Censorship in the Sciences

J. Scott Turner and Mason Goad

The capture of academic science by its cultural, political, and philosophical enemies will soon be complete. The academic sciences are no longer the haven of independent thinkers and creative adventurers on science’s endless frontier. Rather, scientists now inhabit a censorious regime that requires conformity to a narrative of struggle of the oppressed—the darker-skinned, the differently chromosomed, the sexually heterodox—against a straight white male oppressor class. The new regime seeks to change the foundational purpose of science, its telos, from a search for knowledge to a quest for “liberation.”

The new class struggle is exemplified by a recent guest editorial titled “Words Matter: On the Debate over Free Speech, Inclusivity, and Academic Excellence.” The editorial was published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters and written by ten prominent chemists, who admonish their fellow scientists to correct their thinking.1 They urge their fellow chemists to acknowledge that “words have consequences” (did they ever not?) and to endorse censorship. This includes the politically-motivated forced withdrawal of accepted scientific papers, the disinvitation of distinguished scholars from prestigious lecture series, and the erasure of scientists’ names from their discoveries, buildings, and awards as a necessary corrective to thoughts, in some instances expressed many decades in the past, that contradict the current cultural narrative. Not to worry, say the editorial’s authors: these are simply the expressions of a “long overdue reckoning about values” (what values, exactly?).

We should worry, nevertheless. To be true to itself, science cannot subordinate itself to a political imperative. This is a lesson we have been taught many times, sometimes at great cost.2 Science’s current subordination to the “woke” narrative—a term whose concision outweighs its having become a cliché—is particularly damaging because that narrative is a lie. Hence, the censorship: lies can only be sustained by censoring those who speak out to expose their falsity. This is not science, but political control of science.

In the initial stages of a totalitarian regime, censorship is imposed by authority. For the past couple of years, administrators, funding agencies, accreditation boards, and academic publishers have been the agents imposing censorship rules upon unruly scientists. The ultimate goal of a totalitarian regime, however, is to make the ruled complicit in the lie by internalizing censorship—to self-censor. Self-censorship is what the editorialists are advocating.

The case of Professor Tomáš Hudlický, discussed prominently in the editorial, provides an illustrative example.3 In 2020, Prof. Hudlický, an organic chemistry professor at Brock University, published a memoir article in the journal Angewandte Chemie. Such articles are an honor often accorded to distinguished scientists near the end of their careers, to allow them to look back and offer their perspectives. These are not scientific articles, but they can liven up a field by allowing the author to speculate and opine, and to put a human face on science. In Hudlický’s memoir, which he intended to honor his own mentor, Professor Dieter Seebach, he dared to criticize several sacred cows of the new academic regime. These included the increasing focus on group identity rather than merit, concern over a rash of fraudulent publications, in particular emanating from Chinese scientists, and the eroding ethic of apprenticeship between professor and student.

Hudlický’s publication set off an outraged mob denouncing Hudlický’s comments as “abhorrent” and “egregious.” The journal retracted Hudlický’s paper, the journal’s editorial board resigned en masse, sanctions were threatened against the anonymous peer reviewers who had approved Hudlický’s manuscript, and Hudlický’s university reprimanded him publicly.4

How is this not censorship? To the authors of “Words Matter,” Hudlický’s treatment exemplifies the “reckoning about values” they prescribe. It silenced not only Hudlický’s direct challenge to the diversity regime but also his argument, widely shared among professional scientists, that the modern tendency of universities to treat students as financial assets rather than scientists-in-training had weakened students’ work ethic. This “reckoning about values,” not incidentally, silences protest about the administration of scientific institutions as much as it serves to silence argument against diversity ideology.

So, yes, words do matter, including when words are used willfully to distort a controversy, as the editorial’s authors do. Hudlický’s travails were not an example of “cancel culture,” the authors helpfully explain. Rather, they were an example of “consequences culture.” Hudlický had it coming, apparently. There is no censorship, they assure the reader, so long as a professor’s words are mobilized in service of “progressive” values. Blatant censorship is justified as “good faith efforts to foster collegiality and inclusivity by keeping bigotry at bay”—bigotry being defined, of course, as straying outside the progressive narrative. James Watson, William Shockley, Charles Murray, and Richard Herrnstein therefore can all be silenced in good conscience, sometimes violently so, when they restate well-established scientific findings on racial differences in IQ. Once that precedent has been established, any scientist can be silenced for saying anything that contradicts progressives’ hyper-egalitarian dogma. Scientists who advocate for free speech and decry “Twitter mobs and call-outs” can be denounced, with no sense of irony, as “hypocritical.” “We can do better,” the editorialists assert, although “do better” seems to mean “be more efficient” in assembling mobs to purge independent-minded scholars from the academy. George Orwell would smile.

