Krauss on how “offense” impedes the finding of truth

December 6, 2021 • 9:30 am

In a new piece at the National Post (only conservative sites would publish such a piece), physicist Lawrence Krauss lays out several examples of wokeness in the scientific establishment that have the effect of chilling speech and impeding progress in understanding the world. Some of his examples were new to me, and surely show that this kind of “crybaby culture” is not a rarity in science. Click on the screenshot to read, and thanks to several readers who called this to my attention:

The headline refers to the new policy of some journals and scientific departments to avoid offending anybody (in some cases, only a single offended person is required) by expunging material that could possibly cause offense or, in the case Krauss discusses, completely removing a paper from the journal. Krauss’s words below are indented:

While there are many academic areas where raw political sensibilities might impact on scholarly discourse, it is hard to think of chemistry as such an area.  Nevertheless, new guidelines for accepting and editing papers were recently sent to editors of the prestigious Journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

“Following the publication of the article by (Tomáš Hudlický) in (German journal) Angewandte Chemie and the identification of a potentially offensive image in a journal, a set of guidelines has been produced by RSC staff to help us minimise the risk of publishing inappropriate or otherwise offensive content. Offence is a subjective matter and sensitivity to it spans a considerable range; however, we bear in mind that it is the perception of the recipient that we should consider, regardless of the author’s intention . … Please consider whether or not any content (words, depictions or imagery) might have the potential to cause offence, referring to the guidelines as needed. ” (italics Krauss’s)

I’ll get to the reference to the article by Hudlický, because that itself is very telling. For the moment, let’s concentrate on the italicized sentence. Considering the perception of any and all recipients, regardless of author intent, can effectively freeze all discourse. It is hard to imagine any sentence spoken in the public domain today that cannot possibly be construed as offensive to someone.

This reminds me of when New York Times chief editor Dean Baquet fired science writer Don McNeil, Jr. because McNeil uttered the “n word” in a purely didactic context, not as a slur. It didn’t matter: McNeil got the boot. As I wrote in May:

If you recall from earlier this year, NYT science writer Donald G. McNeil, Jr. was forced to resign because he used the word, and in a didactic context, on a trip with students to Peru. McNeil was simply trying to ascertain whether the word was actually used by another student, and was not using it as a racial slur.

It didn’t matter. As editor Dean Baquet emphasized in the NYT’s statement (my italics)

“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” 

In other words, as the Daily Beast summarized in its summary of the NYT staffers’ objections, which swayed Baquet from merely disciplining McNeil to eventually firing him:

But the company’s conclusion about McNeil’s intent was “irrelevant”, the irate staffers wrote in the letter, adding that the paper’s own harassment training “makes clear what matters is how an act makes the victims feel. . .”

But what was so offensive about Hudlický’s paper?

In this regard, it was particularly interesting that the preamble to the new RSC guideline mentioned an article by Tomáš Hudlický of Brock University, on the state of organic synthesis in honour of the 83rd birthday of chemist Dieter Seebach. In the article Hudlický questioned whether efforts to promote diversity by prioritizing inclusion of certain groups may be done at the expense of meritocracy. The reaction was swift. Following an outcry by a predictably offended social media mob, the journal involved retracted the article, removed it from its web site , and replaced several editors involved in its publication.

This is intolerable: even questioning one mantra of Social Justice can get you fired and demonized—a mantra that is truly a debatable academic point.

This is relevant to our recent debate about holding indigenous “knowledge” as coequal with modern science, for the former could and did offend proponents of the latter. As Krauss points out, if science can be deplatformed because it offends anyone, then almost everything is off limits. (In New Zealand, the proposal is not to get rid of modern science, but teach it as coequal with indigenous Maori “ways of knowing,” which happen to include a form of biological creationism.)


Consider what subjects could now be reasonably censored by editors according to this new edict. Much of evolutionary biology could now be verboten, since the very subject offends the religious sensibilities of many Americans. Same too with The Big Bang. What about geology, where estimates of the age of rocks directly contradicts the hopes of young earth creationists? Much of genetic research is already the source of vocal protest, especially the genomics of diverse populations, and any investigations of correlations between race and other genetic traits. Sex and gender clearly become untouchable because of the widely varying views on the similarities and distinctions between the two. Studies of climate change are already sensitive touchstones, and both new claims of serious implications of climate change, or studies that demonstrate that some earlier claims were overblown, will offend one or another side of the political fence.

