Professor Phoebe Cohen of Williams College nabs the Lysenko Award for the Suppression of Academic Speech

October 29, 2021 • 10:30 am

Dr. Phoebe Cohen would just be another academic laboring away at woke Williams College (she’s an associate professor of Geosciences and department chair) if Michael Powell of the New York Times hadn’t mentioned her in its article on MIT’s deplatforming of University of Chicago Professor Dorian Abbot. Cohen was quoted as not only favoring deplatforming Abbot, but deplatforming anybody who opposes a school’s DEI program and, most invidiously (see my post here), Cohen dismissed intellectual debate and rigor as products of a white patriarchal culture (my emphasis in NYT quote 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.

Oy, does that get my kishkes in a knot! It’s not only dismissive of the only way science can move forward (how does she do science—by feelings?), it’s dismissive of every woman and every non-white person who tries to advance knowledge using the very methods Cohen decries.  What an extraordinarily stupid thing to say to a NYT writer! If she uses this philosophy in her classes, I weep for her students.

Now, however, Cohen is getting a taste of her own medicine, as those words she uttered have redounded upon her. In Wednesday’s NYT column by John McWhorter, “Wokeness is oversimplifying the American creed,” which defends Abbot and others who have been “cancelled”—like University of Michigan professor Bright Sheng—there are several mentions of Dr. Cohen in an unflattering light.

I’m less concerned with the particulars of Abbot’s case here than how it demonstrates our broader context these days. I refer to a new version of enlightenment; one that rejects basic tenets of the Enlightenment, as exemplified by Prof. Phoebe Cohen, chair of geosciences at Williams College, who downplayed Abbot’s apparent disinvitation with the observation, as reported by The New York Times, that “this idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism” — the idea, presumably, that the widest possible range of perspectives should be heard and scrutinized — “comes from a world in which white men dominated.”

. . .Clearly some cogitation is in order. Yet it appears that Abbot was barred from a more august podium out of an assumption that his views on racial preferences are beyond debate. Even though he was to speak on an unrelated topic. This “deplatforming” — if we must — was, in a word, simplistic.

Simplistic, too: Cohen points to a time when white men, exclusively, were in charge. Yes, but the obvious response is: “Does that automatically mean that their take on intellectual debate and rigor was wrong?” The implication that the questions Abbot raised are morally out of bounds forbids basic curiosity and rational calculation and stands athwart the very purpose of the small-L liberal education that universities are supposed to provide.

Twice in the New York Times in a week! Now that is infamy! What’s also interesting about this is McWhorter’s discussion at the end of Wokeness as a religion, a religion that Phoebe Cohen appears to espouse.
McWhorter:

Note also the eerie parallel between the conceptions of original sin and white privilege as unremovable stains about which one is to maintain a lifelong concern and guilt. Religions don’t always have gods, but they usually need sins, which in the new religion is the whiteness that supposedly bestrides everything in our lives.

There is a pitchfork aspect to how this way of thinking is penetrating our institutions of enlightenment. With an unreachable pitilessness, a catechism couched in an elaborate jargon is being imposed almost as if sacred: privilege, decentering, hegemony, antiracism. Nonbelievers, sometimes even agnostics, are cast out, leaving a cowed polity pretending to agree. This is a regrettable kind of religion, aiming to run the state. That’s not how this American experiment was supposed to go.

The only thing that will turn back this tide is a critical mass willing to insist on complexity, abstraction and forgiveness. As a Black man, I am especially appalled by the implication that to insist on these three things in thinking about race issues is somehow anti-Black.

Finally, Cohen, apparently unable to resist speaking to reporters and oblivious about how she looks, said this to the Boston Globe:

But Phoebe Cohen, one of Abbot’s critics, applauded the university’s decision.

“I did not actually call for the cancellation of the lecture, although now that it’s happened I support MIT’s decision to do that,” said Cohen, an associate professor of geosciences at Williams College and a former researcher at EAPS. Cohen said that arguments like Abbot’s discourage greater minority participation in the STEM specialties — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

”Underrepresented faculty and students have spoken out repeatedly about how harmful this kind of language is, and how it makes them feel like they have no place in STEM,” Cohen said. “I have colleagues who are negatively impacted by this language…I chose to believe them.”

