With some misgivings, I’ve decided to renew my membership in the American Sociological Association and attend this year’s meeting. I have too many professional and personal obligations to opt out. Still, my misgivings grew a bit more when I noted that the ASA has joined the American Educational Research Association and others in filing an amicus curiae brief supporting the use of race conscious admissions in the Fisher v. UT Austin case. The AERA, the ASA, and the others maintain that “social scientific evidence” indicates that UT Austin and other universities have a “compelling interest” in diversity and that maintaining student diversity requires consideration of race in admissions.
To say that “scientific evidence” favors the UT policy sounds a bit like saying that if the justices find the university’s approach to admissions unconstitutional they’ll be ignoring the laws of physics. But law and government derive from political decisions, not from objective facts. I’m also skeptical of the evidence itself, since I have something of an inside view of how it has been produced and I think that the “facts” in what is often referred to as “the overwhelming body of research” have been largely shaped by political decisions. I’ve referred earlier to the prevalence of “confirmation bias” in social scientific research, that is, to the tendency of researchers to find what they set out to find. The explicit purpose of most of the research encouraged and subsidized by the organizations in this amicus brief has been to find arguments and evidence demonstrating the benefits of race conscious admissions. That doesn’t mean that the conclusions of the researchers are necessarily wrong, but everyone should be aware that their findings and their interpretations of their findings have been from the beginning aimed at a predetermined outcome.
When organizations like the ASA or the AERA take official positions on political issues they exacerbate the problem of built-in bias. There is no way of avoiding this problem entirely. Social scientists, like other human beings, tend to adopt the opinions and assumptions that are popular among their peers. But when social scientific organizations take a side, they announce formally that “this is the right way to think.” Ironically, that should create even greater skepticism about their pronouncements because the bureaucratic endorsement of an opinion discourages alternative thinking and truly critical investigation of the “scientific evidence.” It also pushes professional and academic groups further away from being assemblies of diverse colleagues and toward becoming clubs for the politically like-minded.