A previous post, How to Make Universities Mediocre, examined the illiberalism, censorship, and expectations of ideological conformity at some universities. This surrounds extreme postmodernist social justice activist movements.
Wherever it comes from and for whatever the cause, such illiberalism distorts and suppresses science and academic research. This in turn hurts society and often the activists’ very causes.
Freedom of inquiry, expression and debate are essential to science and academic research. Science is supposed to be about objectively as possible acquiring knowledge wherever it leads. Science and research often lead to important discoveries that are novel, unexpected and contrary to prevailing wisdom.
The American Psychological Association’s resolution on Freedom of Scientific Inquiry and Publication is: “A productive and healthy science requires freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression. Researchers must be free to pursue their scientific investigations within the constraints of the ethical principles, scientific principles, and guidelines of the discipline. Editors, too, after seeking appropriate peer review, must be free to publish that science in their journals even when findings are surprising, disappointing, or controversial.”
History is full of pressure on scientists and academics by the government, society, and churches
Socrates was killed by authorities for his inquiries. Galileo was forced by the Catholic Church to renounce his scientific theories. The Nazis forbade the use of “non-Aryan physics,” including Einstein’s theory of relativity. Religious leaders forbade Italian mathematicians from using the numeral zero because they felt it a product of the Devil.
Such pressure has slowed and even stopped scientific research, causing not just intellectual but material damage to society.
For ideological reasons, the Soviet Union stopped the entire field of agricultural genetics replacing it with pseudoscientific practices. This led to widespread crop failure and famine. United States Federal banning of the use of embryo stem cells and fetal tissue in research for religious reasons prevents life-saving medical treatments including for cancer. Political and ideological pressures on medicine and science communication during the Covid pandemic led to thousands of needless deaths.
There also is a long history of such pressure on scientists and academics coming from within academia and universities
These pressures come both from political and ideological influences from general society and from within academia and campuses.
The important astrophysics work by Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar was suppressed by political forces within academia, slowing scientific progress. When introduced, physicist Hugh Everett’s revolutionary nuclear physic theories were so widely ridiculed that Everett left physics. Howard Temin’s novel theories about RNA and DNA led to his ridicule in academic circles
Scientists are human, and scientists and scientific organizations are susceptible to all the human frailties, including cognitive and social biases, blind spots groupthink. Science and universities have long reflected the prejudices of general society, including involving racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Working to rid science and universities of such biases is an eternal process.
Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn wrote how science has dominant paradigms that are influenced by social and psychological forces. Physics Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes wrote, “Much public thinking follows a rut. The same thing is true in science. People get stuck and don’t look in other directions.”
Science is imperfect and often slow, but forward-moving. Chandrasekhar’s, Temin’s and Everett’s were eventually accepted, with Chandrasekhar and Temin years later awarded Nobel Prizes.
History repeats: Examples of academic illiberalism today and the damage it causes
Many scientists have complained that departments, university governance and once respected science magazines such as Nature and Scientific American have been overtaken by extreme social justice ideologies. They complain that these publications publish ideological and political pieces that have nothing to do with science, and that some editors refuse to publish a diversity of views. This has damaged the scientific credibility of the publications and leads to public distrust of science.
Professor Jerry Coyne, recently wrote: “There’s no longer any doubt that one of the main missions of Scientific American involves not the dissemination of science, but pushing a ‘progressive’ Democratic ideology on its readers. What this has to do with science is beyond me. In fact, it has nothing to do with science; it has to do with the editor, Laura Helmuth, publishing op-ed after op-ed that agrees with her own political views.”
Neuroscientist Debra Soh wrote, “There is activism and there is science. Activist science, no matter how passionate or well-intentioned, is not science.”
The replacement of facts with ideology, subjective views and mythology
An evolutionary biologist, champion of academic freedom and critic of organized religion, Jerry Coyne is professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, and author of the book Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. Politically left, pro-choice and a former anti-war activist, Coyne expresses frustration at the failure of today’s political liberals to uphold the traditionally left values of freedom of speech and expression.
He has also decried how extreme progressive social justice activism has corrupted scientific research, including promoting social ideology as settled fact, and subjective ideas as objective truths. He says that, as with any ideology, such ideology has no place in science. He says the ideological corruption has produced misinformation and outright scientific falsehoods.
He decries the idea that the subjective viewpoints of minorities are to be taken as unquestionable ruth-telling, and those who say that aboriginal mythology claims are to be taken as unquestionable facts.
Oxford University biologist and fellow religion critic Richard Dawkins has similarly criticized those who equate mythology with science, and legends for objective facts.
Coyne, Dawkins and others have pointed out that accepting aboriginal myths as facts is religious fundamentalism akin to accepting as object fact that Mary was a virgin, Noah’s ark was real and Jesus was the Son of God.
New Zealand wants to teach aboriginal myth alongside science in science classes. Coyne points out that New Zealand aboriginal mythology has a creationist story, meaning that they would be teaching creationism in science class. Coyne and Dawkins say there is a place for mythology and aboriginal “different ways of thinking” in schools, but not in science classes.
Williams College biology professor Luana Maroja recently wrote of her concerns about how extreme and intolerant social justice activist threatens scientific research and free inquiry, writing, “What scientists are able to teach and what research we can pursue are under attack. I know because I’m living it.”
