Stanford’s faculty senate condemns a colleague for exercising free (but misguided) speech

January 6, 2021 • 9:15 am

Once again we have a professor who said stupid stuff—not hateful this time, but medically wonky and potentially dangerous—and was officially condemned by his University.

Hot off the press from The Stanford News (click on screenshot): Scott Atlas, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution—and formerly a professor and chief of neuroradiology at the Stanford University Medical Center—became a coronavirus advisor in the Trump administration, and proceeded to make a number of pronouncements about the pandemic that contravened medical wisdom.  Last Thursday he was condemned in a Stanford faculty resolution, with 85% of the faculty voting for that resolution.

So here we have the usual conflict between freedom of speech and the “harm” imputed to that speech. And once again, while condemning the speaker, I defend Atlas’s right to say what he wants without institutional condemnation.

From the report:

A resolution, introduced by members of the Faculty Senate Steering Committee and approved by 85 percent of the senate membership, specified six actions that Atlas has taken that “promote a view of COVID-19 that contradicts medical science.”

Among the actions cited are: discouraging the use of masks and other protective measures, misrepresenting knowledge and opinion regarding the management of pandemics, endangering citizens and public officials, showing disdain for established medical knowledge and damaging Stanford’s reputation and academic standing. The resolution states that Atlas’ behavior is “anathema to our community, our values and our belief that we should use knowledge for good.”

The resolution singles out for criticism Atlas’ recent Twitter call to the people of Michigan to “rise up” against new public health measures introduced by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to curb disease spread.

“As elected representatives of the Stanford faculty, we strongly condemn his behavior,” the resolution states. “It violates the core values of our faculty and the expectations under the Stanford Code of Conduct, which states that we all ‘are responsible for sustaining the high ethical standards of this institution.’”

In approving the resolution, members of the senate called on university leadership to “forcefully disavow Atlas’ actions as objectionable on the basis of the university’s core values and at odds with our own policies and guidelines concerning COVID-19 and campus life.”

The indictment goes beyond simply damning Atlas for misrepresenting the scientific consensus in a potentially harmful way (presumably if he misrepresented continental drift there would have been no faculty resolution), but criticizes him for giving the imprimatur of Stanford and the Hoover Institution to his words. This is a common way to criticize speech: by saying that the speaker is an authority figure and puts the weight of his/her position behind the words.

In discussion, David Spiegel, the Jack, Samuel and Lulu Willson Professor in Medicine, who has been among Atlas’ most vocal critics, reiterated his belief that the university has an obligation to act because Atlas has inappropriately used his position at the Hoover Institution to give credibility to his COVID-19 positions.

“What Atlas has done is an embarrassment to the university,” Spiegel said. “He is using his real affiliation with Hoover to provide credibility in issues he has no professional expertise to discuss in a professional way.”

Yes, of course what Atlas said was dumb, and would have potentially harmful effects on those who followed his public statements. (But be mindful that there have been dissenters from the received wisdom about how to control the pandemic. Sweden, for instance, initially (and fruitlessly) sought to stem the pandemic through herd immunity—one of Atlas’s recommendations.)

But stupid pronouncements, even when made as an official of the Trump administration (and a fellow on leave from Hoover) constitute free speech. Atlas’s intent, or so he said in his response to the resolution, was neither intended to cause harm (the guy was just clueless), nor, if harmful, did it cause immediate harm. Ergo it’s free speech under the First Amendment.

And it doesn’t violate freedom of speech to make a pronouncement as an individual affiliated with Stanford. As far as I know, if I tweeted, as Professor Jerry Coyne, “Face masks are useless for preventing spread of the virus,” I would not be violating the First Amendment simply because I mentioned my position.  I might be violating a company’s regulations, or Stanford’s regulations (though I don’t know if that’s the case), but Stanford, although a private university, should not have rules that prevent free speech among its faculty.

Indeed, faculty who voted against Atlas recognized the tension between free speech and “harmful speech”, but resolved it in favor of preventing harm. It’s a case of “we favor free speech BUT. . . ”

In his comments on the issue, [Stanford] President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said he was “deeply troubled by the views by Dr. Atlas, including his call to ‘rise up’ in Michigan.” Tessier-Lavigne noted that Atlas later clarified his statements, but he said that the tweet “was widely interpreted as an undermining of local health authorities, and even a call to violence.”

Tessier-Lavigne reiterated Stanford’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom. Atlas, he asserted, remains free to express his opinions.

“But we also believe that inflammatory remarks of the kind at issue here by someone with the prominence and influence of Dr. Atlas have no place in the context of the current global health emergency,” he said. “We’re therefore compelled to distance the university from Dr. Atlas’s views in the strongest possible terms.”

No, President Tessier-Lavigne, Atlas’s misguided statements were NOT a “call to violence”, at least of the immediate and predictable kind that does violate the First Amendment. Atlas even made that clear. How a statement is interpreted by people is not important; what’s important, if you’re seeking to damn someone for free speech, is what they intended to do. 

The University didn’t have to pass a resolution “distancing itself” from Atlas, and that wouldn’t have happened at the University of Chicago. For passing such resolutions chills speech, and, as our Kalven report emphasizes, says these wise words:

The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

In this case the University (Stanford) is the critic, making public pronouncements so it looks good. And by so doing, it chills the speech of those faculty who would advance renegade views. Some of the faculty even recognized this:

The discussion of Atlas’ actions raised issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech, as it has in the past. Among those expressing concern about the resolution’s effect on freedom of speech and academic freedom was John Etchemendy, former provost, the Patrick Suppes Family Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Denning Family Co-Director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.

Etchemendy said that the resolution could be interpreted as suggesting Stanford faculty members have less freedom of speech rights than members of society in general.

But Etchemendy said, “As far as the statements that have been made by Atlas, as a private citizen he has the right to make those statements. I am troubled by the idea that a person who has those rights to speak and to assert certain things – however outrageous – have fewer rights to speak, given that they are Stanford faculty. I find that to be contrary to what is, I think, the highest value of the university, which is the value and promotion of free speech and open dialogue.”

I agree wholly with Etchemendy. But clearly most faculty, even if they do favor free speech and academic freedom, favor the “free speech BUT. . .” variety. One more quote:

Debra Satz, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, said she believes the resolution has reminded the university of the importance of leading with its values.

