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The Myth of Cancel Culture in Chemistry (and Science)

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

I actually hoped I’d never have to criticize a Nachrichten aus der Chemie article again, but here we are again.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines Cancel Culture as

​the practice of excluding somebody from social or professional life by refusing to communicate with them online or in real life, because they have said or done something that other people do not agree with

which sounds like a really bad thing. Freedom of speech is one of our basic rights and one of the working principles of a democratic, pluralistic society. Cancel Culture essentially is censorship of the masses, aimed at people which express controversial opinions. At least this is the interpretation which I see quite a bit too often and which is in line with this recent Article from the Nachrichten aus der Chemie, the membership magazine of the German Chemistry Society GDCh.(1) However, the entire essay is misleading, spreads fake facts, and advocates for an unjust, exclusive scientific community. And, to cut it short: Cancel Culture in science is just a myth.

Don’t worry, Sir Newton won’t be cancelled anytime soon.

Breaking things down

I did not really want to go through the article paragraph by paragraph. It is a common method of the alt-right, climate change deniers, or conspiracy theorists to make up “facts”, which only takes a couple of minutes. However, it takes hours to actually dissect their arguments and show them as what they are: straight up lies and misinformation. But then again, it is worthwhile to dissect the entire thing and see how cleverly the authors try to manipulate the readers.

Misleading structure of argumentation. This already got me up on my feet. The article begins with a broad history of censorship, and how great thinkers like Socrates, Galilei, or Copernicus were (in today’s words) cancelled by society. Taking some more recent examples, the Third Reich or the Soviet Union censored free speech to the point of executing people. Add to this a picture of George Orwell’s 1984, one of the most iconic books about (fictitious) totalitarianism.

What does this introduction now do to the reader? It puts people who are cancelled (read below for some of their examples) on the same level as historical geniuses who helped in shaping our modern view of the world. On the other hand, everybody who tries to cancel them (in their view!) is no better than the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. So from the very beginning, the article does not even try to pretend that it aims for an open discussion, but categorizes the community in good and bad. I would even go as far as call it historical revisionism, nicely summed up in this quote:

The ideologues of Nazi Germany were also obsessed with the political views and identity (understood as racial purity) of scientists. Liberals were jailed and murdered. Jews (or „Aryans“ married to „Jewesses“) were expelled from academia.(1)

No, dear authors, Jews were not expelled from academia because of their political views. They were the victim of one of the largest genocides in the history of mankind. If you cannot even get this basic fact right, how can you even try to argue further?

[Note: Several readers have intentionally misinterpreted this paragraph. I am well aware that exclusion of Jews from academic and general social life preceded the Holocaust. However, I needed to stress that the authors’ emphasis is misleading, as they explicitly state that liberals were “murdered”, whereas they summarized the fate of the Jewish community only by their removal from academic positions. I do not know why the authors laid emphasis in this way, as it adds nothing to their line of discussion, and it is unclear what point they were trying to make. Maybe they realized that comparing their perception of Cancel Culture to the Holocaust was crass after all, and these lines remained after editing. In any case, I do not think that it is possible to cherrypick a single way of discrimination against jews without talking about the Holocaust in the end (outside of specific academic discourse).

I understand that my phrasing here was ambiguous and I apologize. I will leave my original phrasing for transparency here. MM., 2022-02-07]

Selective self-citation. This is maybe more of a formality, but it is just bad style. The article cites 10 references in total to back up the discussion. However, out of these 10, two articles have been written by (some) of the authors.(2,3) Basically, the same ideas are now laid out across three nearly identical, heavily overlapping articles, and the whole article is close to self-plagiarism. Instead of citing articles by other authors - maybe even those which contradict their own findings! - the authors use arguments they themselves came up already to bolden their argument. For an opinion piece which claims that our freedom of speech and science is at stake, the authors try very little to at least pretend that this was not a one-sided argument.

