Science and Politics
Three Principles, Three Fables
Note: This essay appeared in Liberties Journal in April of 2022.
Science is a creative endeavor that requires the free and open exchange of ideas to thrive. Society has benefited immensely from scientific progress, and in order for science to continue to pay dividends, scientific work must be judged on the basis of scientific merit alone. Over the past decade scientific departments and organizations have become increasingly politicized, to the point that it is now significantly impeding scientific development. This time the assault originated from the radical left, but conservatives have done their share of meddling in science in the past and are likely to again in the future. Keeping politics out of science is something that all people of good will, both Democrats and Republicans, should be able to agree on.
How can we ensure political neutrality in science? I want to propose three critical principles for the protection of science from politics, and to illustrate them with three playful, slightly naughty fables about what has been happening when they are violated. The three principles are: (1) all scientists need to be able to say and argue whatever they want, even if it offends someone else; (2) universities and academic societies need to maintain strict neutrality on all social and political issues; and (3) hiring needs to be done on the basis of scientific merit alone. These principles have been lucidly outlined in three important documents at the University of Chicago, where I teach geophysical science: the Chicago Principles, which were issued by the university in 2014, and the Kalven Report “on the university’s role in social and political action,” from 1967, and the Shils Report on the “criteria for academic appointments,” from 1970. All these reports assume, as the Kalven Report puts it, that “the mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge.” This sounds prosaic, but the definition is important to emphasize because some people are now challenging it. They argue that faculty members should be activists who promote certain political positions and agendas, rather than pursue truth wherever it may lead. I should add that we are not perfect at the University of Chicago, and I sometimes fear that we honor these principles more in the breach than in the observance. And yet these principles are important goals for every scientific institution to at least aim for.
I started my journey in this area simply by self-censoring — for no less than five years. I stayed away from campus whenever possible and avoided departmental gatherings. At first I thought that the problem was a few bad apples in my department yelling at everyone who disagreed with them and accusing people of being various types of witches. I only slowly learned that I was observing just a small part of a national movement in favor of censorship and the suppression of alternative viewpoints. It is absolutely essential that we resist this movement and encourage students and faculty to speak freely about whatever they want on campus: we all lose when people self-censor.
Unfortunately, students and faculty are now self-censoring at alarming rates, in part as a result of high-profile cancellations of academics guilty of wrongthink. For example, FIRE has documented 471 attempts to get professors fired or punished for their speech over the past six years, the vast majority of which resulted in an official sanction. In a recent report for CSPI, Eric Kauffman estimates that 3 in 10,000 faculty experience such an attack each year, which corresponds to about one every three years at a large university with 1,000 faculty. Because these cancellations are so public and potentially harmful to the victim’s career, a small number can have an outsized impact on free expression. According to the same report, 70% of US centrist and conservative faculty report a climate hostile to their beliefs and 91% of Trump voting faculty say that a Trump voter would not express his/her views or are unsure. Similarly, after a major academic freedom incident in the fall of 2021, MIT polled faculty at two faculty forums and found that approximately 80% are “worried given the current atmosphere in society that your voice or your colleagues' voices are increasingly in jeopardy” and more than 50% “feel on an everyday basis that your voice, or the voices of your colleagues are constrained at MIT.” The problem extends to students, more than 80% of whom self-censor on campus according to a 2021 FIRE survey. To get a sense of the magnitude of the self-censorship problem at universities, contrast these numbers with the fact that, according to a recent paper in SSRN by James Gibson and Joseph Sutherland, only 13% of American respondents did not feel free to speak their mind in 1954, at the height of McCarthyism. The discovery and transmission of knowledge is severely hindered under these conditions.
It was my wife who inspired me to start making my views known. Her reason was that she was born in Ukraine at the tail end of the Soviet Union. When I told her what was happening on campus, she had a question: “If you speak out, will you have trouble?” I said, “Why?” And she replied: “It sounds like what my mother told me about Soviet times, and people who spoke out had serious trouble then.” That was enough to convince me. Not in this country, not on my watch. My wife’s mother is a teacher. In the aftermath of communism, she brought home the old propaganda books from school about Lenin and his pals. For fond memories? To teach her children about the old ways? Not at all. She brought them home to burn them to stay warm in the winter. Lenin’s system failed so utterly that people had to burn the old propaganda just to stay warm. And no small part of this failure was due to the fact that they had allowed science to become politicized.
