The incursion of identity politics into science

August 28, 2020 • 10:00 am

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the place of identity politics (and, lately, the fight against racism) in science, and had some more thoughts when I read a new article in Quillette by two French scientists. (Click on screenshot.) The title pretty much tells it all: the authors see “racial tribalism” in America—the infusion of Critical Race Theory into science—as an American product, and believe it’s inimical for science organizations and departments to make political statements about race, gender, and the like. I agree in the main, though I think there are at least three exceptions that I discuss below. 

My general view of scientific societies, organizations, and departments, all of whose goals are to promote the teaching of, love of, and doing of science, is that they should adhere to the University of Chicago’s Kalven principles, which I’ve discussed before. That is, such groups should avoid ideological, moral, or political statements as a unit, though individuals should be perfectly free to make statements that express their personal views. The main exception is that when there are forces that threaten the functioning of the university as a scholarly and truth-seeking organization, the University is allowed to take a stand on those forces.

Now this is for universities and (presumably) their constituent units, not scientific societies, but I think the same principles apply: if there are official positions on politics, ideology, and the like, they could act to chill speech in a society or department, impeding free discussion. This is why I think it’s especially important for University departments to avoid making political statements: they are, after all, the constituent units of universities and the locus of where “chilling” of speech could occur. (Departments are where you get your graduate degrees as a student, and tenure and promotion as a professor.) Whether Kalven applies to our own departments in Chicago is not clear, but departments are beginning to issue what to my mind are ideological statements that flout the very reason for our Kalven principles (see here and here, for examples of such statements).

According to authors Bikfalvi and Kuntz, the piece above was submitted to both Science and Nature, which of course rejected it (both journals are becoming quite Woke). It wouldn’t do to express these sentiments in the world’s two most famous science journals, for those journals have no brief to foster discussion on issues like these and, in fact, seem to permit none.

Here is one long and one short quote from the Quillette piece that include examples of what the authors see as the unwarranted infusion of “racial tribalism” into science:

The racialization of discourses, a phenomenon that has spread rapidly to other Western countries from the United States, is increasingly metastasizing into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The process is on display at numerous scientific institutions and journals, including the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Academy of Medicine. In Science, chemist Holden Thorp declared that “the evidence of systemic racism in science permeates this nation [i.e., the United States].” In an unsigned editorialNature editors pledged to end (unspecified) “anti-Black practices in research.” They also declared that they lead “one of the white institutions that is responsible for bias in research and scholarship,” and that “the enterprise of science has been—and remains—complicit in systemic racism, and it must strive harder to correct those injustices and amplify marginalized voices.”

This is the language of religious confession, not scientific analysis. As scientists ourselves, we feel insulted by such blanket self-denunciations—since we are not racists, have never been racists, and have never met colleagues who, to our knowledge, acted in a racist manner.

This obviously does not mean that there are no racists working in scientific fields. But our experience suggests they are not common or prominent in modern professional communities. We also reject the use of the term “systemic racism,” a term injected by critical race theorists into the discourse, which presupposes the idea that racism is built into the structures of our working environments.

Being objective and testable, science is one of the best tools we have to shed light on the failures of our society. And so it is not only wrong, but counterproductive, to write off the entire edifice of science as rotten with prejudice. If the situation is different in the United States, and there truly are scientific sectors in which racists openly exert control (though no evidence has yet been presented to indicate this [JAC, I know of no area of science rotten in this way]), then American scientists should correct such situations accordingly. But please do not include the rest of the scientific community through broad, unproven, ideologically motivated accusations.

The mission of science is to describe the world as accurately as possible, including in regard to racial discrimination and social issues more generally. But the racialization of discourses is detracting from our ability to perform accurate investigations, as it threatens to turn science into a subset of activism. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) publishes a collection entitled Research in Racial and Social Justice. Few would argue against “justice” of any kind, including social justice. But defining what is and isn’t socially “just” is an inherently political project. How exactly does this accord with the National Academy of Sciences’ stated mission to provide “independent, objective” information “on matters related to science and technology”?

And their conclusion:

But we retain the belief that, in supposedly pluralistic societies, everyone is entitled to their own opinions. We urge other scientists not to follow the American example, and to resist the campaign to racialize science. While we admire many aspects of American culture, we reject its cultural imperialism—including the new form of ostensibly progressive cultural imperialism that serves to impose America’s own obsessive race tribalism on the rest of the world.