What about paleontology and archeology and scientific study of finds like the Kennewick Man ? Aboriginal groups wanted to repatriate the remains of this 9,000 year old skeleton found in 1996 near Kennewick, Wash., in order to shield them from scientific study, because their cosmology was in conflict with the reality that domestic populations had their origin in the migration of earlier humans tens of thousands of years ago? At the time, the scientific community didn’t back down in the face of misplaced religious or cultural sensibilities.

Today, however, the Society for American Archaeology censored a talk by two archaeologists concerned about similar creationism creeping into archeology. The scientists argued that the current Native American Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) allows repatriation decisions to be made on the basis of Indigenous creation stories, an accommodation that would not be made for Western-based religious myths. The Society claimed that such language did not “align with SAA values.” Individual SAA members accused the talk of being “anti-Indigenous,” “racist” and part of “white supremacy.”

Krauss gives several other examples of recent kerfuffles that involve censoring or retracting scientific pieces that offended someone because their language hurt people’s feelings.

While editors can suggest cleaning up language that they see as potentially offensive, there is no justification for removing articles that offend people—not so long as the results are publishable. Yes, fix any language if it’s truly offensive, but the Royal Society Guidelines and the removal of Hudlický’s article is not merely cleaning up language: it is censoring papers—indeed, removing them—because they contain ideas that are “offensive” simply because the Woke consider them beyond debate. When we let the Woke start controlling science, as is happening now, then knowledge itself will be controlled and academic freedom demolished. Krauss is right to worry about the chilling of speech in STEM (and academia in general), and ends his piece with two quotes you might have heard:

The polymath British writer, actor, and intellectual, Stephen Fry, wrote in 2005 : “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so f**king what.”

Less provocatively, the late writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens, wrote , “If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings, I say, ‘I’m still waiting to hear what your point is.’ In this country, I’ve been told, ‘That’s offensive’ as if those two words constitute an argument or a comment. Not to me they don’t.”

Krauss’s conclusion is that if you’re offended by something you read, that’s your problem, and does not justify censorship or calls for retraction. But we know that. We turn that knowledge into action by refusing to bow to the demands of the censors.

42 thoughts on “Krauss on how “offense” impedes the finding of truth

  1. “Less provocatively, the late writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens, wrote …”

    I am missing Hitch so much here – I’m sure he’d be positively scintillating at this moment.

      1. And THAT is what would be so interesting – how Christopher Hitchens would reduce the phenomenon utterly to an infant toy – in a few sentences.

  2. Jerry’s news/comments on the Woke Legion’s muzzling power show us how dysfunctional US has become. But here in Britain, there is no room for schadenfreude. In England, you can be nicked for a ‘non-crime hate incident’, which only requires a ‘victim’s’ perception of hostility. No jail or fines, but it goes into you public record. So a conviction may hurt if you are looking for a job or promotion. Last year an ex-policeman who tweeted satiric comments about transgender definitions was found guilty, and later received a call from the police. In a perfectly Orwellian form, the officer informed the accused: ‘I need to check your thinking’. A judge dismissed the case, which caused a mighty fuss, but the police continues wasting time and harming people by pursuing hundreds of ‘non-crime hate incidents’.

    Here in Scotland, the sinister, authoritarian and monolithic Scottish National Party pushed through the Hate Crime Act, which will come into force next year. It criminalises ‘stirring up hatred’, which includes ‘inflammatory or insulting utterances’. In a twist that would make the Stasi envious, the Act covers private conversations in your own home. Miscreants face up to seven years in jail, so grumpy uncle Jimmy would better be careful with his views during the next family reunion.

    Thanks to our supine political class, our civil liberties and freedom of speech are being eroded bit by bit. Despite all their problems, Americans have their First Amendment. They should cherish it.

    1. “… the Woke Legion’s muzzling power show us how dysfunctional US has become. But here in Britain, …”

      Notice that there is no group of individuals – aka “Legion” – traveling from the United States to New Zealand, then on to England, and so on, that are claiming any victories here. We dismiss this as being due to [anti]-social media.

      But there is another entity that survives beyond the individuals involved. Centuries ago, the individuals had to sail ships to e.g. South America. Now, that entity simply uses an easier path – the [anti]-social media.

      That entity is religion.

    2. Yes, the non-crime hate incident reporting is a slippery slope. Recently, The Grauniad had a report about a sharp increase in transphobic incidents – it turned out that these were instances in which people had reported being affected by transphobia, but with no need to provide any evidence. Given the inaccurate accusations of transphobia levelled at J K Rowling and Kathleen Stock (for her excellent book Material Girls) the figures are likely to be highly suspect.

  3. “…we bear in mind that it is the perception of the recipient that we should consider, regardless of the author’s intention . … ” (Journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry).

    I am offended by these words. Therefore the Journal must cancel them and remove them permanently from their journal.

