West in danger of repeating Soviet ideological assault on science

New ideologies should be carefully discussed, not uncritically insinuated into general culture

 

Illiberal and strongly contested Marxist-inspired ideologies promoting “social justice” are widely and quietly seeping into western culture, eg political correctness, wokeism, critical theory, cancel culture and more. Science is not spared and the damage such political interference can inflict was recently described by renowned quantum chemist Anna Krylov in the Journal of Physical Chemical Letters.

Russian-born and educated, Krylov describes the fate of science in the USSR where communist ideology permeated all aspects of life. Whole areas of science were declared ideologically impure because they didn’t harmonise with Marxist principles, eg quantum mechanics and general relativity.

Mendelian genetics was condemned as “bourgeois pseudoscience”. Many dissenting scientists were imprisoned, some “disappeared”, but many scientists “kissed up” to the ideologues, taking advantage of the situation for personal advancement.

The story of agronomist Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976) is well known. Lysenko believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics in plants, a pseudoscientific concept that harmonises with dialectical materialism. This pleased Stalin and Lysenko was appointed Director of the Soviet Institute of Genetics in 1940, dominating genetics until 1965 with disastrous consequences for Soviet science and agriculture. Famines ensued and millions died.

Soviet communists pioneered cancel culture. People who displeased the regime were erased from history, their images even airbrushed from photographs. This nightmarish control was parodied by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Eventually this control and repression collapsed the USSR in 1991, leaving Soviet science lagging decades behind western science. The human suffering inflicted under Soviet communism was immense. The death toll in Russia/Soviet Union 1917-1953, excluding the second World War, is estimated at more than 20 million from purges, gulags, executions, terror and famines.

The communists saw enemies everywhere. Today’s social justice warriors see racism, patriarchy, misogyny and white privilege everywhere, embedded in scientific nomenclature and even in plain words. We are urged to change science syllabuses, teaching methods and the language we use.

Oxford University plans to diversify and “decolonise” its Stem subjects. And some US school physics courses on Newton’s Laws of Motion are renamed Three Fundamental Physical Laws, dropping Newton’s name because he was a privileged white male!

There is pressure to purge scientific literature of names of people whose personal records fall below standards acceptable to the social justice warriors. For example, the Evolution Society recently renamed the Fisher Prize, named for Ronald Fisher (1890-1962), founder of evolutionary biology and modern statistics, because Fisher also promoted eugenics.

But scientists are not saints. We all must find our own way through the culture we are born into. Many famous scientists held views unacceptable by today’s standards and most scientists prior to 1940 held some such views. In Fisher’s time eugenics was a “progressive” concept. Krylov asserts that we should assess, acknowledge and reward scientific contributions on the basis of intellectual merit only, judging major scientists neither by their politics nor the wholesomeness of their personal lives.

The new ideologies insist that we must constantly look out for words that offend. This can produce crazy consequences, eg the American professor of business communications who discussed filler-words in class, citing the Chinese filler-word na-ge. Students objected because na-ge sounds like the “N-word”. The professor was suspended.

The current campaign to subject western culture to ideological control is justified by appeals to the greater good of social justice, largely in racial and gender areas. But the meaning of social justice in these ideologies is strangely theorised. For example, common interpretations define masculinity, particularly white men, as inherently flawed.

The new ideologies are all strongly contested. I’m not claiming they are devoid of useful analyses but they must be carefully examined/discussed, not quietly and uncritically insinuated into general culture.

Ideological control of science and education failed miserably in the USSR. I realise the current situation in the West is only an embryonic form of what unfolded in the USSR but history repeats when we aren’t careful. Krylov insists our future is at stake.

She exhorts us to uphold democratic principles and full uncensored exchange of ideas, pursuing truth and focusing attention on solving real problems such as climate change and poverty rather than “rewriting history, witch-hunting, redefining language, politicising science and turning Stem education into a farce”.

History teaches that censorship and cancellation harms science and that social justice cannot be achieved through political control and censorship.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of Biochemistry at UCC

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