2. A Speech crisis at AIT
Now for the first story. Consider a situation at the Awesome Institute of Technology, or AIT. It involves two main characters. The first character is Dr. Centrist, a professor at AIT. Dr. Centrist has devoted the past thirty years of his life to developing his biomedical skills and is now at the top of his field. He is working in cancer research and is close to finding a cure. No one questions his ability in the lab, or his scientific honesty, or his devotion to science and his students. Moreover, Dr. Centrist has advised people of both sexes, all races, all sexual orientations, all religions, and all nationalities, and treated them all with equal respect. Dr. Centrist is a political centrist, smack in the middle of mainstream American viewpoints. Some of his views are center left — for example, he supports broad access to education and healthcare as well as protecting the environment for everyone. But some are center right, and these will end up being considered “provocative” and “controversial” at AIT and cause him quite a bit of trouble.
The second character in my story is Mr. Woke (he/they), an undergraduate. Mr. Woke entered AIT as a physics major, but physics just “wasn’t a good fit,” so he switched to Anthropology, which leaves him/them much more time for other interests such as Twitter.
At some point it slips out that in his personal life Dr. Centrist “clings to his guns and Bible.” Upon hearing of this, Mr. Woke looks up in shock from his/their Macbook Pro with all the appropriate political decal stickers, spits out a mouthful of his/their venti soy chai latte, and declares that this is highly “problematic.” According to Mr. Woke, supporting gun rights is a “dog whistle” or “coded language” for white supremacist vigilantism, and therefore minoritized people at AIT cannot feel safe and will be irreparably harmed if Dr. Centrist is allowed to continue his scientific research there. Moreover, Christianity is an exertion of power used by the cis-hetero-patriarchy to oppress gender and sexual minorities. The lgbtqia2s+ community at AIT will not tolerate this type of bigotry on campus, according to Mr. Woke, who has apparently appointed himself/themselves spokesfolx for the entire community.
But it gets worse. In a conversation at lunch about a recent Supreme Court case, Dr. Centrist lets it slip that he is pro-life. Mr. Woke declares that this is a blatant “war-on-women” position that cannot be tolerated. AIT needs to be a safe space where no gender minority ever has to hear, and thereby be harmed by, a viewpoint with which she disagrees. Mr. Woke says inclusivity dictates that this sort of violent hate speech must be restricted, and he/they takes to Twitter to demand a “Speech Code” and a “Code of Conduct” to ensure that the “climate” at AIT is made safe and inclusive for everyone — by inhibiting and silencing anyone who disagrees with him/them, of course.
I have saved the worst for last. Eventually it comes out that, horror of horrors, Dr. Centrist is a “deplorable” who actually voted for Donald Trump. Mr. Woke scrambles into action. He/they organizes a letter of denunciation of Dr. Centrist, demanding that he be fired in order to protect minoritized people on campus who have been threatened by Dr. Centrist’s violent and aggressive racist hate vote. Mr. Woke has plenty of “allies” who sign, and then he/they threatens everyone else with a similar denunciation if they refuse to sign, declaring: “Silence is violence, and if you don’t sign now you will be tarnished as a racist for the rest of your career. I will make sure of it!” Eventually most of the students at AIT sign.
AIT President Craven is interrupted from a busy schedule of meetings on inclusive pronoun usage, equitable landscaping, and bathroom diversity to deal with the latest campus controversy. President Craven is presented with a real conundrum: should he defend the fundamental purpose of AIT, which is the unfettered pursuit of truth, and risk being called a scary name by Mr. Woke, or should he panic and do whatever it takes to make his anxiety go away quickly so that he can return to attending his important meetings and enjoying his outrageous salary in peace. For President Craven, the choice is easy. He fires Dr. Centrist and returns to his pronoun and landscaping meetings.
