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Equity & Merit: A Debate

July 18, 2023


Note: We are pleased to offer this commentary written by Critica Director of Education Dr. Peter DiCaprio. Peter is responding both to a paper recently published by a group of scientists who claim that diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in science are weakening scientific rigor and to an op-ed piece in the New York Times that expressed surprise that the article had been rejected by multiple scientific journals.

In Denying to the Grave, authors and Critica founders Drs. Sara and Jack Gorman describe the ways irrationality forms our understanding of science. The book illustrates how human traits like confirmation bias, vulnerability to charismatic people, the preference for simple messages, our general lack of skill at understanding probability, and our desire to avoid facts that are frightening, channels our view of the world into a place where we start to see what we believe rather than believe what we see. 

I work hard to observe and manage these habits in myself, but I also understand that my own garden variety human irrationality is inescapable for me. And just like Denying to the Grave describes, I also know that, ironically, trying to use my own strong emotions and convictions to change people’s minds usually has the opposite effect. People in general rarely change their fundamental understanding of the world and even less frequently through being hectored by a true believer. 

One subject that is deeply important to me is social equity, particularly in the field of race. My own research into the racial awareness development of straight, white, cisgendered, U.S. men is, to my knowledge, the only peer reviewed study of that topic with that population that there is. As an Industrial Psychologist, I spend much of my time helping individuals, groups, and institutions become more diverse, inclusive, and equitable. My goal is simple to express. I want to live in a world where it is impossible to predict someone’s health, economic, and societal outcomes based on any aspect of who they are. We have never achieved that as a nation. No one has.

The newest Supreme Court ruling in Students v. Harvard making it unconstitutional to consider race in the college admissions process certainly provoked a great deal of emotion in me (and in many others as well). The ruling finds that using race as a factor in the college admissions process is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A trifling knowledge of history exposes the irony of using the 14th amendment to reduce the number of remedies available to society in the pursuit of racial equity. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, made slavery and involuntary servitude illegal. The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868 in response to the ensuing abysmally racist treatment of former slaves that had become evident to Congress. Since that time, the U.S. has never been a racially equitable society. SCOTUS is using the tools created to help achieve equality to reduce the options to do so. It is difficult not to experience strong emotion in the face of this bleak paradox.

But this decision isn’t made in an ideological vacuum. It is embedded within a much larger matrix of ideas and practices. This article will explore one such instance of a network of people, intuitions, and ideologies that acts to reduce equity while professing to remedy it and the many ways it perpetuates inequity.

The May 4th, 2023 New York Times published a review of a recent article, In Defense of Merit in Science, from the  Journal of Controversial Ideas. The article itself is an excellent example of the worldview and logic that allows parts of our society to feel comfortable hindering the pursuit of equity when it is yet to be achieved. Penned and/or signed by 27 practitioners across numerous disciplines, “Merit” expresses the signatories’ belief that the application of Critical Theory and Social Justice in education is leading to an erosion of scientific rigor. The article claims that the pursuit of knowledge, skill, and ability is being diminished in favor of an ideological agenda seeking the inclusion of identity and equity in student and faculty selection. The Times op-ed piece expresses shock that multiple scientific journals rejected the article. With a title like “In Defense of Merit,” it’s easy to understand why. However, on examination, the paper does not engage in the scientific method in the manner that the peer review process requires. 

A Lack Of Social Science Expertise

While “Defense of Merit” boasts the support of a number of eminent practitioners in their fields, the group is scarce on social scientists.  One of the signers is an economist, and economics is in principle a social science. The main correspondent of the article, Dr. Anna Krylov, is a professor of chemistry at USC Dornsife. Her primary research area is theoretical and computational quantum chemistry. This field has helped create a number of real-world benefits, but how does that expertise contribute to her ability to understand and solve the underlying problems of social inequity? This doesn’t mean that Dr. Krylov and her fellow physical scientists have nothing of value to add to the discourse. It does, however, mean that perhaps they should seek a more systematic approach than their own concerns and personal observations while solving one of the great problems of humanity. Just as I would not dream of arguing with Dr. Krylov about non-adiabatic chemical dynamics (thank you, Google), I would think that she and hers would want a deeply researched and tested theory to be at the foundation of solving this problem. That’s how the scientific method works.

