I am a professor who just had a prestigious public science lecture at MIT cancelled because of an outrage mob on Twitter. My crime? Arguing for academic evaluations based on academic merit. This is the story of how a cancellation is carried out, why it should worry all of us, and what we can do to stop this dangerous trend.
I have been a professor in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago for the past 10 years. I work on topics ranging from climate change to the possibility of life on extrasolar planets using mathematics, physics, and computer simulation.
I have never considered myself a political person. For example, a few days before an election I go to ISideWith.com and answer the policy questions, then I assign my vote using a weighted draw based on my overlap with the candidates. It’s an efficient algorithm that works perfectly for a nerd like me.
But I started to get alarmed about five years ago as I noticed an increasing number of issues and viewpoints become impossible to discuss on campus. I mostly just wanted to do my science and not have anyone yell at me, and I thought that if I kept my mouth shut the problem would eventually go away. I knew that speaking out would likely bring serious reputational and professional consequences. And for a number of years I just didn’t think it was worth it.
But the street violence of the summer of 2020, some of which I witnessed personally in Chicago, and the justifications and dishonesty that accompanied it, convinced me that I could no longer remain silent in good conscience.
In the fall of 2020 I started advocating openly for academic freedom and merit-based evaluations. I recorded some short YouTube videos in which I argued for the importance of treating each person as an individual worthy of dignity and respect. In an academic context, that means giving everyone a fair and equal opportunity when they apply for a position as well as allowing them to express their opinions openly, even if you disagree with them.
As a result, I was immediately targeted for cancellation, primarily by a group of graduate students in my department. Whistleblowers later revealed that the attack was partially planned and coordinated on the Ford Foundation Fellowship Program listserv by a graduate student in my department. (Please do not attack this person or any of the people who attacked me.)
That group of graduate students organized a letter of denunciation. It claimed that I threatened the “safety and belonging of all underrepresented groups within the department,” and it was presented to my department chair. The letter demanded that my teaching and research be restricted in a way that would cripple my ability to function as a scientist. A strong statement in support of faculty free expression by University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer put an end to that, and that is where things stood until the summer of 2021.
On August 12, a colleague and I wrote an op-ed in Newsweek in which we argued that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) as it currently is implemented on campus “violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment” and “treats persons as merely means to an end, giving primacy to a statistic over the individuality of a human being.” We proposed instead “an alternative framework called Merit, Fairness, and Equality (MFE) whereby university applicants are treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone.” We noted that this would mean an end to legacy and athletic admission advantages, which significantly favor white applicants.
Shortly thereafter, my detractors developed a new strategy to try to isolate me and intimidate everyone else into silence: They argued on Twitter that I should not be invited to give science seminars at other universities and coordinated replacement speakers. This is an effective and increasingly common way to ratchet up the cost of dissenting because disseminating new work to colleagues is an important part of the scientific endeavor.
Sure enough, this strategy was employed when I was chosen to give the Carlson Lecture at MIT — a major honor in my field. It is an annual public talk given to a large audience and my topic was “climate and the potential for life on other planets.” On September 22, a new Twitter mob, composed of a group of MIT students, postdocs, and recent alumni, demanded that I be uninvited.
It worked. And quickly.
On September 30 the department chair at MIT called to tell me that they would be cancelling the Carlson lecture this year in order to avoid controversy.
It’s worth stating what happened again: a small group of ideologues mounted a Twitter campaign to cancel a distinguished science lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because they disagreed with some of the political positions the speaker had taken. And they were successful within eight days.
The fact that such stories have become an everyday feature of American life should do nothing to diminish how shocking they are, and how damaging they are to a free society. The fact that MIT, one of the greatest universities in the world, caved in so quickly will only encourage others to deploy this same tactic.
It has become fashionable in some circles to claim that “cancel culture is just holding people accountable.” I challenge you to read the material that led to the attacks against me and find anything that would require me being held “accountable.” What you will find instead is the writing of a man who takes his moral duty seriously and is trying to express his concerns strongly, but respectfully. You may agree with some of my positions and disagree with others, but in a free society they cannot be considered beyond the pale.
I view this episode as an example as well as a striking illustration of the threat woke ideology poses to our culture, our institutions and to our freedoms. I have consistently maintained that woke ideology is essentially totalitarian in nature: it attempts to corral the entirety of human existence into one narrow ideological viewpoint and to silence anyone who disagrees. I believe that these features ultimately derive from the ideology’s abandonment of the principle of the inherent dignity of each human being. It is only possible to instrumentalize the individual in order to engineer group-based outcomes within a philosophical framework that has rejected this principle. Similarly, it is easy to justify silencing a dissenter if your ideology denies her individual dignity. Clearly, wokeism has not reached a terrible nadir of destruction yet, but the lesson of history is that we need to name and confront totalitarianisms before they cause disaster, while it is still possible to do so.
This issue is especially important to me because my wife and I are expecting our first child in January. We all need to decide what type of country we want our children to grow up in. 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.
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.
By now we have run many pieces about the epidemic of groupthink and cowardice in higher education. Many of you are rightly wondering: What can I do? I asked Dorian for his advice. Here’s what he recommended:
Administrators: Never give in to a mob. Rewarding bad behavior encourages more of it. You, more than anyone else, have the power to put an end to cancel culture by simply ignoring demands made by a mob. Be aware that it’s easy to gather a large number of signatures for just about anything by revving up a Twitter mob, and that many of the signatories of letters of denunciation may have felt intimidated into signing.
Faculty: Cancellation tactics work by isolating the target and fostering an atmosphere of fear. You can help by joining together with others committed to academic freedom. I recommend organizations like AFA, FIRE, Heterodox Academy, and ACTA. If you are ever tempted to join a cancellation mob, remember that you could be the next one on the chopping block. Finally, get the Chicago Principles, the gold standard for academic freedom, and a statement insisting on political neutrality of the university, like the Kalven report, adopted on your campus.
Students: Don’t participate in social media mobbings or sign letters of denunciation. Publicly encourage friends with dissenting viewpoints to speak out, whether you agree with them or not.
Parents: Take into consideration a university’s commitment to academic freedom when you are helping your child decide which school to attend. Ask if the university has adopted the Chicago Principles. Consider the FIRE free speech rankings. Tell university officials that this is something that is important to you.
Alumni Donors: Tell your alma mater that freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and academic freedom are supremely important to you. Ask what protections for free speech are in place and whether the school has endorsed the Chicago Principles. Make your gifts conditional. Stop giving if administrators do not robustly defend these principles.
Trustees: Hold the administrators you appoint responsible for upholding academic freedom. If they refuse, replace them.
Lawmakers: Add stipulations to funding for both public and private universities that require that academic freedom and political neutrality be strictly observed.
Citizens: Make sure your lawmakers know that you want the research you pay for to be untainted by ideology.