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Lawrence Krauss: Why the easily offended are a threat to scientific progress

The mantras of diversity, inclusion and anti-racism are placing feelings above academic freedom

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There is a growing public perception that being offended confers special rights while also imposing obligations on the offending parties. It doesn’t. Or at least it shouldn’t. Nevertheless, perhaps as a consequence of the current educational focus on issues of diversity, inclusion and anti-racism, this warped viewpoint is insinuating itself into higher education and research at a level that is increasingly threatening free speech, academic freedom and with it, scientific progress.

While there are many academic areas where raw political sensibilities might impact on scholarly discourse, it is hard to think of chemistry as such an area.  Nevertheless, new guidelines for accepting and editing papers were recently sent to editors of the prestigious Journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

“Following the publication of the article by (Tomáš Hudlický) in (German journal) Angewandte Chemie and the identification of a potentially offensive image in a journal, a set of guidelines has been produced by RSC staff to help us minimise the risk of publishing inappropriate or otherwise offensive content. Offence is a subjective matter and sensitivity to it spans a considerable range; however, we bear in mind that it is the perception of the recipient that we should consider, regardless of the author’s intention . … Please consider whether or not any content (words, depictions or imagery) might have the potential to cause offence, referring to the guidelines as needed. ” (italics mine)

I’ll get to the reference to the article by Hudlický, because that itself is very telling. For the moment, let’s concentrate on the italicized sentence. Considering the perception of any and all recipients, regardless of author intent, can effectively freeze all discourse. It is hard to imagine any sentence spoken in the public domain today that cannot possibly be construed as offensive to someone.

Lest one think that this is too great an extrapolation based on the guidance language alone, if one refers to the accompanying guidelines, one will find offensive content defined as “Any content that could reasonably offend someone on the basis of their age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, marital or parental status, physical features, national origin, social status or disability.” In short, there is room to offend absolutely everyone.

Consider what subjects could now be reasonably censored by editors according to this new edict. Much of evolutionary biology could now be verboten, since the very subject offends the religious sensibilities of many Americans. Same too with The Big Bang. What about geology, where estimates of the age of rocks directly contradicts the hopes of young earth creationists? Much of genetic research is already the source of vocal protest, especially the genomics of diverse populations, and any investigations of correlations between race and other genetic traits. Sex and gender clearly become untouchable because of the widely varying views on the similarities and distinctions between the two. Studies of climate change are already sensitive touchstones, and both new claims of serious implications of climate change, or studies that demonstrate that some earlier claims were overblown, will offend one or another side of the political fence.

What about paleontology and archeology and scientific study of finds like the Kennewick Man ? Aboriginal groups wanted to repatriate the remains of this 9,000 year old skeleton found in 1996 near Kennewick, Wash., in order to shield them from scientific study, because their cosmology was in conflict with the reality that domestic populations had their origin in the migration of earlier humans tens of thousands of years ago? At the time, the scientific community didn’t back down in the face of misplaced religious or cultural sensibilities.

Today, however, the Society for American Archaeology censored a talk by two archaeologists concerned about similar creationism creeping into archeology. The scientists argued that the current Native American Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) allows repatriation decisions to be made on the basis of Indigenous creation stories, an accommodation that would not be made for Western-based religious myths. The Society claimed that such language did not “align with SAA values.” Individual SAA members accused the talk of being “anti-Indigenous,” “racist” and part of “white supremacy.”

If studies of pure science subjects may be impacted, there is no doubt that studies in areas including the sociology of science will be doomed. Chemists at Barnard College, who developed a recent course in “Chemistry and Racism,” which focuses on dealing with systemic racism in chemistry without providing any evidence that such a thing exists in the first place, will no doubt take offence at studies that suggest that any racism in science is not systemic.

In higher education there used to be a vigorous debate between proponents of affirmative action and those who argued that this would negatively impact on merit-based promotion. Studies on either side of this debate are likely to offend some in the other camp.

