Memo 01.25.2021 12 minutes

The Brainworms Come For Big Science


Woke grievance is eating expert inquiry from the inside out.

Editors’ Note

The parasite leucochloridium paradoxum, shown here infecting a snail, is a flatworm that takes over the brains of gastropods and forces them into self-destructive behaviors. As this essay demonstrates, woke social teaching has been known to do the same with academic departments.

It was Franz Kafka meets Jabba the Hutt. Instead of a seraglio on Tatooine, the location was a hotel ballroom in Arlington, Virginia, at a large gathering of scientists and engineers brought together by the National Science Foundation (NSF). We were there to compete for a very large sum of money. 

At stake was funding for a “research center,” something akin to national laboratories like Brookhaven Labs or Livermore Labs. Research centers are built around a strategic theme, like nuclear physics, and are intended to provide a venue for scientists nationwide to come together to explore that theme. Research centers are high-stakes competitions, involving tens of millions of dollars doled out over a term of ten years or so. The prizes are big, and the prestige immense. They are intended to go to the best of the best. 

The competition for research centers takes place in two stages. The first stage winnows wheat from chaff. Hopeful teams of scientists apply for a “planning grant,” which supports the work involved in crafting the actual proposal for the center. If a team is awarded a planning grant, the next step is a “planning meeting,” where the NSF gathers the successful teams together to provide detailed guidance on what might make for a successful proposal. I was on one of those teams, and that is how I came to be in that hotel ballroom.

At the opening session, we were told that proposals would be judged on four “foundational components,” or “pillars,” as they were styled in the PowerPoints. A successful proposal would be strong on all four: weakness in one would cast the proposal into the abyss, we were told, no matter how strong the other pillars might be. At the planning meeting, each pillar was to have a dedicated panel discussion, just to make clear to us what the NSF’s expectations were. Three of the four pillars were conventionally scientific and academic: innovation, training, etc. The remaining pillar was “Diversity and Culture of Inclusion” (DCI). 

That was where things took a bizarre turn. 

The DCI panel consisted of bureaucrats from the NSF’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI). Naturally, there were many questions from the floor about what the criteria for a strong DCI pillar would be. We are talking about engineers, remember, whose culture is: “give us ‘the specs’ and we will solve any problem.” The assembled engineers were looking for “the specs” they needed to build that DCI pillar. 

I remember the scene. Each team was seated at its own round table on the ballroom floor. The DCI panel was seated on a raised platform, looking down on us, as from thrones on high. They were, collectively, our Jabba. 

One engineer at a neighboring table kept trying to pin the DCI panel down on those DCI specs. Jabba kept deflecting the question. We’ll know it when we see it, was the blithe answer, issued with the monotonous imperiousness of the entitled ruler indulging inconvenient questioning from the proles. Engineering is too white and too male, was one panelist’s message to us, and that needed to be corrected. Irony alert: the engineer pressing the point was not white, but an Indian immigrant. 

Nor would Jabba provide the specs the engineers sought, and this is where Franz entered the chat. It became clearer with every question that the specs not only would not be laid out: they would in any event change according to inscrutable whim of the ODI bureaucrats. Foolish engineers, one might imagine Jabba chortling, the “specs” are not to help you solve a problem: they are there to keep you off-balance, uncertain, and in my power. It is enough for you to know you depend upon my mercy for funding.

How Infection Spreads

Speaking of mercy, the coffee break by then intervened to terminate the bizarre exchange—leaving me, Styrofoam cup and stale Danish in hand, to contemplate the message that had just been delivered. We, the diversicrats, not you, the scientists and engineers, will decide what science and engineering is worthy of support. And you will be glad of it when we do. 

All are familiar with the Left’s “long march” through the institutions. What might not be so well known is just how thorough the conquest has been. Evidence of this sometimes pops up into prominent public view, as in the recent exposure of “critical race theory” training in federal agencies (including places like Sandia National Labs, where one would expect such hokum to be laughed out the door). Such incidents, though quite frequent, are only the tips of a very large iceberg. In the academic sciences, where I have spent my career, “diversity, inclusion, and equity” (DIE) has become as pervasive as one might expect it to be in any grievance studies department. 

How did this happen? More to the point, how could it happen to the supposedly sensible people that scientists are generally thought to be? 

The concept of “zombie parasites” provides an apt metaphor for how things got to this point. These are parasites that colonize the brains and nervous systems of their hosts, taking the controls, so to speak, over the host’s behavior. One striking example of a zombie parasite is a worm that infects the brains of snails, which normally crawl around stealthily at night. A snail infected with the parasite crawls out onto a grass stalk during the day, where it is now visible to birds that gobble them up. The parasite then breeds in the bird’s digestive tract and deposits its eggs in the bird’s feces. When uninfected snails eat the feces, the parasite’s life cycle is completed. 

