Would Galileo Be Good Enough for Woke America?

One man’s fight for justice after critiquing BLM

If you work for a well-established American institution, be it a Fortune 500 company or a prestigious research foundation, are you constantly worried about being targeted for not endorsing political fads or prevailing cultural symbols?

The often-dichotomous struggle between inconvenient truths and popular beliefs is nothing new. When the Catholic Church and the scientific establishment persecuted Galileo Galilei for his support of Copernican heliocentrism, the majority of Europe’s educated citizenry held to Aristotelian geocentrism. While the Copernican model, which positions the earth around the sun as the center of our universe, is now an established scientific fact, the Italian polymath was investigated by the Roman Inquisition in 1615, which labeled his writings in support of heliocentrism as foolish, absurd and heretical. Europe’s political and religious leaders reprimanded and imprisoned Galileo because his views were not aligned with popular beliefs of the time.

The pattern of scientific inquiry colliding with accepted norms has repeated again and again throughout history. Today, the related battle between conventional wisdom and popular culture has befallen an unassuming computer programmer who was employed and then fired by a world-famous biomedical research flagship—the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. This is a story about Bob Kuczewski, a 64-year-old aviation specialist and computer scientist whom I interviewed extensively before and after the 2021 holiday season. You may not agree with Bob’s opinions, but you may come to respect his journey to defend his rights to free speech and equal treatment.

On June 2, 2020, Bob made the fateful decision to speak out against Salk’s anti-racism stance championing the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which came in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic death. On that day, after having received a barrage of messages on his work email server condemning systemic racism, Mr. Kuczewski broke his silence at 10:46 pm to offer a differing perspective on the tragedy:

At the risk of losing a job that I love very much… Black lives matter? White lives matter? All lives matter? How about… Good lives matter… most. The notions of good and bad are being undermined by the superficial colors of black and white. Rodney King was not a particularly good man. From what I have read, George Floyd was also not a particularly good man. Certainly, Derek Chauvin is not a very good man either. Their skin color doesn’t matter.

It’s not about black and white. It’s about good and bad. That’s what matters and that’s what we should hold up as our ideals. The deification of people based on the color of their skin is extremely flawed and does not lead us to a better society. Holding people accountable for being better human beings… does.

All hell broke loose. Many of Bob’s colleagues rebuked his comments, and some took to social media to demand that Salk take disciplinary actions against this “old white man keeping academia unsafe.” Bob was immediately suspended by Salk and put through a 6-month-long investigation probing his “racially insensitive conduct,” turned down Salk’s offer to work from home for a partner institution, and even agreed to take mandatory sensitivity training in an attempt to keep his job. But he adamantly denied wrong-doing and refused to sign a “confession” of such. His employment was terminated on February 10th, 2021. Bob is now representing himself in a lawsuit against Salk for wrongful termination.

[Related: “On Distinguishing Political Attacks from Academic Criticism”]

What went wrong? Why is an esteemed scientific research organization willing to go to such great lengths to appease the woke thought police? Why was a personal statement respectfully challenging mainstream narratives on race worthy of this reaction? What happened to “agreeing to disagree”? And most importantly, why is Bob still fighting?

To say that our STEM fields, both academically and professionally, have gone woke is an understatement.  A recent survey by Nature, one of the world’s leading science journals, identifies systemic discrimination in science as a determining factor for more diversity work. The American Medical Association has a strategic plan to embed racial justice in medicine, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls racism a public health crisis. The Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), the world’s largest biotech advocacy association, has an “Equality Agenda,” which purports to promote health equity, talent investments, and enhanced opportunities in underrepresented minority communities. According to BIO, equity is justice.

STEM industry leaders and intellectual powerhouses unconditionally embrace the politically correct dogma of racial and social justice. Conducting scientific research and development through the prism of race is now the new cult of geocentrism. And Salk is no exception. Facing pressure to racially diversify its Board of Trustees and its workforce from donors and the public, Salk’s leadership is eager to jump on the “equity and inclusion” bandwagon. Bob stood in the way and became a scapegoat so that the institute could advertise itself as an equitable organization for its 850 employees.

