So Many Missives of Appalling Idiocy and Envy Embarrassing to Behold
So many messages of the type alluded to by the title of this article crossed my desk in the last fortnight that I found myself in the rare position of having too much content to easily record and communicate with pen and paper—a writer’s dream, if that content did not also simultaneously indicate both the tolling of the proverbial bell, and the fact that I am one of those for whom the death knell sounds.
I have observed the colleges and universities of the Western world devour themselves in a myriad of fatal errors over the last two decades, and take little pleasure in seeing what I knew was inevitably coming manifest itself in an increasingly comprehensive manner. It is of course a self-destructive and unfortunate tendency of human reason, with all its limitations—as well as ego, with all its pretensions—to wish or otherwise agree to serve as Cassandra, and to derive a certain satisfaction in watching the ship whose demise was foretold breach its hull on rocks hidden from all other observers. The self-righteous pleasure of “I told you so,” is, however, of little comfort when the icy water wends its way around ankle, knee and thigh, threatening to swamp everything still retaining its incalculable and unlikely value, even if it simultaneously makes short shrift of the ignorance and willful blindness that is frequently part and parcel of the death of something once great.
It is also necessary to note that the catastrophic failures of process and aim which I am about to relate were by no means hidden from the public view by the persons and institutions in question. They were instead positively trumpeted to all by multiple attempts to harness the powers of social media and announced, more traditionally, in press releases designed to indicate the success of some great and laudable moral striving. It is nothing less than a dire day when the proud revelation of vices of deadly and multifarious seriousness serve to substitute for announcements of genuine and valuable achievement, but that is where we are at—make no mistake about it.
The first story emerges at Brock University, in combination with the scientific journal Angewandte Chemie—the former an educational institution of moderate reputability; the latter a prestigious place of scientific publication among chemists. It is no easy matter to find a permanent tenured faculty position at such a university, or to publish research findings or literature reviews/summaries in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The process generally requires several years and multiple resubmissions and rounds of editing by a minimum of three colleagues per submission with expertise in the field as well as approval by the editor. Angewandte has a rejection rate of 80%—and it should be noted that that rejection rate only takes into account papers that the submitting researcher felt were of sufficient quality to be considered by a journal of high standards. Dr. Tomas Hudlicky of Brock submitted an essay memorializing and updating a piece written thirty years ago, which has been widely recognized as powerfully influencing the direction of the chemistry subfield in question (organic synthesis).
Now, the first thing that must be understood about Dr. Hudlicky is that he holds a prestigious Canada Research Chair, a position funded by part of a large federal initiative devoting approximately 300 million dollars per year in the attempt to attract to Canada (or to encourage to stay in Canada) researchers who are of particular promise, as evidenced most fundamentally by their research productivity. That promise or productivity, in turn, can be measured with reasonable accuracy with metrics such as number of peer-reviewed articles in relevant scientific journals (more than 400 in Hudlicky’s case), by noting how many times such articles are cited by other authors over the years subsequent to publication (Hudlicky: 13300) and, finally, by a metric known as the h-index, which provides a measure of how many publications have received a variable minimum number of citations (and which therefore combines in a single number some information about publications per se and some about citations). A researcher with an h-index of 10 has published 10 papers with 10 or more citations; a researcher with an h-index of 57 (Hudlicky’s score) has published 57 papers with 57 or more citations. Hudlicky’s research productivity is admirable and rare. The mere fact that he was hired as a Canada Research Chair meant that his department, as well as the federal governmental agency tasked with funding the attraction or retention of extreme talent, both determined in the relatively recent past that he was a fish well worth landing. Something about this needs to be clarified: the universities that hire those researchers competent enough to be competitive in a Canada Research Chair competition are not doing them a favor by offering them a position; rather, it is an honor for the university (and the students, both undergraduate and graduate, that attend the institution) to be chosen by the researcher in question. No serious academic disputes this, although some may quibble about the precise metrics used for identification of the serious talent. This is particularly true of an institution such as Brock, which is an university of reasonable but not exceptional quality, and which genuinely needs highly productive faculty members to help it ratchet itself up the very competitive academic ladder.
