New paper on “cancel culture in science”

February 7, 2022 • 9:38 am

This paper written by four chemists just appeared in Nachrichten aus der Chemie (“Chemistry News”), the news outlet outlet of the German Chemical Society. It’s in English, and free online, so you should be able to open the paper by clicking the screenshot below. It’s a call for scientists to resist ideological pressures that may distort or reject science, as happened during the “Lysenko affair” in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The thesis of the paper is this: whereas scientific censorship used to come from the top (cf. Lysenko/Stalin, with “proper” genetics enforced by the government, or Nazi Germany, which decried “Jewish physics”, driving many great physicists out of the country), now the “cancellation” begins on the bottom, with social media sites and readers pressuring journal editors or publishing companies, sometimes resulting in the rejection of sound papers because they contravene an established ideological narrative. And there is also policing of language. This kind of “cancellation,” of course, has to come ultimately from the top, but is propelled by disaffected people on social media.

A few quotes from the paper (indented)

The modern form: cancel culture

Suppression today takes the form of „Cancel Culture“, censorship administered not by repressive governments but by Twitter vigilantes, an „outrage mob“ „whose goal is to sanction or punish … individuals or organization[s] they consider responsible for something that offends, insults, or affronts their beliefs, values, or feelings“.1)

Consider the cancellation of chemist Tomáš Hudlický,4,5) who in 2020 published an essay in Angewandte Chemie discussing the progress of organic synthesis and expressing his views on the hiring practices and training of scientists and the integrity of the literature.

The publication sparked a Twitter firestorm that condemned the article as „offensive“, „inflammatory“; the content as „alienating“, „hurtful“, „xenophobic“; the paper as „abhorrent“, „egregious“; and Hudlický as „racist“, „misogynist“, a „slithering insect“. Sixteen editorial board members resigned in protest of the publication. The journal removed the paper from its website (an unprecedented act), issued an abject apology, suspended two editors, and began an internal investigation. Condemnation ensued in blogs, journals, and statements issued by chemical societies.

We invite readers to read Hudlický’s essay and his elaboration to the National Academy of Scholars.5) Whether one agrees with his views or not, a civilised debate should have ensued, not an avalanche of insults. The journal could have invited a rebuttal; instead it capitulated to the mob.

Hudlický’s cancellation did not end there. A planned special issue of Synthesis in his honour was cancelled, invitations to speak at conferences and to review papers ceased, citations to his papers were deleted, and collaborators were encouraged to dissociate themselves from him.

The cancellation of geophysicist Dorian Abbot is another example of censoring an individual’s scientific contributions because of his views on non-scientific matters.6–8) Abbot had been invited to deliver a public lecture at MIT on „climate and the potential for life on other planets“. But a small group of activists, outraged by Abbot’s advocacy8) for equal opportunity, fairness, merit-based evaluation, and academic freedom, initiated a social media campaign to uninvite him. MIT quickly cancelled the event, violating their own „policy of open research and free interchange of information among scholars“.

These examples underscore authorities’ responsibility to resist outrage mobs: „Although outrage mobs often trigger the punishment process, in Western democracies, mobs no longer actually burn witches at stakes. … Mobs do not get papers retracted; that is the decision of editors and editorial boards. Thus, the key turning point in whether an academic outrage mob is effective at punishing an academic for their ideas is … the action of authorities.“1)

Well, one can argue about whether a civilized debate could have ensued: that may be impossible in these days when people get heated up and censorious so quickly. But what cannot and should not happen is for editors to bow to social-media pressure just to reduce the heat.  Yes, they can go back and “look at” a paper to see if it’s sound, but all too often that reexamination is selective, spurred by the social-media mob, and with editors looking for reasons to censor papers or talks.

The Dorian Abbot cancellation, which I’ve written about before (see posts here), is unforgivable (MIT is the culprit). Because Abbot had used social media to oppose DEI initiatives, public outcry made the MIT administration cancel a prestigious invited lecture—one that had nothing to do with DEI. It was a public lecture on global warming and the possibility of alien life.

