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Burning A Scientist At The Stake

Tomas Hudlicky, chemist and thought criminal (Brock University)

A letter from a reader. I know his name and his institutional affiliation. He is who he says he is:

I just received tenure at a major university (I’m in the Mechanical Engineering department), and I can echo how Orwellian things are getting. In fact please keep my identity and university confidential if you happen to post this email on your blog. To list just a few examples of what is going down in academia:

1) A recent diversity event literally had a Powerpoint slide titled “Words not to say anymore.” Words included on this list were ‘husband’, ‘wife’, ‘white paper’ (a term academics use for preliminary proposals), and several more. So for example, if I were to say to a colleague “I’d like you to meet my wife,” I would now be committing wrong-think. My first thought was that it could come across as too heteronormative, but even this doesn’t make logical sense given that gay people can also get married now. Perhaps they just want to de-emphasize marriage in general? And apparently describing paper as being white is now part of systemic racism or something.

2) In 2015, I attended their first ever workshop entirely focused on gender identity training. They handed out a 6-page handout of all the new gender terminology. They also flat-out stated, as if it were an absolute fact, that all reality is relative to psychology and that biology is irrelevant. Also fun: they directly implied that anybody who still thinks gender dysphoria is a mental disorder is a backwards bigot. And my favorite: when I talked to the diversity staff afterward to express concerns about the thought-control, they replied that they were simply responding to “the emerging consensus on gender and would be screening all future faculty hires accordingly.” Chilling stuff.

3) You may not be aware that a major chemistry journal, Angewandte Chemie, is in hot water for publishing an essay that committed wrong-think. In short, the author expressed concerns about affirmative action undermining meritocracy. I haven’t even read the essay, because within hours the journal pulled the link and now it is not even available. For those not in academia, it’s hard to explain how unprecedented this truly is. When a scientific article gets retracted, they always retain access to the original paper so people can see for themselves what the issues were. In other words, it is unheard of to completely remove all links to a retracted article; this is clearly motivated by an ideological panic. It gets better: two of their editors were suspended for simply publishing the essay and at least 16 of the journal’s advisory board members have resigned in protest. This seems to me a clear parallel to the furor over the recent NYT opinion piece by Tom Cotton. Now, I must emphasize that I cannot comment on the actual quality of the essay in question, as I cannot even find it. However, the simple fact that the journal is hiding the essay amidst an editorial mutiny speaks volumes to the current climate on race and affirmative action issues.

4) The Office of Inclusion and Diversity has made it clear that their ultimate goal is to have academia’s demographics identical to that of the state we live in. For example, they explicitly said that academia will be sexist until faculty are 50% female. Apparently, the basic fact that many women prefer to not work such highly stressful jobs so they can focus on raising their children must not be mentioned, a la Voldemort.

5) I am a member of the American Physical Society (APS). Unsurprisingly, last week we all received a newsletter from APS with a “Black Lives Matter” black banner. Perhaps more surprisingly, the banner included graphics of people protesting with signs stating “Shut down academia”, “Shut down STEM”, and “No justice, no peace”. Imagine that! A scientific society urging its members to shut down STEM and to end peace! My head spins as I watch scientists cut down the branch we all rest on.

What an e-mail! The writer goes on to emphasize that I cannot say his name or institutional affiliation, because he has a family to support, and can’t afford to be drive out of the field.

You think he’s paranoid? Well, read on. I looked into the situation he mentioned with Angewandte Chemie. Here is part of the “open letter” that the publisher of the journal wrote to “our community,” abasing himself for publishing wrongthink:

Strong action is of the utmost importance. Improving DE&I [Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion] at Angewandte Chemie will not stop here. As a journal and as a community, we must take an inward look at how we can meaningfully contribute to the dismantling of an often-biased academic system. Diversity only strengthens science, and inclusive science that reflects the world’s best thinking is our greatest hope for solving the problems facing society.