DIE has spread into the academic sciences as a kind of zombie parasite. It is not a real worm at work, of course, but a metaphorical “brainworm”—three of them, in fact, that together spread a kind of altered cognitive reality through any institution that is infected by them. 

The route of infection usually starts with a “study” that identifies a “problem” that no one knew existed: the overwhelming whiteness of, say, fishery science. Once an unwitting host takes the bait, the next phase of the infection kicks in: all are invited to contemplate with horror the dark future that awaits should fishery scientists not take immediate steps to correct the “problem.” In the final stage of the infection, the brainworm plants its “diversity is our strength” meme in the host’s nervous system. The infected now babble about solving the impending crisis through a crash outreach program to “under-represented” or “marginalized” groups, who, by virtue of their class membership, think differently about fisheries, and so can save the field from stultifying white maleness.

As in those parasitized snails, the DIE brainworm induces a cognitive disconnect in the infected. None of the assertions planted by the DIE zombie parasite have a sound basis in fact or reason. The accusation of too much whiteness usually is based upon a simple observation that the ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation mix in, say, fishery science, departs from the statistical distributions found in the general population. Why this should be, where it is considered at all, is usually buried under a panoply of repetitive charts and diagrams of dubious critical value. 

Also lacking is any evidence of a future critical shortage of scientists and engineers that would put, say, fishery science at risk. Colleges and universities are turning out science graduates in far greater numbers than there are jobs that can usefully employ them, and they’ve been doing so for nearly 70 years. 

The “diversity is our strength” mantra, for its part, rests on some disturbingly racist presumptions. If “thinking differently” is an inherent attribute of race (or gender, or sexual orientation), this edges up very close to the forbidden argument that there might be inherent racial (or gender, or sexual orientation) disparities in, say, IQ. Both are cognitive attributes. Yet one is beyond the pale, and the other is almost a compulsory point of doctrine. Both cannot simultaneously be true.

Tearing Families Apart

What makes the DIE brainworm a zombie parasite is how it hijacks the host’s behavior to facilitate its spread, to the host’s ultimate detriment. Universities, where future scientists are trained, are a common target. Incubating a future scientist has traditionally involved a very close relationship between a professor and a student (“mentor” and “mentee,” in today’s clumsy parlance). It is not uncommon to speak of this relationship in familial terms: I am the academic “son” of my Ph.D. supervisor, for example, and in turn the academic “grandson” of his Ph.D. supervisor. I am thus the academic “brother” to all the students who studied under my PhD supervisor. Once the rite of Ph.D. passage is cleared, professors will use their “familial” networks to launch the newly minted scientist offspring in their new careers. I could go on, but you get the idea. 

Like all families, academic families have their ups and downs, their rifts and triumphs. Despite their imperfections, these familial networks have, for many years, reliably ensured the scientific future, largely because they are held together by a transcendent ideal. Not an ideal as lofty as justice, mind you, but something more elemental and earthy. Fishery scientists, to trot them out again, become fishery scientists because, well, they love fish. They want to devote their lives to getting to know fish better. The same may be said of nearly every scientific endeavor in academia: at the vital core is a love that can verge into obsession. The genius of the academy is that it provides a place where that love can give value to the society that supports it. Disrupt that elemental drive, and you degrade the real social value of the sciences. 

This almost primitive love provides a kind of immunity to the DIE brainworm, which makes it a particular target. To spread, the parasite must plant the idea that the familial network of relationships cloaks a hostile and dangerous climate, propped up by cronyism, privilege, racism, sexism, and hostility to the non-binary. The only way to make science “safe” for the marginalized, or excluded, or under-represented, is to disrupt the traditional mentoring family. Students and new faculty who are members of “under-represented” or “marginalized” groups are drawn from their intellectual families into self-referential bubbles of grievance: support groups, safe spaces, counseling services, etc., where the normal stresses of academic life can be transformed into evidence of the hostile climate without. 

At some point, earnest administrators, who know nothing about science and understand even less how it works, are brought in to “listen” to the newly aggrieved. At that point, discontent is turned into actionable grievance: committees and study groups are appointed, action plans formulated. Excluded from all this, of course, are the keepers of the academic traditions which, inconveniently for them, have already been condemned in absentia as the problem. 

