The Science of Freedom: a Conversation with Anna Krylov

Jul 29, 2022 | Opinion & Commentary

The Science of Freedom: a Conversation with Anna Krylov

Conducted and edited by Olivia Glunz

What led you to become a proponent of academic freedom?

I grew up in Soviet Russia. There, I was acutely aware of the absence of freedom of speech—that was one of the defining aspects of our reality. You could not express your opinion, you could not ask questions, many topics were taboo, and thoughtcrime was very real.

In 1991, the regime collapsed and I moved to Israel and then to America.  Living in democratic countries, I largely stopped thinking about freedom of speech. To give you an analogy, when you are healthy, you do not think about how exactly your body is functioning. You do not think about how it executes its motions—you wake up, roll out of bed, and do your chores without much thought. But if you, say, twist your knee or break your arm, then you suddenly become very aware of what needs to be done for each particular task. You suddenly understand that, in order to tie your shoes, your knee needs to bend, your wrist needs to twist, and so on—you are made acutely aware of the structure and the mechanics of your body and especially about the parts that are injured. 

Freedom of speech is similar. When it’s there, in a healthy society, you do not think much about it—you just carry on with your life. But when our essential institutions are broken and things are not working properly, as I think is happening in our country now, you become acutely aware that something’s wrong. You cannot fulfill certain functions, just as if you had a broken arm or twisted knee.

I became aware of freedom of speech and academic freedom again a couple of years ago when I started to notice alarming trends in the scientific community and in society in general. 

Academic freedom, of course, is more than just free speech. Free speech—the freedom to ask questions and to communicate one’s ideas—is a prerequisite, but academic freedom also entails the freedom to pursue research—asking certain questions about the inner workings of the world, interrogating them in the lab, and communicating the answers that emerge, regardless of whether we like them or not.

What is the current state of academic freedom in chemistry and the natural sciences?

Traditionally, the natural sciences have not been strongly affected by politics. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, research on evolution, the climate, and stem cells has been politicized, but in general the natural sciences have been blissfully far from politics… But not anymore. 

In chemistry, which is my field, research as such is generally not controlled; we do have freedom to pursue different research topics, subject to ability to secure funding. In other domains, particularly biology, things are different. For example, research relating to populations, genetics, heredity, human biology, or sexual reproduction became extremely politicized. Academic freedom in this field is very much affected by the current climate.

But even though chemistry research is not ideologically controlled, I see censorship and other forms of suppression creeping into our institutions, professional societies, and even publishing. For instance, attempts to censor language, in a truly Orwellian fashion, are rather common. There are calls to stop referring to certain physical laws and equations by the names of the people who discovered them because of the real or made-up flaws in their characters. Some even want to replace certain technical terms. For example, the central concept in the field of quantum computing is “quantum supremacy”. This technical term simply means that the technology, once it is fully developed, will be superior to the existing computing technology. But some people dislike the English word “supremacy”, because the same word is used in the expression “white supremacy”. They argue that the term should be changed to “quantum advantage” or something equally silly. Professional societies and universities are issuing language guides with long lists of forbidden words. So there are a lot of small instances of censorship that you can laugh at since at the first glance they don’t seem to seriously affect science. But the danger is, once you start introducing this ideological censorship into your profession, it spreads. Today, they rewrite our technical language, tomorrow they remove the names from equations, and the day after that they will stop teaching the actual physics contained in these equations. If you think this is unlikely, recall that in Soviet Russia entire scientific disciplines were forbidden for ideological reasons. So I think it’s a very dangerous trend, and we need to resist it.

There’s another worrisome trend in chemistry today. While we are free, more or less, to carry out research, we are not free to talk about how we carry out our research and education. What do I mean by that? We are not entirely free to discuss practical aspects of the scientific enterprise. For example, how do we execute the publishing and peer review process? How do we fund research? How do we hire students and faculty? These are very important practical questions, and they are currently very difficult to discuss. If you start challenging some of the current practices that involve social engineering—which are, in my opinion, in conflict with the merit-based approach for carrying out science—you can easily get yourself in trouble—as did Dorian Abbot, a geophysics professor at the University of Chicago. His research is not controversial—he studies climate and the possibility of life on other planets. But Dorian spoke out against the current social engineering based practices in hiring. By simply sharing his thoughts on these issues, he found himself in the center of “controversy”. There were petitions by students and postdocs calling him violent and dangerous and demanding to remove him from teaching. The University of Chicago resisted these calls, but when Dorian was invited to give a lecture on his research at MIT, a Twitter mob successfully pressured MIT to disinvite him. 

Just think about the implications of this case—you invite a scientist to discuss his research about life on other planets and the climate, but you cancel his appearance not because of some flaws or controversy in his research but because of his opinions on topics that are not related to his work. This trend is clearly detrimental to science. Imagine a scientist who is about to discover a cure for cancer or a solution to the energy problem. However, because this scientist has some opinions or behaviors that we do not approve of on moral or political grounds, we refuse to listen to his lectures and read his papers, and we ban his research. This is highly dangerous for science… and unfortunately this is happening now.

