End the Hero-Worship of Bigoted Scientists

Crowded lecture threatre with many people raising their hands to speak.

There is a troubling trend of famous scientists receiving increased attention to speak at academic events and on conservative media. In The Humanist, I recently wrote about the resurgence of political scientist Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve. The book has been universally critiqued as an example of modern-day scientific racism. Yet Murray is being embraced by right wing media personalities, as well as by research institutions. He was the focus of a student and faculty protest after being invited to give a talk.

Published in 1994, The Bell Curve was founded on a flawed premise that inferred a correlation between intelligence, socio-economic achievement, and genetics, without accounting for the effects of discrimination. The research was funded by the eugenics-promoting Pioneer Fund. Time has proven the book to be scientifically “reckless.” It enjoys a resurgence in 2017, the era of Trump, specifically because it is read as proof that White people are superior to racial minorities, especially Black and Latin people.

We can see a similar pattern in the renewed embrace of Dr James Watson. He is famous for being awarded a Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA along with Francis Crick, but they did so by stealing the work of a White woman scientist, Rosalind Franklin. Watson has also promoted scientific racism and sexism throughout his career, arguing that Black people are less intelligent and that women have no value in science careers. He also spread racist pseudoscience, saying there is a link between sunlight and increased libido. His reasoning: “That’s why you have Latin lovers.” He has further argued that thin people are more ambitious, and he subsequently validates that discrimination towards fat people is understandable. All of this, of course, is without any scientific evidence.

What message does his continued elevated status send to underrepresented and marginalised groups in academia?

Coordinated efforts by faculty, staff and students led to the University of Illinois rescinding Watson an invitation to speak on campus. Consequently, these colleagues faced death threats. That’s the calibre of audience Watson attracts.

Inviting bigoted speakers is not a way of promoting fair exchange of ideas, as these people already have existing platforms. Moreover, the perpetuation of sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination already has a wide audience, reflected in the status quo. Tolerance of hate speech on campus emboldens further violence against women of various backgrounds and other minorities.

There are real-life consequences to inviting scientists who promote science discrimination to continue to speak at university events:

  • it reinforces science inequality by giving famous scientists rewards and attention so they can continue to espouse their harmful remarks, continuing their justification for oppression;
  • it promotes bad science, by hosting scientists who have published stolen works, or who promote flawed pseudoscience on race and gender;
  • it makes campus unsafe for minorities, women and femmes of various backgrounds, by tolerating bigotry and encouraging exclusion and violence;
  • finally, this undermines students, staff and faculty who promote equity and diversity, diminishing efforts and putting them at risk when they speak out.

White supremacy and “tolerance” of racism on campus is not free speech but lethal to victims like Richard Collins III. Arguments that academia should be a place that makes room for bigotry are flawed. Racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination are rampant in society. These uninformed and prejudiced attitudes have many platforms in the media, and they are part of history. Science, after all, has historically supported colonialism, slavery and eugenics, and helped to solidify racism. There is no two sides to racism, sexism or other forms of oppression. Scientists who extol eugenics, scientific racism and sexism have no place in academia.

It’s time to end the hero worshipping of scientists who perpetuate discrimination and harassment.

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