Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Welcome back to So To Speak: The Free Speech Podcast, where every other week, we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am, as always, your host, Nico Perrino, and it was…I think a few weeks ago now that a colleague of mine sent along an editorial from an academic journal called “Nature Human Behavior” outlining a new set of ethics guidance for the scholarly work that the journal planned to publish moving forward.
And before I editorialize on their editorial, I wanna just take some time to read what those…guidance are. So, it says here right at the top: “Although academic freedom is fundamental, it is not unbounded.” You always like when the “but” comes after the statement of principles.
“The same ethical consideration should underly science about humans as apply to research with human participants and that these ethical considerations relating to science about humans rather than science with human participants do not generally consider the potential benefits and harms of research about humans who do not participate directly in the research.
“Such research is typically exempt from ethics review. Yet, people can be harmed indirectly. For example, research may inadvertently stigmatize individuals or human groups. It may be discriminatory, racist, sexist, ableist, or homophobic. It may provide justification for undermining the human rights of specific groups simply because of their social characteristics.”
And then, it goes on to say, “In this guidance, we urge authors to be respectful of the dignity and rights of the human groups they study. We encourage researchers to consider the potential implications of research on human groups defined on the basis of social characteristics to be reflective of their authorial perspective if not part of the group under study and to contextualize their findings to minimize as much as possible potential misuse or risks of harm to the study groups in the public sphere.
“We also highlight the importance of respectful, non-stigmatizing language to avoid perpetuating stereotypes and causing harm to individuals and groups.” So, those are some emblematic paragraphs from the longer guidance, which we'll dive into during this conversation. But…the guidance…kind of piqued my interest because some of the rationales justifying it are becoming more frequent in the work that I do here at FIRE, the work that we do on college campuses, and off college campuses – the idea that free inquiry, academic freedom, the scientific process itself need more guardrails to protect vulnerable communities from potential harms, with “harm” usually…going undefined.
I recall, actually, in 2014, an article in the Harvard Crimson advocating for the principle of academic justice instead of academic freedom. The author said that when an academic community observe research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.
That’s more or less, in no uncertain terms, kind of what Nature Human Behavior is arguing. They don’t say that the research shouldn’t continue. They more or less just suggest that it won’t get published.
So, FIRE recently published an essay by writer and author Jonathon Rauch on the Nature Human Behavior guidance called “Nature Human Misbehavior: Politicized Science is Neither Science nor Progress,” and Jonathan is actually here with us today to discuss not only the guidance but what its motivation portends for science and free inquiry more broadly.
Jonathan, as some of you might recall, is a past guest on this show. He is, in fact, the first ever guest on this show – way back in April of 2016 as the author of…perhaps, in the opinion of many people here at FIRE, the single best modern defense of free expression ever written, Kindly Inquisitors. I believe, Jonathan, if I have this correct, it came out in 1993 and still holds up with a republished edition, I believe, in 2013 or ’14.
It was “Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought,” and more recently, in a kind of expansion on some of the arguments in Kindly Inquisitors called “The Constitution of Knowledge”. Jonathan, welcome on the show.
Jonathan Rauch: Thanks, Nico. I’m happy to be here.
Nico: But he’s not the only guest on today’s show. We actually have a scientist with us. Joining us from, I believe, California if I’m not mistaken, is professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California, Anna Krylov.
I’m a Notre Dame fan myself, so I won’t hold your California USC against you. But she is the author of a piece that I think has a lot to say about the Nature Human Behavior Guidance.
The piece was published in the journal of physical chemistry and is called “The Peril of Politicizing Science,” and Professor Krylov – she joins us in her individual, personal capacity today. She has some other affiliation. She does not speak on behalf of any institution that she is affiliated with.
But Anna, it’s great to have you on the show for the first time.
Anna Krylov: Thank you, Nico. I’m very pleased to be on the show.
Nico: Jonathan, because you published the response to the Nature Human Behavior piece, I wanna begin with you right at the outset. In your piece, you suggest that what Nature Human Behavior is doing here is appointing themselves social justice gatekeepers for science. What do you mean by that?
Jonathan: Well, of course, science needs journals, it needs editors, it does not want to be socially irresponsible, so it needs checks and balances. All of those things are true, but we have a tradition more than a century now in scholarly editing and practice that you don’t use politics as the gatekeeping tool. You look at the theoretical importance of the work, and its freshness, and its methodology when you decide whether and what to publish, and you also, to some extent, you do look at what social harm it might cause.
But individuals do that. That’s done in the community of working scientists. They debate that with each other in the process of doing the research and vetting the research. And then, after it’s published, they continue to debate: “Is this socially good, or bad, or harmful?”
What’s happening with Nature Human Behavior is different. They are explicitly saying, “From now on, we will be the judges of whether scientific work is harmful.” Now, they don’t say exactly what “harmful” means because they don’t know. It’s a very broad term. It could mean anything. But they give us some strong hints.