Well, I’m not sure how far American scientists want to impose their views on the world, although one might conclude that since internationally read journals like PNAS and Science push identity-politics views, and journals like Nature have adopted them, Americans are trying to “racialize” international science.

As far as science being racist, I agree with the authors. I’ve seen many claims that science is marinated in “systemic racism,” but I’ve not seen such racism, nor have other colleagues I’ve spoken to. Universities and departments are in fact desperate to increase their diversity, both among students and faculties. The “systemic” part of racism—the idea that “racism is built into institutional structure”—is simply not true of science. Yes, as the authors note, there could be individual racists in science, but I’ve never met more than a very few in a long career. (You might counterargue that they’d keep racism to themselves or have unconscious “implicit bias”.) The eagerness with which science departments (like most University departments) are trying to increase diversity doesn’t jibe with the idea of structurally racist science—a view that’s bandied about with no evidence. And insofar as one can adduce evidence, well, we must address it, for everyone should have an equal shot at doing science.

What, then, should be the policy of science departments and organizations with respect to identity politics in general and racism in particular? A while back I put forth two principles:

In my opinion, scientific societies shouldn’t issue political or ideological statements except under two conditions:

1.) The government is trying to gut science or has other policies that would impede our understanding of nature or the functioning of the scientific society. (This includes, I suppose, policies that wreck the environment when organismal biology is concerned, for without an environment and its species there’s nothing to study.)

2.) The government is misusing scientific data to enact policy, in which case a scientific society (without endorsing or denigrating the policy) should correct that knowledge—when that knowledge is in the ambit of the Society. This is one function of the National Academies of Science: to inform government policy with scientific data.

I’ve tweaked and expanded these a bit, so here are the new Coyne Principles:

1.) All organizations can and should emphasize that they are against any discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, or other personal characteristics. This is simply a statement that everyone should get an equal opportunity at being hired, accepted as a student, publish papers, get chosen as a Fellow, or so on. This is allowable under the Kalven principles because it’s an essential part of functioning as a university department or professional society.

2.) Scientific societies and university departments may make statements about issues that affect the working of those societies and departments. Again, this is allowable under the Kalven Principles. So, for example, if our government wants to prohibit, say, Chinese scientists from publishing scientific papers in journals (Trump could try something like this), it is entirely fit—and, indeed, imperative—that societies and departments speak out about this as units, for it affects the international character of science that makes it so important and allows it to function so efficiently.

3.) Scientific societies (not so much University departments, though) may make statements about factual issues being distorted in public discourse and have an effect on social/governmental policy. So, for example, if someone argues that stem-cell research has no potential, it might be useful to issue a statement of the advances that have come from such research. Given the evidence for anthropogenic global warming, societies of climatologists and geophysicists might underline the evidence that human-caused climate change is true.

This is a tricky one, because one must do this without making untestable political statements of opinion, and the science backing your statement has to be so strong that nearly all members of an organization would agree on the facts, so that the organization can speak as a whole for its members. I believe this is true for climate change. An example of where it’s not true is a statement of the organization of which I was once president, the Society for the Study of Evolution, which issued a statement that “sex should be viewed as a continuum.” This is certainly not something that most members of the SSE would agree on, and I would claim it’s palpably false. Even if a majority vote of members shows that more than half would endorse such a statement, that still means that the Society is espousing a view that is controversial and certainly not supported by science. (That statement was of course issued to support an ideological view.)

Again, there’s a fine line here. Should the American Association for the Advancement of Science endorse the truth of evolution and decry creationism as religiously-based pseudoscience that shouldn’t be taught? I think the overwhelming majority of AAAS members would agree, and this is an issue of the public understanding of science and proper teaching of science in schools. So I’d have not issue with this. But, for example the SSE shouldn’t be sending amicus briefs to court cases which adjudicate whether trans women should compete in women’s sports because “sex is a continuum”.

Finally, there’s always room for improvement. If bias does creep into science in ways we didn’t know about, call it to people’s attention so they can fix it.