One of the few, if not only, signatories who has done research in the field of social identity is the psychologist Lee Jussim. He calls this work “Stereotype Accuracy.” He makes the argument that many of the stereotypes that people believe about different social groups are often accurate. Unfortunately, Jussim defines stereotypes as “people’s beliefs about groups and their individual members.” This definition is so broad as to have no probative value. In particular, it draws no distinction between cultural competency and stereotyping. For example, imagine a psychiatrist who for years has treated transgender youth. They would have an intricate theoretical and working knowledge of the common mental health struggles trans youth generally develop in reaction to society’s often ugly treatment of them. By Jussim’s definition of stereotype, if that doctor believes that a trans youth may have mental health issues based on their behavior, that psychiatrist is stereotyping that youth just as much as a layman would be doing if they see the same behavior and say (and pardon the use of a cruel stereotype here): “See, being trans is crazy.” The vast gulf between these two things illustrates the limited value of Jussim’s research. To remedy this, the practice of inquiring into the underlying assumptions of this definition and its impact would make this research much more valid. Such questions would be the starting place if Jussim were to use Critical Theory to guide his approach. But “Merit” rejects Critical Theory, even as it demonstrates no working knowledge of what Critical Theory is.

Mischaracterizing Critical Theory

Critical Theory (or CT) is a current buzzword in the U.S. media and I often hear it discussed by people who either don’t know or mischaracterize its definition. The main argument voiced in “Merit” is the belief that the use of the scientific method is being threatened by what they call “Liberal Epistemology” and “Critical Social Justice.”  By most definitions, social justice is a fundamental element of Critical Theory and so that’s how it will be referred to here. The central activity of Critical Theory is identifying, critiquing, and challenging power structures, both in society and in ourselves. Critical Theory means we explore the nature of power in the human systems we live in. We understand its how’s and why’s, its goals and impacts, and its positives and negatives. We continually ask the questions, “Who benefits, who suffers, and what are the outcomes of all this?” We also ask ourselves how we benefit or suffer from living in those systems, as well as exploring the ways in which we have internalized those power structures to create our personal perspectives. This is the hardest part for most of us, and not just because it’s tough to see the backs of our own heads. In our egalitarian U.S. culture, power remains invisible to many of us, and no one’s power is more invisible to us than our own. We’re much more able to see and feel the power that other people have over us than the power we have over other people. It’s essential that we apply a valid shared definition of Critical Theory when discussing it or we can’t have a meaningful conversation about it. If we are literally talking about two different things when we refer to CT, how can we possibly reach any meaningful conclusions? “In Defense of Merit” does not engage in a rigorous inquiry into that definition, which would be the starting point of any social scientific paper hoping to succeed in the peer review process.

One particularly explicit mischaracterization the authors express is that Critical Theory rejects objective reality. While CT acknowledges no objective social reality, it does not deny the existence of a shared physical reality, at least to the extent that the physical sciences can define it. For example, let’s say there are two different children in history class. Student 1 comes from a culture and family that believes that listening and deferring to teachers is respectful classroom behavior. Student 2 comes from a culture and family in which debate with the teacher is encouraged and that’s considered respectful classroom behavior. When their teacher says something that both students disagree with, what is more respectful, Student 1’s silence or Student 2’s enthusiastic debate with the teacher? Critical Theory says neither. Each person’s worldview shapes their social reality. CT guides us to respect these different realities and acknowledge that, since the teacher has the power to pass or fail the students, the teacher’s view of what is respectful will impact each student in different ways. Depending on the teacher’s worldview, either the silent or the talkative student may be perceived as disrespectful. The CR approach asks: what is the impact of the teacher’s power in the situation, who fares better in the situation and who fares worse? It calls all of the participants in this scenario, particularly the teacher, to be aware of these interpersonal, cultural, and power dynamics, and to work together to negate the possibility of creating inequality because of them.

If, however, someone had a decibel meter and turned it on in the classroom, a Critical Theorist would agree with everyone else what the volume in decibels was recorded for the teacher’s speech. Critical Theorists still believe in quantifiable physical realities: a shovel is still a shovel. For them, the subjective nature of reality begins when a human being picks up that shovel: are they using it to work? Who is benefitting from the fruits of that labor? What social forces are at work defining the relationships among the beneficiaries of that work? Who exerts ownership over the ground being dug, what are those rights, and how were they conferred? The subjectivity of CT lives not only in the answers to those questions but also in the underlying assumptions of those answers. 

