I’ve been meaning to do a post about the self-destruction of the STEM fields (actually many, many posts), but I haven’t gotten around to it because there is just so darn much other idiocy to write about.
As Ferris Bueller says, “life moves pretty fast, you don’t stop and look around for a minute you could miss it.”
‘We advocate for speech that empowers the next generation of scientists to create a more just and equitable ─ and hence more excellent ─ scientific community’
Ten scientists holding faculty positions at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities have joined forces to defend censorship and cancel culture within academia.
The scholars work at top schools including Berkeley, Cornell, UC Merced, MIT and UCSD. They were also joined by a program director from the National Science Foundation.
Together, they coauthored the recent guest commentary “Words Matter: On the Debate over Free Speech, Inclusivity, and Academic Excellence,” published by the prominent chemistry journal, The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters.
The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters? That is hardly the place you would expect to find philosophic rumination about why scientists should suppress research that threatens the social justice narrative. But these days you can find The Narrative™ popping up everywhere, including Nature, Scientific American, and specialist journals dedicated to publishing research that nobody outside the academic world would ever read. The audience for such journals is in the thousands, not millions. But that audience is extraordinarily influential within their scientific circle, and those scientists in turn set the research agenda that impacts every aspect of our lives. They also have the power to influence who can become a scientist and who can get funding to do research.
The guest commentary written by these prominent scientists makes an interesting case: the pursuit of knowledge is not a good in itself. It should subordinate itself to a social agenda and be guided by fealty to The Narrative™:
What do we value as an academic and a scientific community? Do our core values include only the pursuit of facts and inventions, to the exclusion of other considerations? Or do we accept that scientists have a responsibility to serve society beyond simply expanding the knowledge base, and should therefore concern themselves (at least in part) with how their words and actions intersect and impact the human sphere?
A scientist’s innovations might be profound, benefiting many, but if that person’s words or actions create an alienating or hostile workplace or learning environment, then how should the scientific community evaluate that person’s overall contribution to humanity? How should society view such a person? These questions lie at the heart of an emerging conversation regarding what equality means for the greater scientific enterprise as we pursue increased diversity and inclusion of underrepresented groups at our universities.
The same questions are also central to recent debate regarding whether the scientific community should continue to retain “named” scientific phenomena in cases where the eponymous scientist has engaged in conduct that is inconsistent with contemporary values, even if that behavior is entirely separate from their scientific discoveries. Whether namesake buildings, lectures, and awards should be renamed is also under discussion, and similar questions arise regarding a controversial personal essay that was retracted in 2020 by the journal Angewandte Chemie.
This conversation is interwoven with the emergence of historically marginalized voices within society, particularly on social media, along with the emergence and evolution of “cancel culture” as a new narrative. Efforts to call out inappropriate speech or behavior can lead to legal, professional, or social consequences for those accused; to some, this represents “cancel culture run amok”. To critics, social media call-outs inhibit open debate and thereby threaten traditional academic freedom to express unpopular views.
Academic freedom has been a bedrock principle of University culture for decades. It has always been particularly necessary in scientific pursuits. It arose over concerns about the conflict between the Catholic Church (of which I am a proud member) and scientists. We all know the story of Galileo, although most people don’t know that he was a devout man whom the Pope actually respected. (Harvard published a book about the myths surrounding Galileo’s dealings with the Church). Some of his work was suppressed because it contradicted The Narrative™ that prevailed at the time.
The Church itself recognizes these days the necessity of allowing scientists to pursue knowledge without prior regard to doctrine (not in ethical behavior–you can’t kill or maim to get knowledge!) because doing so both advances the good of society and reveals God’s creation. The Catholic Church has actually employed some of the most eminent scientists in history.
Academic freedom has also been a key reason why Marxists and proponents of other morally questionable ideologies have been protected in educational institutions. When I was a graduate student at Duke we taught a political science course that was part of the core curriculum for PoliSci majors called “Political Ideologies.” We read Marx and Mussolini not to bash them, but to understand them. I read Mein Kampf in college for the same reason. Academic freedom exists because we cannot understand what we refuse to examine.
The pursuit of knowledge is a good in itself. Without knowledge wisdom is difficult to acquire. Even The Narrative™ didn’t pop out of thin air. At its root is the thinking of philosophers going back over two centuries, beginning with Rousseau.
