Thursday, October 5, 2023

False Attacks against Robert Millikan

Robert Andrews Millikan was one of the great American physicists of the XX century, and make CalTech what it is today.

He is being canceled by leftists.

On the Caltech campus, several physical features, rooms, awards, and a professorship were named in honor of Millikan, including the Millikan Library, which was completed in 1966. In January 2021, the board of trustees voted to immediately strip Millikan's name from the Caltech campus because of his association with eugenics. The Robert A. Millikan Library has been renamed Caltech Hall.[39] In November 2021, the Robert A. Millikan Professorship was renamed the Judge Shirley Hufstedler Professorship.[40]
A new paper explains how foolish this is:
Robert A. Millikan (1868-1953) was the second American to win the Nobel Prize in physics. At the peak of his influence, no scientist save Einstein was more admired by the American public. Millikan, the head of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) during its first 24 years, oversaw its rapid growth into one of the leading scientific institutions of the world. In response to demands for social justice, Caltech reached a decision to strip Millikan of honors (such as the library named after him), following accusations against him.

This article analyzes a specific accusation against Millikan that was published in Nature: that he collaborated to deprive Japanese Americans of their rights during their forced relocation to internment camps during the Second World War. An examination of original historical sources will show that this accusation is false. On the contrary, Millikan actively campaigned during the war to promote the rights of Japanese Americans.

The article also treats Caltech's central accusation against Millikan: he lent his name to a morally reprehensible eugenics movement that had been scientifically discredited in his time. In a reversal of Caltech's claims, this article shows that all three of Caltech's scientific witnesses against eugenics were actually pro-eugenic to varying degrees. Millikan's beliefs fell within acceptable scientific norms of his day.

I do not agree with this presentism or cancel culture. If this is the standard, then Einstein is more deserving of cancellation. Einstein had horrible politics. He was a Communist. He belonged to many Communist front organizations. He supported Lenin and Stalin, even in the 1950s when the extent of Stalin's crimes became common knowledge.

Eugenics has become a bad word, but it mostly consisted of scientists using benign methods to better the human condition.

Even if Millikan did have some offensive personal opinions, he was entitled to his views. Those who disagree should explain why he was wrong. But I never see anyone try to explain why eugenics was wrong.

I have criticized Einstein, but almost entirely for his physics, his plagiarism, his philosophy of science, and for how he led others astray. I am not trying to cancel him. But as a human being, Millikan was a much better man. I am glad to see this paper defend him.

The Japanese relocation was a relatively minor wartime policy. Whatever you think today, it was backed by the generals, the governor, the President, and the US Supreme Court. The Japanese were treated very well, and compensated. Read about how Japan treated American prisoners of war, for comparison. It is absurd to attack Millikan for it, even if he were in favor of it.

Caltech was the last great meritocratic American university, but no more:

Caltech was unique among the most elite. Not long ago, Caltech boasted that on matters of admission, it made “no concessions to wealth, and it won’t sacrifice merit for diversity’s sake” [28, p 278]. David Baltimore, who was the president of Caltech and a member of the CNR committee, assured Golden that “Caltech would never compromise its standards. ‘People should be judged not by their parentage and wealth but by their skills and ability, ... Any school that I’m associated with, I want to be a meritocracy’” [28, p 284].

Never say never. The era of uncompromising standards at Caltech has come to an end. The Los Angeles Times reported on August 31, 2023 that Caltech is making historic changes to its admission standards. “In a groundbreaking step, the campus announced Thursday that it will drop admission requirements for calculus, physics, and chemistry courses for students who don’t have access to them and offer alternative paths. ...” “Data ... showed a significant racial gap in access to those classes.”

So canceling Millikan is just a step towards dismantling Caltech's greatness.

Some will say that we have upgraded our standards, and we now expect more from our idols. I don't buy it. Einstein is the biggest idol of all, and his reputation and stature has steadily grown since his death. And yet he was a horrible man.

I wonder if the real issue is that Millikan was a Christian. Also a White male. Respected and admired by everyone. Great family. Great American. If they can destroy his legacy, they can destroy anyone's.

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