Why ideology should not be injected into science

June 15, 2021 • 10:45 am

We’re increasingly seeing ideology worming its way into science, with science journals publishing political articles, taking stands on ideology (most often involving race), and condemning scientists of the past whose morals were considered inferior to those we hold today. Some scientific societies have annual meetings that are barely distinguishable from a convention of Progressive Democrats.

I have often criticized this trend, as science journals and meetings are not the place to formally hash out politics, morality, or ideology. There is a chilling effect on speech and on publication when journals or scientific societies consistently take one political line over others. On the other hand, scientists are free to speak about these issues on their own time, and in other venues.

The other day I highlighted (I believe in the Hili Dialogue) a piece by Anna Krylov in The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters (click on screenshot below for a free read, or download the pdf here). Having reread it after reader John sent me the link, I think it’s worth a standalone post. The author, Anna Krylov, is a quantum chemist who’s the Gabilan Distinguished Professor in Science and Engineering and a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Southern California.

Krylov’s thesis, with which I agree, is that the “woke” politicization of science diverts us from what we should be doing as scientists: doing science. Further, she argues that changing names of theorems (like “Newton’s laws”) or canceling scientists whose morality doesn’t comport with ours accomplishes nothing, for it’s performative “Social Justice” instead of real social justice.  Finally, she arrives at these conclusions partly because (though she’s only 52), she lived through a period of Soviet science which saw similar cancellations, name changes, and even erasure of whole branches of science (e.g., the theory of resonating structures, for which Pauling won the Nobel prize).

Krylov:

 Just as in Soviet times, the  [Western] censorship is being justified by the greater good. Whereas in 1950, the greater good was advancing the World Revolution (in the USSR; in the USA the greater good meant fighting Communism), in 2021 the greater good is “Social Justice” (the capitalization is important: “Social Justice” is a specific ideology, with goals that have little in common with what lower-case “social justice” means in plain English).(10−12) As in the USSR, the censorship is enthusiastically imposed also from the bottom, by members of the scientific community, whose motives vary from naive idealism to cynical power-grabbing.

The result, says Krylov, is that “today Russia is hopelessly behind the West, in both technology and quality of life.”  Some of this is due to phenomena that we don’t see in the U.S., like the canceling of entire fields (Mendelian genetics in Russia was felled by the axe of Lysenko.) But we still see instances of ideology impeding actual research, like the conflict between paleoanthropology and some Indigenous American myths, or the taboo on investigating differences between sexes or ethnic groups.

Click to read:

Among the instances of cancellation mentioned by Krylov are principles named after Archimedes, Newton, Schrödinger, Curie, Fritz Haber, Linus Pauling, Ronald Fisher, and so on. Here are a few more examples:

Today’s censorship does not stop at purging the scientific vocabulary of the names of scientists who “crossed the line” or fail the ideological litmus tests of the Elect.(11) In some schools,(33,34) physics classes no longer teach “Newton’s Laws”, but “the three fundamental laws of physics”. Why was Newton canceled? Because he was white, and the new ideology(10,12,15) calls for “decentering whiteness” and “decolonizing” the curriculum. A comment in Nature(35) calls for replacing the accepted technical term “quantum supremacy” by “quantum advantage”. The authors regard the English word “supremacy” as “violent” and equate its usage with promoting racism and colonialism. They also warn us about “damage” inflicted by using such terms as “conquest”. I assume “divide-and-conquer” will have to go too. Remarkably, this Soviet-style ghost-chasing gains traction.

With the danger of erasing their names comes the danger of erasing their scientific legacy. Who wants to read about Ronald Fisher after he’s been demonized as a eugenicist? While, argues Krylov, there’s a place for discussions of the character of scientists in history of science courses, according to her we “should evaluate, reward, and acknowledge scientific contributions strictly on the basis of their intellectual merit and not on the basis of personal traits of scientists or a current political agenda.” And if those scientific contributions greatly outweigh the bad a scientist has alleged to have done, it is okay to honor those contributions with windows, statues, and other honorifics.

I’ll give just one long quote from Krylov’s article, but I recommend that you download the whole piece and give it to those trying to purge science of both words and of “impure” but famous scientists.

Fast forward to 2021—another century. The Cold War is a distant memory and the country shown on my birth certificate and school and university diplomas, the USSR, is no longer on the map. But I find myself experiencing its legacy some thousands of miles to the west, as if I am living in an Orwellian twilight zone. I witness ever-increasing attempts to subject science and education to ideological control and censorship. Just as in Soviet times, the censorship is being justified by the greater good. Whereas in 1950, the greater good was advancing the World Revolution (in the USSR; in the USA the greater good meant fighting Communism), in 2021 the greater good is “Social Justice” (the capitalization is important: “Social Justice” is a specific ideology, with goals that have little in common with what lower-case “social justice” means in plain English).(10−12) As in the USSR, the censorship is enthusiastically imposed also from the bottom, by members of the scientific community, whose motives vary from naive idealism to cynical power-grabbing.