An unfortunate result of his decision is that we never get the cure for cancer that Dr. Centrist was close to discovering — will another university or another laboratory hire such a disgraced individual? — but this was not high on President Craven’s list of priorities. Afterwards Mr. Woke insists that Dr. Centrist was not “canceled.” He was, rather, “held accountable” for his hateful, bigoted, and generally “problematic” views. Mr. Woke is fine with this result, because he/they believes that cancer is a social construct caused by systemic racism, and Dr. Centrist’s racist methods of science are useless compared to the medicinal benefits of other ways of knowing. But what does the public, who funded Dr. Centrist’s research and pays for most of the tuition at AIT through federal grants, think about losing out on progress toward a cure for cancer because of someone’s disapproval of Dr. Centrist’s political views, which many people also hold?
What would it take to avoid this disaster at AIT? As annoying as Mr. Woke is, I think the real villain is President Craven. In order to prevent the terrible outcome that we have just described, President Craven doesn’t exactly have to turn into Churchill, he just needs to turn into President Not-A-Complete-Dingleberry. He just needs a tiny bit of spine. All he has to do is say, “Sorry, Mr. Woke. That’s not how we do things around here. You are free to express your opinions and Dr. Centrist is free to express his opinions. You don’t get to silence people you disagree with at AIT.” This idea is described in the Chicago Principles as follows:
It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive... concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.
It is important to get the Chicago Principles adopted on your own campus before a crisis occurs. Even President Craven might have been brave enough to stand up to Mr. Woke if he had an official policy to point to as an excuse. A standard part of the orientation for new students and faculty should be to explain the moral and intellectual foundations of these principles, and more generally of academic freedom: both why they are important and how they will be enforced. (There also must be real penalties for violations.) This would help Mr. Woke understand that illiberal tactics will not work.
I should emphasize that the right of everyone to speak on campus needs to be defended. Let me give you an example. I have a colleague who has tiled images of Karl Marx on his website and a Soviet flag in his office. He is actively introducing his Marxist-Communist views into campus settings in a way that Dr. Centrist did not introduce his own. This is deeply offensive, of course, to anyone who has taken ten minutes to study the history of the twentieth century, let alone actually suffered under communism. But the fact that my colleague openly advocates for what I consider to be an indefensible political position has absolutely no bearing on his scientific and mathematical ability. No matter how extreme, immoral, and offensive his or anyone else’s political views may be, we need to defend his right to express them freely without letting them hinder his scientific career. Throughout history, many famous scientists have been highly eccentric and held weird and even repulsive social and political views. So what? Should we therefore renounce the fundamental and critical science that they produced?
3. The Global Social Justice Forum
Now a story in the Swiss Alps. Professor Right and Professor Left are attending the Global Economic Forum. They have been appearing at the Forum for decades and they agree on almost nothing. Whenever an economic issue arises, Professor Right argues for less government and Professor Left argues for more government. But they listen to each other's lectures seriously and they respond to each other’s arguments. Sometimes Professor Left gets excited and makes a hasty a comment on Professor Right’s lecture implying that she is stupid, but he never calls her evil. Even though Professor Right disagrees with Professor Left, she modifies her perspective when Professor Left shows data that contradicts a claim that she is making. In the end, after some back-and-forth, they tend to reach some sort of conclusion about the matter in question that both can agree is empirically justified. They do not like each other, but each understands that the other is necessary for the critical examination of his or her own views and can lead him or her to better economic research.
Enter a graduate student. Let us call her Ms. Oppressed. Ms. Oppressed doesn’t think that Professor Right is merely wrong, she believes that she is morally corrupt. How else could someone argue for small government, when big government is clearly what is needed to fix the obvious systemic problems in our society that are oppressing women and marginalized people? Ms. Oppressed starts a Twitter campaign to force the Global Economic Forum to issue an official statement acknowledging that increasing the size of government is the only solution to all social and economic problems, as well as add a condition that in order to present a paper at the Forum, every participant must sign a pledge of agreement with this statement.