In this regard, it was particularly interesting that the preamble to the new RSC guideline mentioned an article by Tomáš Hudlický of Brock University, on the state of organic synthesis in honour of the 83rd birthday of chemist Dieter Seebach. In the article Hudlický questioned whether efforts to promote diversity by prioritizing inclusion of certain groups may be done at the expense of meritocracy. The reaction was swift. Following an outcry by a predictably offended social media mob, the journal involved retracted the article, removed it from its web site , and replaced several editors involved in its publication.

Lest one assume that in areas far removed from hot button issues the thinking that led to the RSC editorial guidelines is likely to have little effect, consider a recent example from the Journal of Hospital Medicine. Having published a piece in April entitled “Tribalism: The Good the Bad and the Future,” discussing the dangers to medicine of tribal in-group and out-group behaviour, the editors of the journal immediately retracted the article in response to social media reaction that these terms can be hurtful to some. They then removed all references to the “tribes” and “tribalism,” including a definition of these terms that was provided at the beginning of the article. They then republished a revised version and wrote an editorial in May apologizing for their act of “microaggression” by publishing a piece with terms whose connotations some people might find offensive.

As the above example illustrates, offensive language is now often rephrased as hurting feelings,   with concomitant feelings of abuse or discrimination. An associate vice-president at Mount Royal University in Alberta, linda manyguns, eschews the use of capital letters, except when it comes to Indigenous people, because capitalization is a hurtful symbol of western hierarchy.

Similarly, language offence can be interpreted as a form of harassment, producing a hostile environment that can produce suspensions or firing. Several academics have described to me how they have removed potentially offensive lessons and language from their teaching materials, not merely because of the risk of offending some students, but because of the potential ramifications for their own academic job security.

If the quashing of writing, discussion and open inquiry reflected in these episodes becomes the norm rather than the exception, the future of education and scientific publication doesn’t look good. Perhaps the editors of scientific journals should reflect more deeply on the context of offence by reading what various authors have had to say on the subject.

The polymath British writer, actor, and intellectual, Stephen Fry, wrote in 2005 : “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so f**king what.”

Less provocatively, the late writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens, wrote , “If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings, I say, ‘I’m still waiting to hear what your point is.’ In this country, I’ve been told, ‘That’s offensive’ as if those two words constitute an argument or a comment. Not to me they don’t.”

Hitchens, who died in 2011 would have found the new world of publishing today very different than the one in which he produced his brilliant, if sometimes-biting essays and books. I suspect much of what he wrote then simply wouldn’t be published today.

Anna Krylov, a distinguished chemist at the University of Southern California, unearthed a more distant example of the historical disconnect with modern concerns about the risk of causing offence is not new in science. Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s pioneering development of microscopy in the seventeenth century helped found modern microbiology. When he discovered spermatozoa in semen, he was concerned that communicating his new results might cause offence. As he put it, when communicating his results to the President of the Royal Society for publication in its Philosophical Transactions, “If your Lordship should consider these observations may disgust or scandalize the learned, I earnestly beg your Lordship to regard them as private and to publish them or destroy them as your Lordship sees fit.” Fortunately for the progress of biology, his lordship wasn’t as concerned about causing offence then as are the editors of modern scientific journals, and van Leeuwenhoek’s results were published.

The bottom line is this: If you are offended by something you read, or your feelings are otherwise hurt, you own the problem. You can choose to deal with it in a variety of ways, either by refusing to read any potentially offensive material, by ignoring the offence, or by writing cogently in response, critiquing the ideas one finds offensive. But it is your problem to deal with. Others are not obliged to cater to your sensibilities in advance, nor need they be censored after the fact. In my day, recognizing this reality was called growing up.

National Post

Lawrence M. Krauss, a theoretical physicist, is President of the Origins Project Foundation and host of The Origins Podcast.  His most recent book is The Physics of Climate Change. 

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