How Not to Defend Science

by Joseph Shieber

“In Defense of Merit in Science,” a paper published recently in the Journal of Controversial Ideas, suggests that (1) success in science is currently determined by merit, the (2) success of science in discovering significant truths is due to the fact that science is a merit-based system, and (3) the greatest threat to the continued success of science is what the authors term “Critical Social Justice.” The paper is wrong on all three counts.

1. Success in science is not currently determined by merit

Throughout the paper, the authors extol the virtues of what they call “merit-based science.” For example, on p. 5 they write:

Merit ­based science is truly fair and inclusive. It provides a ladder of opportunity and a fair chance of success for those possessing the necessary skills or talents. Neither socioeconomic privilege nor elite education is necessary.  Indeed, several co-authors of this [article] have built successful careers in science, despite being immigrants, coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and not being products of ‘elite education.’

The implication of this passage is not merely that a culture of science based on merit would be a worthwhile ideal, but also that the current culture of science is largely merit-based. This would seem to be the point of including the observation regarding the “successful careers in science” of some of the co-authors, despite their having come “from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and not being products of ‘elite education.’”

While it might be the case that it would be a worthwhile idea for science to be organized meritocratically, there is little evidence to suggest that science currently is a meritocracy.

First, it should be noted that the authors of the paper provide no such evidence. Suppose we assume, for the sake of argument, that one of the necessary conditions of meritocracy is that at least sometimes it allows people from lower socio-economic or non-elite academic backgrounds to succeed. To suppose that the fact that some of the co-authors of the article are both successful scientists and from lower socio-economic or non-elite academic backgrounds would therefore provide evidence for meritocracy would be to commit the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent.

Furthermore, the history of relatively recent science is littered with counterevidence of the meritocracy of science. 

As a first example, consider the case of Albert Schatz, the discoverer of streptomycin. As Bill Bryson describes in The Body, Schatz

… studied soil biology at Rutgers University in New Jersey not because he had a passion for soil but because, as a Jew, he was subject to university admission quotas and he couldn’t get into a better institution. He reasoned that whatever he learned about soil fertility would at least be useful back on the family farm. It was an unfairness that ended up saving lives, for in 1943, still a student, Schatz followed a hunch that soil microbes might provide an additional antibiotic to put alongside the new drug penicillin, which, for all its value, didn’t work against bacteria of a type known as Gram-negative. This included the microbe responsible for tuberculosis. Schatz patiently tested hundreds of samples and in just under a year came up with streptomycin, the first drug to vanquish Gram-negative bacteria. It was one of the most important microbiological breakthroughs of the twentieth century. Schatz’s supervisor, Selman Waksman, immediately saw the potential of Schatz’s discovery. He took charge of the clinical trials of the drug and, in the process, had Schatz sign an agreement ceding patent rights to Rutgers. Soon afterward, Schatz discovered that Waksman was taking full credit for the discovery and keeping Schatz from being invited to meetings and conferences where he would have received praise and attention. With the passage of time, Schatz also discovered that Waksman had not relinquished patent rights himself, but was pocketing a generous share of profits, which were soon running into millions of dollars a year. (Bryson, p. 383)

Waksman went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1952 for the discovery of streptomycin – two years after a 1950 lawsuit in which Schatz was recognized as the co-discoverer of the antibiotic:

Unable to get any satisfaction, Schatz eventually sued Waksman and Rutgers, and won. In settlement, he was given a portion of the royalties and credit as co-discoverer, but the lawsuit ruined him: it was considered very bad form to sue a superior in academia in those days. For many years, the only work Schatz could find was at a small agricultural college in Pennsylvania. His papers were repeatedly rejected by leading journals. When he wrote an account of the discovery of streptomycin as it had really happened, the only publication he could find that would accept it was the Pakistan Dental Review. (Bryson, p. 384)

You might think this example is too old to impugn the current meritocratic practices of science. Schatz’s discovery was in the 1940s and his ostracism from elite academic circles was still 50 years ago. However, even as late as 2004 academics were arguing that attempts to rectify the historic record in order to give Schatz his due were unfair to Waksman. An ACS recognition of Waksman from 2005 continues to portray Schatz as a disgruntled graduate student who contributed little to the discovery of streptomycin, and to portray Schatz’s ostracism from the academic community after the lawsuit – a lawsuit that, remember, Schatz won! – as justified.

A second example impugning the notion that science is meritocratic is the discovery of neurogenesis. Here’s Robert Sapolsky’s description, from Behave:

In 1965 an untenured associate professor at MIT named Joseph Altman (along with a longtime collaborator, Gopal Das) found the first evidence for adult neurogenesis, using a then-novel technique. A newly made cell contains newly made DNA. So, find a molecule unique to DNA. Get a test tube full of the stuff and attach a miniscule radioactive tag to each molecule. Inject it into an adult rat, wait awhile, and examine its brain. If any neurons contain that radioactive tag, it means they were born during the waiting period, with the radioactive marker incorporated into the new DNA. This is what Altman saw in a series of studies. As even he notes, the work was initially well received, being published in good journals, generating excitement. But within a few years something shifted, and Altman and his findings were rejected by leaders in the field—it couldn’t be true. He failed to get tenure, spent his career at Purdue University, lost funding for his adult neurogenesis work.