Just as during the time of the Great Terror,(5,13) dangerous conspiracies and plots against the World Revolution were seen everywhere, from illustrations in children’s books to hairstyles and fashions; today we are told that racism, patriarchy, misogyny, and other reprehensible ideas are encoded in scientific terms, names of equations, and in plain English words. We are told that in order to build a better world and to address societal inequalities, we need to purge our literature of the names of people whose personal records are not up to the high standards of the self-anointed bearers of the new truth, the Elect.(11) We are told that we need to rewrite our syllabi and change the way we teach and speak.(14,15)

As an example of political censorship and cancel culture, consider a recent viewpoint(16) discussing the centuries-old tradition of attaching names to scientific concepts and discoveries (Archimede’s [sic] Principle, Newton’s Laws of Motion, Schrödinger equation, Curie Law, etc.). The authors call for vigilance in naming discoveries and assert that “basing the name with inclusive priorities may provide a path to a richer, deeper, and more robust understanding of the science and its advancement.” Really? On what empirical grounds is this based? History teaches us the opposite: the outcomes of the merit-based science of liberal, pluralistic societies are vastly superior to those of the ideologically controlled science of the USSR and other totalitarian regimes.(17) The authors call for removing the names of people who “crossed the line” of moral or ethical standards. Examples(16) include Fritz Haber, Peter Debye, and William Shockley, but the list could have been easily extended to include Stark (defended expulsion of Jews from German institutions),(18) Heisenberg (led Germany’s nuclear weapons program),(19) and Schrödinger (had romantic relationships with under-age girls).(19) Indeed, learned societies are now devoting considerable effort to such renaming campaigns—among the most-recent cancellations is the renaming of the Fisher Prize by the Evolution Society, despite well-argued opposition by 10 past presidents and vice-presidents of the society.(20)

I’ve added her link to reference (20) out of self aggrandizement, as it’s to a post on this site about a letter some of us wrote about Fisher to the Society for the Study of Evolution.

Clearly, the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters is braver than many other scientific journals, for I can’t imagine a piece like this being published in Science, Nature, New Scientist, or Scientific American.

Anna Krylov

21 thoughts on “Why ideology should not be injected into science

  1. Excellent, clear writing – along with John McWhorter, this is among the best material available in the category of woke/social justice literature, and should be featured prominently in “reading lists” promoted by various institutions.

    FWIW, I note a distinct personal hesitation to write the above.

  2. Jerry may appreciate this one as it comes from population genetics. These authors

    https://doi-org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/10.1111/1755-0998.13316

    in a technical article explain that they decline to use the word “asexuality” to refer to the population genetic consequences of non-sexual reproduction by plants and animals. Their reason is that the word has been adopted by some advocates to refer to a group of people with a particular sexual orientation. The authors decide to use “clonality” instead.

    Unfortunately, clonality has several more specific meanings in some contexts, and for some organisms it refers to a specific mode of asexual reproduction that involves only somatic cells or tissues. Asexuality is the more inclusive (ahem) term that captures multiple forms of non-sexual reproduction (without meiosis), including asexuality by gametes rather than by somatic cells.

    tl;dr I think scientists should have empathy for others, but I’m not sure we should give up our technical language to do so.

  3. I have already recommended the outstanding paper by Anna Krylov to the faculty of my old department. Among its many virtues, two are worth underlining. First, her phrase “ghost-chasing” is perfect for the inane, performative articles on the offenses of long dead individuals like Fisher, Galton, Darwin, etc. etc. In fact, the animus toward whole fields of inquiry because of guilt-by-association—Human Genetics by association with eugenics, quantitative science generally by association with “colonialism”, etc. etc.—-is all an example of ghost-chasing.

    Second, Krylov puts her finger on how wokery spreads in our academic world, by reminding us how a similar pattern worked in the USSR: “Meanwhile, other members of the community took this political purge as an opportunity to advance at the expense of others.(7,8) …those who are “on the right side” of the issue can jump a few rungs and take the place of those who were canceled.”

  4. As mentioned in the post, somewhat similar to the communist rant in the 50s. Black listing lots of people in government and Hollywood and ruining lives. This one ruins lives and science to some extent. In the 50s it wasn’t the Wokes, it was the republicans. This obsession with communists lasted all the way into the 60s and ended with our justification for Vietnam. Very sad and destructive. We might say this is a big part of human evolution in a way as well. Today we also have the crazy far right, also know as republicans who paint a new picture of voter fraud on a massive scale. It was so bad we must pass hundreds of new laws to protect ourselves from the voters and maybe destroy democracy along the way. Rewriting science history is just another part of the evolution in the sick minds of human beings.

