October 13, 2017

An Open Letter to Chief Justice John Roberts


Chief Justice John Roberts, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Gill v. Whitford, Social science

by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Ph.D., president of the American Sociological Association

*This letter was originally published by the American Sociological Association.

During oral arguments in the gerrymandering case Gill v. Whitford, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts referred to social science as "sociological gobbledygook." ASA President Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has responded in a letter, the content of which is below.

Dear Chief Justice John Roberts:

I write today on behalf of the American Sociological Association, the nation’s largest scholarly professional association of sociologists, to respond to a comment you made during oral arguments on Tuesday, October 3rd for the case of Gill v. Whitford. You said: “It may be simply my educational background, but I can only describe it [social science data] as sociological gobbledygook.” 

We were pleased to learn that Justices Kagan and Sotomayor subsequently expressed concern about your statement and spoke to the value of social science measures.  In this letter, we provide additional context for understanding the empirical nature of social scientific data and the ways it has served the national interests.

In an era when facts are often dismissed as “fake news,” we are particularly concerned about a person of your stature suggesting to the public that scientific measurement is not valid or reliable and that expertise should not be trusted.  What you call “gobbledygook” is rigorous and empirical.  The following are just a few examples of the contributions of sociological research to American society that our members offered in response to your comment:

  • Clear evidence that separate is not equal
  • Early algorithms for detecting credit card fraud
  • Mapped connections between racism and physiologic stress response
  • Network analysis to identify and thwart terror structures and capture terrorists
  • Pay grades and reward systems that improve retention among enlisted soldiers
  • Modern public opinion polling
  • Evidence of gender discrimination in the workplace
  • Understanding of the family factors that impact outcomes for children
  • Guidance for police in defusing high-risk encounters
  • Strategies for combatting the public health challenge of drug abuse

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. 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.  Given the important ways in which sociological data can and has informed thoughtful decision-making from the bench, such time would be well spent. 

Sincerely,

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Ph.D.
President, American Sociological Association

 

Constitutional Interpretation, Democracy and Voting, Redistricting