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CEO DATELINE – Sociological association seeks to educate Chief Justice Roberts on science

Oct. 11, 2017
By Walt Williams

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A week after U.S. Supreme Court Chief John Roberts dismissed social science about gerrymandering as “sociological gobbledygook,” the American Sociological Association said it was willing to offer experts to correct his “lack of understanding” about the field.

Roberts made the comment during Oct. 3 oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a case concerning alleged gerrymandering of U.S. House districts in Wisconsin. Plaintiffs in the case are attempting to use science to show the districts have been manipulated to such an extent they violate voters’ constitutional rights. In questioning the evidence, Roberts at one point said: “It may be simply my educational background, but I can only describe it (social science data) as sociological gobbledygook.”

The chief justice’s comments didn’t go over well with social scientists. In an Oct. 10 open letter, ASA Council President Eduardo Bonilla-Silva said Roberts’ statement was particularly concerning in an era when facts are often dismissed as “fake news.”

“What you call ‘gobbledygook’ is rigorous and empirical,” Bonilla-Silva said.

He then offered several examples of sociological research that has aided the legal system, including algorithms for detecting credit card fraud, network analysis to identify terrorists and guidance for police in defusing high-risk encounters.

“We are certain that the social scientists and legal scholars at your alma mater would be disappointed to learn that you attributed your lack of understanding of social science to your Harvard education,” Bonilla-Silva said. “Should you be interested in enhancing your education in this area, we would be glad to put together a group of nationally and internationally renowned sociologists to meet with you and your staff.”

Bonilla-Silva suggested Roberts contact ASA Executive Director Nancy Kidd to arrange the meeting.