Hudlicky’s paper in Angewandte Chemie was peer-reviewed positively, judged as desirable by the relevant editorial staff, and published. This meant that it managed the difficult job of passing through the eye of a needle, and entering the kingdom of heaven, at least as far as research chemists might be concerned. But some of Dr. Hudlicky’s surmises with regard to the discipline of organic synthesis raised the ire of a Twitter mob (https://twitter.com/fxcoudert/status/1268920299833233416?s=20). This is not a difficult feat, in my opinion, as Twitter seems to exist primarily for the purpose of generating mobs—composed primarily of individuals who are hungry for the opportunity to taste blood and bask in the joys of reasonably risk-free reputation destruction, revenge and self-righteousness. Furthermore, as far as Twitter mobs go, those who complained about the Angewandte Chemie publication were not particularly numerous. No matter: once the complaints emerged, the editor of the journal in charge of Dr. Hudlicky’s work—one Dr. Neville Compton—removed the paper from the journal’s website, and offered an abject apology for daring to have published it in the first place. Furthermore, he reported the “suspension” of two of the journal’s editors (indicating precisely how much trust those individuals should have placed initially in his judgement) and cast aspersions on Hudlicky’s ethics, stating that his essay did not properly reflect fairness, trustworthiness and social awareness, while implying that the now-pilloried author and his peer reviewers and editors were discriminatory, unjust and inequitable in practice. It should be noted, by the way, that the position of editor for a scientific journal is general one filled by volunteers, who donate their time for the greater good of the scientific enterprise, rather than for any monetary gain. So Compton fired generous volunteers to ensure that his good name would not be irredeemably sullied by any association with the now-demonized professor Hudlicky and his ne’er-do-well compatriots (none of whom likely knew each other except in passing).
What was Hudlicky’s sin? His 12-page document (approximating 4000 words) dealt with issues he believed were affecting organic synthesis research and communication, and covered topics such as the range of research options available, integrity and trustworthiness of the relevant literature, transference of skills from mentor to trainee, impact of information technology, the corporatization of the university environment, the effect of new technology, the diversity of the available work force, and the competition for resources among researchers—all topics that people of putative good will and competence (such as the author and his reviewers and editors) could agree had a demonstrable effect on the quality of research currently conducted. However, Hudlicky voiced a smattering of opinions that were deemed unacceptable by a small number of people who both read his submission and were somewhat active on Twitter. Here are the sentences constituting his sins, which fall into two of the categories Hudlicky identified as relevant for analysis of research productivity. I have paraphrased them very slightly for length:
Under Diversity of Workforce: “In the last two decades many groups have been designated with “preferential status” (despite substantive increases in the recruitment of women and minorities). Preferential treatment of one group leads inexorably to disadvantages for another. Each candidate should have an equal opportunity to secure a position, regardless of personal identification/ categorization. Hiring practices that aim at equality of outcome is counter-productive if it results in discrimination against the most meritorious candidates. Such practice has also led to the emergence of mandatory “training workshops” on gender equity, inclusion, diversity, and discrimination.”
So those apparently objectional words constitute 90 of 4000—a small proportion of the total content of the essay, and the proffering of an opinion that insists “if”: not that diversity, inclusivity and equality provisions necessarily produce prejudicial hiring practices (although the research evidence suggests that they clearly do) then they may have a detrimental effect on research productivity. It is also important to note that these opinions paraphrase very closely a decision reached and publicized by a German court in 2007, at least according to a supporter of Hudlicky who dared express an opinion supporting his colleague.
The Twitter mob trolls who objected to this opinion reacted as if what Dr. Hudlicky said was that efforts to “diversify” hiring and student selection were definitively harmful, while what he truly did was only raise the possibilities that such actions could become counterproductive if they resulted in the exclusion of qualified candidates. No one can object to this opinion, reasonably—unless they assume, as did Hudlicky’s critics, that all claims to objectivity in hiring and selection are inextricably bound up with the systemic prejudice hypothetically characterizing all hierarchies of specialization.
Under Transference of Skills: “The training and mentoring of new generations of professionals must be attended to by proper relationships of “masters and apprentices” without dilution of standards. Hudlicky described two conditions under which the successful transfer of skills can occur: first, if the skill is not transferred within three generations, it is lost forever, and second, there must be “an unconditional submission of the apprentice to his/her master.” This applies not only in the sciences but also in art, music, and martial arts…. Submission to one’s mentor is rarely attainable today. Many students are unwilling to submit to any level of hard work demanded by professors. The university does not support professors in this endeavor as it views students as financial assets and hence protects them from any undue hardships that may be demanded by the “masters.” This situation, coupled with the fact that professors have less and less time to mentor students in the laboratory, cannot provide for a productive transfer of skills, especially the maintenance of standards and integrity of research.”
