Wednesday, August 3, 2022


Recall that in Soviet Russia entire scientific disciplines were forbidden for ideological reasons.

Academic Freedom Alliance

July 9, 2022

…..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.

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.

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