In her editorial “An Existential threat to Doing Good Science,” Maroja wrote, “I had a colleague who, during a conference, was criticized for studying female sexual selection in insects because he was a male. Another was discouraged from teaching the important concept of ‘sexual conflict’—the idea that male and female interests differ and mates will often act selfishly; think of a female praying mantis decapitating the head of the male after mating—because it might ‘traumatize students.’ I was criticized for teaching ‘kin selection’—the idea that animals tend to help their relatives. Apparently, this was somehow an endorsement of Donald Trump hiring his daughter Ivanka.”
Political biases creating blind spots
A large 2021 Emory University study showed that authoritarians within the left and right share key psychological traits. However, it wasn’t until recently that academia recognized this authoritarianism in the left. They tended to associate authoritarianism only with the right.
Sally Satel, a psychiatrist and lecturer at Columbia University, writes that she believes this is because academics are disproportionately politically left so were less able to identify authoritarianism traits involving causes they support.
Satel says this is an example why, in the name of science and sound research, departments need diversity of political and ideological beliefs.
The Cancellation of an economist whose research conclusions countered progressive ideology
An economist and winner of the MacArthur Award and Bates Medal, Roland Fryer was the second youngest tenured professor and the youngest tenured black professor in Harvard’s history. An independent thinker and data-cruncher, he did groundbreaking studies on crime, police, and race data. His published conclusions countered the prevailing and dominant anti-racist ideology. He in part concluded that defunding police would increase crime and homicides of blacks in black neighborhoods.
Fryer was suspended from Harvard and his lab closed down due to what many believe were trumped-up charges of sexual harassment and without fair hearing or proper due process. His supporters believe this was done because of his heterodox viewpoints.
Brown University economics professor Glenn Loury wrote, “In my opinion and that of many others, those accusations are baseless. But Harvard has used them as a pretext to shut down Roland’s lab, to curtail his teaching, and to marginalize him within the institution . . . I’ll not mince words. Those at Harvard responsible for this state of affairs should be utterly ashamed of themselves. They have unnecessarily, heedlessly tarnished the career of a historically great economist. Again, I can’t help but suspect that they have effectively buried vital research not because it was poorly done but because they found the results to be politically inconvenient. ‘Veritas’ indeed.”
Freyer ultimately proved to be something of a sage, with his ideas later on being better understood and accepted, including within the Democratic Party.
A similar situation was when Democrat data and political polling expert David Shor posted a tweet during the 2020 racial justice uprisings and rioting showing that rioting hurts the Democrats’ support from the public. While his post was accurate, racial justice activists thought it harmful and Shor was fired from his polling agency. Democrats later realized that what he posted was not only accurate but important insight for the part
Suppression of debate and research on trans and LGBT+ issues
As with any area, transgender issues, including as it relates to LGBT+, women’s rights, feminism and medical issues are complex. However, there has been a vocal extreme, militant fringe of trans rights activists that works to prevent any debate and the expression of any ideas that counter their extreme dogma. This includes intimidating and silencing trans people and lesbians with different opinions.
Such extreme illiberalism, censorship and public bullying stifle important and reasoned debate on essential topics and have stifled research including into medical issues. It also suppresses the diversity of viewpoints within LGBT+, and many believe hurts the very social justice cause.
Whether race, ethnicity, disability, nationality or gender, for or any demographic there is no one voice, no one view, no one theory, no one language, no one way of looking at the world. Respecting any demographic is knowing and respecting that there is a wide variety of philosophies, political persuasions, language, and opinions in the group. Censorship, illiberalism, and expectations of ideological and political conformity oppress members in all groups, majority and minority.
In an editorial, a Canadian transgender woman wrote, “Personally I’ve found this toxic, in-your-face activism overly confrontational. I believe it creates more, not less, animosity toward the trans movement . . . . We live in a pluralistic, democratic society and everyone has the right to express their views or opinions on laws or policies that impact their lives, rights and security.”
Stephen Whittle, a British transgender man, law professor, and the founder of the trans rights group Press For Change, said, “Trans academics have mostly tried really hard not to accuse, and certainly not to ‘no platform’ anybody. Yet these voices are making trans people look like the extremists. Sadly, it will have the effect of shutting down the debate.”
Debbie Epstein, a culture studies professor, lesbian, and author of the Challenging Lesbian And Gay Inequalities In Education, said, “I grew up in South Africa under apartheid and was involved in politics from my teens, and not since I left there in the 1960s have I been as scared of speaking out as I am on this issue now. I have seen the toxicity of this debate and how other academics have been treated and that is frightening.”
Extreme ideology and illiberalism have corrupted and undermined medical research and practices. This was the case in Britain’s Travisock clinic which was recently shut down by the government and the subject of patient lawsuits for unsound medical and ethical practices based on ideology.
Even when the causes are noble, academic illiberalism and censorship harm science and research. They hurt the credibility of academic and scientific institutions and lead to public distrust of science and universities. It hurts the social justice causes, where answers and progress are found via reasoned debate and inquiry, and where extremism and bullying lead to backlash.
Ironically and tellingly, much of the initially criticized and suppressed work by David Shor to Travistock whistleblower nurse Sue Evans was eventually accepted and adopted, including by many of the social justice activists.