You've heard of junk science -- the use of distortion, anecdote and flawed research to woo juries in product liability suits and justify harsher regulations? Now, welcome to the era of junk social science, which, more and more, is being enlisted in the service of proving that affirmative action works.
Consider a study, published Oct. 8 in the Journal of the American Medical Association and trumpeted the same day on the front page of the New York Times.
It found that students admitted to medical school "with special consideration for factors like race or ethnic origin had remarkably similar records and careers to those admitted on academic merit alone," wrote reporter Ethan Bronner.
The Times story leads us to conclude that blacks and Hispanics admitted in the past under race-based affirmative action programs (now banned) at the University of California at Davis did just as well in the real world as doctors without preferences. Is this vindication for affirmative action?
It's nothing of the sort. In their report, the authors concede that of the members of the group admitted to Davis under "special consideration," only 53.5 percent were black, Native American or Hispanic. The other 46.5 percent got a boost in the admissions process because of life experiences like serving as Peace Corps volunteers, teachers or nurses. (This fact is noted in the ninth paragraph of the Times piece.)
Do Davidson and Lewis separate out the race-based affirmative-action beneficiaries and compare them to students admitted under normal standards? Nope. Thus, I'd say, their conclusions are meaningless.
But even if the research were more pure -- and showed that applicants with racial preferences performed as well as those without -- it would miss the point about affirmative action.
Yes, it's possible to admit more minority students who are qualified, able to do the work at school and to perform adequately as doctors later. But slots in state medical schools are scarce resources. The important issue, in a democratic republic, is how to allocate those resources fairly.
To give preferences to any racial group flunks the fairness test. It also enshrines race as a meaningful distinction in American society. As Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom write in "America in Black and White," their superb new book: "Race-conscious policies make for more race-consciousness; they carry American society backward." By continually emphasizing color, we haven't been able to achieve the colorblind society that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sought.
Affirmative action is also demeaning. The Thernstroms point out that in 1965, when President Johnson began the policy, "few detected the racism implicit in the notion that blacks were too crippled to be judged on their individual merit." That racism thrives today.
There are only two good ways to allocate scarce public resources like places in med school -- lottery or merit. Random selection is wasteful.
That's the basis of Proposition 209 in California, passed by a solid majority in 1996. It prohibits state government from discriminating on the basis of race and gender in activities such as university admissions and contracting. Let's hope Prop 209 spreads nationwide.