We must break the hold of illiberal ideology and return to our collective senses—to stop self-censoring out of fear of the crowd and excusing stupidity in the name of political allyship and to begin defending plurality, humanism, and democracy.
My colleagues feared I would come to regret what I did earlier this year: I openly spoke out against the infiltration of illiberal ideology 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 experiences growing up in the Soviet Union, where communist "ideology pervaded all parts of life, and survival necessitated absolute devotion to the party line and exuberant demonstrations of ideologically appropriate behavior." I saw that, just as it had been the case in my time, some names and concepts are now outlawed within academics for ideological reasons. My hometown, Yuzovka, had been renamed Trotsk (after Leon Trotsky), Stalino when Trotsky was ousted, and finally Donetsk after Stalin was posthumously erased 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. Nonetheless, the outcome astounded me. Despite some attempts to have me removed from the list, I received a flood of supportive emails from others who share my concern about the process by which radical political doctrines are being injected into STEM pedagogy, and objective science is being subjected to regressive moralization and censorship. The strong positive-to-negative response ratio (even on Twitter!) gave me optimism that the silent liberal majority inside STEM would (finally) triumph over illiberal forces.
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 up on this, physicist Alexander Efros told me that his father, a Soviet chemist who used resonance theory in his own research, was so concerned about official condemnations of this "metaphysical science" that, in 1952, he kept a small suitcase full of warm clothes near the front door of the family home, expecting to be arrested and deported.
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 the only attendee at the 1948 Meeting of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences to speak up against Lysenko. 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.”
"Three thousand years ago, complexity was accepted," Baer continued, acknowledging the complexity of human nature and the protagonists of history. In the Old Testament, King David is shown as a magnificent man with moral flaws. He was the leader of a gang of robbers, extortionists, and assassins. As a king, he orchestrated the killing of Uriah the Hittite, the beautiful Bat Sheva's husband, simply so he could have her. God severely chastised David for his transgressions. His imperial magnificence, however, was retained."
A description of some personally witnessed or experienced incidence of cancel culture, or of the incursion of politics into scientific instruction, appeared in about a quarter of the approximately 200 email comments I received. With a few exceptions, these writers indicated they were afraid of being associated with others who were opposed to the movement. "The situation in STEM is unmistakably Orwellian," observed one writer, who asked to remain anonymous. "I'm frequently afraid of expressing the Wrong point of view, which leads to self-censorship. Worse, I occasionally feel compelled to make a remark (a social performance) stating that I agree with the Correct point of view."
"I came [over] your opinion... while going around Twitter over the weekend," another correspondent commented. Unsurprisingly, a Twitter mob... banded together to demand that this piece be removed from the JPCL. I'm disgusted by this conduct... Instead of just shutting down ideas like these, they should be vigorously and completely addressed and contested. I'm a black homosexual man who apparently belongs to the same group of individuals that [the mob] is trying to defend. However, I do not believe I am safe or protected. As a result, I often keep silent on social media sites, worried that my future career in research may be jeopardized."
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.”
There was some of the criticism I got that deserved a reaction. Those who questioned why my piece didn't address political infiltration from both right-wing and left-wing sources fall into this group. To respond, I should point out that conservatives have historically attempted to impose their opinions on science, from creationism to climate change, stem-cell research, and COVID policy. However, these examples are well-known, and there is little disagreement among scientists regarding the necessity to reject such demands. The danger posed by the radical left, on the other hand, is more difficult to discern and combat since it frequently receives official acceptance under euphemism names like social justice, diversity, inclusion, and equity. And being labeled "anti-social justice" in 2021 isn't all that different from being labeled "bourgeois" in the Soviet Union 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 wonder if I am concerned about societal injustices, the answer is yes. We must discuss tax reform, police reform, universal health care, subsidized child care, crime reduction, and, most importantly, enhancing educational access. We must explore the factors that contribute to the underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM fields and devise solutions to these issues (they are not simple). None of this, however, has anything to do with the causes that draw the most visible and aggressive social-justice activists to college 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.
The claim that by condemning the extreme left, I am playing into the hands of the extreme right was one line of argumentative resistance I faced (by which these correspondents meant Trump supporters, in particular). It's the same kind of argument that's been used throughout history to avoid — or even suppress — criticism of those who are seen 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 must break the hold of illiberal ideology and return to our collective senses—to stop self-censoring out of fear of the crowd and excusing stupidity in the name of political allyship and to begin defending plurality, humanism, and democracy. It's past time for the liberal majority's silent majority to stand up.