This is an additional 170 words/4000, and paraphrases an opinion most famously put forward by Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian-English polymath of genius level, who made contributions to chemistry, philosophy and economics, and who delineated the importance of “tacit knowledge” (that is, knowledge that was acted out but not necessarily articulated) in the transmission of specialized technical ability across the generations. Hudlicky was therefore criticized and pilloried by individuals on Twitter who appeared to know nothing of M. Polanyi’s work on tacit knowledge (for whom such ignorance was perhaps justifiable) but also by the editor of Angewandte, for whom such ignorance (voluntary or otherwise) was most certainly not. Acquisition of this knowledge required precisely the unfreedom recommended by Hudlicky—followed, of course (with the acquisition of the aptly named Master’s degree) by autonomy in thought and action that was increased beyond what it would have been capable of achieving without the devoted apprenticeship in question. Such a process can only be undertaken by a pupil capable of regarding his or her teacher as a true mentor, and by a mentor bent on producing a pupil more capable than him or herself, after an intensive period of training. None of that, according to Hudlicky (and this is not obviously an unreasonable hypothesis in this day of age) is possible in the university as it is currently constituted, even in the departments that still teach hard sciences. Not only is it not possible, he implies, but it is no longer posited even as an acceptable possibility. In a properly functioning institute of training, however, it might be argued that disciplined and contractually-mediated temporary subjugation to higher authority is eminently desirable, despite the limited sacrifice of casual autonomy that might require, if the person or persons to whom the subjugation is made are true experts. It is the willingness to undertake this apprenticeship, as well as the capability of superseding it, that makes up the master in “Master’s degree”—a designation that I notice Brock still grants, despite potentially colonial overtones at least as damning as those that characterized Hudlicky’s writing (if we are going to go down that absurd route).
That id the sum total of Hudlicky’s academic crimes. For such behavior, he has had his published work forcibly retracted and his reputation made an ethically-justifiable target for ill-informed Twitter bullies (who were themselves rather few in number, as well as ignorant beyond all acceptability, in the technical sense) as well as his “colleagues” at the journal. He was also transformed into a whipping boy by administrators at Brock—most particularly by one Dr. Greg Finn, Provost and VP Academic, who saw nothing wrong with stabbing one of his university’s most esteemed scientists in the back at the first sign of trouble. Dr. Finn wrote a painfully cringing apologetic “open letter to the public,” claiming, of course, that Hudlicky’s opinions, if in the least controversial, were in no possible manner representative of Brock University as a whole, and essentially hanging that institution’s hypothetically valued top chemist out to dry.
I searched for Dr. Finn’s research record on Google Scholar, by the way—and on his own website—and found nothing whatsoever indicating his ability as a researcher. Thus, it is now currently obvious that he has developed the rather commonplace skill of reputation demolition when it comes to his much higher-achieving colleagues (protected as he is, at least temporarily, by his administrative position) but of no significance whatsoever when it comes to actually generating knowledge valued by others. He is also a master of crafting sentences such as the following, part of his “apology”: “The article… contains descriptions of the graduate supervisor-graduate student relationship that connote disrespect and subservience. These statements could be alarming to students and others who have the reasonable expectation of respectful and supportive mentorship…. [The statements in this paper] do not reflect the principles of inclusivity, diversity and equity included in the University’s mission, vision and values as approved by our Senate and Board of Trustees.” Only an individual accustomed to dining on very thin gruel or simply spoiled meat would find any nourishment in statements with such content and of that quality.
An admirable university, secure in its worth, would have determined very quickly that one Dr. Hudlicky was, conservatively, worth a hundred Dr. Finn’s, and acted accordingly. But research prowess is no longer as important as willingness to mouth the appalling commonplaces of political correctness in the hallowed corridors of academe. And what that essentially means is that resentful and underqualified pretenders to the role of useful intellectual can now exercise the upper hand in apparent scientific worthiness, so far as it has been reduced to a simple political power game. And the list of consequences for Dr. Hudlicky I have outlined so far does not by any means exhaust the description of his punishment. He is (was (?)) apparently a scientist of sufficient merit, as his Canada Research Chair should have clearly and decisively indicated, to have had an entire upcoming issue of Angewandte Chemie devoted to a retrospective of his work, complete with invited commentary—and now the existence of that publication has become highly doubtful (despite the fact that the board of Angewandte is by no means characterized by the racial/gender/sex diversity they so highly value, theoretically, and that there is also little or perhaps even no doubt of Hudlicky’s competence as a researcher).
