Ideology now dominates research in the U.S. more pervasively than it did at the Soviet Union’s height.
Until a few months ago, we’d never heard of the Journal of Controversial Ideas, a peer-reviewed publication whose aim is to promote “free inquiry on controversial topics.” Our research typically didn’t fit that description. We finally learned of the journal’s existence, however, when we tried to publish a commentary about how modern science is being compromised by a de-emphasis on merit. Apparently, what was once anodyne and unobjectionable is now contentious and outré, even in the hard sciences.
Merit isn’t much in vogue anywhere these days. We’ve seen this in the trend among scientists to judge scientific research by its adherence to dominant progressive orthodoxies and in the growing reluctance of our institutions to hire and fund scientists based on their ability to propose and conduct exciting projects. Our intent was to defend established and effective practices of judging science based on its merit alone.
Yet as we shopped our work to various scientific publications, we found no takers—except one. Evidently our ideas were politically unpalatable. It turns out the only place you can publish once-standard conclusions these days is in a journal committed to heterodoxy.
The crux of our argument is simple: Science that doesn’t prioritize merit doesn’t work, and substituting ideological dogma for quality is a shortcut to disaster. A prime example is Lysenkoism—the incursion of Marxist ideology into Soviet and Chinese agriculture in the mid-20th century. Beginning in the 1930s, the U.S.S.R. started to enforce the untenable theories of Trofim Lysenko, a charlatan Russian agronomist who rejected, among other things, the existence of standard genetic inheritance. As scientists dissented—rejecting Lysenko’s claims for lack of evidence—they were fired or sent to the gulag. Implementation of his theories in Soviet and, later, Chinese agriculture led to famines and the starvation of millions. Russian biology still hasn’t recovered.
Yet a wholesale and unhealthy incursion of ideology into science is occurring again—this time in the West. We see it in progressives’ claim that scientific truths are malleable and subjective, similar to Lysenko’s insistence that genetics was Western “pseudoscience” with no place in progressive Soviet agriculture. We see it when scientific truths—say, the binary nature of sex—are either denied or distorted because they’re politically repugnant.
We see it as well in activists’ calls to “decolonize” scientific fields, to reduce the influence of what’s called “Western science” and adopt indigenous “ways of knowing.” No doubt different cultures have different ways of interpreting natural processes—sometimes invoking myth and legend—and this variation should be valued as an important aspect of sociology and anthropology. But these “ways of knowing” aren’t coequal to modern science, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise.
In some ways this new species of Lysenkoism is more pernicious than the old, because it affects all science—chemistry, physics, life sciences, medicine and math—not merely biology and agriculture. The government isn’t the only entity pushing it, either. “Progressive” scientists promote it, too, along with professional societies, funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health and Energy Department, scientific journals and university administrators. When applying for openings as a university scientist today, job candidates may well be evaluated more by their record of supporting “social justice” than by their scientific achievements.
But scientific research can’t and shouldn’t be conducted via a process that gives a low priority to science itself. This is why we wrote our paper, which was co-authored by 27 others, making for a group as diverse as you can imagine. We had men and women of various ages, ethnicities, countries of origin, political affiliations and career stages, including faculty from community colleges and top research universities, as well as two Nobel laureates. We provided an in-depth analysis of the clash between liberal epistemology and postmodernist philosophies. We documented the continuing efforts to elevate social justice over scientific rigor, and warned of the consequences of taking an ideological approach to research. Finally, we suggested an alternative humanistic approach to alleviating social inequalities and injustices.
But this was too much, even “downright hurtful,” as one editor wrote to us. Another informed us that “the concept of merit . . . has been widely and legitimately attacked as hollow.” Legitimately?
In the end, we’re grateful that our paper will be published. But how sad it is that the simple and fundamental principle undergirding all of science—that the best ideas and technologies should be the ones we adopt—is seen these days as “controversial.”
Mr. Coyne is a professor emeritus of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. Ms. Krylov is a professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California.
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Appeared in the April 28, 2023, print edition as ‘The ‘Hurtful’ Idea of Scientific Merit’.