Merit in Science: One More Time, With Feeling

by Joseph Shieber

An elderly alchemist sitting next to his equipment. Engraving by C. Weigel, 1698. Contributors: Christoph Weigel (1654-1725); Abraham a Sancta Clara (1644-1709). Work ID: a4hpxd23.

In “The Bizarre Bad Criticisms of Our Merit Paper,” a recent blog post in defense of the “Defense of Merit in Science” paper, the Rutgers psychology professor Lee Jussim doubles down on the conflation of “merit” with “objective truth.”

For example, in highlighting what he takes to be an underlying logical incoherence of criticisms of the “Merit” paper, Jussim writes this:

Anyone who believes the critics [sic] claims have merit (including the critics themselves) implicitly accepts our central argument that science has to be judge [sic] on its merits, even if they pose as critiques of our paper.

And this:

It is impossible for there to be no scientific merit and for the claim that there is no scientific merit to … have merit.

The problem is that there is a difference between saying that scientific CLAIMS should stand and fall on their merits and that scientists’ success should be determined by their merits. The former statement has to do with standards of evidence and objective truth. The latter statement, in contrast, has to do with qualities of scientific researchers correlated with advancing science, as well as with our confidence in our abilities accurately to assess those qualities.

It shouldn’t need stressing, but perhaps it does. What makes a statement or claim meritorious – its originality, interest, truth-likelihood, etc. – is different than what makes a PERSON meritorious. One obvious difference, of particular importance given Jussim’s own focus on objective truth, is that PERSONS aren’t truth-evaluable. 

Since there seems to be a great deal of confusion about this on the part of Jussim and his colleagues, I’ll state it once more: persons aren’t claims, and therefore the standards for evaluating persons have to be different than the standards for evaluating claims.

Am I unfairly reading this obvious misunderstanding INTO the paper? I understand that you might think I am. It might seem implausible to suppose that Jussim really would be mistaken about a paper on which he himself is a co-author. Perhaps I’m the one who’s mistaken, and the “Merit” paper itself is just a defense of scientific merit — and objective truth — against its postmodern critics. Let’s turn once more to the paper.

Before we do, let’s make explicit the two different senses of “merit” that I’m accusing the authors of the “Merit” paper of conflating. Sense 1 is the sense of “merit” that applies to CLAIMS. More generally, we might say that a claim has merit if it’s well-constructed, interesting, supported by evidence, original, or likely to be true. Focusing on SCIENTIFIC merit for claims, we might be most concerned with a subset of these qualities, perhaps most particularly evidential support and truth-likelihood, among others.

Sense 2 of “merit” is the sense that applies to PERSONS. Since persons aren’t claims, this sense of merit is obviously different. Nor can we simply say that persons in science have merit due to the merit of the scientific claims that they make. This is because personal merit is forward-looking: we use assessments of personal merit to choose who should get accepted into our Ph.D. program, or post-doc, or who should receive this grant, PRIOR to their making the scientific claims our support is intended to underwrite. 

Of course, at some of these stages we will have earlier scientific claims of theirs that we can evaluate, but anyone who is even glancingly familiar with assessments of personal merit will grant that such assessments – even in science – have less to do with the evaluation of claims and more to do with the evaluation of signals: academic pedigree, venue of publications, previous fellowships and awards, etc.

My claim, then, is that Jussim’s blog post ignores the fact that the “Merit” paper invokes two distinct notions of “merit” and that Jussim collapses those two distinct notions into just what I’m calling the first sense of “merit”: the merit of scientific claims. Does the “Merit” paper really invoke two distinct senses? Let’s see.

Section 2 of the “Merit” paper is entitled “Merit-Based Science is Effective and Fair.” Note already that the title of the section itself invites confusion. Is science merit-based because of its focus on objective truth (which Jussim, in his blog post, conflates with “scientific merit”) or is it merit-based because it rewards the efforts of scientists in proportion to the merits OF THOSE SCIENTISTS?

We find further evidence for the conflation of the two senses of “merit” in the body of section 2 itself: 

On p. 4, the authors write, “merit must also be applied to evaluate research proposals and prospective students and faculty.” 