What scientific societies and science department should not do is declare that science is deeply imbued with structural racism and that we must engage in anti-racist activities X, Y and Z (this is encouraging political action, which is not the brief of these units). Nor should we imply that scientists are fostering eugenic practices, as that’s simply untrue. It’s not unseemly to recognize that scientific organizations at one time supported both racist and sexist views, but those days are no longer. It does no good to flagellate ourselves for past missteps and imply that those missteps still taint us.  But, as I noted above, it’s fine to encourage individual scientists to speak for themselves—that’s both freedom of speech and academic freedom. Individual opinions do not impede discussion or chill speech in the same way as “official” statements from scientific societies, journals, and science departments in universities.

Feel free to weigh in, criticize, or supplement the Coyne Principles.



28 thoughts on “The incursion of identity politics into science

  1. What pitiful working conditions for scientists. Hopefully China can provide a less stifling environment and better wages. That might encourage the US.

  2. Are there indications of racial and gender bias in the review process of scientific papers and grant applications? I thought I had read something about that.

    For a very chilling example of deep institutionalized racism of old in science, there is the story of the researcher who first counted (and miscounted) human chromosomes. I knew about the chromosome number miscount story — I teach about it as an example of how errors are propagated. But I did not realize the racist rot that permeates the tale. This is summarized by Judge Starling:

  3. I think the definition of “systemic” or “structural” racism is entirely based on counting the number of various racial groups in an organization. If the numbers do not match the proportions in society at large, the organization is by definition racist.

    This is the “equity” definition.

    It has nothing to do with the opinions or vies of individuals in the organization.

    So if, as you say, an organization is going out of its way to increase diversity it is still racist if it has not achieved numerical parity with society.

    I disagree with the definition, but it is the one used by the woke.

    1. Achieving numerical parity of races (and gender for that matter) are important benchmarks. But concluding racism or misogyny in a department is not the automatic conclusion to make when we fall short of those goals. For example, as a group people of African descent are hobbled at the very beginning of their lives in basic education and living situations, since historical structural racism is still in full operation. So hiring committees do not get many qualified candidates at a university level. I know. I’ve seen how hard hiring committees try to find underrepresented minority candidates. But they don’t apply, or if they do they are always snatched away by a different university.

      1. I agree that universities and other institutions are trying hard to diversity. But I don’t agree that parity is a benchmark to aim for. I think we should be striving for equality of opportunity, and as you say we should be working hard to equalize opportunity from early childhood. I oppose equality of outcomes mainly because they seem unlikely to be the expectation other things being equal: people differ in their preferences, and cultural or family differences in goals and values seem likely to explain why different people choose different careers. But I agree we should be identifying and eliminating the opportunity barriers everywhere.

        1. My personal hope on this matter is to do better than parity, since every faculty hire means that person and their family moves into the upper middle class if they are not there already. And that helps their kids, and their kids, and so on.

        2. I totally agree about moving people into the middle class. But does anyone take this explicitly into account universities (and others) don’t seem to take it into account in hiring decisions. I have pushed my department’s graduate program to actively recruit candidates from impoverished backgrounds, but we are told we should be focusing on race, sexual orientation, and gender identity as priorities for equity and diversity. That doesn’t seem like an effective way to assure that poor people get a chance to move up.

        3. I often come back to this study. Increased equality of opportunity can lead to decreased equality of outcomes if equality of opportunity allows more individuals to act on their own preferences.


  4. “The “systemic” part of racism—the idea that “racism is built into institutional structure”—is simply not true of science. Yes, as the authors note, there could be individual racists in science, but I’ve never met more than a very few in a long career.”

    New rule: “racist” is dead. The word “racist” has been destroyed, because of the (deliberate political strategy) conflating a) the thoughts, beliefs, and emotions of individuals; and b) deliberate or accidental actions and structures of institutions to establish distinction by the taxonomic “race” of humans.

    An institution and/or law can discriminate on race, and we should stop that, weed it out, make it illegal. Humans can be bigots, and we should let them die off, or persuade them to change — but it is not illegal to be a bigot.

    The word “racist” is dead.

    1. I agree. Activists are still trying to leverage the moral and emotional charge that the words “racist” and “racism” had under their old definitions, and yet at the same time they are broadening the definition of those words into an impersonal and unconscious social force. It’s a classic bait-and-switch, and it can only be effective so long as people respond to the new definition as if being “racist” were still a personal moral failing that they want to avoid. But sooner or later people are going to notice that you can’t have it both ways: either a relatively small number of people and/or actions are genuinely racist in the old sense, and should be subject to the moral censure that goes with that, or everyone is racist in the new sense, which is so attenuated that no one feels (or indeed, *should* feel) as if it’s a personal moral failing that they are required to do anything about.

