Friday, June 11, 2021

The Peril of Politicizing Science/Krylov

Please go read the whole article.  The history is beautifully detailed and the implications are crtitically important. A fabulous read--Meryl

It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.

–George Orwell, 1984

I grew up in a city that in its short history (barely over 150 years) had its name changed three times.(2,3) Founded in 1869 around a steel plant and several coal mines built by the Welsh industrialist John Hughes, the settlement was originally called Hughesovka (or Yuzovka). When the Bolsheviks came to power in the 1917 Revolution, the new government of the working class, the Soviets, set out to purge the country of ideologically impure influences in the name of the proletariat and the worldwide struggle of the suppressed masses. Cities and geographical landmarks were renamed,(4) statues were torn down, books were burned, and many millions were jailed and murdered.(5) In due course, the commissars got to Yuzovka, and the city was stripped of the name of its founder, a representative of the hostile class of oppressors and a Westerner. In modern terms, Hughes was canceled. For a few months, the city was called Trotsk (after Leon Trotsky), until Trotsky lost in the power struggle inside the party and was himself canceled (see Figure 1). In 1924 the city became the namesake of the new supreme leader of the Communist Party (Stalin), and a few years later renamed to Stalino. My mother’s school certificates have Stalino on them. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, the Communist party underwent some reckoning and admitted that several decades of terror and many millions of murdered citizens were somewhat excessive. Stalin was canceled: his body was removed from the Mausoleum at Red Square (where it had been displayed next to Lenin’s); textbooks and encyclopedias were rewritten once again; and the cities, institutions, and landmarks bearing his name were promptly renamed. Stalino became Donetsk, after the river Severskii Donets.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Soviet history was constantly revised to keep up with the current party line. Historic photographs were routinely airbrushed and textbooks rewritten to obliterate the canceled.(1) Left: Lenin speaking in Moscow to Red Army soldiers in 1920, with Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev standing to his left side, on the steps to the right. Right: Same scene, with Trotsky and Kamenev airbrushed out, after they were canceled. Once the heroes of the Revolution, they had become traitors and enemies of the people. (Photograph May 5, 1920, by G. P. Goldshtein. Part of the David King Collection. Purchased from David King by Tate Archive 2016. Photo copyright Tate.)

I came of age during a relatively mellow period of the Soviet rule, post-Stalin. Still, the ideology permeated all aspects of life, and survival required strict adherence to the party line and enthusiastic displays of ideologically proper behavior. Not joining a young communist organization (Komsomol) would be career suicide—nonmembers were barred from higher education. Openly practicing religion could lead to more grim consequences, up to imprisonment. So could reading the wrong book (Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, etc.). Even a poetry book that was not on the state-approved list could get one in trouble.

Mere compliance was not sufficient—the ideology committees were constantly on the lookout for individuals whose support of the regime was not sufficiently enthusiastic. It was not uncommon to get disciplined for being too quiet during mandatory political assemblies (politinformation or komsomolskoe sobranie) or for showing up late to mandatory mass-celebrations (such as the May or November demonstrations). Once I got a notice for promoting an imperialistic agenda by showing up in jeans for an informal school event. A friend’s dossier was permanently blemished—making him ineligible for Ph.D. programs—for not fully participating in a trip required of university students: an act of “voluntary” help to comrades in collective farms (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2. Fourth-year chemistry students from Moscow State University (the author is on the right) enjoying a short break in the potato fields during mandatory farm labor, ca. 1987. The sticks were used as aids for separating potatoes from the mud.

Science was not spared from this strict ideological control.(6) Western influences were considered to be dangerous. Textbooks and scientific papers tirelessly emphasized the priority and pre-eminence of Russian and Soviet science. Entire disciplines were declared ideologically impure, reactionary, and hostile to the cause of working-class dominance and the World Revolution. Notable examples of “bourgeois pseudo-science” included genetics and cybernetics. Quantum mechanics and general relativity were also criticized for insufficient alignment with dialectic materialism.

Most relevant to chemistry was the antiresonance campaign (1949–1951).(7) The theory of resonating structures, which brought Linus Pauling the Nobel prize in 1954, was deemed to be bourgeois pseudoscience. Scientists who attempted to defend the merits of the theory and its utility for understanding chemical structures were accused of “cosmopolitism” (Western sympathy) and servility to Western bourgeois science. Some lost jobs. Two high-profile supporters of resonance theory, Syrkin and Dyatkina, were eventually forced to confess their ideological sins and to publicly denounce resonance. Meanwhile, other members of the community took this political purge as an opportunity to advance at the expense of others.(7,8) As noted by many scholars,(7,8) including Pauling himself,(9) the grassroots antiresonance campaign was driven by people who were “displeased with the alignment of forces in their science”.(7) This is a recurring motif in all political campaigns within science in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and McCarthy’s America—those who are “on the right side” of the issue can jump a few rungs and take the place of those who were canceled. By the time I studied quantum chemistry at Moscow State University, resonance theory had been rehabilitated. Yet, the history of the campaign and the injustices it entailed were not discussed in the open—the Party did not welcome conversations about its past mistakes. I remember hearing parts of the story, narrated under someone’s breath at a party after copious amounts of alcohol had loosened a tongue.

Fast forward to 2021—another century. The Cold War is a distant memory and the country shown on my birth certificate and school and university diplomas, the USSR, is no longer on the map. But I find myself experiencing its legacy some thousands of miles to the west, as if I am living in an Orwellian twilight zone. I witness ever-increasing attempts to subject science and education to ideological control and censorship. Just as in Soviet times, the censorship is being justified by the greater good. Whereas in 1950, the greater good was advancing the World Revolution (in the USSR; in the USA the greater good meant fighting Communism), in 2021 the greater good is “Social Justice” (the capitalization is important: “Social Justice” is a specific ideology, with goals that have little in common with what lower-case “social justice” means in plain English).(10−12) As in the USSR, the censorship is enthusiastically imposed also from the bottom, by members of the scientific community, whose motives vary from naive idealism to cynical power-grabbing...

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Science has become a prostitute. You can get it to do anything you want if you throw enough money at it :(