They say, for instance, if it undermines the dignity or rights of specific groups; if it assumes that a human group is superior or inferior to another simply because of social characteristics; if it includes hate speech or denigrating images – they, apparently; will decide what is hateful and what is denigrating – or if it promotes privileged, exclusionary perspectives.
Privileged, exclusionary perspectives. So, they’re going to decide whether a piece submitted by a scientist like Anna is privileged and exclusionary. They’re not going to define these things, so what you’re going to be left with here is a very different kind of scient editing – one that says, “We’re gonna make some broad politic determinations. If we don’t like what we see, we will reject your article, we will require revisions,” or, they say, they may even retract and repudiate it after it’s been published.
That’s very dangerous territory.
Nico: Well, what makes it “political,” per se? Because I imagine we’re gonna have listeners here who think “Yeah, we don’t want research that’s going to discriminate against some of the populations that it studies.” I mean, is that a political idea? Does it fit into a political framework that we might be missing here?
Jonathan: Well, there are two levels to respond to that. One is it doesn’t have to be partisan political to be political in the sense that terms like “harm,” “dignity,” “rights,” “privileged,” “exclusionary” cannot be discussed without being debated in a broader political context. Conservatives, liberals, libertarians will all have very different ideas of what those things mean.
So, the editors will have to pick their idea of what those things mean, and their choice will be far more contentious than traditional editorial criteria for the sciences – the kinds of things Anna can tell us about – methodology, replicability, and so forth.
But the second thing – that’s the point in principle: that you can’t keep politics out of this kind of vague judgement. In practice, these editors make it very clear that they are coming from what some people call the “woke left”. It’s a very group-oriented perspective, it’s about social justice, it’s about preventing privilege – “racist,” “sexist,” “ableist,” “homophobic” are the categories that they name.
Now, one can agree or disagree with those particular categories and the vocabulary that they’re using, but this is all the language, the vocabular, the viewpoint of the identity politics left. And agree or disagree, I don’t think that’s the perspective from which a scientific journal should be edited.
Nico: Yeah, you write in your piece, Jonathan, that some of your own writing can be suspect, for instance, on the value to children of two-parent families and the danger of radical gender ideology. I just wonder, looking at Nature Human Behavior, whether you’re right that that would be looked at suspect and perhaps not, even if the research is sound, be liable for inclusion.
For example, you might not be a part of the group under study, right? It says that that’s a consideration for publication here. And the outcome might be seen as harmful to single-parent households. It might have something to say that makes them feel, quote, “stigmatized,” which is another word that they use here.
So, I wanna put some meat on the bones with some potential examples, and it seems like that is one, right? If you’re just reading the plain language of their guidance.
Jonathan: Sure, almost anything that makes distinctions between groups go be suspect. Bo Winegard, who wrote a really superb analysis – detailed analysis – of this editorial standpoint in [inaudible] [00:11:45] points out that an article, for example, that says “homosexual men have more sexual partners” could be viewed as stigmatizing it, even if publishing it could be essential to responding to the public health needs of gay men.
It’s impossible even in principle, of course, for the editors of a journal to know how an idea will ramify through society. The criterion in science has been “Well, if it’s new and if it’s true, we should publish it. And let’s decide [inaudible] figure out how to take it onboard,” and I think that’s broadly right.
Of course, the larger point, Nico, is that because these terms are undefined, scientists like Anna Krylov publishing in this journal will need to self-censor. They’ll need to second guess what it is that they’ll be publishing. And they need not only to second guess what the editors of Nature Human Behavior will determine to be socially harmful or unjust. They’ll also know that the editors of Human Behavior say that they will be consulting outside activists and groups to decide what’s harmful.
So, now, they have to deal with the possibility that some group, or number of groups, an activist raise cane about an article and say, “You shouldn’t publish that,” and it now gets rejected because of outside politics.
Nico: Yeah. Yeah. You say in your piece, “When they demand the rejection or retraction of whatever research offends them, Nature Human Behavior, having committed to preventing quote-unquote ‘harm’ will have nothing definite to fall back on. If the editors don’t cave in right away, they will soon.”
I mean, I’ve seen this played out on campuses across the country, right? Students cry “harm,” they cry “oppression,” and speakers get disinvited. I don’t think it’s any different in the scientific context.
It’s one of those situations where you have the seen and the unseen. You see the science that gets published, but you don’t see the science that doesn’t make it through this gauntlet.
Professor Krylov, I wanna turn to you as a practicing scientist and just ask you how this process is supposed to work – or at least has historically worked. So, when a scholar has an idea, what historically have you understood as you were going through your teaching needed to be done in order to get that published?
Anna: Well, it’s a funny question in some sense because as a practicing scientist, I never thought about actual institutions that there are philosophical justification and it’s only now when institutions appear to be broken [inaudible] [00:14:30] books like The Constitution of Knowledge by Jonathan Rauch, which explains how science can operate successfully – the importance of…certain ideas and concepts that provide the basis of modern science.
