Canaries in the Coal Mine: Murray, Peterson, Singer, and Free Speech

"Free Speech" spraypainted on a brick wall.

First Milo. Then Murray. Then…Singer and Peterson? Has the free speech canary died in the coal mine?

It’s 2017 and humanity faces a multitude of challenges. The usual specters of poverty, violence, inequality, and tribalism rear their heads (though at largely lower levels relative to the past). And added to our plate we find the uncertainties of global environmental change, surges in population, looming automation, increased political polarization, religious fundamentalism, and resurgent nationalism to name a few (you’ll forgive me if I’ve left out your favorite worry).

But the challenge I find myself most agitated over lately is the diminished respect for free speech on college campuses.

By now of course you have seen or heard about the incident at Middlebury College involving Professor Charles Murray and Allison Stranger. The former was shouted down and unable to deliver his (invited) talk without moving to a separate room, and the latter was physically assaulted by a member of the un-satiated student mob. Murray can legitimately be considered a “controversial” speaker, having co-authored The Bell Curve, which includes a chapter related to possible average-IQ differences attributable to race. However he is not a “white nationalist” as he was incorrectly described by the increasingly unreliable Southern Poverty Law Center, and was not even at Middlebury to talk about The Bell Curve, but instead his 2012 and pertinent-to-the-times book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

Disturbing as it was (particularly the cult-like chanting which you can see here), I did not despair, considering this an isolated incident of naïve activism on the part of mostly well-intentioned students.

But perhaps it was I who was being naïve.

This afternoon I was shown a video of University of Toronto psychologist Jordan B. Peterson similarly confronted by a group of students at McMaster University. As I read their “NO HATE SPEECH” poster boards and heard their shouts of “SHUT HIM DOWN”, I had the sinking feeling that the canary in the coal mine of free speech had just slumped over.

Peterson, insofar as I can ascertain, is not a controversial speaker of the Murray sort (unless you are one of those sexpots energized by questioning the validity and value of archetypical forms in mythology and religion). And Peterson is certainly no Milo. Thus, I realized that the no-speech movement on college campuses is in fact closer to the Salem-analogies than I was originally ready to admit. Labeling speakers as unworthy of a platform, or as “offensive” has become a weapon, and no one is safe. Are you a college student feeling inadequate, bored, or self-righteous? Wait for someone to be invited to speak on your campus—truly anyone, as the Peterson example shows, will do—and feign to take offense at something this individual has said or written, no matter how far in the past, the context, or the person’s overall body of work and character. Presto! You have yourself a protest, a taste of the 60’s that you hold so dear, and complete assurance that you’re a good person.

And in case you’re tempted to call me melodramatic, consider another report in which a Q&A by the moral philosopher and inspiration for the Effective Altruism movement, Peter Singer, was similarly disrupted. If you know Singer’s work, you’re likely asking yourself something along the lines of: Am I in a Joseph Heller novel or How on earth can students be protesting, much less attempting to shut down, a talk by such an objectively thoughtful, rational, and ethical person?

Jonathan Haidt provides some help in understanding this phenomenon by explaining that we may be looking at a paradigm shift in higher education discourse and morality, isolated mostly to social science departments at elite private universities. He discusses this shifting moral order on campus in this interview with Frank Bruni and elsewhere, explaining that in contrast to the traditional university ethos based on teaching multiple perspectives and encouraging debate among them, the new moral order assumes certain perspectives as correct, then filters all other discourse through that lens. The result is that many of today’s students seem consider their points of view beyond reasonable objection, and thus feel justified shouting down speech because they know it’s wrong.  The problem, of course, is that they don’t know it’s wrong. And they don’t know it’s wrong because they have rejected the surest defense to delusion: frequent exposure to new or different ideas. Most disturbingly, it seems that in some cases students are so intellectually lazy that they don’t even take the time to confirm whether the person they’ve decided to disagree with in advance actually holds the views they disagree with. If someone’s accused of being a witch, they must be a witch; no need to investigate.

So this stark reality (noticed perhaps late on my part) has convinced me forevermore that even very good ideas are fragile and not to be taken for granted.  And free speech is a very good idea. It is in fact one of the few ideas I have trouble seeing another side to. So much so that I had to overcome embarrassment at writing this post in the first place, feeling it akin condemning an obvious platitude like, say, stealing is wrong and acting otherwise leads to a society most would not be happy in. The best defense of free speech can be found by Mill (On Liberty)—which I encourage you to read at this instant—but then you also have Hitchens, Van Jones, and many others today and through the ages. Digest the argument of the marketplace of ideas, and then tell me: what harm can come from hearing speech that you disagree with, so long as you are armed with the very same freedom to argue against it?

