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Cancel Culture’s Chilling Effect on Free Speech and Scientific Research

So-called “cancel culture” is currently on the rise in the United States. Cancel culture is a term used to refer to the “cancellation” of a person who says something outside of what is politically or culturally correct. For instance, if a person were to say something that could be perceived as racist, that person could be “canceled” through means of online harassment, doxing of personal information, and/or being fired from their place of employment. This week, JLF’s Jon Guze authored a research brief that examines a high-profile instance of cancel culture. Guze writes:

We saw a vivid example of private speech suppression last month when a coalition of private citizens succeeded in getting physicist Stephen Hsu fired from his position as Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation at Michigan State University. The attack on Hsu began with a coordinated storm of criticism on Twitter and ended with a series of petitions calling for his resignation.

Hsu’s critics claimed he was a “racist and eugenicist…” As evidence, they pointed to a 2017 podcast in which Hsu described himself as “agnostic” on the question of whether genetics might be a partial explanation for racial disparities in test scores.

However, the evidence does not seem to support these claims. Guze writes:

If you watch the podcast, you’ll see that, far from being a racist and a eugenicist, Hsu is a thoughtful and decent man who abhors racism and is very careful about how genetic and population data are interpreted and used. The podcast certainly doesn’t support the slanderous claims that were made by Hsu’s critics, nor does it justify the university’s decision to fire him.

More criticism came to Hsu because he had “directed funding to research downplaying racism and bias in police shootings.” The aforementioned research was a study that found, when controlling for county racial demographics and crime rates, there was no significant relationship between the race of officers and the civilians they fatally shot. Guze writes:

It’s easy to see why such a finding might shock and upset many people, and, of course, the authors may be wrong. Nevertheless, the fact that their findings contradicted conventional wisdom is hardly a reason to fire the person who funded the research. If funders insisted on knowing and approving research results in advance, they wouldn’t be funding scientific research; they’d be funding propaganda.

The societal backlash to the findings of the paper – not the methodology – led the authors to request it be retracted from the journal in which it was published. This shows the chilling effect cancel culture has on free speech and scientific research. Guze writes:

[T]he bigger problem is that the mere possibility of cancelation is generally sufficient to ensure that most people, including most academics, don’t say anything that might conceivably trigger the cancellation mob. The resulting self-censorship stifles free and open debate to a dangerous degree.

Read the full research brief here. Read JLF’s Dominic Coletti’s recent research on cancel culture here.

Brenee Goforth / Marketing and Communications Associate

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