Mertin, sociologist of science…defined principles that are beneficial to science enterprises, and communalism of when scientists share their values is…objective scrutiny and so on. So, if I have an idea – if I want to publish a paper, I cannot just put my idea into the ether and start collecting likes.
I should prepare my idea following the standards of the institution; provide sufficient…justification for it, which comes from empirical evidence – from experiments, from computational experiments, from analysis of the data, then goes through rigorous editorial peer-review process when peers will assess my paper, will criticize it, and their reviews will be evaluated by an editor or editorial board.
[Inaudible] myself for two chemistry journals. And through this process, it can be determined whether conclusions are justified by the data, whether data collected in a robust way and so on. And that is a pretty high barrier for an idea to be…published in a scientific journal.
Nico: Yeah, you write about Mertin in your piece, The Peril of Politicizing Science, and you kinda summarize what I think his philosophy is by saying, “Simply put, we should evaluate, reward, and acknowledge scientific contributions strictly on the basis of their intellectual merit and not on the basis of personal traits of the scientist or a current political agenda,” but I think this is kinda of where skeptical listeners are gonna get hung up on: the idea of intellectual merit.
What is intellectual merit? How does it get defined? Is it simply enough that the idea is true and the data support it, or, even if it’s true and we can know the potential bad incomes, it’s still an intellectually meritorious idea worthy of publication, for example.
Anna: Well, I think intellectual merit, in a broad sense, refers that the idea and proposition…weren’t successful, leads to scrutiny…and have merit of explaining the particular aspect of how the…world…works. It can explain some physical phenomena. That what I do. I do not study people and populations. I study chemistry.
Yeah. So, the truth should be understood is a provisional truth. It means that this proposition or law – robust law explains…our current set of data, and can make testable predictions, and some of the testable predictions are tested by investigators that [inaudible] [00:18:14] idea, and that’s it.
So, maybe I should – yeah, I wanted to [inaudible]. So, when we talk about harms of science, right? So, in my domain, they do not deal with harms that you and Jonathan just referred to [inaudible] harm to marginalized groups…
Nico: Well, I mean, theoretically, Professor Krylov, if you don’t mind – I mean, theoretical, it could. I mean, you’re in chemistry, right? I think of…Zyklon B.
Anna: So, yeah. That’s [inaudible] I’m coming – I wanted to talk about. So, sometimes I hear from people and scientists that science has been [inaudible]. Science is responsible for many harms already, and people mention things like global warming. They say science enabled it. People mention nuclear weapons. They say science enabled it. People mention plastic solutions – because chemistry invented plastics, now, they have this problem of plastic pollution in the ocean.
And I’m troubled by this statement because I think when people…attribute these harms to science, they make a important logical mistake because…science – the knowledge does not cause any harm. It’s how people use knowledge – how they use scientific findings. And that’s responsibility of society, of stakeholders, of governments to use scientific findings in a responsible way and in beneficial-for-humans ways.
So, it’s not the fault of chemistry or plastic researchers that they do not have good plastic recycling programs and that some people just throw away their used plastic cups into the open. So…
Nico: Yeah. I mean, they’re essentially…asking scientists and reviewers to predict the future – all the possible ways in which any given technology or any given research could be used. I mean, as I was mentioning, Zyklon B – it’s a pesticide, but it was used eventually in chemical warfare and, of course, in the gas chambers…and the concentration camps…during the holocaust.
And then, you have people like…you cite Fritz Haber, who’s both the father of modern chemical warfare and the man whose development of nitrogen fixation is…feeding the planet, and I think it’s probably no stretch to say the reason many of us are alive…today.
I wanna go back to a point that you were making and maybe pitch this over to Jonathan. In the editorial from Nature Human Behavior, they say, “Science has for too long been complicit in perpetuating structural inequalities and discrimination in society.” Is that putting too much…?
I mean, Jonathan, you also talk about the ways in which science has resulted in findings that are used to harm – if we’re adopting Nature Human Behavior’s term – certain groups, but it also assumes that science is in a process – that you arrive at a conclusion…
I mean, you talk in your piece as a gay man yourself about how science was used to justify the marginalization and oppression of gay men and women in America, but it was also science that reversed those prejudices. So, I mean, how do you think of that contention that science has for too long been complicit in perpetuating structural inequalities?
Jonathan: I say that there is a sense in which the statement that science has participated in marginalizing or oppressing groups or individuals – there’s a sense in which that’s trivially and obviously true, which is simply that science is embedded in society, and if it’s made up of entirely, say, I don’t know, anti-gay, white males, that will be reflected in the work.
That’s true of all social institutions. But let’s talk about what’s different about science from any other system of creating knowledge and organizing the process of finding truth. It’s strongly incentivized to correct its own mistakes.
Anna Krylov could get very famous tomorrow if she could, I don’t know, prove cold fusion, which a lot of people think is impossible. If she can disprove a standard hypothesis and substitute a better one, most knowledge-making systems, including the politicized ones, which start out by saying, “Here’s the truth, now we’re going to prove the truth, and you can’t deviate,” – they either correct their errors over centuries or not at all.