Professor Left finds himself in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, Ms. Oppressed seems to agree with him on most policy issues, and he has never been terribly fond of Professor Right. On the other hand, banning speakers rather than contending with their arguments seems to go against the liberal tradition in which Professor Left usually locates himself. While he is considering this, Ms. Oppressed tells Professor Left that “silence is violence,” and that he had better get on board with the program or she will turn to Twitter. Professor Left decides that the best course of action is to declare “no enemies to the left” and go along with Ms. Oppressed. The statement and the pledge are instituted, Professor Right refuses to sign, and she is henceforth banned from the Global Economic Forum.
Professor Left finds the next Forum meeting quite exhilarating. He can expound all his wildest ideas without the annoying Professor Right demanding evidence or logic. Yet he starts to get an uneasy feeling when he attends Ms. Oppressed’s lecture, which is titled, “Data: Research or Oppression?” In it, Ms. Oppressed argues that data and the ideal of disinterested methodological rigor should no longer be used in economic research because “this idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.” (These deathless words were uttered in October, 2021 by Phoebe Cohen, chair of geosciences at Williams College.) In fact, at the end of her lecture, Ms. Oppressed actually attacks Professor Left because he refused to ban Professor Right for so many years. Silence is violence, after all, and by allowing that sort of hate think at the Global Economic Forum, Professor Left has actively participated in a horrible system of oppression.
After the Forum, Ms. Oppressed organizes a letter to have Professor Left and anyone else over the age of thirty-five banned from all future Forums for past collaboration with evil right-wingers, which, in addition to being essential for social justice, will have the added benefit of opening up lots of career opportunities for Ms. Oppressed and her allies. It works, naturally, and Professor Left soon finds himself banned from the most important meeting in the field, suffering the same fate that was visited upon Professor Right only a year before. Meanwhile, at the next meeting of the Global Economic Forum, all the presentations have titles such as “Indigenous Ways of Managing Global Economies,” “Feminist Perspectives on Inflation,” and “Intersectional Debt Management.” No one dares to present data or make a rational argument, for fear of being labeled a white supremacist. Needless to say, the discussions of economics at the event quickly lose their previous influence upon business leaders and policymakers, whose job it is to make actual decisions in the actual world, but it becomes very popular with journalists at the prestigious journal of record, the New York Spaces, who write favorable pieces about the exciting new developments in a field that they used to treat with a mixture of confusion and disgust. It is not long before Ms. Oppressed is rewarded for speaking truth to power with a FitzArthur “Genius” Award.
The key error here was that Professor Left compromised on the principle that universities and societies should never take positions on social and political issues. He did this because he tended to agree with the political positions that were proposed. Doing so makes universities and societies into political entities rather than scientific ones, and has the effect of restricting free expression by members of the university community who disagree with the official position. It is particularly important right now that professors on the left do not fall for this trap. Aside from the principled reason for this, there is a practical reason: they will never be revolutionary enough, and the revolution is sure to eat them next if they fail to stop it now. In the words of the Kalven Report,
The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. To perform its mission in the society, a university must maintain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community, but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.
Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting the full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all members favor a given view on social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.
The principle of political neutrality is extremely important for a university, though it is often neglected relative to the principle of free expression. But you cannot have the latter without the former. Free expression is not possible in practice at universities that release statements on social and political issues. Consider 2020 as an example of how this is not supposed to work: universities and societies across the country issued statements on social and political issues, and faculty members who disagreed with them publicly were attacked, silenced, and sometimes even fired. The attackers felt justified by the official statements.
4. Dean Shifty pulls a fast one
Finally, there is the situation developing in the job search at the physics department at Winthrop University. Winthrop has had an aggressive DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) program that has been in place for more than a decade, and it has already hired dozens of DEI deans and deanlets to implement and promote it. Yet Winthrop Physical Sciences Dean Shifty has recently received word from the President of the Henry Foundation that the Foundation is not happy with the numbers that Winthrop’s DEI program has produced. In particular, the Foundation is expressing concern with the slow progress at appointing an appropriate number of underrepresented faculty in the physical sciences.