“In our messaging, we have sometimes been more focused on the legal issues rather than the value issues,” she said. “This brings the value issues front and center. We have been pretty good at pointing to the value of freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry, which I believe are central. But there are other values at stake. As a university, we have a commitment to push back against the undermining of expertise and knowledge. That is one of the great threats to our democracy at the moment.”

In my view (others may differ), those “other values”, which constitute misinformation—even potentially harmful misinformation—do not outweigh the great value of freedom of speech, especially at a university. Stanford should have kept its collective mouth shut.

Now you might be asking, “Well, what’s the difference between what Atlas said and false advertising, which DOES violate the First Amendment?”  After all, Atlas’s statement, like false advertising of drugs, could be harmful to people’s health.

As far as I know, commercial advertising has a bit less leeway than other forms of speech, and what has been prohibited by the courts is deceptive commercial advertising, when a firm makes claims it knows to be wrong. That is not the case for Atlas, who believed what he said. But even if he knew what he said was wrong, he should be damned and excoriated for it by counterspeech, not subject to official university condemnation. Universities, after all, should be kept as unsullied as possible by the chilling of speech, for they are places where ideas should be freely expressed and debated.

Atlas is a moron, but even morons get to say dumb things under the First Amendment.

I was going to put a poll here, “Do you agree that Stanford should have had a vote on condemning Atlas?” But I’d rather hear what you have to say in the comments, so speak up.

When, if ever, can you use the “n-word”?

December 15, 2020 • 12:15 pm

About three years ago I got a frantic call from a teacher in the upper Midwest asking for help. Her high school had banned her from teaching Huckleberry Finn to her upper-level English class because the book contained the “n-word”. She thought it was important to not only let the students read the book, but also to read that word, unexpurgated, in class (there were readings aloud). She was willing as well to have a discussion about the use of the word with the students, which I thought was good.  Sadly, I couldn’t help her, for there’s not much someone like me can do on the high school level about such matters.

This kind of censorship has occurred with other works of literature as well, including To Kill a Mockingbird and the stories of Flannery O’Connor. Even historical documents get censored. In the two articles below by libertarian law scholar Eugene Volokh, he reports that his own school UCLA condemned a lecturer, W. Ajax Peris, for reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” aloud. The essay is a classic of anti-racism literature, and an iconic document in the struggle for civil rights.  It also contains the “n-word.”  Peris’s crime was that he read that word aloud, quoting the text directly. (I’m referring, of course to the full word.)

King’s letter contains two mentions of the word; here’s one:

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

That’s eloquent, and the word serves a real purpose here—showing its hurtful use in oppressing and degrading black people. Frankly, I don’t see the use of glossing over it, or saying the “n word” in its place, for the “offense” of the word is no worse than the images it conjures up: beatings, lynchings, and cross-burnings. Nevertheless, Peris was reported to the University and condemned by his department. It’s not clear yet whether he’ll suffer further punishment. One thing is for sure, though: he’ll be ostracized.

This brings us to the crux of the matter: is it okay to use the n-word in full when you’re reading it in a historical or literary context? The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) says “yes”, arguing that the entire unredacted word has a didactic purpose, and prohibiting its utterance is an infringement of academic freedom:

Peris’s academic freedom, as a faculty member at a public institution bound by the First Amendment, includes the right to decide whether and how to confront or discuss difficult or offensive material, including historical readings that document our nation’s centuries-long history of racism,” Patton said. “Doing so does not amount to unlawful discrimination or harassment, and the law is abundantly clear that UCLA could not investigate or punish a professor for exercising his expressive or academic freedom.”

UCLA is, of course, a public university, and so the First Amendment applies, which allows the use of such a word, especially when it’s not a “fighting word”.

I think the same argument holds true for any historical document or work of literature, so long as it’s presented in a didactic and not disparaging way. Yes, some people may be offended, while others may feign offense (after all, the word is regularly used by blacks themselves, and is pervasive in rap music; the crime is that the word is uttered didactically by a non-black person—but one who is not trying to insult someone). Still, there are a lot of things that are offensive, but none so taboo as the n-word. As a Jew who’s been subjected to similar slurs, those involving epithets like “yid”, “kike”, “Hebe”, and so on, I have to say that I do find them offensive, and would be angry and upset if they were directed at me or other Jews (secular or not). But when they occur in law documents or literature, as they do in, say, The Catcher in the Rye, I find no problem with reading them, silently or aloud.

Why, though, shouldn’t professors redact the word to the shortened “n-word” version when teaching it? Well, think of how that would sound when reading King’s letter. And should you redact the letter itself, changing the text to read “when your first name becomes ‘n-word’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’. . . . .?”  It’s not the same, is it? King’s eloquent denunciation of black oppression is watered down.

In the piece below, Volokh describes how his dean at UCLA apologized (but Volokh did not) for Volokh’s quoting a law case when a man was prosecuted for “loud, abusive, or otherwise improper language” for saying “What, are you an idiot? What do I have to do, be a nigger to be served in this—in this place?”  That’s directly from the law transcript. As Volokh and Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy emphasize in their longer piece below, the word “nigger” has been spelled out in full in literally thousands of court decisions, including those authored by the likes of Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O’Conner, Clarence Thomas and so on. They didn’t abbreviate the word because they insist on accuracy; and abbreviation not only broaches that accuracy, but distorts the offense.

Lawyers obey what Volokh call the “use-mention” distinction, which draws a bright line between using such a word as an insult, and referencing them in a didactic context, like court cases or teaching literature.  As Volokh says in the article below:

Professors certainly shouldn’t use epithets, racial or otherwise, to themselves insult people. But when they are talking about what has been said, I think it’s important that they report it as it was said. This is often called the “use-mention distinction,” see, e.g., Randall Kennedy, How a Dispute Over the N-Word Became a Dispiriting Farce, Chron. Higher Ed., Feb. 8, 2019; John McWhorter, If President Obama Can Say It, You Can Too, Time, June 22, 2015 (distinguishing “using” from “referring to”).

Thus, when I have talked in my First Amendment Law class about Cohen v. California, I talked about Cohen’s “Fuck the Draft” jacket, not “F-word the Draft.” When I talked about Snyder v. Phelps, I talked about Phelps’ signs saying things like “God Hates Fags.” When I talked about Matal v. Tam, I talked about a trademark for a band called “The Slants,” which some view as a derogatory term for Asians. I suspect many, likely most, law professors do the same; they should certainly be allowed to. If I were to talk about the Redskins trademark case, I would say “Redskins,” rather than talk around the word, the way some news outlets apparently do.

