Cathy Young: What is cancel culture and is it really a problem?

October 26, 2021 • 9:30 am

I don’t know how I’ve missed the writing of Cathy Young for so long, but now that I’m reading it I’m quite impressed. Although she shares my view about the problems of excessive wokeness, she also is tempered in her criticism and careful to call out miscreants on both Left and Right. In her article in The Bulwark published yesterday, she describes her view of “cancel culture” and rejects the arguments of those on the Left who say that the whole phenomenon is overblown: just a few overblown incidents that have been aimed mostly at famous people, like J. K. Rowling—people who can’t really be cancelled.

Click to read—it’s free:

We all know of wokies who say that there’s no such thing as cancel culture, or that the problem is exaggerated (see here and here, both responses to Anne Applebaum’s essay on cancel culture in The Atlantic. “The New Puritans“, which I also wrote about here).

Young notes that there are cancellations on both sides: on the Right, for instance, the move to cancel the Dixie Chicks—now just “The Chicks”—for criticizing G. W. Bush onstage, or the attempted boycott of the “Ellen” t.v. show after she declared she was gay. But after defining cancel culture, Young finds it more pervasive on the Left. You can see this by looking at FIRE’s “disinvitation database” in the last six or seven years to see which side most often deplatforms college speakers. (Earlier than that Right and Left were roughly equally culpable.) But Young sees cancel culture as going far beyond these disinvitation attempts. Further, disinvitation occurs only after a speaker is invited; sensibly, refusal to invite someone isn’t necessarily “cancel culture”—though it could be:

Critics of the idea of “cancel culture” have a point when they argue that pushback against speech and expression we find morally offensive is a vital part of free speech. While disinvitations should be avoided on principle, there is nothing wrong with forcefully arguing that a college campus should not extend a speaking invitation to a far-right hate peddler like Ann Coulter or a progressive white-guilt grifter like Robin DiAngelo. Likewise, while taking down published articles should be a no-no except in case of egregious factual errors, plagiarism, or other misconduct, it’s not illiberal to argue that respected media outlets should not platform certain odious views, whether they’re unabashedly racist anti-immigration tirades or arguments that sexual liberation should extend to pedophiles. But it also seems clear that in a liberal society, the range of truly “cancelable” viewpoints should remain as narrow as possible, and the lines should be very carefully drawn.

So on to Young’s definition of cancel culture, which is really a list of its three main characteristics:

Current “cancel culture” differs from the “normal” push-and-pull of speech-related pressures in several significant ways. First, the internet and the social media in particular have enabled much more public speech by people who aren’t journalists, politicians, activists, or other public figures—potentially exposing them to retaliation for speech that offends. Second, the internet and social media have become highly effective vehicles for collective retaliation for disapproved-of speech or conduct. (Gurri’s Liberal Currents article discusses these developments.) Third, a version of progressivism that stresses the “harm” done by very broadly defined racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted speech and expression—and even routinely labels such expression as “violence”—has moved from the margins of left-wing academia to the mainstream of universities, media, and other cultural institutions.

In such a framework, the suppression of speech becomes not just defensible but virtuous. Consider, for instance, this remarkable statement issued in 2018 by activists who tried to shut down an event with Christina Hoff Sommers, a feminist who challenges feminist orthodoxy on such issues as “rape culture” and the wage gap, at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon:

We now understand how language works, and how it can be used to reproduce the systems of oppression we know we must resist at all costs. . . . Free speech is certainly an important tenet to a free, healthy society, but that freedom stops when it has a negative and violent impact on other individuals. There is no debate here.

It is this “there is no debate here” assertion that really characterizes Left-wing cancel culture: it’s the assertion that certain subjects are taboo to discuss, for there is only one correct opinion. An example, mentioned by Andrew Sullivan last week, was the flat assertion of trans activists that “Trans women are WOMEN in every way.” If you try to debate that, good luck to you.

Now are these characteristics more common on the Right or the Left? Counting up incidents isn’t a good way to asses that, says Young, because what really counts is how cancellation has affected the political climate on each side—to what extent have cancellations chilled speech? As I said, Young, like me, sees a more censorious climate on the Left (my emphasis below):

There are also good reasons to be concerned about some of the recent laws seeking to curb “critical race theory” and other progressive ideas in schools, especially when those laws target higher education. We should absolutely be worried about right-wing authoritarianism.

But in some ways, progressive cancel culture has a much broader reach. It does not simply retaliate against speech by ideological opponents; it also quite often targets progressives or neutrals for sometimes accidental transgressions against the new norms of identity-based social justice. It does not simply punish opposition but demands allegiance, including repentance by transgressors. In that sense, the analogies to Stalinism and Maoism, much derided by the “anti-anti-cancel culture” crowd, have some validity. This is especially true since, in the last few years, social justice or “wokeism” really has become something of a party line not only in progressive activism and academia but in most of the established media, a wide range of cultural institutions, and large corporations: Witness, for instance, the rapid spread and embrace of the unpronounceable “Latinx,” which is used as a self-description by only 3 percent of Hispanics in the United States and seems like a blatant example of linguistic imperialism, but is considered woke because it signals not only gender neutrality but gender-inclusiveness beyond male and female. “Cancel culture” is, as Bari Weiss points out in Commentary, only the “justice system” of a larger revolution that seeks to overhaul personal attitudes and behavior through messages in the media, schools and universities, and corporate diversity programs.

I will give only one more short quote in deference to “fair usage”.

. . . the databases may drastically undercount such incidents, since many ideologically motivated firings are never publicized. (It also should be noted that the “Canceled People” list is a grab-bag of very disparate cases, from different countries, that include Trump’s Twitter ban, Liz Cheney’s loss of her Republican leadership position for criticizing Trump, and firings of transgender people for coming out on the job.) Nonetheless, he concludes that even if the real number is far higher, it ultimately points to a small problem.

Yet this reasoning underestimates the chilling effect of “cancellations.” And it does not take into account low-level and unquantifiable intimidation in the form of reprimands, suspensions, and other penalties short of dismissal.

And then Young runs through a number of such incidents that have led to chilling. Cancellation of young adult fiction books, for instance, has had a chilling effect on the genre, with “sensitivity readers” now being mandatory in the industry. The well known journalist Jesse Singal, who has questioned the “trans women are women” trope, as well as the rush to give kids drugs and surgery who have gender identity issues, has, says Young, “been the target of a creepy smear campaign.” Though Singal has survived, even thrived, lesser known journalists would surely want to keep their mouths shut on these issues.

And I’ll add one bit of data here: a survey of college students by the Heterodox Academy showed that “In 2020, 62% of sampled college students agreed the climate on their campus prevents students from saying things they believe, up from 55% in 2019.” You can read the whole report here, and see which topics are especially incendiary.  Other surveys give similar results.

And that’s just for college students (it also applies to professors). What about journalists? If you work at the New York Times or the Washington Post, and have any controversial, non-woke opinions, the firings of staffers who have expressed them will prompt you to keep your gob shut. And so it goes for almost all white-collar institutions. Young concludes that “while some of the opposition to left-wing liberalism has regrettably gotten entangled with right-wing forces at least as illiberal, the liberal and centrist pushback against the ‘new puritans’ is not only healthy but essential.

Yes, essential. If we do nothing, in ten years we’ll have a country not worth living in—at least in my view. That is, unless the metastasizing insanity I describe every day somehow goes away.

h/t: Paul

The problematic Thomas Jefferson

October 23, 2021 • 12:04 pm

What do we do about Thomas Jefferson? He wrote the Declaration of Independence, served the new United States government in several capacities, including Vice-President and Secretary of State, was our third President, founded the University of Virginia as a secular school, and wrote the Virginia Declaration of Religion Freedom—the model for America’s First Amendment. All that would commend him to our approbation, but for one ineluctable fact. He kept slaves: many of them. More than that—he had a relationship with and impregnated one of those enslaved people, Sally Hemings, and fathered at least a couple of her children. That relationship, because of the power imbalance, is considered rape.

Because of the slave issue, Jefferson’s star has sunk very low (see my piece here). A statue of him at my alma mater, the College of William and Mary, has been repeatedly defaced, a statue of Jefferson in front of a Portland, Oregon high school has been pulled down, Jefferson Elementary School in San Francisco is to be renamed, and, as I reported this week, as gleaned from the New York Times, a statue of Jefferson in the council chambers in New York’s City Hall has been relocated elsewhere.  All of this for the same reason: Jefferson was a slaveholder.

