An Existential Threat to Doing Good Science
What scientists are able to teach and what research we can pursue are under attack. I know because I’m living it, writes biologist Luana Maroja.
For the past two days, more than 150 professors, scholars, and a few hangers-on, including yours truly, gathered at Stanford to talk about the state of academic freedom. If you read this newsletter and listen to our podcast, you know well that the need for such a conference—to say nothing of new universities—is urgent.
This one was organized and attended by many whose names will be familiar to you from their bylines in Common Sense and on Honestly: economist John Cochrane; geophysicist Dorian Abbott; mathematician Sergiu Klainerman; economist Tyler Cowen; historian Niall Ferguson; psychologist Jonathan Haidt; lawyer Nadine Strossen; and courageous young scholars like Solveig Gold, among many others.
The most important of the panels, to my mind, were those focused on hard sciences and the way that this authoritarian ideology has impacted even fields like chemistry and biology. Below is an edited version of what Luana Maroja, a biology professor at Williams College, shared.
I’m told by the conference organizers that a video of the whole thing will be available soon. We’ll be sure to share it in TGIF this week. — BW
As an evolutionary biologist, I am quite used to attempts to censor research and suppress knowledge. But for most of my career, that kind of behavior came from the right. In the old days, most students and administrators were actually on our side; we were aligned against creationists. Now, the threat comes mainly from the left.
The risk of cancellation at Williams College, where I have taught for 12 years, and at top colleges and universities throughout this country, is not theoretical. My fellow scientists and I are living it. What is at stake is not simply our reputations, but our ability to pursue truth and scientific knowledge.
If you had asked me about academic freedom five years ago, I would have complained about the obsession with race, gender and ethnicity, along with safetyism on campus (safe spaces, grade inflation, and so on). But I would not have expressed concerns about academic freedom.
We each have our own woke tipping point—the moment you realize that social justice is no longer what we thought it was, but has instead morphed into an ugly authoritarianism. For me that moment came in 2018, during an invited speaker talk, when the religious scholar Reza Aslan stated that “we need to write on a stone what can and cannot be discussed in colleges.” Students gave this a standing ovation. Having been born under dictatorship in Brazil, I was alarmed.
Soon after that, a few colleagues and I attempted to pass the Chicago Statement—what I viewed as a very basic set of principles about the necessity of free speech on campus. My shock continued as students broke into a faculty meeting about the Chicago Statement screaming “free speech harms” and demanding that white male professors “sit down” and “confess to their privilege.”
The restriction of academic freedom comes in two forms: what we teach and what we research.
Let’s start with teaching. I need to emphasize that this is not hypothetical. The censorious, fearful climate is already affecting the content of what we teach.
One of the most fundamental rules of biology from plants to humans is that the sexes are defined by the size of their gametes—that is, their reproductive cells. Large gametes occur in females; small gametes in males. In humans, an egg is 10 million times bigger than a sperm. There is zero overlap. It is a full binary.
But in some biology 101 classes, teachers are telling students that sexes—not gender, sex—are on a continuum. At least one college I know teaches with the “gender unicorn” and informs students that it is bigoted to think that humans come in two distinct and discrete sexes.
Even medical schools and the Society for the Study of Evolution have issued statements suggesting that sexes are on a “continuum.” If this were true, the entire field of sexual selection would be baseless, as its bedrock insight lies in the much larger female investment in reproduction, explaining the demonstrated choosiness in females (who have more to lose) and competitiveness in males (the “abundant” sex in most species, one male can fertilize multiple females). Published papers (see here, for example) ask us to be “inclusive” by limiting the sex discussion to the few species of algae and protists (such as amoebas) that have equal size gametes—even when that has no relevance to any animal or vascular plant.