What’s useful in Volokh’s piece above is his list of reasons why you shouldn’t abbreviate the n-word in a “mention” context. He gives five reasons. I won’t go into them all, but they include some of what I said above, as well as the “slippery slope” argument: once a word is made taboo, it makes it easier to make other words taboo, as each group demands that it gets the same consideration. This is not just a theoretical speculation: people have already been punished for using the term “Negro”, “wetback,” “bitch” and “fag.” And of course there are blasphemy considerations as well: many believers get deeply inflamed when someone in academic or intellectual discourse criticizes Islam or mocks the Prophet. Some of those people are even driven to murder! Nevertheless, I, at least, don’t favor a ban on such speech or images.

I recommend you go the article above and read Volokh’s arguments. They’re certainly worth considering.

After several experiences like this, and observing the censorship of those who use taboo words in the “mention” rather than “use” (derogatory) context, Volokh and his UCLA Academic Senate Committee on Academic Freedom created a statement prompted by Peris’s denunciation. It’s contained in the post below, or you can read it directly here. It allows instructors free rein to assign material that is potentially offensive, but also allows students the right to discuss that material, which is only fair.  As Volokh says, “it’s not a binding university rule [JAC: it should be, as similar principles apply in my school], but we hope it will be influential.”

Finally we get to the document at the bottom (click on screenshot below the book) that really does make a compelling case for the “use/mention distinction”: a 32-page, heavily documented piece written by Volokh and Randall Kennedy. If you read Kennedy’s biography above, you’ll know he’s not only a black, liberal, anti-racist Harvard Law Professor specializing in race law and relations, but has no problem using the n-word in full. In fact, he wrote a book about it in 2003 (click below to go to its Amazon page). You can also see Randall Kennedy discussing the word’s use on a PBS video here.

The Washington Post published an excerpt from Chapter 1, which you can see here

I read the entire 32-page document; it’s easier if you don’t delve deeply into the footnotes. Much of it is about the potentially detrimental effect of expurgating words on law students, but the overall argument is a general one for free speech and academic freedom.

In the end, I think I agree with Kennedy and Volokh: professors should be able to use any words in the “mention” context so long as they’re relevant, and students have the right to object or give counterarguments. And I have no problem with professors deciding to censor themselves: University of Chicago professor Geoff Stone stopped saying the whole n-word in his First Amendment law school class after the Association of Black Law Students objected. I wouldn’t fault him for that.

I won’t really have this dilemma, as I no longer teach, and, at any rate, none of my lectures come within miles of using potentially offensive words. But I believe that anybody who does so for good reason in the classroom (or in other didactic contexts) shouldn’t be censored, punished, or rebuked.

U of C President Robert Zimmer issues statement supporting faculty’s freedom of speech

November 30, 2020 • 9:00 am

Yesterday I reported on a fracas going on in my university’s Department of Geophysical Science. An associate professor, Dorian Abbot, put up four YouTube videos (now removed) questioning the department’s procedures for diversity and inclusion, as well as the need for affirmative action as opposed to pure meritocracy. A group of students and alums reacted with outrage, demanding in a letter to the Geophys Sci faculty that Abbot be punished and the department undergo all sorts of procedures to ensure that this “bigotry” never happen again—or at least without sanctions on the perp.

In response, a change.org petition addressed to President Robert Zimmer went up, and as of this morning had been signed by 7,123 people (click on screenshot), including Steve Pinker, who tweeted about it (click on screenshot below to see the petition):

As Reader Coel noted in his comment yesterday, Zimmer didn’t lose any time defusing this controversy, for yesterday he issued this statement (click on screenshot), which I reproduce below in its entirety. It doesn’t pull any punches, and renders the petition moot.

Though Zimmer’s statement was clearly prompted by l’affair Abbot, it properly doesn’t mention his name, but simply upholds the principle that faculty members can say anything they want without fear of retribution, unless the statement violates the law or University policy. Abbot’s statements, whatever you think of them, don’t constitute such violations. (Bolding in the statement below is mine.)

To:        Members of the University Community
From:    Robert J. Zimmer, President
Re:        Statement on Faculty, Free Expression, and Diversity
Date:     November 29, 2020

From time to time, faculty members at the University share opinions and scholarship that provoke spirited debate and disagreement, and in some cases offend members of the University community.

As articulated in the Chicago Principles, the University of Chicago is deeply committed to the values of academic freedom and the free expression of ideas, and these values have been consistent throughout our history. We believe universities have an important role as places where novel and even controversial ideas can be proposed, tested and debated. For this reason, the University does not limit the comments of faculty members, mandate apologies, or impose other disciplinary consequences for such comments, unless there has been a violation of University policy or the law.  Faculty are free to agree or disagree with any policy or approach of the University, its departments, schools or divisions without being subject to discipline, reprimand or other form of punishment.

That said, no individual member of the faculty speaks for the University as a whole on any subject, including on issues of diversity. In turn, the University will continue to defend vigorously any faculty member’s right to publish and discuss his or her ideas.

The University is committed to creating an inclusive environment where diversity is not only represented but individuals are empowered to fully participate in the exchange of ideas and perspectives. As University leaders we recognize that there is more work to be done and are strengthening initiatives to attract faculty, students and staff of diverse backgrounds.

Zimmer could not have been clearer or more articulate about defending the freedom of speech of our faculty, which also holds for students and staff.  Note that he defends the right of the faculty to speak about “issues of diversity,” as did Abbot, but also defends the inclusivity of the University.

Although the letter to the faculty from Abbot’s critics doesn’t demand an apology from him, it does mandate a number of actions that clearly represent “discipline, reprimand, and punishment.” Those can no longer be imposed on Abbot, though of course faculty and students remain free to criticize him and to snub him, though they can’t create a workplace for Abbot that is seen as harassment.

What I like about the letter is not only what it says, but that, while responding to a controversy, does not name names, which would represent an unwarranted singling-out of Abbot. If only other university presidents could show this moxie!

McWhorter on the chilling of academia

September 2, 2020 • 1:15 pm

This new article in The Atlantic by John McWhorter (who will never be allowed to write for any organ with “New York” in the title) also deals with cancel culture, as did an earlier post today, but concentrates on the chilling effect it has on academics. Although I no longer teach, I’d be very careful what I said were I to lecture in the classroom. Click the screenshot to read.

