That Time Everyone Got Mad About Social Justice

In early August of 2021, some research collaborators and I posted online a white paper that uses empirical methods to study race-based disparities in the sentencing patterns of federal district judges. Then I shared the paper on Twitter.

Part 1: Academic Twitter did not like it.

From an economist at a top-10 research institution:

From a philosopher (who appears not to do quantitative work) at a large public research university:

From a very courageous anonymous troll:

From the owner of a defense law firm, who felt we must be wrong if we didn’t have someone from her field on our research team:

Subject matter expertise is critically important but… no, we did not. Still, we had plenty of relevant expertise in other forms. When you work a case that involves numbers in any way, do you have a mathematician on YOUR team?

Speaking of expertise, a graduate student in education helpfully pointed out:

And then my personal favorite because, though it was quite hurtful, it also made me laugh: this self-reflection from a professor with an endowed chair at a top-20 law school:

I would add that I did not, in fact, “melt down.” While inexplicably cruel professors were berating me and demanding that I answer critiques of the work RIGHT NOW, all I really said, over and over, was “I’ll be happy to reply next week after the research team has a chance to meet and discuss these issues.”

But the Tweets above were just the tip of the iceberg. After these remarks and many others like them (or worse), most of which came from identifiable public figures, the nasty anonymous comments starting coming. Then the hostile DMs. And that’s when I decided to delete Twitter, because I knew what would come next in this all-too-familiar pattern: Breitbart, 4chan, and finally, death threats sent to my email via anonymous accounts. I knew because I’ve been through it before.

Even deleting Twitter appears to be off limits. That is to say, the first rule of getting abused on Twitter is that you are not allowed to leave Twitter. The economist who was upset about the poor quality of our paper felt I should have stuck around and waited until the death threats came:

I don’t need this person’s approval, but I suspect that if he knew my life story he might come to a different conclusion. By the way, it is perhaps not a coincidence that this comment came from an economist. The economists seem to really not like me. Over the years, I’ve been discussed several times in a rather toxic economics web forum called Econ Job Rumors. You can see their most recent chatter here. If you take the time to read it, you’ll learn that anonymous economists think my work is “garbage,” I’m a “lib with an agenda,” and that “my research career is going nowhere.”

Part 2: The substance

The lead author of our paper wrote an extremely thorough and thoughtful Twitter thread that engages with the criticism we received, and we posted a revised version of the paper. I encourage you to read both items. The Twitter thread and the revised work represent the consensus of all six authors of the paper (I am the fifth author).

At present, I want to add some of my personal reactions. In doing so, I want to make clear that I speak only for myself, and not my coauthors.

  1. Some of the critiques levied against our work were absolutely correct. And guess what? We had already addressed a number of them in our original manuscript. In fact, we were so concerned about them that we repeated the most important caveats and limitations multiple times.
  2. We were told that judges we identified as having racially discriminatory sentencing patterns could not possibly be racially discriminatory. These comments came from people with professional or anecdotal relationships with judges appearing in our data set. There are two issues here. First, anecdotal experience is no way to do analysis. Second, and more substantively, I think the complaint suggests a lack of agreement on language about racism. I believe our critics were claiming that their friend-judges do not display explicit racial animus. This might be true, but is not the point of our study. Racism can arise implicitly from individuals and from structural factors.
  3. Relatedly, we were frequently told that the problem that causes discriminatory outcomes is not judges, but rather, prosecutors’ decisions about plea deals. It may be true that prosecutors offer plea deals differentially by defendant race. But you know what? A judge is more powerful than a prosecutor, and has the power to reject plea deals. I believe that it is ultimately the judge’s responsibility to mitigate racial bias that occurs upstream in the criminal justice process.
  4. Even the most helpful, thoughtful critiques of our work hedged. In particular, one very insightful blog post (this is not sarcasm — it was actually a great post) used the following phrases: “I believe,” “I would not be surprised if,” “I suspect,” (2x) and so forth. This is appropriate, because the author was making some loose statistical analogies related to our work. At the same time, the uncertainty in the critique was mirrored by uncertainty explained in the limitations section of our paper. We put qualifiers on our work, and this critic put qualifiers on his critique. For me, this raises a question about Type I/Type II errors. Is it better to falsely label a fair judge as discriminatory, or is it better to falsely label a discriminatory judge as fair?
  5. One of the most confusing repsonses we received came from an esteemed scholar of sentencing who wrote that “a focus on judges risks distorting our understanding of all the decisions made before a judge actually gets to give a sentence.” I am unsure if his implication is that the sentencing patterns of judges should not be scrutinized, but if it is, I stringently disagree.