Pressure is brought on these erstwhile traditionalists to conform, to “listen” to other voices, to “check your privilege,” to be “open” to different “perspectives.” If the brainworm has spread far enough to implant a DIE bureaucracy on campus, penalties for non-conformity will be quietly placed in a corner of the room, a visible reminder of the consequences of resistance to the brainworm. Once that happens, the path is open for the entire academic institution to become infected, triggering the next, and most dangerous, stage of the infection. 

Follow the Money

Parasites do not simply invade a host: they require fertile ground and food. For the DIE brainworm, the mother’s milk is money. And it is the academic sciences, not the humanities, where the ground is lushest. Compare two sources of federal funds that are often tied to woke ideology on campuses: the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). These are NSF-style agencies that fund academic work in the arts and humanities, and in similar ways. Artists and scholars submit proposals, these are scrutinized by peers, and funds are doled out to the successful proposals. 

How much money? The NEA presently enjoys an annual appropriation of about $150 million. For the NEH, it is about $160 million. In contrast, the federal money directed to academic science in 2017 stood at around $40 billion: 250 times more. Over the course of the 50 years of its existence, the NEH has funded a cumulative total of roughly $4.7 billion dollars in grants. The cumulative tally of federal support of academic research over the same time span has been nearly $900 billion: about 200 times more. 

It is to the sciences, then, that the DIE brainworm has gone to feed, and there it has spread as if it were an epidemic. Evidence for this can be ferreted out from the NSF’s searchable databases of its grant awards, by searching for keywords such as “under-represented,” “minority,” or “marginalized” in the grant documents. Prior to 2010, no award carried these keywords. The first to do so was in 2010, when the NSF awarded a large research center grant to MIT, which contained within it a significant program of outreach to marginalized groups. 

Since that year, NSF expenditures on research grants containing the “woke” keywords have risen exponentially, doubling at a rate of about 50% each year, just as a novel virus would when spreading through a new population. In 2018, the last year for which a complete picture can be discerned, the NSF funded nearly a thousand research grants devoted in whole or part to DIE aims, to the tune of more than $1.3 billion. From 2010 to 2018, a total of more than $4 billion have been awarded to more than 2,200 DIE-oriented grants. 

Which is how we get to that scene in the Arlington hotel ballroom, where DIE now holds the trump card in deciding what science is worthy of funding. No matter how stellar the science, the message is clear: gobble up the DIE brainworm, or your funding will dry up, and your career along with it. 

Reason’s Last Stand

Is there any hope? I’d like to offer another perspective. In my 40-year career in the academic sciences, I have spent significant time, by my rough count, in ten academic institutions, including post-doctoral fellowships, sabbatical leaves, and regular faculty appointments. The institutions I have inhabited have included a small liberal arts college, a medical school, two colleges in southern Africa, top-flight research universities, and finally, the college where I spent the bulk of my academic career. So, I have seen a pretty good cross-section of campus climates. Here is my impression, for what it’s worth. 

Academic family life can be a pretty rough affair, populated as it is by imperfect and sometimes difficult people. The ticket for admission to an academic family can be hard to win, the criteria inscrutable. One vice I have never witnessed, however, is bigotry. Among my colleagues, I have never seen the ticket for admission stamped for having the “right” skin color, gender, or sexual orientation. Rather, admission to the family has turned on whether there is a shared love and the commitment to sustain it. 

Where I have seen real bigotry, in contrast, is when the DIE brainworm is challenged. For questioning the DIE orthodoxy, I once was branded an “institutional terrorist” by a high-priced consultant brought in to heal our supposedly sick and bigoted campus culture. It is no surprise that the DIE brainworm has spread through the campuses to an alarming extent, spread largely by acquiescence to the altered cognitive states the worm wants us to accept. When the brainworm acquires the power of the purse and the HR department, the infection has become near-fatal. 

Can the patient be cured? The prognosis, as a physician might say, is clouded. “Chemotherapy” is a possibility, which in this instance means cutting off the tens of billions of dollars of federal money the zombie parasite feeds on. At this late stage, however, the infection is far advanced, and the realistic prospects for a successful course of treatment are slim. There is too much money and power at stake for the zombie parasite to passively accept doom. 

What hope remains emerges from the same dilemma that confronted those last human survivors in the classic novel about zombie parasites, Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The one thing that defeated that zombie parasite in the end was a superhuman assertion of will against the infection. The one ray of hope against the DIE zombie parasite streams from the few and isolated pockets of the uninfected still lingering in the academic ecosystem. It is there that the parasite will mount its fiercest attack. Can the academic sciences resist and recover? The flame is sputtering. If the wax rises high enough to extinguish the flame, the zombie parasite’s takeover will be complete. 

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