There will come a point in every conversation in which you challenge someone on the inherent biases in any purportedly merit-based system at which its defenders will point out that the winners in said system are very talented and work very hard. The motivation for the winners in any system or institution to believe this is strong, as to believe otherwise is to admit that one's own success is a function of luck or other non-meritocratic factors.

Perhaps it is correct that the winners in life win because they are talented, smart, and hard working. In my brief life experience, though, I've always found it odd that the people who have influential connections always end up being the most talented, smartest, and hardest working people.

Life has a lot of coincidences.

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70 Responses to “IRREDUCIBLE”

  1. Dave Dell Says:

    I should add that universal health care including birth control, immunizations, dental and vision should be available to everyone. A minimum wage adjusted for local cost of living that provides the ability to live in modest comfort is also needed. Minimum housing standards need to be adopted. (I once lived in a city/county subsidized northern exposed apartment with a 6 inch poured concrete wall with no insulation.) Happily subsidized by my tax dollars. Although as an advocate of MMT these taxes or lack thereof aren't crucial.

    Lots of other things would create more opportunities for everyone. This site, among many others, is full of good ideas to keep anyone from having to "work three part-time jobs digging ditches and making 30K total between them for 16 hours per day of brutally hard work…"

  2. Mingent Whizmaster Says:

    I think bb in GA was channelling the late columnist Russell Baker.
    He had a recurring tripartite bit of the form:
    I am assertive,
    You are forward,
    He is rude.

  3. bb in GA Says:


    Happy New Year!

    Read your ref'd article and my britches are clean. :-)

    You obviously haven't been keeping up with my stuff here for years (I'm sure it's scintillating )that allows that your side is going to win in the end.

    Wrote it here several times over several years. I called our dear President's re-elect in 2010 here.

    I bear no one any ill will if y'all can accomplish the x-over to Ameri-cuba in a Constitutionally acceptable fashion that doesn't include Fidel and Cammandante Che's murderous tactics.

    Peace & Luv


  4. Totoro Says:

    Too many never have access to opportunity. They grow up without good schools, without two parents, without sufficient food or clothing. They don't have any opportunities to "execute".
    However, painting all successful folks as being so due to nepotism or connections is over-simplistic. Science is a meritocracy of ideas. Good ideas get replicated, bad ideas get shot down. The technological advances since the enlightenment have been due to the meritocracy of ideas. If you reject meritocracy, I do not think that word means what you think it means.

  5. eau Says:

    Lack of opportunities for the wrong people, lack of consequences for the right people.

    Meritocracy! Huzzah!

  6. Robert Says:

    A good friend gave me the books "Fooled by Randomness" and "The Black Swan". Very well written, and touching on this topic among others. It reminds me of when I was job hunting back in 1984, just out of college. I had taken the Civil Service test, and applying for anything that seemed even remotely bearable. I was actually contacted for a job that I hadn't even known was available – it had been advertised, had multiple applicants, and been filled. The successful applicant lasted two weeks and was fired. They called the top three people on the list and asked us to come in. According to the service chief, of the three of us I was the only one who bothered to wear a suit for the interview. He hired me, and I was there for twenty four years. Sheer luck, in short, led to getting the job. I've told my sons "everyone who succeeds, tried; not everyone who tries, succeeds." You can prepare, work hard, and do everything right and STILL fail – we Americans are very uncomfortable with this truth, and will do everything possible to ignore or deny it.

  7. Big Sister Says:

    I once got to see the Curriculum Vitae of the President od Iniana Power and Light. It went something like this:

    Education: two years at East Bumfuck Junior College
    First job: mail room for six months
    Second job: President of Ipalco. Thereupon followed 18 pages listing the Boards of Directors he and his wife sat on.

  8. vegymper Says:

    Hi y'all, from my window down in South America, where we say we believe but we mock of our own beliefs, I see that up there in North America many of these discussions are possible because of a cultural frame of mind. You DO believe. And believing in luck or believing in hard work is something that cannot be challenged even on the basis of solid evidence. Belief is difficult to shake…
    And probably the Calvinist script on hard work as a virtue no matter what the results, has been hammered into your DNA, hasn't it?
    @Elle: we all need bread and roses. This is not meritocracy, its basic human rights. Meritocracy is about being "led by those who have more merits"

  9. Major Kong Says:


    I was thinking more Ameri-Denmark than Ameri-Cuba.

    Which I find preferable to the Right's dream of Ameri-Mogadishu.

  10. j Says:

    I've heard that "success comes from working hard" pep talk from two batches of professors now. It's clear that it is rife with the cognitive biases and logical fallacies you often mention here on this site.