I’ve been conflicted about this legacy for a while, for how do we balance the good with the bad (more on that below).? And I was influenced by the comment of reader Historian about Jefferson on my post, to wit:

The removal of the Jefferson statute from the New York City council chamber is justified totally. While one can at least make an argument that the statue of a slaveholder need not be removed from some areas because of the “good’ things he did and looking at the statue is optional. In this case the chamber is the workplace of the council members, who have no choice but to look at it. Minority members of the council are forced to look at a statue of a person that may have very well enslaved, whipped, sold, and raped their ancestors. To them, they don’t care that he hypocritically wrote words about freedom, liberty, and equality. They are revulsed by the statue; they should not be subjected to looking at it. It’s as if Jews were compelled to look at a statue of Dr. Mengele because his medical experiments on their ancestors may have resulted in advances in medicine.

There’s food for thought there, though the Jefferson statue can’t really be compared to one of Mengele for obvious reasons: Jefferson did a lot of good stuff, much involving the founding of this Republic. Mengele was an unmitigated horror of a man.

What to do? Must we dismantle the Jefferson Memorial and remove all his statues, including the bronze one in the Capitol Rotunda that was the model for the one in New York? And if he’s canceled for slaveholding, what do we do about George Washington, who had slaves? (So did ten other Presidents.) Do we take him off the dollar bill, remove the Washington Monument from the District of Columbia, and, of course, change the name of Washington D.C. itself?

According to the White House Historical Association, at least 12 Presidents owned slaves:

. . . .at least twelve presidents were slave owners at some point during their lives: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant.

That’s more than a quarter of U.S. Presidents, and several of them were distinguished in various ways. How do we regard them? Should we honor their accomplishments at all in light of the fact that they engaged in one of the more reprehensible behaviors possible: owning other human beings, treating them badly, and making them work without pay? Remember, even during this time slavery was not seen as “business as usual”, for there were many abolitionists, especially in the UK.

While you ponder this conundrum—perhaps the hardest case of conflict between public vice and virtue—have a look at this article in Bari Weiss’s Substack site. It’s by Samuel Goldman, described this way on the site:

Samuel Goldman is a national correspondent at The Week. He is also an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, where he is executive director of the John L. Loeb, Jr. Institute for Religious Freedom and director of the Politics & Values Program. His books include “God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America” and “After Nationalism.”

Goldman’s thesis is that removing Jefferson statues isn’t just an attack on the man, but an attack on the ideas he stands for (aside from slavery, of course). Click on the screenshot to read.

Goldman admits at the outset that Jefferson “didn’t live up to his own words, owning more than 600 people in his life, and, unlike Washington, didn’t have plans to free them. He “recognized his own hypocrisy,” but didn’t do anything about it. But Jefferson’s accomplishments, and the good he did, are also undeniable. And so, for Goldman, this brings up the important issue:

The question, though, is whether everyone implicated in slavery is ipso facto ineligible for public celebration. That standard doesn’t only exclude Jefferson but virtually every major figure in American history before 1861. And ruling these out of public discourse doesn’t only affect their personal memory. It also renders speechless the other Americans, like the Levy family, who’ve used their names, words, and careers as symbols to articulate their own aspirations for justice.

That’s why attacks on Columbus Day are as misplaced as removal of the Jefferson statue. The holiday and memorials in many cities aren’t really about the Genoese explorer who served a Spanish king. They are confirmations of the presence of Italian-Americans in public life, to say nothing of the courage and adventuresome spirit that led to the discovery of the New World.

The reduction of American history to an unbroken story of racial oppression comes at particular cost to Jews. Because we have been among the greatest beneficiaries of liberal institutions, we are unavoidably targets when those institutions abandon or reject their liberal mission. A widely despised and persecuted people who thrived in America like nowhere else, Jews do not fit into the sharp distinction between oppressor and oppressed that characterized ideological “antiracism.” Therefore, Jewish experiences must either be ignored or reduced to a monolithic conception of white supremacy.

I’m not sure how relevant the Jewish issue is to the discussion of Jefferson, even though it poses thorny issues for the woke. Goldman does bring up the fact that the original Jefferson statue, sculpted by the French artist David d’Angers, was commissioned by a Jew, Uriah Levy, who was not only repeatedly attacked for his religion but, as a naval officer, helped suppress the slave trade in the West Indies. Yet Levy’s own legacy was mixed. As a Jefferson admirer, he restored a decrepit Monticello—but using more than a dozen slaves.

And you can answer the first question for yourself: is every American who was implicated in slavery ipso facto ineligible for public celebration?

Goldman says “no”. While he’s not absolutely clear about the statue removal, he’s crystal clear that there has to be some celebration of Jefferson’s ideas, and how do you do that without statues or any kind of public memorial? Can we celebrate good ideas completely disconnected from the people who had them?

Goldman’s conclusion:

Jefferson’s far from the first statue to fall, and it won’t be the last. But the plaster and bronze of which they’re composed isn’t the most important thing. What matters is the fate of the ideas in that Declaration in Jefferson’s hand. The ones that Lincoln described as “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” and “a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” That’s what Uriah Levy saw in Jefferson and what we should continue to honor today.

Again, how does one honor abstract ideas without mentioning the people who had them? Should we ignore Jefferson’s positive contributions by shoving his statues into dark corners because of his negative acts? And if you say, “yes,” what do we do about George Washington.?

As I’ve written before, I judge whether or not someone should be honored if both questions below are answered “yes”:

1.) Are we honoring the positive contributions that the person made?

2.) On balance, did the person’s life contribute more good than bad to the world?

#1 was a “yes” for the New York City statue: Jefferson was depicted holding a quill pen, clearly being honored for his writings.

#2 is the hard one. After all, holding down 600 black people as property is no small thing. Against that one must balance that Jefferson helped bring about a Republic that, though it’s denigrated by many these days, I see as the greatest experiment in liberty and democracy of our era. Jefferson wrote the document that helped bring that about, and, though he was in France during the Constitutional Convention, many of his ideas infuse that Constitution as well as the Bill of Rights—most notably the First Amendment. Jefferson kept slaves, and thereby supported slavery, but the net harm was largely to his own slaves.

When you balance America as a refuge for the oppressed, Jefferson’s role in the creation of America, and his role in creating our founding documents, I would judge, subjectively, that his life was on I conclude that we should honor the man as a way of honoring his ideas—the good ones.

Abbotgate hits the mainstream media and Quillette: MIT gets egg on its face

October 21, 2021 • 11:00 am

UPDATE: Now NBC News has covered the story in an article called “After lecture is canceled, free speech debate roils science academia.” It deals largely with David Romps’s resignation as Director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Science Center, which he details in a series of tweets (first one in the thread is below).  (h/t Simon)

***************************

The saga of Dorian Abbot began quietly on my campus, and when it was resolved at the University of Chicago, I thought that was the end of it. But then, because Abbot had written and made videos criticizing affirmative action and DEI initiatives, he was disinvited from the prestigious Carlson lectures at MIT, where he was supposed to speak on global warming (they later offered him a smaller technical lecture on his work). This deplatforming was picked up by several venues in the conservative media, including the conservative columnist Bret Stephens at the NYT, but I was frustrated that the non-conservative press ignored such an egregious incident of cancellation.

It was especially egregious because Abbot wasn’t going to talk at MIT about DEI or the like, but about global warming and other planets. In other words, he was being punished for saying things in other venues that offended people. More than that: there is a valid debate about the methods of DEI initiatives, though their intent is admirable. I accept the need for some affirmative action as a means of reparation, but others don’t, and none of us should be punished or cancelled for our views.

Now both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have published new pieces on Abbotgate, which you can access by clicking below. The NYT piece is an article by Michael Powell, and seems to me pretty favorable by way of making Abbot seem unfairly treated by MIT. (He’s not biased, but the facts do indict MIT.) The op-ed in the WSJ is by Lawrence Krauss, and also deals with Abbot, further describing how DEI initiatives are stifling science and swallowing up academia. There’s also a piece in Quillette (third screenshot below) that is largely about Abbot.

All in all, MIT has not come out of this looking good. And although the MIT President, Provost, and head of the department that invited Abbot, Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (DEAPS) originally affirmed that yes, the school was strongly in favor free speech, and that Abbot had not really been canceled, but offered another (far inferior!) lecture, now they’re getting more defensive and hostile. Such is the Streisand effect.

I’ll give just the new information from the NYT piece. First, some anti-free-speech sentiments from the head of EAPS, much stronger than we’ve heard previously:

On Sept. 30, M.I.T. reversed course. The head of its earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences department called off Dr. Abbot’s lecture, to be delivered to professors, graduate students and the public, including some top Black and Latino high school students.

“Besides freedom of speech, we have the freedom to pick the speaker who best fits our needs,” said Robert van der Hilst, the head of the department at M.I.T. “Words matter and have consequences.”