McWhorter mentions two “anecdotal” (or at least “self-selecting”) sets of data suggesting that academics are plenty scared about making missteps in the classroom. One is a survey by the Heterodox Academy. Since they surveyed their own members, this is not a random sample of academics, of course:

For example, in July I tweeted that I (as well as my Bloggingheads sparring partner Glenn Loury) have been receiving missives since May almost daily from professors living in constant fear for their career because their opinions are incompatible with the current woke playbook. Then various people insisted that I was, essentially, lying; they simply do not believe that anyone remotely reasonable has anything to worry about.

However, hard evidence points to a different reality. This year, the Heterodox Academy conducted an internal member survey of 445 academics. “Imagine expressing your views about a controversial issue while at work, at a time when faculty, staff, and/or other colleagues were present. To what extent would you worry about the following consequences?” To the hypothetical “My reputation would be tarnished,” 32.68 percent answered “very concerned” and 27.27 percent answered “extremely concerned.” To the hypothetical “My career would be hurt,” 24.75 percent answered “very concerned” and 28.68 percent answered “extremely concerned.” In other words, more than half the respondents consider expressing views beyond a certain consensus in an academic setting quite dangerous to their career trajectory.

So no one should feign surprise or disbelief that academics write to me with great frequency to share their anxieties. In a three-week period early this summer, I counted some 150 of these messages. And what they reveal is a very rational culture of fear among those who dissent, even slightly, with the tenets of the woke left.

McWhorter admits  that these data are hardly scientific, suggesting that a random sample of 3,000 professors would be needed for that. But he adds, “But let’s face it: Half a dozen reports of teachers grading Black students more harshly than white students would be accepted by many as demonstrating a stain on our entire national fabric. These 150 missives stand as an articulate demonstration of something general—and deeply disturbing—as well.” He would never, ever be allowed to say something like that, even though it’s true, in the New York Times.  And I’ve detected the same fear in colleagues, manifested in other ways that I won’t bother to describe. Let’s just say that McWhorter is on to something.

Here’s an example of the kind of incident that’s made professors leery of teaching and also self-censoring. The words are McWhorter’s or his correspondents’:

  • A statistics professor says:

    I routinely discuss the fallacy of assuming that disparity implies discrimination, which is just a specific way of confusing correlation for causality. Frankly, I’m now somewhat afraid to broach these topics … since according to the new faith, disparity actually is conclusive evidence of discrimination.

  • A white professor read a passage from an interview with a well-known Black public intellectual who mentions the rap group NWA, and because few of the students knew of the group’s work at this late date, the professor parenthetically noted what the initials stand for. None of the Black students batted an eye, according to my correspondent, but a few white students demanded a humiliating public apology.
  • Overall I found it alarming how many of the letters sound as if they were written from Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. A history professor reports that at his school, the administration is seriously considering setting up an anonymous reporting system for students and professors to report “bias” that they have perceived. One professor committed the sin of “privileging the white male perspective” in giving a lecture on the philosophy of one of the Founding Fathers, even though Frederick Douglass sang that Founder’s praises. The administration tried to make him sit in a “listening circle,” in which his job was to stay silent while students explained how he had hurt them—in other words, a 21st-century-American version of a struggle session straight out of the Cultural Revolution.
  • One professor has stopped teaching James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man” after Black students claimed that it forced them to “re-live intergenerational trauma.”

What struck McWhorter, which shouldn’t be all that surprising given what we know, is that most of his correspondents were on the Left side of center. As he says, “Thus the issue is not the age-old one of left against right, but what one letter writer calls the ‘circular firing squad’ of the left: It is now no longer ‘Why aren’t you on the left?’ but ‘How dare you not be as left as we are.'”

This trends of increasing fragility of students (real or pretended), and their increasing willingness to damage professors who don’t hew to the preferred narrative, seem unstoppable. For every Leftist and liberal fears above all being called a racist, and yet that’s what you can be called by someone who’s more to the Left than you. This causes those closer to the center to simply keep quiet, creating a ratchet effect that makes the vocal moiety of the Left sound more and more extreme. I can only imagine what this will do to not only American academics, but to American politics.

A hard case to make a good law: the ideological impurity of David Starkey

July 14, 2020 • 12:15 pm

The original saying I paraphrase above, from Oliver Wendell Holmes, is “hard cases make bad law”, meaning you shouldn’t erect general principles based on extreme cases. But in this instance, regarding the defenestration of scholars who say things unpalatable to their peers, or odious things in general, these are the hard cases that should be the basis of a general rule: academic institutions should not punish scholars who exercise their right to free speech.

Sadly, as Benjamin Schwarz—former literary and national editor of The Atlantic—shows in the new Spiked, this rule, which used to hold in the UK, no longer holds, at least with respect to historian and television presenter David Starkey. Starkey, it has to be said, uttered a statement that is reprehensible, unworthy of a thinking person. But it’s still free speech. Read what happened to him by clicking on the screenshot below:

First, Schwarz reports what Starkey said, giving Schwarz’s own take:

‘Slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain, would there?’ With that sentence, in a video interview posted earlier this month, David Starkey, the Tudor historian and documentarian, destroyed his career. Defenestrated by the institutions that had honored his scholarly achievements (Lancaster University; the Royal Historical SocietyFitzwilliam College, Cambridge), that had given him an academic home (Canterbury Christ Church University), and had paid him (his publisher, HarperCollins), Starkey, age 75, is now, and will certainly forever be, adrift and unemployable. No one has publicly defended Starkey’s comment, and Starkey himself has called it ‘clumsy’ and ‘deplorably inflammatory’. And surely it is entirely a private matter, if, because of that utterance, Starkey’s acquaintances and colleagues should choose to upbraid or to shun him. However, in the case of the above institutions, with one partial exception, the only appropriate response would have been no response whatsoever.

Because of this, Lancaster University is contemplating revoking Starkey’s honorary degree, the Royal Historical Society and Cambridge University are deep-sixing his fellowship, and, most unjustifiable of all, Canterbury Christ Church University has ended the Starkey’s visiting professorship. His publisher said not only that it wouldn’t publish future books by Starkey, but might also dump his backlist, punishing both him and the public by simply erasing his published (and acclaimed) scholarship.

