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What the ‘anti-woke’ crowd gets wrong about the calls for diversity in science

<h5>Lewis Science Library and Fine Hall, which is the home of the Mathematics Department.</h5>
<h6>&nbsp;James Loesch / <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/jal33/17092082815" target="_self">Flickr</a></h6>
Lewis Science Library and Fine Hall, which is the home of the Mathematics Department.
 James Loesch / Flickr

Recently a select group of scientists, scholars, and pundits have denounced key science journals, specifically Scientific American (SciAm) and Science, as going “woke” and joining the “social justice” bandwagon.

These criticisms have spread from blogs to the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek.

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From University of Chicago biology professor Emeritus Jerry Coyne: “Scientific American is changing from a popular-science magazine into a social-justice-in-science magazine” and “it is not science: it’s politics and sociology with a Leftist bent.” 

From former Cambridge research fellow Noah Carl: “people who should know better have allowed once-great scientific journals to become a platform for woke activism” and “[I] have covered Nature’s descent into woke activism … now seems that Science is going the same way.” 

Founded in 1845 and 1880 respectively, SciAm is the oldest and top popular science magazine and Science is the official journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Not exactly radical lefty ‘zines. Yet both have been called out repeatedly as “too woke” and “anti-science.” 

What is driving this cluster of largely (but not exclusively) white, senior, and cis-gender scholars and pundits to complain? What have the SciAm and Science editorial boards done that is so horrible? Simply put, they have recognized that times are changing and including previously excluded and marginalized voices, experiences, and perspectives in their pages is not only the right thing to do, but also the necessary thing to do for a better and more vibrant science of the 21st century. 

Here are a few examples in SciAm and Science that have the “anti-woke” crowd foaming at the mouth: 

On Aug. 18, 2022, Science published an essay by an astrophysicist titled “How astrophysics helped me embrace my nonbinary gender identity—in all its complexity.” In it, the author concludes “Physics is always evolving, and gender is, too. When we understand that things are more complex than they appear, we learn. When scientists embrace the complexity of the universe, our science can only improve.” 

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On Aug. 12, 2021, SciAm published an essay entitled “Modern Mathematics Confronts Its White, Patriarchal Past” which contained this: “Racism, sexism and other forms of systematic oppression are not unique to mathematics, and they certainly are not new, yet many in the field still deny their existence … statistics on the mathematics profession are difficult to ignore.”

On Feb. 3, 2022 Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals wrote “Science needs affirmative action” that started with: “As science struggles to correct systemic racism in the laboratory and throughout academia in the United States, external forces press on, making it even more difficult to achieve equity on all fronts—including among scientists.”

On May 24, 2022, SciAm published an opinion piece entitled, “Science Must Not Be Used to Foster White Supremacy” that noted “scientists need to take an active role in fighting both violence and white supremacy … scientists have too often defaulted to defending their peers or intellectual forebears, like James Watson or E.O. Wilson, as people whose support for white supremacy should be given a pass because of their scientific achievements.”

These journals are opening their pages to serious discussion of issues of discrimination and bias in science not necessarily faced by most senior cis-male white scholars — which is a critical component of change.  

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The final example I offer is one of my own. On May 21, 2021, Science published an invited editorial on “‘The Descent of Man,’ 150 years on.”

In it I wrote: “Today, students are taught Darwin as the ‘father of evolutionary theory,’ a genius scientist. They should also be taught Darwin as an English man with injurious and unfounded prejudices that warped his view of data and experience. Racists, sexists, and white supremacists, some of them academics, use concepts and statements ‘validated’ by their presence in ‘Descent’ as support for erroneous beliefs, and the public accepts much of it uncritically … The scientific community can reject the legacy of bias and harm in the evolutionary sciences by recognizing, and acting on, the need for diverse voices and making inclusive practices central to evolutionary inquiry.”

This piece inspired a large outpouring of anger from the “anti-woke” crowd, including a cluster of senior biologists, and even produced calls for me to be fired from Princeton. Obviously, I wasn’t. But why does this matter? 

Because science has a problem. Systemic gender inequities, sexism, racism, ableism, colonialist histories and their neocolonialist present exist in science.

Numerous recent peer-reviewed articles, essays and books demonstrate the truth of these realities (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and many more).

This issue is so pressing to the practice of science that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is currently conducting a consensus study on the topic. Many science departments and programs, and many prominent scientists, have played (and still play) roles in maintaining structures of systemic bias and the harms they produce. The point of my editorial (and why Science ran it) was that systems of racism and sexism are powerful, capable of blinding even brilliant scientific minds, such as Darwin’s. 

We do (and should) teach Darwin as a brilliant scientist, which he was. But when reading “Descent of Man,” students who are not white and don’t identify as male encounter assertions about their lower value as humans, their cognitive deficiencies, and their being “less than.” These are assertions made by the scholar we recognize as a genius and the originator of much in our understanding of the processes of evolution, and if not countered and corrected, can be a gut punch to some readers, a signal that they do not belong, are not equal or valued. This can be true even if many readers (such as older white cis-male ones) don’t notice it.

Science scholars and journals must publicly and clearly repudiate racist and sexist assertions, even those made by icons, and show how they are scientifically incorrect while pursuing constructive ways forward (see an example of this in the journal Nature Human Behaviour recently). This is not some radical “woke” non-scientific assertion, it is a valid, intellectually robust, and necessary one. The editorial boards of SciAm, Science, and many other science journals, recognize this reality and are doing something about it. 

We Princetonians constitute the heart of one of the most heralded and prominent centers of knowledge creation on the planet. Princeton is an epicenter of scientific excellence and influential in shaping how science (writ large) is practiced, perceived and deployed globally. Are we leaning into the necessities of the 21st century with conviction and action? Or are we sidelined by attention to the “anti-woke” hysteria and hesitant to plunge ahead? I hope all Princetonians are driven to ask and carefully consider these questions and what to do about the answers to them. 

As for me, this is the start of my third year on campus, so I’m still learning the ropes and realities of this institution. I’m extremely hopeful and inspired by what I see in the increasing diversity (of all sorts) in the student body and the energy and potential it’s unleashing. While the faculty has a long path to diversification and inclusion ahead, I’m not daunted and deeply appreciate the quality and tenor of ongoing discussions and actions on campus. I look forward to more listening, thinking, discussing, and acting on these topics in the pages of The Daily Princetonian and in the life of Princeton University and hope you do, too.

Agustín Fuentes is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This is his inaugural column as a faculty columnist at the ‘Prince. He can be reached at afuentes2@princeton.edu.  

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