Integ. Phys. & Beh. Science,
POLITICAL CORRECTNESS AND THE CULTURE OF
COMFORT: AN IMPEDIMENT TO OBSERVATION, OBJECTIVITY, AND THE CONFLICT OF
J. Furedy, Ph.D.
*Note* The journal version of this essay has no
abstract, and has minor ditorial changes from the text below. The essay is also followed by an ditorial
comment by Dr. Stewart Wolf (pp. 303-4), which is not reproduced ere.
earlier editorial in the Society's journal (Furedy, 1990) argued that
for the maintenance of disinterested enquiry and genuine scientific
discussion, the conflict of ideas should be added to observation the
Society's guiding motto) and objectivity (the common thread that unites
our members). I also suggested that the nature of the current external
granting system in North America has produced
intrinsic forces that work against the conflict-of-ideas approach among
scientists. In this editorial I contend
that political correctness (PC) and the culture of comfort constitute
am additional threat to disinterested enquiry. An
important piece of evidence for this contention is the apparent
abandonment of the principle of disinterested enquiry by some
relatively "hard" scientific organizations in North America, as
manifested by their dealings with scholars who raise issues that are
uncomfortable or "offensive". I discuss
four lines of criticism which suggest that my interpretation of the
impact of political correctness is too strong. I
nevertheless conclude that my interpretation is justified, and that the
recent trend against disinterested enquiry is present even in the
"harder" sciences, and must be actively resisted.
suggested in a previous editorial in the Society's ournal (Furedy,
1990), observation is the guiding motto of the Society, while
objectivity is the common thread that unites members with very diverse
interests and differing approaches to the understanding of behavior. The bulk of that editorial dealt with the
third concept in its title--the conflict of ideas.
I argued that this concept was important for the maintenance of
disinterested enquiry and genuine scientific discussion.
scholarship in science (or, for that matter, in any intellectual
endeavour) requires that any personal conflicts between disputants be
transcended by the conflict of ideas, so that the fundamental aim of
the discussion can be epistemic rather than political. This aim of
having a genuine, issue-directed discussion is well met in the
Pavlovian Society, especially in the oral format provided by our annual
A foe of
the conflict-of-ideas principle that I examined previously was the fear
of offending one's peers, engendered in researchers by the North
American scientific granting system, because research is funded almost
exclusively on the basis of reviews by peers (who are usually also
competitors of the grantee). More
recently, however, a new threat to the conflict-of-ideas approach has
arisen, and again that threat has been strongest in North America.
to political correctness (PC) or the "culture of comfort"
(Furedy,1997b). Sensitivity to whether
assertions create discomfort for certain people or groups becomes the
primary criterion for judging their truth or validity.
is, indeed, a proscription against the mere consideration of certain
data (e.g., the observed statistical group difference in performance on
IQ tests in North America between
blacks and whites), let alone specific interpretations i.e., those that
stress genetic influences).
the effects of PC pressures have been most evident in the humanities
and social sciences, physical and biological scientists and their
organizations, are not immune (Furedy, 1997a, p. 1).
In the title of the just-cited paper, I
refer to the decline of the "Eppur si muove spirit" in North American
science. The reference is to Galileo's sotto voce (and probably
apocryphal) assertion of the heliocentric theory. Under
threat of torture,Galileo publically
denied the theory, but said under his breath "And yet it [the earth]
moves." The significance of Galileo's
whispered retort is that represents the value of
disinterestedness--that what should govern inquiry is the search for
truth. In other words, no matter what an
authority may say, even if that authority has power over life and
death, it has no power over truth.
is, of course, disagreement about the strength of the danger posed by
PC and the culture of comfort for disinterestedness in science. In my view, the threat is considerable, at
least partly because it appears to come from within science itself. In my "Eppur si muove" paper (Furedy 1997a) I
recount how scientific organizations themselves seem to have abandoned
disinterestedness when they are faced with issues that are
controversial and uncomfortable.
case discussed in the paper concerned the issue of whether race and
intelligence are related. Although this is
an intensely "uncomfortable" issue (as was the issue, in Galileo's
time, of whether the earth moved), it is one of scientific interest. A poster presentation on the subject was
submitted by fellow of the AAAS to its 1995 conference, and accepted by
the AAAS program chair. However, this
chair later indicated on public radio that he had regretted accepting
this poster presentation, because the organization did not wish "too
overt" controversies to be discussed at its annual meeting.
case documented involved the board of the Behavior Genetics Association
(BGA). In a 1995 farewell dinner talk, the
outgoing president referred to an uncomfortable set of data that showed
a correlation between race and murder rate, and argued for the even
more uncomfortable interpretation that the correlation could have a
genetic as well as an environmental component.