Now nobody is going to defend Starkey’s statement. While slavery wasn’t genocide (or, at least, actions designed to wipe out an entire people), it was designed to enslave, degrade, and mistreat an entire people. Starkey’s words were deeply stupid, but should he be punished for it? It depends. A publisher might sever contact with him (there’s no academic freedom in publishing, as we learned with Hachette and Woody Allen’s memoirs), but ditching all previous books is, to me, a ridiculous and indefensible way of virtue signaling. Schwarz declares that most of Starkey’s punishments were not justifiable, on the grounds that scholarly institutions should not take ideological positions and punish those who transgress them:

The sole purpose of any academic institution is – or should be – to pursue and advance knowledge and understanding. This requires a forum free from official censure, so that scholars may pursue any question and consider any view, however despised. Such institutions cannot, therefore, apply any political or moral litmus test to the ideas and speech of their constituent scholars. Thus, in a controversy that heralded the Free Speech Movement, Ernst Kantorowicz, the German emigre medievalist and deeply conservative anti-Communist (and anti-Nazi), famously argued in 1949 that, by requiring a loyalty oath to weed out Communists and Communist sympathisers on its faculty, his adopted institution, the University of California at Berkeley, would destroy itself as an academic community. For the academy to serve its proper function, Kantorowicz recognised, the only criteria for membership must be professional competence and scholarly ability – not the forswearing of any creed, however apparently reprehensible. Furthermore, because academic ability is the only basis by which scholarly institutions can judge their scholars and students, and because those institutions must provide an unfettered environment in which the individual scholar can pursue truth as he or she sees it, these institutions must, themselves, be strictly neutral on political, social and moral questions, no matter how right and settled the answers to those questions may seem.

Schwarz cites a document I’ve mentioned frequently, the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, one of the foundations of the philosophy underlying my school. (You can find it here.) Sadly, as my University is slowly beginning to take ideological positions that don’t comport with the few exceptions Kalven allowed, the principle of institutional neutrality on politics is eroding even here.

Schwarz continues:

The most forthright and eloquent argument for such institutional neutrality remains the 1967 statement drafted by the great constitutional scholar, Harry Kalven Jr, for the University of Chicago. The ‘Kalven report’ states that ‘a university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices and institutions’. But, the report explains, ‘the instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.’ Because a university must ‘maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures’, it is ‘a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.’ And because the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, the Kalven report argues:

‘It is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favour a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues… It should not, therefore, permit itself to be diverted from its mission into playing the role of a second-rate political force or influence.’

In short, as the Kalven report explains, scholarly institutions must refrain from deciding social and political questions on behalf of their students and faculty, and they should simply not concern themselves with the views of their students or faculty, no matter how deplorable some or most may find those views.

One by one, academic departments at the U of C are contemplating putting up statements at odds with Kalven, not just affirming that our institution does not discriminate on the basis of race of gender (an appropriate statement since it’s part of the University’s mission), but also asserting more dubious statements from Critical Race Theory. Sadly, Kalven’s report appears on the way out because of pressure from the woke.

It didn’t used to be this way, at least in Britain. Schwarz mentions the case of renowned art historian Anthony Blunt, who, while working for MI5, was also a Soviet agent who passed nearly 2000 documents to Stalin’s Russia. He was, in other words, a traitor. If that isn’t worse than what Starkey said, I don’t know what is. Yet he wasn’t treated nearly as badly as Starkey. (Blunt, in fact, was given immunity from prosecution. As Schwarz notes:

Although some academic institutions with which Blunt was affiliated, revolted by his treachery, disassociated themselves from him, the most important ones did not. Oxford did not withdraw Blunt’s honorary degree (unlike Lancaster University, which is set to withdraw Starkey’s honorary degree). London University, where Blunt was an emeritus professor, held that his position there had been conferred solely for his academic achievements, achievements that were unaffected and undiminished by his personal, moral and political transgressions. The British Academy took a similar line, its fellows voting by a 3-1 majority that Blunt should remain a fellow. As another fellow, and the director of the London School of Economics, Ralf Dahrendorf explained, ‘the British Academy is about scholarship, and that was the decision we took – by a handsome majority’. The arch-Tory historian Hugh Trevor-Roper justified his vote not to expel Blunt more crudely: ‘The Academy is not a tribunal of morals. If we say we’ll expel so-and-so because he’s a shit, we’ll have to have a whole new set of rules.’

Apparently that new set of rules has been applied to Starkey. It’s not exactly that British academe has forgotten the old rules, it just applies them selectively. Although a chorus of critics called for Cambridge to punish its professor Priyamvada Gopal for proclaiming on Twitter ‘White Lives Don’t Matter. As white lives’, Cambridge responded – rightly – that ‘the university defends the right of its academics to express their own lawful opinions which others might find controversial’. Cambridge’s stance on Gopal’s academic freedom also reflects the law. The Education Reform Act of 1988 and the Higher Education and Research Act of 2017 require that universities ‘ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions’.

Note that it’s not just jobs, but “jobs or privileges”, like Starkey had at Cambridge.

Now this isn’t a cut-and-dried situation, for there are cases in which some sort of revocation is necessary. For instance, when J. D. Watson made racist statements, he was forced to resign as director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). One could argue that, as director, part of Watson’s mission was to ensure racial equality and equal opportunity, and that was compromised by his statement. On the other hand, CSHL also revoked his  honorary titles, which is far less justifiable.

And if a professor at the University of Chicago said what Starkey did, he might have been censured privately or publicly by colleagues as individuals, but the University itself would not pronounce on his statements one way or another. (To that extent, at least, the Kalven Report is still applied.) The principle of ideological and political neutrality of academic institutions is a precious ideal, one that protects freedom of speech by not penalizing non-conformity. Sadly, it’s on its way out in most American colleges. I hope it’s not on its way out at Chicago.

 

The Kalven Report of 1967, supposedly ensuring the political neutrality of the University of Chicago

June 5, 2020 • 10:30 am

In 1967, President George Beadle of the University of Chicago (a Nobel-winning geneticist and also an avowed atheist) convened a committee whose charge was to “prepare a statement on the University’s role in social and political action.” This was the result of many people calling for the University to take positions on political issues like the Vietnam War, security hearings in the U.S Congress, and so on. The Committee was convened in February and produced its report, remarkably, by November. The report took its name from Harry Kalven Jr., the Committee chair, a famous legal scholar, and a professor of law at the University’s law school.

