Scientist Anna Krylov (Who Grew Up In The Soviet Union) On "The Peril of Politicizing Science"
Print Friendly and PDF

From the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters:


The Peril of Politicizing Science
Anna I. Krylov*
Cite this: J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 2021, 12, 22, 5371–5376
Publication Date: June 10, 2021

… I came of age during a relatively mellow period of the Soviet rule, post-Stalin. Still, the ideology permeated all aspects of life, and survival required strict adherence to the party line and enthusiastic displays of ideologically proper behavior. Not joining a young communist organization (Komsomol) would be career suicide—nonmembers were barred from higher education. Openly practicing religion could lead to more grim consequences, up to imprisonment. So could reading the wrong book (Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, etc.). Even a poetry book that was not on the state-approved list could get one in trouble.

Mere compliance was not sufficient—the ideology committees were constantly on the lookout for individuals whose support of the regime was not sufficiently enthusiastic. It was not uncommon to get disciplined for being too quiet during mandatory political assemblies (politinformation or komsomolskoe sobranie) or for showing up late to mandatory mass-celebrations (such as the May or November demonstrations). Once I got a notice for promoting an imperialistic agenda by showing up in jeans for an informal school event. A friend’s dossier was permanently blemished—making him ineligible for Ph.D. programs—for not fully participating in a trip required of university students: an act of “voluntary” help to comrades in collective farms.

Science was not spared from this strict ideological control. Western influences were considered to be dangerous. Textbooks and scientific papers tirelessly emphasized the priority and pre-eminence of Russian and Soviet science.

After WWII, the Soviet Union went through a real chauvinist period where every invention in history—the automobile, the airplane, the whatever—was attributed to some muzhik in a barn in the Volga region. It’s kind of like today’s era in which Joe Biden says, “A black man invented the light bulb, not a white guy named Edison.”

Entire disciplines were declared ideologically impure, reactionary, and hostile to the cause of working-class dominance and the World Revolution. Notable examples of “bourgeois pseudo-science” included genetics and cybernetics.

Similarly, a group of Wikipedia insiders has declared any empirical study of the connection between intelligence and genetic ancestry to be always “pseudoscience,” thus entitling them to delete or rewrite everything touching on the topic on Wikipedia.

Quantum mechanics and general relativity were also criticized for insufficient alignment with dialectic materialism.

The Soviets seemed more highbrow about their crank campaigns than the Woke. I’ve yet to see anyone arguing that George Floyd’s death means string theory must be right (or wrong). But who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Most relevant to chemistry was the antiresonance campaign (1949–1951). The theory of resonating structures, which brought Linus Pauling the Nobel prize in 1954, was deemed to be bourgeois pseudoscience.

Marxism is more intellectual than Wokeism, so putting the Marxists in charge means you get opinions (wrong ones) on the theory of resonating structures, while putting the Wokeists in charge means you get op-eds about hair-touching.

Scientists who attempted to defend the merits of the theory and its utility for understanding chemical structures were accused of “cosmopolitism” (Western sympathy) and servility to Western bourgeois science. Some lost jobs. Two high-profile supporters of resonance theory, Syrkin and Dyatkina, were eventually forced to confess their ideological sins and to publicly denounce resonance. Meanwhile, other members of the community took this political purge as an opportunity to advance at the expense of others. As noted by many scholars, including Pauling himself, the grassroots antiresonance campaign was driven by people who were “displeased with the alignment of forces in their science”.

The Soviet auto-da-fé of supporters of Pauling’s famous advance in the science of chemistry was particularly weird because Pauling had become, after Hiroshima, a leading critic of American military power, who was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1970.

This is a recurring motif in all political campaigns within science in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and McCarthy’s America—those who are “on the right side” of the issue can jump a few rungs and take the place of those who were canceled.

It seems quite plausible that some bright scientist will someday figure out how to apply Wokeist Theory to some abstract question in the hard sciences in order to get proponents of competing theories cancelled and hog all the grants that should have gone to them, but I can’t think of any examples of this yet outside of the human sciences.

Lots of good hard scientists are getting their careers wrecked by the Woke but that’s either for being white and/or male or not being politically pious enough. In general, the Woke typically aren’t bright enough to care about abstract scientific questions, like the anti-resonance activists.

By the time I studied quantum chemistry at Moscow State University, resonance theory had been rehabilitated. Yet, the history of the campaign and the injustices it entailed were not discussed in the open—the Party did not welcome conversations about its past mistakes. I remember hearing parts of the story, narrated under someone’s breath at a party after copious amounts of alcohol had loosened a tongue.

Fast forward to 2021—another century. The Cold War is a distant memory and the country shown on my birth certificate and school and university diplomas, the USSR, is no longer on the map. But I find myself experiencing its legacy some thousands of miles to the west, as if I am living in an Orwellian twilight zone. I witness ever-increasing attempts to subject science and education to ideological control and censorship. Just as in Soviet times, the censorship is being justified by the greater good. Whereas in 1950, the greater good was advancing the World Revolution (in the USSR; in the USA the greater good meant fighting Communism), in 2021 the greater good is “Social Justice” (the capitalization is important: “Social Justice” is a specific ideology, with goals that have little in common with what lower-case “social justice” means in plain English). As in the USSR, the censorship is enthusiastically imposed also from the bottom, by members of the scientific community, whose motives vary from naive idealism to cynical power-grabbing.