And don’t get me wrong, an opinion piece definitely does not need to be completely accurate. But it should also not try and cover as facts.

Who’s being cancelled anyway?

While the previous statements were more formalities, we now can take a closer look at how Cancel *Culture might manifest in science (Spoiler: it doesn’t).

There is no Cancel Culture in Chemistry. This is the biggest point actually: the examples the authors give fore Cancel Culture are heavily taken out of context and none of the people mentioned have been cancelled. To me, to cancel would mean complete loss of professional and maybe even personal future. But this is not what happened in any of the cases mentioned.

The case of Tomáš Hudlický was heavily debated in 2020, when he wrote an article which you could call controversial (read more about it here). You could call it, however, similarly well misogynistic, or racist when he wrote things such as

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. [Note: While Angewandte took the article down without further notice, you can still find it on Hudlický’s personal website. I won’t link to the article directly.]

Of course, by most meritorious candidates, he means white and male. I don’t want to defend Angewandte’s practice of taking the article down without further notice (which is, contrary to what the authors claim, not an unprecedented act, but happens unfortunately quite often - just read retractionwatch.com), because it actually killed a discussion before it could have taken place. However, the actual question in place is not about: Are Hudlický’s ideas correct?, but rather: How can we shape an inclusive scientific environment for everybody if articles like that are still published?

And despite the claim that Hudlický got cancelled he is far from cancelled. While a planned Special issue in the journal Synthesis was apparently cancelled according to his own accord, he still managed to publish in that very same journal in 2021 (4) and at least one paper was dedicated to him (5). The official website of Brock university still has his personal page up. According to Google Scholar, his papers were cited 600 times in 2021 - which is the same level as the years before. How does this equal being cancelled, when he doesn’t face any consequences?

Dorian Abbot is an American geophysicist. According to the authors, Abbot has been an advocate of “ equal opportunity, fairness, merit-based evaluation, and academic freedom”. In 2020, he was planning to give a lecture at MIT, which got cancelled after students protested against it. The protest followed an article written by Abbot which does not make Abbot seem like an advocate of above mentioned qualities. Instead, he claims that an increase of representation of some groups leads to discrimination against other groups. To paraphrase, increasing representation of women or PoC - both of which are underrepresented in science - is discrimination against white males. The article closes with

Then an ideological regime obsessed with race came to power and drove many of the best scholars outgutting the faculties and leading to sustained decay that German universities never fully recovered from.

To make it completely clear: Abbot compares the practice of increasing representation of women and PoC to the Holocaust and the persecution of non-Aryans in the Nazi regime. How is this advocacy of academic freedom?

However, Abbot is also far from being cancelled. He actually gave the planned lecture on the very same day his MIT lecture got cancelled. (link) His Website at the University of Chicago is still online. According to Google Scholar, his citations are actually still growing, reaching 600+ in 2021.

These examples just show one thing: there is no such thing as Cancel Culture in science. Hudlický enjoys the dusk of his career, while Abbot will probably have a long, successful run, and his cancelled lecture does not seem to have any further consequences. On the contrary, he seems to enjoy quite a fellowship now of advocates of free speech and free science. Compare this to the people both of them advocated against: women and PoC still represent minorities in leading academic positions. There are no equal opportunities, no fairness, no academic freedom. Ironically, Hudlický says it best himself, not knowing what his words actually mean:

Each candidate should have an equal opportunity to secure a position, regardless of personal identification/categorization.

Chances are, though, if you identify as a white male, you will be preferred. Period.

Straw man argumentation. We already see that most of the stuff the authors brought up is either misleading or factually untrue. However, the end of the article beats it all with a completely random list of things the authors think are objected to for no reason at all. But let’s think this through from the beginning: Isn’t it a good thing that we constantly challenge ourselves and our perception of the world? Isn’t this true science?