Given the Henry Foundation’s deep pockets and cultural influence, Dean Shifty can see her dreams of a nice presidency at a liberal arts college with a fat paycheck slipping away, and so takes immediate action. Although the advertisement for the physics faculty search explicitly says that there will be no discrimination on the basis of race or sex, Dean Shifty slyly sends the message to the chair of the physics department and the members of the search committee that she will not consider a nomination for the faculty position if it is an Asian or white man. She does this orally and through an intermediary, because she knows that it is a violation of Titles VI and IX of the Civil Rights Act. The members of the faculty search committee are uncomfortable, but they feel that they have no choice but to comply. They do not actually know what is in the Civil Rights Act — they are physicists, not lawyers; but they assume that Dean Shifty would not do anything illegal.
A fierce debate soon emerges on the hiring committee. It turns out that half of the committee thinks the department needs a woman and half of the committee thinks that the department needs an underrepresented minority. Instead of debating the scientific merit of the candidates, the committee spends its time debating which type of underrepresented person should be recruited. In the end they settle on hiring a woman, because there are more women than underrepresented minorities among the graduate students, and the students need more faculty members who “look like them.” They hire a woman and both Dean Shifty and the President of the Henry Foundation are thrilled. Of course the entirety of the faculty are vaguely aware of what happened, which leads to a strange and uncomfortable situation for the new member of the department. Meanwhile similar hiring shenanigans have been implemented at universities across the country, so the male Asian and white candidates find it extremely difficult to get faculty jobs and many end up leaving the field.
Notice what happened when hiring criteria other than scientific merit were introduced: it immediately made the process political. Whether to hire a woman or an underrepresented minority is a political question, not a scientific question. In order to avoid the politicization of science, therefore, it is absolutely essential that all admission, hiring, promotion, and honors be awarded on the basis of scientific merit alone. Politics is automatically introduced when purely merit-based decisions are abandoned. Moreover, ideological purity tests called DEI statements are now often used as a gate-keeping mechanism to ensure political uniformity in faculty hiring, and this quite obviously violates the principle of political neutrality. Also, note that the purpose of the university and of science is being violated if criteria other than merit are used for hiring: in such cases we are no longer pursuing truth to the best of our ability. We have instead substituted some other goal.
These matters were presciently discussed in the Shils Report:
The conception of the proper tasks of the University determines the criteria which should govern the appointment, retention, and promotion of members of the academic staff. The criteria which are to be applied in the case of appointments to the University of Chicago should, therefore, be criteria which give preference above all to actual and prospective scholarly and scientific accomplishment of the highest order, actual and prospective teaching accomplishment of the highest order, and actual and prospective contribution to the intellectual quality of the University through critical stimulation of others within the University to produce work of the highest quality.
Note that the last clause refers strictly to stimulating others “to produce work of the highest quality,” and should not be interpreted as a way to sneak other criteria into consideration. And later:
There must be no consideration of sex, ethnic or national characteristics, or political or religious beliefs or affiliations, in any decision regarding appointment, promotion, or reappointment at any level of the academic staff.
The objective of this rule is simple: fairness.
The principles of academic freedom confer not only a right but also a duty. Some people think that the duty of academic freedom is to restrict your speech in certain cases, but this is incorrect. The duty of academic freedom is to use it. My obligation as a professor and a scientist is to say what I really think in public, while of course focusing my teaching on the subject I was hired to teach, not least because so many people in society cannot: that is the whole point of the professional protection known as tenure. Too often tenure is wasted on the timid. Anyway, they can’t cancel all of us.
This is the best essay on this topic that I have ever read. And you're right, "Craven" is the real problem. I'm not for banning any paradigm of thought, be it postmodernism, Marxism, flat earthism or even common dumbassery. What I'm for is the freedom to be able to look those people in the eye and tell them exactly why they are full of poo, without being sent to a re-education camp. I'm never afraid to debate any of the woke, on a level playing field, on the merits of their ideals. You never have to be afraid when facts are on your side and you know what you are talking about. Reading this prompted a bit of a personal epiphany as well. I "self-censored" for decades. Now I know why I hated University social functions. Massive respect.
Everybody knows this.