The document is only a bit more than two pages long, and you can get a pdf by clicking on the screenshot below. You should read it whether or not you think that universities should take official political positions.

The basic conclusion of the Kalven Report was that the University as a whole comprises scholars who are supposed to provide the opinions, but the University itself should not—with two exceptions (see below). This was a landmark document that the University has basically adhered to for over half a century—though I suspect those days are ending.

First, the meat of the document (bolding is mine):

The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society. A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.

The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.

The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest. It finds its complement, too, in the obligation of the university to provide a forum for the most searching and candid discussion of public issues.

I agree with that, though I can envision some circumstances that adherence to it would make me a tad uncomfortable (e.g., divesting from harmful causes). But as far as I know, the University has adhered to this pretty scrupulously over the years. And the statements I’ve put in bold show why; it’s hard to argue otherwise. “The University of not a lobby.” The Kalven Report ranks with the Principles of Free Expression of the University of Chicago (chaired by Geoff Stone, another law school professor) as the two pillars of academic freedom and freedom of speech that has made me proud to be associated with this university.

The report does cite two exceptions, which seem reasonable. The first are cases in “which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.” In such instances, the University is justifiably obliged to combat the threats to its underlying principles.  The second is more mundane:

There is another context in which questions as to the appropriate role of the university may possibly arise, situations involving university ownership of property, its receipt of funds, its awarding of honors, its membership in other organizations. Here, of necessity, the university, however it acts, must act as an institution in its corporate capacity. In the exceptional instance, these corporate activities of the university may appear so incompatible with paramount social values as to require careful assessment of the consequences.

Economist George Stigler, also on the committee (and also a Nobel Laureate some yearslater), took exception to this last bit and added his own coda:

Special Comment by Mr. Stigler:

I agree with the report as drafted, except for the statements in the fifth paragraph from the end as to the role of the university when it is acting in its corporate capacity. As to this matter, I would prefer the statement in the following form: The university when it acts in its corporate capacity as employer and property owner should, of course, conduct its affairs with honor. The university should not use these corporate activities to foster any moral or political values because such use of its facilities will impair its integrity as the home of intellectual freedom.

I think Stigler’s comment is an improvement.

Now, however, I worry that the Kalven Report is being forgotten, or deliberately ignored, as social pressures are applied to the University to make official statements about politics and ideology. Most of these I’ve agreed with in their content, for they are liberal and I am a liberal. I won’t mention the statements, perhaps because I’ve been treated well here, am proud of my school, and don’t want to single individuals out for criticism. Suffice it to say that the increasing wokeness of the University is seeping into its official statements, and this politicizes the University in a way that the Kalven report feared and prohibited.

Will the University of Chicago become, in terms of wokeness, a high-class version of The Evergreen State College or Middlebury College?  I hope not, but I’m worried. Wokeness seems to be a one-way ratchet, for if you oppose it you risk being tarred with all kinds of names and labels.

Well, I’m older and won’t be around forever, but I hope to Ceiling Cat that (as Harvard did do), the University of Chicago won’t start producing “social justice placemats” to put in its dining halls. We seem to be creeping in that direction.

True facts about the male ostrich’s mating dance

January 8, 2020 • 2:15 pm

Several readers sent me this new video by Ze Frank, which is shorter than his other videos and also has unique music (Ze Frank wrote  the music, too).  I had no idea that ostriches mate this way, and it’s interesting to contemplate what the female is looking for here when she’s “choosing”. (I don’t think it’s “beauty”.)

New School exonerates professor investigated for using the “n-word” while teaching James Baldwin

August 19, 2019 • 10:30 am

As I reported last week, New School literature professor Laurie Sheck got investigated by her school after using the “n-word” in a discussion about James Baldwin. In particular, she was discussing why, although Baldwin said the phrase “I am not your nigger” on the Dick Cavett show, a 2016 documentary about his life changed the phrase to “I Am Not Your Negro” (the original phrase, though, is flashed on the screen at the end of the documentary). Sheck read the phrases, and then asked her graduate students to discuss what the change of wording might signify.

Indeed, other scholars like Talia Marshall and Max Gordon (discussed in the FIRE letter mentioned below) had already written about this wording change, using both “nigger” and “Negro”, and raising the issue of why one n-word became another.

This discussion was absolutely relevant to the reading at hand, and yet two students (at least one of them white) objected to Sheck’s use of the “n-word”, one saying that white people were never supposed to use the word under any circumstances. As my previous post reported, the students reported Sheck to her university for “racial discrimination”, and she was forced to meet with university investigators.

While the word in question can indeed be used as a racist slur, it wasn’t in Sheck’s case. This was an instance of an appropriate use of a loaded word in the cause of discussion—an issue of academic freedom.  There was not the slightest evidence that any discrimination was in play. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), wrote a long and meticulously documented letter to the President of the New School, urging them to drop their ridiculous investigation (I’d urge you to read it if you have time.) Besides violating academic freedom, FIRE claimed, the New School was violating its own principles, which say that:

The New School, since its beginnings, has endeavored to be an educational community in which public as well as scholarly issues are openly discussed and debated, regardless of how controversial or unpopular the views expressed.

But, mirabile dictu, the New School finally exonerated Sheck, though she should never have gone through this trial in the first place.  FIRE reports the outcome in its post below (click on screenshot):

Here’s the New School’s letter to Sheck from the school’s Director of Labor Relations (pdf here):So we have a favorable outcome, though I am a bit worried about what Director Best means when he wrote, “We have forwarded out determination to the Provost’s Office, along with recommendations on how to most effectively address the issues raised. The Provost’s Office will be in touch with you shortly to follow up on this.”

Does this mean that Sheck is going to receive further paternalistic advice about how she should avoid using the word and offending students? I hope not. For the ability of students to start a disciplinary proceeding—based on the appropriate use of a word in an appropriate classroom discussion—will have a chilling effect on professors who want and need to discuss controversial issues, especially issues about race, gender, and ethnicity. Remember, no professor wants to lose their job, so it’s better to play it safe and cater to the Speech Police.

