A participant reports on last fall’s Stanford Academic Freedom Conference

January 13, 2023 • 11:00 am

Elizabeth Weiss, a professor of anthropology at San José State University in California, wrote a summary of Stanford’s Academic Freedom Conference this fall for Quillette (click headline below to to read). She was not only a reporter and a participant, but also a victim—professionally damaged by those who violated her academic freedom. That’s because she studies remains of Native Americans, and those remains are considered so sacred by Native Americans that scientists are barred from studying them before returning them to indigenous people. That, of course, prevents us from knowing a lot about human colonization of the Americas. But the law is complicated on issues about whether scientists really aren’t allowed to study the remains first or, importantly, whose remains are they given the copious of indigenous people in North America? In principle “fossil” DNA could settle that issue, but that’s not the way it’s done. Any group with a claim to the land gets what’s dug up on it. If valid claims can’t be established, I think the remains should be kept in scientific custody.

Weiss wrote about her travails in an earlier article. She was treated unfairly by her department: not only locked away from the anthropology collections but also forbidden to photograph or X-ray human bones—or even photograph the boxes in which they were kept.  The department also retaliated against her. Such is the conflict between indigenous “ways of owning” and science. My own view is that scientists should get the chance to extensively study the remains first, and then they can be given back to those who have a valid claim.

But you can read about the meetings below (yes, I do get a mention: I was part of a panel of four on the incursion of ideology into science), and you can see all the videos at this link. (Our science panel’s video is here). 

Weiss concentrates on the group of people suffered professionally via violations of their academic freedom (see this panel involving four of them), but I want to highlight one bit about the chilling of speech that was also part of this conference:

When it comes to possible solutions, Dorian Abbot called for the widespread adoption of his university’s 2014 Chicago Principles (and its much more venerable Kalven Report), which explicitly uphold academic freedom and serve to de-politicize the university’s mission. The Chicago Principles state that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” They also dictate that while people should be free to criticize and contest views expressed on campus, “they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”

What this means in practice is that no department or unit of our University, nor its administration, can make any political, ideological, or moral statement. The reason is that such pronouncements could chill the speech of people who fear opprobrium or professional damage by bucking “received and official opinion” There are rare exceptions to this policy that involve the University speaking up against initiatives that violate its vital mission of teaching and learning. We’re the only school in the country with such a principle, but the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is about to get one, too. But that’s it: out of several thousand colleges in America, only two forbid the chilling of speech by official university proclamations about politics and the like. Every American college and university should adhere not only to the Chicago Principles of Free Speech, but also the Kalven Report.

9 thoughts on “A participant reports on last fall’s Stanford Academic Freedom Conference

  1. then they can be given back to those who have a valid claim.

    (My emphasis.)
    This would explain, perhaps, some of the resistance to study of these materials. Establishing which of multiple claimants has a valid claim also means, of necessity, establishing that some of the claims are invalid. And an invalid claim of this sort is an un-thought. It is a concept that cannot be allowed to enter people’s minds.
    Even trying to avoid that problem by talking of which claims are more valid and which are less valid would encounter strong resistance, because that implies measurement and comparison of evidence … which is a slippery slope towards actually considering that evidence can be applied to questions like this, where everyone must win, all the time. Except for those pesky rationalists.

  2. I’d find the notion of knowing how people got into what is now America a subject worth studying if it only takes a few tests and then a respectful reburial in a sealed container.

  3. My father’s family came from skilled working class people (bootmakers) in Northamptonshire.

    My mother’s family came from farming people in Lancashire, although her father was a schoolteacher.

    They were both cremated. But if any of their DNA remained intact, my surviving sister and I would be delighted if it could shed any light on their history, susceptibility to the illnesses that killed them, or indeed anything else. We would certainly not regard them as having any supernatural or ancestral significance that prevented any serious research being done on them.

    What is wrong with these people?

    1. The issue is more complicated than Steve Pollard suggests. There aren’t only the alternatives: of attaching a supernatural significance to human remains or regarding them as properly treated as research material if doing so might be scientifically useful. I would recommend Ruth Richardson’s, Death, Dissection and the Destitute for an account of the history of the taking of human remains for scientific purposes. Fortunately there has developed a culture of donation of bodies, but not so long ago, poor people often were prevented from treating the bodies of their dead with the respect they wanted to give them.

  4. David Reich wrote about this problem in Who We Are and How We Got Here, Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past. He describes the known multiple migrations of humans to the Americas and how the people moved about once they arrived here. He ran up against the law requiring repatriation of human remains. It has slowed research.

    1. >”He describes the known multiple migrations of humans to the Americas . . .”

      Can I ask you to recheck that statement, Wayne? That’s not my understanding of what he says. I haven’t read his book but according to reviews and in his YouTube talks he doesn’t dispute the standard hypothesis that people from present-day Siberia migrated across the Bering land bridge while it was open, 15,000 – 25,000 years ago. DNA from the oldest aboriginal skeletons discovered in the Americas, ~13,000 years old, is consistent with a single ancestral population that was already established when their owners died. To the best of my knowledge he does not claim that humans migrated to the Americas more than once in that 10,000 year interval. I’m aware of the footprints found in New Mexico after his book came out that may be 30,000 years old but this is still in the ballpark of “once”.

      It’s possible that later waves could have exterminated those already here (or vice versa) without any interbreeding at all but this has not been the pattern elsewhere in the world when newcomers arrive.

      1. In Chapter 7 Reich describes several migrations to the Americas. Fig. 19 is titled “Genetic Evidence for at Least Four Prehistoric Migrations to America.” Reich notes that the migrations did not replace previous migrations. Various peoples settled in different regions. Ancient footprints were also found near the Great Salt Lake recently. These footprints date to about 12,000 years ago. Here is a link to a newspaper article. https://www.sltrib.com/news/2022/08/13/like-polaroid-developed-ancient/

    2. Reich is one of the authors of very carefully set out guidelines for DNA research on human remains, guidelines that respect all the stakeholders. The paper, in Nature, was written by archeologists, anthropologists, curators and geneticists, and the guidelines are intended to be applicable in a wide range of circumstances. Since Reich is only one of the authors, it may be that his interest in not slowing research is something that doesn’t come out. Certainly following ethical guidelines might slow research, but the paper in Nature argues for taking adequate care to respect the stakeholders. It also is very illuminating on what exactly such respect may involve in very varied contexts.

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