Silence reigned for a decade until an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico named Michael Kaplan extended Altman’s findings with some new techniques. Again this caused mostly crushing rejection by senior figures in the field, including one of the most established men in neuroscience, Pasko Rakic of Yale. Rakic publicly rejected Kaplan’s (and tacitly Altman’s) work, saying he had looked for new neurons himself, they weren’t there, and Kaplan was mistaking other cell types for neurons. At a conference he notoriously told Kaplan, “Those may look like neurons in New Mexico, but they don’t in New Haven.” Kaplan soon left research …” (Sapolsky, p. 161)

So much for the Mertonian ideals of Universalism and Disinterestedness (those must look different in New Haven).

2. Science is successful in discovering significant truths despite the fact that science is not a merit-based system

Science is successful in discovering significant truths, however! Isn’t this evidence that science must be a meritocracy? Not at all!

The assumption that the authors of the “Defense of Merit in Science” paper seem to be making is that the conditional, “If science is successful, then science is a meritocracy” is true. Given that assumption, plus the undeniable success of science in discovering significant truth, we would then be entitled to conclude that science is indeed a meritocracy.

We’ve now seen evidence that science ISN’T a meritocracy. Must we then, employing the logic of modus tollens, conclude that science isn’t successful? Do the postmodernists win? Of course not – rather, we must reject the assumption that the conditional, “If science is successful, then science is a meritocracy” is true.

Luckily, that conditional is obviously false. One need look no further than pre-20th century science for examples of non-meritocratic scientific structures that nevertheless produced successful science.

In fact, the only reason why the authors of “Defense of Merit in Science” seem to embrace the conditional is that they commit an obvious fallacy of equivocation, using “merit” to refer both to the merit of individual scientists and to the merit of scientific ideas: “The merit of an idea should be evaluated through scrutiny and organized skepticism, essential components of scientific discovery. The ultimate test of the merit of a claim is its ability to accurately predict the functioning of the universe as elucidated through replicable experiment and observation.” (p. 4)

While of course successful science depends on recognizing that “the merit of a claim is its ability to accurately predict the functioning of the universe as elucidated through replicable experiment and observation,” this is not what is meant by “meritocracy,” which is taken to refer to a regime in which a person’s success is a result of that person’s merit.

It is this fallacy of equivocation that allows the authors of “Defense of Merit in Science” to grant, on occasion, that science is not perfectly meritocratic while nevertheless – in practically the same breath – maintaining that science never violates its ideals. Consider on p. 5, for example, this case of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy and – immediately following that – a further example of the equivocation that science ultimately recognizes merit because science recognizes truth

“The shortcomings of individuals or the community should not be confused with the science itself. Whether sexism prevented Cecilia Payne­ Gaposchkin from receiving credit for her conclusion that the Sun was made mostly of hydrogen is irrelevant to the fact that the Sun is made mostly of hydrogen.”

3. The greatest threat to the continued success of science is NOT what the authors term “Critical Social Justice”

It is important to acknowledge one point that the authors of the “Defense of Merit in Science” article get absolutely right: science is in fact an ally to liberatory movements aimed at genuinely improving the lot of marginalized and disempowered groups. As the authors point out,

The role of science in rectifying social inequalities goes beyond “trickle down” effects of scientific progress. Science can help to develop programs addressing both the root causes of inequalities and the effectiveness of remedial policies. Recent works by Banerjee and Duflo illustrate how well founded scientific methodology can narrow the gap between rich and poor countries. Heckman’s work quantifies the impact of preschool education on students’ success. In the field of artificial intelligence, one of the most active areas of research is concerned with discrimination, fairness, and social accountability. The distinctive features of these examples … are that they are based on scientific evidence and logic and they address the root causes of inequalities …” (p. 19)

However, the authors are wrong to suggest that the movements that they describe under the umbrella of “Critical Social Justice” – even granting that some members of those movements pursue policies that are inimical to science – are the greatest danger to science in the United States.

Rather, it is Republican state governments that are pursuing policies to require the teaching of proven falsehoods about climate science in schools. It is Republican health officials who are falsifying scientific reports. It is Republican judges who are willfully ignoring decades of established medical science. It is Republican lawmakers who are trying to revive attacks against the teaching of evolution in schools. In short, it is Republicans who have declared a war on science and who have begun to use the power of the state and federal government to prosecute that war.

My fear is that, in their eagerness to defend science against the wrong foe, the authors of the “Defense of Merit in Science” article have made themselves unwitting aides of the real enemies of science: the conservative Republicans who use the mantra of “anti-woke” discourse to cloak their own – infinitely more dangerous – attacks on science.