Three other events worth of note that came to my attention over the last two weeks, when I have been communicating with academics concerned with this sequence of happenings, drive these points home. A highly cited professor of physics, who I cannot name, at a university I cannot name either (suffice it to say that the former has garnered 100+ publications and 7000+ citations in a highly technical field) had his standard Canadian Federal grant application rejected because (or so the reviewers claimed) he had not sufficiently detailed his plans to ensure diversity, inclusivity and equity (DIE) practices while conducting his scientific inquiry. It is now standard practice for university hiring boards to insist that their faculty job applicants submit a DIE plan with their curriculum vitae—a terribly dangerous occurrence of its own. I believe that the fundamental reason such plans are required, particularly of those who practice in the so-called “hard” STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is so that those who could not hope to assess the quality of research endeavours in those specialties as a consequence of their own ability or prowess, can be made into judges by enforcing the adoption of standards of attitude and behavior that have nothing to do with the fields in question. I am no arithmetical genius, for example, myself. It is almost certain that a Master’s degree, to say nothing of a Ph.D. or professorship in mathematics, would have been beyond me, even in my younger years, when such talent is most likely to manifest itself. I would never dream of attempting to review a grant application in a specialized subfield of chemistry, engineering or physics—even of biology, which is nearer my bailiwick. But if it became possible to adopt the position of judge because of my colleagues’ attitude toward student selection and staffing, then—presto! Those who are applying for such funding are no longer painfully more intelligent than me. They are merely and reprehensibly in error in their basic political opinions. There is nothing but victory in that for me, in precise proportion to my degree of resentment for my unfortunate and rather incurable stupidity.
Consider, in addition, the current landing page for the Department of Physics at McGill University. It is difficult to provide a purely objective analysis of the significance of the different elements of this page, at least concerning their relative size or prominence (and, therefore, their implicit importance), because there is wide variation in resolution of the various screens that users may employ to access it. Suffice it to say, however, that at a resolution of 2048 by 1536, which is higher than average (and therefore allows more of the available visual content to be presented to the viewer simultaneously) the second-most visually evident active link is the “McGill Physics Community Statement Against Racism”—and, if this is not sufficient proof of the upstanding moral quality of that “community” there is also an active link to an “Equity Diversity and Inclusion” page in the center of the main menu bar of the page.
It does not seem merely picayune to note (1) that the proper role of such a page is to convey information pertaining to physics to those who might be applying to that department at McGill and not about the political or sociological attitudes of its faculty, administrators and students. It is also perhaps not out of place (2) to voice a certain skepticism with regard to the timing of this oh-so-very-properly-moral statement and note that if it required the unfortunate death of one George Floyd to motivate its appearance it is either inexcusably opportunistic or a classic case of closing the barn door once the cattle had already made their disappearance. To make it even clearer, if that is necessary: if the McGill physics community is so unrepentantly racist that it required someone’s death to draw its existence to the surface, a mere banner statement is by no means sufficient atonement. If it is not racist to that notable extreme, then mere humility might have led to the conclusion that now was not the appropriate time to trumpet the assumption of moral superiority necessary to formulate the anti-racist and pro-diversity claims that are being made, front and center, regardless of the fact that this page exists to provide information about physics and not sociology at the august institution of McGill University.
I would also like to point out, just for the sake of completeness, that the two rather egregious moral errors in page construction do not constitute the entire universe of deception characterizing the page. It is apparent that the McGill Physics Department has decided that live classes of the classic sort are unlikely to take place in the fall of 2020 and is now offering its students (who are certainly being regarded as far stupider than most of the physics majors I have met) the opportunity to “implement modern, evidence-based teaching techniques & technologies” and the “unprecedented chance for students to shape their own education, and how science is taught at McGill.” Clearly, what might appear to the uneducated observer as somewhat of a catastrophe for new undergraduate attendees at McGill (that is, the impossibility of attending live university classes) is actually—as those in the know clearly realize—a new and special opportunity for them to be educated in an even finer manner than those who were unfortunate enough to embark upon their education before the blessing of the COVID-19 virus. I mention this only to point out that virtually nothing presented as content on this departmental page, political or not, has escaped the spirit of deception that is arguably its central and most appalling feature, whether it is political (as in the case of objection 1 and 2) and designed to signal a particular brand of ideological morality, or a consequence of third-rate marketing tactics (objection 3), which are more simply characterized as lies.
And, in case you are not convinced by the stories I just told, which do lack somewhat for detail, because of the current necessity for confidentiality, consider this: a group of three professors at Concordia were awarded a New Frontiers in Research Grant (announced in late 2019) aimed at “engaging Indigenous understanding and involving Indigenous communities in the co-creation of knowledge, the project aims to decolonize contemporary physics research and attract Indigenous students.” The head researcher, one Dr. Tanja Tajmel, “questioned the colonial assumptions made in the way Western science evaluates light and what it considers knowledge.” Dr. Louellyn White, associate professor in First Peoples Studies, added that “Indigenous ways of knowing have been suppressed and marginalized throughout academic history and we are finally gaining momentum in elevating Indigenous knowledges as equally valid to Western science… If we, as an institution, do not embody the Territorial Acknowledgement by recognizing and affirming the expertise of our Elders as Knowledge Keepers, the acknowledgement becomes nothing but empty platitudes.” Dr. Ingo Salzmann, the last of the three principal investigators to whom the funds were awarded, says, ““The culture of physics certainly changes with diverse people involved,” he argues. “Therefore, decolonizing science involves challenging the underlying hierarchies.”
The refusal of the research grant application specifically requesting funding for what must now apparently be regarded as “colonialized (or colonized (?) physics” and the success of the application that had the magical mention of “indigenous knowledge” should alert those who know of both and who are attending to the increasing politicization of the university that the STEM fields comprise the next frontier for the politically correct. Qualified and expert researchers in such fields are already in great danger of being pushed aside by politically correct activists who will happily and self-righteously displace them by merely refusing to admit to the existence of anything approximating an objective truth against which claims to competence might be assessed. The rest of us will pay in the longer run, when we no longer have the will or the capacity to make use of the rare talents that make people highly competent and productive as scientists, technological innovators, engineers or mathematicians.
We might also note that the politically-correct micro-tyrants beating the drum for diversity, inclusivity and equity are pursuing two goals which exist in logical contradiction to one another. Those who occupy a field like physics can only be racists if the fundamental claims to transcendental or ontological truth of that discipline are accepted: if physics describes the world, in a manner that is objectively true, then it is possible for whatever group that currently holds positions of power in that discipline to be prejudiced, perhaps by sex or race, and exclude qualified individuals who differ unacceptably along those dimensions to suffer unfair exclusion. But to make this case requires acceptance of the idea of the universality of the truth being pursued. Alternatively, there are multiple valuable forms of physics, shall we say, indicating that multicultural approaches are required—but the absence of those multiple forms are not so much racist as opportunistic or even merely isolated from the larger world (as each individual group can only be expected to pursue its values in an environment where there is no objective truth, but only group values). Which is it? The answer is quite simple: either, or both—depending on where the largest degree of guilt can be attributed. Convenient as this might be, it is not a good long-term solution to the problem: the internal contradictions inherent in such claims will results in within-group deterioration of solidarity in very short order. If classic physics is nothing but Eurocentric power-maneuvering, who cares if non-Caucasians are excluded? They are perfectly free to pursue their own power-centered physics. If there is an objective reality to that physics, then it is possible, at least in principle, to use objective tests of competence to rank-order candidates, and the problem of potential discrimination vanishes, at least to the degree that is possible.
I have suspected for years that the STEM fields posed the most dangerous threat possible to the unopposed dominance of politically correct sociological idiocy over the entirety of the university environment, basing their claim to validity on recognition of something approximating a universally accessible objective reality. That claim is too powerful to go unchallenged in today’s climate of moral self-flagellating among those, particularly common in the ranks of university administrators, who want all the advantages of the power high-ranking hierarchical positions provide, but none of the hypothetical moral baggage that are part and parcel of the prejudicial and patriarchal structure that gave rise to those positions. The proper solution? Continual apology for the sins of others who occupy equivalent or superior positions, conjoined with a willingness to damage the reputation of those miscreants, and to force them into an apologetic stance—or even to apologize for their own unearned privilege, as long as that does not result in any true sacrifice of power, income or authority. This is particular evident, in the stories I have related, in the case of the Brock University Provost.
The George Floyd incident has emboldened those who are shamelessly using crooked faux-moral means to stake a moral claim in the so-called patriarchal structure that makes up the academic world. They are certainly able and willing to use the unfortunate death of an individual who had enough of the attributes of a systemically oppressed person to serve as poster boy for the self-serving political claims that are now being made on his behalf. This tendency, unchecked, poses a direct danger to the integrity of precisely those STEM fields that have so far remained essentially immune to the embarrassments and blandishments of the politically correct movement. But, make no mistake about it, scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians: your famous immunity to political concerns will not protect you against what is coming fast over the next five or so years: wake up, pay attention, or perish, along with your legacy. Whatever you might offer the broader culture in terms of general value will be swept aside with little caution by those who regard the very axioms of your field as intolerable truly because of the difficulty in comprehending them and considered publicly as unacceptably exclusionary, unitary and unconcerned with sociological “realities.”
 Williams, W. & Ceci, W.J. (2015). National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 112, 5360-5365.