Sunday, August 29, 2021

More on the "politicization of science"


Biomedical scientist Andreas Bikfalvi has responded to my own responses to Anna Krylov’s article in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters. So here is another round of the debate.


Bikfalvi criticizes me mainly for “largely miss[ing] the points” of Krylov’s piece. He says “Nowhere in Krylov’s viewpoint is the issue of improving diversity in science discussed.” I find it hard to figure out if this is disingenuous, or if Bikfalvi is arguing in good faith but simply does not understand his own terms of reference. Krylov criticizes an “ideology” that “cancels” Newton for being white, and which calls for “decentering whiteness”, “decolonizing” the curriculum, and removing from use terms associated with a racist past or that are deemed to promote racism and colonialism. We can argue about the rights and wrongs of particular cases in that enterprise; personally I suspect will not be hard to find examples where that effort has been taken into rather fanciful territory. Parading such extreme examples in order to argue a general case is, however, a strategy better suited to the tabloid press than to serious discourse.*


But part of the motivation behind such attempts to reconsider the way we use language – a practice that has always been necessary and important as social mores and boundaries evolve – is that there are clear links between the lack of diversity in science (and other areas of academia) and the unwelcome environment perceived by some people of colour, from ethnic minorities, or women or LGBTQ people because of the way outmoded or alienating terms persist in use. (Take, for example, the continuing technical use of “Causasian” as a racial group, which originated within a racist assumed racial hierarchy.**) In my article I mentioned the example of the “dude wall”: a wall covered with images of illustrious alumni of the past, all of them white men. Bikfalvi, and I believe Krylov, seem to me to be arguing that the gender and race of those scientists should be irrelevant, and that this sort of situation is therefore fine. Plenty of women and people of colour will disagree. So yes, of course these are matters relevant to diversity and inclusion in science.


So too is the problem of racial or sexual harassment – a problem recently shown to be rife in the astronomy community, although that is by no means unique. Bikfalvi quotes Yves Gingras, who has criticized the NSF’s policy of potentially withdrawing funding from scientists found guilty of sexual harassment. (I have to wonder why Bikfalvi does not explain that this is what he means by “[inappropriate] social behaviour”.) We must assume that Bikfalvi is, then, unhappy at seeing scientists seriously penalized for engaging in behaviour that is known to have driven some women out of their research positions and sometimes out of science altogether. I guess we must assume that he feels the same way about racial harassment – that, perhaps, it’s a terrible thing but should not for a moment become a reason why scientists who perpetrate it should be inhibited from continuing their precious science. And if science loses some women or people of colour from its ranks as a result, I suppose that is the price we must pay for genius.


No, please do not tell me this is not an issue about diversity.


Bikfalvi, like Krylov, is in fact deeply policitized in his comments. Krylov, for example, suggests we have two choices:


“We can succumb to extreme left ideology and spend the rest of our lives ghost-chasing and witch-hunting, rewriting history, politicizing science, redefining elements of language, and turning STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education into a farce. Or we can uphold a key principle of democratic society—the free and uncensored exchange of ideas—and continue our core mission, the pursuit of truth, focusing attention on solving real, important problems of humankind.”


To suggest that a call to examine the biases that evidently exist (as shown in the studies I cited, and many more) in the demographic and hiring practices of science is to “succumb to extreme left ideology” is absurd and offensive. Krylov is prepared to offer no middle way: for example, to re-examine the “scientific idols” of the past, as I did for Peter Debye (and other physicists working in Nazi Germany) in my book Serving the Reich, in a way that does not seek to simplistically condemn them with presentist purism, but instead to honestly and even sympathetically recognize their personal and political failings.


Similarly, Bikfalvi asks whether I want “want racial discrimination based on the importation of critical race theory (CRT) in the medical praxis or… a socially egalitarian evidence-based medicine preserved?” This invocation of the much contested CRT (which I never mentioned myself) is itself thoroughly politicized and at odds with his posture of objectivity. Of course I believe “socially egalitarian evidence-based medicine” would be a good thing. But sadly, there is unequivocal evidence that medicine today suffers from racial biases, as for example documented in Angela Saini’s book Superior – or indeed, as made abundantly clear in the Covid-19 pandemic. This is not some pernicious trait of medicine – it has the same roots as the racism, bias and discrimination that exists in our societies generally. I believe it would be a good thing to acknowledge that, and to tackle it.


Bikfalvi’s article (like Krylov’s) is filled with these false choices. “For instance, should a professor attempt to indoctrinate their mentees (students and post-docs) and transform them into activists, or should the professor instead teach them how to think?” Well now, let me think about that difficult choice! Perhaps we might ask too, for example, “Should professors teach their students to be Marxists who banish from consideration any ideas that do not conform to their rigid extreme-left ideology, or should they teach them to be good scientists?” I genuinely don’t understand how anyone can expect this mode of debate to be taken seriously; it is, in fact, profoundly anti-intellectual. 


