Now, social justice in organic chemistry class

March 28, 2021 • 9:30 am

There is seemingly no academic field—not  even in the sciences—that’s immune from being forced to board the social-justice juggernaut. The latest is organic chemistry, and I found out about it from the letter below that just appeared in Science (click on screenshot). The letter is by Melissa McCartney, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology and the STEM Transformation Institute at Florida International University.

So of course I had to look up the original article in the Journal of Chemical Education, which is free online (click on screenshot, pdf here).  The authors teach organic chemistry at Reed College in Oregon, a private liberal arts school that is among the five or six wokest colleges in America (think The Evergreen State College format). Do be mindful of that when you read about the student approbation for infusing social justice into the second semester of the class.

There are several ways they infuse social justice into the class, one of which seems harmless. The others, however, hijack the class to teach the students not only the social history of organic compounds, but to clearly impart to them an ideology based on Critical Theory.  The introduction shows the social motivations for the class:

Without engagement with equity issues, the standard curriculum produces students who may lack civic mindedness in their approach to science. We believe that young scientists should be invited to contemplate their work with a “systems thinking approach” and consider chemistry’s potential impacts beyond intention. Unfortunately, progressive discourse regarding these shortcomings in chemistry curricula is often overlooked, perhaps due to the misperception that science is somehow intrinsically “good”.

There’s nothing wrong with mentioning the social impact of various chemical compounds, but there is something wrong with using the class to foster “progressive discourse”, which in this case means Critical Theory discourse.  Not only does that constitute a form of propaganda for the teachers’ political views, but it also takes time away from learning chemistry itself. It’s clear from the article that the “social justice” implications aren’t just mentioned tangentially, but occupy 5-10% of the course, and will occupy more in the future.

The motivation continues:

In contrast to the dogma that science is “good”, chemists have historically produced compounds that are harmful to both humans and the environment. Examples of these harms are widespread and disproportionately affect economically disadvantaged areas. For example, over 30 years ago, an accident at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, was responsible for releasing poisonous gases into the local environment and atmosphere.(4) Reports described the release as containing 30–40 tons of methyl isocyanate and other toxic chemicals. Nearly 4000 residents of the surrounding tenements were killed immediately. For the remaining residents, the full long-term health consequences of the chemical exposure, including premature death, are still unknown.(5) Assessing the true costs of accidents such as the Bhopal disaster requires a full systems thinking evaluation. What were the early and late effects of exposure? What are the impacts of indirect contact? How have the toxic materials migrated and persisted in the local environment? Have these reactive compounds been transformed into other chemical entities with a new set of impacts and effects?

Seriously? The people who devised the synthesis of these compounds, and even that of Zyklon B (hydrogen cyanide), coopted to to kill Jews in Nazi concentration camps, didn’t aim to create harm (it was created to be used as a pesticide, which began in California in the 1880s). Harm was either due to the acts of bad people, a byproduct of the chemical’s poor storage, as in Bhopal, or an unintended consequence of drugs (the side effects of birth-control pills). Teaching this way gives the impression to students that science is “bad”, a general attitude of both postmodernism and Critical Theory, which dislike science because of its ability to find real truths.

But science itself isn’t “bad”: it is people who decide to use it in a bad way, or, when there are unintended side effects, it’s simply bad luck. Should they teach about the construction of gas chambers in architecture class to show that architecture is not “good”? Almost every discipline could be demonized in this way. Genetics could show that that science is bad by discussing how it was misused by the Soviet agronomist and charlatan Lysenko to derail Russian agriculture, which led to the starvation of millions.

And below is the goal of the professors: enhancing “equity”, which is proportional representation, not equal opportunity:

We aimed to briefly highlight how organic chemicals can be an instrument for enhancing equity, simultaneously stimulating awareness of the injustices and injuries that can be promoted by the misuse of chemicals.

