Western Academia’s Activism Gridlock Threatens Its Global Status

Fabian Mardi/University of Melbourne, Parkville, Australia

Reputation is the core capital for elite Western universities. While institutions such as Yale, Oxford, or Harvard may jostle with one another in a ritual dance for the top spots within the fiercely competitive annual university rankings, the observed variability is mostly predictable. Results rarely surprise, because the best-ranked 10 or 20 spots are consistently populated by a small set of college names associated with prestige, achievement, and the elite.

Whether or not these reputations accord with our opinions, they are certainly not arbitrary. The prestige associated with the University of Cambridge, for instance, is at least in part a product of its history of groundbreaking scientific and intellectual achievement. While no university has ever been free of political concerns, these institutions have been built by figures of terrifying intelligence, unimpeachable intellectualism, and a willingness to challenge established consensus in order to move their fields of knowledge forward. It is easy to forget that Isaac Newton’s formulation of gravitational theory was not proposed within a vacuum. He had to fight for acceptance of his theories while at Cambridge, both in interpersonal debates as well as in his published manuscripts, which were deeply disruptive to parts of the academic establishment. Another Cambridge alumnus, Charles Darwin, was even more controversial; his theory of evolution by natural selection was such a profound and fundamental challenge to common literalist interpretations of faith that it remains disputed or unaccepted to this day among wide swathes of the Protestant Christian and Muslim worlds. Simply put, the University of Cambridge is no stranger to controversial ideas.

Yet in the Cambridge of today, the nature of academic controversy and its treatment appears unrecognizably changed. The most salient example is an open letter that was recently circulated widely around the University over faculty and college mailing lists, demanding administrative action against Noah Carl, a research fellow in sociology. Both the format and content of the capitalized double-heading that begin the email strike immediate concern into the reader: “CAMBRIDGE COLLEGE FUNDING SCIENTIFIC RACISM” and “REVOKE NOAH CARL’S RESEARCH FELLOWSHIP.” The urgency in tone is matched by totality in intent: the “one response that we will accept” was predictably “the rescindment of Noah Carl’s research fellowship.”

The details of the Carl case are comparatively underwhelming. The claims made within the email were not accompanied by any evidence, and included many statements presented as fact—such as the reference to Carl’s nonexistent research in “genetic intelligence,” or the description of an academic conference as a “eugenics conference”—which appear to be nonsensical or incorrect. A number of reputable academics and intellectuals with relevant expertise such as Richard Haier and Sam Harris have spoken out in defense of Carl and his methods, and it seems unlikely now that the petition will succeed in its goals. What is significant and interesting beyond the particulars of Carl’s extant research contributions is the petition itself, which has now garnered over 1,400 signatories from academics and doctoral students at universities across the Western world.

The role of outrage culture in stifling debate over important topics is widely recognized (it is no coincidence that Carl’s most heavily criticized work advocated open debate over controversial topics). But the historical reality is that scientists of all cultures have always aroused controversy by probing too deep into questions enmeshed in webs of sacred values and historical narratives. Orthodoxies are an inherent element of institutions and societies. Some are more benign, while others are more malignant. The classic and most infamous examples, such as the persecution of Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd under the caliphate, or the inquisition against Galileo led by the Catholic Church, are well-known.

Following World War II, the mantle of science persecution was often borne by communist regimes. These regimes rank among the worst offenders for stifling scientific research linked to human nature, this having the potential to threaten the basic axioms of Communist ideology. In the Soviet Union, an agronomist and pseudo-biologist named Trofim Lysenko was able to use his close connections with Joseph Stalin to gain the position of director at the Soviet Institute of Genetics by 1940. There was a fundamental contradiction in this appointment; Lysenko rejected theories today considered inextricable from the field of genetics such as Mendelian inheritance, instead promoting a personalized form of Lamarckian evolution today known as ‘Lysenkoism.’ Maintaining his political position and the predominance of his pseudoscientific interpretation would of course have been impossible if full academic freedoms were enjoyed by other Soviet scientists: for example, the ability to engage in open debate and experimental testing of alternative hypotheses. While these methods are far from perfect, they could have acted as a check on Lysenko’s ability to shield himself from criticism. Instead, he resolved to make any disconfirmatory research impossible, resorting to any means necessary to do so. In their recent book on the history of Soviet genetics, Lee Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut describe the results of this for contemporary botanist Nikolai Vavilov as follows:

With Stalin as his ally, [Lysenko] launched a crusade to discredit work in genetics, in part, because proof of the genetic theory of evolution would expose him as a fraud. He railed against geneticists, both in the West and in the Soviet Union, as subversives, to Stalin’s great pleasure…[Nikolai] Vavilov became suspicious of his results, and he asked a student to conduct research to see if he could replicate Lysenko’s findings. In a series of experiments… Lysenko’s claims were disproven. In retaliation… Stalin’s Central Committee forbade Vavilov from any more travels abroad and he was publicly denounced in Pravda, the government’s mouthpiece. Lysenko warned Vavilov and his student that “when such erroneous data were swept away… those who failed to understand the implications” would also be “swept away.” Vavilov was undeterred…Shortly later, in 1940… he was picked up by four men wearing dark suits and thrown into prison in Moscow. Then, the man who had collected 250,000 domesticated plant samples… and had worked to solve the puzzle of famine in his homeland was slowly starved to death over the course of three years.

The formal death sentence handed down to Soviet biologist Nikolai Vavilov in 1941 is among the most extreme cases of oppression endured by scientific researchers. Yet although the severity of Vavilov’s punishment may be exceptional, the motivations behind it are exceedingly common. Just as the Inquisition served to prop up the worldview and epistemic hegemony of the Catholic Church, so too did the egregious maltreatment of Vavilov serve the purpose of supporting Soviet ideology. In this light, these cases seem uncannily similar to the infamous arrest of John Scopes for teaching evolution in a 1920s-era American classroom, which was an enforcement of the anti-Darwinist attitudes of the Protestant south.

These cases are moments in history where inquisitive minds probed too deeply into cultural, religious, or even scientific narratives, and those narratives snapped back. Today, formal inquisitions are rarely a governmental affair, and so universities and research institutes have stepped forward to bear the torch. It was in boardrooms, not courtrooms, where the firing of former science journalist Razib Khan and the suspension of Italian physicist Alessandro Strumia was decided. It was on the university property of Middlebury College where political scientist Charles Murray was assaulted, and professor Allison Stanger beaten and hospitalized. As always, the primary motivation for the backlash is to enforce the dominant epistemic narrative, and the Carl case is no exception.

The backlash against Carl stems partly from concerns about a dark history that included forced sterilizations, lobotomies, and other measures taken with the goal of artificially improving the genetic quality of a population (often by excising its members deemed least desirable). Although many of the arguments used then would be considered pseudoscience today, even legitimate findings in genetics were wantonly abused with tragic consequences. Motivated partly by the desire to prevent the recurrence of this dark history, campus ideologues could perhaps be seen as virtuous, at least in intent. It can even be argued that even if hereditarian or Neo-Darwinist views on intelligence turn out to be correct, they must still be stifled given the risk of repeating past atrocities. The risk that events as terrible as the Holocaust might recur is simply too great, such arguments go—and they should not be considered lightly.

Yet a cessation or even a ban on the study of controversial research topics in the Western world would not mean a single whit for researchers free from our social-epistemic limitations. This is nowhere more the case than in China, where Western taboos and social attitudes are perceived as alien by an academic community which has its own intellectual priorities and limitations. Not even “population quality” is beyond the pale of government interests, as can be seen in a brief issued by the Chinese National Health Commission, which nonchalantly declares China’s advocacy of “eugenics.” Unthinkable as this would be to most of us in the West, Western definitions of the unthinkable are far from universal, just as the Soviet example shows.

Similar trends exist in the Chinese biotechnology industry, where it is not rare to see firms openly claiming to use gene-editing technologies for cosmetic human enhancement. These statements simply don’t trigger fears of racial oppression in China, perhaps because many Chinese view racism itself as more of a distant Western phenomenon.

The East-West divide in social attitudes means that Chinese researchers in fields such as genetics and intelligence encounter less opposition than their Western counterparts. This is not to suggest that research ethics in China are weak or nonexistent. The case of He Jiankui and his treatment after announcing his success in producing two healthy gene-edited babies serves as a recent example of violation and enforcement in scientific research, as soon after he was publicly censured and is currently described as missing. Yet such responses are exceedingly rare outside of the most severe violations, and punishment is always top-down. By contrast, comparably controversial scientific research in the West is frequently punished from the bottom-up, by students, colleagues, and grant-providers, who react against the accused for stepping outside the socially acceptable boundaries of research. Some are even punished for expressing opinions that inflame local orthodoxies, without committing any kind of research transgression at all. Canadian professor Jordan Peterson’s being denied grant funding for the first time in his career after speaking out against an amendment to Canadian human rights law is a clear example.

It may seem strange to claim that researchers in China, of all countries, enjoy greater access to academic freedom than those at Western institutions, where such freedom is widely considered a sacred value. Indeed, just this very year China has witnessed a veritable crackdown on such freedoms at its flagship institution. Amid a controversy over student support for labor unions protesting in the south of China, the president of Peking University was replaced by Hao Ping, himself the university’s former party secretary. This move was widely interpreted as part of a crackdown against the university’s liberal student faction, whose advocacy for Western political concepts such as universal values has been directly criticized by party leader Xi Jinping. While it is undeniable that full academic freedoms are not enjoyed by the more vocal humanities students at elite Chinese universities, this has little relevance for their counterparts in the science departments, who have virtual carte blanche to pursue their research freely.

While the Western research environment is increasingly occupied by social activism and research taboos, China is on course to compete more effectively with the West in global production of scientific knowledge. Between 2000 and 2016, the Chinese share of global scientific research publications increased to the extent that the country is now the single greatest contributor to global science by volume, accounting for just under a quarter of all scientific journal articles published. While this impact is smaller among elite journals, the Chinese are making inroads there, too; a review by Cosmos notes that Chinese contributions to top scientific journals are set to outpace those of the U.S. around 2025. With Chinese expenditure on science and tech increasing year-on-year at a level most countries can’t match, the future predominance of China in the global scientific research community seems increasingly inescapable.

The sheer speed of this advance is staggering. One example is given by The Economist’s prediction that China’s Tsinghua University may soon be the world’s first in science research. Tsinghua was 66th in the global math and computing research league table between 2006 and 2009. Today, it holds first place in the global rankings. While Tsinghua is the only Chinese institution to have made it into the top 25 places in the global university rankings for 2019, the general rankings use a methodology that belies the stunning advancements made in science alone. For instance, while 9 out of the world’s top 15 mathematics and computing universities are in Asia, none are in Europe. With Peking University having opened a campus in Oxford in 2018, it seems plausible that future generations of British youth may weigh a local Chinese university against Cambridge and Oxford when seeking the best education in their home country. Yet, there is an important caveat to China’s advancements in science research. Retraction Watch, a blog that compiles retracted papers, has found that since 2012, China has accounted for more retractions than all other countries combined, due to faked peer reviews.

While barriers to success for Chinese scientists do exist, many of these are rapidly disappearing. For instance, weak English literacy has historically forced a number of scientists to publish in Chinese, rather than English. Such papers are considerably less successful, obtaining roughly 80% fewer citations than their English-language counterparts.

Yet unlike in neighboring Japan where scientific output has been plagued by stubbornly poor English skills, the academic community in China has shown remarkable flexibility in adapting to English as a working language to the extent that it is now used exclusively in some subjects or departments. As a graduate student of Peking University, I’ve observed that although some institutes operate solely in English, its usage prevails likewise in many other departments or faculties. Anecdotally, I rely on English as the sole medium of communication with my neuroscience colleagues, even though I am the only non-Asian in my lab. While English fluency has historically been an asset to Western academics for making a global impact, the linguistic home-ground advantage is quickly fading.

Given the multitude of factors driving Chinese research prowess forward, it is  difficult to determine exactly how much China’s freer environment for scientific research contributes to recent trends. As the He Jiankui case clearly shows, it is self-evident that the West cannot keep up with a game it isn’t playing. Yet such areas of frontier genetics constitute only a small fraction of the overall research output by Chinese scientists, suggesting other factors at play. Some of these might be found within the shifting identity—and priorities—of Western universities themselves.

One example of how Western universities are being perceived as jettisoning academic output for social outcomes can be found in the recent lawsuit against Harvard University by Asian-American families for racial discrimination. During this lawsuit, advocates of the policy passionately defended Harvard on the basis of its effect on nationwide social outcomes. Although universities have historically played a consistent role in shaping both social norms and the composition of the elite, this aspect appears to now dominate their self-understanding as institutions. While the pressures of the Cold War required universities to maintain standards of research and innovation, current administrations have de-emphasized this aspect of the university’s mission. This may be the reason why the previously mentioned trends in contributions to top scientific journals not only suggest that other countries are declining relative to China, but also that the U.S. is declining much more precipitously than other competitors, as seen below:

CREDIT: Nature

Despite these challenges, Western universities remain ahead in most established global rankings. While it seems likely that Western universities will retain the top spots for the near future, we might pause to question how much their status derives from actual research output and teaching quality, rather than the reputational benefits that ‘eliteness’ brings. Ultimately, whether or not the outraged backlashes against figures like Carl are justified makes no difference to the larger picture, wherein Western college campuses are increasingly characterized by student conflicts, redlined research topics, and the elevation of external societal goals above internal academic outcomes.

Even as the university mission and purpose of yesteryear—to serve as the vanguard for humanity’s intellectual future—gives way to this new paradigm, China continues its quiet, yet inexorable growth as a juggernaut of scientific progress. Reputation may be enough to keep Western universities on top for now, but if current trends continue, they face the gloomy prospect of this reputation dropping dramatically some day. In such a reality, institutions such as Cambridge, Harvard, and MIT would cede their overall dominance on the global level as new centers of research rise in rank.

This development leads to an important secondary consideration. In a world where the most prominent universities were monopolized by members of the U.S.-led alliance, not only future generations of Western elites, but also those of developing countries were inculcated into the liberal worldview. They went on to govern, do business, and pursue research according to the norms of that order. However, the current trajectory is one where increasing segments of global decision-makers are no longer being educated into either liberal values or institutions, which has historically been a key vector for liberalism’s influence and transmission around the world.

Such trends can be seen as the academic equivalent of trends in global income. As noted by Foreign Affairs, the share of global income captured by countries which are labelled “not free” is on track to surpass that captured by Western liberal democracies. The global dominance of liberal democracy was in large part based on its dominance in the spheres of productivity and research. This allowed it to create domestic legitimacy via high living standards, finance military power, and use economic power to incentivize cooperation and implement punishment. In light of these dynamics, a world where liberal democracies have significantly reduced economic clout is one where their legitimacy and influence are likewise reduced. Competing systems—whether epistemic or political—able to provide concrete gains in these areas are most likely to strengthen legitimacy at home and project influence abroad. In many areas where political and cultural opposition to Western mores exists, not to mention historic grievances with Western powers, an alternative path of development will exercise a powerful attraction.

This opens the question as to whether current Western political structures are capable of responding to competition in a world where they no longer enjoy a monopoly over cutting-edge scientific research. Despite voices for concerted action on both right and left, it will be extremely difficult for the U.S. to pursue a coordinated agenda to counteract political conflicts within universities and out-compete Chinese recruitment of Western scientists.

In this sense, the crisis of Western universities is not merely institutional. The academy has acted both as a research center and as a training ground for rising generations of elites. The degradation of these institutions is a phenomenon which goes hand-in-hand with the decline of the liberal world order as a whole.

Wael Taji is a graduate student in behavioral economics and neuroscience at Peking University. You can follow him on Twitter @coevolutionist.