But can we punish unpopular views, such as those expressed by Bob Kuczewski, and still call ourselves a free, tolerant, and diverse society? You don’t have to see eye to eye with Bob, but canceling him in the name of justice is pure hypocrisy.

Bob is no career activist. Neither is he a “keep your head down and do your work” type of guy. At a time when our nation’s winds blew decisively leftward in favor of a “racial reckoning,” he stood up to speak his mind and lost his job as a result. I asked Bob why he couldn’t just keep quiet for the sake of a secure and fulfilling career. He responded: “I believe that there is a price for justice that we must be willing to pay.”

There is much more to Mr. Kuczewski than the incendiary label of “an old white man.” Bob is “married” to his career, although he regrets passing up opportunities to start his own family. At the time of the incident, Bob was working as a programmer in the laboratory of Terry Sejnowski, one of America’s most respected computational neurobiologists. 2020 marked Bob’s 8th year with the Salk Institute, where he worked on simulations of molecular diffusion inside biological cells. Before that, he cultivated a keen interest in aviation while serving in one of the U.S. Army Ranger Battalions in the mid 1970s, worked at large aerospace firms such as General Dynamics, TRW, and Northrup Grumman, and later on took up independent consulting after receiving a patent for networked classroom computers in 1999.

After a long and successful career in aerospace, Bob chose to settle down with Salk before retirement because he appreciated “the open and collaborative nature of the work,” even though it was one of the lowest paid positions he’d ever held. More than the material harms of losing a job, Bob is disappointed “when the Salk Institute sacrificed that open and collaborative spirit to appease the hateful and destructive elements in our society.”

[Related: “The War Against Academic Freedom”]

Bob’s quagmire reached its pinnacle in early 2021, when his negotiations with Salk broke down after he added a short statement below the signature line on an agreement offered by the Salk HR Department as a condition for him to return to work. He wrote:

By signing above, I am not agreeing to having committed any wrongdoing or any violation of Salk policy. I explicitly do not agree with any findings of the investigation report which may state or imply otherwise.

Salk rejected the statement and let go of an otherwise high-performing employee because he voiced an opinion and denied any fault in doing so. While Bob had consistently expressed his desire to reach a positive resolution, he is now suing Salk for imposing race-based disparate treatment against him, retaliating against him for opposing a majority stance, and subjecting him to racial harassment. To this day, Bob is blocked from accessing the findings of the 6-month investigation into his post-Floyd conduct. So much for equal treatment, the most fundamental principle of justice.

Bob’s saga is not just about Bob or Salk. It raises a bigger, thornier question: what is the proper role of the educated elite in our society? In his celebrated 2010 book entitled Intellectuals and Society, economist Thomas Sowell criticizes intellectuals’ power-induced tendency to offer opinions beyond their technical expertise:

Many intellectuals are so preoccupied with the notion that their own special knowledge exceeds the average special knowledge of millions of other people that they overlook the often far more consequential fact that their mundane knowledge is not even one-tenth of the total mundane knowledge of those millions.

So why in the world is an independent nonprofit organization with a mission to “seek new understandings in neuroscience, genetics, immunology, plant biology and more” striving to become a racial justice icon? Perhaps because perpetuating prejudice and groupthink awards the educated elite rich political advantages.

Accusing a dissenting employee of harboring white privilege and anti-black racism for critiquing an increasingly radical movement is hardly justice. And Bob is right to fight for his constitutional rights for freedom and equality.

As our conversation drew to an end, Bob tossed out a rhetorical question: “Could Galileo work at Salk?”

Better yet, let’s ask ourselves: Would Galileo be good enough for Woke America?


Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Wenyuan Wu

Wenyuan Wu is Executive Director of the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation. Twitter: @wu_wenyuan

11 thoughts on “Would Galileo Be Good Enough for Woke America?

  1. (The) “Equality Agenda,” …. purports to promote health equity, talent investments, and enhanced opportunities in underrepresented minority communities. According to BIO, equity is justice (from Wu’s article above)

    My first reaction to both sides of this argument is “Stop you are both wrong.” Put simply, my life experience as well as my 40 years as a teacher and scholar of Anthropology, has convinced me of several things:

    1) Diverse science teams, communities, professions …. are always stronger than monolithic one, not because the inclusion of diverse genders, ethnicities, (social)races
    etc tie directly to any one task or profession, but because viewpoint diversity by its very natural definition offers diverse hypotheses, which in turn allow for more rigorous inquiry and systematic and evidential interpretation.