We should openly discuss whether we want to revere a racist like Shockley by repeating his name over and over; or whether we want to use exclusive, racist or ableist, language (master or dummy). By defending such terms to the very end, the authors actually achieve the opposite of what they claim: there is no freedom of science if we can’t rethink the current status quo. Both science and society can only progress if we challenge the ideas of yesterday every day.

Oh, and they make some stuff up about normal pH (what’s a normal pH even?). But nonsense like that is a given at this point of the article.

So what stays after reading the article once you take away all the bad arguments, all the made-up “facts”, all derailing…? Not so much, actually. It is just rambling against progressive ideas, against inclusion, and against equality on the pretense of freedom of science and speech. Blerch.

Where to go from here

I was really furious when I read the article. I could not believe that such a badly researched article would actually be published using my membership fees. The Nachrichten aus der Chemie have a weird tendency to publish “controversial” articles. Nobody forces them to print letters to the editor advocating against gender-neutral language, and still they did. Nobody forces them to print pieces that claim man-made climate change was a hoax (and chemically impossible), and still they did.(6)

There are so many problems here so I have no idea on how this can be fixed actually. It is a systemic problem. Articles like that do neither represent myself nor do they actually reflect the current state of the scientific discourse or community. Still, they reflect the opinions of many members of GDCh. I think it would be in the best interest of the organization to tell these members: We do not care about you. If we cannot even agree on the very basics of how to do science, then we have no basis for future cooperation. At least, an article which disguises as an opinion piece and then goes on to spread lies and misinformation should be subject of a fact check by the editorial team. If someone reads the article now without any further context, they might end up believing what was written ther.

I know that this is probably not gonna happen, but how often do active members have to come out, make themselves targetable to attacks from the right? In particular, this is an inter-generation conflict, with conservative views mostly shared by older, retired members, whereas young scientists at an early career stage share more progressive views. However, their professional future often relies on the goodwill of the old members, e.g., in grant review or appointment committees.

The Nachrichten tries to not alienate these old members, but I’d wish it’d be taking a stronger stance against them. Such insultingly regressive views cannot be arranged with the open community which chemistry so desperately needs. Currently, less than 20 % of Chemistry professors in Germany identify as female. If we don’t manage to create an inclusive, inviting community, this won’t improve at all in the long run. But if even your professional society does not back you up, who’s supposed to do it?

References

  1. Krylov, A. I.; Tanzman, J. S.; Frenking, G.; Gill, P. M. W. Scientists must resist cancel culture. Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2022, 70 (2), 12–14. https://doi.org/10.1002/nadc.20224120702.
  2. Krylov, A.; Frenking, G.; Gill, P. Royal Society of Chemistry Provides Guidelines for Censorship to its Editors. Chemistry International 2022, 44 (1), 32–34. https://doi.org/10.1515/ci-2022-0119.
  3. Krylov, A. I. The Peril of Politicizing Science. J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 2021, 12 (22), 5371–5376. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jpclett.1c01475.
  4. Nardangeli, N.; Thomson, J.; Topolovčan, N.; Hudlický, T. Total Synthesis of Methyl 1,5,8-Trimethoxy-1H-Isochromene-3-Carboxylate and Its Derivatives via Palladium-Catalyzed Annulation of 2-Alkynylbenzaldehydes. Synthesis 2021, 53 (21), 4110–4116. https://doi.org/10.1055/a-1532-8656.
  5. Lösle, V.; Kataeva, O.; Knölker, H.-J. First Total Synthesis and Investigation of the X-Ray Crystal Structure of the Pyrano[3,2-a]Carbazole Alkaloid Clausenalansine A. Synthesis 2021, 53 (2), 359–364. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0040-1706551.
  6. Hug, H. „Die Klimamodelle versagen“. Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2013, 61 (2), 132–133. https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/nachrchem.2013.61.2.132/html.

The Myth of Cancel Culture in Chemistry (and Science) by Mathias Micheel is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
First published: https://buerviper.github.io/blog/2022/myth-of-cancel-culture/

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