Science does it in…usually years. In the case of gay people, it was 17 years, I think. Let’s see – 1957 to 1973. I guess that’s 16 years to correct that mistake from the time it was uncovered to the time that psychiatry changed the manual – said that gay people were no longer seen as mentally ill.
That’s a revolution in social justice. It took people like me – until I was age 13, I was mentally ill. Had all kinds of devastating impacts on our employment, our standing in society, on our self-image… It was the work of a psychologist, Evelyn Hooker, doing scientific research who discovered that centuries of discrimination were completely unfounded. And 16 years later, that was reversed.
So, I think the editors of Nature Human Behavior have it wrong. Yes, there’s prejudice and bigotry in science and scientists, as in all institutions. The answer’s more and better science.
Anna: I agree with that, and this example is extremely powerful, I think, but I also want to maybe say [inaudible] [00:24:52] difference with individuals. So, it’s absolutely correct that people reflect their own societies – their times in which they live and operate – and their beliefs are shaped by the prevalent ideas in the society.
But at the same time, we should acknowledge that within scientific community, there were many, many people who were ahead of their times. And now their good deeds – and they contributed to the social progress. Just because they were able to see beyond their immediate environment.
And I care a lot about progress with women in science, women in the society, and I read many biographies of famous scientists like Maria [inaudible] [00:25:38], [inaudible], Maria Goeppert Myer. So, they lived in 19th, early 20th century, and these biographies are full of these heartbreaking details about what they had to endure to be able to do science and how society as not…accommodating them. Like Mari [inaudible] had to work as a governess to…raise some money to be able to go to France, where women were admitted to university because they weren’t admitted to universities in Poland.
So, at the same time, there were enough male colleagues – mentors – who supported these women, who advocated for them, who promoted their research – encouraged them – and collectively, they did contribute to change of the opinion around it.
So, scientists – not all scientists were bigot. Even those scientists have [inaudible]
Jonathan: I certainly didn’t mean to imply that most scientists are bigots. Far from it. Two things are true: the first is what you just said. Scientists have been at the forefront of advancing moral progress again and again. The greatest of the Soviet dissidents, Andre Sakharov, was a physicist. The greatest of American gay rights advocates, Frank [inaudible], was a PhD, Harvard-trained astronomer.
Then, the second thing is also through, which is that throughout history, the single most important force in advancing the rights of minorities and ending ignorance and oppression has been the advance of knowledge – and well ahead of whatever is No. 2. And the notion that a group of bureaucrats editing a publication can somehow…bestride that process, look down on the universe, and figure out “What’s the next piece of research that will advance moral inquiry or minority rights?” is ludicrous.
People have tried this for centuries. The Catholic church tried it in the time of Galileo…federal government’s doing it right now with the way it tries to repress research into, for example, health harms of guns, health benefits of cannabis.
And again, and again, and again, people who set themselves as the arbiters of the direction of science and knowledge fail. All they do is interpose their own prejudices and their own political viewpoints between the scholars doing the work and the audiences that need to evaluate the work.
Anna: I’m really amazed by the arrogance with which they do that. And you said it very well in the ending piece of the article – like, [inaudible] [00:28:18] editors that thinks themself as the world saviors that understand and can predict those harms in the future. And unfortunately, this phenomenon is very widespread, and we have a lot of interference with the science, and this Nature Human Behavior article is just one example of that.
The article that caught my attention was the paper from [inaudible] National Academy of Sciences, and it wasn’t an editorial written by a few editors but a science paper where they argue for the urgent need to institute ethics research boards for scientific funding.
So, they want to use ideas of possible harms of science to be prerequisite of scientific findings. So, basically, what they want to do – they want to quench particular type of research before it even starts. So, I think it’s even worse than trying to prevent research from being published.
Jonathan: Nico, I know you’re trying to get a word in edgewise, but we’re marginalizing you. Another example of this: at Princeton University in 2020, after the Floyd riots, a whole bunch of faculty – Nico, I think it was a couple hundred, right? …signed a letter making a series of demands, and one of those demands was that Princeton should appoint an anti-racism committee that would preemptively judge all of the scholarship being done by Princeton scholars in order to make sure that it was properly anti-racist.
Nico: That’s academic justice there, Jonathan. It’s what the student in 2014 at Harvard was advocating for. It’s a politicization – or an insertion of ideology into the scientific process. And Professor Krylov, I wanna ask you about that because our listeners might…hear from your accent, you were born in the Soviet Union, right? You have…some experience with ideology being inserted into the scientific process, and that’s the first half of your piece, The Peril of Politicizing Science.
You talk about how the Soviet Union was hamstrung in its scientific development because it saw, for example, quantum mechanics and general relativity as bourgeois pseudoscience, for example, and it was only when it was struck with the reality and the competition from the west that Stalin kind of backed off on that and allowed, for example, nuclear research, seeing that…they weren’t gonna be able to develop a nuclear weapon…without putting that aside.
