“Cancel culture” is a plague that has infected academia and campuses for a long time, and has moved from campus to the general culture. But it has been particularly prominent in the news in 2020 over issues of racial politics, particularly the Black Lives Matter Movement and Critical Race Theory (sometimes called “antiracist”) indoctrination.

Cancel culture is not criticism. It’s the use of mob dynamics to silence debate through threats to career, employment, and reputation:

At a conceptual level, the difference is clear. Criticism marshals evidence and arguments in a rational effort to persuade. Canceling, by contrast, seeks to organize and manipulate the social or media environment in order to isolate, deplatform or intimidate ideological opponents. It is about shaping the information battlefield, not seeking truth; and its intent—or at least its predictable outcome—is to coerce conformity and reduce the scope for forms of criticism that are not sanctioned by the prevailing consensus of some local majority.

It’s a subject that is of interest to me for obvious reasons.

Prof. Dorian Abbot, Geophysicist and “Snowball Earth” Nerd

There is a case unfolding at the University of Chicago that particularly poignantly demonstrates the cancel culture phenomenon, and the threat it poses to free and open discussion at universities. It involves Geophysical Sciences Professor Dorian Abbot.

I don’t know Prof. Abbot personally, but in researching him, there’s nothing to suggest he’s a particularly political person, at least not publicly. He strikes me as a nerd, in the good sense:

Dorian Abbot uses mathematics and computational models to study climate, habitability, ice, and exoplanets. His research includes both studying ancient climates on Earth as well as climates and life on planets beyond the solar system.

His resume and body of research are impressive, and that’s putting it mildly. It’s also pretty interesting. One of his subjects of interest is “snowball Earth“:

“IF THE CLOUDS WERE TO STOP DOING THEIR WARMING, THEN WE WOULD BE A SNOWBALL EARTH.”

I’m sure I’m totally oversimplifying and distorting the subject matter, but if there is even a small chance the Earth could turn into a big snowball, I’d like to know about it.

He also seems to have fun at what he does, as this video shows from a 2019 conference at Oxford:

ExoClimes is great, thanks Uncle Ray!!

ExoClimes Oxford, 2019. Hosted by the Great Ray Pierrehumbert.

So all is good at U. Chicago, right? Somewhat nerdy, fun-loving prof, devoted to research and teaching, lives happily ever after.

Well, not if some people had their way.

The Cancel Mob Takes Offense And Goes On Attack

As has become so common on campuses, it just takes one statement out-of-sync with the most woke of woke on campus to cause outrage! and unsafeness! and the mob forms to try to cancel you because you are a danger!

I first heard about what happened to Prof. Abbot from a tweet from Colin Wright of Quillette.

So I began to look into it, and the story is another sad commentary on campus mob action.

Prof. Abbot’s big thought crime was expressing disagreement with some aspects of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” he considers counterproductive (and which may be unlawful). Prof. Abbot didn’t express disagreement with diversity as a goal, or extraordinary outreach to minority hiring prospects to expand the pool, or actions to make sure the hiring process was free from explicit or implicit bias. He supports all those things.

Rather, after all that diversity initiative had been accomplished and a hiring decision had to be made, Prof. Abbot expressed the view that the most qualified remaining candidate should be chosen, which is consistent with U. Chicago policy.

Expressing the view that the most qualified candidate should be hired apparently was too much, it required that Prof. Abbot be cancelled.

A Change.org Petition supporting Prof. Abbot, which currently has over 6800 signers, tells the story:

Professor Dorian Abbot, a tenured faculty member in the Department of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, has recently come under attack from students and postdocs for a series of videos he posted to YouTube expressing his reservations about the way Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts have been discussed and implemented on campus.

In these videos Prof. Abbot raised several misgivings about DEI efforts and expressed concern that a climate of fear is “making it extremely difficult for people with dissenting viewpoints to voice their opinions.” The slides for each of Prof. Abbot’s videos can be found here, and his own account of events and his opinions can be found here. Nowhere in these materials does Prof. Abbot offer any opinion that a reasonable observer would consider to be hateful or otherwise offensive.

Shortly after uploading the videos, Abbot’s concerns were confirmed when 58 students and postdocs of the Department of Geophysical Sciences, and 71 other graduate students and postdocs from other University of Chicago departments, posted a letter containing the claim that Prof. Abbot’s opinions “threaten the safety and belonging of all underrepresented groups within the [Geophysical Sciences] department” and “represent an aggressive act” towards research and teaching communities. (We have redacted the names of the student and postdoc signatories in order to protect their right to free expression and ensure they are not subjected to the same treatment they have meted out to Prof. Abbot.)

The letter also issued 11 demands, many of which would serve to ostracize and shame Prof. Abbot, while stripping him of departmental titles, courses, and privileges. The signatories further demand that the Department of Geophysical Sciences formally and publicly denounce Prof. Abbot’s views, and change hiring and promotion procedures so as to prioritize DEI.

The notion that Prof. Abbot’s opinions represent acts of aggression and threaten anyone’s safety is hyperbolic and absurd. It is unsettling to see such linguistic distortions being used by graduate students at an elite university—let alone the University of Chicago, which has enjoyed a reputation for protecting free speech. The plain purpose of such extreme rhetoric is to stifle debate by dishonestly casting reasonable disagreement as violence and harassment.

Putting aside the evident bad faith of Prof. Abbot’s would-be censors, these demands run counter to the University of Chicago’s widely touted “Chicago Principles”, which outline the “University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas” that “guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” These principles are widely considered the academic Gold Standard for their commitment to free and open inquiry and ones we wholeheartedly support. Indeed, we look to the University of Chicago, and its famous principles, as our lodestar when it comes to academic free speech.

Here is some of the text of the demand letter (archive). First, it contains the now-usual falsehood that someone disagreeing with you makes you “unsafe” (emphasis added):

To the Department of the Geophysical Sciences Faculty:

We, the undersigned members of the Department of Geophysical Sciences Community at the University of Chicago, have come together to address the videos released by Professor Dorian Abbot on his public YouTube channel from Friday, November 13th, 2020 through Sunday, November 15th, 2020. The first of these videos was distributed to members of the department during the weekly virtual lunchtime seminar (“Noon Balloon”). Although these videos were removed from Professor Abbot’s YouTube channel on November 16th, their impact on the Department of Geophysical Sciences community cannot be ignored.

The contents of Professor Dorian Abbot’s videos threaten the safety and belonging of all underrepresented groups within the department and serve to undermine Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives driven by the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Coordination Team (EDICT). In these videos, he uses anecdotal evidence and poor statistics not supported by peer-reviewed literature about diversity. Although his views may not be unique within the department, his videos are a deliberate rejection of opportunities to participate in conversations within the Department of Geophysical Sciences and University of Chicago as a whole, and represent an aggressive act towards the research and teaching communities of which Professor Abbot is a member.

The list of demands is totalitarian and anti-intellectual, and meant to destroy Prof. Abbot’s job and career even if he is not fired. It is meant to humiliate and ostracize, and to hold Prof. Abbot out as an example of the severe professional consequences for questioning diversity hiring practices.

The sanctions to which Prof. Abbot would be subjected if the demands were met include a stripping of access, titles, teaching responsibilities, and other punitive measures, include, among other things:

  1. Take steps to protect students and postdocs currently working with Professor Abbot, in either Research Assistant and Teaching Assistant positions, including but not limited to enabling students to opt out of Teaching Assistant positions in his classes without loss of department funding and to remove Professor Abbot from their academic committees without repercussions. For students who cannot continue working with Professor Abbot, we ask that the 50% UChicago faculty rule for committee membership be waived to allow outside advisors so that all students are accommodated. The department will commit to working with impacted students to avoid any repercussions on the advancement of their degrees at UChicago.
  2. Give undergraduate students who are uncomfortable continuing classes with Professor Abbot a timely, accessible option to complete their course and receive course credit without having to continue under the instruction of Professor Abbot. The appropriateness of Professor Abbot as the face of our department in “Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast”, one of the most enrolled courses at the College, should be reevaluated. In addition, undergraduate students currently conducting research with Professor Abbot should be given opportunities to work with other professors within or outside the department. Finally, any undergraduate students currently or slated to receive financial compensation for their work with Professor Abbot should continue to receive that compensation, even if under alternative supervision.
  3. Immediately rescind Professor Abbot’s position and privileges as Department Website and Social Media Committee Chair for using students’ images in his personal video without their permission.
  4. Explicitly, whether publicly or internally, make clear that the contents and implications of these videos are unsubstantiated, inappropriate, and harmful to department members and climate.
  5. Develop and publish a public-facing values statement and code of conduct, both to show that Professor Abbot does not speak for the Department of Geophysical Sciences and to document the effects of statements like Prof. Abbot’s on research, teaching, and climate within the department. This measure will help navigate similar issues in the future. 
  6. Develop an agreement system between all faculty and their graduate students/postdocs that enables the group members to work on EDI- and outreach-related work without fear of retaliation from the advisor and committee.
  7. Formally petition the Physical Sciences Division (PSD) Administration to review the faculty hiring practices detailed in the 1970s Shils Report and to amend University policies to enable PSD departments to allow EDI statements in all faculty job applications.
  8. Implement accountability measures to address patterns of bigoted behaviour in both the department’s hiring/promotion/tenure process and teaching opportunities. For example, faculty who persistently engage in bigoted behaviour should be prevented from taking on teaching roles, new graduate students/post-docs/staff, and committee responsibilities.

What is so disturbing is the large number of graduate and post-doctoral students who signed the list of demands. I warned in 2017 that STEM would not be immune to the social justice (and racial) warfare tearing through universities:

If you think this is just a Humanities and Social Sciences problem, stay tuned. In 3-5 years, if we’re still here, we’ll be writing about how the social justice warriors have corrupted the STEM fields. It’s happening now, it’s just not in the headlines yet.

These are supposed “scholars” and researchers, but the list of punitive demands shows that they are not worthy. While I’ve not seen a ‘scientific’ survey of it, I’ve observed that in so many of these cancel culture campus cases, the graduate students are the most aggressive, mean-spirited, and angry.

In the link to the Google Doc, the names have been redacted by Wright “to protect their individual rights to free expression.” (I don’t agree with redacting names, but that’s a debate for another time.) Anyway, here’s how the 58 Geophysical students listed appear (there are over 100 more from other departments):

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1fCOezNmxmaeVLSirrYp9y2nzy7m9Yr-rgPulwW-eNDw/edit

 

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1fCOezNmxmaeVLSirrYp9y2nzy7m9Yr-rgPulwW-eNDw/edit

That’s a lot of students and post-docs in one department. Imagine being a student and NOT having your name on the list of signers. Such is the dynamic in these things, some students are true believers, but many if not most students sign as a means of social acceptance and to avoid social ostracism.

The Horror – Prof. Abbot Supports Diversity AND Hiring The Most Qualified Candidate

What was so horrible about what Prof. Abbot said? I asked him about the videos, which are no longer available, and he explained that he pretty much just read the slides he presented (linked in the Change.org petition above, and here). The slides present views of diversity that are broader than racial and gender classifications, and that seek to avoid discrimination against any group.

Prof. Abbot explained more about what happened in his My Perspective document:

I and some colleagues who I don’t want to name and involve right now have been concerned about certain aspects of the way Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts have been discussed and implemented over the past 3-4 years, especially during 2020.

In particular, many of us are concerned about the way that anyone who tries to dissent on certain issues is immediately assumed to have racist or otherwise bigoted motives, which prevents the intellectual exploration of that issue, particularly the implications and consequences of proposed policies. On 11/6/20, a colleague in my department gave an internal seminar that included the quote: “If you are just hiring the best people, you are part of the problem.” Many people took this to imply (although that may not have been the intent) that we should not hire the most qualified people, which has traditionally been the way the University of Chicago approaches appointments (Shils report). After discussions with colleagues, I decided that it was important to reassert our traditional approach on this issue. I asked to speak at the same internal seminar, but was told that I couldn’t because I had already spoken this year. Instead I recorded a reading of these slides , posted it to YouTube, and sent it out in the Zoom chat for our internal seminar after the speaker had finished on Friday, 11/13/20. Before sharing the video I showed it to colleagues and they thought it would be a good way to start the discussion.