      1. If someone tells me I’m “racist,” I have some comebacks ready …

        “Oh, they got the vaccine for racism, and anyway we have herd immunity now. Some people are still bigots, though.”

        “You wore out that word. Cancelled.”

        “You mean ‘bigot,’ right? Well, there’s no law against it. Are you a bigot too?”

        If they say I’m racist because I’m white …

        “We have the same grandmother, 100,000 years ago. She’s mighty pissed off you are calling your brother a hater. Apologize.”

  5. The Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Washington has recently issued a diktat about this matter. Point 2 reads as follows:
    “2. We have expanded required anti-racism training. To reduce inequities in healthcare, it is important to have a shared knowledge base about systemic racism in medicine. Our specific actions must be informed by principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice.
    This required training began last week with more than 100 leaders from the medical school and our hospitals and clinics and will be required for all UW Medicine faculty and staff. Training is covering the history of race, racism, and medicine; social identities, privilege, and intersectionality; interrupting implicit bias and microaggressions; gender and sexual diversity; and social determinants of health and healthcare disparities.”

    Due to my advanced case of emeritis, I will not enjoy any of these mandatory training sessions myself. However, their character is obvious from the wording of the notice itself, full of the CRT buzzwords of the Judith H. Katz/Robin DiAngelo boondoggle. And, of course, it is likely that the trainers conducting them will be very well-paid practitioners of the boondoggle.

    Lest any faculty dare to criticize these required sessions, let alone make fun of them
    (worst of all micro-transgressions), points 4 and 7 of the Dean’s order read as follows:

    “4. We will implement a UW Medicine bias reporting tool for reporting and responding to concerns of improper treatment involving bias and implement a process for investigating reported concerns. This work is being done in partnership with Faculty Affairs and our new Office of Healthcare Equity.

    7. All organizational units within UW Medicine must be engaged with specific
    responsibilities to advance progress with our equity, diversity and inclusion goals and
    objectives. “

    1. Yikes. But you see all this is pretty much like a tempest, with lightning and thunder flashing far over head, while the real needs are down on the ground. What is needed is integration of work and education and living standards. But that is the hard part. If for example one tries to equalize school funding across rich and poor school districts, you will hear quite a lot of angry noises coming from the wealthier (white) suburbs as folks there will come to understand that will mean their funding is being cut. Even the liberal enclaves will react very poorly.

  6. I am not of the scientist order but I do agree with the Coyne Principles. Look at the current example within the CDC or FDA. If outside influence causes announcements from these agencies that are obvious wrong or unscientific and serious errors, it should be the obligation of the scientific community to say so and correct the errors. It is in fact their duty to do this. If they are not the corrective then who is?

  7. This is a tricky one, because one must do this without making untestable political statements of opinion, and the science backing your statement has to be so strong that nearly all members of an organization would agree on the facts …

    How was it SJ Gould put it in his essay on Evolution as Fact and Theory — confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent?

  8. Jerry’s principle No 1 from above:

    “All organizations can and should emphasize that they are against any discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, or other personal characteristics. This is simply a statement that everyone should get an equal opportunity at being hired, accepted as a student, publish papers, get chosen as a Fellow, or so on.”

    In highly competitive environments, like science and higher education, there is plenty of discrimination on the grounds of personal characteristics. Naturally, people who demonstrate higher intellectual capacity are highly preferred when scientific or educational institutions hire staff or enroll students.

    Naturally, this discrimination is essential for maintaining a high standard in science and education. But it is not the only sort of discrimination practiced in (American) university enrollment. How does affirmative action align with Jerry’s principle above?

  9. As I see Germany’s supporters from the left-wing party spectrum, they will be eager to copy American role models and integrate identity politics into science.

    For several years now, we have seen influential people from the gender sciences, for example, increasingly trying to influence STEM and university curricula.

