How Not to React to a Research Paper

Citizens of North Carolina, to the extent that they pay attention to such matters, may be puzzled by the recent storm in a teacup at Duke. 

A statistical study co-authored by two Duke economists and a sociologist described data suggesting that black and legacy applicants to Duke are more likely than others to shift majors away from their initial expressed preference for science, engineering or economics to subjects in the humanities or social sciences with a more generous grade distribution.  

Heather Mac Donald, writing in the Weekly Standard, summarizes the issues pretty well: “The most surprising finding of the study is that, of incoming students who reported a major, more than 76 percent of black male freshmen at Duke intended to major in the hard sciences or economics, higher even than the percentage of white male freshmen who anticipated such majors. But more than half of those black would-be-science majors switched track in the course of their studies, while less than 8 percent of white males did, so that by senior year, only 35 percent of black males graduated with a science or economics degree, while more than 63 percent of white males did.”  

The authors argue that this switching pattern accounts for the reduction in grade-point-average difference between back and white students that occurs between freshman and senior years. Whites do quite a bit better than blacks during freshman year, but this difference almost disappears for seniors. 

The course-switching pattern seemed to reflect not race but academic preparation, since the study found a similar pattern for legacy students, admitted, like African Americans, according to somewhat different criteria than the average white or Asian applicant. As Mac Donald explains,  “Attrition from a hard science major was wholly accounted for in the paper’s statistical models by a freshman’s level of academic qualifications; race was irrelevant. While science majors had SATs that were 50 points higher than students in the humanities in general, students who had started out in science and then switched had SATs that were 70 points lower than those of science majors.”

It’s hard for many people to see what is the big deal in this controversy. Science is tougher than non-science? “The fact that sciences are harder than humanities is the worst kept secret in higher education,” wrote a student to the Duke Chronicle. Students tend to switch out of subjects in which they are doing badly?  Really!

Surprisingly (to most people), this dry-as-dust academic study caused some consternation at Duke, including a protest by the Black Student Alliance.

The statistical facts of the study do not seem to be in dispute. Nevertheless, they can be interpreted in many ways. Unfortunately none of them was explored by the study’s many critics.

Instead, the focus was on two things: First, the fact that the study was submitted as an amicus brief in a case seeking Supreme Court review of affirmative action (Fisher v. Texas). And second, that it upset a number of people. The paper was denounced as “hurtful and alienating”  (“boring and quantitative” might be more accurate) and it was said to “reinforce negative stereotypes.” 

Research should rise or fall on its own merits. Whether others regard it as worth citing in a legal brief (or anywhere else) doesn’t have anything to do with its merits; nor does the way it makes some people feel.

The emotional reaction is I think the most depressing aspect of the whole thing. It is a testament to Duke’s failure to educate, to teach our students, especially our black students, how to evaluate a study on its scientific merits rather than taking it personally. 

The study looks okay to me; I have not taken the time necessary to evaluate it as a peer reviewer might.  But the fact that it might be interpreted by some people in a way unfavorable to affirmative action should be utterly irrelevant. 

Nevertheless, Duke’s president, Richard Brodhead, invoked the Grutter v. Bollinger case (a 2003 Supreme Court decision that upheld affirmative action) in an attack on the study in his annual address to the faculty on March 22. He first acknowledged the importance of academic freedom, then proceeded to threaten it. After agonizing about Duke’s (not-so-bad!)  racial history, he empathized with the distraught students, saying that he could “see why students took offense” at the paper and said that it could “renew the primal insult of the world we are trying to leave behind….”

Researchers should not have to worry about being called on the carpet any time their work might cause anyone to take offense. The solid ground of academic freedom starts turning into quicksand when university presidents rebuke faculty members for drawing “insulting” conclusions on controversial topics. 

If those who reacted so emotionally to this paper had been true to the real function of a university they could have disputed the data of the study, the authors’ analysis, or their interpretation. The fact that so many—faculty and administration as well as students—failed to do so is a sad testimony to our failure to educate.