Anna: Yeah. The parallels are quite obvious, but I was criticized for making these comparisons, but I think they’re justified.
So, the kind of important parallel between soviet times and what we see now is that ideology was taking precedence over all other aspects of the society and scientific enterprise. And it was justified. [Inaudible] [00:31:39] going around doing what we are supposed to do, we all were serving – were supposed to serve – the big goal, big aim, which in our time was promoting a world revolution, and we were supposed to do everything through the lens of how what we do advances goal of proletariat dominance.
And research topics were always scrutinized by committees of…commissars, of people appointed by the party to see whether they aligned with ideas of Marxism-Leninism. And how did they do it? Well, in the same way as, you know, you cannot define “harm”, it’s not really easy to define how some chemistry ideas are aligned with Marxism-Leninism.
So, some decisions were pretty random and hard to explain. I failed to explain, for example, why the theory of resonance or why quantum mechanics were considered to be not aligned with Marxism-Leninism. But if you scrutinize Russian literature, you will see that sometime, cybernetics – computer research – was considered to bourgeois and western and was suppressed.
Then, you see when the restrictions were slightly lifted, many scientists were writing papers explaining in great detail why cybernetics is not…antagonistic to Marxism-Leninism and therefore should constitute a legitimate field of research…and so on.
So, yeah – the example you mentioned: nuclear weapons. That’s, I think, an exception rather than…proof. It’s only one documented example with Soviet regime backed off this practice of regulating science, and in this case, Stalin and Beria were talking to [inaudible] [00:33:43], who told that – a prominent physicist.
And Beria ask him, “What [inaudible] [00:33:49]? So, what do you think about it?” He say, “I wouldn’t say what it means in terms of Marxism-Leninism, but [inaudible] nuclear [inaudible].” And that was sufficient, at this time, to let physicists be for a while.
But in other cases, such as biology, such as [inaudible] and…genetics being declared…metaphysical and bourgeois science, the…research was suppressed for a couple of decades, and that had devastating consequences in Soviet Union and also beyond in China, where this idea [inaudible].
Jonathan: Lot of people starved as a result.
Anna: Many millions, yeah. So, that’s…
Nico: Well, we’ve been talking in this conversation about research that gets proposed to journals or goes through the academic, scientific process, but Professor Krylov, in your article, The Peril of Politicizing Science, you talk about other phenomena in science…which is an attempt to almost purify science around ideology.
Now, you start your article by talking about the city that you grew up in – Hughesovka – which underwent three name changes during your lifetime in almost subservience of different ideologies. So, it was originally named after a Welsh industrialist named John Hughes, and then, when the Bolsheviks came to power in the 1917 revolution, the new government of the working class, the Soviets, set out to purge cities of their…impure, western influence.
So, it got renamed after that. And then, in 1924, the city became the namesake of the new supreme leader of the Communist Party, Stalin, then was renamed Stalino. And then, what’s it called today, Professor?
Nico: Donetsk. Is that the same Donetsk in eastern Ukraine?
Anna: Yes, that’s the place.
Nico: Underwent three name changes. But you’re saying this sort of thing’s happening in science too. And that’s what really interests me.
You talk about how – I’m just trying to find it here in my notes… There’s a comment in Nature, the journal, for example, that calls for replacing the accepted technical term “quantum supremacy” with quantum advantage – I guess the idea being that supremacy is associated with…
Anna: Yeah, with white supremacy. But it’s already outdated. I was at the recent conference, and “advantage” now I think also considered to be not fully politically correct, and people using “quantum benefit” as less ableism, I think. So…
Nico: Well, this is the thing. And then, you cite an example here – Dove Soap. You cite an article. “Maker of Dove Soap Will Drop the Word ‘Normal’ From Beauty Products.” Unilever, which owns brands like Dove, said a study had found that the word “normal” makes most people feel excluded, and a spokesperson said it would remove the word from 200 products.
But I mean, more on point, you talk about how there’s a movement in science…to stop attaching names to scientific concepts and discoveries – for example, Archimedes’ Principle. Newton’s Laws of Motion…is being renamed as what? The three laws of…
Anna: “Three important laws of nature” or something like that.
Nico: Yeah, removing Newton from it. The authors – I am quoting you here – call for vigilance in naming discoveries and assert that “basing the name with inclusive priorities may provide a path to a richer, deeper, and more robust understanding of the science and it’s advancement.”
I don’t know. I learned about Newton’s Laws of Motion. I don’t know that I’ll have a better understanding of what you’re talking about if you just refer to, generally, some laws of motion. And it seems like we’re trying to purify the science and sniff out bias, discrimination where it doesn’t exist because are antennae are attuned to find it in the darkest crevices.
Anna: Well, I mean, you mentioned this too – there’s two separate things. One is the [inaudible] [0:38:56] language that we see developing, and yeah, the word “normal” – I was criticized for suggesting that if things continue to go the way they are, we will not be able to say “normal pH” or “normal distribution.”
