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International Scholars Must Resist the American Campaign to Inject Racial Tribalism Into Science

“Schœlcher n’est pas notre sauveur,” declared protestors who toppled statues on the French territory of Martinique earlier this year—“Schœlcher is not our savior.” The reference is to Victor Schœlcher, the 19th-century politician who’s long been lauded for his role in abolishing slavery in France and its colonial holdings. French President Emmanuel Macron rightly condemned the act, as did cabinet minister Annick Giradin, who denounced the destruction of monuments that embody the nation’s “collective memory.” And the mayor of Martinique’s capital warned against la tentation de réécrire l’histoire—the temptation to rewrite history.

Unfortunately, the force of that temptation has been growing stronger recently, and not just within the progressive subcultures of English-speaking countries. On June 22nd, Parisian vandals threw red paint on a statue of no less a French intellectual icon than Voltaire, whose 1763 Treatise on Tolerance, ironically, traced the history and importance of ideological and religious pluralism.

Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th, we have witnessed numerous symbolic gestures intended to address the legacy of racism. But the effects of these campaigns have had unsettling consequences. We are two tenured scientists in France who have become concerned about the injection of racial themes into all areas of policy, politics, and even science. One of us (Bikfalvi) directs a department focused on cancer biology at a university, and at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM). The other (Kuntz) is a research director at the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS), focusing on plant biology. We both have spent much of our careers defending science, and the scientific method more generally, from the demands of activists who have attempted to trump established methodologies with dogma. Now, as then, it is our strong conviction that science should be kept separate from politics.

We are hardly the first scientists to announce such warnings, of course. In 1987, two Imperial College physicists wrote an article entitled “Where Science has Gone Wrong,” warning Nature readers about the growing threats, from popular culture, academics, and policy-makers alike, to “objectivity, truth and science.” The authors discussed “erroneous and harmful” ideas that presented relativistic epistemological antitheses to “the traditional and successful theses of natural philosophy.” Thirty-three years later, the problem has only gotten worse.

In his Treaty on Tolerance, Voltaire wrote of “those calamities that will open the eyes of the uninformed and touch the hearts of the humane.” We adhere to Enlightenment ideals of universalism that encompass all identities (and which contributed greatly to the abolitionist movement that Schœlcher championed). And, like millions of others around the world, we were shocked by Floyd’s murder, and by the racist reality that this “calamity” symbolized. But outrage should not undermine our capacity for reason. Dividing humanity into races is by nature a political project, whether performed in the service either of odious bigotry or of anti-racism.

The racialization of discourses, a phenomenon that has spread rapidly to other Western countries from the United States, is increasingly metastasizing into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The process is on display at numerous scientific institutions and journals, including the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Academy of Medicine. In Science, chemist Holden Thorp declared that “the evidence of systemic racism in science permeates this nation [i.e., the United States].” In an unsigned editorial, Nature editors pledged to end (unspecified) “anti-Black practices in research.” They also declared that they lead “one of the white institutions that is responsible for bias in research and scholarship,” and that “the enterprise of science has been—and remains—complicit in systemic racism, and it must strive harder to correct those injustices and amplify marginalized voices.”

This is the language of religious confession, not scientific analysis. As scientists ourselves, we feel insulted by such blanket self-denunciations—since we are not racists, have never been racists, and have never met colleagues who, to our knowledge, acted in a racist manner.

This obviously does not mean that there are no racists working in scientific fields. But our experience suggests they are not common or prominent in modern professional communities. We also reject the use of the term “systemic racism,” a term injected by critical race theorists into the discourse, which presupposes the idea that racism is built into the structures of our working environments.

Being objective and testable, science is one of the best tools we have to shed light on the failures of our society. And so it is not only wrong, but counterproductive, to write off the entire edifice of science as rotten with prejudice. If the situation is different in the United States, and there truly are scientific sectors in which racists openly exert control (though no evidence has yet been presented to indicate this), then American scientists should correct such situations accordingly. But please do not include the rest of the scientific community through broad, unproven, ideologically motivated accusations.