 

What is the purpose of a university education? 

I’m a quantum chemist, and a big fan of Niels Bohr, a founder of my field, a Nobel Prize winner, and a brilliant thinker. Once, in an argument with a colleague, Bohr exclaimed, “No, no, you’re not thinking; you’re just being logical.” It sounds funny, but this is really a profound statement. It articulates the difference between mechanical reasoning or just enumerating the facts—and an insight revealing the big picture behind them. 

The important part of a college education is learning how to think. This of course requires domain knowledge as a prerequisite, which college also provides. But domain knowledge—such as laws and facts of chemistry—is just one ingredient. What you cannot learn by just memorizing facts is how to connect the dots and to assess information critically—that’s what you acquire through a college education when it’s done properly—when students are encouraged to think and the instruction goes beyond mechanical digestion of facts. 

To give an example of why this is important, let me tell you a simple story—the story of DHMO. Imagine yourself walking down the street and seeing a group of activists with flyers and signs. They explain that they are collecting signatures to ban a certain substance called DHMO. You say, “Okay, so what is so dangerous about DHMO? Why do we need to ban it?” 

They reply, “This substance can cause suffocation if inhaled. It can cause severe burns. It contributes to the erosion of natural landscapes. It contributes to the greenhouse effect and is a major component of acid rain. It is found in tumors of terminal cancer patients. It causes accelerated corrosion and may cause electrical failures and decrease the effectiveness of automobile brakes.” 

You agree that DHMO sounds terrible. “So where is it used?”

They say, “It’s everywhere. It’s used in industries as a solvent and coolant, in nuclear power plants, in the production of styrofoam, as a fire retardant, in many forms of cruel animal research, in abortion clinics, in junk foods, as a performance-enhancing substance by elite athletes…” and so on. 

Finally, they ask, “Do you support the ban? Will you sign our petition?” 

It turns out that close to 100% of people who are approached with this question say “yes”. And every few years we hear of a politician who is championing an anti-DHMO bill in some legislature. 

What is this DHMO? DHMO stands for dihydrogen monoxide, H2O, water. 

What is the moral of the story? Every fact I stated about DHMO is 100% true. So where was the critical flaw in the decision-making? We failed to connect the dots, to critically assess causes and effects. The facts are correct, but we interpreted them wrongly. A good college education is supposed to teach you how to connect the dots and not fall victim to this sort of thing.

 

Is there a distinction between truth and knowledge?

Truth refers to objective reality; it’s there whether we know it or not. For example, the planets were moving according to Newton’s Laws way before humans existed and way before Newton was around to figure it out. In the same way, atoms and electrons moved according to the Schrödinger equation and laws of quantum mechanics before this knowledge was acquired through scientific research. 

We acquire knowledge for the purpose of learning the truth and understanding how the universe operates. Our current state of understanding is built from the knowledge we have. We call this provisional truth, meaning that we have a good understanding of how things operate, consistent with our current knowledge, but this understanding is open for refinement. So provisional truth is something which is not rigid and set; it is open for critique and refinement.

 

What are some practical steps for promoting academic freedom on campus?

I like this attitude: we should stop complaining and start doing! 

I would organize my suggestions into two categories: one is individual responsibilities, and the second is what we should do as communities. 

As individuals, we need to learn how to speak up. Solzhenitsyn, a famous Soviet dissident who wrote The Gulag Archipelago and received the Nobel Prize in Literature, once said, “The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the world.” We often fail to do this. Many people are willing to take part in the lie. They remain silent and complicit; they do not speak up.

Where do we start? I have a very simple suggestion for everyone: If you witness a lie—call it out; do not stay silent. If you see that the King is naked—say “The King is naked”. 

That said, I do understand that speaking up is not easy. There could be consequences, and there often are consequences—recall Dorian Abbot’s case. But while no one wants to be a martyr for free speech, we should learn from history that we cannot just hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.

After WWII, Martin Niemöller famously said, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” We cannot just wait; we need to speak out as individuals, even if that entails danger.

This brings me to what we can do as communities. We do not need to act as isolated agents. It’s easier to take down a single person than a group—there is strength in numbers. That is why I am really delighted to see organizations like the AFA and FIRE taking the lead in providing support and protections for the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom. These organizations make a real difference by defending individuals who would otherwise be standing all alone against a powerful university or a professional organization “machine” that wants to fire or “disappear” them for their unpopular views. The AFA and FIRE provide counterweight to administrators who forget what their role is supposed to be and become complicit with the mob justice of cancel culture promulgated by small groups of extremists.

 

You recently published several articles about threats to academic freedom in the natural sciences. What motivated you to do this, and how did you find the courage to speak your mind?

Today we simply cannot get away from this issue. You open your email, and you get your daily serving of Orwellian news: names are removed from buildings and equations, inclusive language guides ban words and phrases like “normal,” “blacklist”, “motherboard”, “master password,” “straw man”, and “long time, no see”… Every day, there is something new. 

