Thursday, August 30, 2007

Intolerance in the Academy

In an interview with the New Statesman, we read:

[Simon Baron-Cohen, Cambridge professor of developmental psychopathology] would have been wary of speaking his mind for fear that demonstrators would churn up the grass of the quad at Trinity College and that his right-thinking colleagues in the social sciences departments would denounce him as some kind of fascist.
Crikey. What's on his mind, that might have provoked such a reaction?
Baron-Cohen is a greater heretic because he appears to be saying that men and women have different kinds of intelligence. Men are more likely than women to "systemise" the outside world, his argument runs. They are quicker to see patterns, create organisations and make predictions. Women are better at empathising with others, feeling their emotions and producing a sympathetic response. Autism, in his view, is an extreme "male brain", which allows autistics to pick apart systems while showing little or no understanding of the people around them. He hastily adds that when he talks about "male" and "female" brains, he is talking about averages. Women, like my friend, can have "male" brains and be brilliant financial analysts. Men can have "female" brains and be compassionate social workers. Gender isn't destiny.
But this isn't some bloke mouthing off in a pub; research has led him to these views. And if controversial, even iconoclastic views that are well-grounded in evidence can't flourish in a Temple of Learning, where can they flourish?

Cambridge, UK might just about be hanging on as a place where academic freedom persists (there have been problems even there), but across the pond, in that other Cambridge, things are less rosy. In 2005, the then President of Harvard, Lawrence Summers:
suggested, at a National Bureau of Economics Research (NBER) Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce, the possibility that many factors outside of socialization could explain why there were more men than women in high-end science and engineering positions. He suggested one such possible reason could be men's higher variance in relevant innate abilities, or innate preference. An attendee made Summers' remarks public, and an intense response followed in the national news media and on Harvard's campus.
Summers' pro-free market stance and scepticism about global warming alarmism had already attracted the disapproval of some of his colleagues. In March 2005 a motion of no confidence in Summers was passed by members of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Summers subsequently resigned, although:
Influential psychologist Steven Pinker defended the legitimacy of Summers' January remarks. When asked if Summers' remarks were "within the pale of legitimate academic discourse," Pinker responded "Good grief, shouldn’t everything be within the pale of legitimate academic discourse, as long as it is presented with some degree of rigor? That’s the difference between a university and a madrassa. [...] There is certainly enough evidence for the hypothesis to be taken seriously."
Summers had stronger support among Harvard College students than among the college faculty. One poll by the Harvard Crimson indicated that students opposed his resignation by a three-to-one margin, with 57% of responding students opposing his resignation and 19% supporting it.


After the Harvard Corporation accepted Summers' resignation, hundreds of millions in pledged contributions were canceled by donors who were disappointed by the Harvard Corporation's failure to stand up to the college faculty. ... Summers' dismissal was viewed by many as an indicator that the humanities faculty at the College had power that was disproportionately large relative to their contributions to the University, and that they would seek to use their entrenched position as tenured faculty to block curricular reforms, championed by Summers, that would place greater emphasis on math and science.
(emphasis added) Baron Cohen wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times, in which he said:
But Mr. Summers was wrong to imply that these differences render any individual woman less capable than any individual man of becoming a top-level scientist.
Which is precisely what Summers, in speaking of "variance", didn't say. Shame on Baron Cohen. When they come for him, who will speak out?

Back in Harvard, one assistant professor spoke out stridently. Outspoken, conservative and a global warming sceptic himself, Lubos Motl published an account of the debacle on his blog.

Interestingly enough, the person who moved the motion in the first place, J Lorand Malory, shatters no stereotypes about Harvard's humanities department:
He’s a student of cross-dressing, a voodoo expert, a director of the ethnic studies department, an adviser to GLQ, a Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, a great admirer of matriarchy, and an apologist for the corrupt and brutal Nigerian dictator Ibrahim Babangida, about whom he’s writing a sympathetic book
Motl knew the vultures were circling him, too. And rumours of his resignation started to circulate. In 2006 his Wikipedia entry - copied at this address, was updated with the line:
Lubos Motl resigned his job under pressure as assistant professor of physics from Harvard in January 2006. He "tagged" Lee Smolin's and Peter Woit's books, which criticize string theory as too speculative and untestable, as themselves "crank" and "crackpot" on Smolin and Woit both hold faculty positions in good universities.
Yup, Motl used that language and more. His Amazon contributions are often rather pithy:
Al Gore's book, one of the most hysterical books about the climate on the market, follows the template of many fundamentalist believers who were converted to Christianity. For example, he explains that a car accident of his son has played an important role in his beliefs about global warming.
Rumours continued to circulate. In January 2007, Jack Scarfatti, who had adopted an adversarial position with respect to Motl, published a series of emails from Motl that included the following:
Fri, 19 Jan 2007
you were the first external person who has created a very
unpleasant situation for me at Harvard, and this has repeated itself lots
of times and this fucked up job has always been used as a tool to
blackmail me. I don't want to be blackmailed and manipulated like that all
the time. Best, Lubos

Fri, 19 Jan 2007
I don't depend on any grant but I just resigned. It's probably not your
business to ask, is it? Best, Lubos
Motl certainly uses strong, even inappropriate language when talking about other physicists, but that's not exactly an innovation in the world of academia. There were other campaigns against him. Here's an example. It ends:
So, my question is - if he's actually a professor here, isn't that kind of...unprofessional, to say the least? Is this something his students and the Physics department might want to be aware of? I'd like your input.
Sounds like a fledgling campaign, doesn't it? The piece is published as harvard=professor-racism.html

So, what was this unprofessional racism?
Dear Lucy,

I agree with you and admire your courage. Many reactions above make it very clear that your courage is highly non-trivial.