Science is special though, for a lot of reasons. Freedom is even more important because without out we can never learn how the world works in a fundamental way. The suppression of scientific discussion is a form of barbarism. The Soviet Union imposed barriers to scientific discourse and Russia today is still a backwater in many fields because of that. Math and physics mostly flourished because the subjects were too abstract for the powers that be to understand, although even in these fields prominent scientists were persecuted for having the wrong political opinions.
Social Justice Warrior scientists in America are going down this path, and it is a disaster in the making. America leads the world in economic and scientific performance, but that is the result of a choice, not an inevitability. We invest in science and give mostly free rein to scientists, barring massive ethical quandaries. Yet the new generation of scientists want to curb the search for knowledge and cancel scientists who dissent from left wing politics.
The late Prof. Thomáš Hudlický’s controversial essay reflecting on “the current state of affairs” in organic chemistry research was retracted by the journal Angewandte Chemie after an internet-based outcry culminating in a mass resignation from its international advisory board. The outcry was a response to Hudlický’s written remarks denouncing diversity efforts in academia, expressing concern about fraudulent scientific publishing in a manner that was mostly aimed at scientists in China, and expressing the author’s exasperation that modern organic chemistry graduate students are no longer willing to “submit” to the hard work demanded by their faculty “masters”.
As evidenced by the response on social media, many felt that these remarks deserved no place in a scholarly journal and that removing the essay was appropriate in view of its content. Others defended Hudlický’s right to publish his commentary and felt that instant judgment via social media should not substitute for reasoned debate. We suggest that this incident is better framed as a manifestation of consequences culture.It is natural for any community to maintain and enforce its social norms. Individuals are entitled to their opinions, but they are certainly not entitled to a platform for those opinions in a scholarly scientific journal. In response to his essay, Hudlický was admonished by his university in an open letter, yet he retained a tenured faculty position and could thus continue his scholarly endeavors. Hudlický therefore suffered some consequences for actions that were deemed unacceptable to many, but he was not “cancelled”.
The meat of their argument is revealed in their discussion of Twitter mobs, of which they approve very much:
In our view, a broader discussion of how language affects inclusivity and basic fairness is missing from much of the one-sided debate over names, honorifics, and Hudlický’s essay. The term “cancel culture” has lately been twisted into an epithet that is used to discredit progressive policies. In fact, the practice of creating social distance from controversial or objectionable statements and actions is as old as society itself. In the United States, “cancellation” as a linguistic construction was born in Black popular culture and eventually adopted by queer Black activists on Twitter, as a way of calling out behavior seen as prejudiced or regressive. Almost all elements of society have adopted the strategy and tactics of “call-out culture” (to use a less loaded term), perhaps best exemplified by the “#MeToo” movement that worked to expose long-ignored misogyny. Others have noted that social media provides a platform where voices from historically marginalized communities have an audience whose scope is unprecedented in human history.
Call-outs on social media are a form of activism, no less legitimate because the venue is relatively new or because the activists do not have access to scholarly journals. There is no doubt that social media has often been abused to create false narratives and disinformation, which can have a chilling effect on respectful debate, yet it is hypocritical to advocate for unrestrained free speech by academics in scientific journals while labeling those who took to social media to condemn Hudlický’s essay as “vigilantes” or “outrage mobs”.
It’s about progressive politics, not scientific knowledge.
There are some points that the authors make that are worthy of consideration and respect. They are correct that academic freedom goes both ways. I referred to reading Marx, Mussolini and Hitler in political science classes in an earlier paragraph. When we read them and when I was a teaching assistant I was careful to take the works seriously and treat them as worthy of consideration. If students are to understand why these philosophic arguments had power they had to read them as arguments, not just examples. Just saying “Germans went crazy” under the Nazis completely disarms the students, not empowers them to understand how evil gains influence in the world.
But as an academic doing my own work I had no problem ripping them apart and exposing the evil that underlay their arguments. That, too, is academic freedom.
Just as you can’t understand the madness of the French Revolution without understanding how Liberté, égalité, fraternité turned into The Terror. There is something deeper than madness at work. Ideas turned into consequences. It wasn’t the mob who created The Terror; it was the educated elite who did so. You must understand them to know why they massacred thousands.
I will have more to say on this issue in other posts, but this is a good place to end. As a former academic I have seen how ideology has perverted the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge, and believe that this is a threat to the very foundation of what makes the West special.
The trend must be reversed.