We’ll continue to share updates on our progress and welcome your involvement in helping us shape a more fair and inclusive system. We will take an active leadership role in becoming a beacon for DE&I. You have our promise that we will make significant strides forward.

Dr. Guido Herrmann
VP & Managing Director, Wiley-VCH

“Diversity only strengthens science” — ideological cant spoken like a man with a gun pointed at his head.

Chemistry World magazine reported on the controversy. Excerpt:

Brock University chemist Tomáš Hudlický’s piece was published on Thursday 4 June, as a reflection on Dieter Seebach’s 1990 review Organic synthesis – Where now?. Hudlický looks at eight factors that influence chemistry using a figure reproduced from his 2007 book The Way of Synthesis, published by Wiley. It purports to show that certain factors – such as information technology – can be either positive or negative, while others – like diversity – only exert a negative influence on the field.

Hudlický laments that diversity training has ‘influenced hiring practices to the point where the candidate’s inclusion in one of the preferred social groups may override his or her qualifications’. He also claims that efforts to increase women’s participation in science – like Gordon Research Conferences’ power hour – ‘diminishes the contributions by men’. Hudlický also asserts that skills transfer can only occur successfully if there is ‘an unconditional submission of the apprentice to his/her master’.

If you read the whole Chemistry World piece, which doesn’t quote the Hudlicky paper, you would think that the scientist had committed a war crime. I’m serious — read the report. Academics are incandescently angry at him. But what, specifically, did he say? Canada’s National Post reported a bit more detail about the controversy:

Hudlicky’s essay, called “‘Organic synthesis — Where now?’ is 30 years old. A Reflection on the Current State of Affairs,” was intended to honour a scientific article written by Prof. Dieter Seebach, 83, three decades ago. While some of the essay is more technical, in surveying more recent trends in organic synthesis, Hudlicky also writes about “preferential” treatment given to women and minorities.

“In a social equilibrium, preferential treatment of one group leads to disadvantages for another,” Hudlicky writes. “The rise and emphasis on hiring practices that suggest or even mandate equality in terms of absolute numbers of people in specific subgroups is counter-productive if it results in discrimination against the most meritorious candidates.”

Hiring practices, he said, have reached the point where a candidate’s inclusion in a “preferred” social group might override his or her qualifications.

This is certainly true. In journalism, it has been standard hiring practice for decades to favor candidates who are less qualified on the merits, based on their sex or race. I’ve seen it happen a number of times. Journalism is one thing; science is another. What is incredible, really just mind-blowing, is that Hudlicky’s claim cannot be argued about. It cannot be contested. It is like Galileo saying the earth orbits the sun. It violates a core dogma.

Canadian columnist Barbara Kay apparently has seen the original paper. She writes in defense of Hudlicky:

Another point of contention: Hudlicky’s remarks on skills transference. He used the locutions of “masters and apprentices,” a nod to Hungarian-British polymath Michael Polanyi’s concept of “tacit knowledge,” which can only be acquired by students working under, well, “masters,” as famously exemplified in the art of haute cuisine. Such relationships are demanding of apprentices, but produce high performance.

Unfortunately, in Hudlicky’s opinion, “many students are unwilling to submit to any level of hard work demanded by professors. The university does not support professors in this endeavor as it views students as financial assets, and hence protects them from any undue hardships that may be demanded by the ‘masters.’” Added to time constraints on professors, mentorship has diminished and with it the erosion of “the maintenance of standards and integrity of research.” A stern judgment, but obviously opinions based on years of empirical observation. Critics could voice disagreement; instead, they call for his career death.

Brock’s provost and VP, Greg Finn, hastened to situate himself at the head of the mob, brandishing a pitchfork in the form of an open letter to the Brock community. Hudlicky’s descriptions of the master-apprentice relationship, he said, “connote disrespect and subservience … [that] could be alarming to students.” And of course the obligatory accusation that Hudlicky’s observations “do not reflect the principles of inclusivity, diversity and equity included in the University’s mission, vision and values as approved by our Senate and Board of Trustees.” Ominously, Finn states, “further steps are being considered and developed.”

