Many of us have long been aware of the increasing politicization of the humanities and social sciences, but until recently, this trend did not impact STEM fields, Division III at Williams. In a recent paper, our own Luana Maroja, Professor of Biology, Chair of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Program, together with Jerry Coyne from the University of Chicago, observe:
we biologists always thought that our field would avoid such struggles. After all, scientific truth would surely be immune to attack or distortion by political ideology, and most of us were too busy working in the lab to engage in partisan squabbles.
But they soon learned that they were wrong:
Scientists both inside and outside the academy were among the first to begin politically purging their fields by misrepresenting or even lying about inconvenient truths. Campaigns were launched to strip scientific jargon of words deemed offensive, to ensure that results that could “harm” people seen as oppressed were removed from research manuscripts, and to tilt the funding of science away from research and toward social reform.
Maroja and Coyne cite several broad areas of study where ideology is encroaching on longstanding scientific methods, including studies of sex difference, evolutionary psychology, genetic differences between individuals among others. And they warn that
because the biological data contradict the fashionable blank-slate ideology, its advocates are forced to render their program immune to data, which they do by twisting the facts of biology to conform to their beliefs.
Biological egalitarianism damages science in two ways. One is through deterrence: the chilling of research that prevents scientists from studying or teaching certain problems. This isn’t accomplished by direct prohibition of research but by instilling fears into teachers or researchers that discourages them from working on and even discussing such topics. A few public examples are all it takes to deter many others, such as the pillorying of those who teach that there are only two sexes in humans (e.g., Carole Hooven at Harvard and Christy Hammer at the University of Southern Maine). Further, those who study group differences and their genetics can be simply dismissed by labeling them as sexists, misogynists, racists, or eugenicists. This has been strikingly effective, for what liberal—and most biologists are liberals—wants to be tarred with those labels? Likewise, those who refuse to accept the equivalence of modern science and indigenous ways of knowing are deemed not only racist but colonialist. Is it any wonder that teachers, researchers, and professors censor themselves on these issues?
The other damage involves direct action: imposing requirements or punishments on scientists whose research strays too far from biological egalitarianism. Punishments have ranged from taking classes away from professors, making their lives so miserable that they’re forced to leave academia, demanding fealty to falsehoods, direct firing, demanding the infusion of mythology into science, rejecting scientific papers because their findings don’t respect the “dignity and rights of all humans,” withholding publicly funded data from researchers, and diverting research funds to ideologically derived projects (the National Institutes of Health once adopted this plan but soon abandoned it).
In short, some scientists are being punished for simply doing science. Just as many in the humanities have been punished for offering a contrary or unfashionable point of view.
Our own Professor Maroja and Chicago's Coyne wrote a very thoughtful piece which hit home for me in many ways. They address attempts to dismiss the relatively new discipline of evolutionary psychology. I discovered this discipline when working on my PhD dissertation in Mythological Studies (a field which is a blend of humanities and social science).
Evolutionary psychology helped me explain the prominence of the female Olympian Athena in the stories of the male Greek heroes. And I learned how dialogue between the disciplines can further understanding of the stories we tell, the stories our species has been telling perhaps since the earliest days of language. Just as dialogue among professors and students, provided each be free to share her research or to speak his mind, can further understanding on what it means to be human and "how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time" as well as under a great variety of geographical, ecological, and social conditions. I encourage you to read the whole thing. And then you could watch this video to hear these two scholars talk about their work.
B. Daniel Blatt '85