The guest editorial in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, alas, is only the latest in a growing number of calls by scientists and scientific societies to evict intellectual freedom from scientific research and to internalize the censorship of the woke regime. More and more scientists seem eager to bend the knee to the censors, as the editorialists were, and science withers with each such genuflection. Why do they do so? We offer five observations on the causes behind scientists’ lurch toward abandoning their commitment to the intellectual freedom that makes science possible.

  • The identity politics that presently is gripping the sciences is not about justice or fairness or liberation of supposedly marginalized groups. Rather, there is a class struggle in play, with identity politics serving merely as a tool of domination by a new administrative-ideological elite. This new elite seeks to dominate science, not enable it, and it cannot tolerate any freedom of thought, association, or pursuit of self-interest that threatens its dogma or its power. This includes freedom of scientific thought.
  • Scientific institutions and scientific culture have abandoned the disinterested pursuit of truth, both by the meretricious substitution of ”impact” for discovery and by the ideological substitution of “social justice” for “truth.”
  • The decline of science’s ethic of discovery has been driven by the massive expansion of federal and other government funding of science in the aftermath of World War II. From this has emerged a tangled ball of collusion comprising university administrations, government funding agencies, governments, accreditation boards, and academic publishers, among others: the “Big Science Cartel” (BSC). As it is in all cartels, the BSC has only one motivating principle: self-aggrandizement.
  • In the BSC, scientists have value only insofar as they advance the interests of the cartel. This has transformed the sciences’ ethic of discovery into an ethic of production, where scientists’ careers are determined by how “productive” they are—that is to say, by how much revenue they can draw from granting agencies, both government and corporate. This has enriched and entrenched the interests of the BSC (one consequence being administrative bloat).  
  • The intellectually unruly and anarchic nature of the scientific enterprise is an obstacle to the BSC’s self-aggrandizement and must therefore be brought to heel. The primary protections of intellectual freedom, most prominently tenure, are now mostly fictional and easily evaded. Unruly thinkers, such as Amy Wax, Jordan Peterson, James Watson, and hundreds of other less prominent examples, can be suppressed by ginning up controversies that attract the grim attention of the modern Inquisition: Human Resources and Diversity officers.

From these five observations, we offer three conclusions.

  • The common denominator of all five trends has been the massive expansion of government funding of the sciences that followed World War II. Presently, the academic sciences are the subordinate client of an $80 billion government program, $130 billion if funding from other sources is added in. This largesse has funded scientific research, to be sure, but it has also fueled the growth of the Big Science Cartel and the censorious culture upon which it depends, which subordinates or negates genuine scientific achievements.5
  • Modern science no longer pursues discovery and instead services the reigning progressive political ideology. There has also been a radical disconnect between monies spent and actual scientific discovery, manifest in such phenomena as the “irreproducibility crisis,” publication of reams of trivial papers that are never read, predatory publishing, the collapse of peer review, and numerous other intellectual pathologies. Arguably, there is too much money being spent on science.
  • It is naïve to hope for a “grass roots” pushback by working scientists against the censorious and anti-intellectual ideology that is destroying the sciences and our universities. Those who might otherwise have been expected to lead such a pushback—senior scientists of distinction, for example—are dwindling in number and increasingly fenced in by the unwillingness of their very own colleagues to defend science’s core values. This means that we cannot expect reform of the sciences, indeed of the universities, to come from within. Reform, if it is to come, will have to come from outside the universities.

Political scientist Richard Hanania has written persuasively that institutional wokeness, as is becoming ubiquitous in universities and corporations, is driven by a disconnect between cultural values of freedom of speech, thought, and association on the one hand and civil rights law on the other. The former is enshrined in tradition and constitutional rights, yet its reach is circumscribed (e.g. it applies only to political speech and to public places, not to privately held interests, etc.). The jurisdiction of civil rights law, in contrast, is expansive, elastic, and ubiquitous. This imbalance of power renders protestations of academic freedom, no matter how impassioned or defensible, subordinate to institutional power and authority. Censorship and other forms of intellectual repression are the inevitable result.6

Hanania’s analysis is incomplete, however. If censorship were to be abolished tomorrow, the sciences would not automatically heal. Censorship (indeed the entire “woke” ideological edifice) is the all-too-useful tool of the interlocking bureaucracies of governments, institutions, and the private sector. Its aim is not justice, or fairness, or reconciliation, but to replace an inconvenient culture of liberty with a malleable culture of deference to administrative power. The Big Science Cartel is the motor driving the sciences to this new administrative order of power and deference, and that goal is independent of the niceties and complications of constitutional versus civil rights law.