The mission of science is to describe the world as accurately as possible, including in regard to racial discrimination and social issues more generally. But the racialization of discourses is detracting from our ability to perform accurate investigations, as it threatens to turn science into a subset of activism. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) publishes a collection entitled Research in Racial and Social Justice. Few would argue against “justice” of any kind, including social justice. But defining what is and isn’t socially “just” is an inherently political project. How exactly does this accord with the National Academy of Sciences’ stated mission to provide “independent, objective” information “on matters related to science and technology”?

Trofim Lysenko

Some historical lessons should be kept in mind when political goals and ideological principles are injected into science. A century ago, social Darwinists and eugenicists mistakenly imagined that their doctrines would help improve society. Geneticist Hermann Müller (1890–1967) even combined his belief in eugenics with strong socialist leanings. Fortunately, geneticists such as Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866–1945), Raymond Pearl (1879–1940), and Herbert Spencer Jennings (1868–1947) staunchly criticized their theories. Science has a self-corrective mechanism embedded within it, and so social Darwinists ultimately were rejected.

Or consider the case of Trofim Lysenko (1898–1976), the Soviet agronomist and biologist who rejected Mendelian genetics because of its supposed incompatibility with communism. As a consequence of such ideologically motivated pseudoscience, many Soviet geneticists were arrested and executed, or died in prison, including the internationally respected geneticist Nikolai Vavilov. As Jan Witkowski wrote in a 2008 review of Peter Pringle’s book about Vavilov:

Lysenko promised Stalin that new strains of wheat and other crops with desirable traits could be produced within three years, much quicker than the twelve years that Vavilov required. Perhaps as importantly, Lysenko’s views of genetics were in sympathy with prevailing Marxist dogma. Experts, by virtue of their education and role, were members of the bourgeoisie and regarded with suspicion in Russia. There was a strong political movement to replace the intelligentsia with elevated peasants and other members of the proletariat, even if they were untrained and ill-fitted to their new posts. Lysenko was one such example. Vavilov, by contrast, was an educated, well-travelled businessman’s son who was thought to be susceptible to foreign influences.

These are extreme examples, of course. But they serve to demonstrate what can happen when science is guided by politics or ideology.

In closing, we wish to come back to the situation in our own country. The French Republic is, in principle, “one and indivisible,” guided by a universalistic philosophy that is incompatible with identity politics. Unfortunately, humanities departments at some universities and public research organizations have come under the sway of recent ideological trends in English-speaking countries, especially in the areas of race, gender, and anti-colonialism. Last year, a founder of critical race theory, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, was invited to Sorbonne University in Paris, along with additional theorists such as Nira Yuval-Davis of the University of East London, and Kalpana Wilson, a Geography professor at Birkbeck College, University of London (and a self-described Marxist), to promote the “intersectional” idea that mainstream society is waging permanent war on anyone who isn’t male or white (though this is an interpretation that Crenshaw has recently tried to dispute). In fact, scholars have been trying to import critical race theory into the French academy for many years.

Sylviane Agacinski, photographed in 2002

In line with this new emphasis on ideological orthodoxy, activist groups recently managed to shut some speakers down, such as the philosopher Sylviane Agacinski (wife of former socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin), who was scheduled to speak to a 2019 conference about the risks of medically-assisted reproduction techniques. In this case, fortunately, the university and its academics criticized the cancelation, and thereby reaffirmed their support of Enlightenment values and free speech. And there remain a number of influential voices in France that oppose the encroachment of identity politics, including the philosopher Élisabeth Badinter, writer Caroline Fourest, former socialist prime minister Manuel Valls, and philosopher Régis Debray. But it is open to question how long these voices will remain heard, as the whole fabric of identity politics is bound up with the idea that there is only one “correct” way of thinking and speaking.