A good way to start a discussion?!? How noble. How academic. How naive. This is the modern campus. Some discussions are more equal than others.

He continued:

When I posted the slides I got emails from 15-20% of the members of my department thanking me for speaking out and giving examples of how they have felt unable to discuss anything that disagrees with the “outspoken majority.” I got a substantive comment about selection bias in the postdoctoral fellowship example from my slides, so I made another video giving other examples and showing the results of this paper. I also made a video explaining the purpose of a modern university and the way we should approach appointments according to the Shils report. On Saturday, 11/14/20, friends started telling me that there were a large number of people on Twitter misrepresenting what I was arguing, saying untrue things about me, and even demanding that I be fired….

On Monday, 11/15/20, the University’s Title IX office reached out to me and asked for more information about the hiring and admissions actions I objected to. I can’t discuss the details, but they told me that some of them should not be happening on campus. They agreed to investigate these issues and continue the conversation.

Finally, Prof. Abbot explained his position on “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”:

My position on DEI efforts: I am in favor of many DEI efforts. Around 2010 I learned about the Harvard implicit bias test from a DEI program on campus. I took it and found that I had an implicit bias against women in science. I tried to consciously fight that unconscious bias and purposefully worked with many women in science. Five years later when I retook the test, it no longer revealed an implicit bias. I also strongly support expanding applicant pools as much as possible. I believe that diversity is healthy and good for a university because it tends to lead to more perspectives and debate that fully explores intellectual issues.

That said, I would tend to emphasize a larger variety of types of diversity, including political, religious, and viewpoint diversity, than are currently being emphasized in most DEI efforts. What I am against is setting up systems where group membership is a primary aspect of a candidate’s evaluation. I believe we should avoid discriminating against anyone for any reason. After trying to remove our biases and increase the pool of applicants as much as possible, I believe we should continue to select the most qualified applicants, as outlined in the Shils report. I don’t demand anyone else agree with me on these issues. The critical point to me is that everyone should feel comfortable advocating any position on them without being attacked, bullied, and delegitimized.

Outpouring Of Support

There has been an outpouring of support for Prof. Abbot, although it’s not clear how much of that comes from inside U. Chicago.

In addition to the Change.org petition, Chicago Law School professor Brian Leiter, who has a big audience among law professors, wrote on his blog:

Dorian Abbot, a geology professor here at the University of Chicago (whom I do not know), had the temerity to express doubts about his department’s “diversity” efforts…. I agree with some of what he has to say, and disagree with other parts.  But his views are not “hateful,” “harmful” or out of place in a university that values free discussion on important issues.

For dissenting from “diversity” orthodoxy, Professor Abbot has now been subjected to a disgraceful public denunciation by postdocs and graduate students in Geology (and other UChicago science departments (complete with fictitious claims about “aggression” and “safety”).  The public version of the letter omits the names of the benighted grad students and postdocs.  But some faculty and postdocs have gone public with their delusional responses:  for example, Assistant Professor Graham Slater’s Twitter thread is here  (do review the actual slides to see how unhinged this take is), and the reaction of a geology postdoc at Chicago, Michael Henson (also here)….

There’s very little extramural speech that ought to have any bearing on hiring or promotion decisions in universities, but open contempt like that above for academic freedom and lawful expression–which are foundational to the academic enterprise–probably should count against someone.  (We’ve touched on this issue before.)  If people like Slater and Hanson carry on like this now, what kind of damage will they do to their departments and disciplines once they have tenure?

The London-based Free Speech Union, issued a letter of support.