The consequences are that you don’t get to talk about something irrelevant to words you’ve said before. And, as I emphasized, though Abbot and a colleague went a bit too far at the end of their Newsweek editorial on free speech, why should criticism of DEI, a perfectly valid philosophical and ethical debate, have such dire consequences? (Abbot notes correctly  at the end that “these controversies will have a negative impact on my scientific career”.)

I’m quoted as well after a long interview with Powell, expressing surprise that scientists would get just as wokified as humanities people:

“I thought scientists would not get on board with the denial-of-free-speech movement,” said Jerry Coyne, an emeritus professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago. “I was absolutely wrong, 100 percent so.”

My point was that freedom of speech is taken for granted in science: each of us has the right—nay, duty—to criticize others whose work we think is wrong. I assumed (wrongly) that that scientists’ emphasis on free speech would carry over into politics. Well, I’m neither a politician nor a pundit.

A professor at Princeton asked Abbot to give his Carlson lecture at his school, and that will happen today. But there were other consequences:

The story took another turn this week, as David Romps, a professor of climate physics at the University of California, Berkeley, announced that he would resign as director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center. He said he had tried to persuade his fellow scientists and professors to invite Dr. Abbot to speak and so reaffirm the importance of separating science from politics.

“In my view, there are some institutional principles that we have to hold sacred,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.

His colleagues weren’t persuaded, so Romps resigned.

Now the NYT piece isn’t perfect, for in the two paragraphs below I see reporter Powell trying to imply that science is guilty of present-day as well as past racism:

The history of science is no less marked than other fields of learning by abhorrent chapters of suppression and prejudice. Nazi and Communist regimes twisted science to their own end, and scientists buckled, fled or suffered perilous consequences. Some professors point to aspects of that history as a cautionary tale for American science. In the United States, so-called race science — including the measurement of skulls with the intent to determine intelligence — was used to justify the subordination of Black people, Chinese, Italians, Jews and others. Experiments were carried out on people without their consent.

The worst of that history lies decades past. That said, the faculty at geoscience departments in the United States has more white faculty than some other sciences. Departments have attracted more female professors of late but struggle to recruit Black and Latino candidates. The number of Asian Americans earning geoscience degrees has decreased since the mid-1990s.

Indeed, the worst of that history lies decades past; at present, science departments are lining up in droves to hire good minority candidates. But the second paragraph, at least to me, is a Kendi-an implication that inequities in geoscience departments still reflect racism in those departments.  That’s simply not true. It is a “pipeline problem” whose rectification requires a huge and necessary societal effort well beyond DEI efforts on the college and grad-school level.

There were professors who supported Abbot’s cancellation, of course. One is Phoebe Cohen, a geoscience professor at Williams College, who makes an unbelievably dumb statement that I’ve put in bold below:

Phoebe A. Cohen is a geosciences professor and department chair at Williams College and one of many who expressed anger on Twitter at M.I.T.’s decision to invite Dr. Abbot to speak, given that he has spoken against affirmative action in the past.

Dr. Cohen agreed that Dr. Abbot’s views reflect a broad current in American society. Ideally, she said, a university should not invite speakers who do not share its values on diversity and affirmative action. Nor was she enamored of M.I.T.’s offer to let him speak at a later date to the M.I.T. professors. “Honestly, I don’t know that I agree with that choice,” she said. “To me, the professional consequences are extremely minimal.”

What, she was asked, of the effect on academic debate? Should the academy serve as a bastion of unfettered speech?

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

What? Intellectual debate and rigor are signs of toxic male white supremacy? What an outrageously stupid statement! Intellectual debate and rigor are de rigueur not just in science, but in academia as a whole. I mourn for Dr. Cohen’s geoscience students at Williams: are they taught to go with their feelings and emotions instead of “intellectual rigor” when they take her classes?

Finally, we return to the chair of MIT’s EAPS defending the cancelation. I’d be surprised if Abbot takes up the invitation to address his department (my emphasis):

Dr. van der Hilst speculated that Black students might well have been repelled if they learned of Dr. Abbot’s views on affirmative action. This lecture program was founded to explore new findings on climate science and M.I.T. has hoped to attract such students to the school. He acknowledged that these same students might well in years to come encounter professors, mentors even, who hold political views at odds with their own.

“Those are good questions but somewhat hypothetical,” Dr. van der Hilst said. “Freedom of speech goes very far but it makes civility difficult.”

Dr. van der Hilst added that he invited Dr. Abbot to meet privately with faculty there to discuss his research.

What happened to the departmental lecture? Has it been replaced by “private meetings with faculty”? At any rate, yes, students might have been repelled or offended by what Abbot said outside MIT, but they have plenty of recourse. They don’t have to go to Abbot’s lecture, they could picket it outside quietly, or they could use counterspeech. But Hilst even admits that the world is full of encounters with speech you don’t like, so why is Abbot being deplatformed? This is not “somewhat hypothetical”—those are weasel words—but real. So why can’t MIT use the Carlson Lecture as an example?

As for his last sentence, “Freedom of speech makes civility difficult,” yes, it’s partly true but not inevitable, and so what? Violation of civility is not protected by the Constitution, but freedom of speech is.

All in all, I’m pleased that the NYT not only covered Abbot’s disinvitation, but, in describing it objectively, still makes MIT look pretty bad. (I am of course biased, but I am not alone in my feelings.)

Here’s Lawrence Krauss’s short piece in the Wall Street Journal. He’s careful not to go after DEI initiatives in the way Abbot did, but still calls them out for injuring science and causing academic bloat. Click on screenshot:

Just two short from Krauss:

Several years ago, one began to see an additional criterion in advertisements for faculty openings. As a recent Cornell ad puts it: “Also required is a statement of diversity, equity and inclusion describing the applicant’s efforts and aspirations to promote equity, inclusion and diversity through teaching, research and service.” This sort of requirement became more common and is now virtually ubiquitous. Of the 25 most recent advertisements for junior faculty that appeared in Physics Today online listings as of Oct. 15—from research institutions like Caltech to liberal-arts colleges like Bryn Mawr, and even in areas as esoteric as quantum engineering and theoretical astrophysics—24 require applicants to demonstrate an explicit, active commitment to the DEI agenda.

This isn’t merely pro forma; it’s a real barrier to employment. The life-sciences department at the University of California, Berkeley reports that it rejected 76% of applicants in 2018-19 based on their diversity statements without looking at their research records. A colleague at a major research institution, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her students, wrote to me: “I have a student on the market this year, agonizing more on the diversity statement than on the research proposal. He even took training where they taught them how to write one. It breaks my heart to see this.” Other colleagues relate that their white male postdocs aren’t getting interviews or have chosen to seek jobs outside academia.

This is happening not only in universities. Last week the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a biomedical research charity, announced a $2.2 billion initiative aimed at reducing racial disparity, made possible by a contraction in its funding of significant research for senior investigators. The initiative includes $1.2 billion in grants for early-career researchers. Science magazine reports that because antidiscrimination law prohibits disqualifying applicants on the basis of race and sex, the recipients will be chosen based on their “commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” in the words of the institute’s president, Erin O’Shea. How? “Diversity statements,” she says, are “a very promising approach.”

In other words, diversity statements are a surrogate for the candidate’s race, and you can do an end run around illegal race-based hiring by ranking diversity statements. We’ve known this for a while, though.

Krauss’s conclusion:

Beyond these fearful faculty members, and talented would-be scientists who will be dissuaded or excluded from academic research, DEI offices are working to indoctrinate incoming students. This year at Princeton, the New York Post reports, freshmen were required to watch a video promoting “social justice” and describing dissenting debate as “masculine-ized bravado.” If such efforts succeed, a new generation of students won’t have the opportunity to subject their own viewpoints to challenge—surely one of the benefits of higher education.

Critics have likened DEI statements to the loyalty oaths of the Red Scare. In 1950 the University of California fired 31 faculty members for refusing to sign a statement disavowing any party advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government. That violated their freedom of speech and conscience, but this is worse. Whereas a loyalty oath compels assent to authority, a DEI statement demands active ideological engagement. It’s less like the excesses of anticommunism than like communism itself.

And now I’ve run out of space (and steam), so I’ll refer you to the article in Quillette (click on screenshot below) by Peter Schuck, the Simeon E. Baldwin Professor Emeritus of Law at Yale Law school. It ends like this:

The MIT fiasco should remind us how much cancel culture has to answer for. Although this culture’s activists are relatively few and its rhetoric is often risible in its hyperbole, its militants on college campuses sometimes have an outsize effect on others: cruelly blighted reputations, perverse policy agendas, stigmatization of moderate Democrats, and much more. But Princeton’s swift response to Abbot’s cancellation by providing an alternative, honored forum also suggests a hopeful, low-cost remedy, consistent with free speech and liberal academic values. MIT should be ashamed of its craven support for bullying—and perhaps other more principled institutions will heed this simple exemplary lesson.

