The Supreme Court is currently considering a landmark case challenging partisan gerrymandering, specifically Wisconsin Republicans’ efforts to draw state assembly districts so as to firmly entrench their majority. At the heart of the case is a concept called the “efficiency gap,” a simple number that political scientist Eric McGhee and law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos have devised to measure how much a given district map favors one party over the other. If the number gets too high, it’s an indication that one party has rigged the game to ensure they keep getting reelected.
Sound simple enough? Well, not to Chief Justice John Roberts, who dismissed the concept as “sociological gobbledygook” in oral arguments for the case. In that one phrase, he seemed to dismiss the very idea of using social science to try to figure out the effects of redistricting efforts. “Does this state assembly map make it nearly impossible for the opposition to retake control” is an empirical question, which needs to be answered with empirical methods. The best methods we have at the date are those of political science, sociology, and economics. Indeed, as Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan observed during arguments, the people drawing these maps are relying heavily on social scientists to more effectively rig them.
Roberts wasn’t just rebuked by his colleagues, however. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, professor of sociology at Duke and the president of the American Sociological Association, who sent an open letter to Justice Roberts excoriating him for his dismissal of sociology and social science more generally:
“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,” Bonilla-Silva wrote. “What you call ‘gobbledygook’ is rigorous and empirical.”
He then ran through a…