People say, “Oh, no, no. That’s an exaggeration. It will never happen.” But guess what? It does happen. Recently, there was a article in the…I think Scientific American where the author complained about “normal distribution” and was saying that it’s really discriminatory, and…alienating, and…
Nico: I mean, it gets crazy, Professor. And I guess I probably can’t say “crazy” either, but it gets absurd. We had a case where a building was named after a benefactor who had no history of anything that one might suggest today would get you in trouble, but the benefactor’s last name happened to be “Lynch”.
And so, you can imagine what the outcry was there. It’s like we’re just erasing nuance. It’s like we’re throwing common sense out the window in service of a broader ideology, and it’s gonna hurt the sciences, and it’s gonna just hurt…
Anna: It’s more than that. So, we can talk about [inaudible] [00:40:12] as one line and another one buildings, and awards, and that sort of thing. Now, some people say, “Oh, it just silly. Why do you care? People rename a building [inaudible] more inclusive name. It’s not even related to scientific contributions like in case of Newton.”
And my concern with that is that first of all, it’s really silly, and if you think about possible impact of building renaming. For example, Cal Tech recently renamed library named after Millikan, a famous physicist who was first determine a charge of electron and all that. This experiment is described in high school physics books. And he also contributed a lot for shaping Cal Tech into what it is now. He was for many years serving as president.
So, his name was removed from the building for his…association with organizations that was eugenic – which, at the time, was very widespread belief. So, how this process proceeded: so, the Cal Tech established a giant committee with historians, and that entails already some money that could be spent better.
For example, I do not know how much Cal Tech [inaudible] cost, but another example from Iowa where they want to rename a building named after a famous suffragist [inaudible] because she said something inappropriate by today’s standards.
So, university paid $35,000.00 to consult a firm who is supposed to evaluate all evidence and come up with recommendations. So, there is a lot of resources of money and people spend on this.
At the same time, it’s really meaningless activity. If you think about people – I talk to people, to students, to colleagues, to some famous colleagues, and you hear stories about how, in their life, there were events and people that made changes in their career and helped them to develop their potential.
You hear stories about mentors, supportive spouses, parents, inspiring teachers, books that pique their interest and motivate it. Can you imagine 20 years later, we hear from some successful scientist, “Yeah, I didn’t know what to do with my life, but then I heard that Cal Tech renamed the building and removed the name of Millikan from it. And that’s what really inspired me and made a big change in my career.
So, this is really, I think…shamelessly useless kind of…waste of human resources, and money, and…yeah. So, that’s one reason I’m…
Nico: Jonathan, I’m curious kind of what you think of the cancelling of scientists, so to speak. Professor Krylov also talks about how some of these arguments can be extended to Heisenberg, who led Germany’s nuclear weapons program, Schrodinger, who had romantic relations with [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:43:31]
Anna: They already took Schrodinger down in Dublin. So, I [inaudible] before, and [inaudible] recommendation [inaudible]
Jonathan: You need to be more careful, Professor Krylov.
Nico: But it seems like, I mean, it’s a separate argument, sort of, from whether the arguments can get into the academic discussion in the first place from whether we purify or kind of remove unsavory figures from names of scientific principles from the past.
One seems to be just an exercise more on making… There just seems to be a little bit of a difference. One is more inhibiting of the scientific process. Another is…perhaps obnoxious but not as inhibiting. Or, maybe I’m missing something. I mean, how do you see it, Jonathan?
Jonathan: Oh, I don’t actually particularly worry about building renamings. They may waste a little money, and time, and energy, but if a new generation comes along and wants to state its priorities differently, that’s what building names and statues are before, so…have at it.
Yale College renamed Calhoun College. John C. Calhoun was an advocate of slavery. I have no problem with that. So, I would distinguish that kind of…ordinary political…tussling from actively sticking a thumb on the scales of scientific research, which is what is happening at Nature Human Behavior. It’s what conservatives are doing in state legislatures on issues like critical race theory. It’s what’s happened down through history – not just the USSR and certain quarters in America, but everywhere…where you’ve seen scientific progress, you’ve seen…political actors attempting to contain, suppress, or direct scientific activity, and that’s what we’re seeing again.
I would have a question, if there’s time, for Professor Krylov. Is that all right, Nico? Are we…running short? So, you’re a bench scientist, right? You do the research?
Anna: With computers. Not with real chemicals.
Jonathan: Well…I’m gonna steelman the argument for a second for Nature Human Behavior and say: look, let’s be realistic: how does it actually affect your day-to-day work knowing that some editors of a journal are going to look at potential harm and evaluate that as one of many criteria they use? Aren’t you exaggerating?
Anna: So, it affects my everyday life in many different ways, right? So, now, the main effect that we see is these ideas that some…people, names can be harmful or raising some questions can be harmful, it affects…mostly scientific enterprise, like how we hire students, how we reward achievements, how we give out research funding… So, this is what affects my everyday life the most.
For example, in funding applications, some agencies now require to specify how particular research will promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. So, if you cannot justify, you will be dismissed.
