John Staddon is an emeritus professor of biology at Duke University and, thankfully, an academician who doesn’t fear being “canceled” for voicing incorrect opinions. His latest book, Science in an Age of Unreason, abounds in such opinions.
Staddon argues that science is in dire straits in America due to the way that it has become politicized, with many topics now “off-limits” because the pursuit of truth might offend certain groups. Science should be dispassionate, but, in the modern university, passion often carries the day.
Critical research topics have become taboo, which means that policy makers are making decisions based on ideologically driven political pressure.
He writes, “Weak science lets slip the dogs of unreason: many social scientists have difficulty separating facts from faith, reality from the way they would like things to be. Critical research topics have become taboo, which, in turn, means that policy makers are making decisions based more on ideologically driven political pressure than on scientific fact.” That’s right. For the last two-plus years, the world has been repeatedly told by political leaders that their authoritarian policies to combat Covid were dictated by “the science,” when, in fact, many scientists argued against them, saying that they’d be counterproductive. Instead of scientific debate, dissenters were treated as pariahs to be ignored or smeared.
How has science so badly lost its way? Both government and university efforts at “helping” science have managed to distort incentives and inject non-scientific concerns into the process.
As Staddon explains, in older times, scientists were not under pressure to get publishable results. Most worked independently and often found that their conjectures were not borne out by the facts. No problem—they had learned that something wasn’t true and could then go on to other hypotheses. Today, however, scientific researchers need to publish papers that will generate acclaim if they want to advance up the academic ladder and get government grants for future papers.
Staddon observes, “It is not just scientific discovery that is at stake; repeated failure is not compatible with career advancement and science is now for most scientists a career, not a vocation.” Researchers are driven to look for topics to investigate and use methods that they are pretty certain will yield results. But what is good for research careers is not necessarily what leads to the most vital research.
Moreover, a substantial amount of published research is motivated simply by the desire to publish as much as possible without regard to the merits of the work. In scientific publishing (and this seems to be especially true in the social sciences), there is a term known as the “Least Publishable Unit,” which refers to the smallest amount of data that can be turned into a paper. Researchers are motivated to crank out LPU papers even though they have only infinitesimal knowledge value.
The mania over “diversity” has infected science.
Another result of the perverse incentives created by government policy is a great surplus of students getting advanced degrees in science. We are training more scientists than there are jobs for, with the result that many wind up, Staddon writes, “simply as poorly paid help” for research professors. Eventually, most give up and find some other career, only after spending many years and lots of money on a Ph.D.
To make matters worse, the mania over “diversity” has infected science. Among the examples Staddon gives is the “Alliance for Identity-Inclusive Computing,” which is justified by the supposed importance of reducing the percentage of “white and Asian, able-bodied, middle to upper class cisgender men” in the field of computer science. This program takes such a reduction as self-evidently good without even the slightest attempt to provide a scientific basis for it.
Staddon next turns to a number of current controversies in which “science” has been dragooned in to convince people of the need for government action. We are told repeatedly that there is a scientific consensus that the climate is warming because of human activity and that dramatic policies are necessary. The trouble, Staddon points out, is that a) consensus is irrelevant because scientific conclusions don’t depend on numbers, and b) the data on warming and its cause are quite equivocal. Sadly, many scientists have turned their backs on the spirit of science, finding it easier to go along with politically popular beliefs than to resolutely pursue the truth.
And if the hard sciences have taken a beating at the hands of progressive ideologues, the social sciences have been thrashed to a bloody pulp. Many subjects can no longer be investigated because they’re “too sensitive,” and scholars risk censure or even loss of jobs if they say anything that offends a “woke” group.
Consider, for example, a case at Staddon’s own university. In 2011, a trio of researchers (two economists and one sociologist) published a paper which found that students admitted under racial preferences at Duke were far more likely to shift out of more academically demanding majors and into less demanding ones. The conclusion was that preferences add to the student body many who struggle in competition with those admitted strictly on their merits. Such students compensate by gravitating into easier majors.
Could this paper be discussed objectively? Of course not, because it offended vocal black student groups. Duke’s president issued a statement in which he denounced the professors for “disparaging the choice of majors by African-American students.” The paper had not disparaged anyone but merely reported facts. Facts are what science and education are supposed to be about, and reporting on them is the essence of academic freedom.
Instead of upholding science, Duke chose to appease students
Instead of upholding science, Duke chose to appease the students, who were, Staddon writes, “treated like infants. They were pandered to, conciliated—not educated. And the cry for censoring this kind of research was tolerated rather than refuted. This is now the prevailing pattern in academe.”
Universities are full of academic disciplines that make almost no pretense of objectivity and with faculty members who proudly announce their commitment to social change. Activism is far more important to them than the search for truth, and their teaching does more to indoctrinate than enlighten students.
We have, for example, “Whiteness Studies,” a discipline that is grounded not in verifiable facts but on dubious conjectures such as the existence of “white logic.” Many campuses have hosted Professor Robin DiAngelo, author of a book entitled White Fragility. Staddon points out that her book is just an elaboration upon claims that have no empirical backing whatsoever.
We also find many professors arguing that American society and universities are beset with “institutional racism.” But when challenged to prove their assertions, racism-mongers invariably retreat into shabby intellectual dodges and circular arguments. Any professor who suggests that racial disparities might be caused by factors other than discrimination is apt to find himself labeled a racist and accused, like the Duke trio, of attacking the university’s “values.”
In a particularly memorable chapter, Staddon argues that we are entering a new era of Lysenkoism. Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet scientist during Stalin’s era. He was actually a poor scientist and rose to his position not because of any achievements but because he was from a proletarian background. (The Soviets had their own version of affirmative action.) Lysenko’s views on genetics and agriculture became the Party Line, and scientists who challenged them were subject to punishment. The problem was that Lysenko was completely wrong, and governmental policies based on his notions proved to be disastrous.
We are entering our own period of Lysenkoism, Staddon fears. Those who espouse politically correct narratives get ahead, while those who challenge them are ignored or censored.
The “age of unreason” is spreading to more and more areas of life. One topic that Staddon briefly alludes to at the book’s end is medicine, where, as we’ve witnessed during the Covid frenzy, freedom of speech and action by medical professionals has eroded in the face of official demands to conform to “accepted” views. Under today’s conditions, the realm of science will steadily shrink, to the long-run detriment of everyone.
George Leef is director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.