    1. Kurt, I suspect you are a white male: The Oppressor. Your being offended cannot possibly be taken into account.

    2. “…we bear in mind that it is the perception of the recipient that we should consider, …”

      That is just a sublime quote …

      Some perceptions are more equal than others?

      1. More “Snowball” than “Snowflake”.
        Am I misremembering “Animal Farm’s” cast(e) of characters?
        No. But my characterisation is a bit off.

  4. I’ve read a number of Krauss’s articles and columns. Solid scientist and writer. This article is one of his best. I’m glad you chose it to start today’s conversation. His last paragraph is the right conclusion. I think it’s worth quoting in its entirety:

    —Quotation start—
    The bottom line is this: If you are offended by something you read, or your feelings are otherwise hurt, you own the problem. You can choose to deal with it in a variety of ways, either by refusing to read any potentially offensive material, by ignoring the offence, or by writing cogently in response, critiquing the ideas one finds offensive. But it is your problem to deal with. Others are not obliged to cater to your sensibilities in advance, nor need they be censored after the fact. In my day, recognizing this reality was called growing up.
    —Quotation end—

    This is a rejoinder that we can all adapt and use.

    1. I underscore Krauss’s last sentence in your quotation, which again reminds me of a conversation between Colman Hughes and Ayishat Akanbi in which she states that “the foundational problem of everything” is lack of maturity.

    2. Agree wholeheartedly. Great passage. Grow the hell up you infantalized, virtue-signaling, anti-First Amendment woke children who dropped your binkies in the sand…that’s it, use your words.

  5. “Much of evolutionary biology could now be verboten, since the very subject offends the religious sensibilities of many Americans. Same too with The Big Bang. What about geology, where estimates of the age of rocks directly contradicts the hopes of young earth creationists? …”

    Don’t worry. We know those people don’t count when it comes to hand-wringing about offense. After all, they’re overwhelmingly white (which is already enough to discount their feelings) and deplorables.

    1. I was going to similarly comment on that. The Offended have not really gotten to work on certain fields, such as evolution and cosmology and so on. This being because those that are “harmed” by that sort of knowledge are seen as white and conservative. But of course there have been various forays into these fields anyway, like objections to terms like dark matter or dark energy.

    2. I’ve been hauled in front of my Dean on more than a couple of occasions for teaching my regular Intro to Human Evolution class by religious students who were shocked and offended by my suggestion we are descended from monkeys (they are guilty of badly summarizing my detailed lectures). One student wanted to major in Anthropology, but be excused for all classes in biological anthropology for religious reasons. Each time, the Dean just shrugged and calmly informed the student that everything I taught was, in fact, the proper scientific understanding of the topic. Whether it was offensive or not had no weight. The ONLY times I’ve been informed I had offended people in my classes, it was from religious students.

    3. What about geology, where estimates of the age of rocks directly contradicts the hopes of young earth creationists? …”

      To mis-quote … Gilbert and Sullivan, I think,
      I have a little rock
      Fits in a little sock
      [de dum de dum for several lines]
      Of heads that shan't be missed.

  6. We really need to get beyond this false dichotomy of “intent” versus “feelings of the recipient”. Indeed, intent doesn’t matter – if I use the word “dog” intending to talk about pine trees, it still means dog. Meanings are public, not private – that’s what makes languages work. Neither the speaker nor the hearer gets to dictate the meaning of an utterance.

    How many legs does a dog have if you call a tail a leg? Still four: calling the tail a leg doesn’t make it so.

    1. There’s a huge difference between using a racial slur as a slur directed at someone and, for instance quoting from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or quoting from racist legislation from the 19th century in an academic paper or discussion.

      If we can’t agree on things like this, we are lost.

      “That Dachshund breeder has a fine bitch.”

      “Karen, you are a nasty bitch.”

      1. British Brewers Greene King would disagree. They recently took over a pub in Linlithgow ( a town between Edinburgh and Glasgow ) called ‘ The Black Bitch ‘ in commemoration of a legend of a black coloured female greyhound which saved its master from starvation when he was imprisoned on an island on the Loch ofi Linlithgow by swimming out to him with food. The brewers intend to change the’ racist and abusive name to ‘ The Black Hound ‘.The town is up on arms.

        1. I’m looking forward to the pub behind the famous brass statue of “Grefriars Bobby” being renamed to the “Tartan Skip-rat” or something equally inoffensive.
          Then again, “Greyfriars”, as a district name of various cities, must itself be under reconsideration, as the only way to get a grey friar is to cross a black friar with a white friar under some theological equivalent of “cross breeding”. As the prelate said to the pederast.