Perhaps, but probably not.

MIT President and Provost respond (lamely) to Abbotgate, say free speech at their school is alive and well, and apologize to students rather than Abbot

October 19, 2021 • 9:15 am

Here we see two college administrators trying to pretend that they were not committing an act of speech suppression when they disinvited a speaker, Dorian Abbot, who had made ideologically incorrect statements before he was invited to speak.

An anonymous comment gave me the link to the public statement below by MIT’s President L. Rafael Reif. Reif was apparently badly burned and defensive after his University disinvited University of Chicago Professor Dorian Abbot from giving the prestigious Carlson Lecture, with his topic being global warming. The disinvitation had nothing to do with Abbot’s talk itself; it came after people on social-media besieged MIT upon finding out that Abbot had made videos and written articles questioning diversity, equity, and inclusion principles (DEI). When it go into the mainstream press, MIT decided it had to respond. You can see Abbot’s account of the fracas here.

See the President’s “explanation” by clicking on the screenshot below, but his letter also links to a related “explanation” by MIT’s Provost, which you can see by clicking on the second screenshot:

The related response from Provost Martin A. Schmidt. My guess is that MIT found it necessary to issue both statements because the disinvitation of Abbot violated the University’s own principles of free speech, got national publicity, including the piece on Bari Weiss’s site but, importantly, in an op-ed in the New York Times by Bret Stephens calling out MIT. (“EAPS” is MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary sciences.)

What is amusing about these “explanations” is their attempt to claim that MIT still retains its principles of free speech. After all, after Abbot’s big and prestigious public lecture was canceled. Instead, the department invited him to give a smaller lecture to the EAPS department: a smaller technical lecture that doesn’t involve the public and is much less prestigious.

What’s equally amusing (actually sad), is that both the President and Provost spend a lot of time apologizing to the MIT students for being on the receiving end of “online targeting and hate mail from outside MIT”, none of which is specified. It’s certain that some MIT students got flak for Abbot’s disinvitation, but most of it must have been directed at the President and the chair of EAPS.  If you read both letters, you will find no apology to Abbot himself, but will see plenty of apologies to MIT students and faculty who supposedly got criticized on social media. It is they, not Abbot, claim the administrators, who have been grievously injured. That’s ludicrous. Their explanation is actually an apology to people at MIT who suffered because of the University’s disinvitation.

I’ll give a few quotes from both letters.

President Reif:

First, an apology to the MIT community—not because the school acted badly, but for the “harm” the students suffered:

The controversy around this situation has caused great distress for many members of our community, in many quarters. It has also uncovered significant differences within the Institute on several issues.

I would like to reflect on what happened and set us on a path forward. But let me address the human questions first.

To the members of the EAPS community: I am deeply disturbed that as a direct result of this situation, many of you – students, postdocs, faculty and young alumni – have suffered a tide of online targeting and hate mail from outside MIT. This conduct is reprehensible and utterly unacceptable. For members of the MIT community, where we value treating one another with decency and respect, this feels especially jarring.

I encourage anyone who is subjected to harassing or threatening behavior or language to reach out for support and guidance to the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response (IDHR) office.. . 

Then a lame and unconvincing defense of free speech at MIT:

Let me say clearly what I have observed through more than 40 years at MIT:

Freedom of expression is a fundamental value of the Institute.

I believe that, as an institution of higher learning, we must ensure that different points of view – even views that some or all of us may reject – are allowed to be heard and debated at MIT. Open dialogue is how we make each other wiser and smarter.

This commitment to free expression can carry a human cost. The speech of those we strongly disagree with can anger us. It can disgust us. It can even make members of our own community feel unwelcome and illegitimate on our campus or in their field of study.

I am convinced that, as an institution, we must be prepared to endure such painful outcomes as the price of protecting free expression – the principle is that important.

If they’re prepared to allow free speech that can make members of their own community feel “unwelcome and illegitimate”, why did they cancel Abbot’s public talk? After all, he wasn’t going to say anything that made students feel that way: he was going to talk about global warming! What upset the students was Abbot’s writing and videos on DEI before he was supposed to arrive at MIT. 

Then the caveat, “free speech. . .  but”.  What the following means, as clarified below, is the admission that free speech can offend people, and it’s up to MIT’s administration to soothe the offended:

I am convinced that, as an institution, we must be prepared to endure such painful outcomes as the price of protecting free expression – the principle is that important.

I am equally certain, however, that when members of our community must bear the cost of other people’s free expression, they deserve our understanding and support. We need to ensure that they, too, have the opportunity to express their own views.

They already do, President Reif! They have social media access, a student newspaper, and can give their own talks. No, as you see below the President is calling for more “dialogue” in the wake of this incident, but you can bet your sweet bippy that this will be scripted dialogue that attacks Abbot’s views on DEI. For Abbot’s views are taboo, so I suspect MIT plans a one-sided discussion—in other words, an indoctrination session. Or so I predict, for students on Abbot’s side will be too cowed to express their views.

The “open discussion”:

 I believe it is vital now that we engage in serious, open discussion together.

As the provost’s letter described, we will begin with a faculty forum, being planned for the last week of October. Discussion in this working session might address questions like these: Given our shared commitment to open inquiry and free expression, are there further steps we should take to practice it consistently? Should we develop guidelines to help groups in their own decision making? Does the concept need more prominence in our curriculum? How should we respond when members of our community bear the disproportionate cost of other people’s speech?

It will be essential in this overall process to include the perspective and experience of graduate and undergraduate students; I have asked Chancellor Melissa Nobles to work with student leaders to decide the best way to do so.

I have also asked Provost Marty Schmidt, Chancellor Nobles and Chair of the Faculty Lily Tsai to begin immediately assembling a special ad hoc working group to consider the insights and lessons we should take away from this situation. I believe this extremely important topic deserves and will benefit from this kind of thoughtful, deliberative, nuanced approach, perhaps including experts from outside MIT. The themes that emerge from the initial faculty forum will help inform the working group’s charge.

You know, about seven or eight years ago I would have believed this palaver. But now, turned cynical by history and campus culture,  I’m pretty sure that the forum will concentrate on the question, “How should we respond when members of our community bear the disproportionate cost of other people’s speech?”  And what does it even mean to claim that MIT suffered a “disproportionate cost of other people’s speech”? Whose speech are they talking about—Abbot’s or those who targeted MIT? I doubt that they’ll even discuss how to make speech at MIT more free.

Finally, a few words from Provost Schmidt:

Schmidt explains in more detail why Abbot was disinvited. I’ve put in bold the most important part:

The Carlson Lecture is not a standard scientific talk for fellow scientists. It is an outreach event, open to the public, with a speaker who is an outstanding scientist and role model. Typically held at a major venue away from campus, it is geared to build public understanding of and appreciation for climate science, and to inspire young people to consider careers in STEM. Each year students from local high schools are invited.

The speaker invited in early 2020 was Professor Abbot, an expert in mathematical and computational approaches to planetary sciences.

While all of us can agree that Professor Abbot has the freedom to speak as he chooses on any subject, the department leadership concluded that the debate over both his views on diversity, equity, and inclusion and manner of presenting them were overshadowing the purpose and spirit of the Carlson Lecture. Professor van der Hilst, after broadly consulting his community, decided the public lecture should not go forward and that instead the department should invite Professor Abbot to give a campus lecture where he can present his climate work directly to MIT faculty and students.

In a phone call with Professor Abbot last Thursday, Professor van der Hilst conveyed both the decision about the Carlson Lecture and the new invitation. Professor Abbot welcomed the offer to speak, and the department is in ongoing conversation with him to set a date.

It’s important to emphasize that both the department and the Institute respect and support Professor Abbot’s freedom to express his views, as well as the freedom of those who disagree to do the same.

To translate: “Professor Abbot has the freedom to speak about whatever he wants, but his views on DEI expressed elsewhere might cause trouble like shouting and disruption at the Carlson Lecture. So, rather than deal with that, which is our responsibility to prevent, we prefer to let Abbot give a smaller and less prestigious lecture where the possibility of bad publicity is minimized.”  And make no mistake about it, Abbot is not happy at the alternative offered him. He is gracious about it, but he’s plenty upset at being disinvited for the Carlson lecture. As he should be! (Read Abbot’s piece on Bari Weiss’s site.)

