Cheiron: The international society for the history of behavioral & social sciences

Cheiron Nav Logo

Navigate with the buttons below, or search this website with the search tool

2021 Winner Michael F. McGovern

The 2021 Cheiron Young Scholar Award goes to Michael F. McGovern for his paper
“’Masters of Reality’: Aptitude Testing and the Origins of Disparate Impact.”

McGovern takes as his starting point a landmark Supreme Court decision, Griggs v. Duke Power Company (1971), that introduced the concept of “disparate impact” to employment law. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled that job criteria – most notably aptitude tests with an adverse or exclusionary effect on minorities — could violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s ban on discrimination in hiring even if they were “neutral on their face.”  As McGovern notes, Griggs opened the floodgates for statistical evidence of discrimination to be proffered in court by expert witnesses, and many psychologists were more than willing to provide their expertise for plaintiffs and defendants. This was not easy sailing, as one can imagine.

To trace the history of disparate impact as the concept unfolded – succeeding at times and failing at crucial junctures– McGovern situates it in its broad historical and political context, drawing upon a wide array of work in the history of psychology, law review articles, appeals and lower court decisions, and commentaries by business leaders, policy-makers, government officials, and personnel psychologists. Importantly, he places the evolving discourse and practices around validity at the center of struggles over the meaning of civil rights law.  In so doing, McGovern shows how clashes and conflicts arise when different but overlapping institutions – legal, economic, political and social scientific – meet on the same terrain, especially when the stakes are high.

A central tension of civil rights litigation relying on social science, McGovern argues, is that institutional background and disciplinary training shaped divergent understandings of the meaning of such statistical concepts as validity and significance, terms that became increasingly freighted with moral and epistemological baggage during the ensuing arguments over aptitude test results.  Efforts to adjust test scores for wider use lent legitimacy to ‘race correction’ practices criticized by STS scholars today.  Ultimately, McGovern suggests that scholars of scientific racism should account as much for battles over employment rights as the more familiar hereditarian efforts to link IQ and race.  As he revises the essay, McGovern is working to center the perspectives of Black psychologists working toward reform and broader political action within their own discipline.

By tying several strands of evidence together into a coherent whole, McGovern has produced a multifaceted, incisive and clear analysis of an episode of enduring historical, political, and social importance.

Michael McGovern is a PhD candidate in Princeton University’s Program in the History of Science, jointly pursuing a certificate in African American Studies. He currently serves as co-chair of the History of Science Society’s Graduate and Early Career Caucus and is the Associate Producer of Princeton’s African American Studies Podcast. He plans to defend his dissertation, Justice in Numbers: Statistics, Law, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Modern America later this year.

The Young Scholar Award Committee congratulates McGovern and thanks each of the young scholars who submitted his or her paper for the award. Each of these manuscripts were thought-provoking and carefully researched, thus making the committee’s decision particularly challenging. We hope to see each entry in print and that these and other qualified young scholars will continue to submit their work for our award.

— 2021 Cheiron Young Scholar Award Committee
Jennifer Bazar, Zed Gao, Rodrigo Lopes Miranda, and Jeff Pooley