Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

Speaking of ‘Sociological Gobbledygook’

In a grandstanding letter to Chief Justice Roberts, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, president of the American Sociological Association, takes umbrage at the Chief’s reference to “sociological gobbledygook” at oral argument in the redistricting case of Gill v. Whitford. But Silva does so only by grossly misrepresenting Roberts’s point.

Silva gets on his high horse by pretending that the Chief was dismissing all of sociology as “gobbledygook.” But the Chief was instead characterizing the sorts of standards that were being advanced as measures of an unconstitutional gerrymander. Here’s the set-up for his remark (pp. 37-38 (emphasis added)):

Mr. Smith, I’m going to follow an example of one of my colleagues and lay out for you as concisely as I can what — what is the main problem for me and give you an opportunity to address it….

[I]f you’re the intelligent man on the street and the Court issues a decision, and let’s say, okay, the Democrats win, and that person will say: “Well, why did the Democrats win?” And the answer is going to be because EG was greater than 7 percent, where EG is the sigma of party X wasted votes minus the sigma of party Y wasted votes over the sigma of party X votes plus party Y votes. And the intelligent man on the street is going to say that’s a bunch of baloney. It must be because the Supreme Court preferred the Democrats over the Republicans.

It’s stuff like this that the Chief is plainly referring to when, replying to Paul Smith’s response, he says (p. 40) that “the whole point is you’re taking these issues away from democracy and you’re throwing them into the courts pursuant to, and it may be simply my educational background, but [what] I can only describe as sociological gobbledygook.” [Addendum in response to one reader’s confusion: If Bonilla-Silva had undertaken to defend the standards that the Chief was criticizing, rather than to misread the Chief as dismissing all of sociology, I would not enter into the debate.]

Pro tip to Bonilla-Silva: If you’d like to convince someone that your field “is rigorous and empirical,” it would help if you displayed some intellectual rigor and attention to actual facts.

What’s even funnier about Bonilla-Silva’s letter is that he offers “just a few examples of the contributions of sociological research to American society that our members offered in response to your comment.” But he doesn’t offer any citations in support of his laundry list (which includes things like “Modern public opinion polling”). It seems as if he’s just sent out an email soliciting such examples and copied and pasted in whatever responses he received.

Bonilla-Silva even has the gall to offer this invitation to the Chief: “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.”

If the Chief does happen to have the preconception that many sociologists are pretentious buffoons, Bonilla-Silva’s letter will reinforce that preconception.

Addendum: A reader also points out that Bonilla-Silva dated his letter “October 9, 2018.” Yes, the sort of mistake anyone can make. But reflective of the top-to-bottom sloppiness of his letter. (Update (12:10 p.m.): The ASA has now changed both the online version and the PDF, so it now presents a false version of the letter that it sent to the Chief. Now that’s some display of intellectual integrity!)

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