Earlier this year, I (Anna) did something that my friends feared I would come to regret: I publicly spoke out against the intrusion of illiberal thought into science and education, with a letter entitled The Peril of Politicizing Science, published on June 10th in The Journal of Physical Chemistry. In that letter, I drew on my own early life in the USSR, where communist “ideology permeated all aspects of life, and survival required strict adherence to the party line and enthusiastic displays of ideologically proper behavior.” I noted that certain names and ideas are now forbidden within academia for ideological reasons, just as had been the case in my youth. My own home town of Yuzovka, I noted, was called Trotsk (after Leon Trotsky), then renamed Stalino after Trotsky was purged, then Donetsk when Stalin was posthumously canceled by Khrushchev. Survey the stream of recent renamings of awards, buildings, and even laws of physics, and modern parallels aren’t hard to find. The intrusion of newspeak into science and education is truly Orwellian.
I expected to be viciously mobbed, and possibly cancelled, like others before me. Yet the result surprised me. Although some did try to cancel me, I received a flood of encouraging emails from others who share my concern with the process by which radical political doctrines are being injected into STEM pedagogy, and by which objective science is being subjugated to regressive moralization and censorship. The high ratio of positive-to-negative comments (even on Twitter!) gave me hope that the silent liberal majority within STEM may (eventually) prevail over the forces of illiberalism.
People shared their observations of cancel culture, the politicization of scientific institutions, language policing, and grievance-mongering among activists. They spoke of cancellations of prominent scientists by their own schools, whose reputation they’d helped build—Sir Ronald Fisher by Cambridge, Robert A. Millikan by Caltech, and Thomas Henry Huxley by Western Washington University (and also by Imperial College London). They also updated me on the latest absurd attempts to ideologically subvert STEM programs, as with the new undergraduate course at Cornell University dedicated to exploring the supposed connection between the cosmos and racism. (Students enrolled in Black Holes: Race and the Cosmos will be tasked with answering such questions as, “Is there a connection between the cosmos and the idea of racial blackness?”)
I also was pleased to read reports from other scientists who, like me, possessed a historical understanding of this kind of ideological movement. With their permission, I will share some of their comments.
In The Peril of Politicizing Science, I made mention of the Soviets banning resonance theory—an important contribution to our understanding of molecular valence-bond structures—as “bourgeois pseudoscience.” Following on this, physicist Alexander Efros told me that his father, a Soviet chemist who applied resonance theory in his own work, was so concerned about official denunciations of this “metaphysical science” that, in 1952, he’d taken to keeping a small suitcase full of warm clothes near the door of the family home, as he was expecting to be arrested and taken off to prison.
Another physicist, Ilya Kaplan, reminisced about his encounter with Iosif Rapoport, a prominent Russian geneticist and war hero, who publicly opposed the Soviet ban on research into Mendelian genetics, infamously enforced by Stalin’s favorite agronomist, pseudoscientist Trofim Lysenko. Rapoport was one of only eight attendees at the 1948 Meeting of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences to speak out against Lysenko (and the only one of the eight who did not later apologize for doing so). Consequently, Rapoport was expelled from the Party and severely punished (but, miraculously, was not imprisoned, and survived Stalinism).
The point of learning from history, rather than rewriting it, resonated with many. Roi Baer, a theoretical chemist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote: “For me, it is difficult to think of [Nobel-prize winning German physicist] Johannes Stark as a great scientist, because of his antisemitism and his vocal call for the persecution and canceling of Jewish scientists and ‘Jewish physics.’ Still, I teach the ‘Stark effect’ in my class [the effect caused by an electric field on the spectral behavior of atoms and molecules]. I also tell my students what a terrible man Stark was. He deserves condemnation, but not a cancellation.”
Recognizing the complexity of human nature, and of history’s protagonists, Baer added: “Three thousand years ago, complexity was tolerated. King David appears in the Old Testament as a character of greatness while morally flawed. He was the head of a band of thieves, extortionists, and murderers. As a king, he arranged for the death of Uriah the Hittite, the husband of beautiful Bat Sheva, just so he can have her for himself. David was severely punished by God for his crimes. Yet his royal greatness was preserved.”
Nearly a quarter of the approximately 200 email responses I got included a description of some personally observed or experienced instance of cancel culture, or of the intrusion of politics into scientific pedagogy. But with few exceptions, these writers said they were scared of being seen as opposing this movement. “The situation in STEM is certainly Orwellian,” wrote one writer, whom I am quoting on condition of anonymity. “I am frequently scared of expressing the Wrong viewpoint, resulting in self-censorship. Worse, at times I feel pressured to give a statement (a social performance) [indicating] that I am aligned with the Correct viewpoint.”
Another correspondent wrote: “I came [across] your viewpoint … as I was scrolling through Twitter over the weekend. Unsurprisingly, a Twitter mob … came together to demand the retraction of this essay from the JPCL. I am appalled with this behavior … Ideas like this should be rigorously and thoroughly discussed and debated, instead of just shutting [them] down. I am a gay person of colour, supposedly belonging to that same group of people that [the mob seeks] to protect. However, I do not think I am protected, nor am I ‘safe.’ And often because of this, I remain quiet in these social-media platforms, fearing that my future career in science will be in peril.”
The extent of fear among American scientists is shocking. An old friend cautioned me: “Unfortunately 1984 doesn’t end well.” The analysis of the responses showed that self-censorship—the refusal to produce, distribute, circulate, or express something for fear of punishment—and compelled speech are experienced at all career stages, from graduate student to emeritus faculty. Dr. Lee Jussim characterizes it as an epidemic: 40 percent of Americans self-censor their speech, greatly exceeding levels observed during the McCarthy era. Alarmingly, the level of self-censorship is higher on college campuses and among the more educated.
