In a recent piece published in the Journal of Controversial Ideas, our Professor of Biology Luana Maroja joined twenty-six other academics in defending merit in science. In their piece, they addressed some of the problems facing research across the disciplines and defended many of the ideals we are championing here at the Williams Free Speech Alliance:
Fulfilling this responsibility, however, is being hindered by a new, alarming clash between liberal epistemology and identity-based ideologies. Liberal epistemology prizes free and open inquiry, values vigorous discourse and debate, and determines the best scientific ideas by separating those that are true from those that are likely not. The statuses, identities, and demographics of scientists are irrelevant to this great sifting of valid versus invalid ideas.
In contrast, identity based ideologies seek to replace these core liberal principles, essential for scientific and technological advances, with principles derived from postmodernism and Critical Social Justice (CSJ), which assert that modern science is “racist,” “patriarchal,” and “colonial,” and a tool of oppression rather than a tool to promote human flourishing and global common good.
In this perspective, we explain the differences between the two epistemologies and argue that meritocracy (grounded in philosophical liberal epistemology), however imperfect, is the best and fairest way to conduct science. We endorse policies to mitigate existing inequalities of opportunities, but explain why CSJbased policies are pernicious (CSJ differs from social justice as a concept). Therefore, we offer a liberal, humanistic alternative that is compatible with maximizing scientific advances.
The piece is long, but well worth your time. The authors address why “Merit-Based Science is Effective and Fair” and takes on in a civil manner the politicization of science as well as the intrusion of ideology into science.
In many ways, Professor Maroja and her co-authors provide a philosophical framework not just for scientific research, discourse, and teaching in the current era, but for study and discourse in other disciplines as well. Notably, the authors remind us that “reality-based scientific communities must be open to conceding and correcting errors.” And we agree that that should be a goal for professionals--not just academics--in all fields of endeavor.
In the last pages of the piece, the authors offer a way forward, a way that parallels some of the conversations we have had with faculty, alumni, and students concerned about the current environment at our alma mater:
For science to succeed, it must strive for the nonideological pursuit of objective truth. Scientists should feel free to pursue political projects in the public sphere as private citizens, but not to inject their personal politics and biases into the scientific endeavor. Maintaining institutional neutrality is also essential for cultivating public trust in science....
Although no system is guaranteed to eliminate all biases, merit-based systems are the best tool to mitigate it. Moreover, they promote social cohesion because they can be observed to maximize fairness.
Admittedly, meritocracy is imperfect. The best and brightest do not always win. But the idea that meritocracy is nothing but a myth is demonstrably false, indeed absurd. Were it but a myth, college admissions and hiring could be conducted without regard to applicants’ qualifications, and students or employees could be selected at random.
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.
When professors and students outside the hard sciences, Division III at Williams, in the social sciences and humanities as well, are open to the standards addressed here, openness to inquiry, willingness to admit error, they too can help address those root causes and consider the effectiveness of those remedial policies.
In short, even if we come from other disciplines, we can learn from the standards of scientific merit.
Finally, the authors address a concern which has driven us to set up the Williams Free Speech Alliance.
Perhaps the grandest irony of them all, and the saddest commentary on the state of academia, is that this article, defending merit, could only be published in a journal devoted to airing “controversial” ideas.
Alas that today it is controversial to defend merit. Many of us recall how hard we worked in high school to be admitted to a college of the caliber of Williams. And the merit that distinguished us allowed us to challenge our peers and to grow intellectually and mature into more thoughtful, more responsible, adults.