The last sentence in the quote above is, of course, a lie. Abbot will not even be talking about what he was going to discuss in his Carlson lecture (global warming and other worlds); rather, he’ll be giving a narrower technical talk. This means that he’s effectively been told what to talk about.

Provost Schmidt’s final statement echoes that of the President, apologizing to MIT’s faculty and students rather than Abbot. Get a load of this:

Finally, this situation has been very hard on everyone involved, especially faculty, researchers, students and young alumni of EAPS, many of whom have been subjected to online targeting and hate mail. As a community built on foundational principles of respect and openness, we are horrified by this mistreatment and reject it in the strongest possible terms.

Again we get the trope of online targeting without any examples. “Targeting” (whatever that means) and “hate mail” (whatever that means) are, of course, not reasoned discourse, and may be illegal, but MIT has to realize that to the extent that these issues arose because of MIT’s cancelation policy, they initiated it.

It’s time that MIT learn what freedom of speech really means. In this case, it means not disinviting someone who’s already been invited—especially because it’s certain that the invitee wasn’t going to talk about the DEI stuff that riled people up in advance. It is MIT’s responsibility to monitor such talks so they are not disruptive.

Yascha Mounk: Dorian Abbot’s cancellation is novel—and dangerous

October 11, 2021 • 10:00 am

I’ve written a few posts about my Chicago colleague Dorian Abbot, who got in trouble here on campus for making YouTube videos criticizing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. College members demanded punishment, but that didn’t occur because the University of Chicago considers Abbot’s videos free speech, and we don’t punish that. Abbot continued his attacks on DEI; as I wrote before:

[Abbot] and Ivan Marinovic published an op-ed, “The Diversity Problem on Campus“, in the August 12 issue of Newsweek. It was also an attack on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Unfortunately, the pair ended their piece with a comparison of these initiatives to conditions in Nazi Germany:

Ninety years ago Germany had the best universities in the world. Then an ideological regime obsessed with race came to power and drove many of the best scholars out, gutting the faculties and leading to sustained decay that German universities never fully recovered from. We should view this as a warning of the consequences of viewing group membership as more important than merit, and correct our course before it is too late.

Saying that was a mistake, of course, for playing the Hitler card when you’re discussing American DEI is unproductive and invidious. More important, the comparison was inapt, for the Nazis were trying to reduce diversity by getting rid of Jews, while in the U.S. we’re trying to increase diversity.

While I disagree with Abbot on the need to get rid of affirmative action (I favor some of it), I will strenuously defend his right to criticize DEI, which in principle should (but doesn’t) lead to productive discussion, and I oppose any punishment he gets for his views.

One such punishment was the cancellation of Abbot as the presenter of this year’s prestigious Carlson Lecture in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (DEAPS) at MIT, scheduled for October 21. The lecture, as Yascha Mounk’s new Atlantic article notes (click on screenshot below), is intended to “communicate exciting new results in climate science to the general public.” And indeed, that’s what Abbot was going to do: his topic was going to be ““climate and the potential for life on other planets.”  But MIT canceled the lecture (by phone) after its students and staff protested Abbot’s views on DEI. Note that his lecture, as I pointed out earlier, had nothing to do with the reason for the social-media campaign.

The disconnect between why Abbot was demonized and the topic of his MIT talk is one reason why Mounk sees this cancellation as different from previous ones—and more dangerous. (He also reports that “in a belated attempt to save face, MIT invited him to give a scientific presentation to a much smaller audience of EAPS professors and graduate students”.) I’m not sure I agree with Mounk’s conclusion, which seems a bit hyperbolic, but I’ll give his reasons briefly below. 

Mounk first notes, perhaps by way of lightening some of the opprobrium leveled at Abbot, that most Americans agree with Abbot’s views on DEI:

. . . Abbot’s beliefs about affirmative action, right or wrong, are similar to those held by the majority of the American population. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, for example, 74 percent of Americans believe that, in making hiring decisions, companies and organizations should “only take qualifications into account, even if it results in less diversity”; just 24 percent agreed that they should “also take race and ethnicity into account in order to increase diversity.” Similarly, in a 2020 referendum on affirmative action, 57 percent of voters in California—a very liberal state that also happens to be majority minority—voted to uphold a ban on the practice.

I’m not sure why this is relevant; as Mounk says, “right or wrong.” If you’re an ardent proponent of DEI, then they’re wrong, and what most of America thinks is also wrong. Remember, most Americans once thought segregated schools were okay, but they were wrong, too. Whether Abbot’s views on DEI comport with those of most Americans is interesting, but irrelevant to why he was canceled and why he should not have been canceled. Those who got him canceled are of course holders of minority views.

Mounk eventually gets to the real reason why Abbot’s cancellation was “different”. First, though, he also defends others who have been invited to speak on topics that are related to the lecture, and here I agree with the view that once you’ve been invited, and the inviters have an idea what the person will say, it’s wrong to disinvite them. (Not inviting them in the first place, however, is okay.)

Mounk:

Campaigns to cancel public appearances by controversial figures are in many cases motivated by the expectation that they will express some of their offending views at the event. When violent protests stopped far-right polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at UC Berkeley in 2017, for example, the organizers had every reason to believe that he would repeat his most inflammatory claims.

Even when protesters oppose appearances by controversial public figures who are set to speak on topics that are not in themselves controversial, they normally object to them because there is some connection between a speaker’s controversial views and their general area of professional expertise. Those who oppose talks by Charles Murray about topics that are unrelated to race, for example, argue that his writings on the supposed differences in average IQ between racial groups call his expertise as a social scientist into doubt.

Even though I strongly disagree with Murray’s views on race and find Yiannopoulos to be a trollish provocateur, I have also disagreed with attempts to stop either of them from going through with their talks. As the Yale professor Nicholas Christakis succinctly put it, “There is no right to be invited to speak at a college. But, once a person is invited, a college should never yield to demands to withdraw an invitation.”

Why is that? Largely because it gives the mob the right of censorship over the university folks who asked for the talk, and presumably asking for a good reason. This is an abrogation of free speech. Though the censors are not the government (the First Amendment stricture), they are disaffected people who want to silence a speaker—in this case for his “extracurricular” views. If you don’t want to hear someone who’s been invited to speak, you have better recourses than cancellation: don’t go to the talk, picket it peacefully outside, or organize counter-talks (that would have been hard given that Abbot was speaking on climate change!). Colleges, which should be bastions of free speech, should never suppress invited speech when the social-media mob comes to town.

As for Murray, well, he’s cancelled everywhere because of The Bell Curve, regardless of his topic.  I hadn’t heard of people object to him speaking because his views render him incompetent as a social scientist. What I heard is that he gets canceled (and roughed up at Middlebury College) because he has racist views which, say the protestors, are expressed in The Bell Curve.  Thus, when Mounk reveals the real reason why Abbot’s cancellation is different and more dangerous, I see a complete analogy to Charles Murray.

Mounk (bolding is mine, as it’s the main reason Mounk sees a difference in this cancellation):

But Abbot’s case is far more shocking than that of either Murray or Yiannopoulos. That’s partly because his opinions are much less extreme. It is also because the views that provoked such controversy are completely unrelated to the subject on which he was invited to lecture. “Omg how did *anyone* in @eapsMIT think this was ok?” read one tweet calling for the cancellation of Abbot’s lecture, referring to MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “As an alum, I’m asking you to fix this—now. Totally unacceptable and sends a message to any student that isn’t a white man that they don’t matter and that EAPS isn’t serious about (and is actively hostile towards) DEI.”

MIT did not rescind its invitation to Abbot in the expectation that he would repeat his views about affirmative action. Rather, he was disinvited from one of the most important research universities in the world because it could not tolerate that a scientist be permitted to speak about his uncontroversial research after daring to express unrelated views that, although controversial, happen to be held by a majority of the American public.

As I said, I think that whether Abbot’s extracurricular views on DEI are held by most Americans is irrelevant. He should have been allowed to speak even if most people didn’t share those views. The only thing that’s relevant is that he was going to talk about what he was supposed to—climate change. It may be relevant that his extracurricular views are a matter of debate—after all, the man is not a Nazi—and that’s even less reason to cancel him. But the sole issue here is inviting someone to give a relevant talk, and then disinviting him as a way of suppressing views he wasn’t going to express in that talk.

