Andreas Bikfalvi MD PhD, University of Bordeaux and National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM)
“The politicization of science” is a divisive subject. There are people who think that science is always political while others, such as the prominent quantum Chemist Anna Krylov, say that science must keep its independent and neutral status. There have been recently two assays published in J Physical Chemistry that are holding these opposing views. In the first assay, Anna Krylov, explains what politicization of science really means and, for here, we must absolutely follow the principles of Robert K. Merton who views science as a system of organized skepticism which is neutral and universal, and must therefore be protected from political or ideological intrusion. The second assay asserts that, because of strong ties with society (universities, state-governed funding organizations etc..), science can never escape politics and must bow its knee to it. I will discuss this here by defending Krylov’s position.
In her recent essay, Anna Krylov detailed her thoughts and worries about the increasing politicization of science (1). Growing up in the U.S.S.R., Anna Krylov, who immigrated to Israel in 1991 and came to the USA in 1996 (2), experienced first-hand how communist Soviet ideology permeated all areas of the society in which she was raised. In particular, this political control affected many aspects of Russian science, the deleterious effects of which are well-known. With this background, Krylov is endowed with an important perspective on the changing nature of society and the interaction between politics, culture and science. Her article has attracted significant attention (more than 50 thousand views since its publication on June 12), and has been the subject of both praise and criticism on social media platforms.
Krylov’s essay has been criticized in print by Philip Ball, a science journalist from the UK (3,4). Here I will discuss some of his criticisms. In my opinion, his criticisms largely miss the points made by Krylov, and furthermore I find the demeaning and patronizing tone of his writings rather inappropriate.
Ball’s main point is that science is and has always been political, and therefore the idea that science and politics should be separated is naïve. My sense is that few if any scientists will disagree with this; anyone who is involved in the process of grant applications and research funding is acutely aware that funding is provided by society and priorities here are dictated by culture and politics. And this is seemingly uncontroversial, as Society wants a return on its investment. Science should ultimately lead to improving standards of living and the flourishing of society. In this sense, science and politics are intimately intertwined.
However, “politicization of science” means something entirely different in the context of Krylov’s essay. Perhaps, “imposition of ideological viewpoints into science” would be a more precise term. It means that specific ideas, doctrines, and ideologies that originated outside of science are forcefully imported into science, demanding individual scientists to conform irrespective of the validity and merit of these ideas. That is, a forceful imposition of the ideology onto science and demanding its blind acceptance. In some past instances, such ideas were based on erroneous interpretations of scientific observations, which falsely promised to nourish society and contributed to the Zeitgeist which, as a consequence, reinforced these erroneous interpretations in a kind of feed-forward loop. Lysenkoism, Eugenics, and social Darwinism are classic examples of this type. This is exactly the principal substance of Krylov’s article. She identifies current tendencies in the sciences and society that mirror these past and unfortunate perturbations of the scientific enterprise. Her worries about lasting damage that such intrusion may cause are indeed well-founded.
Rather than focusing on the Krylov’s main point, Ball instead spends much of his effort attacking a strawman of his own creation. Nowhere in Krylov’s viewpoint is the issue of improving diversity in science discussed. Yet Ball talks a lot on this topic, creating the false impression that Krylov’s paper is somehow at odds with the prevailing opinion of the importance of this issue.
Another aspect of Ball’s criticism is related to the question of values in science. There is an ongoing discussion about how moral and ethical values are related to science. In the past, this discussion has been mainly confined to the social sciences: Max Weber’s distinction of “sein” (is) and “sollen” (ought), which was the subject of the “Werturteilsstreit” at the beginning of the 20th century. This has been followed by debates between Neurath (Vienna Circle) and Horkheimer (critical theory) in the 1940s and those between Popper (critical rationalism) and Adorno (critical theory) as well Albert (critical rationalism) and Habermas (critical theory) three decades later (5).
But the discussion about values has many aspects. For instance, should a professor attempt to indoctrinate their mentees (students and post-docs) and transform them into activists, or should the professor instead teach them how to think? For me, the latter is mandatory. Should academic institutions or funding organizations introduce criteria for recruitment or obtaining grants that favor considerations other than merit, potential, and expertise? Should science explore all possibilities in the realm of rationality? Or, perhaps, should there be areas of knowledge that are off-limits to investigation because of conflicts with current societal wisdom? These are difficult questions to answer since science is conducted within ethical boundaries, which evolve with time and can differ between societies. However, such questions about the value system of a scientific enterprise are distinct from the privately held morals of a scientist, which should be separated from his or her scientific work. Should scientists be judged on their scientific merits alone, or “cancelled” when failings — as judged by deviance from contemporary moral values — occur? Should Einstein be cancelled because of his disparaging remarks in his private diary about the Chinese (6)? Should John von Neumann be canceled because he designed the explosive lens that would surround the atom bomb and calculated the altitude at which the bomb should explode to cause maximum damage? (7).