We are sorry if our heterodox views serve to disappoint friends and colleagues in the United States and elsewhere. But we retain the belief that, in supposedly pluralistic societies, everyone is entitled to their own opinions. We urge other scientists not to follow the American example, and to resist the campaign to racialize science. While we admire many aspects of American culture, we reject its cultural imperialism—including the new form of ostensibly progressive cultural imperialism that serves to impose America’s own obsessive race tribalism on the rest of the world.

Our European experience provides no shortage of cautionary tales—including Renaissance Florence under the influence of Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who imposed a regime of religious purity in the 1490s. Such was his sway that no less an artist than Sandro Botticelli was induced to burn his creations and give up painting. In all eras, the demands of ideological purity serve to suppress the pursuit of art and reason. Standing up to puritans is necessary if we are to protect the telos and soul of science.

 

Andreas Bikfalvi is a scientist conducting biomedical research in cancer and vascular biology. He heads a research laboratory at the University of Bordeaux and the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research.

Marcel Kuntz is a research director at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Grenoble, France. The views expressed in this article represent the authors’ personal opinions, not those of any institution with which they are affiliated. This article is adapted from declined editorial submissions to Science and Nature.

Comments

  1. It’s good to hear about academics pushing back on this idiocy. Stand fast!

  2. This stuff has definitely ramped up a lot lately in the US. During the recent riots mostly peaceful protests I was regularly getting woke emailings from various scientific societies, department heads, and university administrators about how we must work to eradicate racism and white supremacy from STEM. It was rather disturbing to see the major US scientific organizations advocating to #shutdownstem. Even my own boss sent out one of these emails about how our department stands in solidarity with BLM, but he’s a department chair so I am thinking it was just expected of him to do so and he was getting it out of the way since I had never seen him express any wokeness prior to that. My hope is that all those emails, at least the ones from actual scientists rather than university bureaucrats, can basically be boiled down to that same thing. Even if that’s the case it’s still unsettling that even the hard scientific community can be pushed around like that and I don’t like to think about where things might eventually be headed. Hopefully countries with less racial tension than the US can push back against this trend so that even if STEM in the US becomes corrupted good science can still flourish elsewhere.

  3. Thank you very much for your thoughtful article. One correction - it is far from clear that George Floyd was “murdered” (although I can see why nearly anyone, especially outside the USA, believes that, based on media narratives). In fact, many legal experts (few of whom are on TV) are confident the officers will be acquitted.

  4. Scientists can’t even do simple math anymore! The problem is worse than we feared!

  5. It is worsening in the U.S. military, also, which is truly sad since there may be no better, current example of a very diverse and cohesive organization. The diversity training and policy directives from on high have become increasingly woke and radical. The most senior leaders seek “equity” outcomes that are likely illegal under current U.S. employment law. There are plans in my service to add a professional qualification for officers in Diversity, Inclusion & Equity to be considered alongside actual professional military and technical skills for promotion and assignments.

    I was raised to treat every person with respect and dignity and judge them as individuals. Organizational values have noticeably diverged from my own in these areas, especially over the last 5-10 years. Simply evaluating people on their merits and character regardless of race and sex is no longer acceptable. From talking with many experienced leaders (officer and enlisted), I know I’m not alone in sensing this change. I feel fortunate to have retired this summer without any significant personal compromise. However, I am quite certain future effectiveness of our forces will be compromised by adopting this nonsense.

  6. What do you mean, “never heard of him”?

    He’s probably a Hero of the Cause.

    After all, he proved it was possible get a large nation to ignore actual facts in favor of ideology.

  7. I’ve stopped reading Nature except when someone sends me a specific link asking “whaddya think?” or some such. Don’t read Science much anymore, either.

    No surprise Nature and Science would reject this editorial as it’s anathema to the current AllWoke AllTheTime policies. But I applaud the authors for making the attempt.