All of this is not to suggest, in some demented way, that I consider free speech comparable as a life or death matter to those considerable challenges facing humanity listed above. And it is not to suggest that I disagree in principle with the intentions of many of the aforementioned activists (or, “delayed adolescents” if I’m being harsh), insofar as they dislike racism, sexism, and the like. But it is to suggest that free speech is worth defending loudly and with conviction. And it is to suggest that free discourse is the best way to solve those considerable challenges.

Incidents like Middlebury, McMaster, and surely more soon, are worth sounding the alarm over—and I hope you’ll help sound it.

Other People’s Philanthropy: Why Gladwell is Wrong About Higher Ed Giving


Esteemed essayist and bad debater Malcolm Gladwell has now entered the podcast game. And as one would expect, he’s already a formidable player. His new series, Revisionist History, is good. I’ve listened to three episodes so far and enjoyed each. However, I take issue with his criticisms of higher-education giving in Episode Six: My Little Hundred Million. Thus, a new post.

My Little Hundred Million is the third in a series on higher education, a topic Gladwell is evidently passionate about. The episode condemns the relatively recent philanthropic phenomenon of multi-billion dollar gifts to universities that already have enormous endowments. Think Stanford, Harvard, MIT, University of Chicago, Columbia, etc (you can see a list here). Gladwell’s argument is that a major gift will have more impact if bestowed on a college or university system that needs the money more. This was the logic behind Hank Rowan’s $100 million donation to a small university in New Jersey (shunning his alma mater, MIT), which essentially kicked off the modern trend of billionaire gifts to universities.

(At least, I think that’s Gladwell’s argument. In the podcast, he curiously never makes the more obvious moral argument: that that type of philanthropy could be better spent on, say, helping feed the hungry, ala effective altruism. If he had, I would be more sympathetic to the criticisms. Instead, it seems like he thinks it should still go to higher education, just to less endowed institutions.)

As usual, Gladwell attempts to add assurance to the argument he’s examining by tying it to some kind of named social science theory or statistical analysis. This time, he connects the idea to David Sally and Chris Anderson’s popular analysis on “weak-link” and “strong-link” players in soccer (see their book, The Numbers Game). Essentially, in certain sports, having weaker players hurts your overall chances of winning more than in other sports. Think about soccer. There are very few opportunities to score, so mistakes by weaker players have a proportionally higher impact. Then think about basketball. There are many opportunities to score. So typically, one dominant player–Michael Jordan, say–can make up for the weak links on the team. Therefore, having a few weaker players isn’t going to have as big of an impact in basketball as it would in soccer. Basketball is a strong-link game. Soccer is a weak-link game. Gladwell apparently sees higher education giving as a weak-link game, and is appalled by the prevailing strong-link mentality of donors and universities.

And in some ways, Gladwell may be correct. I think often about philanthropy, particularly philanthropic efficiency and effectiveness. There is certainly waste and there is certainly mis-allocation of funds. But to make a strong call on the rightness or wrongness of a gift, you first need to agree on the 1) goals of the donor, 2) the timeline of impact, and the 3) type of difference the donor is trying to make. Gladwell doesn’t examine any of these in his criticisms, particularly of Phil Knight’s $400M gift to an unnamed graduate program at Stanford, initiated by outgoing president, John Hennessy. Instead, Gladwell assumes the goals for himself. He takes it for granted that donors should or do have the same goals, timeline, and types of impact in mind as he does. This leads to an overly broad conclusion and what is certain to be bad advice to billionaires in many instances: don’t give to top universities.

Why is it bad advice? Let’s examine the conclusion in the context of goals. What if my goal, as a donor, is to cure a particular type of cancer as fast as possible. Should I not give to a top-tier research institution like MIT? Would it be better to give to a small state school, with hardly any medical infrastructure to speak of? In which instance is my goal most likely to be accomplished in the shortest amount of time? I think the answer is obvious. The same would go for a number of different scenarios.

