Jordan Peterson: The activists are now stalking the hard scientists.

This article appeared in the National Post. You can read it here.

By Jordan Peterson

So many messages of appalling idiocy, detestable envy, and envy embarrassing to behold, crossed my desk in the last fortnight that I found myself in the rare position of having too much to record — a writer’s dream. But that content also indicated that the bell is tolling, and that I am one of those for whom the death knell sounds.

I have watched the universities of the Western world devour themselves in a myriad of fatal errors over the last two decades, and take little pleasure in observing the inevitable unfold. It is a failing of human reason, with all its limitations, ego, and pretensions, to serve as Cassandra; to derive a certain satisfaction in watching the ship whose demise was foretold breach its hull on rocks hidden from all other observers. The self-righteous pleasure of “I told you so,” is, however, of little comfort when the icy water wends its way around ankle, knee and thigh, threatening to swamp everything still retaining its incalculable and unlikely value, even if it simultaneously makes short shrift of the ignorance and willful blindness that is frequently part and parcel of the death of something once great.

It is also necessary to note that the catastrophic failures of process and aim which I am about to relate were by no means hidden from the public view by the persons and institutions in question. They were instead positively trumpeted to all by multiple attempts to harness the powers of social media and announced, more traditionally, in press releases designed to indicate the success of some great and laudable moral striving. It is nothing less than a dire day when the proud revelation of vices of deadly and multifarious seriousness serve to substitute for announcements of genuine and valuable achievement, but that is where we are at — make no mistake about it.

The first story emerges at Brock University, in cahoots with the scientific journal Angewandte Chemie — the former an educational institution of moderate reputability; the latter a prestigious place of scientific publication among chemists. It is no easy matter to find a permanent tenured faculty position at such a university, or to publish research findings or literature reviews/summaries in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The latter process generally requires several years and multiple resubmissions and rounds of editing by a minimum of three colleagues with expertise in the field per submission, as well as approval by the editor. Angewandte has a rejection rate of 80% — and it should be noted that that rejection rate only accounts for papers that the submitting researcher(s) felt were of sufficient quality to be considered.

Dr. Tomas Hudlicky of Brock submitted an essay memorializing and updating a piece written thirty years ago, which has been widely recognized as powerfully influencing the direction of the chemistry subfield in question (organic synthesis).

The good doctor holds a prestigious Canada Research Chair, a position funded by a large federal initiative devoting about $300 million per year in the attempt to attract to Canada (or encourage to stay) researchers who are of particular promise, as evidenced primarily by their research productivity. That, in turn, can be measured with reasonable objectivity with metrics such as number of peer-reviewed articles in relevant scientific journals (more than 400 in Hudlicky’s case), by noting how many times such articles are cited by other authors over the years subsequent to publication (Hudlicky: 13,300) and, finally, by a measure known as the h-index, which provides a single numerical indication of how many publications have received a variable minimum number of citations. A researcher with an h-index of 10 has published 10 papers with 10 or more citations; a researcher with an h-index of 57 (Hudlicky’s score) has published 57 papers with 57 or more citations.

Hudlicky’s research productivity is admirable and rare. The mere fact that he obtained a position as a Canada Research Chair meant that his department, as well as the relevant federal governmental agency, both determined he was a fish well worth landing. Plus, the universities that hire researchers competent enough to be considered for a Canada Research Chair competition are not doing those they are attempting to recruit any favour by offering them a position; rather, it is an honour for the university to be chosen by the researcher in question.

Hudlicky’s paper in Angewandte Chemie was peer-reviewed positively, judged as desirable by the relevant editorial staff, and published. This meant that it managed the difficult job of passing through the eye of a needle, and entering the kingdom of heaven, at least as far as research chemists might be concerned. But some of Hudlicky’s surmises with regard to the state of organic synthesis raised the ire of a Twitter mob howling about “academic feudalism” and calling it an “antidiversity screed.”

Twitter seems to exist primarily for the purpose of generating mobs — composed primarily of individuals who are hungry for blood and desiring to bask in the joys of reasonably risk-free reputation destruction, revenge and self-righteousness. Furthermore, as far as Twitter mobs go, those who complained about the Angewandte Chemie publication were by no means numerous, constituting perhaps less than a dozen.

No matter: once the complaints emerged, the editor of the journal in charge of Hudlicky’s work — Dr. Neville Compton — removed the paper from the journal’s website, and offered an abject apology for daring to have published it. Furthermore, he reported the “suspension” of two of the journal’s editors and cast aspersions on Hudlicky’s ethics, stating that his essay did not properly reflect fairness, trustworthiness and social awareness, while implying that the now-pilloried author and his peer reviewers and editors were discriminatory, unjust and inequitable in practice.

