Wokeness invades London’s Natural History Museum

October 18, 2021 • 9:15 am

I’ve written twice before about the doings of Anna Krylov, a quantum chemist who’s a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Southern California. She’s had a distinguished career even though she’s still young, but my interest was in her recent piece in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters:  “The Peril of Politicizing Science“, which I highlighted in this post.

The piece is a hard-hitting critique of the intrusion of ideology of any sort—from woke to right-wing to Communism—into science, much of the piece based on comparing what happened in Russia (where Anna lived) with what’s happening with the increasing wokeness of science in the U.S. and U.K.  With statements like the one below, her essay aroused both approbation and opprobrium. Kudos to the brave editor who published it!

A short excerpt. I’ve eliminated her numerical references to make reading easier:

Just as during the time of the Great Terror [in the Soviet Union], 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. We are told that we need to rewrite our syllabi and change the way we teach and speak.

As an example of political censorship and cancel culture, consider a recent viewpoint 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. The authors call for removing the names of people who “crossed the line” of moral or ethical standards. Examples 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),( Heisenberg (led Germany’s nuclear weapons program),) and Schrödinger (had romantic relationships with under-age girls). 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.

I added a link to the last example since I was part of that effort.

At any rate, Wikipedia says this about Krylov’s piece:

Krylov is an outspoken advocate of freedom of speech and academic freedom.  She is a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance and a member of its academic leadership committee. Her paper, “The Peril of Politicizing Science,” has received 55,000 views and, according to Altmetric, is the all-time highest-ranked article in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters.

Note, though, that Krylov is no opponent of diversity. Like many of us, she is a liberal, and Wikipedia adds this:

Krylov is active in the promotion of gender equality in STEM fields, especially in theoretical chemistry. She created and maintains the web directory Women in Theoretical and Computational Chemistry, Material Science, and Biochemistry, which currently lists more than 400 scientists holding tenure and tenure track academic positions, or equivalent positions in industry, national laboratories, and other leading research establishments. She has delivered several talks on gender equality in STEM including a lecture at the international symposium in Uppsala, Sweden.

Later in August, I reported on a letter written by Krylov and many colleagues to her own university, objecting to public statements by USC’s Department of Gender and Sexuality studies about the Israel/Palestine conflict and the general atmosphere of anti-Semitism at her school.

This is all by way of background for the very short report below. Anna, who was in London, informed me that she had a great trip to the Natural History Museum, one that she documented in some of her pictures of London here.

But there was one fly in the ointment. As she said, “I I was shocked to see these stickers all over the place” in the Museum:

In other words, “Watch this space for self flagellation.”

That sticker bugs me as well. Why does every institution, including  natural history museums, feel that they have to apologize for and somehow rectify the views of our predecessors whose morality doesn’t comport with current views? As Anna said, this isn’t just one sticker—there are many.  I expect that every museum, art gallery, and historical display in the U.K. is going to go this way. They have no choice.

But Anna didn’t just get peeved, she wrote an email to the Museum which I reproduce below with permission (click to enlarge)

If the Natural History Museum responds (I’m not hopeful), I’ll let you know what they say.

Krylov (photo from Wikipedia)

35 thoughts on “Wokeness invades London’s Natural History Museum

  1. I am no fan of “wokeness”, especially in relation to science. However, after the buildup of this piece, I was underwhelmed by the statement of the Museum, which I found to be balanced and reasonable. You seem to be looking for enemies everywhere. It seems that anti-wokeness can succumb to the same excesses as the woke! All the sign said was (1) that the collections were made within the context of empire, colonialism and exploration (this can hardly be denied) and (2) that the Museum was undergoing a review to understand this history and tell the full story of the origins of the collections. There is nothing wrong with “understanding” this undeniable history, nor of explaining how this history contributed to the existing collection. I would object if the Museum started “cancelling” the many excellent scholars, naturalists and scientists who contributed to the collection if they were judged to have supported (most did) this history. They were all people of their time and culture (as are we) and no one’s scientific contributions should be judged by what kind of person they are (either based on the views of their contemporaries or by people today, whatever their political views).

      1. Indeed. And the review might well be the prequel to the cancellations Bill says above that he would object to, of course.

    1. Well, in the process of insulting me you’ve managed to overlook that the revision has already begun: the statue of founder Richard Owen has already been replaced by one of Charles Darwin because of Owen’s “bad behavior”, which didn’t amount to much. So the Museum has already started judging people (and Owen made HUGE contributions to the collection and to science) based on what kind of person they are. See here.

      You clearly don’t know the history of revision of views of scientists because they were of their time and their culture. Even Darwin has come in for opprobrium, not to mention Ronald Fisher. This sign is a harbinger of that kind of revision, of that you can be sure.

