This weekend, Peter Thiel and various right-wing think tanks backed something called the Academic Freedom Conference. You can guess what this was all about.
Academic freedom, open inquiry, and freedom of speech are under threat as they have not been for decades. Visibly, academics are “canceled,” fired, or subject to lengthy disciplinary proceedings in response to academic writing or public engagement. Less visibly, funding agencies, university bureaucracies, hiring procedures, promotion committees, professional organizations, and journals censor some kinds of research or demand adherence to political causes. Many parts of universities have become politicized or have turned into ideological monocultures, excluding people, ideas, or kinds of work that challenge their orthodoxy. Younger researchers are afraid to speak and write and don’t investigate promising ideas that they fear will endanger their careers.
The two-day Academic Freedom Conference, arranged by the organizing committee, aims to identify ways to restore academic freedom, open inquiry, and freedom of speech and expression on campus and in the larger culture and restore the open debate required for new knowledge to flourish. The conference will focus on the organizational structures leading to censorship and stifling debate and how to repair them.
All you have to do is look at the list of speakers and see that it’s a conference of far-right kooks and their enablers. Oh, look: there’s Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray, Gad Saad, Niall Ferguson, Bjorn Lomborg, Jay Bhattacharya, John Ioannidis, and a horde of disgraced academics, bigots, Quillette authors, misogynists, vaccine deniers, and cranks. Several of the people there have publicly professed their support for good science (usually to defend garbage science), but then the keynote by Peter Thiel is an embarrassing anti-science rant. Also mostly rambling and incoherent.
So you you have the string theory people telling us how wonderful string theory people are and how everybody else just has bad math genes and can’t talk about it. We have the uh the cancer researchers promising us they will cure cancer in five years which they’ve been doing for the last 50. We have um and on and on in all these sort of hyper hyper specialized areas and um and then the question is, you know how much how much progress is actually happening?
The um, these sort of indirect intuitions I have on where it seems very very slowed, are things like, umm, if you if you if you look at things like um, the the economy, the the standards of living among younger people.
Except that cancer researchers say no such thing — the most common idea I see expressed by cancer researchers is that cancer is a thousand different diseases with hundreds of alternative pathways, and that there will be no magic bullet. All he’s got to go on is “indirect intuitions”. He’s an idiot. Then he makes similarly stupid statements about education.
Um and that’s probably the political intuition we should have about the sciences versus uh versus the humanities. The, the, the, the polemical version of it that I, I had once was that you know I I think um I think that uh it’s better for undergraduates to meh meh to major in the humanities rather than the sciences. Set computer sciences, aside, as the one thing that sort of works, but everything else. Because um in the humanities you at least know you’re not going to get a job, you’ll be unemployable, whereas in the sciences you have people who are so deluded as to believe that we’ll be taken care of by the natural goodness of the universe. And it’s just it is just a Malthusian competition.
You hear that? The only topic that matters is computer science, because that’s the only one that will land you a job — which isn’t true, and also isn’t the one reason to get education. Scientists don’t have this illusion that the universe has “natural goodness”.
I’m trying to imagine how any of the scientists in the audience could listen to that drivel without rising up and walking out. But don’t worry, there was no drama: the kinds of people who would attend such a conference are pre-selected for being gullible conservative loons. Even more, I can’t imagine anyone accepting an invitation to an even packed so heavily with horrible people like Thiel or Peterson or that roster of denialists and bigots, as summarized in this list or this one. Yet there sat marginally respectable people like Steve Pinker and Jon Haidt and Jerry Coyne, who have often fucked up and are now confirming their deplorable status by enthusiastically attending. Ick.
I predict that the mainstream media and many on social media will deem the entire conference a conclave of bigots, racists, and transphobes because a few people on the schedule have been called those names. Indeed, Steve Pinker himself has been the object of criticism, and has been called a racist; and I (deemed “someone with a solid reputation who speaks his mind and is honest in his arguments”) have also been called a transphobe and a racist. Hardly anybody is immune!
Correct. If you hob-nob with transphobes, racists, and bigots, and you applaud their words, and trumpet how much you agree with the sentiments they express, then surprise! People will draw the reasonable conclusion that you are a fellow traveler. That’s how it works.
By the way, I was briefly mentioned (negatively, I’m proud to say) at the conference. Coyne condemned me for being “ideological” that he neglected to do for all the flamingly ideological speakers at the event.
He has done this multiple times in the past, and never pays any attention to corrections. Every time, he pretends that my beef is with the idea that
our brains, as well as our body, show traces of our ancestry over the past 6 million years. That’s a lie, just an outright lie. It doesn’t matter that I’ve repeatedly said that I’m a hardcore materialist who accepts the idea of humanity evolving entirely by natural mechanisms, he has decided, as a rhetorical strategy, that since he can’t address my actual criticisms, he’s going to misrepresent my position. Every time. It’s pretty damned disgraceful. As I’ve written before:
The brain is a material product of evolution, and behavior is a product of the brain. There are natural causes for everything all the way down. And further, I have great respect for psychology, evolutionary biology, ethology, physiology, anthropology, anatomy, comparative biology — and I consider all of those disciplines to have strong integrative ties to evolutionary biology. Does Coyne really believe that I am critiquing the evolved nature of the human brain? Because otherwise, this is a completely irrelevant statement.
Evolutionary psychology has its own special methodology and logic, and that’s what I criticize — not anthropology or evolutionary biology or whatever. Somehow these unique properties get conveniently jettisoned whenever a critic wanders by, only to be re-adopted without reservation within the exercise of the discipline. And that’s really annoying.
What I object to in evolutionary psychology is that their stock in trade is to make observations of behavior in a single species, often in a single population, and then to infer an evolutionary history from that data point. You don’t get to do that. It’s not that the observations are invalid (they’re often interesting in their own right), or that it’s not possible that human behaviors carry a strong genetic component — it’s that you simply can’t draw an evolutionary conclusion from the simple existence of a trait in a population. Yet evolutionary psychologists do, all the time.
His only approach is to poison the well. So now I’m a
blank slater and a Marxist, neither accusation being true.
It’s again, comes out of the ideology that we’re blank slates. I think that comes from Marxism, where people are seen as infinitely malleable by the social environment. Whereas evolutionary psychology tells us that we’re not blank slates that we’re born with a little bit of writing on those blank slates, that can be changed a bit, but can only be changed within certain limits.
Did you know that there are negligibly few biologists who believe we have no genetic predispositions? This whole
blank slate nonsense is Pinker’s conceit, his default straw man, and it’s transparently bogus. It’s always fun to encounter someone who attacks you by announcing that you hold a ridiculous opinion that you’ve never held and are happy to agree that it’s wrong.
I do wonder how his audience received that claim that it’s blank slaters who think people are infinitely malleable by the social environment when there are a bunch of transphobes there who think that everyone’s sexual identity is so easily corrupted by the social environment, believing in garbage like
rapid onset gender dysphoria. Is gender fluid in some people or not?
He also claims that evolutionary psychology has
produced many valuable insights, such as differences in sexual behavior between men and women. What are those insights? That women are better at spotting pink berries or something? He doesn’t say.
Again, my gripe with EP is methodological: you can’t make “valuable insights” about human evolution with surveys and experiments on modern American undergraduates.