Political Correctness in Science
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/03/06
Supposedly, science investigates via the scientific method: testing the validity of hunches (hypotheses) against reality and allowing reality to establish beliefs, thereby discarding disproved pre-judgments, hunches, prejudices, biases. Scientific theories. are determined by facts, evidence. Science is empirical, pragmatic; it does not accept beliefs on authority or from tradition.
Historians, philosophers, sociologists, scholars of Science & Technology Studies have long recognized that this view of science is mythical (i), but it continues to be taught in schools and in social-science texts and it is the conventional wisdom found in the media and in public discourse generally. A corollary of the misconception that scientific theories have been successfully tested against reality is the widespread belief that what science says, what the contemporary scientific consensus is, can safely be accepted as truth for all practical purposes.
So it seems incongruous, paradoxical, that large numbers of scientists should disagree violently, on any given issue, over what science really says. Yet that is the case on a seemingly increasing range of topics (ii), some of them of great public import, for instance whether HIV causes AIDS (iii) or whether human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change. On those latter matters as well as some others, the difference of opinion within the scientific community parallels political views: left-leaning (“liberal”) opinion regards it as unquestionably true that HIV causes AIDS and that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change, whereas right-leaning (“conservative”) opinion denies that those assertions constitute “settled science” or have been proved beyond doubt. Those who harbor these “conservative” views are often labeled “denialists”; it is not to be countenanced that politically liberal individuals should be global warming skeptics (iv).
In other words, it is politically incorrect to doubt that HIV causes AIDS or that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming. It requires no more than cursory observation of public discourse to recognize this pervasive phenomenon. Governments and Nobel-Prize committees illustrate that those beliefs are officially acted on as though they were established truths. One cadre of mainstream scientists even wants criminal charges laid (v) against those who question that global warming is caused primarily by human-generated carbon dioxide. So political correctness is present within the scientific community in the USA.
I’m of a sufficient age to be able to testify that half a century ago it would not have occurred to any researchers in a democratic society to urge the government to prosecute for criminal conspiracy other researchers who disagreed with them. Declaring certain scientific research programs as politically incorrect and therefore substantively without merit, and persecuting those who perpetrated such research, characterized totalitarian regimes, not free societies. Stalin’s Soviet Union declared wrong the rest of the world’s understanding of genetics and imprisoned exponents of it; it also declared wrong the rest of the world’s understanding of chemical bonding and quantum mechanics. Nazism’s Deutsche Physik banned relativity and other “Jewish” science.
Political correctness holds that HIV causes AIDS and that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming. Those beliefs also characterize left-leaning opinion. Why is political correctness a left-wing phenomenon?
In contemporary usage, political correctness means “marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving especially ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or ecology” (vi) or “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated” (vii), evidently “progressive” or “liberal” or Left-ish views. But those descriptions fail to capture the degree of fanatical dogmatism that can lead practicing scientists to urge that those of differing views be criminally prosecuted; political correctness includes the wish to control what everyone believes.
Thus political correctness has been appropriately called “liberal fascism”, which also reveals why it is a phenomenon of the ultra-extreme Left. Attempted control of beliefs and corresponding behavior is openly proclaimed, unashamedly, by the extreme Right; it is called, and calls itself, fascism, Nazism, and needs no other name. But the Left, the “liberals”, claim to stand for and to support individual freedom of belief and speech; so a name is needed for the phenomenon by which proclamations of liberal ideals are coupled with attempts to enforce adherence to particular beliefs and social norms. Political correctness is the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed liberals functioning as authoritarian fascists.
That hypocrisy pervades political correctness, I was able to observe at first hand during my years in academic administration. People say things they don’t mean, and that they know everyone knows they don’t mean, and no one dares point to the absence of the Emperor’s clothes. For instance, the Pooh-Bahs assert that affirmative action means goals and not quotas, even as hiring practices and incentives demonstrate that they are quotas. For innumerable examples gathered over the years, see the newsletter I edited from 1993 until my retirement at the end of 1999 (viii).
Science had represented for a long time the virtues associated with honest study of reality. Around the 1930s and 1940s, sociologist Robert Merton could describe the norms evidently governing scientific activity as communal sharing of universally valid observations and conclusions obtained by disinterested people deploying organized skepticism. That description does not accommodate researchers urging criminal prosecution of peers who disagree with them about evidence or conclusions. It does not accommodate researchers lobbying publishers to withdraw articles accepted for publication following normal review; and those norms do not describe the now prevalent circumstances in which one viewpoint suppresses others through refusal to allow publication or participation in scientific meetings (ix).
Science, in other words, is not at all what it used to be, and it is not what the popular view of it is, that common view having been based on what scientific activity used to be. It has not yet been widely recognized, how drastically science has changed since about the middle of the 20th century (x). Among the clues indicative of those changes are the spate of books since the 1980s that describe intense self-interested competition in science (xi) and the increasing frequency of fraud, again beginning about in the 1980s, that led to establishment of the federal Office of Research Integrity. That political correctness has surfaced within the scientific community is another illustration of how radically different are the circumstances of scientific activity now compared to a century ago and by contrast to the outdated conventional wisdom about science.