      As for your third sentence, it’s uncivil, rude, and untrue. I am not looking for enemies everywhere, the woke are dominating intellectual culture and I don’t even seek these things out.

      1. I am a huge Darwin fan but was very disappointed that Owen was moved, when he was responsible for the place being there.

  2. I lost my respect for the Natural History Museum when they replaced the prominent statue of its founder, Sir Richard Owen, with one of Charles Darwin. Owen is still there somewhere, but no longer in pride of place.

    Still, it’s not as bad as Paddington Station replacing the statue of Brunel with a statue of Paddington Bear.

  3. Watching wokeness spread is like watching a multi-layered cake, left out in the rain, beginning to slip sideways with the inevitability that it will end up on the lawn. The dogs will enjoy the result, I’m sure.

  4. I see the following development, if it should really come to renaming of so-called problematic scientific concepts and discoveries and in the future only morally impeccable, ideologically correct, progressive persons (according to the opinion of the Elect) are chosen as name givers.

    If in 50, 100 years the zeitgeist has turned again and a new impeccable ideology (which is e.g. strictly conservative and backwards) has the upper hand: What will then stop them from deleting the “pure, left-leaning” name-givers of the 2020 decade and again seeking a renaming based on the prevailing zeitgeist?

    1. From what I have heard, naming things after people is too white (individualist, colonialist, ableist, sexist) and will be replaced by descriptive names in the future, like the laws of movement for Newton’s laws.

      1. Of course! Why honor discovery and excellence?! Everyone gets a trophy or no one gets a trophy.

        (One interlocutor on FB objected to my son’s school giving out Academic Achievement awards (my son gets one every year). I asked, what else should we be celebrating and recognizing in schools? All hail attendance? All hail middle 2 standard deviations? 😀 .)

  5. I think that, like Content Notes and Trigger Warnings, this is much ado about nothing. There is no call for cancellaion, that I can see, but certainly we can all agree that the British Empire was not respectful in the way that they carted off antiquities from their colonies for display as curiosities. Egypt, especially, was treated as a source for human remains to be shipped to Ol Blighty and the mummies were unwrapped at parties. Should there be no accountability? If Hobby Lobby’s Steve Green is excoriated for appropriating antiquities, should the Museum of Natural History ignore their own past.

    To my mind, acknowledging the wrongs of the past is the first step in developing an ethics of collecting artifacts for the present.

    This isn’t wokeness, and it isn’t censorship. It’s decency.

    1. Content notes and trigger warnings are, to many, not “much ado about nothing”: they served and still serve in many places to chill the speech of academics. As for every institution publicly flagellating itself for the wrongs of its past, I don’t agree. The solution is to rectify the wrongs of its past, like giving back the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

      And what “wrongs” is the Museum referring to? Do you know of such “wrongs?” If not, how do you know it’s worthwhile calling attention to them?

  6. I offer this entire thread, and the black sticker, as circumstantial evidence of my recent claim that just such flagellating will accompany the onboarding of the new docent scheme at the Chicago Institute of Art.

    The rhetoric of the sticker is completely of a kind with that found in the personal pages of the AIC director Veronica Stein.

  7. Where can we read Krylov’s essay in its entirety?
    And stickers of doom asking one to share colonial guilt seem designed to squelch that wide-eyed wonder so many children bring to science.

  8. It is characteristic that the Natural History Museum in London is taking this sort of care over its founding and operation within the “context” of British imperialism—while the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was recently converted from a museum back into a mosque, in order to celebrate the imperialism of the Ottoman Empire and its state religion. In this connection, one might wonder whether the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris offers statements of atonement for the Islamic conquests of the 7th-9th centuries; whether the huge Genghis Khan Statue Complex near Ulaanbataar includes any notes in the attached museum about the context of Mongol imperialism; whether any Chinese museums reconsider the many Chinese invasions of adjacent territories, from the historic attacks on Dai Viet to the recent colonial occupation of Tibet; and how many Russian museums apologize for the Russian Empire’s attacks on innumerable indigenous peoples north and east of the historic Russian heartland.

    It is characteristic that the West is the only culture in human history in which this revisionist humility about Empire has ever been widely voiced, and become conventional. And as the revisionist attitude becomes more and more of a cliché, the louder the flagellants cry for more flagellation. Interesting.

    1. Indeed, why are woke attacks directed so specifically and uniquely on the west ? Why this obvious bias ?

      Could it be because the west is undoubtedly, by far and by any measure, the most succesful civilization in human history and yet is not collectivist and authoritarian but rather based on free market and individual freedoms ?

      Could it be that all that virtue signalling is ultimately aimed not at racism (or any other of their pet issue) per se but rather to demoralize and “dismantle” (as they like to say) western societies simply because they hate what it represents, namely the success of the opposite of what they want: an equality of outcome collectivist utopia ?