Didn’t call for cancellation of the lecture? She might as well have if you look at what she said to the NYT above: she was “one of many who expressed anger on Twitter at M.I.T.’s decision to invite Dr. Abbot to speak.” Also note the emphasis on “harm” which is matched, as you’ll see below, by her emphasis on words and offense as “violence.” And any minority student who gives up participating in STEM simply because Dorian Abbot was invited to give a STEM lecture that has nothing to do with Abbot’s views of DEI needs some therapy.

If you don’t think Dr. Cohen is an acolyte of this “religion”, have a look at this column she wrote in the Williams student newspaper (click on the screenshot). While Cohen is right to decry sexism and racism, she’s wrong to say that it’s pervasive at Williams, or to insist that “violence, both physical and emotional, happens to our students, faculty and staff”. (She needs to understand that words and offense are not “violence”, and I’m not aware of any physical violence at Williams.)  But what makes her an acolyte of Wokeism is her self-flagellation at the beginning of her letter: her admission that she’s afflicted by the Original Sin:

 

Cohen’s opening confession:

I am white. I am racist. I am not proud of this fact, but I have accepted it. Acknowledging that I am racist helps me to become, I hope, less so. I catch my instinctive thoughts and ask them why they are there. Why am I feeling annoyed, fearful, dismissive in this moment? When someone in my community at Williams tells me they feel unsafe, and my first instinct is skepticism, I know that it is a fallacy to say that I’m skeptical because of my training as a scientist. Instead, it is because I don’t want to believe that my colleagues are racist, sexist, transphobic. Not believing it doesn’t make it true. I am a white person raised in a racist, white supremacist country. Every day I have to make a conscious decision to fight against that and to challenge my own thoughts and biases.

Are Cohen’s colleagues at all disturbed by her characterizing them as “recist, sexist, and transphobic”?

She goes on to describe the nonexistent violence at Williams, and says that we must believe those who claim that it happens. I’ve been following Williams for a while, and haven’t seen racism, much less “violence” at the college. There have been one or two racist incidents like odious graffiti, but they appear to have been hoaxes. Williams is about the most antiracist campus I know, second only to Evergreen State and Middlebury. Yet people like Cohen don’t realize that they’re smearing the reputation of their own school by insisted that it’s infested with bigots.

This reminds me of something John McWhorter said in his column today, which hasn’t yet been published (I get the newsletter):

I don’t completely trust white guilt. It lends itself too easily to virtue signaling, which overlaps only partially, and sometimes not at all, with helping people. I recall a brilliant, accomplished, kind white academic of a certain age who genially told me — after I published my first book on race, “Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America,” two decades ago — “John, I get what you mean, but I reserve my right to be guilty.” I got what he meant, too, and did not take it ill. But still, note that word “right.” Feeling guilty lent him something personally fulfilling and signaled that he was one of the good guys without obligating him further. The problem is that one can harbor that feeling while not actually doing anything to bring about change on the ground.

The final ignominy: Louis K. Bonham at the Minding the Campus site has bestowed on Cohen the first “Minding the Campus Lysenko Award,” named after the charlatan agronomist Trofim Lysenko, who screwed up Soviet genetics for decades with his false and falsified theories of “vernalization.” Because Lysenko didn’t follow the scientific method but was resolutely supported by Stalin, millions died of famine,’ and good Russian geneticists, like Nikolai Vavolov, were imprisoned or killed.  The award thus dishonors those who suppress academic dissent, like Cohen. From Bonham:

The moral of Lysenko is that suppressing academic debate and dissent for political reasons yields bad science, bad scholarship, and inevitably bad results. It can even lead to the collapse of nations. The genius of the scientific method and Western academic culture is that you get closer to the truth by subjecting all theories and ideas to rigorous testing and debate. When you frustrate this process because you are afraid the results might prove politically inconvenient, uncomfortable, or “triggering,” the ghost of Lysenko smiles.

Ergo:

Our winner, however, has no such excuse. While also involved in l’affaire Abbot, she is not on the MIT faculty or in its administration, so unlike Prof. van der Hilst [who got the “Dishonorable Mention” award], she was not thrust into the fray. Nevertheless, this Williams College department chair helped lead the keyboard warriors demanding that Prof. Abbot be disinvited from giving the Carlson Lecture—not because his science was unsound, or that he was unqualified, or that he had broken the law or committed a tort, but because he believes that individuals in higher education should be evaluated based on their individual merit rather than their membership in an identity group. Scandalous, I know. Apropos to the purpose of our award, when interviewed by the New York Times, our winner justified her actions thusly:

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.

