Woke Science: a Toxic Marriage of Activism and Science?

In science, objectivity is the greatest virtue. In an ideal world, a scientist would be impartial, disinterested in the outcomes, never desiring one result over another. They would run they experiment, gather the data, and report the findings, even if the data showed something that refuted the scientists’ hypothesis or gave an uninteresting negative result. Experiments would be replicated by multiple different people to more rigorously determine the veracity of the results. Negative results would get published as often as positive results. Topics for study would be determined by a mixture of intellectual curiosity and potential for improving society in some measurable way. Science, to say the least, does not live up to this ideal. But is science redeemable?

In our imperfect, non-ideal world, science is messy. Egos can run wild and human emotions get in the way. I know personally a scientist who, when submitting a draft of a journal article for peer review, always specifically requests another scientist in the field not be considered as a reviewer because this other scientist is an egotistical jerk. The second scientist being a jerk is clearly a problem, as it discourages collaboration and sharing, but also requesting someone not to be a peer reviewer means that this second scientist, who is an objectively good scientist, will be less likely to get a say in the peer review process.

Topics of study are not always chosen wisely. Positive results are much more likely to be published than negative results. An when a scientist must publish or perish, they are incentivized to seek topics that are likely to be funded and to try finding positive results. Not just positive results, but “interesting” results. Nobody makes a career replicating other’s experiments and showing how other scientists have erred. Everyone is looking for that next headline-grabbing study that gets people talking. Think of all the contradictory studies that come out and are brought up in the news media. Things about how “X is actually good for you” then a week, a month, a year later “X is bad for you.” Few people have the time or technical understanding to read through the methods sections of these papers and see for themselves whether the experimental setup was any good: how many test subjects did they have? How did they choose their test subjects? Were the techniques used actually the right ones for interrogating the hypothesis being tested? What other complicating factors and unaccounted for variables are there? Was it causation or correlation? How were the statistics calculated (i.e. was their p-hacking)? Is the conclusion drawn by the study’s authors actually supported by the evidence the present? And so on.

One thing in science that is taken somewhat on faith, though, is that eventually the truth will come out and all the bunk will be left by the wayside. This might be a long, messy, and imperfect process, but it is an inevitability. New inquiries are built on an edifice of what came before, so if those previous experiments cause us to have incorrect assumptions, then our experiments now are doomed to fail. Someone will eventually uncover those wrong assumptions.

What happens, though, when even this messy, imperfect process is tainted? Not just tainted by the ego of some scientist, or the need to publish before perishing, but because there is an ethos running through the whole scientific establishment that forbids certain questions from being asked and certain answers being discovered? We have some historical precedence for this with the Christian church and how it famously told Galileo that a heliocentric universe was a forbidden answer. To some extent we will always want such an ethos: certainly, biomedical science would progress faster if we got rid of laws forbidding unethical and inhumane human experimentation, but we would not want to live in a world where science was so untethered.

But what happens when we have Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) bureaucracies setting the tone for this scientific ethos? What happens when that ethos says that intellectual rigor is racist? Or when science adopts segregated workshops designed to find racism in science? Or when scientific terminology is policed? Or when who someone can cite turns political? And what if even having to opportunity to become a scientist turns political?

What motivation could someone have for desiring this? Is it going to make the world better (or at least less worse) in the same way as not allowing inhumane human experimentation? This sort of thinking comes from the belief that there is not Truth in a metanarrative sense, but a variety of different truths that are a function of your race, gender, orientation, and so on. Science, according to this way of thinking, is only one truth, and it is one imposed by oppressive white, heterosexual men. Thus, we can have feminist science, queer science, critical race theory science, and neurodiverse science.

Let’s assume for a minute that bringing leftist critical theory into the sciences is not categorically a bad idea. I can certainly see how encouraging people outside the stereotypical old white guy into science would bring in different perspectives that might not be considered otherwise. For instance, in biomedical research, women have often been treated as a sort of variation on a theme, where men are the default people and women have all that messiness of the menstrual cycle that adds extraneous variables. This assumption went unquestioned until fairly recently. Encouraging and welcoming women into the sciences has (at least begun to) do away with this faulty assumption.

The issue here is with the idea that different people can have their own truth. Bringing women into science didn’t open science up to some new, separate truth that applies only to women. It opened science up to see more of the Truth. It’s sort of the parable of the blind men feeling different parts of the elephant. With only white, heterosexual men in science, we’re only feeling the ears. Bringing other perspectives brings in information about the trunk, tail, legs, etc. The point, though, is that there is still just one elephant. The way the world works is independent of human experience. Just because we must, in principle, interpret the world through our human experience, shaped as it is by traits like race, gender, and so on, does not mean that the truth itself is dependent on those experiences. That would be like saying that viruses only exist if they are currently making someone sick.

But what about this idea that “thou shalt not ask” certain questions and “thous shalt not discover” certain answers? There does not seem to be any intrinsic good in this way of thinking, so it must be an instrumental good. Is the instrumental good that it will make things better (or at least less worse) for more people? For instance, if we shall not ask whether transition is the best course of action for a nine year old who claims to be transgender, does that make things better for the child? It would perhaps if it turns out that the child is, in fact, transgender, growing up to live as the gender opposite to their natal sex. But what about people who turn out, upon growing older, not to be transgender? This is an important question that ought to be asked. It ought to open up lines of inquiry into how to diagnose someone of gender dysphoria and the best way to help those with it – whether that is transitioning or some other humane treatment (obviously bringing in the individual’s preferences as well). This, of course, is dismissed as medicalization. Thus, it appears that this way of thinking about science is not to open the sciences up to a greater picture of the truth, nor to make things better (or at least less worse) for more people, but purely to further an ideological goal. If some people must suffer as a result of this, and the truth must be obscured, then it can still be viewed as a good so long as it furthers the ideology.

Unfortunately, this seems to be the route science is going down. This is a shame. Not only will it obscure the truth and make things worse for people, but it will also likely reduce people’s trust in science. The scientific method is one of humanity’s highest achievements. Though messy and imperfect, it is an ideal worth striving for. Tarnishing the ideal with pseudophilosophical ideologies and then proposing pernicious solutions to this caricature of science one of the more damaging aspects to the critical theory ideology. We ought to strive for diversity and inclusion in the sciences, but not the warped versions of Diversity and Inclusion advocated for by this leftist religion.