Alarming to students. Good grief.

More from the National Post:

Hudlicky, a Tier 1 Canada research chair in chemistry, refused to comment on Tuesday, saying it was on the advice of his faculty union.

However, he earlier told New York-based Retraction Watch that he was subject to a frightening witch-hunt.

“We are sliding back to Calvinism and burning at stakes. This is absurd,” he said. “I expressed my opinions and my words were totally taken out of context.”

Burning at stakes? No kidding! Science magazine blogger Derek Lowe compared the author of the paper to German science under the Nazis. Really, he did this:

I actually think meritocracy is an excellent thing, but if you just declare “meritocracy in place” as of this moment, you preserve an existing order that has treated a lot of people like second-class citizens and second-class scientists. Worse, it’s an order that has, over the many years, forced many of them unwillingly into those second ranks because the first ranks were closed off to them.

Which is wrong on the face of it, and counterproductive as well. The example is often brought up – as it should be – of what German science did to itself during the Nazi era, deliberately driving away an extraordinary array of intellectual talent. That’s an extreme example, but you can do the same thing more slowly and quietly by only allowing the “right” sorts of people access to what they need to develop their talents. There’s all sorts of room to argue about the most effective ways to address this situation – which has been going on for a long, long time and will not be fixed quickly – but starting off by decrying the current efforts to deal with the problems is not going to help anyone.

I would like to read the full Hudlicky essay. If anybody has it, e-mail me a copy. The hysterical moral panic in science over the paper, though, is incredibly discouraging to any honest person seeking a career in science. It’s totalitarian. It’s straight-up totalitarian. Get this: Prof. Hudlicky was born in 1949 in communist Czechoslovakia, and emigrated with his family to the US in 1968 to escape totalitarianism. And now look!

A Czech émigré is responsible for Live Not By Lies, my forthcoming book about soft totalitarianism. Here are the opening lines of the book:

In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and with it Soviet totalitarianism. Gone was the communist police state that had enslaved Russia and half of Europe. The Cold War that had dominated the second half of the twentieth century came to a close. Democracy and capitalism bloomed in the formerly captive nations. The age of totalitarianism passed into oblivion, never again to menace humanity.

Or so the story goes. I, along with most Americans, believed that the menace of totalitarianism had passed. Then, in the spring of 2015, I received a phone call from an anxious stranger.

The caller was an eminent American physician. He told me that his elderly mother, a Czechoslovak immigrant to the United States, had spent six years of her youth as a political prisoner in her homeland. She had been part of the Catholic anti-communist resistance. Now in her nineties and living with her son and his family, the old woman had recently told her American son that events in the United States today reminded her of when communism first came to Czechoslovakia.

What prompted her concern? News reports about the social-media mob frenzy against a small-town Indiana pizzeria whose Evangelical Christian owners told a reporter they would not cater a same-sex wedding. So overwhelming were the threats against their lives and property, including a user on the Twitter social media platform who tweeted a call for people to burn down the pizzeria, that the restaurant owners closed their doors for a time. Meanwhile, liberal elites, especially in the media, normally so watchful against the danger of mobs threatening the lives and livelihoods of minorities, were untroubled by the assault on the pizzeria, which occurred in the context of the broader debate about the clash between gay rights and religious liberty.

The US-born doctor said he had heard his immigrant parents warn him about the dangers of totalitarianism all his life. He hadn’t worried—after all, this is America, the land of liberty, of individual rights, one nation under God and the rule of law. America was born out of a quest for religious liberty, and had always been proud of the First Amendment to the US Constitution that guaranteed it. But now there was something about what was happening in Indiana that made him think: What if they were right?

They were right. They are right. You watch: this is going to prove to be a civilizational catastrophe. Where can a scientist go now to do research free of ideological chains? Two years ago, Dr. Hudlicky received a top honor at Prague’s Charles University, honoring his lifetime achievements in chemistry. Wouldn’t it be ironic if he had to return to his homeland to finish his scientific career in freedom?