 

New School Professor under investigation for saying “n-word” as used by James Baldwin

August 15, 2019 • 12:30 pm

There is no word more offensive in American discourse than the “n-word”, and I hesitate to even write what it stands for, although I used to. It is, of course, horribly racist, though I have no problem writing “kike” or “spick” or any other number of racial slurs. So be it; I won’t use the word here, even though you know what it is and people automatically hear it when they hear the “n-word” phrase. Even Geoff Stone, our First Amendment law- chool professor, and head of the University of Chicago free speech committee (which produced the “Chicago Principles”) no longer uses the word  in class though he once did as an example of offensive hate speech. In that case, though, he wasn’t discussing how an author (or a black person) used the word.

If that’s good enough for Stone, it’s good enough for me. However, I see no similar problems when discussing an author’s use of the word, as in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or, in the case at hand, James Baldwin’s essay “The creative process”.  Laurie Sheck, a well-known poet who is a professor at the New School, however, got in trouble for that, as reported by both Inside Higher Education (IHE) and The Guardian (click on screenshots below):

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Here’s the skinny from the Guardian:

The Pulitzer-nominated poet Laurie Sheck, a professor at the New School in New York City, is being investigated by the university for using the N-word during a discussion about James Baldwin’s use of the racial slur.

The investigation has been condemned by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire), which is calling on the New School to drop the “misguided” case because it “warns faculty and students that good-faith engagement with difficult political, social, and academic questions will result in investigation and possible discipline”.

Sheck, who is white, was teaching a graduate course this spring on “radical questioning” in writing. She assigned students Baldwin’s 1962 essay The Creative Process, in which the black American writer and civil rights activist argued that Americans have “modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history” and must commit to “a long look backward whence we came and an unflinching assessment of the record”. During the class, Sheck pointed to the 2016 documentary about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, and asked her students to discuss why the title altered Baldwin’s original statement, in which he used the N-word instead of negro during an appearance on a talk show.

Sheck told Inside Higher Education that a white student had objected to her language. According to Sheck, she questioned the student about her objection, who said she had been told by a previous professor that white people should never use the term. At the end of term, the student gave a presentation about racism at the New School.

Sheck told IHE that she used the word because Baldwin – a New School alumnus – did, and “as writers, words are all we have. And we have to give [Baldwin] credit that he used the word he did on purpose”.

There’s a bit more explanation at IHE (my emphasis):

During a conversation about Baldwin’s argument that the “war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war,” Sheck asked the class if anyone had seen the 2016 documentary film on Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro.” In so doing, she noted that the title of the documentary used the word “negro,” instead of the N-word, which Baldwin used in an appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show” (that clip of the show is in the documentary). Sheck said she used the actual word because Baldwin used it, and because future class texts included the word, as well.

“As writers, words are all we have,” Sheck said. “And we have to give [Baldwin] credit that he used the word he did on purpose.”

Immediately a white student in the class objected to Sheck’s language. Sheck, who is also white, said she asked the student why, to help her explore her own thinking about it. The student said she’d been told by a professor at her undergraduate institution that white people are never to use the term, under any circumstances, Sheck recalled. So Sheck told her that that was “one school of thought.”

And so there is an investigation of Sheck—simply for uttering a word that Baldwin himself used, in a discussion that was properly academic and relevant to the text at hand:

In June, months after the class, Sheck says she was called to a meeting where she was questioned about her choice of reading assignments, and how she had prepared students for discussing Baldwin’s essay. She told the university that graduate students on a literature course “should reasonably be expected to be able to discuss painful or offensive language and the various implications of altering the words of an iconic writer”. As the meeting ended, she was given the university’s guidelines for dealing with issues of discrimination and told to familiarise herself with them.

But Sheck told the Guardian that the university is proceeding with an investigation despite its regulations stating that complaints of discrimination must be lodged within 60 days of the incident, which had passed by the time the complaint was made against her.

“I have been left completely in the dark with the accusations against me still actively in place, and classes starting in two weeks,” she said. “Having taught at the New School with an impeccable record and consistently stellar student evaluations of my classes for nearly 20 years, this drawn-out approach appears to many as an unnecessarily callous and insensitive treatment of a devoted and long time faculty member.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote a letter about this to the President of the New School, insisting that Sheck’s use of the word was not “discriminatory harassment,” but an exercise in academic freedom, and that the investigation of Sheck would have a chilling effect on academic freedom and free expression. FIRE urged the school to drop the investigation immediately. PEN America, less free-speechy than FIRE, has also called for the New School to drop the investigation.

The Guardian continues:

The New School’s response to Fire’s letter said only that it is “proud to be a place that embraces rigorous academic inquiry, diverse perspectives and respectful debate”, and that it “maintains confidentiality regarding personnel issues”. When asked by the Guardian if the investigation was proceeding, it said that open discussion of often difficult issues was central to its mission to provide an effective “learning environment”.

“In the context of the current political and cultural climate, we are bringing together faculty and students to use these principles to guide a pedagogical approach that respects academic freedom as well as an inclusive and respectful learning space,” it added.

This is bunkum. They do not embrace diverse perspectives” if someone can’t even say the identical word that Baldwin used repeatedly, and in a discussion about why he changed the use of that word in the tile of his book. In fact, even this brochure from the Film Club uses the n-word, and properly so, because it’s about the identical topic. In other words, the New School is stifling freedom of speech and catering to the offense culture in an unseemly way.

According to IHE, the faculty union has “advised Sheck to consider taking a ‘conciliatory position'” and even changing her curriculum, with alternatives of not reading passages aloud, or giving trigger warnings. Sheck replies, “I haven’t done anything wrong. . . So what we’re trying to do here is get things out in the open. When these things are covert and people feel quietly intimidated into changing the syllabus, that’s not going to help students. It just feels like enough is enough.”

Indeed. It’s one thing to use the word as a racial slur, another thing entirely to use it as part of an academic discussion of the very use of that word, and about why Baldwin changed the use. It’s hard for me to understand how someone, especially a white student, could be so offended by this discussion that they would report Sheck and make her life a living hell.

She did not do anything wrong, and it seems sheer lunacy to me that she’s being investigated. It’s not true that “white people should never use that word”. They shouldn’t use it as a racial slur, or in a way that implies bigotry, but there is nothing wrong with discussing it when an author has used it, and as part of a discussion about why the word was used and the resonance it has today.  If we can’t even say words that people consider painful and offensive, why should we be able to say anything that people consider painful and offensive. In other words, why have free speech? In this case, freedom of expression is the very thing at issue: Sheck was not promoting bigotry, but discussing the very offensiveness of a word.