So, money’s very important for carrying out research in physical sciences, even computational research. So, these restrictions are very real. But Jonathan, what worries me more is that this…ideological control of science – it’s expanding very rapidly. And for example, in this paper that they mentioned from…proceedings of National Academy of Science, they thought not about social sciences. They talk about research such as chemistry. They talk about research that computational chemistry can be…subjected to this new requirement to evaluate potential harms.
So, let me just read couple of suggestions of these…proposed in this paper. They say that any harm to the society can be used to restrict funding for science, and they explicitly say potential harms to any population that could…arise following the research. For example, job loss due to automation.
So, any research that I do – let’s say we develop a better…energy solution. So, surely, it will lead to loss of jobs in some sectors – maybe in coal industry or in oil industry. So, does it mean that we should stop research for new energy sources because it will result in job loss in some population?
And examples of this type are growing, so my concern is that if we do not do anything against this intrusion of the ideology, in five years, it will present much bigger challenges for STEM and will affect our everyday lives even…more than it does now.
Nico: There’s a kind of politicization of the research as it happens, but there’s also that kind of pre-screening process that prevents anyone from getting into the academy unless they are conversant in the ideology, and you’re seeing that particularly in the State of California with the DEI requirements – the diversity, equity, and inclusion requirements.
In order to get hired in the first place or promote it, right? You, for example, can’t just be a great chemist. You also need to articulate how your chemistry supports diversity, equity, and inclusion. They seem to be separate things for me – and this is my personal opinion – this increased fixation – maybe it’s not increased; this has always exited throughout society – on the person and, potentially, their ideology and their politics as not being distinct from what other values they might contribute.
Anna: Well, that’s a violation of [inaudible] [00:50:23] principle of universalism, which says that the identity of scientist doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect the validity of their findings or intellectual merit of their findings. And now, this is again…thrown out of the window, and now, we are told that no, identity of the…future professors and educators should be part of the evaluation of their merit.
Nico: Yeah, you give a great example in your piece. In 1911, Marie Curie was ostracized for immoral behavior – an affair with a married man…following the tragic death of her husband, Pierre Curie.
The chair of the Nobel Prize committee wrote to her advising that she not attend the official ceremony for her Nobel Prize in chemistry in view of her questionable moral standing. Curie replied that she would be present at the ceremony because quote, “the prize has been given to her for her discovery of polonium and radium” and that there is no relation between her scientific work and the facts of her private life.
So, I mean, this isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. You see this in current science, right? Like James Watson, a scientist who won the Nobel Prize for work related to nucleic acid and identifying the double helix, and he also has ideas about IQ and the relation to racial groups that have essentially cut him out from the academy regardless of whether his work that he was performing in this laboratory is related to race and IQ. It’s not – because of his opinion on a separate issue.
And you have to wonder if there’s something to be lost by not sticking to that [inaudible] [00:52:16] principle.
Jonathan: Well, discourse is harmed. There’s a prominent recent example, which I know both of you know about, which is a man named Dorian Abbot, who’s an exoplanetary biologist, was invited to give a scientific lecture at MIT, but when people there discovered that he had written an opinion piece in Newsweek arguing that college admissions should be race blind and based only on merit, he was deplatformed – he was disinvited because people said that opinion is beyond the pale.
Now, what’s unusual is he was not being invited to MIT to talk about race-blind admissions. He was going to talk about exoplanetary biology. So, what you see there is exactly the same kind of phenomenon that we’ve seen down through the ages, which is the attempt to suppress science as a test to character.
One more thing I’d just add to the conversation, Nico, is that I think scientists should have open-minded attitudes and not bring politics to their work, but I understand that scientists are only human. And some of them will bring politics to their work; some of them will make bad judgments or wrong decisions.
The point, though, is that there are a lot of them, and if we have a sufficiently diverse intellectual climate, they will make different decisions, and in the long run and the medium run – actually, the fairly short run – we’ll be able to evaluate those decisions in public debate.
What gets scarier is when you bureaucratize scientific decision making. So, now, you have separate people in the diversity, equity, and inclusion office who are setting the rules about who gets hired or who gets tenured. They have to meet certain standards. Those standards become ideological.
Or, you have a handful of editors at Nature Human Behavior who appoint themselves the decision makers in what’s going to be the direction of scientific research rather than leaving it to a much broader and more diverse community. Once you have bureaucracies that are making these decisions and requiring the scientific community to submit in order to get funding or in order to get publication tenure, avoid investigation, then you’re in a world that’s much closer to the world where Anna Krylov grew up.
Nico: Well, you did say as a caveat there where you have sufficient ideological diversity, right? And part of the effort, I believe, with these DEI initiatives, is to take a situation, for example – and we can talk about the social sciences here, where this might matter more – where in some New England colleges, you have one conservative for every 40 liberals on campus, you get this kind of groupthink mentality and you remove the institutional disconfirmation that comes from the academic process where biases check biases.
And I just don’t see how this will create anything more than a politically and ideologically homogenous community by implementing these DEI requirements for hiring and tenure, and as a result, science and scholarship will suffer because you will not have anyone checking those biases because everyone…thinks the same.