Trofim Lysenko would be pleased, although he likely would have formulaically dismissed the need for academic rigor and debate as being the product of fascist-bourgeois-imperialist-capitalist culture, instead of the current wokeism of “straight white men” as the source of the world’s problems.

So congratulations, Williams College Professor Phoebe Cohen, you are the first recipient of the Minding the Campus Lysenko Award for the Suppression of Academic Speech.

After all this, Cohen is now getting a taste of her own medicine, the kind of taste she says, in a piece from NBC News, that Abbot deserves.

But equating the cancellation of a school’s public lecture to censorship oversimplifies the matter, said Phoebe Cohen, a paleontologist and associate professor of geosciences at Williams College. She said concerns over whether such actions curtail free speech on campuses are overblown.

“It becomes this battle cry of free speech and academic freedom, but he has academic freedom,” Cohen said of Abbot. “He is allowed to say whatever he wants to say, and he has, but that doesn’t mean that he’s free from consequences.”

And while universities should uphold academic freedoms, Cohen said, institutions also have a responsibility to consider the communities their students and faculties are a part of.

“It comes down to who is being harmed,” she said. “Universities don’t have a responsibility to platform people who are harming others.”

Cohen, too, is not “free from the consequences” of her ridiculous views. Instead of finding ubiquitous approbation for her statements, which I guess she expected, she was criticized heavily on Twitter.  Since she won’t be fired or cancelled—and she shouldn’t be—I don’t care if the Twitter criticism bothered her or offended her. (When she strikes out with words, it’s appropriate to respond with words.) It apparently did bother her, though, for first she cancelled her Twitter account and then restricted it a few days ago:

 

31 thoughts on “Professor Phoebe Cohen of Williams College nabs the Lysenko Award for the Suppression of Academic Speech

  1. … this sort of thing – the DEI thing – seems like it shouldn’t occupy 100% of an individual’s efforts – but why – from that presented here – which sounds substantially complex – does this sound like it would exclude all else – like focusing on science?

    That is, DEI seems that, if it is supposed to solve problems, if it works, SHOULD be committed to 100% by an individual – at the exclusion of all else – it seems it should be one’s mission… in a way affirmative action is not – AA seems to work in the background… but it works…

  2. “Williams is about the most antiracist campus I know, second only to Evergreen State and Middlebury. Yet people like Cohen don’t realize that they’re smearing the reputation of their own school by insisted it’s infested with bigots.”

    They brush aside your logic — the claim of ‘racism’ does not require the existence of bigots.

    In fact, I suggest they prefer bigots not be identified. They want to cancel the word “bigots” because the identification of such a person puts the ‘crime’ on an objective basis. This is undesirable.

    A tremendous amount of energy, propaganda, and screaming has been invested in the word “racist” to make it function as a “fork” (chess term): everything is racist (as needed) down to the vaguest whiff of the culture and needs no specification, yet on the other hand if a specific person or rock requires annihilation, the term “racist” can serve to skewer.

    This way, “bigot” is avoided, as in “well, if there is racial injustice in the culture, all we have to do is get rid of the bigots.”

  3. Sigh…Latino professor here, and while I shouldn’t question motives, at times, the excessive wokeness smacks of “white saviorism.” If you want to genuinely help minorities, donate to scholarship funds and hold us to the same standard you’d hold anyone else. That is how you grow enough to get those science/engineering jobs.

    1. Yes, exactly. Instead, universities create a few high-level administrative jobs as DEI deans or vice presidents, and then hire wealthy, well-educated, middle-class people into those few jobs. The same money could fund dozens of scholarships every year, and make student lives better.

  4. She sounds a little proud of it. . . .

    I think McWhorter is wrong to describe this as a “new Enlightenment,” which would ultimately just be confusing, like when these people talk about democracy, but mean something totally different. I vote for the revival of Counter-Enlightenment, which has the virtue of tying these people in with their intellectual fore-bearers who were against rationalism, objectivity, and universalism.

  5. “I have colleagues who are negatively impacted by this language…I chose to believe them.”

    I believe them too. But I also think it’s better for me and society in the long run when the marketplace of ideas is open to the comments of people who have said things that negatively impact me.