Along similar lines, the article objects to the notion that anyone’s identity would make a difference in their scientific analysis. The example used is that while “there are feminist critiques of how glaciologists have conducted themselves, there is no such thing as ‘feminist glaciology.’” Understanding the process of knowledge creation in these simplistic terms ignores much of the basics of social learning behavior, the social aspects of knowledge creation, the impact that our many social differences play in that process, and the role that power differentials among scientists and academicians plays in who gets seen, heard, and believed. 

Exclusion of Multiple Psychology/Social Psychology Theories

“Merit” goes out of its way to celebrate individuals with immigrant or working poor backgrounds who have been successful in science and technology without acknowledging that, all too often, those examples are the exceptions that prove the rule. This focus on the successful few neglects not only the actual demographic data (which show the inequities) but also the profound impact that systems have on our decision making. It doesn’t acknowledge either the ubiquity of personal biases or those biases’ virtual invisibility to those that have them. Studies from as far back 1915 have found The Halo Effect to have a profound impact on how people perceive others’ skills. “Merit” also ignores the research that shows we have particularly low self-awareness regarding our own blind spots. One study in particular (study #2 in this link) asked 661 people if they were “more biased, less biased, or equally biased” as compared to other people. Only one person in that group answered “more biased,” evoking the (probably apocryphal) story of Eisenhower being shocked that half of the U.S. population is below average intelligence. Human beings just don’t seem to be designed to see their own biases.

“Merit” thoroughly overlooks the Nobel Prize winning work of ​​Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in heuristics and the vast body of research in heuristics that has followed. This considerable body of work makes a practically irrefutable argument that human social perception is subject to powerful inner forces that simultaneously drive us into profound subjectivity while also convincing us that we are objective. It seems the only way to counteract this fundamental human trait is to acknowledge and continually adjust for it. “Merit” continues this pattern by ignoring much of the progress in the social sciences of the second half of the 20th century and the first quarter of the 21st. The authors are very specific in invoking Mertonian norms  while 1) ignoring the vast fields of human study since they were devised in 1942 and 2) assuming that they themselves are applying Mertonian norms without subjectivity. Ignoring the Tversky/Kahneman heuristics work, “Merit’s” solution to inequity is very similar to the tattered and time-worn belief that simply by “choosing” to ignore human differences and “choosing” to see people only as individuals, that equality is achieved. This is little more than a wordy way to say, “I don’t see race, gender, ethnicity, gender expression, etc.” The argument that there are some successful scientists from underrepresented social groups is another version of, “Some of my best friends are…” It is the application of The Exception Fallacy to a topic that not only impacts the lives of billions of underrepresented people but also interferes with the very scientific process that they believe they are protecting. It ignores so much research about the positive impact of diversity on performance, even in the sciences and education. Diverse groups, teams, and institutions that skillfully leverage the various contributions of their members do better.  Contrary to the authors’ belief that the choices are “equity or merit” in a zero-sum game, equity creates merit.

The Power of Questioning our Assumptions

One of the greatest benefits of applying Critical Theory to the issue would be to explore its foundational assumptions. As I sit vaccinated and healthy in my temperature-controlled office, writing this document on one of the many miraculously advanced electronic devices I have access to, I have exactly zero desire to impede progress in the sciences. Without boring the reader with the details, I can comfortably state that I would not be alive were it not for modern medicine and its rendering of many types of once deadly injury or illness into minor inconveniences like taking a course of antibiotics or an ambulatory surgical procedure. People used to die regularly from dental problems!

Using Critical Theory, the possibilities grow more powerful with each successive question. “Merit” rightly claims that “climate change, biodiversity loss, antimicrobial resistance, and pandemic disease threaten global gains made over the past century [and] science holds the key to solving these problems…” Even while being accurate, there are deeper questions to ask. Science certainly does hold a key to solving these problems, but humanity must begin to reflect on the role that the scientific community’s assumptions played in creating our current problems in the name of solving our former ones. They have led to all manner of unintended consequences. Climate change alone is one of the greatest examples of this. Industrial farming and the use of fossil fuels were critical in solving the problems of food scarcity and the need for access to usable energy but were also major contributors to climate change. The scientific community needs to think long and hard about its assumptions to avoid creating our next problems while solving our current ones. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is to bring a wide range of perspectives and worldviews to bear. A diverse scientific community fully engaged in its myriad approaches is the best way to accomplish this.

