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E-Pluribus | March 3, 2023
Red and Blue cancel culture; regulating science to death; and censorship is no way to promote diversity.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
David French: Two Different Versions of ‘Cancel Culture’
In his New York Times newsletter, David French ties together the stories of Dilbert creator Scott Adams’s meltdown and the revival of the COVID-19 lab leak theory. French says the narrowly defined windows of what each side considers reasonable and what is beyond the pale help keep us at each other’s throats.
I spent the majority of my career litigating First Amendment cases, and since I began my litigation days in the early 1990s, I’ve noticed two parallel and confounding trends. First, the law of free speech is only getting more robust. Americans have more concrete rights to speak free of government censorship than they have at any prior period in American history. At the same time, however, according to a survey from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, a strong majority of Americans self-censor. They’re afraid to exercise their rights.
Critically, much of this fear isn’t rooted in concern about the government but rather about employers and peers.
Americans have read story after story (from across the political spectrum) of activists, corporations and colleges targeting individuals for speech that is squarely within the mainstream of either progressive or conservative thought. In other words, dissent — even thoughtful dissent — has become dangerous, in both right- and left-leaning America. Private organizations are acting punitively when the government cannot. This is the essence of cancel culture, the widespread use of private power to punish allegedly offensive speech.
That said, many of us who recoil from the excesses of cancel culture also reject the idea that organizations should have no standards at all. To take an extreme example, if you find out that a colleague is in the Klan, should you defend him from termination? Or should a private corporation remove a grand wizard from its payroll as an act of necessary corporate hygiene?
Read it all here.
Evan D Morris: The Overregulation of Science
While acknowledging past ethical failures of science, Evan Morris argues at Quillette than overregulation is stifling creativity and innovation in the scientific fields. We cannot eliminate all risk and in trying to do so, we will all suffer in the long run.
The prospects of a creative but impatient scientist being able to act quickly on an inspired idea have dimmed considerably compared to 2006, let alone 1983 or 1929. No experiments—ground-breaking or merely red-tape-cutting—happen fast. A major impediment is over-regulation of all experiments involving humans, called rather imprecisely, “clinical research.” The IRB approval process contributes considerable drag to the flow of research involving human subjects.
The IRB’s mandate is good and necessary. Its primary function is to evaluate scientific protocols (designs of experiments) for their adherence to the core principles of research with human subjects as laid out in the 1978 document, “The Belmont Report.” The report follows on the Nuremberg Code, written to guide clinical scientists in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. (Interestingly, self-experimentation (even if it risks death) is not proscribed by the Nuremberg Code.) In any case, the IRB is there to check that the investigator has taken all necessary steps to mitigate risk, that the volunteers are properly informed of the risk, that the unavoidable risk is somehow commensurate with the benefits of the research, and that whatever benefits of the work may result will accrue to all populations and not exclude those who are most likely to volunteer.
[ . . . ]
Doubtless, the regulations that codify the central ideas in the Belmont Report protect human volunteers. We know that some researchers will cut corners that should never be cut. Before there was a Belmont Report and attendant government regulations, Henry Beecher’s touchstone article in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1966 was necessary to expose egregious violations of research ethics. Beecher’s story is engagingly placed into the context of a rapid post-WWII expansion of government-funded science by David Rothman in Strangers at the Bedside. The revolution in clinical research ethics that Beecher ignited by identifying 22 shocking cases in the scientific literature of ethical transgressions against human subjects has done much to protect human volunteers. But the pendulum can and has swung too far away from efficiency and latitude for dedicated but (admirably) impatient researchers. And in that swing toward more regulation and longer review, crucially important conditions for breakthrough science have been lost or starved of fuel. Even the most audacious and impatient researcher can have the enthusiasm for his science beaten out of him.
Read the whole thing.
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Emma Camp: Ron DeSantis Wants To Cultivate 'Viewpoint Diversity' by Censoring Universities
Conservatives have long insisted that the kind of “diversity” we need to foster has (much) less to do with skin color or ethnicity than with beliefs and opinions. But Emma Camp of Reason says that just because Florida governor Ron DeSantis says he wants more “viewpoint diversity,” the supposed ends cannot justify his means.
In addition to restricting what faculty can teach, the bill seeks to give state political appointees radically increased power in the hiring and firing of faculty—another move that will likely chill faculty speech. The bill effectively eliminates tenure, allowing a university's board of trustees to review any faculty member's tenure at any time. Further, this same board will have unilateral power over hiring faculty, with the bill stating that "the president and the board are not required to consider recommendations or opinions of faculty of the university."
The bill also bans universities from funding or promoting any "programs or campus activities… that espouse diversity, equity, and inclusion or Critical Race Theory rhetoric" and bans the use of "diversity, equity, and inclusion statements, Critical Race Theory rhetoric, or other forms of political identity filters as part of the hiring process." Notably, DeSantis' previous attempt to ban critical race theory at public universities was blocked in federal court last year.
The bill is a startling attack on academic freedom at Florida public universities—one that attempts to institute state-mandated political orthodoxy in curriculum and give politically appointed board members tremendous control over faculty hiring and firing.
"HB 999 would end academic freedom, shared governance, and university independence in FL public higher education in favor of one man's authoritarian control of public university decisions," tweeted Jeremy C. Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, on Thursday. "It would be the end of FL higher ed as a space of open inquiry and free expression."
The bill is likely unconstitutional, placing illegal content-based restrictions on what professors can teach and what ideas universities can support. Though claiming to support "viewpoint diversity" and "intellectual rigor," this bill seeks to stifle just that—explicitly uplifting one political perspective while censoring others. If past legal fights over DeSantis' "Stop WOKE Act" are any indication, this bill, if signed into law, will almost certainly be challenged in court, where its most censorious provisions will likely be struck down.viewpoint-diversity-by-censoring-universities/
Read it all.
Hopefully it will go nowhere, but the Foundation for Individuals Rights & Expression strongly opposes legislation proposed in Florida requiring bloggers to register with the state:
Via Jonathan Haidt, excerpts from a Heterodox Academy post on recognizing how the complexity of some issues should impact how we approach them:
And finally, a clip from a conversation recorded last December that reflects on the issues in the recent Matt Yglesias post on youth depression we noted in yesterday’s Around Twitter: