by Jon Sanders
Director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life, Research Editor | John Locke Foundation
The Fall 2022 issue of Regulation, published by the Cato Institute, includes a piece from George Leef of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. It’s a review of Duke University emeritus professor of psychology and biology John Staddon’s new book, Science in an Age of Unreason.
Leef’s introduction stated the issue starkly (emphasis added):
Science depends on a liberal environment where the freedom to experiment, research, and debate the meaning of results is protected. This requires that government, church, and educational institutions refrain from interfering in the process of science. That has largely been the case for the last several centuries, but Duke University psychology and neurobiology professor John Staddon worries in his new book Science in an Age of Unreason that the United States is retreating from the liberalism that catalyzed so much scientific progress. Powerful forces that dislike the neutrality and objectivity of science threaten to take us back to earlier times when it was more important to enshrine certain beliefs than to allow free‐wheeling research and discussion.
Leef discussed Staddon’s worry about the politicization of science putting certain topics “off limits” out of fear of upsetting “politically important groups.” Dispassionate analysis that was once the hallmark of science has yielded to the passions du jour of inflamed academe.
Staddon wrote (emphasis in original):
Weak science lets slip the dogs of unreason: many social scientists have difficulty separating facts from faith, reality from the way they would like things to be. Critical research topics have become taboo, which, in turn, means that policy makers are making decisions based more on ideologically driven political pressure than on scientific fact.
We are entering our own period of Lysenkoism, in which those who espouse politically correct narratives get ahead while those who challenge them are ignored or censored.
In addition, Staddon highlighted several other problems crippling science: the publish-or-perish mentality; government incentives; career-driven, pat research rather than vital research; the promotion of “diversity” by trying to generate (unscientifically based) population ratios of scientists in various fields according to race, gender, sexual preference, etc.; scholars taught to seek out, not answers, but soothing when encountering difficult or challenging facts; and academic disciplines spun out of conjecture rather than verifiable facts.
Leef highlighted a very concerning chapter:
In a particularly memorable chapter, Staddon argues that we are entering a new era of Lysenkoism. Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet agronomist and biologist during the Stalin era. He was a poor scientist, yet he became director of the Institute of Genetics within the USSR’s Academy of Sciences—not because of any scientific achievements, but because he was from a proletarian background. (The Soviets had their own version of affirmative action.) His views on genetics and agriculture became the party line and scientists who challenged them were subject to punishment. The problem was that Lysenko was completely wrong and governmental policies based on his notions proved to be disastrous.
We are entering our own period of Lysenkoism, Staddon fears. Those who espouse politically correct narratives get ahead while those who challenge them are ignored or censored.
The “age of unreason” is spreading to more and more areas of life. One topic that Staddon briefly alludes to at the book’s end is medicine, where—as we’ve witnessed during the COVID frenzy—freedom of speech and action by medical professionals has eroded in the face of official demands to conform to “accepted” views. Under today’s conditions, the realm of science will steadily shrink, to the long‐run detriment of everyone.
Interested readers can hear Prof. Staddon discuss the topic of “Science in an Age of Unreason” in this program by the National Association of Scholars.