UPDATE: Now NBC News has covered the story in an article called “After lecture is canceled, free speech debate roils science academia.” It deals largely with David Romps’s resignation as Director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Science Center, which he details in a series of tweets (first one in the thread is below). (h/t Simon)
I am resigning as Director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center (BASC) @BerkeleyAtmo. To reduce the odds of being mischaracterized, I want to explain my decision here.
— David Romps (@romps) October 18, 2021
The saga of Dorian Abbot began quietly on my campus, and when it was resolved at the University of Chicago, I thought that was the end of it. But then, because Abbot had written and made videos criticizing affirmative action and DEI initiatives, he was disinvited from the prestigious Carlson lectures at MIT, where he was supposed to speak on global warming (they later offered him a smaller technical lecture on his work). This deplatforming was picked up by several venues in the conservative media, including the conservative columnist Bret Stephens at the NYT, but I was frustrated that the non-conservative press ignored such an egregious incident of cancellation.
It was especially egregious because Abbot wasn’t going to talk at MIT about DEI or the like, but about global warming and other planets. In other words, he was being punished for saying things in other venues that offended people. More than that: there is a valid debate about the methods of DEI initiatives, though their intent is admirable. I accept the need for some affirmative action as a means of reparation, but others don’t, and none of us should be punished or cancelled for our views.
Now both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have published new pieces on Abbotgate, which you can access by clicking below. The NYT piece is an article by Michael Powell, and seems to me pretty favorable by way of making Abbot seem unfairly treated by MIT. (He’s not biased, but the facts do indict MIT.) The op-ed in the WSJ is by Lawrence Krauss, and also deals with Abbot, further describing how DEI initiatives are stifling science and swallowing up academia. There’s also a piece in Quillette (third screenshot below) that is largely about Abbot.
All in all, MIT has not come out of this looking good. And although the MIT President, Provost, and head of the department that invited Abbot, Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (DEAPS) originally affirmed that yes, the school was strongly in favor free speech, and that Abbot had not really been canceled, but offered another (far inferior!) lecture, now they’re getting more defensive and hostile. Such is the Streisand effect.
I’ll give just the new information from the NYT piece. First, some anti-free-speech sentiments from the head of EAPS, much stronger than we’ve heard previously:
On Sept. 30, M.I.T. reversed course. The head of its earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences department called off Dr. Abbot’s lecture, to be delivered to professors, graduate students and the public, including some top Black and Latino high school students.
“Besides freedom of speech, we have the freedom to pick the speaker who best fits our needs,” said Robert van der Hilst, the head of the department at M.I.T. “Words matter and have consequences.”
The consequences are that you don’t get to talk about something irrelevant to words you’ve said before. And, as I emphasized, though Abbot and a colleague went a bit too far at the end of their Newsweek editorial on free speech, why should criticism of DEI, a perfectly valid philosophical and ethical debate, have such dire consequences? (Abbot notes correctly at the end that “these controversies will have a negative impact on my scientific career”.)
I’m quoted as well after a long interview with Powell, expressing surprise that scientists would get just as wokified as humanities people:
“I thought scientists would not get on board with the denial-of-free-speech movement,” said Jerry Coyne, an emeritus professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago. “I was absolutely wrong, 100 percent so.”
My point was that freedom of speech is taken for granted in science: each of us has the right—nay, duty—to criticize others whose work we think is wrong. I assumed (wrongly) that that scientists’ emphasis on free speech would carry over into politics. Well, I’m neither a politician nor a pundit.
A professor at Princeton asked Abbot to give his Carlson lecture at his school, and that will happen today. But there were other consequences:
The story took another turn this week, as David Romps, a professor of climate physics at the University of California, Berkeley, announced that he would resign as director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center. He said he had tried to persuade his fellow scientists and professors to invite Dr. Abbot to speak and so reaffirm the importance of separating science from politics.