How do they infuse social justice into Reed’s organic chemistry class? They talk about molecules that have social import—usually having a bad effect on minorities. These include birth control pills (has led to “serious environmental contamination”), antiretroviral drugs, and THC, active ingredient of marijuana. But whenever you can insert social justice, even if it’s not relevant to learning organic chemistry itself, they do. Here are the lessons they impart:

For antiretroviral drugs:

In a recent study, 35% of the countries with available data reported having a majority of people (over 50%) with “discriminatory attitudes” toward those living with HIV. This prejudice persists despite the fact that current antiretroviral therapy is able to suppress viral loads to undetectable and below transmittable levels. The stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV leads to marginalization (social, economic, and legal), which in turn can cause poor social, emotional, and physical well-being. These negative impacts on general well-being are correlated with lack of treatment.

For THC:

The dark side of the cannabanoids is that they have been used to systematically incarcerate African-Americans. During the “War on Drugs” in the 1980s, drug-related arrests rose 126%. African-Americans account for 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of people sent to prison for drug possession crimes. The incarceration rate is 13 times higher than that of other races, despite African-Americans only comprising 13% of regular drug users. Furthermore, there are collateral consequences to drug arrests. Many states will suspend the driver’s licenses of offenders for at least six months, irrespective of if a car was involved in the crime.

If this has anything at all to do with chemistry, it defies me. And I’m absolutely positive that Reed students have the chance to learn this kind of material in many other classes. What the professors are doing here is using chemistry as a convenient excuse to discuss oppression and marginalization.

Now the okay part of using these particular molecules is that they can be enlisted to demonstrate real principles in organic chemistry, but of course other molecules may do that, and do it even better. Here’s one innocuous quiz question that follows the social-justice indoctrination (they could hardly ask about social justice itself on chemistry tests). It’s about an antiretroviral drug used to treat AIDS:


Finally, surveys of students at the end of the course show that many or most of them think that it’s important to learn about the social justice impacts of chemical compounds, that so this material makes them “into more responsible scientists”, makes the material more relevant, and keeps the students engaged. Of course, using other molecules can create the same relevance (e.g., caffeine, penicillin, alcohol), but those molecules can’t be used to teach social justice.

And of course the Critical Theory material helps the students learn exactly what social justice is—at least, the conception that their professors hold:

We were interested to find that in the first lecture a majority of the class felt familiar with social justice as a concept; 75% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Social justice is a familiar concept.” However, only half of the class (53%) agreed or strongly agreed with, “I can write a definition of ‘social justice’.” We were very pleased to find that after exposure to only three lectures with social justice content, 91% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “learning about the social justice impacts of chemical compounds is important.” Similarly, 91% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “teaching students about the social justice impacts of chemicals could make them into more responsible scientists.” Furthermore, a majority of students (76%) agreed or strongly agreed that the discussion of social justice themes made the material more relevant to them (15% neutral).

Note that there is no “control” class in which socially important molecules like antibiotics or caffeine are used instead of ones that can be tied to oppression. More important, there is no assessment of whether students exposed to this kind of political material turn into better organic chemists or learn the course material better. All we have is the self-report of students who are mostly self-selected, by going to Reed, to be on the “progressive Left.”

But wait! The social-justice bit is going to expand:

In the future, we hope to address other timely issues such as the use of ethanol as biofuel, which was intended as an environmentally friendly alternative, but instead increased the risk of air pollution deaths relative to gasoline by 9% in Los Angeles. An entire class could be dedicated to addressing the impact of another supposedly sustainable biofuel, palm oil. While palm oil production has driven economic growth in Central and South America, “the methane produced by a typical palm oil lagoon has the same annual climate impact as driving 22,000 passenger cars.” We also would like to include a systems thinking approach to evaluating medications, as many of them can have harmful effects on animals and the environment upon excretion from the body.

Perhaps they might want to talk about the positive social effects of organic chemistry as well! Why is that left out? Because they want to show the students the bad effects of science, not the good ones. And few fields have had a more positive effect on human well being than organic chemistry.