The New School should drop this ridiculous investigation immediately, and I’ll write to them with that opinion. They simply look ridiculous for this kind of language policing in academic discourse.

Intelligent Design advocates finally sneak God back into their “science”

April 7, 2019 • 12:30 pm

 

The video below, in which Intelligent Design creationist Stephen Meyer explains ID to conservative writer and speaker Ben Shapiro, accomplishes two things—beyond demonstrating that Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, continues, despite withering criticism from scientists, to bang on about supposedly unevolvable “complex specified information” and the Cambrian Explosion as evidence for the Great Designer.

First, the video has eliminated any trace of respect I had for Ben Shapiro. Although I’m opposed to nearly all (well, let’s just make that all) of Shapiro’s political opinions, I thought his rhetoric was useful in challenging Woke college students who hadn’t thought through their views.

But now Shapiro has cast his lot with creationism, albeit the “sophisticated” form of creationism adumbrated by Meyer and his cronies. Shapiro is now beyond hope; it’s never not a good move for someone who pretends to be an intellectual to ally himself with thoroughly debunked pseudoscience.

Shapiro is, of course, an Orthodox Jew, but I thought that, contra Orthodox creationists, he had at least some respect for science. But he’s been moving towards ID creationism for some time, and now he’s clearly bought the whole hog.  You can argue whether babies have souls (Shapiro thinks “yes”), but it’s a different issue to say that evolutionary theory is deeply flawed, for that’s a matter of empiricism.

Second, the video nakedly reveals the ultimate goal of the ID movement revealed: to sneak God back into the science classroom. I discuss that below, showing that Meyer reveals what we knew all along: IDers conceive of the Designer as the Christian God. That, of course, was part of the Discovery Institute’s secret (but leaked) Wedge Document that, back in 1999, outlined a strategy to attack materialism in science and replace it, in both professional science and the science classroom, with Jesus. I quote from that document; emphasis is mine.

The very beginning of this [Wedge] strategy, the “thin edge of the wedge,” was Phillip Johnson’s critique of Darwinism begun in 1991 in Darwinism on Trial, and continued in Reason in the Balance and Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. Michael Behe’s highly successful Darwin’s Black Box followed Johnson’s work. We are building on this momentum, broadening the wedge with a positive scientific alternative to materialistic scientific theories, which has come to be called the theory of intelligent design (ID). Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions. 

To get their creationism taught in the schools, IDers had the clever strategy of taking God out of the theory, at least explicitly. They then pretended that there was just some unspecified “mind” behind evolution, and that mind could be God, but it could also belong to space aliens or any overweening intelligence. But that was a lie: IDers wanted all along for the Judeo-Christian God to be the Designer. And you didn’t have to be a scientist to see this, for that was the decision of Judge Jones when he rejected the teaching of ID in Dover, Pennsylvania schools as a form of disguised religion. The replacement of “God” with “Designer” was clearly a duplicitous tactical strategy.

Those familiar with Meyer’s “theories” of ID, contained in his two books Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt, will see them trotted out in the video below. I won’t waste time showing how they’ve been rebutted, but will just give you some links to read (you can see other criticisms in the Wikipedia entry for Meyer). Some good rebuttals of Meyer’s creationism can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

At 47:44, Shapiro asks Meyer how he connects ID theory to God. Meyer explains that “it takes a mind with conscious awareness to generate information in a digital form”, and that such a conclusion is at least “theistic friendly.” Meyer then says he’s writing another book about cosmology and physics—The Return of the God Hypothesis—using as evidence for God “anthropic fine tuning” and the idea of the “Goldilocks Universe”. And that evidence of design, as well as the origin of the Universe itself, cannot, says Meyer, cannot be explained by “an agent within the cosmos”, so space aliens are out.  Meyer concludes that theism itself is the best explanation of all the evidence from biology, cosmology, and physics.

So there we have it. Meyer is trotting out the same shopworn arguments—fine-tuning, the anthropic principle, and the Cosmological Argument—claiming that together they show that the designer is a theistic God. There’s nothing new in what he says, but I guess the ID people decided it’s time to bring God out from behind the screen to complete the Wedge Strategy.

Over at Evolution News, the flaccid house organ of the Discovery Institute, David Klinghoffer extols the video below, showing Meyer in discussion with author and speaker Eric Metaxas. Klinghoffer osculates Meyer’s tuchas copiously:

Meyer, a philosopher of science, talks about the move to the next frontier in the argument for intelligent design. His forthcoming book, which is going to be huge, is The Return of the God Hypothesis. [JAC: the book’s subtitle is Compelling Scientific Evidence for the Existence of God]. With Metaxas, who imperfectly disguises his own brilliance behind a hilarious comic persona, Meyer explains the origins of his thinking about design in cosmology and biology, tracing those back to a 1985 conference he just happened to attend in, yes, Dallas.

The YouTube notes say that this talk was “taped at the 2019 Dallas Science and Faith Conference at Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas sponsored by Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture.”  You’ll hear some of the stuff that pushed Meyer towards his new book, including our supposed impotence to understand the origin of life, the existence of “complex specified information” (again), our failure to understand consciousness, and so on.

Starting at about 42 minutes in, Meyer starts making the case for God as “the designing intelligence.” The evidence is pretty much the same as above: the supposed fine-tuning of the laws of physics, the existence of a “Goldilocks Universe”, and so on. These things, argues Meyer, are “built into the cosmos from the very beginning”, and so can’t be created by some within-the-Universe being like a space alien. Ergo, the designer is God.

Very clever, but physicists don’t accept the cosmological data as evidence for God. They remain solidly atheistic.

Seriously, if God wants us to accept Him, why can’t he just come down to Earth and do a few irrefutable miracles that can be witnessed, photographed, and so on? (On pp. 118-119 of Faith Versus Fact, I lay out evidence that would provisionally convince me that there is a God, and I believe Carl Sagan also sketched the kind of evidence that would convince him that God existed.) Why, then, is God invisible? Is He testing our faith by denying us evidence of His existence, so that only those who are able believe without evidence get saved?

But now I venture into theology, and that’s the realm of Meyer and his colleagues.  I’ll merely quote the philosopher Delos McKown: “The invisible and the nonexistent look very much alike. ”

h/t: Stacy