The moralization of science

December 19, 2022 • 11:30 am

Peter Singer and his colleagues Jeff McMahan and Francesca Minerva have founded a new journal, The Journal of Controversial Ideas, which, according to its website:

. . . offers a forum for careful, rigorous, unpolemical discussion of issues that are widely considered controversial, in the sense that certain views about them might be regarded by many people as morally, socially, or ideologically objectionable or offensive. The journal offers authors the option to publish their articles under a pseudonym, in order to protect themselves from threats to their careers or physical safety.  We hope that this will also encourage readers to attend to the arguments and evidence in an essay rather than to who wrote it. Pseudonymous authors may choose to claim the authorship of their work at a later time, or to reveal it only to selected people (such as employers or prospective employers), or to keep their identity undisclosed indefinitely. Standard submissions using the authors’ actual names are also encouraged.

So far they’ve published three issues over two years, and I wish them well. Papers are peer-reviewed, and I think you’ll find some of them interesting. This post is about a recent paper that you can read by clicking on the screenshot below.

The author, Yves Gingras, is “a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) since 1986. He was initially appointed to the Department of Sociology, then to the Department of History, where he has been teaching since 1989.”  And the answer to the title question, by the way, is “probably not.”

 

Gingras’s claim is that all the moralizing directed by the woke towards science and scientists—in particular the demonization of dead scientists and their work if they transgressed present-day morality when they lived—is an add-on that, while it may speak to the character of the scientist, does not say anything about their science, which must be judged on its merits. He notes that both the NSF and NIH have new policies about differently treating those accused of or found guilty of harassment:

No one can seriously object to the idea of sanctioning socially reprehensible behavior. However, it is certainly a legitimate question to ask whether these new NSF and the NIH policies, particularly those of NSF, which directly link the practice of science to the moral behavior of scientists, do not initiate a profound transformation in the relations between science and society by adding to the usually implicit norms governing the scientific community a new form of moralization of the scientists themselves. As mentioned, NSF and NIH policies have different consequences on science. Withdrawing a grant directly affects the production of valid science. In the case of reviewing, the policy simply excludes a person from a task that can be performed by someone else, as is the case when a conflict of interests is detected. In both cases, however, we have the use of socially arbitrary criterion of “good social behavior” applied to an activity whose specific norms, as we will see, are different from those admitted in the general social sphere.

He then gives three examples of scientists who were either attacked in their own day or have transgressed present-day norms, and yet their science itself is still regarded as both interesting and publishable.

A.  Marie Curie. Curie was found by the tabloids to be having an affair with a married man, physicist Paul Langevin. This was just when she’d been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911. The Nobel Committee asked her not to show up at the ceremony for form’s sake. She refused, and, as Gingras notes:

. . the chemist Svante Arrhenius wrote Marie Curie a letter (dated December 1) asking her not to come to the official ceremony to accept that prestigious award until the accusations against her had been proven unfounded. Surprised, not to say stunned by such a demand, Marie Curie immediately replied (on December 5) that she would indeed be present at the ceremony since “the prize was awarded for [her] discovery of polonium and radium.” Above all, she recalled that “there is no relationship between [her] scientific work and the facts of [her] private life.” She also spontaneously reaffirmed a fundamental standard of science—universalism—by declaring that she “cannot accept the principle that the appreciation of the scientific value of [her] work could be influenced by libel and slander concerning [her] private life.” She concluded by saying that she was convinced that many colleagues agreed with her attitude and confirmed her attendance at the ceremony to receive her medal.

Note that at that time the woke thought adultery was a heinous character flaw, but of course time (and morality) has changed.

B. Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 for synthesizing ammonia: a great boon for the fertilizer industry. And yet the Nobel Committee ignored Haber’s well known participation in creating chlorine and mustard gas that killed many Allied soldiers during WWI.  There was some public outcry about this. Gingras notes:

The New York Times suggested, ironically, that in its wisdom, the Nobel Committee should have given its literature prize “to the man who wrote General Ludendorff’s daily communiqués.” Some scientists even withdrew from attending the ceremony. But the Committee considered that science had to be evaluated only on its own merit and not on the basis of the personal qualities of the scientists who were honored. To recall that principle, the president of the Nobel Foundation opened the ceremony by insisting on the internationality of science.

C. Valery Fabrikant. I din’t know of this man, but apparently in 1992 he killed four colleagues and injured a secretary at his school, Concordia University in Montreal.  He has a Wikipedia page, which notes that at Concordia he was an associate professor of mechanical engineering. He is now serving life in prison, but is still submitting scientific papers (with his prison address and prisoner number!), and the journals are publishing them. There were complaints to editors, but also support that if the science was sound, it should be published.  And it’s still being published. As Gingras notes:

. . . the journal that had refused an article by Fabrikant for reasons external to the “republic” of the scientific field, finally published another paper by him in 2004. Since then, Fabrikant, while still living out a life sentence, has continued to write scientific papers and, according to bibliometric data from the Web of Science, published nearly sixty articles between 1996 and 2021, scattered across nearly twenty different peer-reviewed journals. And though, from 2003 to 2020 the address of the author identifies him as “Prisoner 167932 D,” this has not precluded these papers from being cited over time. His career thus illustrates in a rather extreme manner how norms of conduct within science differ from the usual moral standards of the larger society.
I have to say that I agree that the character of the scientist must be kept strictly separate from the quality of the scientist’s work, so you can demonize someone on one hand, but should forget about that person’s morals or character when evaluating their science. Imagine all the immoral things that we don’t know about that famous scientists did! Impeding science if the character of the scientist is deemed unworthy serves only to impede the advance of human knowledge. Moral policing certainly does not improve the science itself, though of course a scientist can be fired or punished for behaving badly—to that I have no objection. But even someone who has been publicly punished for transgressions retains the right to have their science evaluated on its merits—independent of their acts or characters. I’ll close with a few quotes by Gingras:

 

While it is certainly legitimate to question, on an ethical or ideological basis, the declarations and acts of scientists, the weight which tends to be given to these kinds of denunciations could go against the inherent logic of the production of knowledge.

By deciding that the social behavior of scientists will now affect their chances of continuing to do science—by obtaining research grants or evaluating projects and, one day perhaps, even publishing papers—the NSF and the NIH, as well as other government granting bodies, are extending their mission well beyond their traditional role of gatekeeper, that is to say, guardians of the quality of scientific production. By explicitly opening the frontiers of the scientific field to give legitimacy to claims of various pressure groups putting forward their own conception of moral purity, these institutions maybe entering slippery terrain. While being funded by the NSF or the NIH is seen as a sign of scientific excellence, it seems that one now also has to be perceived as a good moral agent to even get a grant. The obligation to write a DEI statement in grant application testifies to the emergence of a new form of loyalty oath, reminiscent and analogous—despite its different content and aims—to the one the House Committee on Un-American Activities and its president Senator Joseph McCarthy tried to impose on American university professors in 1950. By using their monetary power, these organizations are thus imposing on universities and academic researchers the conception of their (temporary) managers of what is supposed to be a “good life.” More importantly, one may even consider these new rules as extending well beyond their explicit mandate to promote the production of valid scientific results.

Why is moralization working, then, in impeding scientific work and scientific teaching (something documented amply in these pages by Anna Krylov and Luana Maroja)? Remember, the first thing that goes down the drain when a scientist is demonized is teaching that scientist’s work. 

Here’s Gingras’s answer:

According to psychologist Paul Rozin, “One factor that seems to encourage “success” [of a moralization campaign] is the association of a stigmatized or marginal group with the activity in question.” This assumption is consistent with the current situation, as the focus on harassment (sexual or psychological) as well as on the ill-defined notion of DEI more often affects women and stigmatized and discriminated groups than dominant ones. This situation probably facilitates the acceptance by many scientists of these new moral standards imposed on scientific organizations by self-proclaimed moral entrepreneurs. Many researchers may, indeed, feel guilty of being “privileged” and be tempted to give in to the demands of groups who claim to speak on behalf of all minorities. They can thus easily clear their conscience and continue their work.

If you think that associating modern science with oppression of a stigmatized group has no effect on the science itself, just remember what’s happening in New Zealand!  The fealty to the indigenous people—the Māori—is in the process of killing off modern science by conflating it with “local ways of knowing”, as well as with tradition, superstition, legend, and religion. Scientists in the U.S., too, are impeded, though not as strongly. If you dig up human remains on lands claimed by indigenous people, federal law dictates that you have to give those remains back for reburial, even if there’s no clear genealogical connection between the remains and the group who claims them. Professors have had their research curtailed because of this.  If you teach that there are only two sexes, you are liable to be fired or at least have your classes taken away from you. It goes on and on, but I’m writing a longer paper on this now, so I’ll stop here, giving one more quote from Gingras:

The activity of moral entrepreneurs who try to impose their particular conception of the “good life” on all social activities, constitute in our opinion a form of ideological regression that goes against the relative—and always precarious—autonomy of all cultural fields, an autonomy hardly won over time against all forms of censorship.

As the road to hell is paved with good intentions, only time will tell whether the current tendency to impose the values of self-proclaimed moral entrepreneurs on all scientists and other creators (artists, writers, etc.) will really contribute to the production of “better” science, better novels, and better movies through the formation of “better” persons. The history of the relationships between the arts, the sciences, and changing moral values and ideologies unfortunately suggests that this is unlikely.

15 thoughts on “The moralization of science

  1. Gingas notes: “… only time will tell whether the current tendency to impose the values of self-proclaimed moral entrepreneurs on all scientists and other creators (artists, writers, etc.) will really contribute to the production of “better” science, better novels, and better movies through the formation of “better” persons.”
    But this experiment has already been carried out. In a galaxy far away, the morality of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism was imposed on scientists, artists, writers, etc., with the
    aim of producing better persons. The outcome of this social engineering experiment, the “New Soviet Man”, is now displaying his qualities in the neighboring country of Ukraine.