The point is that science should oppose the incursion of political views into science, though we should not forget, of course, that some science has been done with political ends, and that scientific results have sometimes been warped to meet these ends. Scientists are not purely apolitical animals, and sometimes it affects their work.

But it doesn’t help that journals are now policing science and its language to ensure that people don’t get offended. Get a load of this from the Krylov et al paper (emphasis is mine).

Some institutions have actually institutionalised censorship. For example, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), a major publisher, has issued guidelines10) for editors to „consider whether or not any content … might have the potential to cause offence“. An RSC memo explains that the guidelines were developed in response to the Hudlický affair.

The document elaborates: „The aim of this guidance is to help you to identify and prevent the publication of inappropriate content in our journals and books.… Words, depictions and imagery have the potential to cause offence…. There can be a disparity between the intention of an author and how their content might be received – it is the perception of the recipient that determines offence, regardless of author intent.“

The editors are instructed to be on the lookout for „[a]ny content that could reasonably offend someone on the basis of their age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, marital or parental status, physical features, national origin, social status or disability“ or are „[l]ikely to be upsetting, insulting or objectionable to some or most people“. These guidelines are so broad as to justify censoring anything in chemistry and beyond.

Note that, like the NYT’s firing of Donald McNeil after he used the “n-word” in a didactic context,the RSC is taking the NYT’s stance that “Intent is irrelevant.” All that matters is how offended someone is by a remark, not what the person who made the remark actually meant or intended. That is not a rational way to deal with conflict, and of course the law distinguishes regularly between intentional and accidental harm.

Krylov et al. end like this:

Censorship is antithetical to science. Rather than turning social media censorship into policy, scientific leadership worldwide should reject cancel culture and defend the core principle of science – the free exchange of ideas in the pursuit of truth.

This kind of censorship happens all the time in the humanities: think of Rebecca Tuvel’s demonization when she wrote a philosophical paper on transracialism vs. transsecualism. She survived that one, but others haven’t.

As a coda here, the editors of Nachrichten were besieged with social-media pushback, especially strong for a paper that isn’t that controversial. There were not only tweets, but phone calls and actual letters to the journal, all complaining about the paper and calling for its retraction. I forgot to mention, and am adding this later, that the overwhelming majority of comments on social media, including tweets, were positive: approving of the paper’s message. There are a whole lot of silent people out there who don’t like cancel culture and abhor the “science needs a reckoning” attitude.

There was a rebuttal published only a couple of days after Krylov et al. came out and accusations that the authors were anti-Semitic because they discussed scientific suppression by the Nazis (the second author of the Krylov et al. piece is Jewish. . .)

The journal is now creating a “portal” for people to weigh in about the paper. But if a paper complaining about cancel culture itself gets so much heated reaction, this bodes very poorly for the future of objective scientific discourse.

I once thought that science would be the last area where the Woke would exercise their policing, but I was wrong. Given the power and respect afforded by many to science, it’s only natural that people who see science as “just another narrative”, or those who want that power and respect to devolve on themselves, would go after science in general.  Although individual scientists of the past are being scrutinized for political or moral stands that wouldn’t pass muster today, remember that it is science itself that is being accused of being harmful, racist, and a vehicle for white supremacy, and “colonialism.”

26 thoughts on “New paper on “cancel culture in science”

  1. It’s a call for scientists to resist ideological pressures that may distort or reject science, as happened during the “Lysenko affair” in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

    Since there’s no reasonable doubt that many personality characteristics, cognition, etc, and even such things as “criminality” and “school performance” are at least partly determined by genetics (typical heritability ~50% or more), it seems that one can be now be accused of being a racist or eugenicist for not embracing “blank slatism” and denying such such knowledge.

    1. To admit that human behavior is determined both by nature and by nurture (i.e. that a fully deterministic theory accounting for the causes of human behavior must embrace both genes and environment, culture, society, etc) is to admit that social engineering, no matter how well-intentioned and how well-implemented, can never fully overcome whatever limitations exist in individual humans and in humans as a species. Thus it is that many tacitly espouse environmental (or economic or social) determinism while decrying the so-called “genetic determinism” of their ideological enemies.

