Intellectural freedom in STEM: An interview with Anna Krylov

August 2, 2022 • 12:00 pm

We’ve met Anna Krylov on these pages before (see here); she’s a quantum chemist and the Gabilan Distinguished Professor in Science and Engineering and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Southern California. And we met her because she’s an opponent of the invasion of wokeness into STEM, and because she somehow got an anti-woke paper, “The perils of politicizing science” into the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters. That paper got a lot of attention, most likely because it was congenial to all those who deplore the fulminating wokeness of science but are afraid to speak up. (Try getting an op-ed extolling merit over identity into a science journal these days!)

Now she has an interview about what she calls the attacks on “academic freedom”, though I’d prefer to call it “freedom of speech”. To me, “academic freedom” means the freedom to teach what you want, so long as it is within the discipline you’re addressing and uses respectable standards of scholarship to address debatable issues.

But never mind the distinction. Have a look at the piece, which is good, and weep for the way science has become so politicized—and so quickly!  It’s almost like a disease that doctors are afraid to treat—much less diagnose. But Anna has no fears. Click below to read her interview with the Academic Freedom Alliance. The interview was conducted and edited by Olivia Glunz.

I’ll give just two excerpts:

What is the current state of academic freedom in chemistry and the natural sciences?

Traditionally, the natural sciences have not been strongly affected by politics. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, research on evolution, the climate, and stem cells has been politicized, but in general the natural sciences have been blissfully far from politics… But not anymore.

In chemistry, which is my field, research as such is generally not controlled; we do have freedom to pursue different research topics, subject to ability to secure funding. In other domains, particularly biology, things are different. For example, research relating to populations, genetics, heredity, human biology, or sexual reproduction became extremely politicized. Academic freedom in this field is very much affected by the current climate.

But even though chemistry research is not ideologically controlled, I see censorship and other forms of suppression creeping into our institutions, professional societies, and even publishing.

. . . While we are free, more or less, to carry out research, we are not free to talk about how we carry out our research and education. What do I mean by that? We are not entirely free to discuss practical aspects of the scientific enterprise. For example, how do we execute the publishing and peer review process? How do we fund research? How do we hire students and faculty? These are very important practical questions, and they are currently very difficult to discuss. If you start challenging some of the current practices that involve social engineering—which are, in my opinion, in conflict with the merit-based approach for carrying out science—you can easily get yourself in trouble—as did Dorian Abbot, a geophysics professor at the University of Chicago. His research is not controversial—he studies climate and the possibility of life on other planets. But Dorian spoke out against the current social engineering based practices in hiring. By simply sharing his thoughts on these issues, he found himself in the center of “controversy”. There were petitions by students and postdocs calling him violent and dangerous and demanding to remove him from teaching. The University of Chicago resisted these calls, but when Dorian was invited to give a lecture on his research at MIT, a Twitter mob successfully pressured MIT to disinvite him.

Just think about the implications of this case—you invite a scientist to discuss his research about life on other planets and the climate, but you cancel his appearance not because of some flaws or controversy in his research but because of his opinions on topics that are not related to his work. This trend is clearly detrimental to science. Imagine a scientist who is about to discover a cure for cancer or a solution to the energy problem. However, because this scientist has some opinions or behaviors that we do not approve of on moral or political grounds, we refuse to listen to his lectures and read his papers, and we ban his research. This is highly dangerous for science… and unfortunately this is happening now.

This kind of cancellation because the speaker has said things not in a scheduled talk, but in other places, is becoming more common, and this kind of deplatforming is shameful. At least we should be able to discuss these issues, especially in science, where quality work is more easily discerned than work in the humanities. But no discipline should have to experience the kind of disapprobation that Abbot did. Fortunately, the University of Chicago defended him by ignoring the calls to punish him.

One more Q&A;

What are some practical steps for promoting academic freedom on campus?

I like this attitude: we should stop complaining and start doing!

I would organize my suggestions into two categories: one is individual responsibilities, and the second is what we should do as communities.

As individuals, we need to learn how to speak up. Solzhenitsyn, a famous Soviet dissident who wrote The Gulag Archipelago and received the Nobel Peace Prize, once said, “The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the world.” We often fail to do this. Many people are willing to take part in the lie. They remain silent and complicit; they do not speak up.

Where do we start? I have a very simple suggestion for everyone: If you witness a lie—call it out; do not stay silent. If you see that the King is naked—say “The King is naked”.

That said, I do understand that speaking up is not easy. There could be consequences, and there often are consequences—recall Dorian Abbot’s case. But while no one wants to be a martyr for free speech, we should learn from history that we cannot just hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.