Just as during the time of the Great Terror, dangerous conspiracies and plots against the World Revolution were seen everywhere, from illustrations in children’s books to hairstyles and fashions; today we are told that racism, patriarchy, misogyny, and other reprehensible ideas are encoded in scientific terms, names of equations, and in plain English words. We are told that in order to build a better world and to address societal inequalities, we need to purge our literature of the names of people whose personal records are not up to the high standards of the self-anointed bearers of the new truth, the Elect. We are told that we need to rewrite our syllabi and change the way we teach and speak.

As an example of political censorship and cancel culture, consider a recent viewpoint discussing the centuries-old tradition of attaching names to scientific concepts and discoveries (Archimede’s [sic] Principle, Newton’s Laws of Motion, Schrödinger equation, Curie Law, etc.). The authors call for vigilance in naming discoveries and assert that “basing the name with inclusive priorities may provide a path to a richer, deeper, and more robust understanding of the science and its advancement.” Really? On what empirical grounds is this based? History teaches us the opposite: the outcomes of the merit-based science of liberal, pluralistic societies are vastly superior to those of the ideologically controlled science of the USSR and other totalitarian regimes. The authors call for removing the names of people who “crossed the line” of moral or ethical standards. Examples include Fritz Haber, Peter Debye, and William Shockley, but the list could have been easily extended to include Stark (defended expulsion of Jews from German institutions), Heisenberg (led Germany’s nuclear weapons program), and Schrödinger (had romantic relationships with under-age girls). Indeed, learned societies are now devoting considerable effort to such renaming campaigns—among the most-recent cancellations is the renaming of the Fisher Prize by the Evolution Society, despite well-argued opposition by 10 past presidents and vice-presidents of the society.

Most non-Marxist scientists of the first half of the 20th century were to some degree “eugenicists,” which means you can cancel them. For example, Robert Millikan, who won the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physics while a professor at Caltech and went on to be, more or less, the president of Caltech and built it into its mid-century supremacy. But the Millikan Library at Caltech has now had its name taken away for Millikan being associated with eugenics. Nonwhites like it because it reduces the number of famous whites, which they find oppressive, and administrators like it because now they can resell the naming rights to the library.

… However, they demand that the “Shockley–Queisser limit” be renamed. They call for Shockley’s cancellation as punishment for his abhorrent views on issues far outside his domain of expertise, such as race, gender, and IQ. If, for the sake of argument, we divorce ourselves from the charged political content of Shockley’s publications on these topics, we can compare his minimal scholarly contribution in this domain to Pauling’s vitamin C debacle. Should we cancel Pauling for overstepping the domain of his competence and making medically dangerous claims? Which one is the greater misconduct—publishing a paper with eugenic content or promoting vitamin C as a cure for cancer? Note that in the case of both Pauling and Shockley, the Mertonian principle of organized skepticism has already taken care of effectively separating the wheat from the chaff: while Shockley’s detailed balance paper is cited almost 7000 times, his paper on race and IQ has a grand total of 15 citations.

Digging deeper into the Shockley case, many of his biographers attribute his well-documented antisocial traits and behaviors (social withdrawal and paranoia) to a mental disorder and describe him as a high-functioning autist. In his book The Gene, Mukherjee uses Shockley to illustrate the ethical conundrums of gene editing, by pointing out that the same combination of genes can be both “genius-enabling” and “disease-enabling”. What if Shockley’s deplorable views were the result of his mental disorder? Should we cancel him anyway?

That would be ableist!

Or maybe Shockley was just a jerk?

I can think of four great men who knew Shockley well: John Bardeen (the only winner of two Nobel Physics prizes), Robert Noyce (“the mayor of Silicon Valley”), Gordon Moore (Moore’s Law), and Fred Terman (probably the best claimant to the title of “the father of Silicon Valley” although that’s usually given to Shockley). The first three couldn’t stand Shockley, while Terman liked him and gave him a job at Stanford.

… So why should we not humor those who claim to feel differently and rename everything in sight? After all, renaming equations is even easier than renaming cities, buildings, or landmarks.

The answer is simple: our future is at stake. As a community, we face an important choice. 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.

The lessons of history are numerous and unambiguous. Despite vast natural and human resources, the USSR lost the Cold War, crumbled, and collapsed. Interestingly, even the leaders of the most repressive regimes were able to understand, to some extent, the weakness of totalitarian science. For example, in the midst of the Great Terror, Kapitsa and Ioffe were able to convince Stalin about the importance of physics to military and technological advantage, to the extent that he reversed some arrests; for example, Fock and Landau were set free (however, an estimated ∼10% of physicists perished during this time). In the late forties, after nuclear physicists explained that without relativity theory there will be no nuclear bomb, Stalin rolled back the planned campaign against physics and instructed Beria to give physicists some space; this led to significant advances and accomplishments by Soviet scientists in several domains. However, neither Stalin nor the subsequent Soviet leaders were able to let go of the controls completely. Government control over science turned out to be a grand failure, and the attempts to patch the widening gap between the West and the East by espionage did not help. Today Russia is hopelessly behind the West, in both technology and quality of life. …

Anna I. Krylov – Department of Chemistry, University of Southern California

It’s an interesting question.

[Comment at]

Print Friendly and PDF