  5. Renaming discoveries and work performed by white men (mostly) with human failings or opposing world views seems pathetic. I’m not opposed to a notation or asterisk that this person’s social or political views are now outdated and socially unacceptable, but anyone with the skill set, concentration and intellectual ability to make breakthroughs doesn’t get a pass for “bad” behavior and hopefully will respect today’s social norms, but the men and women who have done the science deserve the credit.

    Watching Dr. Nancy Hopkins describe how Francis Crick walked over and grabbed both her breasts while in the lab or office doesn’t make me want to take his name away from his discovery, but I do hope current researchers can control their impulses better. Some women may feel they need a safe space to perform science work. The men coming up probably have gotten the #MeToo message.

    Dr. Krylov paints a good picture of the danger to science when social or religious or authoritarian rules are imposed.

  6. I well enjoyed reading the article from before.
    Woke-idealogy exists at my university, but in our biology department things are pretty quiet and we never hear about it. I’ve experimented with describing the biology of sex determination with some qualifying language that would be palatable to people with those sensitivities, and all I got was confused stares. Just testing!

  7. I am in touch with a number of academic scientists who have direct experience of life
    in the USSR or its satellites, and who are appalled by the current frenzied rush to politicize Science (not to mention bird-watching, music, and everything else) in our
    groves of academe. The large fraction non-woke American academics who just whistle and look the other way don’t realize, in their somnolence, what they are being herded into.

  8. Starting in 1941 Dr Sigmund Rasche conducted hundreds of experiments on Dachau prisoners to assess various means of preventing and treating hypothermia. These freezing experiments were conducted for the Nazi high command to simulate conditions their ill-prepared soldiers and airmen were suffering on the Eastern Front.
    (Adapted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_human_experimentation#Freezing_experiments)

    Published data obtained from these experiment have since been used in multiple fields, in at least 45 publications by1984, often causing controversy. Some object to the data’s use on ethical grounds, but those in favour of using the data argue that if they have practical value to save lives then it would be equally unethical not to use them. The editor of The New England Journal of Medicine from 1977 till 1991 refused to allow the journal to publish any article that cited the Nazi experiments.
    (Adapted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_human_experimentation#Modern_ethical_issues)

    This strikes me as a serious ethical issue, about which I am ambivalent. I would like to hear others’ views about the ethical conflict, and about how it relates to the current woke cancellations (if at all).

    1. There’s nothing anyone can do to undo the horrible things done to these poor people, but we can take steps to make sure that they are remembered, that they did not die in vain, and that future generations suffer less from the cold they were subjected to. Preventing the use of this data is a step in the wrong direction for all three aspects.

    2. Replication – probably none.
      N – probably not high enough.
      Materials and methods – I can’t even bring myself to think of it – ancient.

      Writing and doing modern work with this in mind every day, and then in permanent publication record, would not go well for those involved. Traumatizing is what I’d anticipate. Just composing this comment is terrible enough.

      I conclude no – modern scientific inquiry has got to yield better results for any of that, and if not, then we can work on that.

  9. An excellent read and well argued points.
    I thought I was somewhat alone in my thoughts on the new ideology that is bereft of morality or ethical considerations as they attempt a global version of the Nazi book burning as they eradicated anything they considered subversive or opposing their ideology. Eradicating history is eradicating valuable lessons.
    Russia certainly experienced buyers remorse in 1917 when they swapped out the Czars for Communism and yet people forget the consequences of acting without thought and of going with the flow simply because it is easy to do so. Imaginary freedoms and dreams of utopia are just that when it comes to paying the price of indolence and ignorance.
    Sir John Glubb wrote an essay in the 1950’s titled, ‘The Fate of Empires’ which is well worth the read.

  10. I’ve heard a scientist say, not sure where, that if you mix science and politics, you get politics. The same is true here: if you mix science and ideology, you get ideology.

    That is why I’ve always been a bit cautious when reading books by Lewontin, for example, as he tends to view and express his undoubted expertise through an ideological lens, which puts me off.

  11. so we’re still teaching newtonian physics without associating it with newton? the science is exactly the same. all that is changed is the people we honor. how does this have anything to do with science? i am astonished about how weak this argument is. it doesn’t even try to make a scientific claim.

  12. There is a quote attributed to George Santayana: “Those who forget (or rewrite, or strike from) history are doomed to repeat it. The “woke left” in their attempt to eliminate all triggers, those deemed to be racist, those who have threatening ideas, etc, are recreating situations which have happened throughout time. In medieval times, books which held threatening ideas were burned. In fact, an invading army would often burn libraries (this happened in Egypt) as a way of overpowering and controlling the conquered. Modern communist regimes regularly censor the press and their citizens access to information in order to keep the population docile. Can you imagine if we had stricken Galileo’s ideas from record? Or Michelangelo’s works? (It is commonly thought that he did human dissections in secret, which was considered an offense against god.) It’s a shame that people don’t study more history.

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