Acquiescing to the signatories’ demands would only exacerbate the climate of fear that Prof Abbot describes, and which countless other academics have also noted. That other University of Chicago faculty have corroborated Prof Abbot’s claims regarding this climate of intolerance – but are afraid to express their support for him publicly – means that the University of Chicago is already failing to uphold its cherished Principles.

The Foundation for Individual Rights In Education offered support.

Some “big names” also have tweeted support:

The University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer issued a statement today, without naming Prof. Abbot, confirming that diversity of views is welcome, even on the topic of diversity.

From time to time, faculty members at the University share opinions and scholarship that provoke spirited debate and disagreement, and in some cases offend members of the University community.

As articulated in the Chicago Principles, the University of Chicago is deeply committed to the values of academic freedom and the free expression of ideas, and these values have been consistent throughout our history. We believe universities have an important role as places where novel and even controversial ideas can be proposed, tested and debated. For this reason, the University does not limit the comments of faculty members, mandate apologies, or impose other disciplinary consequences for such comments, unless there has been a violation of University policy or the law.  Faculty are free to agree or disagree with any policy or approach of the University, its departments, schools or divisions without being subject to discipline, reprimand or other form of punishment.

That said, no individual member of the faculty speaks for the University as a whole on any subject, including on issues of diversity. In turn, the University will continue to defend vigorously any faculty member’s right to publish and discuss his or her ideas.

The University is committed to creating an inclusive environment where diversity is not only represented but individuals are empowered to fully participate in the exchange of ideas and perspectives. As University leaders we recognize that there is more work to be done and are strengthening initiatives to attract faculty, students and staff of diverse backgrounds.

As least President Zimmer had the class not to couple a statement defending a faculty member’s right to free expression with the type of ritual denunciation of the professor’s views that is now common.

The Process Is The Punishment

Prof. Abbot has received support, and it’s pretty clear that the University as an entity is not going to take punitive action against him. But the harm is done.

The process is the punishment. Having to stand up to the mob and attempts at cancellation is draining. Knowing that the people you work with have it out for you is depressing and makes for an infinitely hostile work environment. Even without adverse employment action being taken, the cancel culture bell cannot be unrung.

The damage also is done to the University. Those faculty without tenure learn to stay silent. Graduate students who disagree will not want to subject themselves to attack. Private expressions of support, while better than nothing, reflect a toxic public atmosphere in which dissent is punished and staying quiet will be the option for most people.

Prof. Abbot provided me with the following statement:

“I’m just a science guy who tries to be a decent, honest man. I’m not a culture warrior. I stumbled into this accidentally by trying to advocate what I thought were the shared values of our culture, like treating other people with respect and dignity as well as viewing others primarily as individuals, not faceless members of groups. I’d rather be doing science, but this situation has made it clear to me that we have a serious problem on campus and some people are going to have to stand up to it or it will just get worse.

I’m trying to approach the whole thing with joy, eager to learn, and with an open heart, full of forgiveness toward the students and postdocs who have denounced me, but also firm in advocating what I believe to be the morally correct position. Who knows where it will lead, but I think I will meet interesting people and maybe I can help be a part of something positive.”

It’s not easy to stand seemingly alone.

The best I can offer Prof. Abbot is the inspirational message I received from a reader at the height of the Cornell Law School mania directed at me, “The spines of thousands are being strengthened by hearing of your fight”:

The spines of thousands are being strengthened, by hearing of your fight.

You are NOT ALONE.

Before tonight, I never heard of you. If you had equivocated prior to this point, you would have still been destroyed by the people who want you to pander to them; and you would have dissolved into obscurity.

But, you fought for righteousness. The rule of law, the Constitution and Bill of Rights. For the Ethos of Dr Martin L King, … you fight for Content of Character.

You stood, seemingly alone, in the breach.

But you are not alone. We are with you.

I am with you – Fangs Out and Full Speed, I am coming; and with you even now.

Bow, kneel, grovel… you will dissolve into obscurity.

Make them seemingly kill you; and the eggs and smears and brutality they throw at you, will be a mantle of Honor you wear into eternity.

I wish Prof. Abbot well, and we will continue to follow this story if there are further developments.

 

 
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