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).
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.