On p. 5, the authors trumpet that “[m]erit-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.”

Finally, also on p. 5, the authors write that “[m]erit is a vehicle for upward mobility. Recruiting, developing, and promoting individuals based on their talent, skills, and achievements has enabled many who started life in disadvantaged conditions to realize their dreams and build better lives.”

Note two features of all of these quotes. The first is that they employ the notion of merit in the second sense, that of the qualities of a person that contribute to the advancement of science (and of that person’s career within science). The second is that they seem to imply that merit is not merely an aspirational goal of scientific institutions, but rather that those institutions are currently “a merit-based system,” if one with “imperfections.”

In a previous essay, I’ve addressed the way in which the equivocations on the two senses of “merit” in the “Merit” paper render the argument in that paper fallacious. To put it simply, the authors of the “Merit” paper respond to criticisms that science isn’t a merit-based system in the second sense (in which practitioners’ success isn’t determined by their group characteristics) by expressing shock that ANYONE would deny that science is a domain in which objective truth is paramount — the FIRST sense of merit, as you’ll recall. (This is pretty much Jussim’s go-to move in his blog post.)

In a second essay, I addressed the question of whether defenses of merit in science, more broadly, fail to distinguish between descriptive and aspirational senses of the role of merit in science. To put it briefly, I suggested that believing science in fact to be a merit-based system (in the second sense of “merit”) is likely problematic, while I nevertheless held out the hope that embracing merit as an aspirational goal of science might contribute to making science — as the authors of the “Merit” paper put it — “truly fair and inclusive.”

In what remains of this essay – hopefully the last on the “Merit” paper – I want to extend the discussion of the descriptive vs. aspirational readings of merit, considering a further way in which the confusion of these two readings provides fallacious support for the arguments in the “Merit” paper.

The problem I want to address here is that the “Merit” paper plays on the confusion of descriptive vs. aspirational readings of merit. Here is a one-sentence summary of the paper, by an ethicist at Merck who Jussim approvingly cites in his blog post:

The central assertion of “In Defense…” is that merit should serve as the primary criterion for evaluating and assessing scientific claims, rejecting the notion of substituting it with social engineering or identity-based policies.

Note that this gloss of the central assertion of the “Merit” paper involves the ASPIRATIONAL reading: “merit SHOULD serve as the primary criterion.” The quotes from section 2 of the paper itself, however, suggest the DESCRIPTIVE reading: “[m]erit-based science IS truly fair and inclusive. It PROVIDES a ladder of opportunity … Neither socioeconomic privilege nor elite education IS necessary,” or “[m]erit IS a vehicle for upward mobility. Recruiting, developing, and promoting individuals based on their talent, skills, and achievements HAS enabled many …”

The problem with this confusion, of course, is that it invites fallacious defenses of the argument in the “Merit” paper. When someone criticizes what the “Merit” paper actually says – that science IS a meritocracy – the defenders of the “Merit” paper reply that they’re only saying that science SHOULD be a meritocracy.

The protestations in the “Merit” paper about the meritocracy that is contemporary science – and the conflations of the descriptive and aspirational understandings of merit in science – are strikingly similar to related protestations by political conservatives that the United States is now a “post-racial” democracy, as described in Ronald Brownstein’s recent Atlantic essay, “The Post-Racial Republicans.”

In that essay, Brownstein writes – alluding to a quote from Barack Obama – that “If political leaders ‘pretend as if everything’s equal and fair,’ Obama said, ‘then I think people are rightly skeptical’ of their commitment to ensuring equal opportunity.”

Despite the occasional nods to the fact that contemporary science isn’t perfectly equal and fair, it certainly seems that the authors of the “Merit” paper, with their insistence on the supremacy of merit in science, seem equally deserving of our skepticism.

The authors of the “Merit” paper are a mixed group. Some of them are prominent scientists – including Nobel prize winners. Others of them are, at this point, basically professional “anti-woke” trolls. Given the fallacious reasoning and equivocations shot through the “Merit” paper, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, in writing the paper, the “anti-woke” trolls had the upper hand.