The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back came when, in my role as an editor of a chemistry journal, I received a report on a technical, non-controversial paper. The report was mostly routine, but it finished with a suggestion for the authors to rewrite some sentences that referred to the limit on efficiency of solar cells, which is called the Shockley-Queisser limit after the two scientists who derived it. The report noted that the term was technically correct but politically inappropriate; the authors then referred to a paper which argued that we should remove the names of these and many other scientists because of various flaws in their character. This reminded me of the never-ending rewriting of history we experienced in the USSR. It was then that I realized that free speech and academic freedom are threatened in my own field, chemistry. And I just couldn’t take it anymore; I could not stay silent, and I wrote The Peril of Politicizing Science

Friends told me, “Anna, don’t do it; you will never hear the end of it, and you’ll get yourself in trouble.” Nonetheless, I went through with publishing my first non-scientific paper. I was prepared for the worst. The actual experience, however, was quite encouraging. There were some pretty ugly attacks on Twitter—people called me names and claimed I held all kinds of horrible opinions that had nothing to do with what I expressed in my paper—but then there was a lot of positive feedback. I received about 400 emails, of which only one was negative. These reactions showed that the majority of people share my sentiment; I wrote about it in a follow-up paper in Quillette

What disturbs me is how many people said that it was courageous for me to publish The Peril. Why is simply expressing an opinion considered to be courageous nowadays? Inviting people to be more thoughtful about history and putting things into the context of the times people lived—why is this such a controversial idea? Why do we need courage to talk about this? It makes me very sad that we have created an environment in which such conversations require courage. 

 

How do you encourage your students to be open-minded and appreciate diversity of thought?

The culture in my field is such that deep scientific disagreements and mutual critique between actors are expected. I always welcome when my students disagree with me. I want them to poke holes in my arguments. Over the years, I’ve had many bright students who had strong opinions that did not always coincide with mine. A great part of doing research is discussing ideas and opinions that challenge both sides; trying to find flaws in each other’s arguments is the way to find the best solutions. I am teaching my students to appreciate such debates by example. I want my students to see how science is done, to hear, initiate, and participate in these discussions. This experience teaches them that debate is an integral part of the scientific process.  I also explain to my students that no one individual has the final say. There might be some prominent person in the field whose opinion is highly respected; nonetheless, it can be challenged. If you want to challenge it, of course, it’s your responsibility to set forth a strong argument and stick to the facts. 

Aside from narrowly technical and scientific situations, I don’t purposely bring up free expression and academic freedom in class. For example, I didn’t organize a discussion in my lab after I published my papers on academic freedom. But a number of students came to me after reading my papers and asked to discuss the subject with me. Following these conversations, I was also invited to talk to some student groups, which was a delightful experience. Ultimately, I think the invitation to talk should be coming from students—as a science professor, I leave this first step up to them.

Leaving politics out of science is important. In Soviet Russia, everything was rigidly ideological. You couldn’t talk about anything aside from a very narrow framework of ideas and opinions. When I moved to Israel and then to the US, it was mind-blowing to see people from very diverse backgrounds with broadly different cultural, religious, or political views working together and pursuing common goals. When I was a postdoc, people in my lab came from all over the US and the world; we would discuss controversial issues over beers, disagree passionately, and even yell at each other. But then we would all come to the lab and work together. Our political disagreements didn’t affect our behavior in the lab.

This culture of professionalism was embedded in American universities and in industry. We came from all over with strongly different opinions on many issues, but when we worked on chemistry, we worked on chemistry. Leaving our politics and religion outside the lab, we could move mountains. Today, however, this professionalism is compromised. Personal opinions are brought into professional spaces, damaging our ability to work together. In his Atlantic piece, Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of the tower of Babel. If we allow political disagreements and opinions to interfere with our professional lives and prevent us from working together, we are severely weakened.

 

Why do you think the AFA is important, and what would you like to see the AFA doing in the future?

The AFA is important because it provides a counterweight to mob justice and cancel culture. It helps to push back against administrators who forget their roles and their institutions’ policies and seek to please the mob by throwing dissident professors under the bus. Looking through the AFA website, you can see the many incidents in which the AFA sent letters to administrators and managed to stop persecution of professors who were disciplined, investigated, or harassed for their speech.

Beyond the letters, the AFA provides legal support, which is critically important. It may be very difficult for an individual to defend himself or herself against the big university machine. By providing legal support, the AFA not only helps individuals who have spoken up in the past but also encourages and inspires others to be more outspoken in the future. The AFA has the potential to strengthen the state of academic freedom and freedom of speech in the US. 

In the future, I would love to see the AFA expand its educational efforts. Educating people about basic civics, especially people in my community, is very important. While someone who has studied law might understand very well what free speech and academic freedom do and don’t mean, chemists typically don’t know these things—for a long time, we didn’t need to. But now we do. Simple, clear resources for people like me would provide guidance on how to think about academic freedom and how it applies to our everyday practice. I believe the AFA can and will do more in this direction.


A previous version of this interview incorrectly stated that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It has been updated to reflect that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

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