“This is what decolonisation looks like!” yelled a gleeful online activist the day after the October 7th Hamas massacre of 1,200 Israelis. He was not alone and he was right: horror and suffering very often are what ‘decolonisation’ looks like. The decolonisation and subsequent partition of India in 1947, for example, led to excess mortality of around one million says the occasionally reliable Wikipedia. Other sources put the number much higher. The African Gold Coast’s (Ghana’s) independence from Britain in 1949 produced a riot and various shortages, a decline but less costly than India’s. Independence in S. Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), at that time the second most prosperous nation in sub-Saharan Africa, soon led to the one-party rule of Robert Mugabe and a descent into hyperinflation, poverty and starvation. The effects of decolonisation were severe.
There are similar stories about the transitions of many other colonies: the decades before independence usually look much more stable and prosperous that the decades that follow. Bruce Gilley and Nigel Biggar describe many examples of the benefits of colonisation and the bad effects of decolonisation.
Britain’s exit from the colonies was several decades ago. Since then a grotesque new form of civilisational cancellation has appeared: the so-called decolonisation of science. The current scientific establishment in the U.S. and the U.K. seems to have forgotten what science is. Executive editors of major scientific journals like Nature and Science, the major scientific societies from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the British Royal Society, all are dedicated to the decolonisation of science. Now truth is less important than social justice.
For example, the U.S. National Science Foundation devotes millions of dollars to getting more women into computer science. There is a similar bias in all other government science agencies. Why? Are women discriminated against in computer science? No, nor is this issue even raised. It’s not about discrimination; it has just become imperative that the proportion of women, blacks and other supposedly disadvantaged groups in every discipline, especially prestigious disciplines, should match their proportion in the population (no problem with too few male nurses or too many male convicts). Again, why?
This movement reflects two things. First, a weakening of the Establishment’s commitment to science which, as David Hume pointed out several centuries ago, is just concerned with measurable facts. Charles Darwin famously wrote: “A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections, a mere heart of stone.” Passion, other than a passionate curiosity, is incompatible with objective science. The scientific motive is incompatible with a push for social justice. And second, a belief that everyone is basically the same; men, women, different ethnic and racial groups, all are really identical. Hence, any disparities in the representation of different groups in different fields must reflect bias and discrimination.
Social justice is very different from individual justice because it deals with groups not individuals: “social determinants like the racial wealth gap or inequitable access to health care feature heavily in social justice analysis” according to one definition. This obsession with group disparities is nonsensical and pernicious since group disparities by themselves never justify a conclusion. The identitarian assumption that people are the same – have the same interests and abilities – means that disparities must reflect environmental causes like racism or sexism. But this assumption is obviously false: men as a group are not the same as women as a group, nor are ethnic and racial groups identical. Since differences are disallowed, fools or frauds can see prejudice behind every disparity. “When I see disparities I see racism,” said an eminent black scholar, quoted approvingly in the New York Times five years ago and frequently repeated since.
It is hard to overemphasise both the immorality of this largely successful attempt to inject social justice into the scientific bureaucracy and the damage it will do not just to science but to Western civilisation itself. For example, Ute Deichman has described in compelling detail the effects of forcing political doctrine on scientific research in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. What is happening in America and elsewhere is less cruel but in some ways even more effective. Somehow, social pressure pushing identity politics over meritocracy has been building over the years, to the point that an article on the virtues of merit in science, co-authored by many eminent scientists, could only be published in the Journal of Controversial ideas.
The scientific establishment seems to want identity politics to be an integral part of what used to be, and should be, an activity in which truth is the primary value. Using the benevolent-sounding language that has become familiar from DEI statements, Nature magazine, one of the top two general-science journals in the world, offers a Decolonising science toolkit that lists no fewer than nineteen other editorials which “provide examples of how institutions and scientific departments are recasting curricula and addressing racism’s influence”.
Some titles of these editorials are ‘Facing racism in science, “I decided to prove them wrong”’ and ‘What it means to practice values-based research’, which features a sexually ambiguous and well-tattooed person (pronouns ‘they/them’) who has developed “a feminist, anti-colonial approach to science” (anyone remember Trofim Lysenko’s “environment is everything”, communist-aligned agricultural practice which led to the deaths of millions?). Their lab promises to practice “accountability, humility and good land relations at its core”. We learn that the author is “Red River Métis”, as if this should make any difference. They tell Nature how this approach shapes the lab’s work and why collective, respectful and thoughtful collaborations are a step towards better science. And, lest we forget, another editorial reminds us ‘Why Juneteenth matters for science’ which links to an editorial on ‘RACISM: Overcoming science’s toxic legacy’. Apparently, science has a legacy of “excluding people of color… and scientists have used research to underpin discriminatory thinking”.
It seems to be characteristic of contemporary flights from reason that the more absurd the contention, the more readily it gains acceptance.
In my six decades of work as scientist I have never seen a student discriminated against on account of their race. Indeed, in one rather dramatic case a black student at another university was physically brought to my attention by a white colleague in another discipline just because of the kid’s ability (he went on to publish a couple of important first-author papers and got his PhD). I have no reason to think my experience was unusual. To say that “science is systemically racist” is nonsense, both because it isn’t and because ‘systemic racism’ isn’t a thing anyway. Science must be liberated from poisonous social-justice doctrines if it is to survive.
It is time for science to recolonise!
John Staddon is James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology emeritus at Duke University.