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Atmosphere of Constructive Debates

Editor's note: This is a reply to “Scientists must resist cancel culture” by Krylov, Tanzman, Frenking, and Gill

Why it is not a good idea to make attitude the measure of action and indignation the means of intellectual debate.

In recent months, a handful of articles in private and professional media write of what appears to be an impending culture war in the ivory towers of academia. From these public performances, two opposing camps seem to be emerging on the peripheries of the progressive and conservative side.

These opposing camps often style themselves as champions of free speech and opponents of perceived censorship. Members of each camp often draw comparisons between their contemporary experiences and historic events or figures. In recent articles – one published in Nachrichten aus der Chemie, authors invoke comparisons to historical injustices such as perpetrated by the Nazis, by the Soviets, and by the Catholic church. These comparisons are often inadequate, trivialising and, in many cases, they constitute cognitive dissonance – no instance of perceived censorship or curtailing of free speech in the current debate on professional conduct in academia compares to the racist, nationalist, or ideologically-motivated injustices of the past. Today’s academics in most part of the world experience nothing close to the legal and extra-legal, coercive powers that their perceived historical examples endured. Today, authors in most parts of the world have real-time access to the widest range of professional and personal media and publishing tools in human history. Comparisons to historical injustices serve as a rhetoric tool of identification, demarcation, and, ultimately, polarisation. Such rhetoric is never employed to foster an intellectual debate – on the contrary, it is employed to end it and to shore up camp-mentality.

To echo German author Thea Dorn, we – as the academic community – must not surrender our public spaces, our political spaces, and our cultural spaces to the battle between two aggressive and perpetually offended camps. Dialogue, reason, and effective policies are at home in the centre of society and are built on a broad consensus. Constructive dialogue requires the acknowledgement of oneself, one’s position and that of the other. It also requires an environment that protects dialogue on eye-level. Constructive dialogue is not a contest of shouting and indignation.

At the heart of the mock debate exercised by these two camps seems to be a different issue entirely. An issue that was phrased by Karl Popper more succinctly than I could ever do in a couple of paragraphs: today, we have thousands of more diverse academics that are all trying to coexist, and conflicts of interest are bound to surface. Leadership and leading ideologies are going to be questioned. And when they are questioned, the most important question to Popper is how do we want that soul-searching to occur? How much unrest does our academic system require for us to move on from a mode of operation that is no longer serving the needs?

As a global community of scientists, we are – in most parts of the world – free and obliged to talk about how we want to live and work together with our colleagues and co-workers. To all of you who want to partake in this discussion, weigh the arguments, and implement real changes for the betterment of all: a hearty welcome.

With “A diverse view of science to catalyse change” a team of scientists from more than 30 institutions world-wide has created a DEI/EDI statement for STEM-scientists by STEM-scientists, and a broad, public platform for a discussion of what our home in science should look like, namely: colourful, exciting, and excellent.

The article “A diverse view of science to catalyse change” is co-published in the following journals: Nature Chemistry [DOI: 10.1038/s41557-020-0529-x], Chemical Science [DOI: 10.1039/D0SC90150D], Journal of the American Chemical Society [DOI: 10.1021/jacs.0c07877], Angewandte Chemie International Edition [DOI: 10.1002/anie.202009834], Canadian Journal of Chemistry [DOI: 10.1139/cjc-2020-0323], and Croatica Chemica Acta [DOI: 10.5562/diversity2020]. 

The publication is accompanied by a community blog Diverse Views in Science.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) Agenda covered the co-publication in Science is everybody's party: 6 ways to support diversity and inclusion in STEM.

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