No one of whom we are aware opposes the benign idea that science’s “endless frontier” should be open to anyone with the desire and talent to explore it. For the most part, working scientists strive assiduously to realize that ideal. But we should not lose sight of the fact that “wokeness” is a tool of administrative power. In the sciences, that power is wielded at the hands of the Big Science Cartel. Therefore, policy reforms to address censorship and other malevolent fruits of wokeness must also address the overweening administrative power that uses wokeness for its own purposes. Without that understanding, reforms can easily be misdirected.

There are, for example, proposals to make federal funding contingent upon universities having in place credible and enforceable protections of intellectual freedom. Universities that do not have such protections in place, or willfully ignore those protections, would be denied federal funding, including access to federal research grants, Pell grant funds, and student loans. Another is cutting back on the administrative slush funds that are built into the structure of research grant budgets, as the Trump administration tried to do with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Prohibiting the teaching of discriminatory ideologies and enforcing the existing laws against racial, creedal, and sexual discrimination is yet a third.

We suggest that these reforms, all defensible in themselves, are unlikely to address the problem. Depriving universities of a funding stream, such as research-grant slush funds, will likely result in universities merely burdening students and taxpayers further as they shift monies around to meet their institutional priorities—priorities which, we should remind ourselves, rank students’ interests and the intellectual freedom of scientists or other scholars low on the scale. When the interests of a powerful political constituency are under threat, as they were with President Trump’s proposed reform of NIH research funding, these reforms will be vigorously opposed and likely defeated. Regulating the content of courses and academic culture opens up these efforts to bogus, yet very effective, claims of suppression of intellectual freedom.

What, then, is to be done?

Presently, the academic sciences—indeed the universities generally—have become a very expensive version of Head Start: a pointless, ineffective consumer of taxpayer money that survives only because it is well-connected politically and resonates with progressive pieties. Like Head Start, the project that began in the aftermath of World War II to federalize the basic sciences has been a failure. Reforming the sciences will start with acknowledging that fact.

Following upon that acknowledgement comes the logical, if uncomfortable, conclusion: reform can only come by breaking up the Big Science Cartel. While the post-war experiment in generous government funding of basic science has supported genuine scientific achievement, that regime has also shown itself to be utterly incapable of protecting the freedom and independence of thought and inquiry that was the experiment’s raison d’etre. As a result, science—the free pursuit of discovery—is being crushed.

It is the nature of cartels never to give up power and money voluntarily. Breaking up the BSC will therefore require a determined and sustained effort similar to that which was applied to the American Cosa Nostra, not with guns and indictments, of course, but with radical and insistent changes in government science policy. The structure of research grants could be overhauled, for example, in ways that disentangle scientists’ interests from the diametrically opposed interests of their administrations. Tenure, meant to be a rock-solid protection of intellectual freedom, is presently a paper-thin promise: it could be reformed to put real protections back in place. The infrastructure of “woke power”—that ballooning cadre of diversity administrators—could be dismantled. Government agencies that fund basic science, such as the National Science Foundation, could be forced to revisit and recalibrate their missions back to basic science.

Will these happen? Given the money and power at stake, the fluidity and instability of our current political climate, and the general spinelessness of our political and institutional class, the prospects are dim. We should be mindful, however, that the cost of inaction will be measured not just in dollars but in the degradation of a crown jewel of our civilization.

We should also not shy away from what is likely to be the most effective option, which is to take government altogether out of the business of funding the academic sciences. It would not mean the end of science, as the BSC would shriek with one voice. Rather, it would restore the sciences to the culture of discovery that prevailed prior to the spigots of federal money being opened. That culture also produced great scientific achievement, we should remember, and it did so without a massive expenditures of government funds and without the oppressive master that is presently looking over our shoulders. That master, whether woke or not, is the true poison to science.

1 John M. Herbert et al., “Words Matter: On the Debate over Free Speech, Inclusivity, and Academic Excellence,” Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters 13, no. 30 (August 2022): . 7100–04, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jpclett.2c02242.

2 E.g. Loren Graham, Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

3 The case of Prof Hudlický was taken up by the National Association of Scholars, which defended him to the Brock University administration, publicized his case, and gave Prof Hudlický a platform to defend himself.

4 The text of Prof Hudlický’s cancelled manuscript may be read here. His response to his critics may be found here. Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars, came to Prof Hudlický’s defense in an open letter to Lynn Wells, Provost of Brock University, which can be read here.

5 To name a few examples: David Sabatini of the Whitehead Institute, Dorian Abbot of the University of Chicago, Tim Hunt of University College London, and Matt Taylor of the European Space Agency.

6 G. A. Clark, “How academic corporatism can lead to dictatorship,” Nature 452, no. 151 (March 2008).

J. Scott Turner is Director of the Intrusion of Diversity in the Sciences program at the National Association of Scholars. Mason Goad is Junior Researcher for the same project.

Image: Mika Baumeister, Public Domain

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