Abbot’s cancellation seems to me of a piece with the kind of cancellations going on everywhere. If you’ve expressed unwoke views on anything, you’ll be widely demonized, even if you’re talking about something else, as Murray was going to do at Middlebury. When Steve Bannon was invited to the University of Chicago, people objected violently even though they had no idea what he was going to talk about. (Bannon was not disinvited, but never came to campus.) So I don’t think something new happened with Abbot; it’s a slight escalation of what’s happening everywhere. However, Mounck is absolutely right about the consequences if this kind of behavior continues:

. . . the principle that MIT has effectively established is deeply worrying. For it would, if other institutions should follow the university’s example, amount to a severe restriction on the ability of Americans to disagree with a specific set of beliefs about how to remedy injustice without raising the risk that they might no longer be able to carry on their work, even if it is completely unrelated to politics. In effect, this would create a prohibition on controversial political speech for all academics—and eventually, perhaps, professionals in other highly visible domains.

MIT’s decision is not just another in a long series of campus controversies, then. It sets a precedent that will, unless it is forcefully resisted, pose a serious threat to the maintenance of a free society.

Amen.

A scathing takedown of a ham-handed attempt to rename “Huxley College”

October 7, 2021 • 11:15 am

Here we have a fairly short but scholarly and passionate piece by Nick Matzke, whose name may be familiar to you—he used to work at the National Center for Science Education and posted often on the Panda’s Thumb website. As you see from the article’s screenshot below (click on the image to see the piece or get a pdf), Nick now teaches biology and does research at The University of Auckland.

The backstory, which I’ve written about three times (here, here, and here) involves a wokeish but completely misguided attempt to rename the well known Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham, Washington. Huxley College is noted by Wikipedia as one the University’s “notable degree programs“, and it was “the first College dedicated to the study of environmental science and policy in the nation.”

Why the renaming? Because, as I’ve explained in my previous posts, the College’s namesake, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), was supposed to be a racist and a eugenicist. (If you know your history of evolutionary biology, you’ll remember Huxley as “Darwin’s bulldog”, a staunch defender of his friend Charles, who was too timorous to defend his own theory set forth in The Origin.) But Huxley did a lot more than that. He was actually an anti-racist, an opponent of slavery, and a friend of women and workingmen (he campaigned for suffrage half a century before British women got the vote, and gave free lectures on science to poor working people).  All of these facts, in particular Huxley’s antiracism, are explained in Nick’s piece, which is infinitely better than the “case for denaming” put on the WWU President’s website. The latter piece is embarrassingly bad and even, in parts, illiterate.

Click below to read Matzke’s vigorous nine-page defense of keeping the name. Another benefit of reading it is that you’re going to learn a lot about Thomas Henry Huxley, and, I hope, will be appalled at how WWU distorted and degraded his legacy to make him look like he was an ardent racist. (Nick has also posted the essay in full at The Panda’s Thumb.)

Now let it be admitted that Huxley, like Darwin, did make sporadic statements that, by today’s lights, would be considered unacceptably racist. All of them come from a single essay he wrote in 1865.  But that was early in his career, and by its end he’d established himself as one of the rare progressives in Victorian England, favoring the abolition of slavery, the establishment of women’s rights, and acting out of concern for the “lower” classes.  A few other points in Nick’s report:

a.) Several of the important assertions in the President’s report are simply dead wrong—in fact, the opposite of what Huxley said or what genetics says.

b.) Some of these errors were taken straight from the creationist literature. It appears that WWU leaned on the creationist denigration of Huxley that they’ve used for years to impugn all of evolutionary biology (“See?” they say, “Evolutionary biology is racist.”)

c.) Huxley engaged in three separate anti-racist campaigns that, in fact, made him anathema to the real British racists of his time.

d.) The report tries to tar Huxley by dissing his grandson, Julian Huxley, for being a racist eugenicist. While Julian had some views that could be interpreted as “reform eugenics”, he was an anti-racist. As Matzke notes:

Julian was also the founding director of UNESCO in 1946, and helped draft UNESCO’s famous anti-racism declarations in 1950 and 1952. The Encyclopedia of Evolution says, “largely due to his efforts, the UNESCO statement on race reported that race was a cultural, not a scientific, concept, and that any attempts to find scientific evidence of the superiority of one race over another were invalid.”

But it’s madness to conflate Julian with his grandfather, and mentioning Julian, no matter what his views, was completely irrelevant.

I’ll give one quote from Nick, but you should read his piece:

How does it serve justice to treat T.H. Huxley as if he were [the vicious British racists] James Hunt or Governor Eyre, when he actually was their vehement opponent?  Removing Huxley’s name from the College would in fact be removing the name of a pioneer for educational inclusion, a key figure in scientifically establishing that all humans are one species, and undermining the concept of biological “race.” Doing so while relying on propaganda deriving from fundamentalist creationists and other right-wing provocateurs would be falling into the exact trap arranged by these provocateurs: namely, to drive a wedge between science and the causes of social and racial justice. Helping to drive this wedge deeper cannot help increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in science. Imagine creationists, for the next several decades, going to legislatures and state school boards with a line like: “Evolution is a racist theory. After all, Western Washington University acknowledged this when they removed the name ‘Huxley’ from their College of the Environment.”

WWU hasn’t decided formally on the renaming, but, as I noted, they appear to have put it off until December so it would look like it wasn’t a rush to judgment.  Look at this duplicity! (bolding is mine)

. . . One Board member suggested voting at the October meeting. The president suggested it would be better to do so at the December meeting, or it will look like it was all worked out in advance. Several others concurred and suggested that the October meeting focus on communicating the rationale for the denaming.

It was worked out in advance, and what we have here is the appearance of due diligence without the diligence itself. It’s a case once again of a university truckling to a mob who knows virtually nothing about the salient issues.

By my own standards, in which a name should be kept if two criteria are met, Huxley College should definitely NOT be renamed. But tell that to the administration, who must meet the demands of WWU’s Black Students Organization as well as many other students.  I venture to guess that almost none of those calling for Huxley’s cancellation knows anything about the man or what he really did.

My criteria for keeping a name or a statue:

1.) Does the name or statue honor the good things that the person did?

2.) Was the person’s life a net good, making a positive difference in the world?

For Thomas Henry Huxley, the answer to both questions is, “Hell, yes!”  Huxley College should not be renamed. But I’d bet big bucks it will, for you know how these campaigns go.

Huxley:

Academic Freedom Alliance calls out MIT for canceling Dorian Abbot lecture (and a poll)

October 6, 2021 • 9:30 am

Yesterday I reported on the unconscionable deplatforming of University of Chicago professor Dorian Abbot, who was scheduled to give a prestigious invited lecture at MIT on October 21. The topic of his lecture was to be  “climate and the potential for life on other planets”. Abbot was to be the Carlson Lecturer in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (DEAPS).

But Abbot’s lecture was canceled by DEAPS (they had to do it over the phone, not wanting to put it in writing) because Abbot had not only criticized Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives here at the U of C (this caused an uproar), but co-wrote an op-ed in Newsweek making similar points—but also, unwisely, comparing DEI initiatives to Nazi policy on race.  This caused the expected social-media storm, largely fueled by people in DEAPS. The cowardly department then canceled Abbot’s talk.

Nevertheless, though I don’t agree fully with Abbot’s views, he has freedom of speech and academic freedom (this is, after all, the University of Chicago), and it’s an abrogation of those values to disinvite him from giving a lecture that has absolutely nothing to do with what people are complaining about. It’s a blot on MIT, for many academics, both liberal and conservative, have criticized MIT’s actions. What is MIT afraid of? Free thought?

Fortunately, the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), which I’ve described here, has come forward to defend Abbot. The AFA is one of those non-partisan groups, like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, that defends free speech on campus. Their mission statement includes this:

The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) is a non-profit organization whose members are dedicated to protecting the rights of faculty members at colleges and universities to speak, instruct, and publish without fear of sanction or punishment. We uphold the principles that are required if scholars are to fulfill their vocation as truth-seekers and colleges and universities are to be faithful to their mission as truth-seeking institutions.

Importantly, they have a number of big names on their board and a stable of powerful legal advisors that will enable the AFA to bring a lawsuit if necessary. (I’m not sure if it’s warranted in this case.)

At any rate, the AFA sent out an announcement to its members, which include me, describing a letter it wrote to MIT. Here’s part of the announcement:

PRINCETON, NJ – Today, the Academic Freedom Alliance sent a letter to the president of MIT and the head of the university’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences regarding the disinvitation of University of Chicago professor Dorian Abbot to deliver a prestigious annual lecture on climate science. After publicly announcing that Professor Abbot would be delivering this year’s John Carlson Lecture, the university rescinded the invitation and cancelled the event over controversy surrounding his positions on diversity initiatives at universities.

“I write on behalf of the Academic Freedom Alliance to express our firm view that this disinvitation represents an egregious violation of the principles of academic freedom and an abnegation of MIT’s own stated commitment to freedom of thought,” wrote Keith E. Whittington, chair of the AFA’s academic committee, in the letter to MIT President L. Rafael Reif and Professor Robert van der Hilst.  “The Academic Freedom Alliance stands firmly behind Professor Abbot in this matter and calls on MIT to adhere to its academic freedom principles and allow the Carlson Lecture to go forward without interruption.”