“In my view, there are some institutional principles that we have to hold sacred,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.
His colleagues weren’t persuaded, so Romps resigned.
Now the NYT piece isn’t perfect, for in the two paragraphs below I see reporter Powell trying to imply that science is guilty of present-day as well as past racism:
The history of science is no less marked than other fields of learning by abhorrent chapters of suppression and prejudice. Nazi and Communist regimes twisted science to their own end, and scientists buckled, fled or suffered perilous consequences. Some professors point to aspects of that history as a cautionary tale for American science. In the United States, so-called race science — including the measurement of skulls with the intent to determine intelligence — was used to justify the subordination of Black people, Chinese, Italians, Jews and others. Experiments were carried out on people without their consent.
The worst of that history lies decades past. That said, the faculty at geoscience departments in the United States has more white faculty than some other sciences. Departments have attracted more female professors of late but struggle to recruit Black and Latino candidates. The number of Asian Americans earning geoscience degrees has decreased since the mid-1990s.
Indeed, the worst of that history lies decades past; at present, science departments are lining up in droves to hire good minority candidates. But the second paragraph, at least to me, is a Kendi-an implication that inequities in geoscience departments still reflect racism in those departments. That’s simply not true. It is a “pipeline problem” whose rectification requires a huge and necessary societal effort well beyond DEI efforts on the college and grad-school level.
There were professors who supported Abbot’s cancellation, of course. One is Phoebe Cohen, a geoscience professor at Williams College, who makes an unbelievably dumb statement that I’ve put in bold below:
Phoebe A. Cohen is a geosciences professor and department chair at Williams College and one of many who expressed anger on Twitter at M.I.T.’s decision to invite Dr. Abbot to speak, given that he has spoken against affirmative action in the past.
Dr. Cohen agreed that Dr. Abbot’s views reflect a broad current in American society. Ideally, she said, a university should not invite speakers who do not share its values on diversity and affirmative action. Nor was she enamored of M.I.T.’s offer to let him speak at a later date to the M.I.T. professors. “Honestly, I don’t know that I agree with that choice,” she said. “To me, the professional consequences are extremely minimal.”
What, she was asked, of the effect on academic debate? Should the academy serve as a bastion of unfettered speech?
“This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated,” she replied.
What? Intellectual debate and rigor are signs of toxic male white supremacy? What an outrageously stupid statement! Intellectual debate and rigor are de rigueur not just in science, but in academia as a whole. I mourn for Dr. Cohen’s geoscience students at Williams: are they taught to go with their feelings and emotions instead of “intellectual rigor” when they take her classes?
Finally, we return to the chair of MIT’s EAPS defending the cancelation. I’d be surprised if Abbot takes up the invitation to address his department (my emphasis):
Dr. van der Hilst speculated that Black students might well have been repelled if they learned of Dr. Abbot’s views on affirmative action. This lecture program was founded to explore new findings on climate science and M.I.T. has hoped to attract such students to the school. He acknowledged that these same students might well in years to come encounter professors, mentors even, who hold political views at odds with their own.
“Those are good questions but somewhat hypothetical,” Dr. van der Hilst said. “Freedom of speech goes very far but it makes civility difficult.”
Dr. van der Hilst added that he invited Dr. Abbot to meet privately with faculty there to discuss his research.
What happened to the departmental lecture? Has it been replaced by “private meetings with faculty”? At any rate, yes, students might have been repelled or offended by what Abbot said outside MIT, but they have plenty of recourse. They don’t have to go to Abbot’s lecture, they could picket it outside quietly, or they could use counterspeech. But Hilst even admits that the world is full of encounters with speech you don’t like, so why is Abbot being deplatformed? This is not “somewhat hypothetical”—those are weasel words—but real. So why can’t MIT use the Carlson Lecture as an example?
As for his last sentence, “Freedom of speech makes civility difficult,” yes, it’s partly true but not inevitable, and so what? Violation of civility is not protected by the Constitution, but freedom of speech is.