Anna: Yeah, the…monoculture – the rise of monoculture on campuses as most immediate consequence of this, but as a physical scientist, I kind of like to look at concrete reasons – concrete dangers, and…as we were taught in Russia by [inaudible] [00:56:05] Karl Marx, you should look at who has a vested interest in this. And what worries me a lot is that these bureaucracies – [inaudible] bureaucracies – there is a big money behind it, and these activities – they create [inaudible] for many, many people.
To give you an idea how large these budgets are, the annual budget for last year for diversity, equity, and inclusion at UC Berkeley is $41,000,000.00, and most of it is going for administrator, and some of them have very large salaries, like six-digit salaries. So, that creates a huge conflict of interest, and if you think about it, if you have this bureaucracy with all these big incomes, and let’s ask a question – let’s say if you really have diversity problem on campus, and here, we created this bureaucracies – highly-paid bureaucrats. Do they have an interest to improve the situation? Because if you solve diversity problems, these jobs will become irrelevant, and they will lose their income.
So, I think this monetary…interest really makes these bureaucracies much more toxic and much more dangerous in the long run for our institutions because I cannot expect them to operate in a good faith, and I cannot expect them to be dedicated to the…title cause of their existence. So, that’s what worries me.
Jonathan: Something I point out in my article is: there’s been a crisis of confidence in academia. Public belief that universities are good for the country has fallen by 10 percentage points in just the past five years. And by polling standards, that’s a catastrophic drop.
A lot of that is because the public now thinks that people in academia are all leftwing and all pursuing a political agenda. I don’t think that’s true. I think there are huge reserves of professionalism, and integrity, and brilliance in academia, but everything about the Nature Human Behavior approach to this problem of creating a screen of saying, “We’re setting standards for social harm and social justice. They’re going to involve groups, not individuals. They’re going to involve equity over privilege,” – all of this further communicates to the public, “You know what? Science is not on the level. Science is leftwing.”
And that’s bad for science, it’s bad for universities, and it’s gonna heighten the crisis of credibility that higher education is experiencing.
Anna: There is actually research on that by Professor [inaudible] [00:59:09] from Harvard, I think, and what he showed – that public trust or mistrust in science correlates with how they perceive the extent of politicization of science. And when public perceives [inaudible] level of education.
So, basically, people can be vaccine deniers not because they are uneducated but because they see this issue to be politicized and they see that scientists act increasingly more like social justice warriors rather than, oh, you know, political…entities rather than unbiased researchers. And that’s a big harm for the society – this mistrust into science and the findings.
Nico: Yeah. I mean, that applies across institutions, right? The less trust there is in an institution, the less trustful of the outcome. You see this in the courts, right? If you lose trust in the courts, you are gonna lose trust or you’re gonna be less willing to accept the outcome of whatever a judge or a jury decides. It’s why it’s so important to keep the process fair.
To Jonathan’s point, to put the statistics out there, according to Pew Research Center, from 2015 to 2019, the share of Americans saying colleges and universities have a quote “negative effect” on the country rose from 28% to 38% – a 10% increase in the view that colleges and universities have a negative effect, and I’d like to see the numbers today, but I do wanna ask as a closing question here because we are running out of time – or, maybe we’re already out of time – will science win in the long run?
You look, for example, at that example we talk about in the Soviet Union, Dr. Krylov, about how they tried to ideologize nuclear physics but were eventually faced with the reality of how detrimental that was to progress. Will we see that in this context as well if ideology does overtake science? Will, in the end, the people come to respect the scientific method, and process, and those Mertonian principles you discussed early on?
Anna: Well, that’s what many people are trying to communicate to public and to politicians – that we don’t have this luxury just to…engage in this politicization of science. We face urgent issues, we have to deal with climate problem, with energy problem, with pandemics. We also should remember that we operate in a global scene, and if you undermine our scientific and technological standing – which already happened – we already lost our leadership to China in many domains, and it’s documented by recent technology indicators.
So, it is a serious problem. Now, unfortunately, people who promote identity-based ideology – they seem to be…[inaudible] [01:02:28], and their argument is that…diversity is answer for everything, and increasing diversity, somehow, miraculously, will improve science.
And I think this claim’s kind of confusing people, and I think not everyone understands the dangers of…subjugating the scientific process to these ideological controls.
Nico: Well, I think we’ll have to leave it there. We’re…just eclipsing an hour. Professor Anna Krylov, Jonathan Rauch, I thank you both for coming on the show.
Anna: Was a pleasure.
Jonathan: Honor to be here.
Nico: Again, for those who are interested in checking it out, there are two articles linked in the show notes here. Jonathan’s article is Nature Human Misbehavior: Politicized Science is Neither Science nor Progress, and that can be found at thefire.org – on FIRE’s website – and then, of course, Professor Anna Krylov’s article, the Peril of Politicizing Science, which can be found in the journal of physical chemistry.
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