And to think that liberals today believe that fundamentalist Christians are the real enemy of science and technology. It’s cultural leftists within the institutions of the profession who are destroying free thought and the conditions under which science thrives. Look at what has happened to Hudlicky, whose writing is so dangerous that nobody can be allowed to see it, ever, lest they lose their souls. What chaps me is the self-righteousness you see among journalists, scientists, and others in these professions, who consider themselves to be dedicated to fearless truth-telling. The opposite is the case.

Serious question to academic readers, especially in STEM: why should anyone enter the field when it is falling under the shadow of political thought control?

UPDATE: An academic from the former Czechoslovakia e-mails:

It is quite possible that the article was bullsh*t (some commenters said the prof is not a very nice guy who would like to treat his students like slaves – might not be true, but this is still a common Eastern European academic mindset, btw), but we will never know because the publisher disappeared the essay. That is unprecedented. And the statement issued by the journal is even more horrible – almost identical in form to the statements issued by numerous committees and institutions after the 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia: “we were misled, we failed, we betrayed the Communist idea, but those responsible have been replaced, and we will increase our effort by 200% in the next five years and establish re-education sessions…”. There is literally zero difference, except today people are driven by fear of a virtual mob – which it turns out is in some ways even more dangerous than real mobs or totalitarian state structures…
Pasted below is a really good comment from a thread on this blog post:
***
GM says:
9 June, 2020 at 7:06 am
What happened is absolutely horrifying and what I see in the comments is doubly so. 

You cannot just disappear a published item. This is a gross violation of scholarly standards established over centuries. And please, do not come at me with the “”Wiley is a private company, they have the right to do whatever they want” crap. If you truly believe that this is true with respect to matters of scientific record, you should immediately resign from whatever scientific position you are currently holding and move to doing something else that has absolutely nothing to do with scholarly publication, for you are totally unfit to work in such a field. 

If you want to retract a paper, you retract it the way it is supposed to be done — with a retraction note explaining why you are doing that while keeping the text up. You never ever just erase it from the record. 

But the worst part is that I see some idiots in the comments arguing for abolishing tenure so that people who say politically incorrect things can be fired for doing so. Do you understand what you are doing here? Obviously not, but that makes it no less horrifying to see it openly called for. 

Or perhaps it is the second worst, the worst might in fact be the fact that all of the hypocrites calling for more “diversity” by preferentially hiring women and “minorities” at the direct expense of better qualified male candidates, are, by doing so, making sure that the disparities that exist will never be addressed.

Because the more we obsess over skin color and the presence of ovaries, the less we talk about economics. 

The underrepresentation of “minorities” is not set up when they are applying for faculty positions. By that point there are indeed very few qualified such candidates, the best men for the job are indeed white men, and that is the objective truth. Why is that? Because candidates for faculty positions do not just appear by magic out of nothing, they develop over time, from the moment they were born. And school funding in the US is done at the local level while schools are strictly geographically segregated, which ensures that the rich (mostly white) suburbs have schools with orders of magnitude more resources than those in poor non-white regions (and, of course, those of the poor white regions too, but this we are never allowed to talk about). If you are truly serious about fixing this problem, you would abolish that system and invest equally in all schools so that educational outcomes converge. But we never talk about that. Which perhaps, possibly, may be, could have something to do with the fact that the most fierce advocates for “diversity” themselves live in those privileged rich suburbs, enjoy the benefits of having the educational opportunities denied to everyone else, and certainly do not want that to change…

Why is it that women are falling out of the career climbing ladder without serious discrimination in favor of men? Because the academic system is a Ponzi scheme, in which competition is ever escalating, while also being an up-and-out system, in which you either make it a tenured professor or you are forced out. This naturally selects for those who have the most time to dedicate to the struggle for survival, and, as the process has considerably lengthened over time, that means those who don’t have to think about things like childbearing. And they are objectively the better candidates, because developing one’s expertise and qualifications is a cumulative process, in which time invested into it is the key variable. You want to change that? Fix the academic system by eliminating the up-and-out aspect of it and fix the overall exploitative nature of the US labor system where people have no sick pay, no maternity leave, etc. Are we talking about those things? No, we are talking about skin color, who has ovaries and how evil white men are…