Political correctness began to pervade society as a whole during the same years as science was undergoing drastic change. The roots of political correctness in society at large may be traceable to the rebellious students of the 1960s, but the hegemony of their ideals in the form of political correctness became obvious only in the 1980s, when the term “political correctness” came into common usage:
The origin of the phrase in modern times is generally credited to gallows humor among Communists in the Stalin era (xii):
“Comrade, your statement is factually incorrect.”
“Yes, it is. But it is politically correct.”
That political correctness is in contemporary times a Left-ish phenomenon is therefore true to its modern origin.
How seriously political correctness corrupts science should be obvious, since it more than breaks all the traditional norms. Those norms are often summarized as universalism, communalism, disinterestedness, skepticism — taking for granted as well simple honesty and absence of hypocrisy. Nowadays what was taken for granted no longer applies. It is simply dishonest to assert that something has been proven beyond doubt when strong contrary evidence exists that is taken seriously by competent researchers. One cannot, of course, look into the minds of those who assert certainty where there is none (xiii), but among possible explanations, hypocrisy may be the least culpable.
Science cannot be isolated from the rest of society, so the incursion of political correctness into science is understandable. Moreover, what used to be the supposedly isolated ivory tower of academe is nowadays the very epicenter where political correctness breeds and from where it spreads. Whatever the causes may be, however, it is important to recognize how science has changed and that it can be corrupted by the same influences as the rest of society.
i Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press 1992; http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/77xzw7sp9780252064364.html.
ii Henry H. Bauer, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland 2012.
iii Henry H. Bauer, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, McFarland 2007.
iv Henry H. Bauer, “A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?”, 2012/11/25; https://scimedskeptic.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/a-politically-liberal-global-warming-skeptic.
v Letter to President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, and OSTP Director Holdren, 1 September 2015; http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2015/09/19/letter-to-president-obama-investigate-deniers-under-rico.
The original pdf posted in 2003 at http://www.iges.org/letter/LetterPresidentAG.pdf is no longer there. The Wayback Machine says, “The letter that was inadvertently posted on this web site has been removed. It was decided more than two years ago that the Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES) would be dissolved when the projects then undertaken by IGES would be completed. All research projects by IGES were completed in July 2015, and the IGES web site is in the process of being decommissioned”.
As of March 2017, however, a Google search for “Institute of Global Environment and Society” led to a website with that header, albeit augmented by “COLA”: http://www.m.monsoondata.org/home.html accessed 4 March 2017. Right-leaning Internet sources offer insight into this seeming mystery: http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/09/22/lead-climate-scientist-behind-obamarico-letter-serious-questions-answer/ and http://leftexposed.org/2015/10/institute-of-global-environment-and-society, both accessed 4 March 2017.
vi http://www.dictionary.com/browse/politically-correct?s=t (accessed 4 March 2017).
vii https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/politically%20correct (accessed 4 March 2017).
ix Ref. ii, especially chapter 3.
x Henry H. Bauer, “Three stages of modern science”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 27 (2013) 505-13; https://www.dropbox.com/s/xl6jaldtx3uuz8b/JSE273-3stages.pdf?dl=0.
xi Natalie Angier, Natural Obsessions: The Search for the Oncogene, Houghton Mifflin 1987; David H. Clark, The Quest for SS433, Viking 1985; Sheldon Glashow with Ben Bova, Interactions: A Journey through the Mind of a Particle Physicist and the Matter of the World, Warner 1988; Jeff Goldberg Anatomy of a Scientific Discovery, Bantam 1988; Stephen S. Hall, Invisible Frontiers: The Race to Synthesize a Human Gene, Atlantic Monthly Press 1987; Robert M. Hazen, The Breakthrough: The Race for the Superconductor, Summit 1988; David L. Hull, Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science, University of Chicago Press 1988; Robert Kanigel, Apprentice to Genius: The Making of a Scientific Dynasty, Macmillan 1986; Charles E. Levinthal,. Messengers of Paradise: Opiates and the Brain, Anchor/Doubleday 1988; Roger Lewin, Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins, Simon and Schuster 1987; Ed Regis, Who Got Einstein’s Office: Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study, Addison-Wesley 1987; Bruce Schechter, The Path of No Resistance: The Story of the Revolution in Superconductivity, Touchstone (Simon and Schuster) 1990; Solomon H. Snyder, Brainstorming: The Science and Politics of Opiate Research, Harvard University Press 1989; Gary Taubes, Nobel Dreams: Power, Deceit, and the Ultimate Experiment, Random House 1986; Robert Teitelman, Gene Dreams: Wall Street, Academia, and the Rise of Biotechnology, Basic Books 1989; Nicholas Wade, The Nobel Duel: Two Scientists’ 21-Year Race to Win the World’s Most Coveted Research Prize, Doubleday 1981.
xii Jon Miltimore, “The historical origin of ‘political correctness’”, 5 December 2016, http://www.intellectualtakeout.org/blog/historical-origin-political-correctness; Angelo M. Codevilla, “The rise of political correctness”, Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2016, pp. 37-43; http://www.claremont.org/download_pdf.php?file_name=1106Codevilla.pdf.
xiii Henry H. Bauer , “Shamans of Scientism: Conjuring certainty where there is none”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 28 (2014) 491-504.