Over the centuries, we have found that the best way to discover truths about the natural world is through the method of examination, observation, and experimentation known as science. The use of science over the last few centuries has allowed us to make discoveries about the universe and invent new technologies that have fundamentally changed the world we live in, for better or worse but mainly for the better.
Science only works, however, when the people practicing it engage in a relentless, even passionate pursuit of the truth, whatever the consequences. Scientists must honestly report the results of their observations and experiments, even if the results are not what they would like. They must be willing to acknowledge when an experiment disproves the theory they are trying to prove. In particular, for science to work, scientists must be able to work without fear of political or ideological interference.
Nature Human Behavior, one of the most prestigious journals for social science research, recently published an editorial titled “Science must respect the dignity and rights of all humans.” Though short, the article generated tremendous pushback among academics and intellectuals concerned about the spread of social-justice ideology into science. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker said the journal was “no longer a peer-reviewed scientific journal but an enforcer of a political creed,” while Greg Lukianoff, the CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, described the journal’s statement as “an epistemic catastrophe.” What did the editorial say?
In short, it took the position that scientific truth should defer to politics. The journal now considers it appropriate to suppress research that “undermines—or could reasonably be perceived to undermine—the rights and dignities” of people or groups, as well as “text or images that disparage a person or group on the basis of socially constructed human groupings.” Researchers are urged to “consider the potential implications of research on human groups defined on the basis of social characteristics” and “to contextualise their findings to minimize as much as possible potential misuse or risks of harm to the studied groups in the public sphere.” Anything that could be perceived as disparaging is now fair game for rejection or retraction.
The implications on scientific inquiry and truth-seeking are clear. As the journalist Jesse Singal observed, an empirically flawless study could be retracted under the guise of social justice. “What’s most alarming is that unless I’m missing something, research that is perfectly valid and well-executed could run afoul of these guidelines,” he wrote.
Mr. Savolainen points out that this kind of censorship has become increasingly common in the scientific community, especially in the social sciences. He gives two examples of studies that were attacked and suppressed because their results were at variance with politically correct orthodoxy. Such findings might “cause harm” to a particular group and therefore should not be published. Some things are more important than the truth.
The problem with this approach is that it is impossible to suppress the truth indefinitely. Sooner or later, the truth comes out. As the title of the article, what Galileo allegedly whispered to himself, suggests, the Catholic Church tried to suppress the knowledge that the Earth moves around the Sun. The Inquisition may have been able to intimidate Galileo into proclaiming the Earth does not move, but the Earth does move; what the Catholic Church did by silencing Galileo was to gain the undeserved reputation of being a body of ignoramuses. Scientific journals which try to quash inconvenient studies will acquire a similar reputation.
The motivation for these acts of censorship may be noble. The editors seem to be concerned that reporting facts that might reflect negatively on groups that have historically been oppressed, perhaps providing excuses for further oppression. Whether the motivation for concealing truths is or is not noble, it is still a bad idea. If the members of a particular group suffer from some social dysfunction, perhaps they commit crimes at a greater rate than the national average, or lag in educational attainments suppressing the studies that reveal such dysfunctions does not help anyone. We cannot resolve the problems that a particular group of people might have unless we know all of the relevant facts. Suppressing these facts only gives credence to the bigots who use this ‘suppressed knowledge’ to suggest that the marginalized people the censors imagine they are helping are inherently inferior.
When you value politically correct ideology more than the truth, you will never discover what the truth is. You cannot do science unless you are willing to pursue the truth where ever it may lead. You may use scientific terminology and perhaps some aspects of the scientific method, but you are not doing science. You are performing what the physicist Richard Feynman called cargo cult science. The people at Nature Human Behavior have decided to give up real science in favor of the cargo cult variety.