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.