While I have no objection in talking tangentially about molecules important to people in their everyday lives, this is not what’s going on here.  Rather, the lessons are used to impart the Critical Theory view of hierarchical oppression to students.  I have no doubt that almost any academic subject can be hijacked in this way. But is that how we should be teaching our students? Not only infusing everything with politics, but a particular view of politics?

32 thoughts on “Now, social justice in organic chemistry class

  1. A beautiful piece of sculpture can be used as a murder weapon. Let’s teach students that three-dimensional art is bad. You can kill someone with a scalpel; let’s teach students that the production of life-saving surgical tools is bad. And don’t be too sure that caffeine can’t be given the Woke demonization treatment as well—I’ve seen essays in the media that attribute the explosive popularity of coffee shops serving beverages with boosted caffeine levels to the pernicious influence of the ’24-hour office’, where people working in white-collar jobs are expected to work at all hours all week(end) long, making a serious and repeated adrenaline jolts critical to their efficiency: Starbuck’s Vente Espresso as a villainous tool of late stage capitalism.

    The ideologization of every single aspect of life is a characteristic of totalitarian societies. The Woketariat’s pretensions to social justice notwithstanding, what they really want is a society that looks very much like Mao’s China or Honecker’s East Germany—with them, of course, as the Stasi apparat.

  2. Good grief. I loved our host’s comment “Should they teach about the construction of gas chambers in architecture class to show that architecture is not “good”?”

    If there’s some way that the unintended consequences of organic chemical compounds can be predicted making the students aware of this would be worthwhile, of course. But the tragedy of Bhopal was allowing Union Carbide’s plant to be built so close to a populated area and the company’s despicable failure to accept responsibility and offer appropriate compensation. The contamination of drinking water with hexavalent chromium by Pacific Gas & Electric in Hinkley, California would be another case study they could use, but doubtless won’t as the victims were predominantly poor and white if I recall correctly.

    Edit: Oops, hexavalent chromium is inorganic of course – but my main point stands.

  3. Absolutely unbelievable. Organic chemistry is my professional field and it pains me to see the social justice agenda/propaganda infiltrating science teaching.

    I’ve grown weary of the “proportional representation” canard. Proportional to where exactly? We generally think of racial demographics relative to the entire US population but it is so asymmetrically distributed across the country in places like Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Portland where Reed College is. For example, blacks are 14.6% of the US population, 4.3% of Portland’s population, and 2.3% of Reed’s undergraduate class. Wow, it looks like Reed may have some issues, foremost among them is diminishing their organic chemistry instruction by infusing it with non-chemistry instruction.

    Thank you Prof. Coyne for a vigorous defense of OChem in the face of this folly.

  4. While we old-school Lefties, understandably and rightly, were urgently concerned about the right-wing militant authoritarianism ascendant in the Trump years, we at the same time neglected to cultivate our liberal landscape, with the result that Wokeism sunk its roots deeper and took over as the invasive, “mile-a-minute” kudzu did in the southern United States. Our task now, while still keeping an eye on the armed right, is to clear this invasive species of an idea from our landscape and restore the fertile ground for liberal humanism, including the dispassionate pursuit of both science and art.

    1. You have massive irrationality on both sides, just somewhat different flavors. Deep state conspiratorial fantasies on the crazy alt-right, and racialist fantasies about inherent ethnic vices and virtues that get connected to everything else via ‘intersectionality’, on the crazy woke-left. Hard to fight on two fronts… I just hope it’s not past the point of no return—which, unfortunately, on a daily basis it’s beginning to feel a lot we *are*.

  5. Needless to say, any discussion of H2O in Chemistry class must include mention of the brutal police (which must be defunded!) who have used water hoses in crowd control; moreover, the injustice of water’s inequitable world distribution, plentiful in Europe and scarce in the Middle East, is a glaring case of inequity and Eurocentrism. Clearly, Chemistry itself is in need of D/E/I.