. . . Professor Abbot’s disinvitation has attracted attention across the scientific community. Anna Krylov, a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Southern California who has published an academic paper on the perils of politicizing science, said of MIT’s decision, “This is an alarming case of scholarship suppression and censorship in STEM. This cancellation was facilitated by Twitter vigilantes and enabled by the complacency of the leadership of our institutions. Suppression of scientific communications in response to the demands of activists offended by the political views of a scientist threatens academic freedom, undermines the core values of  science, and subverts the scientific enterprise. It also threatens our future. How are we to solve today’s societal challenges if we silence scientists because of politically non-conforming views?”

The AFA’s three-page letter can be read and downloaded by clicking on the first page below. The letter ends by asking MIT to reinstate Abbot as the Carlson lecture. Note the last paragraph on the first page, asserting that Abbot’s disinvitation violates MIT’s own principles of freedom of expression. The letter is signed by Keith Whittington, Chair of the AFA’s Academic Committee as well as a Professor of Politics at Princeton. It also refers to the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report about avoiding chilling of speech, a report I’ve often discussed.

For a school with such a high reputation, and based so much on science, MIT is getting unaccountably woke. They’re at the point where they need to hear a three-page lecture on how a good school should comport itself with respect to freedom of speech a thought, a lecture that includes this paragraph:

When universities extend invitations to speakers, it is imperative that they stand behind those invitations and not rescind them under political pressure. Caving in to disinvitation campaigns emboldens those who would seek to suppress the expression of dissenting views and sends a message that universities will not stand up for their own principles and will not protect the campus as a place where ideas can be freely debated. If threatened protests can force universities to cancel events, then vocal agitators across the ideological spectrum will be incentivized to organize themselves to shut down any speech or speaker with which they disagree. This threat is particularly grave when it interferes with activities that are at the very center of a university’s academic enterprise. If the faculty cannot gather to listen to the presentation of scholarly arguments out of fear that some might object to giving a fellow scholar an audience, then the university can no longer fulfill its most basic functions. Universities have a particular responsibility to stand up to such threats.

Such disinvitations would never happen at the University of Chicago (faculty and students here tried but failed to prevent Steve Bannon from being invited to speak, but he never scheduled an appearance). MIT surely realizes that they’re simply encouraging the “heckler’s veto” by caving in to the pressure of Twitter and Facebook.

Let’s have a poll:

Do you think MIT will restore Dorian Abbot's invitation to give the Carlson lecture?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

UC Prof Dorian Abbot canceled for a prestigious lecture at MIT after criticizing diversity initiatives

October 5, 2021 • 9:30 am

I’ve written about Dorian Abbot—an associate professor in our Geophysical Sciences Department—twice before. The first time was in November of last year when Abbot came under fire for posting YouTube videos that weren’t in line with the Zeitgeist. As I said at the time:

The (associate) professor is Dr. Dorian Abbot in our Department of Geophysical Sciences posted four YouTube videos, with slides, taking issue with some initiatives about diversity and inclusion. His talks emphasized the need for a meritocracy rather than “quotas” of minority applicants, and as well as asserting that it’s not the business of universities to promote social justice.

. . . Have a look especially at the letter to Abbot’s department from 162 people affiliated with the University of Chicago and Geophysical Sciences (their names are unfortunately blacked out, though I think signers should make their names public). The letter demands all kinds of accounting and punishments for what Abbot did.  These including giving Abbot’s graduate and undergraduate students a way to opt out of his mentorship and teaching, making a departmental statement that Abbot’s videos were “unsubstantiated, inappropriate, and harmful to department members and climate” (the exact “harm” that occurred isn’t specified).

This being the University of Chicago, and the matter being one of free speech and academic freedom, Abbot wasn’t punished, though many people still wanted to silence him.

On July 8 of this year, Abbot was confirmed as the prestigious Carlson Lecturer in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (DEAPS) at MIT, scheduled for October 21.

My second post on Abbot appeared after he and Ivan Marinovic published an op-ed in Newsweek, “The Diversity Problem on Campus“, in the August 12 issue of Newsweek. It was also an attack on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Unfortunately, the pair ended their piece with a comparison of these initiatives to conditions in Nazi Germany:

Ninety years ago Germany had the best universities in the world. Then an ideological regime obsessed with race came to power and drove many of the best scholars out, gutting the faculties and leading to sustained decay that German universities never fully recovered from. We should view this as a warning of the consequences of viewing group membership as more important than merit, and correct our course before it is too late.

As I remarked about that:

Sadly, at the end, Abbot and Marinkovic sabotage their entire program by comparing American DEI initiatives and their “obsession with race” with another regime, also “obsessed with race”, whose obsession destroyed academia in that country. Yes, it was the Nazis. The authors play the Hitler card! That is a really bad move, and one that undercuts their thesis, since the comparison is not at all valid, if for no other reason that the “obsession with race” went in the opposite direction in Germany: they wanted less diversity. By getting rid of a previously oppressed group (Jewish professors), they lost a huge amount of talent. But DEI initiatives in the U.S. are not trying to get rid of oppressed groups; they’re trying to include them. Whether that will affect academic quality is debatable, but the histories are not at all comparable.

In my view, the Newsweek paragraph, which I see as really unwise and inimical to their point, scuppered their entire editorial.

Regardless, it led to Abbot being the target of two Twitter mobs a month apart, apparently involving many members of MIT’s DEAPS, with participants demanding that Abbot be disinvited as the Carlson lecturer. Here are a few tweets (click to enlarge) expressing outrage at Abbot’s invitation; these are from a post by Chris at Karlstack:

And that’s what happened. On September 28 the chair of DEAPS, bowing to the mob, asked to speak to Abbot on the phone (the chair clearly didn’t want to leave a paper trail). When they spoke two days later, Abbot was informed that his lecture would be canceled this year, and he got nothing further in writing.  Importantly, as Abbot notes in his account on Bari Weiss’s site (below), Abbot’s proposed lecture had nothing to do with DEI: the topic was  “climate and the potential for life on other planets.” But it didn’t matter; the man had rendered himself toxic and had to be canceled.

You can read other accounts of the fracas in Newsweek, Legal Insurrection, Leiter Reports, and an account by Abbot himself on Bari Weiss’s site (click on screenshot below):

My feelings about this cancellation should already be clear from what I’ve written on this site. Canceling the man for exercising his freedom of speech and his academic freedom, after already having invited him to talk on a topic not dealing with controversial DEI matters, is reprehensible. MIT should be deeply ashamed of itself. If the university had any spine, it would re-invite Abbot. But of course it won’t.

Abbot’s been very magnanimous—too much so, I think—about his critics, even tweeting this:

But as you’ll see in his article, he pulls no punches about “cancel culture” demonstrated by his disinvitation.  Here’s the ending of his piece on Weiss’s site.

Do we want a culture of fear and repression in which a small number of ideologues exert their power and cultural dominance to silence anyone who disagrees with them? Or do we want our children to enjoy truth-seeking discourse consisting of good-natured exchanges that are ultimately grounded in a spirit of epistemic humility?

If you want the latter, it’s time to stand up and so say. It’s time to say no to the mob, no to the cancellations. And it’s time to be forthright about your true opinions.

This is not a partisan issue. Anyone who is interested in the pursuit of truth and in promoting a healthy and functioning society has a stake in this debate. Speaking out now may seem risky. But the cost of remaining silent is far steeper.

************************************

Note: Weiss adds this at the end:

Thanks to Princeton Professor (and friend of Common Sense) Robby George, Dorian Abbot’s cancelled lecture will be hosted by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions on the day it was scheduled to be given at MIT: October 21 at 4:30 PM EST.

It will be free to the public via Zoom and you can register at this link.

We hope you’ll tune in.

h/t: Mark

Huxley College name canceled for the usual reasons

September 18, 2021 • 1:15 pm

In August I reported that Huxley College of the Environment, a part of Western Washington University (WWU) named after renowned biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (Darwin’s Bulldog”), was likely to be renamed. The reason, as I explained earlier:

Like Darwin, Huxley was a “man of his time”, who made some sexist and racist statements that today would be considered intolerable. But Huxley was also a great popularizer of science (he spent man years teaching courses to working people as well as defending Darwinism), an abolitionist, a leader and administrator of British science, and a reformer of schools. Although I’m biased, I’d say his positive contributions of science outweighted his bigoted remarks, and he seems to have had little influence on eugenics, as there was no British movement that led to the practice of eugenics, nor does anyone, as far as I know, cite Huxley in support of eugenics. Eugenics was practiced in Nazi Germany, and not with the excuse of evolution, and to a lesser degree in the U.S., promoted by American scientists.