      The most paradoxical of all this is that no other society in the world is as tolerant towards both 1) minorities of all sorts and 2) criticism towards its own culture, than western societies are. Try advocating for this sort of woke historical self-flagellation or gay rights, or ethnic/religious minority rights in say China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia or anywhere else and see how it goes…

      1. My sense of it is that most wokies have not thought through the logic of their own position this much. They get good-feeling vibes by denouncing the “colonialist” aspect of the West—but do not pine consciously for an equality of outcome collectivist Utopia. Their cries to dismantle Western,
        Enlightenment civilization— which they issue on their smartphones while driving an electric car to a dentist appointment—are an affectation, rather than a coherent or principled position. In this regard, in short, they are very much the children of academic post-modernism.

        1. You’re right that most people with wokish opinions probably have them simply for the feel good effect of the virtue signalling\holier than thou performance without thinking any deeper about it.

          But after having read quite a bit about it, it now seems clear to me that those who developed the ideology in academia (like Herbert Marcuse) and indoctrinated generations of student since the 60s did so to attack the west’s core values in the hope that in the long run it would lead to one kind of communist revolution or another. For example, that’s why they added “systemic” to the word racism. What they want to attack is not racism per se, but the “system”, which is simply the western way of life.

          Althoug most wokies are unaware of all that (they are in that sense useful idiots), that’s what’s behind all this toxic enterprise that is wokism.

        2. Failure to think things through is a big issue.
          I tried to have a civil discussion with such a person about the border crisis, specifically unaccompanied minors. Her position was that detaining them, even for the limited time it takes to find a safe home for them was just like Auschwitz.
          My question was if she had a better solution. The reality of the situation is that you cannot just turn over kids to the first guy who claims to be their uncle, or give a 12 year old $20 and a bus ticket to L.A. It could be that the person who took them out of Honduras might not be their legal guardian, or there might be issues about whether their claimed relatives in the US are related, or if being with them is a safe environment.
          It is not uncomplicated, but unless those issues are sorted out, the child could be in real danger. Additionally, there are laws to be followed about such things.
          So, bringing those issues up, I asked again, “What better solution do you have?”
          All she could do was restate that kids should not be held by the government. And she got angry and insulting.
          But my conclusion was that the strength of her opinions on that and other issues were inverse to her knowledge of the subject. And she was not interested in pondering any of the specifics that make the issue complicated. Or even really acknowledging that such details exist.
          Inherent contradictions are just ignored. She would gleefully call CPS on me if I let my kid ride his bike home from school, but a child left to wander across the border in South Texas was just fine on her own.
          In the same way, I don’t think they want to even consider that the history they denounce is how we got from savagery to the comfort and safety we experience today. Part of that is that they have been taught a false history of what was like before Western Civilization. They imagine indigenous societies full of healthy, egalitarian people, living in harmony with each other and nature.
          I expect they believe that such is the default state of man, and something we can return to once we decolonize everything.
          It is a childlike worldview, not based on any historical reality. They feel that modern civilization, particularly the western kind, dragged them from Eden.

          1. “They imagine indigenous societies full of healthy, egalitarian people, living in harmony with each other and nature. I expect they believe that such is the default state of man, and something we can return to once we decolonize everything. It is a childlike worldview, not based on any historical reality. They feel that modern civilization, particularly the western kind, dragged them from Eden”

            I think you’re right that part of this hatred of the west may come from the Rousseauesque myth of the “noble savage”. Rousseau was an influencial philosopher for the continental lineage of thought that ultimately gave rise to modern day leftwing ideologies like marxism and its recent derviatives (neo-marxism, cultural-marxism, the new left, crt, wokism, etc…).

  9. The woke sticker market must be growing, possibly about to explode! The printing houses are rubbing their hands together in anticipation.

    Local market vendor west of anywhere calls it:

    Genuine Virtue signalling stickers!
    Come and get them 10 per sheet!
    Save your job. Wear one today don’t delay!
    Sticks to any surface, reputations, career, promotions.

    Also available, show the world you care more!
    Genuine Virtue signalling buttons!
    Buy one get 10 free! Perfect for all the family, apologist, timid and overwhelmed leaders, employees.

  10. I read this post and the consequent BTL debate with interest. I also read the NHM sticker a number of times and cannot see what the fuss us about. The wording seems balanced and entirely reasonable to me. Maybe that’s because I’m British and over 70. There seems to be this idea that all you have to do is slap the ‘woke’ label on something and it automatically becomes worthy of justified ridicule. Is the ‘anti-woke’ claim that the Natural History Museum was not ‘founded within the context of empire, colonialism and exploration’? I then had a look at the NHM web page https://www.nhm.ac.uk/about-us/diversity-and-inclusion.html to look for signs of ‘self flagellation’ but gave up.

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