The norms of science and Presidential Executive Orders

Last Friday was Holocaust Memorial Day, which falls on the day of the liberation of the Auschwitz Death Camp by Soviet troops in 1945. U.S. President Trump marked the occasion with a statement, although it omitted any specific mention of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

On the same day, Trump also signed an executive order that banned citizens of 7 mainly Islamic countries from entering the United States.

This order—at least initially—also applied to legal permanent residents of the U.S. (“Green card” holders), thus barring them from re-entry to their country of residence after a visit abroad, as well as to dual nationals if one of their citizenships is from one of those 7 countries.

Given that citizenship may be acquired by the accident of one’s place of birth, this implies that Canadians or Britons who happened to have been born in Iraq or Iran may now also be affected by this ban. This is thought to include a British Olympic champion as well as at least one British Member of Parliament.

Political developments and Presidential Executive Orders typically do not affect researchers in short-term memory or lexical decision directly (and vice versa). Political developments are also typically not discussed on this blog. However, in this particular case the ramifications of the order for science are unusually stark and direct.

Under the headline “Trump’s Immigration Ban Is Already Harming American Science”, The Atlantic reported on a number of researchers who were barred from taking up posts in the U.S. as a consequence. There has been a growing number of responses from academic institutions to the President’s actions. For example, the Association of American Universities issued a statement noting that “the administration’s new order barring the entry or return of individuals from certain countries is already causing damage and should end as quickly as possible.”

Because of these clear implications for science, and because of the emerging responses from the scientific community, I asked the current Chair of the Society’s Diversity and Inclusion CommitteeValerie Reyna, for her views on the President’s actions. She replied as follows:

By now many of you have heard about U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order barring all immigration from seven majority-Muslim nations for 120 days, which the president signed Friday evening.  Iran has responded by banning U.S. visitors.  As Chair of the Diversity Committee, I must express my alarm at the potential implications for scientific progress and the basic freedoms on which that progress depends.  I encourage everyone to think about ways in which research on stereotypes, bias, and fear can be brought to bear for the betterment of the U.S. and the nations around the world.  Using the democratic institutions at our disposal, I encourage everyone to respond responsibly to any attempt to curtail basic freedoms of thought, speech, and travel. Today it is ‘them’; tomorrow it is us.

The former Chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, Janet Metcalfe, wrote to me to pass on a press release from “Academics Against Immigration Executive Order” concerning a letter that currently includes the signatures of over 7,000 academics including 40 Nobel Laureates. (And the list is growing:

The reasons for this letter are quoted below:

  1. The Executive Order discriminates against a large group of immigrants and longtime residents of the United States based solely on their country of origin, all of which have a majority-Muslim population.
  2. The Executive Order places a harsh and undue burden on the people affected, needlessly and cruelly separating families by limiting travel and restricting entry. These are people the letter’s signatories are proud to call friends, colleagues, and members of their community – what they will be subject to under this Executive Order is inhumane, un-American and entirely disproportionate to the threat it is purporting to address.
  3. This Executive Order would significantly damage the United States’ reputation for academic excellence in higher education. United States research institutions directly benefit from the work of thousands of researchers from the nations affected by this Executive Order. The United States academic community relies on these talented and creative individuals for their contributions to the cutting-edge research.

It is worth remembering the most well known and influential analysis of the norms of science provided by sociologist Robert Merton in 1942. Merton argued that the results of research should be the common property of the scientific community (‘‘communism’’); that knowledge should transcend racial, class, national, or political barriers (‘‘universalism’’); that scientists conduct research for the benefit of the scientific enterprise rather than for personal gain (‘‘disinterestedness’’); and that scientific claims must be exposed to critical scrutiny before being accepted (‘‘organized skepticism’’).

Recent research has confirmed that these norms are still internalized by the scientific community, and any attempt to impair the universalism of science therefore goes to the heart of who we are, what we stand for, and what we do. It is unsurprising that we now hear calls that “In the face of Trump’s Muslim ban, all academics have a responsibility to act.

By coincidence, two of the next three annual meetings of the Psychonomic Society will be held in Canada. We will meet in Vancouver in November of this year, and in Montreal in 2019.

The Society looks forward to welcoming all of you there. And it’s not just us:

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