Against Merit

Science should be just and representative, says Science editor

It matters who does science,” reads the headline of a recent editorial by Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of the top American general science journal, Science. Well, of course it matters. Science should be done by people who are knowledgeable, honest, curious, and open to criticism. But that’s not what Thorp means. He is reacting to a thoughtful article, signed by many distinguished scientists, arguing for merit as the proper criterion (and rejected by several major scientific journals for just that reason). Thorp looks at science quite differently, not as a unique form of human activity but as a democratic institution, like a city council or a housing cooperative.

Science is and should be collective, apparently: “Scientific research is a social process … with many minds contributing.” To nail down his point, Thorp mocks Archimedes and Isaac Newton: “when old white guys with facial hair get hit on the head with an apple…”—misattributing the facial hair–apple conjunction, while simultaneously downplaying talent and disparaging white males. Darwin also gets a bash. Apparently, there is no room for individual genius, or, indeed, individual anything: “scientists work in teams …” says Thorp, categorically.

Thorp knows how science should be done. Never mind Newton, Boyle, Faraday, Watson and Crick, and countless other individuals and collaborators who have made most great scientific discoveries in the past. Even a breakthrough that has involved dozens of people, like the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technique, was given a decisive push by an individual who belonged to no team, but moved peripatetically from lab to lab: Emmanuelle Charpentier, co-winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, who “climbed her way up the academic ladder by way of 9 different institutes in 5 different countries …” starting her own lab in all of them.

There is no evidence that team research favors breakthroughs, and some evidence that disfavoring research by gifted individuals makes breakthroughs less likely. So, what do the data say about editor Thorp’s ex cathedra pronouncement? For example, how has team science done recently?

[Related: “Never Mind Science—Be Authentic”]

First, there is no doubt that science has increasingly become a team effort over the last few decades. The fraction of papers that are single-authored has declined precipitously in the past twenty years, from around 34% in 2002 to almost 1% in 2021.

Second, if Thorp is correct, the rate of scientific progress should have accelerated comparably. But apparently not: a report in January of this year concluded:

The rate of ground-breaking scientific discoveries and technological innovation is slowing down despite an ever-growing amount of knowledge, according to an analysis released Wednesday of millions of research papers and patents.

All these scientists are amassing lots of isolated facts (many of which are false, it turns out), but no one is making sense of them in ways that lead to major advances. So perhaps Thorp is wrong. The data do not support his claim that group authorship favors breakthroughs. Maybe teams of career scientists are just less creative than “old white guys with facial hair”—or a tenacious French woman with an independent streak. Perhaps a few brilliant individuals can do better than a team of hacks. There’s not much room for that nowadays, given current funding criteria and the policies of essentially all the major science journals.

Policies which Thorp praises fulsomely. He recommends, even demands, that science be conducted by teams—and not just any team. The team members “should embrace their humanity rather than pretending that they are a bunch of automatons who instantly reach perfectly objective conclusions,” he says, which is something no scientist believes. The scientific method has evolved precisely to deal with the problem of human fallibility. And why should science “represent that humanity”? Science should represent the truth, human or not, agreeable or not. Thorp’s ‘science’ sounds more like politics.

Science does depend on faith, which is not Thorp’s parody “that objective truth is absolute and therefore not subject to human influences.” Scientists simply believe that there is truth to be found, by means that are imperfect and bound by human limitations. But the findings of science are always provisional and subject to revision; nothing is “absolute.”

[Related: “How to Harpoon the DEI Leviathan”]

Although he is against merit, as conventionally understood, Thorp is a little vague on the alternative. Apparently, “background diversity” is vital:

A monolithic group of scientists will bring many of the same preconceived notions to their work. But a group of many backgrounds will bring different points of view that decrease the chance that one prevailing set of views will bias the outcome. This means that scientific consensus can be reached faster and with greater reliability. It also means that the applications and implications will be more just for all [emphasis added].

By “many backgrounds” Thorp seems to mean “race and gender proportionate,” since he goes on to say: “Science has had enormous trouble building a workforce that reflects the public it serves,” which is the standard diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) mantra. It rests on the fallacy that in a perfectly fair society, every profession will be composed of the same proportion of, say, blacks or women, as the society as a whole, which is nonsense. And why should science, or any other institution, “reflect the public” rather than simply do a good job? This claim is utterly absurd.

There is much else wrong with this paragraph. A group of many backgrounds may fail to consider all options because a minority has strong feelings about some issues, which may therefore be suppressed. The more varied the group, the more likely this becomes. Diversity is not guaranteed to converge on truth.

Thorp seems to give much weight to consensus, even though scientific breakthroughs usually undermine a consensus. He also seems to confuse science and law, writing that, if scientists follow his recommendations, “in return, society will get better and more just science … .” He seems to be unaware of the most basic Humean epistemology: a fact is just a fact—its only attribute is true or false, not just or unjust. Science is neither just nor unjust. It is this kind of confusion that has led to the systematic suppression of facts that some people find “unjust,” a suppression that continues to push social policy in dangerous directions.

Holden Thorp’s muddled and simplistic defense of “DEI science” ignores the fact–value distinction and would encourage the suppression of facts that some people find distasteful. His advocacy for team research discourages creative individuals and would increase the influence of those who value “justice” over truth. His smug opposition to merit is anti-science and should disqualify him as editor of a serious scientific journal.

Image: Adobe Stock


5 thoughts on “Against Merit

  1. “DEI science” ??

    Sounds like the Nazis’ idea of “Jewish physics” and “Jewish science,” meaning Einstein. Who, incidentally, worked pretty much alone. There’s no such thing as “Jewish science,” only Jewish scientists. And “DEI science” is an oxymoron.

  2. The process of science may benefit from the depth of the diversity of our path to it, but the outcome of it stands above such issues … unless those issues are the focus of our science.

  3. The Humanities went through the same nonsense back in the 1970s and 1980s. Too bad the sciences couldn’t have learned from their example.

  4. Excellent analysis, congratulations !

    Thorpe like Horton (Lancet senior editor) are mixing political viewpoints with science . Thorpe didn’t even know that the idea of contextual empiricism comes from the philosopher Helen Longino.
    Both are abusing their position of editor by promoting politics/ideology over science. It is time for them to leave.

  5. Holden Thorp is wrong in so many ways it is difficult to know where to begin. Like so many on the left, you just make some claim—without any supporting evidence—and everyone is supposed to accept it as fact.

    The notion that diverse teams produce better scientific results is utter nonsense. This garbage is a new twist on the flawed premise that one’s skin color or sex determines their problem solving approaches. Somehow one’s “life experiences” must produce insights that will lead to a scientific breakthrough. I guess the only reason we don’t have inexpensive nuclear fusion energy yet is because we don’t have enough single moms or hispanics who grew up in an inner city environment working on the problem.

    Unfortunately, the absurd beliefs of Thorp on diverse and representative science teams infested the National Science Foundation (NSF) years ago. Many NSF funding announcements state proposals should be cross-disciplinary. In other words, it’s not good enough for two engineers in the same department to seek funding to explore solutions to a difficult problem. No, there should be someone from say the math department or physics department also on the team. And preferably from a different university. Moreover, all NSF proposals, must state how females and other under-represented minorities will be involved in the research effort. NSF firmly believes diverse (in terms of race and sex) scientific and engineering teams are key to achieving research success.

    NSF, Department of Energy, and other federal agencies have not yet mandated proportional research teams—i.e., only research teams that reflect the public will be funded. But with the obsessive push for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), I can foresee that happening in the near future. Scientific discovery will suffer greatly in this country all in an effort to appease the DEI gods.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *