Censorship in science: a new paper and analysis

November 25, 2023 • 12:00 pm

Well, a paper criticizing the “woke” aspects of science has finally appeared in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, though peer-reviewed critiques of scientific censorship or ideological pressure have appeared in the Journal of Controversial Ideas (a push for judging science on merit rather than ideology), and in the Skeptical Inquirer (an explication of how evolutionary biology is being distorted by ideology). I was an author of both of those papers (the second was reviewed, but not by a group of scientists in the field), but I’m not on the present one (I wish I were!).

The article below, which just came out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a prestigious journal, has a panoply of authors, many of whom you will recognize.  It was certainly peer-reviewed, and its topic is the censorship of scientific papers, defined as “actions aimed at obstructing particular scientific ideas from reaching an audience for reasons other than low scientific quality.”  It presents the problem, shows who the censors are, gives examples of censorship and studies of the problem as a whole, analyzes the motives of censors, explains why censorship is bad for both science and society, and suggests some fixes that might reduce censorship.

Click below to see the paper, and then below that to see an article about the paper, written by two of its authors, in The Chronicle of Higher Education. If you want just a quick take, read the Chronicle article, but the PNAS one is accessible to the nonscientific reader.

The two main conclusions of the PNAS paper are these:

a. Censorship of papers is increasing rapidly, and often takes the form of “soft” censorship, which is censorship based on social opprobrium, rather than outright banning by authorities (“hard censorship”)

b. The censors are usually fellow scientists, and usually act not out of malicious motives, but out of “prosocial ones”; that is, they try to keep stuff out of the literature because they think it’s harmful for society.

The diagram below, from the paper, is really a summary of its points—except for fixes of the problem.

As I said, most censorship is soft; as the paper notes:

Contemporary scientific censorship is typically the soft variety, which can be difficult to distinguish from legitimate scientific rejection. Science advances through robust criticism and rejection of ideas that have been scrutinized and contradicted by evidence. Papers rejected for failing to meet conventional standards have not been censored. However, many criteria that influence scientific decision-making, including novelty, interest, “fit”, and even quality are often ambiguous and subjective, which enables scholars to exaggerate flaws or make unreasonable demands to justify rejection of unpalatable findings.

And it’s also prosocial: meant to prevent the “harm” that we so often see claimed to occur when one’s own ideology is violated:

But censorship can be prosocially motivated. Censorious scholars often worry that research may be appropriated by malevolent actors to support harmful policies and attitudes. Both scholars and laypersons report that some scholarship is too dangerous to pursue, and much contemporary scientific censorship aims to protect vulnerable groups. Perceived harmfulness of information increases censoriousness among the public, harm concerns are a central focus of content moderation on social media , and the more people overestimate harmful reactions to science, the more they support scientific censorship. People are especially censorious when they view others as susceptible to potentially harmful information  In some contemporary Western societies, many people object to information that portrays historically disadvantaged groups unfavorably and academia is increasingly concerned about historically disadvantaged groups Harm concerns may even cause perceptions of errors where none exist.

Prosocial motives for censorship may explain four observations: 1) widespread public availability of scholarship coupled with expanding definitions of harm has coincided with growing academic censorship; 2) women, who are more harm-averse and more protective of the vulnerable than men, are more censorious; 3) although progressives are often less censorious than conservatives, egalitarian progressives are more censorious of information perceived to threaten historically marginalized groups; and 4) academics in the social sciences and humanities (disciplines especially relevant to humans and social policy) are more censorious and more censored than those in STEM .

Now the data adduced in the paper largely involve not censorship of papers, but censorship of academics, expecially that compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).  These cases are not censorship in the strict sense used by the authors (scientific papers), but are still attempts to keep academics’ ideas in all areas from reaching the public. The caption for the three plots given below (the paper has three more) is “Characteristics of higher education scholars targeted for their pedagogy and/or critical inquiry between 2000 and June, 2023 (n = 486) and characteristics of their targeters.”

The figures beow are FIRE’s data on not just science, but all form of scholarship:

First, the rise in censorship; the figures for this year are incomplete, and there was a drop between 2021 and 2022.  But look at the increase since 2000:

Below: which disciplines are targeted (blue means the targeted scholar was attacked by someone from his/her left, and red denotes attacks from his/her right. Overall, and as I’ve noted often, most attacks came from the left. Note too that the humanities experience more targeting incidents than does science.

Finally, the topics targeted for censorship. As you might expect, race and gender are the top two, though institutional policy is a close third.  As race and gender are closely connected with claims of oppression, it’s not surprising that prosocially-motivated attacks on scholarship involve trying to prevent harm to minorities.

The diagrem below, taking into account all attempts at censorship, show that most come from the left of the attacker (blue) compared to the right.  (Gray is either unknown or “neither”).  This again is no surprise; the right is not only less often represented in colleges, but is also less likely to engage in prosocially motivated censorship::

The PNAS article is copiously documented (there are 130 references), and I like it. But there are two problems that I think slightly reduce its effectiveness.  The first is that the article lacks tangible examples of how odious this kind of censorship can be. Examples really hit home, especially when you see how hypocritical and sneaky authors and journals can be, even when acting prosocially. In fact, only one case is described in both the paper and the Chronicle article below, but it’s a doozy, well known among many of us. This was an article which was retracted not because it had scientific problems, but because its conclusions violated what gender ideologues want to see. It also led to a shameful call for censorship in general of articles that might be “harmful”.

The Chronicle summary (click to read):

Both the paper and the Chronicle article have nearly word-for-word identical descriptions of the incident (this, by the way, is self-plagiarism), but the Chronicle piece has links, so I’ll excerpt that one:

Moral motives have long influenced scientific decision-making. What’s new is that journals are now explicitly endorsing moral concerns as legitimate reasons to suppress science. Following the publication (and retraction) of an article reporting that the mentees of male mentors, on average, had more scholarly success than did the mentees of female mentors, Nature Communications released an editorial promising increased attention to potential harms. A subsequent Nature editorial stated that authors, reviewers, and editors must consider the potentially harmful implications of research, and a Nature Human Behaviour editorial declared the publication might reject or retract articles that have the potential to undermine the dignity of particular groups of people. In effect, editors are granting themselves vast leeway to censor high-quality research that offends their own moral sensibilities, or those of their most sensitive readers.

The paper, found at the first link (and now retracted) found that in mentor/mentee relationships in science, the quality of the mentor had a positive effect on the career of the mentee, BUT, thethe paper also reported this:

We also find that increasing the proportion of female mentors is associated not only with a reduction in post-mentorship impact of female protégés, but also a reduction in the gain of female mentors. While current diversity policies encourage same-gender mentorships to retain women in academia, our findings raise the possibility that opposite-gender mentorship may actually increase the impact of women who pursue a scientific career. These findings add a new perspective to the policy debate on how to best elevate the status of women in science.

That is, same-sex mentorship of women seemed to be less helpful for their careers than being mentored by a male.  Now this is, of course, ideologically unacceptable, and, though as far as I know the data were sound, it raised a ruckus. As the Nature Communications editors noted when retracting the paper:

They retracted the paper simply because of criticisms that the results weren’t ideologically comfortable, and before the criticisms were considered. Also, have a look at the two editorials, especially the Nature Human Behavior one which became the subject to considerable pushback, including this tweet by Steve Pinker (an author of the present PNAS manuscript); see also my post about the fracas, which contains another long tweet by Michael Shermer.

At any rate, I’d like to have seen more examples of censored papers that would drive home the repugnance of censorship and the urgency of fixing it. One that came immediately to mind was James Damore’s firing at Google for suggesting that inequities in representation may be due to preferences rather than bias.  Anna Krylov, one of the authors of the PNAS paper, tells me she’s writing a blog post for the Heterodox STEM site that will give several more examples of censorship, and I’ll highlight them when her piece appears.

Finally, what are the harms of censorship and how can we fix them?  I won’t go into detail about this (the paper does more), except to say that the harms are obvious: censorship keeps the truth hidden, and the truth not only will out, but may be valuable. While it is possible that some solid science should be suppressed if it offends certain groups or leads to “harm”, I can’t think of any scientific result that really should be censored because of its implications. Readers may want to suggest some below.

Second, scientific censorship could harm the public’s trust in the field and the trust of the scientific literature by scientists. As the PNAS paper notes,

Censorship may be particularly likely to erode trust in science in contemporary society because scientists now have other means (besides academic journals) to publicize their findings and claims of censorship. If the public routinely finds quality scholarship on blogs, social media, and online magazines by scientists who claim to have been censored, a redistribution of authority from established scientific outlets to newer, popular ones seems likely. Given the many modes of dissemination and public availability of data, proscribing certain research areas for credentialed scientists may give extremists a monopoly over sensitive research. Scientific censorship may also reduce trust in the scientific literature among scientists, exacerbating hostility and polarization. If particular groups of scholars feel censored by their discipline, they may leave altogether, creating a scientific monoculture that stifles progress.

So what’s to be done? The PNAS article gives a whole laundry list of fixes, nearly all of which are good. They include making reviews of papers, both accepted and rejected, public; third-party audits of scientific journals to measure the quality of their editorial practice, independence of sociopolitical pressures, and so on; and making serious calls for retractions of papers available publicly available to concerned scholars. This is all under the rubric of transparency, and names could be anonymous.

The only “fix” that sounds hard to implement is testing the proposition that some science creates more harm than good. The authors suggest that there might be some way to measure this, but I’m not convinced:

Scholars should empirically test the costs and benefits of censorship against the costs and benefits of alternatives. They could compare the consequences of retracting an inflammatory paper to 1) publishing commentaries and replies, 2) publishing opinion pieces about the possible applications and implications of the findings, or 3) simply allowing it to remain published and letting science carry on. Which approach inspires more and better research? Which approach is more likely to undermine the reputation of science? Which approach minimizes harm and maximizes benefits? Given ongoing controversies surrounding retraction norms, an adversarial collaboration (including both proponents and opponents of harm-based retractions) might be the most productive and persuasive approach to these research questions.

Frankly, I don’t think this is feasible; such controlled tests can’t be done! When Luana Maroja and I wrote our paper on the ideological erosion of science, we discussed whether any solid scientific result should be censored because of its possible harms. After much discussion, we agreed on “no.”

Readers may dissent, and dissent is welcome in the comments.  But the point of this post is that censorship is pervasive in science, in general it’s harmful since, on the grounds of preserving a favored ideology, it prevents the dissemination of truth, and that scientists should stop it.  That, of course, would mean keeping the tentacles of the ideological octopus off of science, but that doesn’t seem to be in the offing. I hope that the new PNAS paper will help keep those suckers out of our field.

On “whiteness in physics”, its rebuttal, and a symposium of papers about the dangers of authoritarian control to science

October 20, 2023 • 12:15 pm

In April of last year I posted about the paper below, “Observing whiteness in introductory physics: A case study” (published in Physical Review and Physics Education Research). and I wrote this (tweaked a tiny bit for publication now):

I cannot emphasize enough how bad the paper is. Have a butcher’s [look]. First, read the abstract above, and then have a look here [there was a link to the preliminary version, which is gone now].

The first paragraph sets the tone:

Critical Race Theory names that racism and white supremacy are endemic to all aspects of U.S. society, from employment to schooling to the law [1–7]. We see the outcomes of this in, for example, differential incarceration rates, rates of infection and death in the era of COVID, and police brutality. We also see the outcomes of this in physics.

. . . and in the short incident analyzed at great length in this paper. The entire paper is, in fact, a lengthy and tendentious exegesis of six minutes of observing a presentation by three physics students, seen as “a case of whiteness”:

In this paper, we analyze a case of whiteness as social organization from an introductory physics course at a large public institution in the Western United States. We use the analytic markers from Sec. II to illustrate how whiteness shows up in this context, and we identify and discuss a number of mechanisms of control that co-produce whiteness in the six-minute episode of classroom interaction. We draw on tools of interaction analysis [59], including discourse, gesture, and gaze analysis, to unpack how whiteness is being constituted locally or interactionally. Our hope is that illustrating whiteness as social organization can contribute to readers’ awareness of and vision for disrupting and transforming this social organization in their own contexts [56,60] and support other researchers who want to do similar analyses.

You can read it for yourself by clicking on the screenshot below, and I used it as an example of how “critical studies” was pushing science toward the drain, or at least coopting science for ideological purposes.

Lawrence Krauss also went after the paper on his “Critical Mass” Substack site, saying this:

That this got published in a peer-reviewed physics journal is what makes this so surprising.  It means there is something fundamentally wrong with the system, and it isn’t systemic racism.  It is sheer stupidity combined with lethargy.

The natural tendency of academics, and scientists in particular, is to ignore this kind of nonsense and focus on their own work.   But once the bar gets this low, and the flood waters are rising, you can be certain a lot of nasty effluence will be flowing out as well.    And with the pressing need for better physics education at all levels (that is, better ways to actually teach physics), this garbage filling up journals and taking away precious research resources means that there is less room for the good stuff.

The standards of a field are determined by the practitioners in the field.  That means it is about time that physicists started doing something about it.

But rebuttal on our websites isn’t as powerful as rebuttal in a peer-reviewed journal.  And that has finally happened. Three authors wrote a critique of the article, but of course the original journal wouldn’t even look at it.  They then added to the critique of Robertson’s and Hairston’s paper their own analysis of the difficulties they getting the rebuttal published.

And, mirabile dictu, it’s now published. The author said:

We spent a long time trying to get a critical comment published in the journal to no avail. However, with the help of Anna Krylov we managed to get an article published in European Review, discussing the “whiteness” article, our critique of it, and the journal’s resistance to our critique.

Anna is a real force in pushing back against ideologically-tainted science! And now you can read the rebuttal/recount, published in European Review, for free by clicking on the screenshot below:

And the abstract:

Research framed around issues of diversity and representation in STEM is often controversial. The question of what constitutes a valid critique of such research, or the appropriate manner of airing such a critique, thus has a heavy ideological and political subtext. Here, we outline an attempt to comment on a paper recently published in the research journal Physical Review – Physics Education Research (PRPER). The article in question claimed to find evidence of ‘whiteness’ in introductory physics from analysis of a six-minute video. We argue that even if one accepts the rather tenuous proposition that ‘whiteness’ is sufficiently well defined to observe, the study lacks the proper controls, checks and methodology to allow for confirmation or disconfirmation of the authors’ interpretation of the data. The authors of the whiteness study, however, make the stunning claim that their study cannot be judged by standards common in science. We summarize our written critique and its fate, along with a brief description of its genesis as a response to an article in which senior officers of the American Physical Society (which publishes PRPER) explained that the appropriate venue for addressing issues with the paper at hand is via normal editorial processes.

Read and enjoy!

In fact, this is only one of a bunch of papers in a special issue of the European Review, derived from a symposium in Israel on the dangers of ideology and politics to science.  Here is the screenshot of the contents, and you can see all the papers (and read them) by clicking anywhere below. The title of the issue is right at the top:

I’ll single out three papers of special interest, to me at least.  First, the paper by my Chicago colleague Dorian Abbot at the bottom is about the three “foundational” principles of the University of Chicago, which Dorian calls the “Chicago Trifecta”.  Its abstract:

The purpose of this article is to discuss practical solutions to the threat to free inquiry at universities coming from the illiberal left. Based on my experiences at the University of Chicago, I propose that all universities should adopt and enforce rules requiring that: (1) the university, and any unit of it, cannot take collective positions on social and political issues; (2) faculty hiring and promotion be done solely on the basis of research and teaching merit, with nothing else taken into consideration; and (3) free expression be guaranteed on campus, even if someone claims to be offended, hurt or harmed by it. Faculty need to work together with students, alumni, journalists and politicians to get this done.

Second, the article by Ahmad Mansour points out the dangers of authoritarianism in science using his own tortuous biography, involving growing up in Israel and Palestine, and connecting that with the “cancel culture” of Germany. It resonates with the present situation going on there, and is a courageous article.

Finally, Anna and Jay Tanzman have a piece on how scientific publishing is being corrupted by ideology. The abstract:

The politicization of science – the infusion of ideology into the scientific enterprise – threatens the ability of science to serve humanity. Today, the greatest such threat comes from a set of ideological viewpoints collectively referred to as Critical Social Justice (CSJ). This contribution describes how CSJ has detrimentally affected scientific publishing by means of social engineering, censorship, and the suppression of scholarship.

Just peruse the titles, click here or on the screenshots, and download what you’d like (or read on the screen, which I can’t do). If you think that science is immune to corruption by ideology (and it’s always been, but rarely more than now—except perhaps in the Soviet Union), then you should definitely read all the pieces.

University of Auckland continues to promote indigenous ways of knowing while not allowing a promised debate between that and modern science

September 12, 2023 • 9:45 am

In July, 2021, a group of seven University of Auckland academics (two now deceased) published a letter in the Magazine “the Listener”  saying that the local (Māori) “ways of knowing”, or Mātauranga Māori (MM), while of significant cultural, sociological, and anthropological value, was not equivalent to modern science.  It was written because the New Zealand government and academic establishment was proposing to teach MM as coequal to modern science in the science classroom.  (This plan is still going on.) Since MM is a gemisch of some genuine empirical trial-and-error knowledge with superstition, ideology, ethics, and undocumented tradition, the seven authors were absolutely right in asserting that that mixture of “ways of knowing, feeling, and living” was not equivalent to pure modern science.

This now-infamous “Listener Letter” (it has its own Wikipedia page) caused a huge fracas, with academics writing petitions against it, the Royal Society of New Zealand denouncing it and then investigating two of the letter’s authors who belonged to the Society (that went nowhere), and then the Vice-Chancellor of Auckland Uni (i.e., the head of the University), Dawn Freshwater, issuing a statement damning the letter:

A letter in this week’s issue of The Listener magazine from seven of our academic staff on the subject of whether mātauranga Māori can be called science has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni.

While the academics are free to express their views, I want to make it clear that they do not represent the views of the University of Auckland.

The University has deep respect for mātauranga Māori as a distinctive and valuable knowledge system.  [Note that MM is far more than a “knowledge system.”] We believe that mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science are not at odds and do not need to compete. They are complementary and have much to learn from each other.

This view is at the heart of our new strategy and vision, Taumata Teitei, and the Waipapa Toitū framework, and is part of our wider commitment to Te Tiriti and te ao principles.

It’s not clear that Auckland Uni even had any views on the issue, and the letter, which you can read here, caused “hurt and dismay” only among the perpetually offended. The Listener Letter was simply a defense of modern science against “ways of knowing” that include superstition, religion, legend, and ethics.

Freshwater later walked back her rancor a bit, promising that within a year, Auckland Uni would have a debate about modern science versus MM’s indigenous “ways of knowing.” Here’s her promise (link same as above, emphasis is mine.)

I am calling for a return to a more respectful, open-minded, fact-based exchange of views on the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science, and I am committing the University to action on this.

In the first quarter of 2022 we will be holding a symposium in which the different viewpoints on this issue can be discussed and debated calmly, constructively and respectfully. I envisage a high-quality intellectual discourse with representation from all viewpoints: mātauranga Māori, science, the humanities, Pacific knowledge systems and others.

I recognise it is a challenging and confronting debate, but one I believe a robust democratic society like ours is well placed to have.

That promise was a lie. Freshwater never organized such a debate, and it’s 2½ years on. It’s clear that she will not allow critics of teaching MM as coequal to science to have any forum at Auckland Uni.  Freshwater was just stalling for time, and her behavior was and is unforgivable.

Instead, Auckland Uni is going full steam ahead pushing the scientific value of MM while criticizing modern science. Have a look at this article in the Auckland Uni newsletter, sent me by a university member too fearful to reveal their name (given the censorious climate in NZ, that’s par for the course):

Click on the screenshot below to read. Nope, it’s not a debate, but a kumbaya-fest on the value of MM. I reproduce the entire short piece. “Pūtaiao” can be loosely translated as “science”. As usual, the article is full of Māori words that aren’t understood by most readers; some have been translated by the UNI, and I’ve translated the most important ones remaining.

Notice that “STEM” has now become “STEAMx3,”, standing for “Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Maths, Medicine, and Mātauranga Māori.”  MM has become coequal with science in the very term!

Māori researchers from within the University and across the country were gathering this week for the inaugural biennial Pūtaiao Symposium at Tai Tonga campus.

The two-day event aimed to connect and inspire researchers, educators, students, influencers, and movers and shakers in Pūtaiao and STEAMx3 (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Maths, Medicine, and Mātauranga Māori)

‘Ma Mua Kaa Hua,’ exploring the past to inform the future, was the theme, with an overarching aim of supporting future generations of Māori students and researchers.

Organised by Te Whare Pūtaiao, Faculty of Science, the first day of the event, on 7 September, was to focus on researchers, the second day on educators, influencers, iwi, hapū and community leaders.

A broad range of topics was to include the decolonisation of science, grounding research in kaupapa Māori, and data sovereignty, with an emphasis on participants engaging kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) and a whakawhanaungatanga (relationship building) approach.

This is an attack on modern “colonialist” science and an approbation for the “way of knowing” of MM (“kaupapa Māori” is “things done according to Māori principles”).  It is a symposium designed to show the superiority of MM over colonial “Western” ways of knowing.

And of course it’s a far cry from the promised “debate”: it is one-sided boosterism, sponsored by Auckland Uni, for indigenous ways of knowing.

So I ask Vice-Chancellor Freshwater: ˆwhere is the discussion you promised over two years ago about the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science? You committed yourself and your University to that debate. Were you lying? Was your intent always to denigrate modern science at the expense of Māori ways of knowing, an intent furthered by Chris Hipkins, your new Prime Minister and former Minister of Education, who’s always pushed the equivalence of indigenous ways of knowing with modern science?

I can only watch on the sidelines, sadly shaking my head as people like Freshwater and Hipkins transform New Zealand science into a program for social justice, prioritizing indigenous knowledge over genuine science. Auckland University is the best school in the country, but is becoming a joke.

I will be writing Freshwater, asking where that promised symposium is, but I wouldn’t hold my breath that it will ever take place.  The lobby for all things indigenous has created a climate in which not only such a symposium could never be held, but also in which those who want such a discussion are even afraid to bring it up lest they lose their jobs.

Poor New Zealand! If you want to do science, I’d suggest either leaving (if you’re a resident), or choosing some other country in which you can study science without being hectored by those pushing indigenous “ways of knowing.”

Our CFI podcast/discussion

July 8, 2023 • 11:15 am

The Center for Inquiry has put the discussion that Luana and I had this week, along with Robyn Blumner moderating, on YouTube. (You can also see it at the SI site.)  It was fun, but of course given the material we covered in our paper, there’s no way that we could do more than give a brief summary in an hour (45 minutes, really, with 15 minutes of questions at the end.) As usual, I haven’t watched it because I hate to see and her myself talking (not unusual, I think).

If you want to read our paper, “The Ideological Subversion of Biology,” it’ll be online forever, and you can find it here.

Our Wall Street Journal op-ed: free at last!

June 2, 2023 • 9:00 am

On April 28,  Anna Krylov and I published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, which I described (but didn’t reproduce) in this post. We, along with several dozen others, had just written a paper, “In Defense of Merit in Science”  (free access), which ultimately found a home at The Journal of Controversial Ideas created by Peter Singer and other philosophers. We found it ironic that the uncontroversial idea that science and scientists should be judged by scientific merit rather than ideology was swatted away by other journals who, as they told us, found the idea of merit “hollow”and even “downright hurtful”. We wanted to point out the irony of seeing the idea of judgement using merit as “controversial.”

The usual suspects disagreed, many of them giving anecdotes in which scientific merit was not rewarded. And yes, there are such cases, but that was not our point, as you can see by reading below.

The Wall Street Journal has a strict embargo policy, but allows authors to reprint their article 30 days after publication.  That time has passed, and so I’ve put a transcript of the article below the headline (clicking on the headlines will most likely get you paywalled). Read the text below the headline:

Until a few months ago, we’d never heard of the Journal of Controversial Ideas, a peer-reviewed publication whose aim is to promote “free inquiry on controversial topics.” Our research typically didn’t fit that description. We finally learned of the journal’s existence, however, when we tried to publish a commentary about how modern science is being compromised by a de-emphasis on merit. Apparently, what was once anodyne and unobjectionable is now contentious and outré, even in the hard sciences.

Merit isn’t much in vogue anywhere these days. We’ve seen this in the trend among scientists to judge scientific research by its adherence to dominant progressive orthodoxies and in the growing reluctance of our institutions to hire and fund scientists based on their ability to propose and conduct exciting projects. Our intent was to defend established and effective practices of judging science based on its merit alone.

Yet as we shopped our work to various scientific publications, we found no takers—except one. Evidently our ideas were politically unpalatable. It turns out the only place you can publish once-standard conclusions these days is in a journal committed to heterodoxy.

The crux of our argument is simple: Science that doesn’t prioritize merit doesn’t work, and substituting ideological dogma for quality is a shortcut to disaster. A prime example is Lysenkoism—the incursion of Marxist ideology into Soviet and Chinese agriculture in the mid-20th century. Beginning in the 1930s, the U.S.S.R. started to enforce the untenable theories of Trofim Lysenko, a charlatan Russian agronomist who rejected, among other things, the existence of standard genetic inheritance. As scientists dissented—rejecting Lysenko’s claims for lack of evidence—they were fired or sent to the gulag. Implementation of his theories in Soviet and, later, Chinese agriculture led to famines and the starvation of millions. Russian biology still hasn’t recovered.

Yet a wholesale and unhealthy incursion of ideology into science is occurring again—this time in the West. We see it in progressives’ claim that scientific truths are malleable and subjective, similar to Lysenko’s insistence that genetics was Western “pseudoscience” with no place in progressive Soviet agriculture. We see it when scientific truths—say, the binary nature of sex—are either denied or distorted because they’re politically repugnant.

We see it as well in activists’ calls to “decolonize” scientific fields, to reduce the influence of what’s called “Western science” and adopt indigenous “ways of knowing.” No doubt different cultures have different ways of interpreting natural processes—sometimes invoking myth and legend—and this variation should be valued as an important aspect of sociology and anthropology. But these “ways of knowing” aren’t coequal to modern science, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise.

In some ways this new species of Lysenkoism is more pernicious than the old, because it affects all science—chemistry, physics, life sciences, medicine and math—not merely biology and agriculture. The government isn’t the only entity pushing it, either. “Progressive” scientists promote it, too, along with professional societies, funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health and Energy Department, scientific journals and university administrators. When applying for openings as a university scientist today, job candidates may well be evaluated more by their record of supporting “social justice” than by their scientific achievements.

But scientific research can’t and shouldn’t be conducted via a process that gives a low priority to science itself. This is why we wrote our paper, which was co-authored by 27 others, making for a group as diverse as you can imagine. We had men and women of various ages, ethnicities, countries of origin, political affiliations and career stages, including faculty from community colleges and top research universities, as well as two Nobel laureates. We provided an in-depth analysis of the clash between liberal epistemology and postmodernist philosophies. We documented the continuing efforts to elevate social justice over scientific rigor, and warned of the consequences of taking an ideological approach to research. Finally, we suggested an alternative humanistic approach to alleviating social inequalities and injustices.

But this was too much, even “downright hurtful,” as one editor wrote to us. Another informed us that “the concept of merit . . . has been widely and legitimately attacked as hollow.” Legitimately?

In the end, we’re grateful that our paper will be published. But how sad it is that the simple and fundamental principle undergirding all of science—that the best ideas and technologies should be the ones we adopt—is seen these days as “controversial.”

Mr. Coyne is a professor emeritus of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. Ms. Krylov is a professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California.

Pamela Paul of the NYT touts our merit paper

May 4, 2023 • 9:15 am

I’m going to put a link to our “In Defense of Merit” paper here again in case you missed it, but also because it’s the topic of Pamela Paul‘s column in today’s New York Times. I’ve written favorably several times about Paul’s pieces, as she’s an independent thinker, going her own heterodox way against the Progressive Authoritarianism of most NYT columnists. (She used to be head of the paper’s Sunday Book Review).  But imagine my surprise when I woke up this morning to find an email from her site (I subscribe) that was entirely about our merit paper. It’s the second screenshot below:

Click on the link below to see it, and if it’s paywalled I found it archived on another site (I didn’t do it!)

UPDATE: As of 11:30 Chicago time, Paul’s paper has a new title but the same link. Voilà:

I’ll give a few quotes from her piece, which is favorable, unlike many comments on social media (see below).

Note that her first sentence below actually expresses the viewpoint of many ideologues: that the gender/ethnicity of a scientist brings different, ethnic/gender-specific viewpoints to a field, and so “diversifying” science will make it better by incorporating these views. I’ve found little merit in that argument, which I also see as patronizing because it assumes that different identity groups are homogeneous in having ways of approaching science that, on average, differ on average from those of existing scientists. Of course if you expand the number of people having the opportunity to do science, which I favor, you’re going to get new and valuable views simply because of the increase in the pool of scientists. But to say, for example, that Hispanics will improve physics because of a particularly Hispanic way of approaching the field is not only patronizing, but unevidenced.

But I digress. Here’s Paul’s beginning:

Is a gay Republican Latino more capable of conducting a physics experiment than a white progressive heterosexual woman? Would they come to different conclusions based on the same data because of their different backgrounds?

For most people, the suggestion isn’t just ludicrous, it’s offensive.

Yet this belief — that science is somehow subjective and should be practiced and judged accordingly — has recently taken hold in academic, governmental and medical settings. A paper published last week, “In Defense of Merit in Science,” documents the disquieting ways in which research is increasingly informed by a politicized agenda, one that often characterizes science as fundamentally racist and in need of “decolonizing.” The authors argue that science should instead be independent, evidence-based and focused on advancing knowledge.

This sounds entirely reasonable.

Yet the paper was rejected by several prominent mainstream journals, including the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Another publication that passed on the paper, the authors report, described some of its conclusions as “downright hurtful.” The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences took issue with the word “merit” in the title, writing that “the problem is that this concept of merit, as the authors surely know, has been widely and legitimately attacked as hollow as currently implemented.”

Instead, the paper has been published in a new journal called — you can’t make this up — The Journal of Controversial Ideas.

Below Paul echoes what I said above.

Though the goal of expanding opportunity for more diverse researchers in the sciences is laudable, the authors write, it should not be pursued at the expense of foundational scientific concepts like objective truth, merit and evidence, which they claim are being jeopardized by efforts to account for differing perspectives.

Consider the increasingly widespread practice of appending a “positionality statement” to one’s research. This is an explicit acknowledgment by the author of an academic paper of his or her identity (e.g., “nondisabled,” “continuing generation”). Positionality statements were first popular in the social sciences and are now spreading to the hard sciences and medicine. The idea is that one’s race, sex, relative privilege and “experiences of oppression” inherently inform one’s research, especially in ways that perpetuate or alleviate bias.

But whatever validity “alternative ways of knowing,” “multiple narratives” and “lived experience” may have in the humanities, they are of questionable utility when it comes to the sciences. Some defenders of positionality statements maintain that these acknowledgments promote objectivity by drawing attention to a researcher’s potential blind spots, but in practice they can have the opposite effect, implying that scientific research isn’t universally valid or applicable — that there are different kinds of knowledge for different groups of people.

Note that the ultimate in positionality statements is putting your “iwi” (tribe) in a paper touting indigenous Māori science, like this one I discussed the other day. The words in parentheses after each author’s name gives the iwi to which they belong.

This is like putting “(atheist Ashkenazi Jew)” after my name when I write a paper. Or perhaps it establishes the authors’ credibility as Māori because it gives their iwi. Regardless, this kind of stuff is embarrassing; it’s pure virtue flaunting. Do you really have to name your iwi when arguing for the compatibility of Māori ways of knowing and modern science? Shouldn’t the arguments be what’s important, rather than the position of the author. (Indeed, in this paper the authors argue that judging Māori “ways of knowing” cannot be done except for Māori themselves!)

Beyond positionality statements, Paul also finds worrying oft-required DEI statements for jobs as well as “citation justice” (the drive to cite more underrepresented people’s work as a form of scientific reparations).  And she does add our own caveat. Do look at the link in the second paragraph below:

It should go without saying — but in today’s polarized world, unfortunately, it doesn’t — that the authors of this paper do not deny the existence of historical racism or sexism or dispute that inequalities of opportunity persist. Nor do they deny that scientists have personal views, which are in turn informed by culture and society. They acknowledge biases and blind spots.

Where they depart from the prevailing ideological winds is in arguing that however imperfect, meritocracy is still the most effective way to ensure high quality science and greater equity. (A major study published last week shows that despite decades of sexism, claims of gender bias in academic science are now grossly overstated.) The focus, the authors write, should be on improving meritocratic systems rather than dismantling them.

At a time when faith in institutions is plummeting and scientific challenges such as climate change remain enduringly large, the last thing we want is to give the public reason to lose faith in science. A study published last month, “Even When Ideologies Align, People Distrust Politicized Institutions,” shows that what we need is more impartiality, not less.

Paul’s ending, which I’ll talk more about in a second:

If you believe bias is crucial to evaluating scientific work, you may object to the fact that several of the authors of the study are politically conservative, as are some of the researchers they cite. One author, Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago and a critic of some affirmative action and diversity programs, inspired outcry in 2021 when he was invited to speak at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But to deny the validity of this paper on that basis would mean succumbing to the very fallacies the authors so persuasively dismantle.

One needn’t agree with every aspect of the authors’ politics or with all of their solutions. But to ignore or dismiss their research rather than impartially weigh the evidence would be a mistake. We need, in other words, to judge the paper on the merits. That, after all, is how science works.

As expected, objections to our paper, which you can find on the Internet (there are also plaudits!), often rest not on our arguments, but on the names of the authors. I’m sure that almost anyone can find in this list an author they’re not keen on, and of course all of us disagree on some things. But to dismiss our paper, as some have done, because there’s an author or two they don’t like is pure nonsense. It’s a deflection strategy: a way to attack the paper without having to attack its arguments. I’m getting plenty fed up with these “guilt by association” arguments, because they’re not really arguments but simply rhetorical strategies—even a form of defamation by smearing.

But of course there are those who attack our thesis as well, denigrating “merit” as a criterion for judging science or scientists, and even, along with the two editors we quoted, saying that there’s really no such thing as merit. I wonder if those people care whether, when they get on a plane, whether their pilot has gone any evaluation of merit in the form of being able to fly a plane. For many—perhaps most—jobs in society, merit should be the primary characteristic for hiring. (I of course recognize that judging “merit” is often slippery, and, being in favor of some forms of affirmative action, realize that sometimes it’s salubrious to sacrifice a bit—but not a lot—of merit as a form of reparations to an oppressed group. Not all the authors agree on this, of course.)

Finally, let me note that articles on our paper have appeared in two non-English newspapers of repute: Le Figaro (French) and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (German). The screenshots of the articles are below, and I’ll be glad to send pdfs them to any reader who asks. (I also have an English translation of the German article.)


Mishigass at the Ontario Museum: claims of parity between modern science and indigenous “ways of knowing”

April 29, 2023 • 11:30 am

I’m back to viewing and reading about claims that indigenous knowledge is coequal to—or even better than—modern science (often characterized as “colonializing” or “Western” science). This is always a painful exercise for me, because although indigenous people have indeed produced empirical “observational knowledge” that can be important, they have not adopted (except as participants in) the rigorous methodology of modern science that involves doubt, testing, hypothesis-making, quantification, blind tests, and so on.

Thus practitioners of indigenous knowledge (or “other ways of knowing”) don’t have any methodology to advance knowledge of the universe except to simply make more observations. The most striking lacuna in these other ways of knowing is the absence of hypotheses, based on present (provisional) truths, that can be tested lead us to further truths. This lacuna is painfully evident in this video from the Royal Ontario Museum, a 1¼-hour discussion of science vs. “First Nations ways of knowing”, held on the occasion of an exhibition of painting around that theme.

Every speaker strives mightily to espouse a parity between First Nations “ways of knowing” and modern science’s genuine way of knowing.  The reader who sent it to me the video said this:

I find it nearly impossible to follow the speakers’ trains of thought.

If you listen, you’ll see what that reader meant.

In the end, this video—similar to what is claimed by those who espouse parity between Māori “ways of knowing” and modern science in New Zealand—merely demonstrates that the “parity” comes down to two anodyne assertions that fail to demonstrate any equivalence between science and local ways of knowing:

a.) Local ways of knowing (seen both in this video and in the works of Māori advocates) emphasize “connections between everything”.  This may be part of the ideology, superstition, or morality of local people (and is formally true in physics), but, as my Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin once said,

“my gardening has no effect on the orbit of Neptune because the force of gravitation is extremely weak and falls off very rapidly with distance”

“Connectedness”, if important, will emerge as part of science itself, as in attempts to unify the fundamental forces of physics.  It is not any kind of “indigenous science”, but an emotion, a religious belief, or an assertion. And the idea itself does not profitably advance modern science.

b.) Insofar as the exponents of indigenous science do see connections with Western science, they are only weak and totally useless metaphors. Here is their typical form:, “Well, this aspect of our knowledge looks like quantum mechanics or the Big Bang.” But they never arrive at quantum mechanics or the Big Bang on their own: they simply look at the achievements of modern science and say, “see, we had stuff in our culture that looks like some assertions of modern science.” But it is modern science that has found these truths, and people like Elder Wilfred Buck in this discussion are always playing catch-up to that science. (Quantum mechanics is a particular victim of this kind of metaphorizing.)

Have a listen, for example to Elder Buck’s (15:30) comparison of the Cree myth of humans coming from a “hole in the sky” as energy beings that then become material beings to the “particle theory” of physics, “quantum physics” and “multiple realities” (presumably “multiverses”). This is about as weak and unenlightening as metaphor gets!

Here are the YouTube notes (I’ve added links)

This panel brings together some of the most brilliant minds in their fields for a conversation on how Indigenous and Western thinking on knowledge, being, and science intersect, with particular focus on themes explored in the exhibition Kent Monkman: Being Legendary, presented at ROM from October 8, 2022 to April 16, 2023.

Panelists include:

Dr. Leroy Little Bear – a Blackfoot scholar whose thinking compares western academic metaphysics to the Blackfoot cultural metaphysic that has developed from unique relationships to land, the ecosystem and the observable cosmos over a thousand generations in the northern plains.

Elder Wilfred Buck – Cree author, science educator, and Indigenous star lore expert – who posits that the depth of knowledge obtained through Indigenous Methodologies are on par with present day scientific theories put forward by leading scientists.

Dr. Kim Venn – astronomer, physicist and specialist at UVic in observational stellar spectroscopy – who analyzes stars to study the fossil record of the chemistry of the Universe at the time and place where they were born.

Kent Monkman – Cree visual artist and the artist-curator of Being Legendary.

The conversation is moderated by acclaimed Anishinaabe filmmaker and self-proclaimed “science geek,” Lisa Jackson, whose upcoming feature documentary Wilfred Buck weaves together Wilfred’s past and present life with his sky stories as it explores colonization’s impact on Indigenous ways of knowing.

This panel discussion with Kent Monkman, Dr. Leroy Little Bear, Elder Wilfred Buck, Dr. Kim Venn, moderated by Lisa Jackson was recorded Thursday, April 6, 2023 at the Royal Ontario Museum.

I listened to the entire thing. There is a lot of self-identification and touting of various First Nations cultures, self-congratulation about the wonderfulness of the panel, as well as weak analogies to science (“quantum mechanics” and “dark matter” are mentioned several times, and one expert in spectroscopy even apologizes for the colonialist nature of the periodic table!). But there is not a single instance in which a speaker shows any aspect of indigenous knowledge that advances, supplements or is even equivalent to a finding of modern science. Again, we find are only weak parallels and indigenous metaphors.

There is, however, plenty of the “authority of the sacred victim“: a touting of the view expressed in the eponymous book:

Suffering can make sacred, so it may partly be nature, and not culture alone, that leads us to apprehend a sacred aspect in victims of oppression. Those who recognize this sacredness show piety—a special form of respect—toward members of oppressed groups.

You can see this in the near-groveling of the one non-indigenous member of the panel, Dr. Venn, towards Elder Buck.  Yes, of course Canada’s indigenous people were horribly oppressed, with some of their their children removed from homes, put in schools, and forbidden to practice their culture or even speak their natal language.  That must be recognized, taught, and, where necessary, compensated for. But we also have to recognize that suffering does not give you special expertise in understanding the universe, or the ability to make valid comparisons between indigenous knowledge and modern science. As we wrote in our paper that I mentioned yesterday:

The scientific method is the core of liberal epistemology. In The Constitution of Knowledge, Rauch addresses the current epistemological crisis by reaffirming the central tenets of liberal epistemology (developed by Popper, Albert, Weber, and others). Namely, that provisional truth is attainable and that a truth claim can be made only if it is testable and withstands attempts to debunk it (the Fallibilist Rule). He also emphasizes that no one has personal authority over a truth claim, nor can one claim authority by virtue of a personally or tribally privileged perspective (the Empirical Rule).

And yet both rules are violated over and over again in this video, in other places in Canada, and in New Zealand.

It’s a shame that this is put on by the Royal Ontario Museum, which, one would think, would value real scientific knowledge above superstition, origin stories, or even observational knowledge. Couldn’t it just have programs on First Nations people without dragging in modern science?

But Canada is now in the throes of touting the authority of the sacred victim, and, as the introducer—along with giving the obligatory land acknowledgement and noting the “colonialist roots of this Museum”—pledges to make the museum a place “where all indigenous peoples have a deep and full sense of belonging.” That can happen only if the Museum gives scientific credibility to the myths of indigenous people, and never, ever says anything that would put sacred myths and stories in doubt.

Well, here you go:

Our big paper on the importance of placing merit over ideology in science, and an op-ed in the WSJ

April 28, 2023 • 8:14 am

Here is the story of (and links to) our Big Paper on Merit, Ideology and Science. (One colleague and I have a paper in press on the intrusion of ideology into our own specific research areas; that will be out in late June.)  As for this behemoth of a paper, which, we think, says things that need to be aired, we managed (after a long haul) to get it published in a respectable, peer-reviewed journal: The Journal of Controversial Ideas, founded by Peter Singer and two other moral philosophers. If you click the screenshot of the title below, you’ll go to the Journal’s website where you can download the pdf. (If you can’t get a pdf, they’re free, so ask me.)

The point of “In Defense of Merit in Science” is simple: merit is now being downgraded by ideologues in favor of conformity of science to predetermined—usually “progressive”—political goals.  This is a disaster for science and the public understanding of science. (One example is the ideologically-based denial that there are only two sexes in animals.) The paper is in effect a defense of merit as the best and only way to judge science and scientists, and a warning that if prioritizing merit in science erodes (as is happening), we’re in for a bumpy ride, as Russia was in the time of Lysenko. (Russian biology still hasn’t recovered from the ideologically based and totally bogus science of the charlatan agronomist Trofim Lysenko. Stalin had Lysenko’s faulty ideas of agronomy made into official agricultural policy, and the result was that millions of people starved to death in the U.S.S.R. and China. Opponents of Lysenkoism were fired or sent to the gulag.) We’re not—and hopefully will never be—at that disastrous point in this century, but the inimical effects of downgrading merit in science and using ideological criteria instead are already pervasive and evident. I’ve written about them at length. (One is the valorization of “indigenous ways of knowing”, which is poised to destroy science in New Zealand.)

But I digress: here’s the paper’s abstract.


Merit is a central pillar of liberal epistemology, humanism, and democracy. The scientific enterprise, built on merit, has proven effective in generating scientific and technological advances, reducing suffering, narrowing social gaps, and improving the quality of life globally. This perspective documents the ongoing attempts to undermine the core principles of liberal epistemology and to replace merit with non-scientific, politically motivated criteria. We explain the philosophical origins of this conflict, document the intrusion of ideology into our scientific institutions, discuss the perils of abandoning merit, and offer an alternative, human-centered approach to address existing social inequalities.

There are 29 authors, men and women of diverse nationalities and ethnicities, ranging from junior researchers to Nobel Laureates (two of the latter). You will recognize some of the authors, like Loury and McWhorter, whose work I write about a lot.  All the authors are in alphabetical order, but I have to note that by far the largest share of the work on this paper was done by Anna Krylov, as well as her partner Jay Tanzman. Anna was generous enough to not take the first authorship, to which she was fully entitled. But the alphabetization does bespeak a certain unanimity among authors in the way we feel about this issue.

Click the screenshot to read the paper (or rather, to get to a place where you can download the pdf).

There’s also a lot of Supplemental Information, juicy stuff, crazy quotations from scientists, ancillary data, and, of course, the authors’ biographies, at this site

The paper is a long one—26 pages—but I’d urge you to have a look. We’re hoping that this represents the beginning of pushback by scientists against the ideological degradation of our field, and that by speaking out, we’ll inspire others to join us.

Now, a bit about our troubles in publishing it.  We sent the paper to several scientific journals, which will remain unnamed, and they all found reasons why they couldn’t publish it. One likely reason was  that merit in science (and everywhere else) is being displaced in favor of, well, “political correctness”, and defending merit is seen as an “antiprogressive” view.  In other words, any journal publishing this would be inundated with protest. (But I’m sure Peter Singer doesn’t care: he’s been the victim of opprobrium all his life, and I’m a huge fan.) We were at a loss of where to put this laborious piece of analysis, but then I remembered the new Journal of Controversial Ideas, and suggested sending it there.

They finally accepted it, but I tell you that it was a VERY stringent review process, requiring two complete revisions of the paper. That’s good, because the paper was vetted by several critical reviewers and I think it’s a lot better for having been criticized and rewritten. And nobody can argue that it wasn’t reviewed!

But it’s always struck me as VERY ODD that a paper defending merit should be so controversial that we had to place it in a journal devoted to heterodox thought. So I decided to write an op-ed about this irony, joined by Anna.  The op-ed, too, was rejected by a certain famous newspaper, but the Wall Street Journal snapped it up immediately. Yes, the WSJ’s commentary section (this piece is classified as a commentary) is largely conservative, but, as I always say, who else would publish a piece that’s offensive to The Elect?

You can read our Commentary by clicking on the screenshot below, but it’s paywalled and by agreement we can reproduce only a short part of the piece. Perhaps you know someone who subscribes and can fill you in on the rest. By the way, it was the editors, not us, who wrote the title and subtitle. I love the title, but the subtitle may strike some as a bit hyperbolic.

Here are the first three paragraphs of our Commentary (what they asked us to limit social-media publication to), but I hope the paper won’t mind if I add the last short paragraph, just because I like it.

Until a few months ago, we’d never heard of the Journal of Controversial Ideas, a peer-reviewed publication whose aim is to promote “free inquiry on controversial topics.” Our research typically didn’t fit that description. We finally learned of the journal’s existence, however, when we tried to publish a commentary about how modern science is being compromised by a de-emphasis on merit. Apparently, what was once anodyne and unobjectionable is now contentious and outré, even in the hard sciences.=

. . . . Yet as we shopped our work to various scientific publications, we found no takers—except one. Evidently our ideas were politically unpalatable. It turns out the only place you can publish once-standard conclusions these days is in a journal committed to heterodoxy. . .

. . . But [our paper] was too much, even “downright hurtful,” as one editor wrote to us. Another informed us that “the concept of merit . . . has been widely and legitimately attacked as hollow.” Legitimately?

In the end, we’re grateful that our paper will be published. But how sad it is that the simple and fundamental principle undergirding all of science—that the best ideas and technologies should be the ones we adopt—is seen these days as “controversial.”

Well known German and French newspapers have also agreed to publish pieces on the JCI paper; these will be coming out in a week or so and I’ll link to them as they appear. I notice that Bari Weiss has also mentioned the paper in the TGIF column in The Free Press today. (Nellie Bowles, the regular TGIF author, is on a reporting trip to Texas.)

Finally, there’s a press release that you can see by clicking on the link below. It describes what the paper is about, what our goals were, why it was published in The Journal of Controversial Ideas, and a few quotes about the paper from authors. If you can’t read such a long paper (shame on you if you don’t!), at least read this:

A juicy comment by an author:

Commenting on publishing in the Journal of Controversial Ideas, co-author and professor of mathematics, Svetlana Jitomirskaya, says: “To me it feels quite absurd that we even had to write this paper, not to mention that it had to be published in the Journal of Controversial Ideas. Isn’t it self-evident that science should be based on merit? I thought that no scientist took arguments to the contrary seriously. I was shocked by the reasons PNAS rejected our paper. The reviewers, all presumably distinguished scientists, were clearly in favor of the opposing arguments.”