One of the most fundamental assumptions that “Merit” makes is likely the most difficult for its proponents to question and will likely be seen as the most radical: the assumption that, given the authors’ belief that equity and merit are two opposites in a zero-sum game, they assume that inequity is acceptable in the pursuit of the sciences. Is it? That’s just a question, but in order to even consider it, the understanding of equity would have to change from this vague notion that it means “everyone gets a trophy and what they do doesn’t matter,” to seeking a world where we see each other for who we are, seek our mutual well-being, and our lives are dedicated to the experience of actually living in human skins while the pursuit of material advancement acts as a means to that end. It’s understandable that people will have all manner of reactions to this suggestion while avoiding the fact that the whole question of whether and how to pursue inclusion is being addressed by the people who already have power. The question is probably much more urgent for those who have no power. I might invoke the words of someone who knew all too well the value of scientific advancement, the genius egomaniac Steve Jobs: “Think Different.”

Perhaps what’s most indicative of the article’s misunderstanding of its topic is the assertion that institutional diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statements that “express support for the ideals of liberal social justice, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a colorblind society, are rejected,” (emphasis added). While I am no King scholar and tread very lightly in interpretation of Dr. King’s transcendent legacy, many of us are confident that he was not working towards colorblindness as a goal. By his own words and deeds, he worked for a just society.

Dr. King was born in 1929, the same year as my father, who passed away in 2022. Dr. King, however, was murdered in 1968, whereas almost all of my relationship with my father happened between 1968 and 2022.  If I wanted my dad to explain himself better, I could simply ask. I often wonder how many assertions about Dr. King’s intentions have been made that he would have been able to clarify if he had been allowed to live out his natural life. In the U.S., at the time of his death, he had a disapproval rating of up to 75%, and the number one reason that people gave for their disapproval was that he “took things too far.” They, like the authors of “Defense of Merit,” wanted to retreat from the hard work of digging deeper into the social realities surrounding them and rely on what has always “worked,” while not acknowledging that it had not.

I ask the New York Times to look more deeply into what the peer review process is and to view the “Merit” article through that lens. Major journals in the physical sciences are not the appropriate place for this article to appear. Journals in the fields of education, social psychology, or any of a number of social sciences are committed to established standards of the scientific method that the “Merit” paper does not even attempt to meet.

Ultimately, the scientific method itself is a tool that is only as effective as its wielders. The black women portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures were highly skilled scientists working in arguably the most advanced scientific institution of its time and yet they struggled just to be allowed to contribute. Even when the white, male leadership allowed them to, the women were treated as less than 100% contributors. The entire staff of NASA had access to the very same scientific method that the rest of the scientific community has access to today, fundamentally the same scientific method that emerged from Sir Francis Bacon 450 years ago. Yet, the brilliant “Hidden” of 1960s NASA had their careers diminished over their race and gender. Why? Because the scientists who comprised the power structure 1) did not see them as having equal value, 2) assumed that they were unbiased in that assumption, and 3) neither inquired into their own decision making processes, nor were they forced to. We can congratulate ourselves that the NASA headquarters building is now named after Mary Johnson, one of those women, but who are the present day “Hidden?” What will they have to do to be seen? How can those who make decisions about whom to hire, fire, and promote in their fields ensure that they are seen? Human systems are made up of people. They are not the weather. As Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Each of us has the ability to do something or nothing to create equity and not choosing is a choice. I ask the authors and signatories of “Merit,” as well as the defenders of SCOTUS’s decision in students v. Harvard,  to reconsider their choices. Greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in any field, including science, will bring more talented individuals into its orbits. Creating a norm of self-reflection, critical reflection on valid data, and the effective application of the scientific method will enhance the search for reliable, evidence-based scientific theories. And this is not just good for the field in question, but good for each of us as human beings. Liberating action on behalf of others frees both the actor and the others from the same system.

Categories: Diversity, Equity, Social determinants
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