Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Wokeness & The Endarkenment

The Social Justice 'cult fire burning through academia' is going to kill science
Screen Shot 2020-06-09 at 10.04.30 PM

Science and math will always be safe from the ideologues. That’s what some people thought. They were fools. Look:

A reader who is an academic and a scientist writes:

I wrote this message and debated whether to send it to you. Until I got the third message of the day from a university administrator calling for a general strike action.

I’m revolted at the murder of George Floyd and at police corruption. This does not distract from my alarm about the cult fire now burning hot through academia.

At my university, every administrator, program, sub-program from the chief executive to the department chair has sent one or more messages in the last week on the topic of racism. These explain that extensive anti-racism plans are forthcoming (always without detail but with an apology that the plans will be insufficient), and/or encourage us to protest, hold vigils etc.

All administrative meetings now begin with an acknowledgement of racism, a genuflection difficult to discern from an opening prayer.

Petitions are being circulated.

Some are empty performative chain letters on twitter:

Others are detailed

This insane petition has been signed by thousands of names. Not just random students, but the rank-and-file of the field. [Note from Rod: click the link and read the petition; it is truly insane.]

There are now demands for a general strike. A general strike!


Not just on twitter. We’ve been informed by our Dean that our unit is participating, and that the administration will “advocate” for anyone who feels they need assistance to participate (read: don’t even think about asking your staff to work tomorrow). Our Department chair has reiterated this in a message this evening.

The subtext along with the “encouragement” is that people will notice which greengrocers hang their sign and which don’t. Those of us with tenure need not (yet) fear for our jobs. I think. But a few fired academics won’t be the real damage.

This is going to damage our scientific institutions for a very long time. Jonah Goldberg had a column last week about the damage epidemiologists have inflicted on themselves. I see this corruption now sweeping across the sciences. The cult of wokeness has finally burst out of the humanities and social sciences to infect everything.

This has been coming gradually, and now suddenly. For many years, too many scientists have been too eager to mix science and politics — yielding politics. Too willing to cry “but science!” to silence political critics. Too eager to claim a monopoly on truth which we could never have. We are shredding our credibility at an increasing rate. Science is done by human beings and happens in a political context, yes. We are error prone and blind to our mistakes. But we have always been able to rely on our peers to find those mistakes, to point out the biases. We cannot do that if we are all subsumed to the same ideology.

Even as I write this it seems ridiculous. But then I reread what’s written in those petitions. What will happen to sciences when large swaths of questions are off-limits? When samples can’t be used because they came from the wrong places or people? When the scientific giants of the past must be discarded because of their race or political views? When theories can’t be studied or can’t be questioned because they came from the wrong people? When scientists can’t speak at meetings or be funded because they have the wrong skin color or call themselves the wrong sex or have ‘problematic’ views on other subjects?

The scientific progress of the last two centuries has been a consequence of rigorous inquiry, unbounded by zealotry. There have always been limits: we should never let scientific curiosity override inalienable rights. But I’ve never seen anything like this, where huge groups of scientists are swept-up in an all-consuming ideology. We are rushing into a woke version of Lysenkoism. That ideological Soviet pseudoscience officially lasted only a few decades but destroyed the biological sciences in Russia to a degree that it has never recovered.

In an ideal world, the public role of scientists is to point out that things are more complicated than they seem. We are sometimes mocked for this “on the one hand, but on the other hand” attitude, which can come off as indecisiveness. But it’s not our role to decide! It’s our role to be an honest broker and offer expertise. But now? It’s all falling away. Whatever the question, the answer is racism. That’s it.

As this has unfolded I have been angry, but now I am merely heartbroken. I have always wanted to be a scientist. I love the rigor and beauty of the sciences, the fact that mysterious aspects of the natural world can be uncovered and at least partially understood. I celebrate the human ingenuity of its geniuses, and ability of scientific inquiry to increase our material well being. I cherish the humility of science – the understanding that all our conclusions are provisional, the ever-present assumption that we might be wrong, and the understanding that some questions are forever beyond our reach. Certainly, science has always been messier than its ideals, but those ideals! They are worth protecting. Perhaps some of us can find a place to practice a Benedict Option of science, cultivating free inquiry. Perhaps someday we’ll all get back to a science like the one I grew up with. But I fear it will not be anytime soon.

Here is an article that might explain what’s happening even better than the comparison with Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union: a New Atlantis essay from 2011 explaining how the Islamic world once held the global lead in science, but went into decline. Excerpt:

To anyone familiar with this Golden Age, roughly spanning the eighth through the thirteenth centuries a.d., the disparity between the intellectual achievements of the Middle East then and now — particularly relative to the rest of the world — is staggering indeed. In his 2002 book What Went Wrong?, historian Bernard Lewis notes that “for many centuries the world of Islam was in the forefront of human civilization and achievement.” “Nothing in Europe,” notes Jamil Ragep, a professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma, “could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600.” Algebra, algorithm, alchemy, alcohol, alkali, nadir, zenith, coffee, and lemon: these words all derive from Arabic, reflecting Islam’s contribution to the West.

Today, however, the spirit of science in the Muslim world is as dry as the desert. Pakistani physicist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy laid out the grim statistics in a 2007 Physics Today article: Muslim countries have nine scientists, engineers, and technicians per thousand people, compared with a world average of forty-one. In these nations, there are approximately 1,800 universities, but only 312 of those universities have scholars who have published journal articles. Of the fifty most-published of these universities, twenty-six are in Turkey, nine are in Iran, three each are in Malaysia and Egypt, Pakistan has two, and Uganda, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, and Azerbaijan each have one.