    Even if they only did it to test an assumption.

  8. The effort to inject racial tribalism into science isn’t an American campaign; it’s ideological activism designed to bring down Western civilization – and it originated in Europe.

    Most of us were shocked by the initial video footage, however, the claim that this was a “racist murder” is unsubstantiated. You are propagating a political narrative.

    Social justice’s “anti-racism” activism is just as odious as any bigotry. The last time the world witnessed a group that was this obsessed with race there was a man with a moustache running Germany. Instead of “Jews” it is now “whites” who are the villains.

    Why aren’t serious scientists telling the ideological activists to leave the profession?

    Holden Thorp, and ideologues like him, must be shown the door. They are not serious scientists and their behaviour is antithetical to science. Expel them.

    We also need to shut down “woke” publications like Nature. They are no longer fit for purpose.

    Systemic racism is a nebulous claim that would never survive scientific scrutiny. Science is kryptonite to critical race theology.

    To the authors, thank you for an excellent article. You not only have great integrity but you are very courageous as well.

  9. I am a loyal believer in Comrade Lysenko who has been so slandered by this racist article. He believed and proved that it’s only environmental influences that will build the NEW MAN and the NEW WHEAT! The revitalization of Correct Thought will ensue that Quillette’s false, bourgeois, privileged retrograde, counter-revolutionary Western propaganda that will wind up in the dust bin of HISTORY! Its shocking, but I have even read in these pages that DNA that cradles the fate of all living things. Its just sickening and racist.
    Sure Lysenko’s beautiful ideas ,along with the peaceful and well received state collectivization of every farm in Russia, resulted in the death of millions. So what: Its the ideology, the revolution that trumps facts and science.
    Professor Lysenko rose up from the proletariat class and thus his ideas were true and correct, just as the Party Line of the Communist party …ancestor to the New Old Left party…is always true and correct.
    This site should be banned and cancelled. It is an affront to Correct Thought. I am going back to the New York Times where I can get some real news and commentary that damns the oppression of individual striving and excellence.
    Oh my god! OH MY GOD! …I feel dizzy …I think its the vapors again…

  10. Funny how the left loves climate control science but hates biology.

  11. I think it’s a mistake to call it the “American campaign.”

    While the American contingent may be the most powerful, it’s an international movement in origin and practice.

    Influential contributors from around the world include:

    – Gramsci (Italy);

    – Foucault, Derrida, Althusser (France);

    – Marx, Marcuse, Adorno (Germany);

    – Greer (Australia);

    – Mao (China);

    – Hall (Jamaica);

    – Said (Palestine);

    – Spivak (India);

    – Williams (UK);

    – Mouffe (Belgium);

    – Laclau (Argentina);

    – Freire (Brazil);

    – Fanon (Martinique);

    – McLaren (Canada).

    This ideology has so infected some European countries that they won’t publish crime statistics by group and the police pay visits to those who have been deemed offensive online.

    Traditional American values emphasize individualism and freedom, and eighty percent of Americans say political correctness has gone too far.

  12. Great article. It’s time for more people to speak up against this, and irrespective of their status in society or skin colour. The Englightenment Principles of free speech, reason and the scientific method belong to all. They are the Esperanto of philosophical principles. One does not need to be descendants of Kant, Voltaire or Adam Smith to subscribe such principles, which transcend time and borders (and I am now apparently also forced to specify creed, ethnicity, skin tone and other immutable characteristics - which are in fact totally irrelevant to such principles).

    The most depressing part of the article is that this article has been rejected by both Science and Nature journals

    • This article is adapted from declined editorial submissions to Science and Nature .*

    which have not hesitated to publish ideological (and scientifically unsubstantiated claims like this) articles such as these:

    SCIENCE:

    NATURE:
    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0993-2

    Even the New England Journal has published the following
    https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1814269?rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed

    But these same journals will not publish the opinion piece of two eminent scientists who are defending the (universal) Enlightenment principles?