This pervasive sense of fear is not unfounded, as expressing opinions (or research findings) that are out of line with the dominant ideology is a recipe for attracting a bullying campaign. The sharp rise of attacks on scholars targeted for their speech has prompted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to start a database of such incidents (as described in this Inside Higher Ed article).
Censorship and suppression of dissent is now typically imposed not from top-down authorities, but from the bottom (i.e., the mob) in the form of social-media-powered social ostracism and bullying. Substantive and scholarly discussion on complex issues requires discipline and effort. Twitter, where anyone can spontaneously hurl 280 characters into cyberspace, has no room for the required depth or nuance. As Seth Moskowitz has noted, meme activism corrupts our political conversations and endangers our democratic process because it encourages performative and fleeting action, silences dissent, and sanctions simplistic and naive political beliefs.
My use of the word “mob” might be taken to suggest that the illiberal movement I am describing lacks institutional backing. But that isn’t the case. Regrettably, the leaders of our organizations are failing to protect the core principles of science and education. Rather than resist censorship, they enable it. The cancellation of Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist from the University of Chicago, is a prime example of how “coward culture” has taken hold of our institutions, thereby enabling cancel culture. Abbot had been invited to deliver a prestigious public lecture at MIT on “Climate and the Potential for Life on Other Planets” in October. But Twitter vigilantes, outraged over Abbot’s advocacy for equal opportunity, fairness, merit-based evaluation, and academic freedom, initiated a social-media disinvitation campaign. MIT quickly caved in to the mob’s demands and cancelled the event, violating its own “policy of open research and free interchange of information among scholars.” Such precedents create a chilling effect that inhibits the expression of non-conforming ideas throughout academia.
Some institutions have actually institutionalized censorship. The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has issued guidelines urging editors to “consider whether or not any content … might have the potential to cause offence.” The guidelines, developed after a German science journal retracted an essay criticizing diversity hiring authored by Brock University professor Tomáš Hudlický, instruct editors to be on the lookout for “any content that could reasonably offend someone on the basis of their age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, marital or parental status, physical features, national origin, social status or disability,” or that is “likely to be upsetting, insulting or objectionable to some or most people.” Since such a vaguely defined standard, interpreted broadly, could serve to block the publication of almost every imaginable kind of article, it clearly undermines the RSC’s ostensible mission to facilitate the communication of high-quality chemistry research and to engage in the “general advancement of chemical science and its application.”
In regard to the criticism I received, there was some that deserves a response. This category includes those who asked why my article didn’t also discuss political intrusion from right-wing, as well as left-wing, sources. By way of reply, I should acknowledge that conservatives have long sought to inject their beliefs into science—from creationism, to climate change, to stem-cell research, to COVID policy. But these examples are already well-documented, and there is little controversy among scientists about the need to reject such pressures. By contrast, the danger coming from the extreme left is more difficult to recognize and oppose, because it often enjoys official approval under such euphemistic terms as social justice, diversity, inclusiveness, and equity. And to be denounced as “anti-social-justice” in 2021 isn’t so different from being denounced as “bourgeois” in the USSR a century ago. In Soviet times, those who opposed the Party line were called “enemies of the people”; now they are called “racists” and “sexists.” Moreover, the extreme Right tends to attack objective science in discrete subject areas, whereas today’s leftist doctrines seek to undermine the entire enterprise of science, casting the very idea of objective truth and the scientific method as tools of colonialism and oppression.
To those who ask whether I care about societal inequities, the answer is that of course I do. We need to talk about tax reform, police reform, universal health care, subsidized child care, reducing crime, and—most important—improving access to education. We need to discuss barriers responsible for under-representation of women and minorities in STEM, and develop solutions to these problems (they are not simple). But none of this has anything to do with the causes that attract the most visible and militant social-justice advocates on university campuses. Their efforts are directed, often single-mindedly, at enforcing contortions of language and ideology within their own rarified institutions, forming task forces to rename equations, invent microaggressions, police language, rename moths and ants, and repackage soap. And they are completely vicious in the use of mob tactics to intimidate or cancel those who dare object to their extreme strictures. Again, the parallels with the USSR of my youth are rather obvious.
One line of rhetorical pushback I encountered was the assertation that, by criticizing the extreme left, I play into the hands of the extreme right (by which these correspondents meant Trump supporters, in particular). It’s the same sort of argument that’s been invoked throughout history as a means to avoid—or even suppress—criticism of anyone deemed to be on the “right side” of history. This argument has been invoked to excuse the horrific crimes of totalitarian regimes: Western liberals looked the other way when the Soviet regime was throwing dissidents into jail and subjecting them to punitive psychiatry.
Unfortunately, we continue to see variations of this argument everywhere in progressive silos. In many ways, it’s just an inversion of the tribal reflex that long served to suppress reporting on sexual abuses within universities, athletic teams, religious institutions, and countless other institutions, on the cynical theory that calling out evil within one’s ranks would undermine the “greater good” embedded in that group’s collective mission. As Yascha Mounk recently wrote, “the primary question most participants in public debate ask themselves is not, ‘How do my values inform my views on this matter?’ or ‘What is the evidence for what is being asserted?’ Rather, it is ‘How do I demonstrate that I am a loyal member of my political tribe?’ As it happens, the easiest way to do that is simple: Look for what the enemy says on any one issue and stake out the opposite position.”
We need to break the spell of illiberal ideology, and come back to our collective senses—to stop self-censoring in fear of the mob and excusing nonsense in the name of political allyship, and to start defending the values of pluralism, humanism, and democracy. It is time for the silent, liberal majority to speak up.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Iosif Rapoport had been the only attendee at the 1948 Meeting of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences to speak out against Trofim Lysenko.
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