BGA's Board responded initially by trying to force the outgoing
president to resign not only from the Board, but also from the BGA
itself. The details of the Board's actions
were described relatively neutrally by science reporters writing in
Nature and Science (Butler, 1995; Holden, 1995a,b).
Other members of BGA who did not approve of the Board's actions
were less neutral. For example, one expressed his dismay to "discover
that a scientific society that one has valued for so long has fallen to
the governance of a lynch mob."
called on the Board to "apologize to the membership for valuing
ill-perceived political correctness more than objective and impartial
rigorous research in a socially important and sensitive area" (Furedy,
interpreted these and other cases as involving "blatant abandonment of
the Eppur si muove spirit by [some] scientific organizations". The possibility remains, however, that I have
over-interpreted the data in a way that does not do justice to the
complexities of scientific research and its relation to societal
concerns. In this editorial I
consider four lines of criticism that have been raised against
the claim made in the paper.
1. Science has always been influence by ideology,
hence PC is not a new threat.--In North America, the PC of the nineties
is often likened to McCarthyism, which is seen as the most destructive
political force to affect campuses. The influence of McCarthyism,
though considerable, however, was external to science.
When the cognitive S-S theorist Tolman refused to sign the
Loyalty Oath (in this respect he acted in a more principled way than
such contemporary scientific opponents like S-R theorists Hull and
Spence) and was fired from his position at the University of California
at Berkeley for this refusal, it was clear that the ideological
influence was emanating from outside the science of psychology, and
that Tolman's "sin" lay not in his scientific cognitive) opinions that
Hull and Spence opposed (partly on the grounds that they were not
sufficiently scientific, an opinion that prevailed in the scientific
community until the "cognitive revolution" of the sixties and
seventies), but in a political failure to meet McCarthy's exacting
standards of ideological purity.
contrast, the demand for conformity with PC sensitivities has come from
within the scientific community, whether the pressure is of the blatant
sort (as illustrated by such examples as that of the treatment of the
outgoing president by the BGA's board in 1995), or more subtle (such as
whether discomforting scholars are included in prestigious, invited
because of the internal nature of these PC influences, the pressures
against disinterested scholarship are more difficult to analyse than
the earlier external attacks such as those of McCarthyism.
Again to take Tolman as the example, it was plain to all that he
was fired not because his scientific views on learning being cognitive
were wrong (or even not as "scientific" as the competing Hull-Spence
S-R position), but because his political views were "unsound". In contrast, especially because the
PC-influenced incidents described in Furedy (1997a) were instigated by
scientific organizations themselves, it is easy to suppose that the
arguments made against denigrated scholars are scientific ones. So whereas McCarthyism attacked only the
livelihood of the proscribed scholar, the PC attack is against the
scientific reputation itself of the offending individual.
2. Scientific organizations have a responsibility
to keep information out of the hands of those who have evil
intentions.--This is a widely accepted position, and there are many
current examples of scientific organizations acting in accord with that
position. So the American Society for
Microbiology has been deeply involved in promoting the control of
biological weapons, even though many of its members had previously
employed their disciplinary expertise in the service of American
biological weapons development. As another example, for some time a
number of scientific organizations have worked to keep nuclear
knowledge and technology out of the hands of governments and political
movements of whose aims they disapprove. In
this case, again, many of the same individuals (or their older
colleagues) had contributed their disciplinary expertise to the
development of the same sorts of nuclear weapons. The
case of Robert Oppenheimer is, of course, the classic illustration of
the conflicts involved in this sort of "socially responsible" behavior.
although the position that scientific organizations must be "socially
responsible" is widely held and often put into practice, I think it is
wrong. Individual scientists, as citizens,
do have this sort of responsibility. To
the extent that they have specialized knowledge about certain issues,
their individual responsibility is greater than that of those who have
less expertise. So, too, non-scientific
organizations such as political, religious, and social-advocacy groups
have that responsibility.
scientific organizations that are devoted only to research do not, I
believe, have it, and should not, as organizations, seek to control who
has access to scientific knowledge.
does not mean that scientists, acting either as individuals or as
members of social groups, should be unconcerned about the implications
of research in terms of the uses (and abuses) to which the research
results may be put. What my position does
imply is that no scientific organization should ever suppress
information, no matter for what evil ends others may use it. The "weaker brethren" principle of Paul the
Apostle may be appropriate for the Christian Church, but it will
definitely not do for the Pavlovian Society.