  2. I’m extremely skeptical that any number of undergrad tweets is going to change Journal subscription or citation numbers, since twitter-using undergrads aren’t the ones buying the subscriptions (or publishing research). The journals should probably just ignore them as not changing subscriber behavior. But if they’re really concerned about it, at least do some real research into how subscriptions, submissions, or citations change as a function of tweets. I could be wrong in thinking there’s no change at all, but I bet I’m not.

    Likewise, Universities like MIT should test to see if twitter complaints actually correlate with the numbers of people who show up at invited speaker talks or future student interest in MIT. If the numbers don’t go down, don’t worry about them. Particularly in this day and age of virtual talks. For RL talks, I can understand a Uni may have other concerns related to safety etc. These make a commitment to free speech costly (literally). But for virtual talks, I bet it has zero effect. And really, does MIT think their application pool is going to dry up if they host unpopular speakers? That seems unfathomable.

    A strong idealistic stand for free speech would be good. But I think unis and publishing houses could get by simply with a ‘realeconomik’ analysis. I will bet that analysis would show that tweets are mostly just venting and don’t correlate with much change in “consumer” behavior. And if that’s the case, there’s no pragmatic reason to pay attention to them.

    1. I agree, but I don’t think one should assume that the folks running the journal or the university are on the fence about these issues or trying to decide how to respond. At the annual meeting of a biology org I belong to, few members attended the org-wide workshop on decolonizing science. Some (young, female, Black) members decided it wasn’t acceptable for other (old, male, white) members to miss that workshop, and called them racists. The latter took their lumps, the former took a victory lap, and many bystanders approved. All on twitter. I asked the org leadership if they thought this name calling was ok, and the response was that the org (and science overall) is full of racism that needs to be called out. I think the view of the leadership is that this process is leading to net growth of the org (new members from underrepresented groups), and that small losses among the old white guys is an acceptable cost of doing business this way.

      1. Yeah I’ve said this before, but it’s a pretty common trait of extremist groups that they perceive no such thing as ‘uninvolved’ or ‘uninterested.’ You are either working for their good cause, or you are not actively working for it and therefore the enemy.

        It basically comes down to recruiting and what we might think of as a form of social evolution. The groups that let bystanders be or say ‘ah, you have to watch your kids. I understand’ don’t grow as fast as the groups that tell bystanders they’d better join or they’re horrible. So in a marketplace where a wide range of groups are all clamoring for your attention, the former more extreme versions tend to grow and become more powerful.

        But the reasoning why they grow has more to do with the hard sell than any worthiness on tehir part. They’re using a social progressive version of “if you’re not a believer, you’re going to hell” to scare people into joining.

      2. I can imagine, though, that at a big annual meeting there are several different seminars and workshops going on at the same time. Its usually not possible to attend all the ones you’d want to see at any one time.

        1. Yes lots going on at the same time at those conferences. More important, almost all the org members are from universities where there are dozens of workshops like this throughout the year on decolonization and similar topics. Few of the org members need the org itself to hold these workshops as well, so most members skip them. For those who do show up, the act is performative not substantive.

          Added here in order to avoid overcommenting: I don’t think Eric is correct above that leaders of these groups adopt a progressive social justice stance for utilitarian reasons like scaring the rubes into joining. The leadership of the org I described above truly believe they are doing the right thing. IDK whether they are also doing what’s best for the org they lead: it may turn out that capture of the biological sciences by progressive ideologues will be complete, and this kind of stance will be both desired by members and necessary for success.

          1. Yes. Just b/c “we” are reasonable (I am, say), we shouldn’t project that same sane world view on fanatics. I’m sure the core of the Khmer Rouge REALLY BELIEVED what they were doing was righteous/cool, even more in the case of religious mvts like the Taliban or ISIS.
            Plus, a small number of extremists can seem larger if they threaten individuals with Kendian logic.