In My Little Hundred Million, we don’t hear from a single billionaire donor to a large university. Gladwell seems to assume the donors’ goals are (or should be) his goals: namely, supporting a “rising tides lift all boats” theory of education that will ultimately, in his view, lead to better economic output on the whole. Sure, that’s a fine goal*. But we don’t know if the donors have the same goal. And it’s their money. They’re smart people. Maybe they have a good reason or argument. Without talking to them about their objectives and rationale, it’s silly to broadly condemn, and Gladwell slips into a kind of simple, self-righteous moralism. It’s as silly as if I were to condemn him for not immediately giving his notoriously high speaking fees directly to, say, the Against Malaria Foundation**. After all, $80,000 for a speaking gig would buy some 18,000 mosquito nets in the DRC and Malawi, likely saving or pro longing hundreds of lives. Isn’t that better than spending money on podcast production?

In any event, I still recommend the podcast. But even more strongly recommend that you listen with a critical ear.

*Though I’m far from convinced by the economic output argument…wouldn’t the U.S. have a better chance of staying competitive if we gave more to universities that are already on the cusp of major innovations, rather than ones that need to catch up?

**The Against Malaria Foundation, petulance aside, is an excellent charity. 

The Greater of Two Evils: Lt. Gov Elect, Dan Patrick (TX-R)

I live in Texas. That’s a fact. But thankfully, with a little discipline, I manage to forget that fact most of the time (it certainly helps that I live in a major city in Texas, and that major cities in Texas are not really in Texas). Yet every once in a while, I am jolted back to reality by a piece of news I can’t ignore.

The most recent jolt of this kind came on Tuesday, when Texas state senator Dan Patrick defeated long-time incumbent David Dewhurst in the race for Lieutenant Governor. Now, I’m not a Republican. There’s probably not a single social policy issue on which I agree with Lt. David Dewhurst. He’s very conservative, and I mean very – not even close to being considered a “moderate”. Against a competent democrat, I wouldn’t vote for Dewhurst in a million million years.  But in this race, he was unquestionably the lesser of two evils, and I found myself, strangely, rooting for him.  And the reason, my friends, is that the stakes were so high.

Alas, we have now elected this loon into office:

“We as Christians have yielded to the secular left and let them rule the day in this country. When it comes to creationism, not only should it be taught, it should be triumphed. It should be heralded.”

– Texas State Senator Dan Patrick

Yes, Patrick said that at a recent debate in Dallas. He was one-upping Dewhurst on his conservative bona fides – the latter had just uttered an atrocious but otherwise expected advocacy for equal time in the public classroom for intelligent design, creationism, and evolution. The fact that Dewhurst even separated creationism and intelligent design into two categories is proof he’s missing something, but maybe naively I wasn’t expecting an even stupider comment to follow from his opponent. Then again…Texas.

It’s pretty easy to bemoan this type of claptrap – no thoughtful person can actually believe the earth is 6,000 years old or that creationism is tenable enough to come anywhere near a science classroom, much less “triumphed” – the hard part is to figure out whether politicians at this level are thoughtful people. Does Dan Patrick really believe what comes out of his mouth, or is he doing what all politicians do, and saying what must be said to pander to an influential base and get elected? I honestly don’t know. Dewhurst, I’m reasonably sure, is not as backwards as he came across in this debate, but nowadays all big races in Texas devolve into sprints to the right, with each candidate trying to out-conserve their conservative opponent through sound bytes about guns or religion or immigration or Obama.

But does Patrick, who will now wield considerable influence across the state, actually believe creationism should be taught in public schools? My good friend, who follows politics pretty closely and actually interned for a while as a staffer in the House (I think it was the House), says no way. Her opinion, and she seemed sincere on this, was that politicians, particularly those at the state Senate level or above, know they have to say certain things to get elected, regardless of their actual views. She admitted some state House members might actually be that dense, but was pretty sure those at the Senate level didn’t mean most of what they said on social policy issues. I was skeptical, but she also tried to assure me that even if Patrick does believe those things, there are enough checks and balances to prevent any kind of ludicrous position to actually get passed.

I hope so. Otherwise I’m going to have much more trouble forgetting that I’m in Texas.

Some articles for further reading (also linked above):

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey – First Episode Review

Whoa, folks. I’ve just returned from a special pre-screening of the new Cosmos reboot (to air this Sunday at 9/8 central on FOX…and 9 other networks), and was really blown away. I’m a huge fan of the original series and was worried it wouldn’t live up, but based on what I’ve seen tonight, it stands a good chance.

