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Opinion: A Defence of Merit or a Case for Sustaining the Biases in Science?

Opinion: A Defence of Merit or a Case for Sustaining the Biases in Science?

What happens when the established values of science become propaganda machines?

Recently, scientists have started acknowledging that the concept of “merit” pitches unequals against each other. Slowly, they have tried to correct academic practices so that the academic community becomes more inclusive and diverse. Social justice, a concept that acknowledges inherent inequalities in society and aims to restore equality of opportunities via systematic steps, is slowly assimilating into academia.

A paper published in the Journal of Controversial Ideas aims to counter all such efforts. It defends the idea of merit in science. It claims that the concept of merit has served science with significant advances, led to technological revolutions, and reduced human suffering. It strongly advocates that merit should be the only metric that dictates academic practices. Not explaining how, it claims that only “a sharp focus on merit” promotes inclusion in academia. It claims that ideological currents like social justice undermine the possibility of scientific advances, and hence, academicians should stick to meritocracy for the good of science.

In an ideal world, such a paper would not gain attention. But the world is far from perfect. Leading international newspapers covered the paper’s content. These arguments have serious flaws, are hypocritical, and the authors use a deliberately selective choice of examples and are seemingly motivated by their ideological stance. I have been a practising scientist before, and this article draws from my understanding of science, scientific practices, and the role of scientists.

The most severe flaw the paper suffers from is its over-reliance on “objective” truth. Such truth may not always exist. While experiments rule out false scientific theories, there arise scenarios where multiple theories can explain observed phenomena accurately. Access to scientific resources and networking play a role in the trends that set the tone for further examination of competing theories.

While further experiments may eventually tell between theories, scientists find a way to fit some theories into the broader framework of observations. This trend is common in astronomy, cosmology, and high-energy physics. Then, the truth depends on which scientist you ask. The scientific practice, which includes debates, trends, biases, and relative weightage to competing ideas to explain the natural world, is thus inherently subjective. Social privilege plays a critical role in setting the contours of science. It decides whose ideas are heard and supported by the scientific community.

At the micro level of scientific debates, when a body of scientific work is peer-reviewed, it may lead to multiple questions and alternate views. Researchers involved in a study may have answers that others disagree with. The details of these disagreements decide whether the work is accepted, rejected, or ignored. Documenting the debates, for example, by publishing the reviewer’s comments on a scientific paper and the authors’ responses along with the paper, demonstrates the complexities that scientists grapple with. It embodies the spirit of science: constructive criticism and logical disagreements in the face of new ideas, theories, and data.

A scientist will be dishonest in claiming that the scientific practice, although rigorous, is objective. The subjective weighing of conflicts plays a decisive role in publishing papers, delivery of talks for scientific conferences, and the various details of the academic positions that scientists’ lives revolve around, including the availability of public funds. Social justice attempts to ensure that the limited resources are distributed equitably, limiting inherent biases in the practice and propagation of scientific ideas.

Also Read: Caste and Meritocracy Keep India’s Top Institutions Running. At What Cost?

Another major flaw in the paper is that it looks at social problems with the quantitative norms of the natural sciences. For example, after admitting that the peer-review process may be biased, the authors opine that there is no reason to reverse the existing biases by “non-scientific processes.” However, understanding biases via a social science lens is not “non-scientific.” Science is not just numbers. Indeed, there is justification for reversing the direction of existing bias in academia: that is a sure-shot method because the bias has been identified.

The paper offers quantitative metrics to solve the current problems plaguing academic practices. However, the problem with the insistence on using metrics for social science problems is that they can be deliberately manipulated or biased to fit the narrative that suits the people who set the metric. For example, the current metrics like “papers published, conference presentations delivered, awards received, graduation rate, job placements, etc.” are plagued with biases in an inherently unequal world. Sticking to metrics is thus an ideological stand. The authors’ insistence on churning more numbers belies their ideology, even though they vehemently oppose the infusion of ideological viewpoints. Hypocritically, the paper attacks nepotism and favouritism, which prosper under the current practices.

For a paper that aims to criticise a subjective understanding of scientific practices, the amount of subjective, unsubstantiated opinion thrown around is revealing. When unable to carry on with the tirade against social justice, it falls back on words like “talent”, which the paper does not define. The subjective opinions are thus hypocritical and lead the reader to question: Is there a motive in trying to defend a vague understanding of meritocracy in scientific practices? Do the authors aim to protect scientific values or sustain the biases and discriminatory patterns that privilege a few academics over others?

Meritocracy sounds excellent from a narrow view of science. However, from a broader perspective, it harms the goal of diversifying the knowledge base of the entire human species and propagating scientific temper amongst everyone. Social engineering, a way to achieve knowledge as a common, is more important than the “fundamental research” that the paper advocates for without bothering to explain.

The paper projects science to have an end goal: achieve technological supremacy. For example, it claims that science was the saviour of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, recent scientific debates and political developments have kept the door open for a scenario in which the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan. Biologists debate the continuation of high-risk research on pathogens and the safety standards for such research.

A computer image shows a model structurally representative of the novel coronavirus. Photo: NEXU Science Communication/via Reuters/Files

While failing to acknowledge the inherent risks of science and technology, the authors vouch for technological solutions to the world’s problems, like hunger. This is a dangerous viewpoint and is contrary to the spirit of science. It not only goes against the goal of understanding how nature works without necessarily trying to change it, but it is also common knowledge that there is no “pure science” solution to global problems like war and climate change. The pursuit of science — how it is used, what purpose it serves and for whom — is inherently political. Global hunger is political.

The paper’s ideology becomes evident when it attacks efforts to diversify the scientific workforce. It paints a rights-based approach like feminism as a vehicle for the greater good: science. However, it is not science that needs feminism, but feminism advocates for the greater good: a better world where science and scientists can thrive. Science is a collective endeavour fitting into the greater good of humanity. In this sense, diversity and inclusion, and the principles of corrective action to ensure social justice, are wedded to the scientific enquiry of the world.

Acknowledging faultlines in existing academic systems will help solve the problems. For example, reservations for women in academic jobs, editorial boards, and decision-making positions can make it easier for women to thrive in the environment and make the scientific workspace more equitable. However, the paper blatantly attacks existing reservations for women, legitimising the present number of women in academia as acceptable. Furthermore, it selectively chooses the problems plaguing affirmative action for racial diversity in US universities without attempting to understand the complexity of the problem from a humanistic standpoint. This is where it fails science. Beset by constant insistence on data to explain social dynamics, the paper takes an anti-diversity stance.

The scientific community must unequivocally condemn attempts to dilute, obfuscate, and undermine their genuine efforts to correct discriminatory practices in science. For the sake of science and humanity.

Debdutta Paul (he/him) holds a PhD in astrophysics from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. He is a science writer at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Bengaluru, and a freelance science journalist.

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