    2. I’ll also note that people who say the “n-word” should never be used, period, because it’s always offensive are being inconsistent.

      I just listened to a Dave Chappell routine where he used it — a lot. And it’s all over rap music, etc. No one clutches their pearls over these uses of the word. And Chappell seems to intend it in a derogatory way.

  7. Yes, Krauss’ last paragraph sums up the matter admirably, in particular the final sentence: “ In my day, recognizing this reality was called growing up“. In my day, complaining to parent or teacher that somebody’s words made one feel bad was limited to little kiddies. Things are different today. An entire DEI academic bureaucracy is devoted to infantilizing the student population; in popular culture, we have nominal grownups behaving like children in TV scripts; other nominal grownups are living with their parents into their 30s or 40s; and, of course, a major political party, or most of it, responds to a fair election like an ill-behaved four-year old (“you didn’t win, I won!”).

    What is going on? I used to blame it on academia, for authorizing the formation of whole departments devoted to attitudinizing and bullshit. But now I think the underlying cause(s) must be much deeper. Something seems to have interfered with the growing-up process in the last 20 years or so. What is it?
    The timeline suggests something technological. Social media + smartphones? The possibility of going through childhood without ever playing outside? Who knows? The pervasive narcissism, once a stage of early childhood, may have already begun in the last century, according to Christopher Lasch.

    1. “In my day …”

      Dana Carvey invented a character on Saturday Night Live that prefaced hilarious rants about modern foibles with “In my day”. It was really funny.

      I’m not sure a humorous hint to pop culture was intended, but – there it is.

      1. Knowing Krauss (I’ve met him personally), probably. After all, he wrote The Physics of Star Trek, so is no stranger to pop culture. (Assuming that Star Trek is pop culture. Actually, it is high intellect compared to much of what counts as pop culture these days.)

    2. “What is going on?”

      There are usually many factors involved in major trends like these (and I agree that social media/smartphones contribute to the behavior), but I contend that “helicopter parenting” is the overarching factor with fostering in children the hyper-sensitivity of feelings.

  8. I searched the name of “Tomáš Hudlický”. One of the first results was a Reddit post [1], asking to join the reddit user in “denouncing this racist essay in Angewandte written by Tomáš Hudlický from Brock University”.

    In the provided quotation, Hudlický is complaining about the introduction of identity quotas, and argues for a merit-based process. I’m critical of “meritocracy” myself. However, it’s irrelevant for now what you or I think about the correct procedures. The interesting woke things always appear in the meta-discourse about such matters. Looking over this case is hilariously stereotypical in the most cliché “social justice warrior” way I’m told would not exist. Here are a few very typical elements:

    (1) Even though meritocracy can be criticised, at least, as naïve, he’s making prima facie simply the request of plain old fairness in that confined area. However, typical of this crowd, this instantly becomes straight out headline-screaming “racist”. Stop for a moment and think about it. It‘s a serious charge, or used to be. Everyone from future employers, neighbours, dates, friends and family will know that he‘s a “racist” now — for arguing for meritocracy.

    (2) Commenters in the twitter thread act out in stereotypical histrionic fashion (also pretty funny to me), with showy displays of strong emotion. Someone is “fuming”, others express how the entire journal is now utterly tainted to them; that the writing must be “removed from record”. The next find it “GROSS” and want everyone to flood the editors with angry mails, like good old “concerned” conservatives would do it in the past. There are of course plenty of versions of “I. Can’t. Even” — an old SJW classic, and all sorts of grossed out denouncing taking place. Remember, the issue here is a quotation in favour of “colourblind” meritocracy, not the KKK manifesto.

    (3) Evidently, it has a viral, media “flak” component built in (a filter in Herman/Chomsky’s Propaganda Model). The purpose of such is driving up the costs of ever arguing that way, ever again, as any publisher must expect a flood of angry letters and calls. The expressive outrage, plus direct requests to — essentially — harass individuals are seen as legitimate, and perfectly okay practices in service of “Social Justice”. The more anger, the more outrage, the more leeway the crowd gets in harassing (sometimes doxing), and abuse.

    (4) It’s Okay When We Do It(TM) — the old Pharyngula motto applies generally. If the situation was reversed, a dumb woke opinion drawing criticism, that’s instantly crying in terror about severe harassment, even in (actually) mildest critical comments. But this way around, they are okay to call someone a “racist” and punish such “racist” behaviour.