What were Hudlicky’s sins? His 12-page document (about 4,000 words) dealt with issues affecting organic synthesis research and communication, covering topics such as the range of research options available, integrity and trustworthiness of the relevant literature, transference of skills from mentor to trainee, impact of information technology, the corporatization of the university environment, the effect of new technology, the diversity of the available work force, and the competition for resources among researchers. However, Hudlicky voiced a smattering of opinions deemed unacceptable by that small number of people who both read his submission and were somewhat active on Twitter. Here are the sentences constituting his wrong-think, which I have paraphrased slightly for length.

Under Diversity of Workforce: “In the last two decades many groups have been designated with ‘preferential status’ (despite substantive increases in the recruitment of women and minorities). Preferential treatment of one group leads inexorably to disadvantages for another. Each candidate should have an equal opportunity to secure a position, regardless of personal identification/categorization. Hiring practices that aim at equality of outcome is counter-productive if it results in discrimination against the most meritorious candidates. Such practice has also led to the emergence of mandatory ‘training workshops’ on gender equity, inclusion, diversity, and discrimination.”

Hudlicky voiced a smattering of opinions deemed unacceptable by that small number of people who both read his submission and were somewhat active on Twitter

So those apparently objectional words constitute 90 of 4,000 — a small proportion of the essay, and the proffering of an opinion that insists “if”: not that diversity, inclusivity and equality provisions necessarily produce prejudicial hiring practices, but that they may under some conditions and with sufficient lack of caution have exactly that effect. It is also important to note that these opinions paraphrase very closely a decision reached and publicized by a German court in 2007, at least according to a supporter of Hudlicky who dared express an opinion supporting his colleague.

The Twitter trolls who objected to this opinion nonetheless reacted as if Hudlicky had said that efforts to “diversify” hiring and student selection were definitively harmful, and this is simply untrue.

Under Transference of Skills: “The training and mentoring of new generations of professionals must be attended to by proper relationships of ‘masters and apprentices’ without dilution of standards. Hudlicky described two conditions which must be met if the successful transfer of skills is to occur: first, the knowledge in question must be transferred within three generations, or risk being lost forever; second, there must be ‘an unconditional submission of the apprentice to his/her master.’ This applies not only in the sciences but also in art, music, and martial arts…. Submission to one’s mentor is rarely attainable today. Many students are unwilling to submit to any level of hard work demanded by professors. The university does not support professors in this endeavour as it views students as financial assets and hence protects them from any undue hardships that may be demanded by the ‘masters.’ This situation, coupled with the fact that professors have less and less time to mentor students in the laboratory, cannot provide for a productive transfer of skills, especially the maintenance of standards and integrity of research.”

This is an additional 170 words, and offers an opinion most famously put forward by Michael Polanyi, a polymath of genius level, who made contributions to chemistry, philosophy and economics, and who delineated the importance of “tacit knowledge” (knowledge that was acted out but not necessarily articulated) in the transmission of specialized technical ability across the generations. Hudlicky was therefore criticized and pilloried by individuals on Twitter who appeared to know nothing of Polanyi’s work (and for whom such ignorance was arguably justifiable) but also by the editor of Angewandte, for whom such ignorance was most certainly not.

Acquisition of this knowledge, according to Polanyi, required precisely the unfreedom recommended by Hudlicky — followed (with the acquisition of the aptly named Master’s degree) by autonomy in thought and action increased beyond what would have been capable in the absence of the devoted apprenticeship in question. Such a process can only be undertaken by a pupil capable of regarding his or her teacher as a true mentor, and by a mentor bent on the eventual production of a pupil more capable than him or herself.

None of that, according to Hudlicky (and this is a not unreasonable hypothesis in this day and age) is possible in the university as currently constituted, even in the hard sciences. Not only is it not possible, he implies, but it is no longer posited even as an acceptable aim. In a properly functioning institute of training, however, it might be argued that disciplined and contractually-mediated temporary subjugation to higher authority is eminently desirable, despite the limited sacrifice of casual autonomy that might require, if the person or persons to whom the subjugation is made are true experts. It is the willingness to undertake this apprenticeship, as well as the capability of superseding it, that makes up the master in “Master’s degree”—a designation that Brock still grants, despite potentially colonial overtones at least as damning as those that characterized Hudlicky’s writing.