Furthermore, the evaluation of past events under a lens of contemporary moral standards is questionable and may lead to erroneous conclusions. A good example (outside of science) is to depict the 17th Century French philosopher Montesquieu as a racist (as Cornell West did, (8)) when one does not understand that the tone of his “Lettres Persanes“ is ironical (perhaps because of a lack of erudition in the French language). Should we judge as racist the biologist and Nobel prize winner Hermann Müller who was a committed eugenicist, but at the same time a devout Marxist? (9).
Finally, basing value judgments of the present on past events as causal factors is highly contentious and does not take into account causal complexities, confounding factors, background conditions, etc. In most cases, they represent classical examples of defective causal reasoning.
Ball cites Oreske. I will cite the Canadian historian and science sociologist Yves Gingras, a Mertonian who already in 2019 said: “By deciding that the social behavior of scientists will now affect their chances of keeping their grants, the NSF extends its traditional mission beyond that of scientific gatekeeper. This is certainly in keeping with the spirit of the times, but by explicitly opening the scientific sphere to the general social sphere, it will be moving onto more slippery terrain,” (10) and “Whereas getting funded by the NSF was perceived as a sign of scientific excellence, it is possible that in the coming years, keeping one’s grant will have also become a badge of good social behavior. It also suggests that existing institutions hiring those people are not doing their work properly. But as the road to hell is paved with good intentions….” (10). In the same vein, the NIH in the US has recently implemented a policy for grant applications that introduces huge moral biases, a true Mertonian sacrilege!
Ball’s understanding of current social movements seems to miss at least some of what is going on at all levels of society, including education, the sciences, and medicine. Does he want racial discrimination based on the importation of critical race theory (CRT) in the medical praxis or does he want a socially egalitarian evidence-based medicine preserved (11)? Does he approve of the replacing of rigorous mathematics instruction by dumbed-down ethnocentric versions of mathematics pedagogy (12)?
Towards the middle of Ref. 3, Ball states, “To suggest that science should be immune to calls in the broader society to re-examine the biases and incentives that inhibit diversity is not just in itself a political act, but moveover [sic] one that may be against the interests of science.” I find this rather ironic because Ball and so many others are not arguing for diversity in viewpoints in science. On the contrary, they want to imbue science with a homogeneous political ideology, which means Ball is making Krylov’s case for her without realizing it.
I am sure that Anna Krylov’s essay will remain widely read and important despite Ball’s attempt to distort its message and his misdirected criticisms. Undoubtedly, the Savonarola’s of the present day are well alive!
- Krylov AI, The Peril of Politicizing Science. J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 2021, 12, 22, 5371-5376, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jpclett.1c01475
- Philip Ball. Science Is Political, and We Must Deal with It. J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 2021, 12, 27, 6336-6340, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jpclett.1c02017
- Philip Ball. Science is political. Chemistry World, 16 July 2021, https://www.chemistryworld.com/opinion/science-is-political/4013986.article
- Albert H, Topisch E. Werturteilsstreit. Wege der Forschung Band 175; Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1979
- John von Neumann, https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/John_von_Neumann
- West C. A Genealogy of Modern Racism. In Race Critical Theories, Eds : P. Esset, DT Goldberg, pp. 90-110,
- Richards M. Artificial insemination and eugenics: celibate motherhood, eutelegenesis and germinal choice, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences Volume 39, Issue 2, June 2008, Pages 211-221 .
- Gingras Y. The moralisation of science is challenging its autonomy. University World News. 23 March 2019, https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20190320145639758
- Wispelwey B., Moore M. An Antiracist Agenda for Medicine. Boston Review, March 17, 2021, http://bostonreview.net/science-nature-race/bram-wispelwey-michelle-morse-antiracist-agenda-medicine
- Deift, P.; Jitomirskaya, S.; Klainerman, S. America is flunking math. Persuasion, 2021. https://www.persuasion.community/p/why-america-is-flunking-math-education