Someone said that there was racism because it was assumed that the people couldn't have been students. I think that it is indeed sensible to think that people who behave a little bit like animals could be someone else than Harvard students, after all. While this assumption may occasionally fail, it is still more reasonable than to assume that someone must be a Harvard student just because he or she is black.

If the party were white and the noise were similar, police would arrive, too. The intercultural foundation would complain that it is a proof of apartheid that the white people were not instantly dismissed from Harvard.

Keep on smiling and writing so well,
Lubos Motl
And - perhaps the killer:
Show me a single influential scholar in a department of women's studies who understands the very basic insight about that discipline, namely why virtually all of scholarly feminism is intellectual garbage. Show me a single director of a foundation for diversity who would protect a white person against a black person. Show me a single chair of a deparmental diversity committee who understands that the lack of conservatives at the universities is much more serious a problem that the lack of a certain skin color.
Well, a very great deal of scholarly feminism is intellectual garbage. Black racism against whites goes unremarked, and has become so commonplace it's hardly worth linking to example - even one of my favourite blogs, Booker Rising, includes casual references to "whitey". I have an upcoming post on this subject and will say more then. And Motl might have a point about the lack of conservative academics - both he and Summers have been forced to resign from one prestigious university.

What's going on? Australian reef specialist and - by a remarkable coincidence - climate sceptic Dr Walter Stark has a theory:
The ideal of scientific objectivity has been subverted — even in the world's most prestigious universities — by the pernicious and pervasive influence of postmodernism
He goes on:
The scientific method has been the most effective means yet developed to understand our world. It has resulted in longer, healthier, safer, more interesting and comfortable human lives than ever before. Essential to this success has been a philosophical approach in which understanding is evidence-based, logically consistent and subject to revision in the light of new evidence or more comprehensive explanation.

In science the highest goal has been a pursuit of truth as determined by reason and empirical evidence. Disregard for truth and false evidence are unacceptable for any reason.

The history of science has been an ongoing account of the discovery of previously unthinkable new under-standings of the world and the abandonment of previously accepted ones. A heliocentric solar system, a multimillion-year-old Earth, evolution, continental drift, relativity, quantum theory — every new perception that challenges established belief always meets strong resistance regardless of the weight of reason and evidence to support it. The core strength of science is that it fosters such challenges and demands their acceptance if they cannot be refuted.
Increasingly, however, the findings of science have begun to impinge upon the established order in the humanities. Postmodernism has been in large part a response to this challenge. It ignores the irrefutable success of science in permitting us to better understand our world; it rejects its authority as being simply a cultural artefact, no more or less valid than any other belief. Truth, facts, reason and objectivity are rejected because in practice the aim does not fully achieve the ideal.

Uncomfortable scientific findings are then "deconstructed" so as to dismiss or reinterpret them as desired. Into the vacuum of ethics and meaning it seeks to fill, this nihilistic pseudo-philosophy then inserts its own agenda, a new edition of the old leftist catechism re-branded as a form of moral righteousness we recognise as political correctness.

A battle for science isn't just an academic dispute. It's a battle for rationality, scepticism, freedom of speech and enquiry. It involves, not just scientists, but everyone. A world in which dogma has replaced truth would be... well, exactly the sort of world the reorganised hard left is trying to bring about - a totalitarian nightmare, impoverished, riven with dark age belief systems, in which only the bigoted and violent were safe.

It's a vision of the future much more terrible than the memory of the socialist past of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

I am writing to Baron Cohen, expressing my distaste at his failure to support a colleague, and his twisting of the man's words. It's not much, but I feel I have to do something. We can't just watch this happen, quietly.

The barbarians are inside the gates. It is time to ask them to leave.


countingcats said...

Have you ever noticed a tendency amongst those who are most enthusiastic about multiculturalism, which of course presupposes cultural differences, to spew accusations of racism following any attempt to discuss cultural differences of any but the most trivial type?

Diversity of thought is hated by the left.

Countingcats said...

Sorry, stereotyping there, make that large chunks of the left.

rightwingprof said...

"Well, a very great deal of scholarly feminism is intellectual garbage."

A very great deal? Are you being kind, or hedging just to stay safe?

Peter Risdon said...

Being kind. While you'd think there had to be something reasonably sane, somewhere in it all, the relentless conformity of the left might mean this ain't so.

dearieme said...

Bloody outrageous. Barbarian indeed. "the quad at Trinity College": it's the COURT at Trinity College, for God's sake. P.S. Summers was knifed, but I gather that he's such an obnoxious fellow that people who might have defended him on intellectual grounds didn't. Not that any Lefty would go undefended on such grounds.