    2) Much of the arguments are semantic – at times purposefully and other not – so that terms take on meanings with hidden agenda. Some words, even worse, are weaponized such as the terms “Woke” and “DEI” and are used in opposite sides of the argument to support the ideological stances of the arguer.

    3) Zero Tolerance policies are a primary culprit in super-charging differences of opinion. Zero tolerance in schools has led to student expulsions for non-conformist behavior (I have witnessed this personally in my experience and my children); as well as in Wu’s example and indeed Galileo’s. These examples range the contemporary political spectrum of conservative to progressive.

    My conclusion: Again, stop you are both wrong. We need viewpoint diversity to forge a path toward conciliatory problems solving and basic civility. I will close with the example of Whoopi Goldberg. As a Jewish Anthropologist, I think that both Ms. Goldberg and the Defamation League can both be right. What was wrong, in my opinion was the cancelling of Ms. Goldberg. Yes, Nazi’s defined Jews as an inferior race. And of course Nazi’s considered (and still consider) themselves a superior race of Aryans. But to an American Black woman, race may well be seen as a black/white issue. And this is not wrong. And it should not be punishable. The (so-called) View missed the huge opportunity that heterodoxy provides to discuss the issue of race and racism as a way of forging a pathway to reconcile issues of race, racism, and antisemitism in America.

  2. Evidently, the reasoning by the people in charge of the Salk Institute went like this: Would we rather have a veteran researcher who can help us achieve our medical objectives, or would we rather appear as allies with an extreme group that has nothing whatever to do with medical innovation? These days, sadly, that is a “no brainer.” Salk would rather get on the good side of the radicals than keep the productive researcher, who hadn’t even said anything to which a reasonable person could object.

    We see the same thing at many colleges and universities. All it takes is for a few zealots to cry “racism” and the administration grovels before them, eager to do anything to avoid incurring their wrath.

    1. Hi Bob,You came to mind recently and googled you. All numbers I had for you are wrong and you didn’t respond to email which was probably wrong too. Then i saw this . Quite an honorable, courageous this to do. Hoping you are well. Pam Hall (Klimowitch)

  3. We’ve been here before — I’m reminded of Lillian Hellman’s statement about being “unwilling to trim her conscience to fit this season’s fashons.”

    15 years later, Jane Fonda was in Hanoi….

  4. This will not end well. Science doesn’t care about your diversity. There is no such thing as a black perspective on thermodynamics or female insight into stabilizing nonlinear control systems. We are starting to hire marginally qualified STEM faculty all for the sake of diversity (code for non-white). Well, mediocre faculty turn out mediocre students and produce little or no meaningful research results.

    If affirmative action hiring in STEM isn’t bad enough—which it most definitely is—we are now starting to purge what good people we do have over unrelated issues. What Bob Kuczewski said had nothing to do with computer science or any other STEM field. His comments were about about a group that promotes racial division, marxism and anti-cop sentiments. Recent reports claim tens of millions of dollars donated over the past two years to BLM, Inc. cannot be accounted for. Yet any criticism, any disparaging remarks, are enough to get decent, productive and respected researchers canned. And for what? Wokeness? Virtue signaling?

    Bear in mind that once a good researcher is canceled, they aren’t coming back. Any future contribution or scientific discovery they might have made will now not occur. What new life-saving drug won’t be discovered? What ground breaking aviation advancement or robotic system breakthrough won’t be found because you got that engineer or mathematician fired over some petty, unrelated remark you didn’t like? Wokeness is destroying our seed corn.

    And no, I don’t think Galileo could work at Salk—or a lot of other places nowadays either.

  5. This shows why having tenure is essential for academic freedom. They may be able to make your life miserable, but it makes it much harder to outright fire you. Back when I was outspoken, I was very willing to say things that I wouldn’t have without tenure.

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