More on MIT's deplatforming of University of Chicago professor

Last month, Dr. Dorian Abbot, an associate professor in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, was deplatformed. He had been invited to give a speech at MIT on “climate and the potential for life on other planets.” But a group of grad students pressed the school to disinvite him because of some prior comments he’d made about affirmative action and DEI policies on campus (you can read some of what he said here). It worked and Abbot was deplatformed from giving the speech at MIT. Fortunately, a professor at Yale offered to let him give his speech there so he wasn’t ultimately silenced.


There have been some more developments in the story since then. This week, a climate physicist at UC MassaBerkeley resigned his position as director of a climate science group when he suggested Dr. Abbot be invited to Berkeley to speak. He explained his decision on Twitter:


Yesterday the NY Times published a follow-up report about this controversy which looks at the changing campus environment for scientists:

A few fields have purged scientific terms and names seen by some as offensive, and there is a rising call for “citational justice,” arguing that professors and graduate students should seek to cite more Black, Latino, Asian and Native American scholars and in some cases refuse to acknowledge in footnotes the research of those who hold distasteful views. Still the decision by M.I.T., viewed as a high citadel of science in the United States, took aback some prominent scientists. Debate and argumentation, impassioned, even ferocious, is the mother’s milk of science, they said.

“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.”

But as the article demonstrates, an increasing number of academics are on board with deplatforming. Case in point:

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.


And there you have it. Demands for “citational justice” and a professor at an elite college arguing that “intellectual debate and rigor” is essentially white supremacy. I wasn’t the only person who was stunned by that response. The top upvoted comment (over 1900 votes as I write this) zeroed in on this:

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

Did an actual scholar really say this? What standard does she think should be applied? Height? Weight? Gender? Ethnicity? Hair length? Should we value the ideas, research, contribution based on the merit, rigor, uniqueness of the work, or on some arbitrary attribute of the scholar? The answer seems obvious to me.

This whole debate is nonsense, and shows an academy adrift. No wonder so much academic research gets dismissed or ignored nowadays. I saw not one biased comment from Dr. Abbot, nor any allegations of bias. Only that some don’t like what he said…because it makes them feel uncomfortable. Isn’t the point of the academy to challenge? Thumbs down to MIT (MIT? Really?) for being weak-kneed, and kudos to Princeton for standing up for excellence and free speech.

Several other comments focused on Dr. Cohen’s line about intellectualism. I’m condensing this one a bit:

So much in this article is deeply unsettling; I could write volumes. I’ll limit myself to the absurdity of the quotes from Dr. Phoebe Cohen. Dr. Cohen’s remarks here are – to use an excellent word appearing elsewhere in this piece – risible; they are also fallacious, and she errs logically more than once…

As if Dr. Cohen doesn’t already have both feet in her mouth, she responds to a question about academic debate by denigrating intellectualism that “comes from a world in which white men dominated.” Which, if I may point out, doesn’t answer or even address the question she was asked. It raises an absurd straw man argument – that anything and everything from that world is to be discarded: a coward’s dodge.

When a PhD and chair at one of the most rigorous undergrad liberal arts schools in the country is this incapable of coherent reasoning, I weep for education in this country.


The second most upvoted comment comes from Oregon and the author basically says this is how you get Trump:

A geophysicist is blocked from talking about geophysics because he opposes discrimination based upon people’s physical characteristics. Unreal and absurd.

This type of craziness will get us more Trumps, unfortunately — and we will have earned the punishment.

My point here is that we may have a problem when the readers of the NY Times (not a right wing outlet last time I checked) make infinitely more sense than some of the professors at elite colleges. MIT should be ashamed for its decision.

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