    The argument basically consists of the following:
    A) I worked hard, and look now I'm successful. (Hindsight + survivorship biases)
    B) Therefore hard work caused my success. (Post hoc fallacy)
    C) If you work hard then you will be successful like me. (I don't even know how to classify this obvious fallacy, a little help? Something like overgeneralizing from one data point?)
    D) If you do not work hard then you will not be successful. (Denying the antecedent fallacy)

  11. Xynzee Says:

    Along with luck and winning the genetic lottery of having things like intelligence is the importance of having those skills, abilities in "emotional intelligence" or whatever it's called this week. Being able to shamelessly self-promote and/or play the game in developing social contacts/relationships is paramount.

    Experience has taught me that those with little to no compunction to screw over others go a long way too. They have this ability to get away with "dabbing the paint on" in such away so no one notices the dry rot underneath their work. I cannot tell you how many times I've had to come through and mop up someone else's failure to do the job right in the first place.

  12. bb in GA Says:


    Cuba is in the mix because that was the subject of Sarah's reference. While I don't know if Ameri-cuba is Sarah's preferred form of a socialist paradise (wouldn't want to put words in her mouth), all y'all Lefties need to hash it out,….. Ameri-cuba, Ameri-Denmark, etc. and get back to me….


  13. Elle Says:

    Science is a meritocracy of ideas. Good ideas get replicated, bad ideas get shot down.

    So all of those shelves full of reports on women's different experience of being recruited, mentored, funded, published, promoted, and collaborated with within the science academy are chopped liver? Funding councils and bodies are apolitical?

    If you reject meritocracy, I do not think that word means what you think it means.

    Your hypothesis is noted. I think that at its most abstract the concept of meritocracy is almost tautologous. It's hardly a radical thought to aver that it would be best if the best people were the leaders. The two sticking points, of course, are who decides what is 'best', and what happens to everyone else.

    Anyone who is in activist, or even a keen observer of the world, will have noted that the concept of meritocracy is most frequently invoked as a response to a demand for power to be shared more equally. It is the go-to response to the request for gender quotas for elected representatives, to inquiries into the lack of black people in corporate leadership roles, and as a sop to those who ask why executive suite salaries dwarf those of the shop-floor worker.

    It balms the soul of those who would wring every drop of sweated labour out of the lumpenproletariat to imagine that they are objectively justified in their station in life.

    If everyone had access to education, healthcare, housing, nutrition, income, political spaces, and work that had been designed to be rewarding and pleasant, then I would have no problem with meritocracy. In the absence of fairness, equality, and equal enjoyment of human rights, it is a self-serving nonsense.

  14. daveawayfromhome Says:

    I'm curious what all of you who are hating on meritocracies imagine in its place? If the problem is corruption, then no system in the world is immune. A meritocracy at least has the advantage if being based in the idea that those who can do the job well should have the job.

  15. Elle Says:

    I'm curious what all of you who are hating on meritocracies imagine in its place?

    Substantive representation, with descriptive representation as a useful first step.

  16. Totoro Says:

    Hi Elle,

    Sure. Science could better represent women. All of society could do better. I do believe that science has done better than most other portions of society. But bias against minorities has a long history. My grandfather was rejected from many northeastern graduate programs back in the 1920s because he was Irish (he was accepted at a school in the midwest). One of the reasons there are so many Jewish physicists in the 1920s-50s is because they weren't allowed to be businessmen and lawyers (Hitler may also have helped). In the 60's my father's physics department was producing more black Ph.D. physicists than the Ivies. The prevalence of Asians in science currently is because we accept immigrants whose grasp of the English language is marginal if they are also brilliant. We ain't perfect, but we are much less old-boy-network than many professions.

    Why are women under-represented in the sciences? Dunno. I do know that women are also under-represented in the boardroom, in Congress, etc. I've mentored a significant number of women graduate students, most of whom have gone on to be very effective researchers. From what I've read, the divergence between male and female aspirations towards science happens well before graduate school. Women are under-represented in the sciences (other than pre-med) at the beginning of college. Much effort has been expended in the past 20 years to increase female participation in STEM programs in high school. It will be another 20 years before we see those recruits as tenured professors.

    That said, the research either is reproducible or it isn't. We have our share of cheats in science, but they generally get caught (or the result was inconsequential). So yes, I am quite happy working in a meritocracy of ideas.

    I'm struggling to understand how my physics research is "wring(ing) every drop of sweated labour out of the lumpenproletariat". Perhaps you think tax dollars shouldn't be spent on research? The training of graduate students? You can't be thinking that I'm one of the 1%, do you? You don't become a research physicist to get rich, you do it because you can't imagine doing anything else. There are too many easier ways to make a living, trust me.

  17. Totoro Says:

    "One of the reasons there are so many Jewish physicists in the 1920s-50s is because they weren't allowed to be businessmen and lawyers (Hitler may also have helped).