    I look forward to the entry of Critical Theory into Astronomy classes, where terms like “dark matter” and “black hole” will be abandoned. Marginalizing terminology, like “superior planets” and “inferior planets”, will of course also be prohibited. In fact, since the specification of a distance always risks marginalizing any smaller distance, we can expect distances, and numbers generally, to be prohibited.

      1. Yes, for sure. But when numbers came up, more generally mathematics, they went to a whole new level, of bullshit rhetoric and of generality:

        It is a cause of evil in the world to not give full marks to students who produce nothing but incorrect answers!!???

    1. Title: Introducing Physical Warps Drives

      Authors: Alexey Bobrick, Gianni Martire

      First author’s institution: Advanced Propulsion Laboratory at Applied Physics

      Journal: Submitted to Classical and Quantum Gravity. Open access on ArXiv.

      Disclaimer: The author would first like to publicly state that Black lives and Black Trans lives matter. Secondly, the author condemns all police brutality against people of color. Lastly, the author recognizes that the writing of this article was performed on the stolen land of indigenous people.

    2. I wonder what the implications are for “white noise” (which I had never heard until I heard Hitch make reference to it).

  6. “teaching students about the social justice impacts of chemicals could make them into more responsible scientists.”

    I can write 100 sentences using the word “might” that are true because they might be true, and another 100 sentences using the word “could” that are true because they could be true.

    These students will be great at writing those useless science headlines that declare that “X may have some effect on Y.” The purpose of doing science, though, is to move beyond “might” and “could” into the more productive realm of “does” and “doesn’t.”

    1. Re: “could,” “can,” “may,” “might”: In my view, the NY Times is the go-to publication for this type of locution. I too often waste my time writing in the margin of and in response to such articles, “Let us know when you actually know.”

  7. I have studied chemistry (at a University of Technology) and have written a Diplomarbeit in Organic Chemistry. What the professors are proposing has nothing whatsoever to do with chemistry. At most, it should be taught in history or social studies classes.

    I find it even worse that students voluntarily submit to this indoctrination and end up approving of it instead of protesting.

  8. I’m pissed after reading this.

    On anti-retroviral drugs – stigma for those living with HIV? How about the stigma of HIV as a death sentence for everyone who contracted it before chemists saved countless lives around the world by revolutionizing anti-retroviral therapy with a 4-drug combo that supplanted even AZT well over a decade ago?

    On THC: News flash – THC isn’t made by chemists but extracted from a plant. Maybe the people at Reed pushing this are familiar with it because they’ve been smoking something. If anything, maybe they should be outraged at Mother Nature or pot farmers for leading to increased incarceration of black men. Chemists weren’t involved.

  9. I have concerns about this primarily along two lines. First, a chem graduate who has spent 20% of their chem class time studying social justice is almost certainly going to be 20% less competent than a student who gets to spend all their chem time studying chemistry. Also, the social justice chemist working in industry is going to annoy their employers and supervisors with lectures about the morality of whatever task they have been given.

    The other thing is that all of this makes much more sense if one thinks of it as a plan by our enemies to destroy us from within. I am definitely not saying I believe that it is some sort of fiendish plot. But if the CCP were to infiltrate and sabotage our institutions, I imagine it would look very much like this. We have risen to the position we occupy in the world, and winning some world wars, because we have been largely a hard working and technically competent people. Fragile narcissists who are obsessed with their own feelings would never have played golf on the moon.

  10. I’m glad I didn’t review that manuscript for publication (as I’ve sometimes done for JCE); I’d’ve sprung a gasket! But the point that the authors appear to only be pointing out the negative aspects of chemicals reminds me why I don’t like the textbook “Chemistry in Context,” which was (inappropriately, IMHO) published with the imprimatur of the American Chemical Society: Most of the “contexts” were negative – air pollution, water pollution, DDT, ozone holes, etc.

  11. 75% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Social justice is a familiar concept.” However, only half of the class (53%) agreed or strongly agreed with, “I can write a definition of ‘social justice’.”

    I am still waiting for someone to provide a coherent definition of “social justice”. Anyone … anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

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