Political ideologues have often sought support for their political
positions from science.--This is clearly true, especially during modern
times, when the qualifier "scientific" is effectively used to validate
moreover, tend to select from scientific findings according to their
predilections. So Soviet ideology focussed
only on evidence for environmental influences on behavior, while Nazi
ideologues (and other extreme right-wing propagandists) pointed only to
evidence for genetic influences.
that politically motivated individuals and organizations use science
for their own purposes, however, does not mean we should accept the
position that scientific organizations themselves should allow their
activities to be politicized in reaction.
too, I do not mean to imply that scientists should be apolitical. They can, either as individuals or through
non-scientific organizations, speak out in favor of any political
position they choose.
they can use their expertise in their
science, if appropriate, to either bolster their own positions, or to
counter arguments made by their political opponents.
Enquiry itself, however, should never be politicized, whether
the politics involved is considered good(e.g., "anti-racist") or bad
("racist) by most people. To return to the
Galilean example, the heliocentric position was considered evil by most
contemporary observers. Accepting it
seemed to entail a breakdown of the religious-political order at a time
when that order was being threatened on many fronts.
It is possible that Galileo's way of stating his position was
motivated by self-aggrandisement and that he was tactless compared with
Copernicus. Thess non-scientific
consideration, however, were irrelevant to the astronomical issue that
was the subject of both the heliocentric and
all experiments (e.g., human cloning) are permissible.--There is no
question that this holds. The human
cloning example may not be convincing to all, but anyone seeking to
argue for complete freedom in experimentation has only to think of the
Nazi experiments under such monsters as Dr. Mengele to recognize that
research has to be subject to ethical regulation. Recently an entire
field of bioethics has been developed for this purpose.
I have always thought that individual investigators like me
needed an external evaluatory body to keep an eye on them lest, in
their quest for scientific knowledge they approach and even cross the
ethical line between permissible and impermissible procedures. In the case of my own research, it has been a
source of continuing epistemological frustration that in human
Pavlovian aversive autonomic conditioning, the unconditional stimulus (US) has not
been as strong as I would like for obtaining robust conditioning
effects. Whether that US is shock or
loud noise, there is a strong epistemological temptation to increase US intensity to
a point where there can be danger to subjects. The final responsibility
for what intensity of US is allowable should, quite properly, rest with
an external source that renders its ethical judgment independently of
my epistemological needs.
argue that there is a crucial distinction between actions (i.e., what
is done in experiments) and enquiry (i.e., scientific opinions that are
formulated during the course of both empirical and conceptual research).
should be subject to ethical scrutiny, but enquiry should be free. This, of course, is the basic Voltaire-Mill
perspective: that while opinion should be free, actions should not. It applies a fortiori, in my view, to
scientific organizations, whose sole purpose I take to be
while I have appreciated the thoughtful criticisms from colleagues, I
stand by my earlier claim (1997a) that there is evidence that North
American scientific societies are abandoning the Eppur si muove
attitude in their treatment of issues that may be uncomfortable, but
are of scientific relevance. Disinterested
enquiry is under an attack from a new source, PC and the culture of
comfort, and this new foe of the conflict of ideas needs to be
recognized and fought not only in the humanities and social sciences,
but in the "harder" sciences as well.
Butler, D. Geneticist quits in protest 'genes and
violence' claim. Nature, 378,
J.J. (1990). Observation, Objectivity, and
the Conflict of Ideas.
in Pavlovian Journal of Biological Science, 25, 29-31.
J.J. (1997a). The
decline of the Eppur si muove spirit in North American science:
Professional organizations and PC pressures. The Mankind Quarterly, in
J.J. (1997b). Academic
freedom versus the velvet totalitarian culture of comfort on current
Canadian campuses: Some fundamental terms and distinctions.
Interchange, in press.
Holden, C. (1995a). Spectre
at the Fiest of Science. Science, 269, 35
(1995b). Behavior Geneticists
Shun Colleague. Science, 270, 1125.
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