That is the sum total of Hudlicky’s academic crimes. He has faced severe retaliation on no less than six separate fronts for his hypothetically unforgivable thoughts — the two we have already discussed, and four more, including, third, the cancellation of an entire issue of the journal Synthesis (published by Thieme), which was to be dedicated to his 70th birthday and for which invitations had already been sent to more than forty prominent scientists; fourth, the elimination of any mention of his work in yet another journal, Highlights in Chemistry; fifth, a statement by a European chemical society (not as yet made public) hypothetically critiquing his ongoing collaborations with researchers from that continent; and sixth, his transformation into whipping boy by his own faithless professional colleagues at the administrative level at Brock University.

Dr. Greg Finn, Provost and VP Academic at that institution, saw nothing wrong with stabbing one of his university’s most esteemed scientists in the back at the first sign of trouble. The provost wrote a painfully cringing apologetic “open letter to the public,” claiming, of course, that Hudlicky’s opinions, if in the least controversial, were in no possible manner representative of Brock University as a whole, and essentially hanging that institution’s hypothetically valued top chemist out to dry. Finn states that Hudlicky’s article “…contains descriptions of the graduate supervisor-graduate student relationship that connote disrespect and subservience. These statements could be alarming to students and others who have the reasonable expectation of respectful and supportive mentorship…. [The statements in this paper] do not reflect the principles of inclusivity, diversity and equity included in the University’s mission, vision and values as approved by our Senate and Board of Trustees.” Only an individual accustomed to dining on very thin gruel or simply spoiled meat would find any nourishment in statements with such content and of that quality.

An admirable university, secure in its worth, would have determined very quickly that one Hudlicky was, conservatively, worth ten Finns, and acted accordingly. But research prowess is no longer as important as willingness to mouth the appalling commonplaces of political correctness in the hallowed corridors of academe.

Two other recent events drive these points home. A highly cited professor of physics, who I cannot name, at a university I cannot name either (suffice it to say that the former has garnered 100+ publications and 7000+ citations in a highly technical field) had his standard Canadian Federal grant application rejected because he had failed to sufficiently detail his plans to ensure diversity, inclusivity and equity (DIE) practices while conducting his scientific inquiry. It is now standard practice for university hiring boards to insist that their faculty job applicants submit a DIE plan with their curriculum vitae — a terribly dangerous occurrence of its own.

I believe that the fundamental reason such plans are required, particularly of those who practice in the so-called “hard” STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is so that those who could not hope to assess the quality of research endeavours in those specialties as a consequence of their own inability or ignorance, can be made into judges by enforcing the adoption of standards of attitude and behaviour that have nothing to do with the fields in question.

Consider this, in addition: a group of three professors at Concordia were awarded a New Frontiers in Research Grant (announced in late 2019) aimed at “engaging Indigenous understanding and involving Indigenous communities in the co-creation of knowledge, the project aims to decolonize contemporary physics research and attract Indigenous students.” The head researcher, Dr. Tanja Tajmel, “questioned the colonial assumptions made in the way Western science evaluates light and what it considers knowledge.” Dr. Louellyn White, associate professor in First Peoples Studies, added that “Indigenous ways of knowing have been suppressed and marginalized throughout academic history and we are finally gaining momentum in elevating Indigenous knowledges as equally valid to Western science… If we, as an institution, do not embody the Territorial Acknowledgement by recognizing and affirming the expertise of our Elders as Knowledge Keepers, the acknowledgement becomes nothing but empty platitudes.” Dr. Ingo Salzmann, the last of the three principal investigators to whom the funds were awarded, says, “The culture of physics certainly changes with diverse people involved.” He argues, “Therefore, decolonizing science involves challenging the underlying hierarchies.”

The refusal of the research grant application specifically requesting funding for what must now apparently be regarded as “colonialized — or colonized (?) — physics” and the success of the application that had the magical mention of “indigenous knowledge” should alert us to the fact that with the increasingly successful politicization of the university the STEM fields comprise the next frontier for occupation by the politically correct.

Qualified and expert researchers in such fields are already in great danger of being pushed aside by activists of the proper opinion. The rest of us will pay in the longer run, when we no longer have the will or the capacity to make use of the rare talents that make people highly competent and productive as scientists, technological innovators, engineers or mathematicians. Wake up, STEM denizens: your famous immunity to political concerns will not protect you against what is headed your way fast over the next five or so years.

Jordan Peterson was a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, a clinical psychologist and the author of the multi-million copy bestseller 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, in addition to other books. His blog and podcasts can be found at here.