All in all, I’m pleased that the NYT not only covered Abbot’s disinvitation, but, in describing it objectively, still makes MIT look pretty bad. (I am of course biased, but I am not alone in my feelings.)
Here’s Lawrence Krauss’s short piece in the Wall Street Journal. He’s careful not to go after DEI initiatives in the way Abbot did, but still calls them out for injuring science and causing academic bloat. Click on screenshot:
Just two short from Krauss:
Several years ago, one began to see an additional criterion in advertisements for faculty openings. As a recent Cornell ad puts it: “Also required is a statement of diversity, equity and inclusion describing the applicant’s efforts and aspirations to promote equity, inclusion and diversity through teaching, research and service.” This sort of requirement became more common and is now virtually ubiquitous. Of the 25 most recent advertisements for junior faculty that appeared in Physics Today online listings as of Oct. 15—from research institutions like Caltech to liberal-arts colleges like Bryn Mawr, and even in areas as esoteric as quantum engineering and theoretical astrophysics—24 require applicants to demonstrate an explicit, active commitment to the DEI agenda.
This isn’t merely pro forma; it’s a real barrier to employment. The life-sciences department at the University of California, Berkeley reports that it rejected 76% of applicants in 2018-19 based on their diversity statements without looking at their research records. A colleague at a major research institution, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her students, wrote to me: “I have a student on the market this year, agonizing more on the diversity statement than on the research proposal. He even took training where they taught them how to write one. It breaks my heart to see this.” Other colleagues relate that their white male postdocs aren’t getting interviews or have chosen to seek jobs outside academia.
This is happening not only in universities. Last week the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a biomedical research charity, announced a $2.2 billion initiative aimed at reducing racial disparity, made possible by a contraction in its funding of significant research for senior investigators. The initiative includes $1.2 billion in grants for early-career researchers. Science magazine reports that because antidiscrimination law prohibits disqualifying applicants on the basis of race and sex, the recipients will be chosen based on their “commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” in the words of the institute’s president, Erin O’Shea. How? “Diversity statements,” she says, are “a very promising approach.”
In other words, diversity statements are a surrogate for the candidate’s race, and you can do an end run around illegal race-based hiring by ranking diversity statements. We’ve known this for a while, though.
Beyond these fearful faculty members, and talented would-be scientists who will be dissuaded or excluded from academic research, DEI offices are working to indoctrinate incoming students. This year at Princeton, the New York Post reports, freshmen were required to watch a video promoting “social justice” and describing dissenting debate as “masculine-ized bravado.” If such efforts succeed, a new generation of students won’t have the opportunity to subject their own viewpoints to challenge—surely one of the benefits of higher education.
Critics have likened DEI statements to the loyalty oaths of the Red Scare. In 1950 the University of California fired 31 faculty members for refusing to sign a statement disavowing any party advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government. That violated their freedom of speech and conscience, but this is worse. Whereas a loyalty oath compels assent to authority, a DEI statement demands active ideological engagement. It’s less like the excesses of anticommunism than like communism itself.
And now I’ve run out of space (and steam), so I’ll refer you to the article in Quillette (click on screenshot below) by Peter Schuck, the Simeon E. Baldwin Professor Emeritus of Law at Yale Law school. It ends like this:
The MIT fiasco should remind us how much cancel culture has to answer for. Although this culture’s activists are relatively few and its rhetoric is often risible in its hyperbole, its militants on college campuses sometimes have an outsize effect on others: cruelly blighted reputations, perverse policy agendas, stigmatization of moderate Democrats, and much more. But Princeton’s swift response to Abbot’s cancellation by providing an alternative, honored forum also suggests a hopeful, low-cost remedy, consistent with free speech and liberal academic values. MIT should be ashamed of its craven support for bullying—and perhaps other more principled institutions will heed this simple exemplary lesson.
Perhaps, but probably not.