    OK, that needs clarification. They were not "forbidden", but the Ivies had very tight quotas on how many Jewish students they would admit. The main-line law firms just didn't hire "those types". So there were clear limits to how far you could rise in certain fields. While there was also anti-semitism in academia, it was not as strong.

  18. Ellie Says:

    Just chiming in on what I've observed about how many "successful" people come to believe in meritocracy, based on my own experience with privileged people.

    I went to a fancy private school and rubbed elbows with the children of the affluent classes. IMO, here's how the belief in meritocracy happens:

    Beleive it or not, my experience was that most (not all, but most) privileged people actually DO work pretty hard. When they're young, they take school seriously, they go to class and do their homework, they prep for the SAT, they pursue sprots and other extracurricular activities, so that they can get into good colleges, where they still go to class (most of the time) and do their homework, and pursue enriching activities in their spare time, and then they find a job, and they work hard, often putting in more than 40 hours a week. Etc.

    So naturally, they feel like they have EARNED the money and comfot they receive. And the thing is, very often, they are not so much wrong as they are instead only half-right. They are correct that they DID work hard, and hard work DID contribute to their success.

    The problem is that they miss the entire other half of their success, because it's just invisible to them, like a fish in water. They have no concept of what a privilege it was to have access to a "good" school and test prep to begin with, or just how lucky they were to come from families that never had to worry about money and could pay for all sorts of enrichment, or just how lucky they were to have access to top-notch medical and dental care, etc. They simply do not see how access to the above led to access to good colleges led to acces to good careers, and that the only reason they had the OPPORTUNITY to work had and be rewarded by the well-paying jobs they have is thanks to an entire un-remarked-upon scaffolding of privilege underneath their own hard work. That scaffolding is what's invisible to them.

    When you do point out all of their privileges, they will generally answer with vague platitudes about how there are government programs and scholarships and affirmative action, and surely that "makes up" for any differences in opportunity! And they probably really believe it. After all, they know from experience that "hard work pays off!"

    And their kids will think the exact same way.

  19. Elle Says:

    Hi Totoro,

    Yes, discrimination affects many groups of individuals, both historically and in the present. That this discrimination continues to be replicated across the labour market and in political spaces, including within the STEM sectors, is contrary to meritocracy existing.

    There is global interest in women and STEM, and it's in scope of the UN, the World Bank, and the international development community. Targets within Europe's current and previous economic development strategies has meant that there has been a very sustained research and policy focus on women and STEM over here, and I know that the US has done equivalent work. (The now defunct Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development (CAWMSET), for example, which was kicked off in 1998.)

    Above all other occupational sectors, we know a great deal about the supply of female scientists, and their different experience from male peers, from early years education to professorship. I listed some of the areas in which women's experience is different from men in my earlier comment.

    This body of knowledge has been translated into programmes on both the demand and supply side, which have the aims of removing the structural barriers to women's participation in STEM, and building girls' and women's resilience and capacity to pursue non-traditional study and careers. (There may be someone holding their head in their hands right now at the thought that you have not read one of their organisation's lovingly crafted sets of guidance for those with supervisory/mentoring responsibility for female graduate students of physics.)

    As you are unfamiliar with all of this work, it might be helpful to acquaint yourself with it before deciding if you persist in your view that functionally excluding people from physics research based on factors that have nothing to do with ability to do physics means that physics is a 'meritocracy of ideas'. Jocelyn Bell Burnell might be a good and accessible place to start. As well as being an eminent physicist, who seems to have behaved like an absolute brick about being cut out of a Nobel for the work she did on pulsars as an postgrad, she has also taken something of a leadership role on women in science. She's also an object lesson, as one of the first girls at her high school to be allowed to study science rather than sewing.

    I'm struggling to understand how my physics research is "wring(ing) every drop of sweated labour out of the lumpenproletariat". Perhaps you think tax dollars shouldn't be spent on research? The training of graduate students?

    This is the type of wild inference that I imagine goes on within the pages of Soap Opera Digest. As I said, and think, none of this, I don't feel too bad about not engaging with it in detail.

    What I would say, is that I am very enthusiastic about the awarding of research grants only to institutions that have taken action to identify barriers to women's participation, and removed them.

    On the subject of the academy and meritocracy, I would note that (in a European context) academics' trade unions are notorious for their lack of solidarity with non-academic staff. They actively pursue negotiating strategies of wage differentiation, and refuse single-table bargaining. The impact of this can clearly be seen on, for example, the wife of a dual-academic couple of who steps out of an academic career because of its incompatability with child-rearing, and who returns to work as a part-time lab tech.

  20. Ursula Says:

    I'm late to the game, but I wanted to simply point out that no one has an issue with the concept of meritocracy, provided that those at the bottom still have their needs met. The issue is that meritocracy in our society is an illusion – a comfortable lie to justify the status quo for those who benefit.