    When someone in my community at Williams tells me they feel unsafe, and my first instinct is skepticism…

    Your first instinct should not be skepticism. I wouldn’t start from the position of doubting someone’s sincerity. But your first instinct you also not be to limit other people’s speech in response to that feeling. Your first instinct should be to find a way to help them feel safe without impinging on the freedoms of others. So, for example, talking through what specific unsafe thing they fear. Attack? Discrimination? Walking through if there is a real, rational connection between the speech and the fear (there might be! Consider Trump’s egging on his followers), or not (there might not be!). Then acting to reduce the risk of the bad act – not the speech – if the rational connection is real, and helping the person overcome their fear and see it as irrational if instead it’s irrational.

    I acknowledge the feelings component here. Where I object is the assumption by the woke that such feelings must lead to one, and only one specific, type of response. There are many options for making people feel safer. Explore what can be done that doesn’t prevent others from expressing political and social positions. Else you’re going to find quickly that woke notions make conservatives feel unsafe.

    1. “Your first instinct should not be skepticism. I wouldn’t start from the position of doubting someone’s sincerity.”

      I agree, one should assume good will on the part of the other person. But from Cohen’s pov this principle only applies to those she agrees with already.

      It’s a kind of motte-and-bailey: declare one’s willingness to believe others, but retreat to accusations of bad faith when challenged.

    2. “Your first instinct should not be skepticism. I wouldn’t start from the position of doubting someone’s sincerity.”

      You are confusing _cynicism_ with skepticism.

      I think cynicism cannot be eradicated, and can be used sometimes to more accurately understand _some_ things.

      But _letting_cynicism_make_decisions_ is when the poisonous nature of cynicism makes its full damage.

      Skepticism is altogether good, in my view, as distinct from cynicism.

    3. A little more thought suggested a clarification :

      Prof. Cohen : “When someone in my community at Williams tells me they feel unsafe, and my first instinct is skepticism ”

      Originally I wrote that eric is confusing skepticism with cynicism. I’m sure eric understands that distinction, but the important point eric sniffed out was that Prof. Cohen’s statement expresses the … inverse?… apparently claiming to apply skepticism when the more accurate word is in fact cynicism.

      I din’t even know why skepticism would apply here, if someone at a college says they are unsafe… by looking for the nearest fire extinguishers? Fire exits? Flood shelters? Is a tree almost ready to fall over? Did the buildings fail inspection? It is not clear.

    4. Here’s the quote in full for the record :

      “When someone in my community at Williams tells me they feel unsafe, and my first instinct is skepticism, I know that it is a fallacy to say that I’m skeptical because of my training as a scientist. Instead, it is because I don’t want to believe that my colleagues are racist, sexist, transphobic. ”

      … which makes even less sense to me now…

  6. Unfortunately, Cohen will likely see all this criticism as affirmation that her viewpoint is correct and double down on her illiberal views. Introspection does not seem a strong point of those who are deeply woke.

    1. Well, what are we supposed to do, then? Not criticize her? We have to call out this kind of craziness rather than shut up and say, “well, it won’t accomplish anything.” For the latter surely WON’T accomplish anything..

      1. Not criticizing her is not what I wanted to suggest. Mostly my comment was an expression of my current pessimism for improving the attitudes in academia and other institutions.

    2. That might be true as most people find it hard to abandon strongly held beliefs. But we still need to criticize her position loudly for the benefit of all those still on the fence with respect to CRT and Wokeness. I get the feeling many of the Woke adopted their worldview from those around them. They often act as if everyone moral believes as they do. They need to hear that, in fact, it is quite the minority position and not a particularly moral one if examined closely.

  7. The interesting thing about this is that it is always the same with the Wokies. And yet, despite their uniformity, I always encounter well-intentioned left-liberal people who never heared, never saw, never witnessed, never came across any of this. They say it’s just overblown, not real, doesn’t exist, not a thing, and invented by right wingers.

    Now this person made into the NYT twice. And her statements are about as stereotypical as they could get, down to the massive projection paired with a religious element. She does not reconsider her views and simply adjusts them as a normal person would. She rather embraces a bigger overriding belief structure that tells her more natural “racist” (according to herself) intuitions how wrong she is. That truly is religious, as those overarching beliefs are summoned and worshipped by a community she seeks approval of; it’s literally a “spirit” of her environment that holds power over her, like a local, but important deity that must be appeased, and which demands sacrifices. (I know McWorther goes on about religiousness of wokeness, but credit goes to countless people before him who pointed it out years earlier).

    1. To quote an oft repeated phrase: “Science asks questions that may never be answered, a religion gives answers that can never be questioned. ” The authoritarian far left is a religion.

  8. “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.”