Bikfalvi then asserts that I “want to imbue science with a homogeneous political ideology”. I am not sure which ideology he means, but I suppose I must assume this is the “extreme left ideology” that Krylov seems to perceive in any effort to re-examine the barriers that exist to improving diversity in science. It is total nonsense, but a kind of dog-whistle nonsense attuned to a particular audience, with whom I see it has already resonated.


Let me, though, answer one of these contrived questions Bikfalvi poses. “Should scientists be judged on their scientific merits alone, or “cancelled” when failings — as judged by deviance from contemporary moral values — occur?” No and no. Well, that was easy, wasn’t it?


For this is of course a ridiculous as well as an ambiguous question, which evidently doesn’t present two mutually incompatible options. Bikfalvi, like Krylov, is blurring two separate issues here. In her original article, Krylov says:

“Particularly relevant is Merton’s principle of universality, which states that claims to truth are evaluated in terms of universal or impersonal criteria, and not on the basis of race, class, gender, religion, or nationality. 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 scientists or a current political agenda.”


But the second claim is not Merton’s principle, “simply put”. It is entirely different. Merton is talking about “claims to truth”; Krylov is talking not just about evaluating” but “rewarding” scientific contributions – presumably by naming conventions, memorials, commemorations, icons and hagiographies, and all the traditional paraphernalia that is surplus to “claims to truth” but which the scientific community has for some reason chosen to adorn itself with.


Should we, say, deny that the Stark effect is “true” because Stark was a Nazi? I won’t dignify a question that silly (which I hope is not the queston Bikfalvi intended to ask) with an answer. Should we judge Stark as a person because he supported Hitler and was virulently antisemitic? Yes, I believe we are justified in doing so. Should we honour Stark by naming a moon crater after him, on the grounds that he made an important scientific discovery? I would like to see Bikfalvi’s answer to that.


The IAU has made its own decision on the matter, which is: “Oops, no we shouldn’t, but we didn’t realise he was a Nazi.” Is the IAU’s renaming of Stark crater a “cancelling of Stark”? If so, Bikfalvi should also be petitioning to have the Lenard Institute at Heidelberg, named after Stark’s fellow Nazi Philipp Lenard, reinstated. Will he do so? If anyone were to be calling for Stark’s and Lenard’s Nobel prizes to be rescinded, or for the “Stark effect” to be expunged from textbooks, that would be more controversial – and I would not support it, even though it pains me to see Stark commemorated in that way. What I want is for Stark’s past to be better known (and not euphemized in the way Krylov did it), so that people don’t again make the mistake the IAU recognizes it made. And I dislike the way science fetishizes its individuals with all this naming, which, as I said in my article, seems to me to run counter to the spirit of science. We have to live with (and debate) the dilemmas of the past; it seems foolish to create new dilemmas for the future.


“Should Einstein be cancelled because of his disparaging remarks in his private diary about the Chinese?”, Bikfalvi asks (implicitly, of me). Well, he could have just taken the trouble to read what I’ve written about that question. (Trigger warning: contains nuance.)


The final reference to Savonarola makes me smile, in the way Krylov’s references to Galileo and Bruno make me smile. Which is to say, I will smile to avoid screaming at this trivialization of history. More seriously, such abuse of history to make cheap rhetorical points seems to me an egregiously common practice in science, and displays a shoddy attitude to history as an intellectual discipline. I’m sorry if that seems “inappropriate and patronizing”, but frankly it is kinder than the response such remarks will get from historians.




*Krylov cites the example of an American university professor suspended for voicing in his class a Chinese expression with a phonic similarity to a racial slur in English. Frankly I found that example so extreme – even (as a student of Chinese myself) offensively so – that I wondered if it was apocryphal. As far as I have been able to ascertain, it is not. (I contacted the university concerned for more information, but have not been given a response.) If the information I have found about this incident is correct, I fully agree that it seems outrageously inappropriate to treat it as a kind of misconduct.


**Krylov’s comment on “quantum advantage” is another example where we seem to be faced with a choice between attributing ignorance or bad faith. We are invited to imagine poor quantum scientists, having invented a perfectly innocent term, being petitioned by banner-waving critical race theorists for having committed the crime of celebrating violence and racism. But the truth is that those scientists themselves took a look at the political climate developing under the Trump administration and decided – rightly in my view – “you know what, perhaps this is not the best time to be bandying about words like ‘supremacy’.”

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