    In the current discussions about racism and Black Lives Matter, US-American ideas are unfortunately just as uncritically adopted. Attempts are made to transfer them to German conditions, although the history of our two countries was very different until after World War II. And even now in the 21st century there are still enough cultural and sociological differences between our allied countries that this adoption is simply prohibited without any critical evaluation and, if necessary, adaptation.

    1. Despite my admiration for some outstanding thinkers in America, I have to say that the political ideas exported from the US are venomous. Left-wing identity politics, right-wing evangelical fundamentalism, crazy conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and the like quickly spread across the globe thanks to the power of the US and the English language. At least the American understanding of a peaceful foreign policy cannot be emulated all that easily…

      You mention Germany, which right now has a much more functional democracy than the US and no need for ideas from a failing one.
      Isn’t it lovely too that BLM is now also active in the UK, given how many blacks are shot by the police there (about 0)? And that evangelical churches have influence in Latin American and African politics?

  10. I have read the article on Quillette and I agree with it. For what it’s worth, I’m in academia in the US and I have never witnessed overt racism (as opposed to “the very fact that Asian scientists outnumber Black scientists in our lab/department is evidence that we are racist!”).

    What makes me sad is the unabashed racism and Trump-worship in some of the Quillette comments. And I don’t mean the micro-nano-pico-aggression type of racism that the woke see everywhere; I mean comments that any person of good will would recognize as horrible. One person wrote that Trump is all that stands between us and the forces of evil pomo Marxist anarchy. /facepalm

    I’ve had this experience before: I’ll read a Quillette article and agree with it or, at least, appreciate the article for giving me something to think about when I disagree. Then I’ll read the comments, and I’ll feel like I need a shower. It makes me appreciate WEIT much more, by contrast.

    1. Yes I’ve had the same experience at Quillette: thoughtful interesting article above, racist sexist snarky comments below. The bottom half of the internet can be pretty dark.

    2. Totally agree about Quillette — many good articles followed by too many nasty right wing comments. Both Areo and New Discourses have content similar to Quillette with fewer annoying commenters (so far, at least, maybe they haven’t found these sites yet).

  11. It is significant that the paper warns against the spread of racial tribalism from the United States into the language and institutions of international Science. It omits mention, however, of one of the reasons for the pioneering role of the USA in all developments of this kind.

    In the last century, the USA led the world in the growth of the advertising business, and in consigning public communication to ownership by the advertising business. In the Radio Act of 1927, and the Communications Act of 1934, there was no provision for a public broadcast agency of any kind. The US was unusual amongst advanced nations in this regard, as witness the early founding of the BBC, the CBC, Radiodiffusion Nationale, Sveriges Radio, and similar entities. Public broadcasting in the US was born only in 1967, and even today is full of advertising (in the form of “underwriters’ messages”).

    The result is a culture which leads the word in the prevalence of boondoggles of all kinds. Turn on the radio for 10 minutes, and you will hear half a dozen examples ranging from spirituality to quack medicine to hair regrowth. The “self-help” side of this industry, comprising an endless flood of books, motivational speakers, videos, and so on, has been valued at 11 billion dollars annually.

    It is against this background that the new hustle of “anti-racism training” is to be understood. About 40 years ago, salespeople of the self-help business and the educational consulting business discovered that putting the words “anti-racist” or “Diversity” in front of anything was public relations wizardry: it guaranteed a sales market, and an appearance of legitimacy, that Charles Ponzi could never have dreamed of on the best day of his investment enterprises. Ever since, the “anti-racism” and “Diversity” business has been growing more luxuriantly than any weed. One can only wonder how many billion dollars it is worth today. The world of international Science is well advised to keep this particular American cultivar as far away as possible.

  12. I agree with the thesis of these French authors, though I note the irony that this American phenomenon has its intellectual roots in the post-structuralism that originally emanated from French philosophy …

  13. It would help immensely if some advocate for the idea that there is system racism in science would actually explain what that looks like, with a specific example. For instance, Richard Carrier gives the following example of systemic racism in police departments: assume, say, that 10% of police have acted in a racist manner, as individuals, in the performance of their duties. That is not systemic racism; what is systemic racism is when the other 90% of police support the 10% by not testifying against them, by not reporting their racist behavior. The bonds of police sticking together is what is systemic, as it pervades the other 90% (as well as the racist 10%).

    What would systemic racism in science look like? And, then, is their evidence that it does exist in science?

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