In psychology and public health, many teachers no longer say male and female, but instead use the convoluted “person with a uterus.” I had a colleague who, during a conference, was criticized for studying female sexual selection in insects because he was a male. Another was discouraged from teaching the important concept of “sexual conflict”—the idea that male and female interests differ and mates will often act selfishly; think of a female praying mantis decapitating the head of the male after mating—because it might “traumatize students.” I was criticized for teaching “kin selection”—the the idea that animals tend to help their relatives. Apparently this was somehow an endorsement of Donald Trump hiring his daughter Ivanka.
Another hot button is teaching about heritability. Students are often happy to hear that there are genes for sexual orientation, but if you teach that most human personality traits, and even school achievement, have a heritable component, they start to squirm. The same is true for population genetics. While the history of science does contain baseless and shameful assertions about race, we know that it is true that human populations, say over distinct geographic areas, have differences in allele frequency. Many of these differences are deeper than just skin color and relevant to health and well-being. Imagine the consequences of this lack of knowledge in medicine. After all, many genetic diseases vary between populations, for example, sickle-cell anemia among African-Americans, cystic fibrosis in Europeans, and Tay-Sachs disease among Jews.
But it has become taboo in the classroom to note any disparities between groups that are not explained as the result of systemic bias.
Take cultural differences. I come from the Third World and moved to the U.S. when I was 23. I am thus very aware of the massive differences in culture and how that affects behavior. As a child, I was encouraged by relatives and society to cheat in school, and whenever personal gain was possible, as long as it didn’t cause too much harm to others. Here, this kind of thing is appalling, and so I adjusted. But discussing with students how the great variation in human culture affects our behavior and outcomes is now untouchable.
The language purity that this ideology requires is also distressing. It gets in the way of spontaneity and good teaching. At Williams, for example, our teaching assistants were told at a DEI training session that the word “guys” is a microaggression. So students learn that inoffensive words are harmful. This leads to a snowball effect, where ever more insignificant words or gestures can be taken as proof of bigotry. Many professors I know will freeze in class when realizing they were praising the work of a “colonialist” such as Darwin or Newton. Others will avoid mentioning historical figures if they are white and male.
Let’s move on to the stifling of research. Some grants focus almost exclusively on identity, as federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, now offer a surplus of grants with the purpose of “broadening the participation of members of groups that are . . . currently underrepresented”—instead of funding research to answer scientific questions.
But the field that is most directly affected is research related to humans, especially those dealing with evolution of populations.
As an example: The NIH now puts barriers to access to the important database of “Genotypes and Phenotypes (dbGaP).” The database is an amazing tool that combines genomes (the unique genetic makeup of each individual) and phenotypes (the observable characteristics of each individual) of millions of people. These phenotypes include education, occupation, health and income and, because the dataset connects genetics with phenotype at an individual level, it is essential for scientists who want to understand genes and genetic pathways that are behind those phenotypes.
The NIH now denies scientists access to this data and other related datasets. Researchers report getting permits denied on the grounds that studying their genetic basis is “stigmatizing.” According to one researcher, this happens even if the research has nothing to do with race or sex, but focuses on genetics and education.
But why is education attainment any more stigmatizing than health? Especially when all individuals in the database are anonymous? Given the large genetic variation between individuals in a group and the large environmental effect on phenotypes (especially those related to education), are results for the group level even that relevant?
Learning about what differentiates education attainment and occupation is more than an academic curiosity. Understanding the genetic pathways behind phenotypes might help us find solutions and help struggling children.
The prestigious journal Nature Human Behavior just announced in a recent editorial: “Although academic freedom is fundamental, it is not unbounded.” They are not referring to the importance of protecting individuals participating in research. They are saying that the study of human variation is itself suspect. So they advocate avoiding research that could “stigmatize individuals or human groups” or “promotes privileged, exclusionary perspectives.”
The censors and gatekeepers simply assume—without evidence—that human population research is malign and must be shut down. The costs of this kind of censorship, both self-imposed and ideologically based, are profound. Student learning is impaired and important research is never done. The dangers of closing off so many avenues of inquiry is that science itself becomes an extension of ideology and is no longer an endeavor predicated on pursuing knowledge and truth.