The War on Facts
Education, combined with responsible legislators, judges, and journalists, should protect us against nonsense and ignorance. When these fall by the wayside society suffers.
Sometime in 2018, I learned of a podcast where the guest stated that they had heard me sometime earlier on a radio program saying it was a good time to be a woman in science. I said this on numerous occasions, not just because there were many programs that favored women who were applying for graduate school or for jobs in science, but also to help encourage young girls to consider a career in science. However, this person found my ‘white-male-privileged’ claim so offensive that they had decided I needed to be expunged from the field, and they made an effort to do so.
There are many facts about the world that people would rather not hear. In the best of times, facts that provoke can also result in thoughtful, vigorous, and instructive debate and discussion. This works well in the classroom, but the world is not a classroom. And alas, it seems that even classrooms are often no longer classrooms.
Willful ignorance is the enemy of progress, and democracies have institutions that are supposed to hold ignorance in check. These include accessible and rigorous education, responsible journalism, and independent legislative and judicial systems where policies or judgements are based on empirical evidence. These are necessary, if perhaps not sufficient, tools that democracy requires in order to flourish.
The current fixation on cancellation, both by the left and right, in response to ideas or facts that you don’t like is just one symptom of the disease infecting modern Western democracies. A deeper problem is that the safeguards society should have to protect us from the rule of ignorance are failing.
I was reminded of this concern recently as I read the book The War on the West by Douglas Murray, with whom I am going to record a podcast later this summer, and was taken by a central premise of his book: that ignorance of evidence, data, and history are central factors that have resulted in a variety of postmodern attacks on everything Western. Whether or not one agrees with his politics, the concern about the need for evidence to govern policymaking is real, and important.
Particularly insidious is the claim that systemic racism, sexism, and white privilege permeate every facet the West. This is not to argue that racism or sexism have not played a significant role in the history of the West. But the claim that every perceived Western development has resulted from racial or gender inequities, or that the situation has not improved at all, is a gross distortion of reality. Worse still, and what concerns me most here, is the consequent conclusion that the enlightenment values and institutions that have also, in large part, served to move us beyond racist and sexists pasts are instead products of a racist, sexist, biased system, and therefore they are evil and should be dismantled or replaced.
One cannot legislate against ignorance. I am reminded of a statement by one of my colleagues when we were fighting over 20 years ago to ensure that Evolution would not be replaced by pseudo-religious concepts like Intelligent Design, in public schools around the country: One can legislate the separation of church and state, but one cannot ensure good science.
One can instead fight against these inhibitory constructs with enlightenment tools. While it is worrisome when the institutions guarding the enlightenment are attacked, it is tragic when the institutions themselves relinquish their roles—namely when they depart from using reason and evidence as tools to help build a better world.
I admit to being strongly influenced by my own experiences over the past decades, both as an academic and educator, but also as a public figure and writer. In the latter role, I have worked with journalists and also written for newspapers and magazines for over 30 years, and the changes have been shocking. And watching how this has spilled over into so many other facets of modern society is truly tragic.
Let’s start with Education, about which I have written extensively. Free and open inquiry in the interests of generating and assessing knowledge are essential components of education. And Tenure was designed to allow scholars to explore research questions, independent of their political or social currency. Yet we are now faced with a situation where asking the wrong questions can get tenured professors fired, as David Porter was, at Berea College, for daring to produce a scholarly examination of perceptions about the nature of hostile work environments at the College. Or, where a prominent physics journal like The Physical Review can seriously publish an article suggesting that the use of white-boards in classrooms is a symptom of white privilege and systemic racism. And where the State of California can seriously consider that the mathematics curriculum is somehow racist if it requires correct answers, or the showing of work.
We find that university leaders, journals, and scientific research institutions —from the National Institutes of Health to the American Physical Society—insist, without evidence, and ignoring over 3 decades of specific programming that have worked to ensure diversity, that systemic gender bias and racism remain rampant in the sciences. This has led, for example, to faculty searches in which white males are excluded from applying, and to enrichment programs, conferences, scholarships, and awards from which males are excluded.
These actions are not only discriminatory, they are patronizing and unfair to women, who, it is tacitly assumed, cannot succeed in science without them, and who will have to ask themselves whether they received these distinctions due to their work, or their gender. This, in spite of the fact that females are now the dominant recipients of degrees at University, and are the dominant recipients of PhDs in a number of STEM disciplines including Biology and Health Sciences. And compounded by the fact that even questioning whether this kind of discrimination is productive can cause academics to be marginalized, censured, or fired.
The degree to which postmodern political correctness has dominated the professional training of young scientists was made particularly clear by the utterances of a young medical trainee following the tragic mob-dictated decision to overrule the NYU Medical School decision to hire genetics superstar David Sabitini, who had been previously removed from his position at MIT. The fact that the Medical School leaders specifically stated that they had investigated his case and had determined he had been unfairly treated, was accorded no weight. Moreover, the young trainee in question was quoted as saying that they couldn’t understand why the Medical School simply didn’t hire an underrepresented minority instead. As if filling a slot for a distinguished researcher was like choosing colors for a bridal bouquet. The notion that perhaps he might be the best qualified candidate to lead their program was never, not once, raised.