There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, but only two scientists from Muslim countries have won Nobel Prizes in science (one for physics in 1979, the other for chemistry in 1999). Forty-six Muslim countries combined contribute just 1 percent of the world’s scientific literature; Spain and India each contribute more of the world’s scientific literature than those countries taken together.

What happened? Read the whole thing to find out. The short answer is that there was a clash within Islam between strict pietists and those who believed that philosophical inquiry was consonant with the faith. The strict pietists won, and forbade thought and speculation that violated rigid orthodoxies. The article’s author, Hillel Ofek, quotes  historian Toby Huff, who wrote:

The rise of modern science is the result of the development of a civilizationally based culture that was uniquely humanistic in the sense that it tolerated, indeed, protected and promoted those heretical and innovative ideas that ran counter to accepted religious and theological teaching. Conversely, one might say that critical elements of the scientific worldview were surreptitiously encoded in the religious and legal presuppositions of the European West.

The rise in the West of the worldview that produced the Scientific Revolution is theologically and socially problematic in ways that I have discussed before on this blog, and in my past work. That’s not necessary to go into here. But we can say that for scientific knowledge to progress, scientists and philosophers need to be free to think, to experiment, and to write about what they are finding without fear of persecution. The religion of Social Justice is endarkening the West. It is going to kill science.

Just think: so many liberals were terrified that the Religious Right was the great enemy of science. The real anti-science fanatics turn out to be the Social Justice Left.

UPDATE: From a journalist:

UPDATE.2: Reader Elijah comments:

“The real anti-science fanatics turn out to be the Social Justice Left.”

But of course they don’t see it that way. And I don’t mind admitting that I’m already sick and tired of the most privileged white people on earth (i.e. Paul Krugman) demanding that other privileged white people lose their jobs over not being sufficiently woke, and then expect people of color to applaud their performance. If the mob comes for Krugman, what does he care? He’ll simply retire with his millions to The Hamptons and grumble over his G&T to anyone who will listen.

But to your point: the Social Justice left, like much of “young” America, sees science as a tool to be used judiciously in defense and discovery of truths that further – to use Sam Harris’ words – human flourishing, as defined by woke culture. The moment “science” trespasses on sacred ground, so to speak, it is simply ignored or shouted down. Biology is science except when it trespasses on sexual culture; math is concerned with hard truths about numbers until it trespasses on “community concerns”. Data can and should be ignored altogether when it trespasses on any marginalized group’s feelings or “lived experience”. Emotion, if not King, is most certainly Queen.

Yesterday, you quoted Erick Erickson on Trump: “In the rhetoric, tone, tenor, and levels of support for President Trump, I am struck by how many people still view him as some defense against the left. True, he is to an extent.”

Since Trump’s election, we have witnessed him being roasted by everyone from hack comedians to artists to Nobel winning authors and everyone in-between. The NYT published a fantasy account of Trump’s murder. How many people have lost their jobs over that? Lost their families, their livelihoods? Is there any place in America, save a few crazy outposts, where it’s not safe to criticize, insult, inveigh against, complain about, and just plain gripe about Donald Trump? Try questioning the protests, or BLM, or any public person of color and get back to me about what happens.

My point here is that I think plenty of religious Americans disdain – maybe even detest – Trump, but they see him as perhaps the last standing defense there is of basic American rights and responsibilities. The woke mob couldn’t care less about science, the Constitution, or anything else that stands in the way of its perceived path to utopia. Even young woke people who are friends of my own kids understand that these community justice groups that will supposedly take the place of cops are just going to exchange one group of privileged people for another, and as white middle class kids they’ll be shafted, big time.

I am disgusted by the Minneapolis cops just as I am the good ‘ol boy network of Glynn County, Georgia. People are right to be outraged and to demand justice. I certainly understand the emotions that drove protesters to ransack a police station. How we square those things with the looting of Target and Urban Outfitters is less clear, but what is crystal clear is that we’re not allowed to notice it, let alone question it.

For all the talk of Trump “shredding the Constitution”, I have yet to see him take any concrete steps towards restricting the basic Constitutionally-guaranteed rights of people. The social justice left has promised to do so, starting with the First Amendment.

I can’t be the only person that fears it, even if i have to shield myself with a vulgar buffoon.

UPDATE.3: I’m getting emails from academics working in the sciences, talking about the rapid politicization of their departments, especially this week. They read like letters smuggled out from behind the Iron Curtain. I’m not kidding. One of them forwarded me e-mails from his or her department chair, who writes like a commissar, instructing them all about what they are all going to be doing to make this science department woke. The reader begged me not to post them, out of fear someone would identify him or her. But I can assure you that this isn’t from the head of a science team at Bugtussle A&M, but rather from a prestigious school. The reader writes:

I had been horrified and very upset [by the barrage of e-mails], but was so glad to see your post [this one — RD]. I felt less alone. I do not dare say a word because I’d be fired immediately and blacklisted for the rest of my life. I am having to choke it down and bottle it up. It is scary out there. The mob is coming. I disagree with politics in the workplace. It is inappropriate and leads down a slippery slope. This feels like a tsunami wave that you can’t escape from.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now