A Short Comment on the Angewandte Essay Affair


There are two documents on my desk: an official statement of the journal Angewandte Chemie stating that a recent paper by Professor Hudlický has been withdrawn from publication as “[t]he opinions expressed in this essay do not reflect our values of fairness, trustworthiness and social awareness.” This statement emphasizes that “diversity of opinion and thoughts can spur change and debate,” yet still, “this essay had no place in our journal.”

The other document is Tomáš Hudlický’s “Statement on the Angewandte Essay Affair” published recently on dzurnal.cz. Professor Hudlický admits that “the essay could have provided more context regarding some of the misinterpreted statements.” Nevertheless, the author insists that he stands by his views expressed in the essay, “some of which are common knowledge, while others were duly cited from primary and secondary sources.” Professor Hudlický sees himself as a victim of “censorship, persecution, and condemnation, propagated by social media.” He adds a more general statement to the effect that “certain new and politically correct ideologies” have “led to the establishment of a society in which any opposition or any dissenting opinion regarding the new norms are silenced and punished rather than discussed.”

I will leave aside the more general comment, and will focus on one question only: does the text of Professor Hudlický’s original essay justify the criticism expressed by the official statement of the journal? Or does it support the author’s defence of his views? In other words, the two aforementioned documents will be compared to a third one: Professor Hudlický’s original essay.

The reader might be surprised that the most hotly debated issue surfaces in a single paragraph of the original article. I quote the full text:

“In the last two decades, many groups and/or individuals have been designated with ‘preferential status’. This in spite of the fact that the percentage of women and minorities in academia and pharmaceutical industry has greatly increased. It follows that, in a social equilibrium, preferential treatment of one group leads to disadvantages for another. New ideologies have appeared and influenced hiring practices, promotion, funding, and recognition of certain groups. Each candidate should have an equal opportunity to secure a position, regardless of personal identification/categorization. The rise and emphasis on hiring practices that suggest or even mandate equality in terms of absolute numbers of people in specific subgroups is counter-productive if it results in discrimination against the most meritorious candidates. Such practice affects the format of interviews and has led to the emergence of mandatory ‘training workshops’ on gender equity, inclusion, diversity, and discrimination. [Note 2]”

I also quote the text of Note 2 without omission:

“An example of focusing on ‘underrepresented minorities’ can be seen in the recently established ‘Power Hour’ at Gordon Research Conferences. While this effort is commendable in order to increase the participation of women in science it diminishes the contributions by men (or any other group). Universities have established various centers for ‘Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’, complete with mandatory seminars and training. These issues have influenced hiring practices to the point where the candidate’s inclusion in one of the preferred social groups may override his or her qualifications.”

The first observation we can make is that Professor Hudlický did not refer to any primary or secondary sources regarding these matters, neither in the main text of the article, nor in the footnote. As he explained, some of his views “were duly cited from primary and secondary sources,” while others are “common knowledge.” Since no sources were cited here, we cannot but conclude that all that is said in these paragraphs constitutes “common knowledge” in Professor Hudlický’s opinion.

At this point, one may wonder how this alleged “common knowledge” can be distinguished from mere prejudices. In the 1930s, it was “common knowledge” in the Third Reich that Slavonic people are inferior to Germans. Had they won the Second World War, Professor Hudlický himself would have been just a second-rank citizen in the Bohemian-Moravian Protectorate, and would have been considered less suitable for a scientific career than German candidates with “pure Aryan pedigree.” The inclusion of scientists of Slavonic descent in academic institutions would have appeared to the Nazi scientists as “preferential treatment of one group,” that is, Slavs, which necessarily “leads to disadvantages for another” group, that is to say, Germans. No doubt Nazis were convinced that it was unfair to include “minority groups” on the expense of Germans. Were the Nazis right in this? I believe, Professor Hudlický will agree that they were not.

I think this historical example is a useful reminder for anyone who relies on his or her own unreflected convictions and hypostatizes them as “common knowledge.” What you believe to be “common knowledge” may turn out to be just your own prejudice. And it is also an important lesson of history that you can easily find yourself in an underprivileged group.

An even more serious problem is that Professor Hudlický’s argument is vague, and it is difficult to interpret it in a coherent manner. If the “preferential treatment” of Group A leads to disadvantaging Group B, because this is a “zero-sum game” as he explains in the statement, then the reverse must be also true, that is to say, the status quo is advantageous for Group A but discriminates against Group B. Why is this situation preferable? Unfortunately, Professor Hudlický does not explain this point.

I see only two ways of turning Professor Hudlický’s words into a coherent argument:

(1) If we assume that members of Group B are less suitable to research organic chemistry, then the preference for Group A is justified, since including members of Group B is likely to lead to deterioration of the professional level of the art. At this point, one cannot but ask oneself whether Professor Hudlický actually believes that “women and minorities” are less suitable for organic chemistry than men. And if this is the case, then whether this opinion is supported by any scientific researches, or it is common knowledge? Or just a prejudice?

(2) If we assume that members of Group B are as suitable as the members of Group A, but the actual procedures employed are unfair, because they prefer the less talented candidates (whether from Group A or B) to the more talented candidates (whether from Group A or B). This possibility is worthy of serious attention and discussion and, I agree, it should not be dismissed as “politically incorrect” or “sexist.” However, if Professor Hudlický indeed meant to say this, he could have been much more specific in pointing out which practices are harmful and substantiate his statements with data and references. A mere reference to “common knowledge” is certainly insufficient.

In sum, I do not accuse Professor Hudlický of sexism or racism as there are no explicitly sexist or racist statements in his article. Nevertheless, the editorial board of Angewandte Chemie made a justifiable decision when they withdrew Professor Hudlický’s paper from publication. The problem is not the absence of “political correctness,” but the absence of coherent and factually grounded argumentation. Professor Hudlický views himself as a victim of political persecution, but to me it seems that he just did not do his homework. We teach our students to produce coherent and compelling arguments based on careful researches and considering all the relevant facts. Nothing less is expected of university professors as well, no matter how significant positions they hold.

Finally, I would like to challenge Professor Hudlický. Let him prove his truth by writing a properly researched and argued paper about the harmful consequences of measures that are supposed to promote diversity. If he succeeds to write such a paper, which meets the standard academic expectations, he will certainly do a good service to the academic community. And if he does not succeed in publishing it, I will be the first to stand by him in his struggle for the freedom of thought.

[1] https://www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/page/journal/15213773/homepage/archive#vchnews49471

[2] https://www.dzurnal.cz/index.php/2020/07/31/statement-on-the-angewandte-essay-affair/

[3] https://drive.google.com/file/d/1yE_j7xoefegDWLwbdeFr2Sgqyl9Wnmt2/view