Sadly, even as the inhibitions against free speech and mutual respect continue to flourish on University campuses, the Biden Administration just unveiled new regulations that are likely to exacerbate them, with a return back to the flawed proposals of the Obama administration, which removed due process, and the fair and open adjudication of Title IX claims. This is a giant leap backwards that ensures that the very same offices whose existence depends on finding evidence of harassment, or inequities, have the power to judge all claims associated with these issues without external supervision or control. The claimed justification for this retrograde move is the dogmatic insistence that such violations of due process are necessary to protect students, in spite of mountains of evidence, including over 600 court cases, that have demonstrated the opposite.
Journalism is not far behind. It has been easy to attack low hanging fruit here. For example, Fox News stopped worrying about the facts years ago. But at the other end of the political spectrum, while the motto of the New York Times says “All the News that’s Fit to Print”, and the Washington Post’s Masthead says “Democracy dies in Darkness”, neither paper is living up to its motto.
An editor at the NYT was fired for allowing a Republican Senator to pen an oped on a politically incorrect subject, and a star science reporter was removed because he repeated a prohibited word that must never be uttered in the process of explaining to students why use of that word was hurtful! Objective considerations about intent and impact were ignored. At the Post, just this month the newspaper wasted considerable time and effort ensuring that another distinguished reporter was suspended without pay for a month for a private retweet of a politically incorrect joke.
While both conservative and liberal press have traditions of censoring or ignoring information that doesn’t fit into their preferred narrative, there has been more recently a disturbing infiltration of postmodernist subjectivism in liberal media. A few years ago I saw myself quoted by some reporter in a prominent liberal magazine who argued in her piece that even when claims about such things as sexism, racism, or harassment have been demonstrated to be empirically false, this was largely irrelevant because this kind of scientific thinking was a construct of a white male privileged system. More recently, articles appeared in the each of the Times, the Post, and the New Yorker, the day after the jury reached its decision in the Johnny Depp defamation case, discounting the possibility that the jury might have actually been convinced by evidence, and arguing instead that the verdict must have been the product of societal bias. So much for the jury system.
Speaking of the justice system, it is impossible for me not to comment on what should be the last bastion of reason and rationality, the Supreme Court—in particular its recent decision on Roe v Wade. I think their decision must be viewed in the context of inherent tension between religious belief, and scientific evidence—in short a victory of dogma over reason. I am not referring so much to the detailed decision of sending abortion considerations back to the states, but rather to the logic and language which permeated their document.
The Catholic Church, which 400 years ago required adherence to the notion that the Sun orbited the Earth, today continues to assert that human beings have an eternal soul, and that humanity begins at conception. In spite of millennia of debate about when ensoulment happens, the logical conclusion drawn from these assertions is that even a fertilized egg is a human being, and should receive the same rights and recognition as living, breathing, talking, conscious, human beings.
Ignoring for the moment the lack of scientific evidence of anything one might view as a ‘soul’, it is hard to imagine how any rational scientific analyses of the biology steps of fertilization, cell division, zygote formation, and embryonic cellular specialization—without the lens of religious belief—would categorize this group of cells a human being. Indeed, that is why biologists have different names for these stages of development.
Reasonable people can argue about what stage a fetus become viable, achieves consciousness, or when its emerging life can carry sufficient legal protection so as to trump the desires of the human being in which it is growing. But to argue that destroying a group of cells immediately after conception is akin to murder can only be made on religious grounds—meaning that it can only be made by ignoring evidence in favor of belief.
The Supreme Court ruling did not of course make such a claim, at least directly. But at the same time, by arguing that the Constitution doesn’t even afford woman inherent fundamental rights to control biological processes happening within their bodies even at these very preliminary stages, they implicitly allowed that a society can mandate that a small group of cells could rationally be accorded the same rights as a human being. It is telling in this regard that Justice Alito, who wrote the majority decision, referred to the emerging embryo numerous times as an ‘unborn human being’.
It is not a coincidence that even discounting Amy Coney Barrett, whose Catholic extremism appears to dominate all facets of her life, the remaining five judges who argued in the majority had Catholic backgrounds. It is, after all is the Catholic Church which has most clearly and strongly maintained its medieval connection between a soul and a fetus, and Justice Alito’s language in this regard is significant.
Ultimately, one cannot discount facts. Indeed, as Danial Patrick Moynihan once said, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. The thread of empiricism is what has led our society out of the darkness of the middle ages, resulting not just in the technologies that have vastly improved the lives of billions of people alive today, but also helping establish the enlightenment rights and sensibilities that we also benefit from today, and which seem so sadly under attack at the present time.