    (5) This crowd actively suppresses, or tries to remove even fairly boring (and naïve) opinions, and as they create an intense chilling effect. But crucially, they never bother to explain their alternative. In fact, the chilling effect created is such large that nobody, not even their advocates, will ever stick their neck out and propose a practical solution. As a result, nobody can even pin down exactly what this amorphous “woke” mob even wants, even the name of this ideology is contested. You can only try to clutch the fog by looking into the closest sources that come up, e.g. Critical Race Theory, because this crowd often mentions “intersectionality” and other buzzwords (but use them idiosyncratically, so you are none the wiser in practice).

  9. That’s a great point that evolution, geology, etc., could also easily land as “offensive” material if the same standards are applied as to some “uber-woke” arenas.

  10. Many of the Woke perhaps believe in an Utopia – if everyone is equal and everyone is nice to each other the glorious collective Utopia will flourish. Everyone will have prizes, no one will be in want.

    Hence anyone who offends anyone else or believes in the variation of human abilities and achievements must be anti-Utopian, and therefore evil.

    I’ve resisted the idea of Wokism being like a religion because I don’t think it is particularly organised, but I suspect that it is a fanciful philosophy held with unreflective fervour.

    1. Many of the Woke perhaps believe in an Utopia – if everyone is equal and everyone is nice to each other the glorious collective Utopia will flourish. Everyone will have prizes, no one will be in want.

      This is certainly true of some of my interlocutors on antisocial media.

      One proposed the other day that police be punished (“it should be career-ending”) if they kill someone on the job, anyone, regardless of the circumstances.

      I told him that the police would no longer have any reason to risk their lives to protect people in that case and linked to the Murray-Hill Riot, which is the result he should expect were his plan to be carried out. I advised him that he might want to think about the ripple effects of such a policy. And how it might affect peoples motivations.

      I also linked to this video. And Sam Harris’s articles on violence and guns.

      He did not respond.

      People who know nothing about violent people are the ones proposing getting rid of the police.

  11. That otherwise unaccomplished students and teachers can dictate what and how great minds communicate is very troubling. It brings to my mind the words of CS Lewis, who along with his Christian apologetics said some very on-point, memorable things:

    “… watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.”

  12. “… even questioning one mantra of Social Justice can get you fired and demonized…”

    I would replace that “even” with “especially”. They can’t abide questions, because their whole house of cards would collapse were it widely and openly subject to any degree of scrutiny.

    The extremely important distinction between “harm” and “offense” has been studied in depth by moral philosophers for generations, but modern “social justice” is not informed by anything that came before. The Elite (as John McWhorter calls them) are not scholars; they constitute a priestly class whose self-appropriated authority is absolute and unquestionable. Their Dunning-Kruger-style ignorance is only reinforced by the high cost of the higher education they do not obtain, and prevent others from obtaining.

    As a former Christian, this calls to my mind words in the gospel of Luke: “Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.”

    1. The use of the word “harm” as a synonym for offended feelings (often hypothetical) is a cliché of
      the woke and, even more, of the administrators who front for the woke. But “harm” may be going out
      of fashion, at least a little. In New Zealand, Vice-Chancellor Freshwater substituted “hurt and dismay”
      in place of “harm” in her recent message. Who knows, they may yet become honest enough to use “discomfort” or similar nouns. The next time an NZ academic points out that Maori mythology is not really anything like astrophysics, the Vice-Chancellor will perhaps exclaim that pointing that out might
      cause “unease” or “fretting” in the university community.

  13. Jerry, having just read Krauss’s piece that included this from the journal guidelines,
    “it is the perception of the recipient that we should consider, regardless of the author’s intention”
    …of which potential outcomes you, I and Krauss agree upon as being negative. I then read in a post below, your own words,
    “(I hope this isn’t perceived as derogatory, but my dad used to tell me jokes at bedtime, and one was “Weather report in Mexico: chili today and hot tamale.”)”.
    The joke is so utterly benign that the “I hope this isn’t perceived as derogatory” bit comes across as you yourself being overly concerned and affected by the current woke zeitgeist!

    It made me frown and I simply had to pick this bone.

  14. “Please consider whether or not any content (words, depictions or imagery) might have the potential to cause offence, referring to the guidelines as needed.” (quoted in Krauss’ text)

    Here’s my paraphrase of this code of censorship (as I prefer to call it):

    “Please write nothing which is such that it is possibly possible that someone takes offence at it or feels offended by it!”

    It’s a short step from here to:

    “Please stop writing, because the only non-offensive behavior is silence!”

    1. “…the only non-offensive behavior is silence!”
      – are you living under a rock! A wokist will (and I’ve seen clips online) scream ‘silence is as bad as partaking’. I recall an example of an anti-racist protest in which one of the protestors went off on someone in this way after the person refused to respond to a question!

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