            1. If you’re going to tar people with the “really believed” brush, could we also lump the many cases of parents getting “religious exemptions” for their children to receive vaccinations, medical treatment, etc. I’m sure they will appreciate being grouped – entirely accurately – with the Khmer Rouge, Taliban … and to resurrect some long-quiescent bones, the Westboro Baptist church.

    2. Most of the tweets for and against our article are not from undergrads but from professional scientists in academia or industry and graduate students. There are plenty of adult scientists who have been seduced by the new ideology.

  3. Regretfully, there are senior people — professors, editors, etc — who engage in Twitter Social Justice campaigns. If you look at the twitter thread for this article, you will find some professors calling for university authorities “to do something” about the authors. I particularly like posts of an editor of Science magazine willfully distorting the facts and blocking those who attempted correct his statements.

  4. Key sentences: “Mobs do not get papers retracted; that is the decision of editors and editorial boards. Thus, the key turning point in whether an academic outrage mob is effective at punishing an academic for their ideas is … the action of authorities.“

    I wonder how much of this trend (as in the RSC guidelines) comes from editorial assistants and bureaucrats who have little training in relevant technical subjects, but emerged (recently, one guesses)
    from marinating for four years in campus grievance culture, perhaps with a degree in “Communications” or some similarly vaporous subject. If this is the case, two conclusions follow. (1) Senior editors in STEM journals need to put their feet down to block the spread of manufactured “sensitivity” editing. (2) Perhaps, as I have suggested before, a college degree in non-technical subjects should hereafter be treated as a disqualification for any position that requires elementary common sense.

    1. The guidelines are coming from RSC’s DEI committee, which is staffed mostly by chemists. In their response to our original commentary, RSC replied that the guidelines were developed in consultation with outside experts. But who were these experts and what was the nature of their expertise was not revealed.

      This paper provides more details on the RSC censorship issue, including the link to their DEI committee:

      1. I see. The committee is composed of proper academics in Chemistry, Pharmaceutical Chemistry, or (in one case) Science Education, all of whom are quite publicly partisans of the DEI outlook. So these matters reflect a controversy within the ranks of STEM academicians. It is good that papers
        like the linked one are still being written and published.

    2. The main problem is that woke activists try hard to get themselves on the relevant committees, and then anyone who opposes them faces a barge of cries of “racist!”

  5. The published rebuttal to our paper is self-refuting. In the concluding section, “Where to go from here,” the author calls for the German Chemical Society to shun authors of “controversial articles,” who he says tend to be “older.” He writes,

    I think it would be in the best interest of the organization to tell these members: We do not care about you. If we cannot even agree on the very basics of how to do science, then we have no basis for future cooperation.” … “The Nachrichten tries to not alienate these old members, but I’d wish it’d be taking a stronger stance against them. Such insultingly regressive views cannot be arranged with the open community which chemistry so desperately needs.

    Quite a statement in a paper whose stated thesis is Cancel Culture in science is just a myth.”

    1. I am a chemist (though I am not working in this job since the finish of my studies) and also a member of the German Chemical Society. The rebuttal to the article and especially the concluding section is an embarrassment.

      How can a studied scientist let his logic go, which is absolutely necessary in his research work? His article contains false conclusions and ad hominems. The author even behaves insultingly, in my view, when he makes disparaging remarks about “conservative, old, white men” and ascribes progressivism to young scientists without any evidence.

      I do not perceive the author as progressive, but as ideological, regressive and condescending.

    1. I would like to refer to one sentence of Ilya’s piece (“Most astonishingly, illiberalism is once again accompanied by a distinct antisemitic sentiment”) and to the following column from Sascha Lobo in the Spiegel . Sorry, it is in German only but it addresses the same issue.

      Woke Anti-Semitism: You are against all discrimination unless it concerns Jews and Israelis?
      While right-wing and Islamic Jew-hatred remain the deadliest anti-Semitisms to which Jews around the world fall victim, a new, perfidious variant of Jew-hatred has emerged: woke anti-Semitism. “Woke,” recently added to the Duden dictionary, means something like “having an awareness of discrimination,” which at its core is a good and necessary facet of publicity.

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