    Yes, and so did indoor plumbing, fire departments, antibiotics and the internet. I’m hoping she is consistent in her ideology and rejects those and every other comfort, convenience and advance that occurred during the horrifying reign of white men.

    1. … I do not really like my previous comment, for a lengthy reason, but oh well.

      However, as to the innovations mentioned, I wanted to add steroid synthesis – because the person who did the basic research to start that industry is Percy Julian :

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percy_Lavon_Julian

      … in modern parlance, a Black man in the United States.

  9. There are 200 million active tweeters each day so I have no idea why it would bother anyone if maybe 0.01% of them got a bit shouty at them.

    After all it doesn’t take much to get 0.01% of tweeters shouty.

    And it wouldn’t bother me if some shouty
    pundit started throwing some of those knee jerk, meaningless words at me (whether it be “TERF”, “woke” or the silliest of them all “”virtue signalling”). I don’t have any automatic respect for someone just because they get published in the media.

    So I don’t see why any of that would bother Cohen at all other than the clutter of shouty tweeters on her timeline. And it shouldn’t bother her. If that is what she believes she should say so.

    So Cohen got her free speech, McWhorter got his free speech, 0.01% of shouty tweeters got their free speech. Good for them.

    Let’s focus on the real issue. The people with the actual power to pull Abbot’s gig pulled Abbot’s gig.

    Not anyone else.

    We should concentrate on why they felt obliged to do that when they were perfectly free to do otherwise.

    1. The people with the actual power to pull Abbot’s gig pulled Abbot’s gig.

      I’ll take a guess … they were old white men at their pinnacle?

  10. “Cohen points to a time when white men, exclusively, were in charge.”
    I am unaware of such a time, at least in Western/European history. Of course most of the monarchs and such were men, but strong female rulers appear pretty regularly in our history, either as absolute rulers, or as regents.
    I don’t think there has been a period in the modern era when science has been the exclusive province of men, either. If we demand a world where 51% of Nobel prizes and Fields medals go to women, we might be disappointed. but women have won those awards.
    My sister recently retired from her job as a physicist at a national laboratory. Many of her peers, and the longtime head of her department, were women as well. A lot of them were not especially White, either.
    I know for an absolute fact that the science they did absolutely required “debate and rigor”. Applied nuclear physics without rigor would be very messy, I imagine.

    The whole “I am racist, see how humble I am” seems like mental illness to me. If you actually see yourself that way, and feel that you cannot reform yourself, you should resign.
    If a school teacher confesses to being a pedophile, even if they blame it on being raised in a society that sexualizes children, they need to go, immediately. I don’t want to hear that they have accepted their predilections, or that they suspect that their colleagues share those impulses.
    I do not care that they make a “conscious decision to fight against that and to challenge my own thoughts and biases.”

    It seems wrong to admire such people for their admissions. Nobody needs racists or pedophiles in teaching positions anywhere. They should be escorted away immediately, and charged with trespassing if they resist.

    1. I fully agree with everything you said.

      “The whole “I am racist, see how humble I am” seems like mental illness to me. ”

      Exactly, there’s clearly an element of psychopathology in all this.

      The proper response to people that are deranged used to be to first politely ignore them, and if they become too disruptive, making sure that they would get treatment. We seem to have lost even the ability to deal with the mentally ill.

      Sometimes it feels like the crazies have taken over the asylum…

  11. Hmmm, seeing her described as a “geoscientist” I did a bit of digging – that term can cover a lot of not-very-geo and not-very-science things.
    Nope – looks like she’s the Real McCoy in that regard – a perfectly respectable publication record in microfossils and geochemistry, particularly of the Neoproterozoic (Ediacaran) to early Phanerozoic. Specialisms on the Namibian stuff and the Neverheardofthat Formation, Alaska. I even recognise some of the paper titles, so I’ve probably read them – not surprising, one of my interest areas. Publications up to 2020 – which probably means she doesn’t update the records terribly often. But she isn’t utterly consumed by “extra-science activities”.

    https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Phoebe-Cohen

    There is another “PACohen” who does stuff in cancer biochemistry and particularly how hormones interact with cancer. That one’s publication record is full of “woman’s health” buzzwords, but nothing to do with DEI rows as far as I can see.

    1. The Geoscience program I went through was mostly geology courses, with oceanography, astronomy (which I minored in), and meteorology. I also minored in chemistry. Most who went through the program also majored in Education with the goal of becoming Earth Science teachers. My first jobs out of college were working with environmental engineering companies.

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