    These once great institutions have fallen. The tacit or explicit acceptance that exact statistical proportional representation is the sole piece of evidence that is needed to substantiate the charge of “systemic racism” is beyond absurd. That mere fact that a scientific editorial board would allow for such a narrative to go unchallenged says it all.

    The wall of the city have been breached, and this is now going to be an all out war to save the underpinnings of Western civilization.

  13. I totally agree with the writers. This is getting ridiculous. We need to tell Science to stop publishing cringe articles such as the one below that just got published in the last issue:


    Why does it always have to be a black/white issue? I’m a scientist/researcher in Asia. Lots of white and black scientists live, work and do research in Asian countries. In Asia just like in the West, grants and financial support are offered on merit alone. I doubt those that whine like this dude that wrote this blatantly racist editorial in Science has more merit than whining to his name. If he did, I would have seen good articles in top notch journals with his name on them. By the way, black scientists think the West and white scientists are racist? Welcome to Asia and prove yourselves. Remember, Asia is all about merit only so you can’t use the same excuse and whining as the deplorable editorial pretends happens only in the West nowadays.

    Makgoba states in his editorial “African-American, Afro-Caribbean, and Afro-Latin communities—are a wake-up call for humankind to recalibrate, restructure, and reimagine its beliefs and behaviors.”
    By that, does he mean all these communities are more prone to breaking safety rules, not wear masks and conform to regulations imposed by authorities, riots and congregations that don’t observe social distance?

    Are they less healthy on the average due to bad lifestyle habits? Or does he mean is the West’s fault? Of course we know what he means and such cringe nonsense needs to get out of Science, Nature and every other significant scientific journal before they will go the way of the New York Times, a journal I would have killed 15 years ago to publish a sentence in it, whereas, today, I’d be embarrassed to have even one letter associated with it.

  14. You’re a lucid observer of history, @c.d.eastmannagle, and I enjoy reading your posts but you, and a number of other highly intelligent posters on the left, suffer from a cognitive distortion field when it comes to Trump.

    Trump is our most powerful ally in defending our civilization and holding back the destructive forces of the social justice cult - and the oligarchs behind it. How rational people on the left can’t see that is beyond me.

    Lancet, Nature, NEJM, Science, Scientific American, and many others, are infected, just like the NYT, etc. There is no reason to support these publications.

    Capital and “eyeballs” are shifting to sites that aren’t indoctrinated, like Quillette.

    You see this on a large scale with unwoke media and alt-media. Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity at Fox get more viewers than the woke, China-beholden, NBA. That’s pretty crazy.

    Joe Rogan and Tim Pool are beating massively funded woke legacy media outlets like CNN and MSNBC.

    What if the heart of the problem isn’t an unfair school system that uniquely affects blacks?

    Schools can’t fix black culture – single parent households, high violent crime rates, gansta rap and drugs, etc. There may be a cognition factor as well but apparently that’s taboo to discuss.

    Trillions of dollars of other peoples’ money have been pissed away for decades trying to ameliorate the poor educational outcomes of blacks. It’s time for blacks to stop playing the victim and take some ownership of their own poor outcomes.

    I get into a lot of trouble over this, but George Floyd’s death wasn’t a “tragedy”.

    He was a convicted felon who held a gun to a pregnant woman’s belly while her child was standing beside her then had his friends rob her.

    He was a drugged up, violent low-life and he died while resisting arrest. It may be a wrongful death but it most certainly is not a tragedy.

    If he were white no one would give a shit.

    @c.d.eastmannagle is right about this. The George Floyd video (not even his actual death per se) was a casus belli for moving forward with the Western Civilization Destruction Project. It was an opening for globalists and oligarchs to set their street creatures in motion.

    I’ve been saying this for years but the destructive potential of this new epistemology hasn’t penetrated people’s heads yet.

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