‘We advocate for speech that empowers the next generation of scientists to create a more just and equitable ─ and hence more excellent ─ scientific community’
Ten scientists holding faculty positions at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities have joined forces to defend censorship and cancel culture within academia.
The scholars work at top schools including Berkeley, Cornell, UC Merced, MIT and UCSD. They were also joined by a program director from the National Science Foundation.
Together, they coauthored the recent guest commentary “Words Matter: On the Debate over Free Speech, Inclusivity, and Academic Excellence,” published by the prominent chemistry journal, The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters.
As something of a response to recent critiques of the current intellectual climate of higher education as totalitarian and Orwellian, the 10 coauthors opened their commentary with a series of rhetorical questions:
“What do we value as an academic and a scientific community? Do our core values include only the pursuit of facts and inventions, to the exclusion of other considerations? Or do we accept that scientists have a responsibility to serve society beyond simply expanding the knowledge base, and should therefore concern themselves (at least in part) with how their words and actions intersect and impact the human sphere?”
They go on to state, “The question that we address is whether inclusivity efforts generally constitute unreasonable censorship and political correctness, or whether they are instead manifestations of a long-overdue reckoning about values.”
In addressing this question, the scholars discuss many of the common areas of contention found in debates regarding DEI ideology and its impact on university policies and broader academic culture.
They consider the arguments for inclusive hiring and admissions policies. They discuss the renaming of buildings and scientific phenomena. They talk about the role of Twitter mobs, call-outs, and cancellations in modern society.
By and large, the chemists mount a defense of each of these practices.
Although they do not support the renaming of scientific phenomena because doing so would seem “perilously close to rewriting scientific history,” they are open to the renaming of buildings, awards and lectures, which they assert should not be viewed as “cancelling” but “recalibrating.”
The retraction of essays by scientific journals and the admonishment of scholars by universities in response to angry Twitter mobs do not constitute acts of censorship or examples cancel-culture, but are “manifestation[s] of consequences culture.”
In the example of chemistry professor Tomáš Hudlický, who experienced such manifestations of consequences culture after the journal, Angewandte Chemie, recalibrated its decision to publish an essay penned by Hudlický, they explain to readers Hudlický “suffered some consequences for actions that were deemed unacceptable to many, but he was not ‘cancelled.’”
However, even if Hudlický was canceled, it is not clear the 10 coauthors would be bothered by this, as it appears that they view the term “cancellation,” as well as the practice, as unfortunately maligned and in need of rehabilitation.
“The term ‘cancel culture,’” they write, “has lately been twisted into an epithet that is used to discredit progressive policies.” However, they assure, “the practice of creating social distance from controversial or objectionable statements and actions is as old as society itself.”
Cancellation, they continue, “[is] a way of calling out behavior seen as prejudiced or regressive. Almost all elements of society have adopted the strategy and tactics of ‘call-out culture’ (to use a less loaded term), perhaps best exemplified by the ‘#MeToo’ movement that worked to expose long-ignored misogyny.”
Conversely, a practice the coauthors would appear to consider far more objectionable is the embrace of unrestrained free speech over more tempered speech that generally supports progressive causes.
“Rather than advocating in favor of unencumbered free speech, for its own sake and devoid of consequences,” they write, “we advocate for speech that promotes freedom but recognizes that words have consequences.”
“Scientists have an obligation,” they state, “to consider how the totality of their words and activities impacts the full range of stakeholders in the scientific enterprise: colleagues, trainees, institutions, and society.”
“We ask those who argue in favor of unbridled free speech,” they continue, “to appreciate that science, politics, and prejudices (old and new) are never really disconnected.”
“We advocate for speech that empowers the next generation of scientists to create a more just and equitable ─ and hence more excellent ─ scientific community.”
The authors of the piece are: Ohio State University chemistry Professor John Herbert; UC Berkeley chemistry Professor Martin Head-Gordon; UC Merced chemistry Professor Hrant Hratchian; UC Berkeley chemistry Professor Teresa Head-Gordon; UC San Diego chemistry Professor Rommie Amaro; University of Toronto chemistry Professor Alán Aspuru-Guzik; Cornell University chemistry Professor Roald Hoffmann; University of Richmond chemistry Professor Carol Parish; MIT chemistry Professor Troy Van Voorhis; and Christina Payne with the National Science Foundation.
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