One more thing — Hudlicky is from a former communist country, and while the fact that he emigrated from Czechoslovakia, for which communism was a clear net negative (unlike the less developed prior to it places, for which it was a clear net positive), would suggest that he has little positive to say about it, it is worth noting that in the Eastern Bloc a gender parity of the scientific workforce was in fact achieved. Without anyone ever having to decry how evil white men are. And that is something that happens to be obvious in the statistics. Less obvious is that educational disparities determined by poverty and wealth were eliminated too. Look at the biographies of major scientists from that region, and you will notice that an unthinkable in the US proportion of them grew up in the countryside away from the main urban center and also in families without an academic background. The latter was achieved by giving equal educational opportunities to everyone from the very beginning, while gender parity was achieved by having a strong social safety that allowed people to pursue whatever they wanted without constant fear about the future, and by not constantly telling women that they need positive discrimination if they are to ever make it (thus implicitly drilling in their heads that they are inferior). 

But what are we talking about in the US again? Skin color and who has ovaries, all the while being in full support of predatory neoliberalism that is continuously exacerbating economic inequalities in the US and around the world. 

Disgusting hypocrisy at its finest…

UPDATE.2: A source sent me a copy of Hudlicky’s paper. Below, I present screenshots of the controversial parts. The paper, which is short, is a survey of changes in organic chemistry education over the past 30 years. These are the heretical words too dangerous to read:

He points out that the experimental data in academic journals has become unreliable because of lower standards in China:

Is this true, or is it not? Hudlicky is damned for raising the issue. More:

More:

And:

Of course that must be true! I know it is true from my own professional field, journalism, and I am quite sure it is true in academia. Years ago, when I once said to a colleague that this system was unfair, that our mania for “diversity” was affecting the quality of journalism (and I gave concrete examples of poorly argued, badly written opinion pieces that were published only because the author was a member of a favored minority), my colleague insisted that “diversity is a component of quality.” This is what the diversocrats tell themselves to conceal from themselves the fraudulence of what they’re doing. This is a matter of professional integrity in any serious field, but in science, it is non-negotiable, or should be. Prof. Hudlicky is pointing out that the academic science diversocrats have no clothes — and for that, he must burn.

Interestingly, I was having an exchange not long ago with a STEM academic who is also from a Soviet bloc country, but who has been teaching in the US for decades. He told me that he is very worried that fundamental science and engineering skills are being lost to new generations, because of the lack of rigor and standards. He gave me examples.

UPDATE.3: A STEM professor e-mails:

Whether or not Hudlicky gets explicitly fired, there is no doubt his research career is over now.  No major grant agency would attach their funds to his name after this.
While I share your overall pessimism regarding the totalitarian attack against orthodox Christians and other social conservatives, I actually would argue that STEM is still a decent career option for young professionals given the circumstances.  A few things to remember:
1) STEM is now the only part of academia where our research is free from postmodernism and gnosticism.  After all, if differential equations were relativized, airplanes and bridges would come crashing down and the electricity would go out.  No doubt that we still have to deal with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and all of that administrative nonsense, but my actual research is still free which is a huge blessing.
2) STEM makes universities almost all of their grant money.  The army of assistants to the provosts and Deans that obsess over diversity quotas don’t pay for themselves.
3) Because of (1), you’d be surprised how many closet Christians and conservatives remain in STEM fields in academia.  I would guess it’s at least 25% of the faculty in engineering in my university, for example.  I’ve been strongly urging my Christian colleagues to “unionize” to help protect ourselves.  Right now we’re like a bunch of gazelles who are all standing in isolation while a pack of hyenas tears us apart one by one.  However, imagine what would happen if one professor was under investigation for wrong-think on race or gender, but then 100 faculty all signed a joint letter saying that this person was merely advocating common views consistent with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  And that if they plan on running out this person for merely espousing a widely held belief (ex: gender is biological), then they’d have to fire all the rest of us who similarly hold this belief.  Now perhaps they would fire all 100 of us, but I seriously doubt it.  That would result in tens of millions of dollars in grant money lost, destroy hundreds of grad students’ lives, and generate horrible PR for the university.  I wonder why more social conservatives don’t band together in a climate like this.
UPDATE.4: A reader e-mails:
I’m a chemistry grad student hoping to give you a little bit of my perspective on the Angewandte mess… I’ve actually be wondering when this would bubble into the “real world”
I remember reading the article when it came across my RSS feed and not thinking much of it because I didn’t get past the first page. Later that day I found out it was a whole mess of Angewandte, which is maybe one of the most prestigious general chemistry journals in the world.
I’m an organic chemist like Hudlicky, but his specialty is in what’s called natural products synthesis. This is the most brutal field in chemistry, imagine trying to build the most complicated lego set without being able to see your bricks. These projects are very high stress, as it’s a race to publish a new way to synthesize X product most efficiently. Grad students like this tend to be in the lab working full days 7 days a week. Contrasting my lab generally we’re 5 full days and usually spend Saturday’s doing odds and ends, processing data, taking spectra, making figures, doing literature reviews to plan the next week etc… This is far from statistical but these are the anecdotes I’ve seen and experienced. Since it’s such a cutthroat field it tends to be a meritocracy, which seems to be Hudlicky’s mindset.
These projects are grueling you’re trying to replicate what nature has managed to master over millions of years, in a lab. Natural products chemists tend to be weirdos to say the least… one of the most famous is someone like Linus Pauling who was brilliant but towards the end of his life thought Vitamin C was a panacea.
Everything I’ve heard about Hudlicky is that he’s very old school for example he has them do melting point analyses (which isn’t the most reliable tool) and has distill used solvents from chromatography to recycle (which isn’t the worst idea it’s just a pain)
He seems to have a “back in my day mentality” one of the things beyond the diversity complaints, that I’ve heard a lot of grad students call him out for the section “transference of skills” He laments how we don’t use UV and IR spec to determine stereochemistry (which means more or less if a molecule is right handed or left handed) well there are superior quicker and cleaner tools for us to determine this.
But he isn’t completely wrong with the mentor student relationship. Most big research universities you’ll have the PI (professor) maybe a few post docs, a range of grad students, and some undergrads. The PI isn’t often in the lab, he or she just spends most of the time writing proposals, grants, papers, etc… For example my boss (and I’m not complaining here) makes a few passes through our lab every day, talks to us grad students sometimes, and meets with us every few weeks in group meetings and one on one meetings. I’m in a small group there’s less than a dozen of us so we’re meeting regularly, but I can imagine larger groups in Ivy’s where groups are 20+ people, how much mentorship is the average student getting?
Likewise during the school year teaching is an after thought for most of these professors since there is such a high pressure to publish. So us as teacher’s assistants are doing more of the teaching instead of just reinforcing what comes up in class.
This contrasts with my undergrad experience. I went to a small Jesuit liberal arts college. We had a handful of chemistry majors and some more biochemistry majors, maybe 30 of us all in total. So we all had real mentorship. Our professors all knew us, all taught us, and many of us worked in their labs. The lab I worked in where I was one of 4 undergrads working with him, and my advisor would regularly show me how to run experiments, eventually letting me work independently after my first semester.
Thought I’d give you my 2 cents since I’m in the thick of the grad school experience. Hudlicky seemed to just be lamenting how the big research universities are just machines to churn out publications, instead of the sake of scientific inquiry.
Thanks for this, reader. To repeat for you all my objection to the attack on Hudlicky, I am not in the field, obviously, so I am not in a position to judge the merits of his complaints. But Hudlicky’s claims ought to have been treated as contestable, not heretical. Big, big difference.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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