    1. I would argue that what we see in Ukraine today is not the outcome of Soviet ideology, but represents a return to early 20th century central Europe/Eastern Europe/Balkans when wars were fueled by nationalism and rulers’ egos.

      1. The Russians in charge of the attack on Ukraine, from Putin and Shoigu down, all grew up and underwent the formation of their characters within the cultural world of the Soviet Union. Perhaps the relationship between cultural environment and character formation is a little more complicated than simple mapping from slogans—such that the New Soviet Man turns out as a retrogression to the Duchy of Muscovy in 1470. In any case, the construction of a better kind of human was the explicit Soviet goal, and so, as I suggested, the experiment has been carried out.

  2. The imposition of morality into scientific and other pursuits can come from either conservatives or liberals. The conservatives are trying to keep holding on to a decent society in the face of immoral newcomers; the liberals are trying to attack entrenched immorality in the existing society.

    This may then lead the liberals into a dilemma. If their project succeeds and they are now the hegemonic voice of the establishment, their critics become the new outsiders attacking entrenched immorality in the existing society. They risk losing their moral high ground.

      1. We now expect that Princeton, which takes professorial liaisons with students very seriously, will prohibit any further mention of Schrödinger in physics classes. As for the subject of Schrödinger’s cat, I understand that is uncertain.

  3. I largely agree with the writer’s position. That said, here are a couple of my immediate ill-thought-through thoughts.

    If we judge the science entirely on it’s merit, should a journal publish a fantastic result if the authors deliberately violated ethical guidelines to obtain the results? Would it be OK if someone received a major prize for that work in the future?

    Regarding the final paragraph, and to take an extreme example, should we judge Hitler’s paintings on their merit? Even if we should, I imagine many would consider it in extremely poor taste to have one on your lounge wall.

    1. Already is happening with data that was acquired through completely immoral means such as the results of the horrific Nazi medical “experiments” where people were subjected to high altitude or freezing environments and where death was the frequent outcome. (The horrific Tuskegee is another case in point).

      Should the results acquired be used to investigate how hypothermia kills? Obviously no modern scientist is going to let hypothermia get anywhere near the level that the Nazis subjected their victims to but cold kills. I think that no scientist would ever want to use such data but to be honest there is no other. So I believe that it should be used, with care and under the utmost ethical scrutiny.

      1. I get rather utilitarian on such issues: is using such data going to harm the victims any more than they’ve already been harmed? No. Could using such data possibly help people (e.g. people shipwrecked in cold waters)? Yes. Then use it (with appropriate acknowledgment of the victims).

      2. This has been looked at, BT. The author’s goal was to see if there really was any useful knowledge gained from these “experiments” in Nazi science — the article explains the scare quotes — that might be useful in saving lives from hypothermia today.

        Berger, Robert L., Nazi Science — The Dachau Hypothermia Experiments. N Engl J Med 1990; 322:1435-1440, May 17, 1990
        https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejm199005173222006. Free.

        The spoiler alert is that while hypothermia did absolutely kill people — no surprise there — the subjects were exposed to these lethal injuries without any experimental design that would have allowed testing any hypotheses even retrospectively. The author’s conclusion is that what the German “scientists” — only a few had any actual scientific training — were really doing was torture and murder staged with science-y looking props and dress-up costumes. Lab coats worn over the SS jodhpurs, drinking schnapps out of test tubes, as it were.

        The author took immense heat and criticism from NEJM readers appalled that he would even look at this material. The article is worth reading not just to conclude, No it was useless, but to get a glimpse of how the Nazis corrupted the practice of science and how willingly many scientists eager for career advancement cooperated…but some didn’t. To say that Hitler’s killing machine was forced on fear of torture lets everyone off the hook too easily. It was more than merely following orders, rather a flexible sense of morality, of going along to get along, “not a hill I’m going to die on.”

      3. I think a better example than the Nazi freezing experiments is the Pernkopf Atlas of Anatomy. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-49294861 Unlike the freezing experiments, the Pernkopf Atlas has indisputably saved people’s lives by providing detailed anatomical information for surgeons, but all the images of dissected bodies came from executed political prisoners.

        I also agree with the general principle others have described: that saving people’s lives should be more important than concerns about the corrupt way that this data was obtained, as long as the latter fact is appropriately acknowledged.

  4. For a very interesting case see Megan Rosenbloom, Dark Archives, and her report of her disagreement with Paul Needham about the treatment of books bound in human skin. She sees these as significant research materials, to be treated as such, he sees them as objects that should be treated with the respect owed to human remains, even if this means “research materials” might properly be buried or cremated.

  5. What if the science is valid and can save lives, but evil? I refer to heinous experiments conducted by Nazi so-called “doctors”.

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