. . . This brings me to what we can do as communities. We do not need to act as isolated agents. It’s easier to take down a single person than a group—there is strength in numbers. That is why I am really delighted to see organizations like the AFA and FIRE taking the lead in providing support and protections for the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom. These organizations make a real difference by defending individuals who would otherwise be standing all alone against a powerful university or a professional organization “machine” that wants to fire or “disappear” them for their unpopular views. The AFA and FIRE provide counterweight to administrators who forget what their role is supposed to be and become complicit with the mob justice of cancel culture promulgated by small groups of extremists.

This is the same set of tactics recommended for atheists or humanists who oppose the incursion of religion into government. I know from talking to my colleagues that many despise the replacement of science by social engineering, and the climate of ideological uniformity that it promotes, but dare not speak up for fear of being branded bigots. I myself have been reluctant to talk about some of this, but of course as a retired professor I have little to lose. And I’ve found, by speaking up and doing stuff, we’ve actually accomplished the strengthening of free speech at the University of Chicago, a place that wouldn’t seem to need it but has been increasingly cowed by wokeness.

Here are two of the other questions she answers, and there are more as well:

You recently published several articles about threats to academic freedom in the natural sciences. What motivated you to do this, and how did you find the courage to speak your mind?


How do you encourage your students to be open-minded and appreciate diversity of thought?

More power to Anna. She is not retired, but in our conversations she has to encourage me to speak up more!

7 thoughts on “Intellectural freedom in STEM: An interview with Anna Krylov

  1. I am disgusted by the idea that experts in a single field of science are silenced because of their opinions on a subject other than their area of expertise. How many past scientists are known to have profoundly ignorant views in areas other than what they specialize in? Should we stop teaching Newtonian physics because Newton also believed in alchemy? Should we not accept that everyone, scientists included, is going to be ignorant in some field? Does statistics (a science in itself) not predict that some people will necessarily have ignorant views in a subject area they know little about, and won’t some subset of the ignorant be brilliant scientists of some other field? What next, MIT will disinvite scientists after it is discovered they are NY Yankees fans and not Boston Red Sox fans?

  2. “Stop complaining and start doing”

    This is a very important post. I suggested this last week when we read of a tenured professor who quit his univerity position over wokeness. I suggesred that he should not have quit, but rather should be using his protected, tenured position to call for open seminars and debates on the issues he objects to. If the university is going to simply act unilaterally, this is something that he can do. With the AFA and FIRE for support, anyone can stop complaining (I think that I used the more pejorative “whining”) and activate your school or K12 school district toward awareness and open discussion. AFA and examples of schools that have adopted the Chicago Principles are powerful and solid material to bring to your policy makers…board of governors or visitors, presidents, school boards, and superintendents.

  3. Any person or group that attempts to stifle science on political grounds is ipso facto more interested in power than in truth.

    1. more interested in power than in truth.

      Didn’t you just describe any and all functioning politicians? (Who, because of that should be disbarred from “power” on the grounds that they desire it. Prevention of second terms by execution as termination of the first term does have a real appeal to it.)

  4. As “Rick” says at #1 above, there are a issues around this question.

    To me, “academic freedom” means the freedom to teach what you want, so long as it is within the discipline you’re addressing

    It’s actually a fairly awkward question, even within this bl^H^H website’s nominal area of “evolution”.
    Two counteracting examples : astrophysicist (and important in that field) Tom Gold came up with a concept of the origin of terrestrial hydrocarbon deposits that plays with and encourages “panspermia-tists” which is very much more a geological/ planetary science area, and where his ideas are treated with little short of contempt.
    On the other bilaterian anterior distal appendage, Lynn Margulis’ heretical concept of an endosymbiotic origin for mitochondria (and chloroplasts) in animal (plant) phyla is now pretty much agreed mainstream consensus.
    “Left field”, “who ordered that” ideas are not necessarily wrong, and may be closer to “correct” than the last few decades of work.
    Tread very carefully on other people’s bailiwicks ; you may not realise that your firm footfall is actually in your own mouth.

  5. Everyone who works in science can feel the pressures of “rightthink”. But imagine what its like if your research is on the biology of sex!

  6. Brilliant, and spoken with such simplicity and clarity!

    A few times now, when hearing a friend veer toward wokeness, I’ve pushed back, feigning innocence and gently expressing my disagreement. In response, I usually discover that my conversant is not a true believer but that, in fact, was merely testing the waters to see where I stood. Only when my position favoring merit becomes known does my conversant stop with the woke crap and return to normal conversation. It’s as if he or she is aware how foolish wokeness is, but feels the need to test the waters with me before deciding whether to use wokespeak or normal English. The lesson is that we should not be afraid to buck the trend. Reasonable people know that wokeness is not good and are seeking outlets where they can speak freely.

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