that word. Or maybe the youngs no longer recall those accretions because cis white male privilege has declined.

The endorsements in the press release include notables from the Intellectual Dark Web: Bari Weiss, Richard Dawkins, Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Rauch, and Judith Curry.

It’s true that there are simple procedural reasons for journals to reject this paper, starting with the fact that they always have more submissions than they can print. But what Paul and the authors of the paper are trying to do in insisting that the paper be published is akin to what the Federalist Society has done to American jurisprudence: dilute science with their ideological preferences, which are counter to the discipline’s standards.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money