I predicted that Huxley would be  canceled, and, while it’s not yet a fait accompli, the college is certainly going to be renamed, for Huxley’s moral transgressions—according to modern lights—are not to be forgiven and the authorities have just pronounced judgment.

A new piece at The Panda’s Thumb (click on screenshot below) by Matt Young describes a meeting of the WWU Board of Trustees, and it’s clear from a report of someone who was there (not Young, but an anonymous reporter) that there never was going be real debate about the name change.

It doesn’t matter that Huxley’s presence in the world improved it, and the education of working people in Britain; a few unseemly remarks by the man in the mid-nineteenth century were sufficient to blot him out of history. There were even falsehoods in the President’s report about Huxley: as I said:

[From the report on the WWU President’s website]: Even though Thomas Huxley made significant contributions in the field of biology, he also had significant contributions to scientific racism. He was a polygenist: someone who is of the belief that all races evolved from different origins instead of coming from one homosapien. [sic] This is not only scientifically disproven, but also a racist mindset, and an argument that one of his “archrivals” at the time called Richard Owen attempted to refute with evidence that we all are the same species that evolved from the same homosapien [sic] thousands of years ago. Huxley won the argument, and it is historian Nicolaas Rupke’s thesis that this argument between Huxley and Owen in which Huxley’s “deeply racist, polygenist viewpoint” won lead to building the scientific racism of the early 20th century.

My response:

It’s not true that Huxley was a “polygenist”; like Darwin, he correctly believed in a single evolutionary origin of humans: both were monogenists.) Huxley believed, correctly, that different ethnic groups (then called “races”) evolved in geographic isolation from one another following migration to new places. But, like Darwin, Huxley also thought that whites were on the top of the racial hierarchy.

Didn’t matter; read the report on Young’s website, which convincingly shows that the outcome—no more “Huxley College” name, was determined before the hearing (my emphasis):

The next board member recognized that she was talking from an emotional perspective. She repeated the creationist trope that Huxley advocated a hierarchical theory of race and, because of that, going to a school named after him reminded her of the harm caused by going to a high school in Baltimore named after Roger B. Taney, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who wrote the Dred Scott decision. So in short, she compared Huxley’s legacy to Taney’s.

Sensing the overwhelming sentiment, the Board chair than suggested that they needed to start thinking through how they were going to communicate the thought process behind their decision.

. . . One Board member suggested voting at the October meeting. The president suggested it would be better to do so at the December meeting, or it will look like it was all worked out in advance. Several others concurred and suggested that the October meeting focus on communicating the rationale for the denaming.

So in summary, they totally bought the creationist narrative in the Task Force report. I was embarrassed for them, for WWU, and for my own association with WWU.

and

Another source observed that, when a committee was appointed,

. . . usually the decision on the path forward had already been made. We [the objectors] were part of the required process.

So another biologist goes down the drain, and as the name gets effaced, the man gets forgotten. I tell you, Darwin is next, and the crowd is already muttering darkly about CD’s racism.

A rise in targeting of scholars for political and ideological reasons

September 10, 2021 • 9:15 am

There’s a longish report at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that summarizes how scholars have been reported to authorities (“targeted”) for saying or writing “offensive” stuff over the last 6 years. You can read the report by clicking on the screenshot below:

It’s a bit tedious to read in its entirety, but the results are interesting. I’ll skip the definition of scholars and most of the methodology, except to say that the report relied on eight sources (below). These don’t include FIRE’s famous “disinvitation database“, as that reports deplatforming or disruptions of talks of speakers at colleges, not targeting and attempted punishment of individuals at universities. The sources of data:

  • Lee Jussim’s list of “Threat(s) to Academic Freedom … From Academics”
  • Jeffrey Sachs’ list of “The US Faculty Termination for Political Speech Dataset (2000-2020)”
  • The “Free Speech Tracker” from The Free Speech Project at Georgetown University
  • Duke Law School’s “Campus Speech Database”
  • The National Association of Scholars (NAS) list of “Tracking ‘Cancel Culture’ in Higher Education”
  • National Review’s list “Tracking ‘Cancel Culture’ in Higher Education”
  • The “Retraction Watch Database”

Trawling of this dataset using the analysts’ methods turned up 456 “targeting incidents” between January 1, 2015 and July 31, 2021, so it’s up to date. A “targeting incident” is one in which a person or people call for sanctions on a scholar for what he or she said or did.

The main results are these (I’ve omitted some of the report’s key findings.

a. Most of the incidents did result in some kind of sanction. 74% of the 456 reports resulted in either an investigation (considered a sanction) or a punishment like suspension or firing. That is very high, especially given that nearly all the incidents involved speech that, if uttered in a public university, would be protected by the First Amendment. (The article gives some examples.)

b. Targeting incidents have risen substantially in the last 6 years. Here’s a plot by year with the incidents in yellow and sanctions in red. There were 24 incidents in 2015, 113 in 2020, and 61 incidents already in the first half of 2021.

 

c. When the researchers could determine whether the targeting originated from positions to the Left or Right of the Speaker, it was most often from the Left. (This is what you’d predict from the Disinvitation Database). A graph:

Of course most students are on the Left, but so are most professors. But remember: this is a plot of reports of whether the accusations came not from the Left or Right by themselves, but really “from the Left or Right of the accused.” And, in fact, many of the accused were already on the Left. The reports from the Right did an uptick in 2017, and that may be the result of Donald Trump’s election when the Right felt empowered.

d. The percentage of sanctions is, as I said, high (64%); most of these are investigations, but terminations and suspensions of scholars are quite common.  Here’s a bar chart of the various outcomes when someone is “targeted”:

e. When it comes to being targeted, race is by far the issue involved most often, with partisanship, gender, and international policy behind. This again is not surprising, since race has been dominating the national discourse, but particularly on campuses. Here’s a graph:

f. When scholars are terminated (i.e., fired), race and institutional policy issues are the most common causes.  (Institutional policy is expected because it’s a clash between scholars and the policy of their academic homes:

g. Finally, the sources of the targeting are different depending on whether the attack came from the Left or the Right of the person targeted. The graph below shows the three most frequent sources of attack with “from the left” being the three bars on the left and “from the right” being the three bars on the right. (This is a confusing graph.) The most obvious difference is that attacks from the Left come from students (undergrads especially frequent) and other scholars, while attacks from the Right come from the public, the administration, and politicians.  This is not that surprising given that most scholars are on the Left, while attacks on the right are more likely to come from non-academics.

There are several other results that I won’t delve into, but merely mention. The disciplines in which targeting incidents occur most often are those “at the core of a liberal arts curriculum: law, political science, English, history, and philosophy.” That’s again not surprising, as those are the areas in which scholars are most likely to say something offensive. It’s a lot harder to say something offensive when you’re teaching science or math.

Finally, here’s an argument for universities adopting the Chicago Principles of Free Expression:

Campuses where the most targeting incidents have occurred tend to also have severely speech-restrictive policies, and are unlikely to have adopted the Chicago Principles guaranteeing the preeminence of free speech.

An article like this would be dry without a few examples, and it gives three instances of controversial scholars who were targeted: Mike Adams (who ultimately killed himself after being attacked for impure tweets), Gordon Klein (a particularly unfair case), and Columbia University adjunct law professor Elizabeth Lederer, targeted for prosecuting in court the Central Park Five, who were ultimately exonerated for raping and badly injuring a woman. Lederer ultimately had to resign from Columbia.

The lessons from this, given that most of the targeting was by mob vigilantes who wanted someone’s head (i.e., job), and that most of those attacked were exercising free speech, are obvious, but I’ll let FIRE summarize them for you:

. . . If scholars are unable to ask certain questions because they fear social or professional sanctions, particularly from their students and colleagues, then the advancement of human knowledge will be hindered. We may unknowingly continue to pursue important societal goals using ineffective means and policies because scholars fear the consequences of investigating whether such means and policies help us achieve what they are intended to.

Such a state of affairs should worry anyone with a vested interest in American higher education because it undermines academic freedom and open inquiry, threatening academia’s ability to ensure the furtherance of knowledge. One need not agree with a scholar’s research or teaching to nevertheless respect that scholar’s right to research and teach how they see fit. Distinguishing support for one’s speech from one’s right to speech is often lost in today’s culture wars and the “Scholars Under Fire” project reveals that when censorship spreads rampantly, it does not restrict itself to views and people one opposes; it also comes, sometimes with even more fervor, for those who hold similar views.