First, the visuals are stunning. I imagine it’s a little like what watching the original Cosmos was like (which at the time had groundbreaking special effects). I was lucky enough to see it the big screen at a planetarium, which made it that much more impressive. The show’s host, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, also delivers. He’s got just the right type of presence – cool, knowledgeable, in love with science – a great guy to show you around the universe. As for the science, at least in the first episode it’s pretty well known stuff – they don’t spend a great deal of time on explanation, but maybe that will come in later episodes as the first was a general tour of what the series will be about. Then again, the pacing is perfect, so maybe less specific or detailed explanation is a bonus. The episode moved from one astounding thing to the next, and I never felt bored or like I was watching NOVA (which I love, by the way, but is a different tone than what Cosmos needs). The music is also terrific, but there’s no memorable riff like Vangelis provided – at least not that I recall. But several things are back from the original, including verbatim quotes (e.g. “we are all made of starstuff”), the ship of the imagination, and the cosmic calendar. The animations – which I was initially concerned about – are very well done, and the first episode flashbacks focus on the life of Giordano Bruno and his persecution by the Catholic Church (by the way, if anyone noticed what looked like Jesus rising up toward heaven in the trailer…it’s actually Bruno…which makes much more sense).

My favorite part of the episode is near the end, when Neil gives a brief, personal tribute to Sagan. The two first met when Neil was an unknown 17 year old from the Bronx – Carl was kind enough to invite Neil to come up to Cornell to tour his lab, and spent an entire Saturday with him, inscribing a signed copy of one of his books, and even driving Neil to the bus stop and giving him his home number in case he had any trouble getting home. Neil gives a great line, something like “When I was touring Ithaca, I had some idea I wanted to be an astrophysicist, but I also came away knowing what type of man I wanted to be.” The tribute features some old footage of Carl, and it’s quite stirring – I actually got a little choked up.

The two friends I came with – who had never seen the original – were also impressed. They seemed mesmerized by the size of the universe and the cosmic calendar – the exact reaction I’m hoping millions of people around the country will have.

Here are a few photos from the event – it was happening live in a few other cities across the U.S., and Neil, Ann Druyan, and Seth MacFarlane also sat for a Q&A after the screening (which I wasn’t able to stay for but you can view here).

Cosmos about to play on the big screen at the UT-Arlington Planetarium.

Cosmos about to play on the big screen at the UT-Arlington Planetarium.

The line stretching out the door for the Cosmos Premiere at UT - Arlington.

The line stretching out the door for the Cosmos Premiere at UT – Arlington.

The Universe to Scale…Get Ready to Scroll

Ever since reading Bill Bryson’s magnificent A Short History of Nearly Everything a few years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the actual size and scale of our own solar system. Sure, we’ve all seen the textbook diagrams and homemade models with foam planets – but have you any idea how wrong those are? The actual solar system is so large – there’s so much space between planets – that it simply cannot be accurately represented to scale in any convenient way.

That is, until this lovely website came along. (Well, it’s still not entirely convenient – you have to scroll over half a mile to reach the end). Spend a few minutes here exploring the actual vastness of space, and those foam models will never look the same.

For more misleading science diagrams/anecdotes, check out this video by mental floss:

(Yet another reason) why anyone wanting to be a scientist should avoid Ball State University

I’m really not sure what Ball State is thinking. In the middle of a controversy over professor Eric Hedin’s alleged Christian proselytizing in a science course (see earlier post here to catch up), they have now gone and announced the hiring of Professor Guillermo Gonzalez, a vocal Intelligent Design advocate, in their department of physics and astronomy.

See Full Article Here: BSU hires leader in intelligent design – July 6, 2013 – The Star Press

All I can say is that if I were 17 or 18 years old and considering a career in science , this would send a clear message to me that BSU is not the place to apply. I think they are in real danger of developing a reputation as a fringe science institution, and that is going to hurt the university and the state of Indiana (my home state, by the way) in the long run.

Pull it together, Muncie.

(For more on the controversy surrounding BSU, visit Jerry Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution is True.)


Kevin Padian discusses common misconceptions about evolution

Jerry Coyne shares Kevin Padian’s new paper (available for free) on some of the most common misrepresentations of evolution and how to avoid them…

Why Evolution Is True

If you teach evolution, or like to read about it, there’s a new paper you should read by Kevin Padian in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach(free download; reference below). It’s a discussion of misrepresentations about evolution that occur not only in popular science writing, but also in textbooks. As president of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), and a respected paleontologist at Berkeley who works on the evolution of birds and flight, Padian carries considerable authority in this area. And indeed, his points are generally good. In fact, I was embarrassed to see that I’ve been guilty of some of these misrepresentations, for which I’m sometimes called to account by readers here.

I do have a couple of disagreements with Padian’s points (more below), but on the whole they’re solid and worth absorbing.  Here are some that I agree with, or at least don’t strongly disagree with:

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