Cancel Culture in Science is Real
by Wesley S. Farrell, @WesFarrell
Unless you’ve been living under a rock you have undoubtedly come across the term “cancel culture”. Definitions for this phenomenon vary, but a common way of thinking of cancel culture is social pressure from an outraged group for a person deemed unacceptable to be punished. The pressure may be directed at one’s employer, urging that the person lose his job, or towards one’s peers, resulting in ostracism. The offences that lead to a “cancelation” are many and examples will be given below. At times the outrage comes from straw-man arguments or through giving the least charitable interpretation to an event or statement.
Cancel culture has taken root in academia and the STEM fields have been no exception. While this is not surprising (although it is disappointing), what is truly strange is the insistence from some that cancel culture doesn’t actually exist. Much of the public discussion on this topic happens on twitter, where many STEM faculty, students and postdocs have become active in efforts to advertise research, network and discuss factors affecting their lives. The debate has shifted to longer forms more recently. Several STEM faculty and practitioners led by theoretical chemist Prof. Anna Krylov recently published an essay arguing that cancel culture is bad for science in the chemistry journal Nachrichten aus der Chemie. A counter essay entitled “The Myth of Cancel Culture in Chemistry (and Science)” was published on Dr. Mathias Micheel’s blog hosted by the German Chemical Society (the publisher of Nachrichten aus der Chemie) claiming that not only are these authors wrong but that cancel culture itself does not exist in chemistry or science more generally. I will take the next several paragraphs to explain why I think cancel culture in science is real, why that is a bad thing and that assertions otherwise are misguided, focusing far too much on a narrow definition of “cancel” while completely ignoring “culture”. I will respond in part to Dr. Micheel’s essay, but this is not intended to be a direct rebuttal. I began writing this essay before this dust-up began and do not want it to simply turn it into a debate with Dr. Micheel (although I do welcome his feedback). I will take no positions on the examples used to make this case. Taking positions would distract from the thesis of this essay and I do not wish to enter the public debate on these matters on any side.
The primary argument for why cancel culture is not real comes in the form of pointing to those who are canceled and highlighting that some still enjoy their professional appointments. In some cases their public profile even grows. Dr. Micheel gives examples of Prof. Tomas Hudlicky of Brock University chemistry and Assoc. Prof. Dorian Abbot of the University of Chicago geosciences, which are fine examples to examine. Prof. Hudlicky was the target of an outrage mob after publishing an article in the high-impact chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie in 2020 in which he argued for merit-based hiring. The entire article can be found on Prof. Hudlicky’s website (Angewandte Chemie has since retracted the article in response to outrage) and says in part, “[e]ach candidate should have an equal opportunity to secure a position, regardless of personal identification/categorization. The rise and emphasis on hiring practices that suggest or even mandate equality in terms of absolute numbers of people in specific subgroups is counter-productive if it results in discrimination against the most meritorious candidates.” Prof. Abbot argued for what he calls “merit, fairness and equality” (MFE) in lieu of the current dominant ideology of “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI). Prof. Hudlicky’s article was retracted by the journal that published it and a special issue of a journal in his honor was canceled as well. Prof. Abbot had an invited prestigious named lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology canceled which was given instead at Princeton University at the request of free speech and academic freedom advocate Prof. Robert George. He was also removed from a collaborative grant application and has been told by many that they would not ever work collaboratively with him. However both men did retain their jobs.
I believe the notion that these men were not “canceled” relies on an overly narrow definition of that word. First of all, this was not for lack of trying. Even if a full cancelation was not achieved and jobs were retained there were professional consequences with respect to publications, grants and lectures, as described above. But there is more to it than this. I have not spoken to either of these professors about their experiences, but I can only imagine they were terrible to endure. We humans are social creatures who have evolved to exist in groups and communities. To have an extremely loud portion of one’s community universally condemn you most certainly takes a mental and likely even physical toll on someone. Even though at the end of the ordeal no jobs were lost that almost certainly was not a given. If these men have families to support and students to train and place in careers the threat of losing their jobs most certainly weighed heavily on them. More on this in a moment.
We must also not ignore the “culture” portion of cancel culture. Everyone who witnesses events such as these sees and understands what is at stake. Indeed, it has been argued that the focus of the cancelation is not the one in the spotlight but those watching on the sidelines taking note of what’s happening. Those without tenure feel this strongly. “Sure, the full professor survived, but will I?” If you have tenure the risks are still high. You may face ostracization and isolation, a situation that takes such a serious toll on humans that we use it as punishment in prisons. (Before this is taken out of context: No, I am not saying being ostracized is the exact same thing as solitary confinement.) Your grants may not get funded, hurting those students training under your guidance. This is not an exaggeration. In the US 20% of academics surveyed (including STEM disciplines) openly admit to discriminating against right leaning faculty in grant applications. Those looking to go onto the job market in the future have it even worse. “Do I want the first thing that pops up when I’m googled to be a series of statements calling me names, or a trouble-maker?” The emotional toll must be considered as well. “If I criticize policy X because I feel there is a better way to achieve these ends will I be smeared and ostracized?” While particular individuals may not be fully canceled in the narrow definition, the culture around the subject shifts from one that embraces open debate in an effort to discover the truth and improve the lives of all to one in which many great minds decide to stay quiet, thinking to themselves, “it’s really not worth the headache.” In this way cancel culture is most certainly real and effective. Is it any wonder that 60% of college students do not feel free to speak their mind or that large swathes of faculty are afraid to share their thoughts with colleagues?
The result of this is a culture (a cancel culture) in which all but those holding the currently fashionable opinions decide it is best to keep quiet, keep their heads down and maybe speak up some day later. Public discourse becomes nothing more than repeating the most dogmatic beliefs. Is this what we want for science? Are scientific disciplines really where we want people afraid to ask tough questions, afraid to take risks, because someone on Twitter with absolutely no training on the topic may be offended? Someone on Twitter will always be offended, that’s why Twitter exists. Science is supposed to attract those who are naturally inclined to think outside of the box, to question assumptions, to view problems differently, to be contrarian. The most revolutionary advancements in science were made by such people. Are we so conceited that we think we no longer need these heterodox thinkers? Additionally, outsiders may view the entire scientific enterprise with growing skepticism if they observe what they think should be a rigorous marketplace of ideas reduced to socially enforced homogeneity.
Perhaps true cancelations of the narrowest definition are rare, but the idea that cancel culture does not exist in science is incorrect. Cancel culture does exist in science and it results in scientists ranging from undergraduates to professors emerita biting their tongues when a debate may be beneficial. This may result in short-term victories for one side of a debate or the other, but the end result is most certainly a loss for everyone.