I am grateful for the constructive critique that our work received. But such critique was a minority. As for the rest of it? Most of the points I listed above try to steer around the uncomfortable reality that there are discriminatory judges on the bench. Individual motivations aside, this is how a system tries to protect itself. The federal bench and higher education are both overwhelmingly white institutions, and it pays to maintain power. Of all of the negative Twitter comments I received from identifiable professors and legal professionals, do you know how many came from people of color? Exactly none.

Part 3: What happened before

In August of 2021, when the bad behavior started happening on Twitter, did I high-tail it out of there? You bet I did. Flash back to 2019, when I spoke out about a diversity controversy in my own field of mathematics. I even wrote a research paper about it. What I wrote less about, publicly, was the multitude of right-wing news coverage, anonymous harassment, and death threats that I received.

The anonymous harassers from 2019 and the professors from 2021 have more in common than I would have liked to have thought. Regardless, I am not deterred and will continue my social justice work. I just won’t be disseminating it on Twitter.

During my 2019 incident, attempting to make lemons out of lemonade, I compiled some of the things said about me online and submitted them as a humorous McSweeny’s piece. McSweeny’s took a pass, but now that I have this Medium page, I can make you read it below, and thus do I close out this post.

Part 4: An incomplete list of negative statements made about me since I spoke out about a diversity controversy, along with analyses of said statements

by Chad M. Topaz

Negative statement: I am a faggot.
Analysis: Guilty. So very, proudly guilty.

Negative statement: I am a maggoty fascist.
Analysis: When this one was first brought to my attention, I read “maggoty” as “faggoty” and was like, that’s fair.

Negative statements: I’ll be attacked/injured/ruined/killed/whatever by you.
Analysis: Dude. When you grow up gay, this is, like, a normal Tuesday or whatever.

Negative statement: I deserve to “get my ass pummeled.”
Analysis: Does this pertain to the faggot statement above?

Negative statement: I look like I have Down’s syndrome.
Analysis: Cannot comment, as I suffer from a moderate case of prosopagnosia. I report, you decide.

Negative statement: I look like I am 5'5" tall.
Analysis: I am EXTREMELY impressed by the person who wrote this based on a photo of me online, because that person is precisely correct. Well done, 100%.

Negative statement: My professional career is tanking.
Analysis: We can all wait and see. I keep an open mind. My cv is here.

Negative statement: I am a libtard.
Analysis: I mean…<shrug>

Negative statement: I am not a real mathematician.
Analysis: I’m an applied mathematician. If that’s not real to you, fine by me. Also, though, are people who work in complex analysis real mathematicians? (Being a mathematician is necessary but not sufficient to appreciate this joke.)

Negative statement: I seem ESL or barely literate.
Analysis: Judge four urself.

Negative statement: My blazer (in a professional pic) makes me look like an asshole.
Analysis: I was fine with all of the previous negative comments, but now I am mad. Bitch, this is an unstructured, wrinkle-free, machine washable blazer that I got at Uniqlo for like $50. It is badass for work trips. If you are spending time pressing your blazers or spending money taking them to the dry cleaner, I think that YOU’RE the asshole.

Professor, data scientist, applied mathematician, social justice researcher and activist, nonprofit leader. See and