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E-Pluribus | October 18, 2023
Authority or authoritarianism; cancer researcher cancelled; local library fight - standards or censorship?
A round-up of the latest and best musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Len Gutkin: Authority vs. authoritarianism in anthropology
Academic societies clearly have an interest in disseminating evidence-based information to protect their reputations. But what happens when these organizations abuse their credibility to censor politically unpopular ideas? Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Len Gutkin argues that the American Anthropology Association’s decision to pull a presentation about biological sex from its recent conference smacked of authoritarianism rather than legitimate oversight.
[The American Anthropology Association] relied on an authoritarian invocation of “science” to justify an ideological decision, asserting a disciplinary consensus where none exists. That fact cannot be stressed enough: Many anthropologists flatly dispute the AAA’s claim that “settled science” shows that biological sex is not binary. Some even think the opposite. The biological anthropologist Robert Lynch, at Pennsylvania State University, told me bluntly: “I do think that the science is basically settled, just not in the Orwellian, up is down, manner suggested by the AAA. Certainly from an evolutionary standpoint, the science was settled in 1972 when my Ph.D. adviser Robert Trivers threw down the gauntlet with ‘Parental Investment and Sexual Selection,’ and the basic evolutionary principles have been largely unchallenged since.” Mark Collard, a professor of archaeology and biological anthropology at Simon Fraser University, had this to say: “I think the AAA leadership group are either ignorant about biological thinking regarding sex or being disingenuous. Their statement is nonsense.” Lynch and Collard are far from alone. Their understanding of biological sex may, of course, be incorrect. The point is that there is nothing approaching agreement among the anthropologists.
To have pretended otherwise involved an elementary abuse of the authority residing in scholarly organizations like the AAA. As the late intellectual historian Thomas L. Haskell explains in his contribution to the 1996 volume The Future of Academic Freedom, professional societies like the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, and the American Economic Association (to name some of the earliest ones, all founded in the 1880s) helped establish the authority of their respective disciplines precisely by guaranteeing that the ideas offered by researchers in any given area have been acid-tested by informed specialist disputation. (The AAA was founded not long after, in 1902.) “If there is anything at all that justifies the special authority and trustworthiness of community-sponsored opinions,” Haskell writes, “it lies in the fact that these truth-claims have weathered competition more severe than would be thought acceptable in ordinary human communities.”
In claiming that “Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby” was pulled to protect “the scientific integrity” of the conference, the AAA illegitimately banked on its role as corporate arbiter of expert consensus, risking damage to the reputation of its discipline not just within the academy but with the wider public. The unavoidable impression is that the AAA is averse to the “perpetual exposure to criticism” from which, Haskell points out, scholarly communities derive their authority. As PEN America’s press release puts it, “Reservations about the scientific rigor of the panel, which were raised by association members after its initial acceptance, would have been better addressed at the conference itself.” The AAA made sure they couldn’t be.
Read it all.
Vinay Prasad: Why Was My Talk at a Medical Conference Canceled?
From The Free Press comes yet another story of politics trumping science in a professional association. Oncologist Dr. Vinay Prasad found himself banned from an American College of Clinical Pharmacy conference after his views on COVID-19 ruffled the feathers of a small minority of the college’s members.
I was set to be the keynote speaker this November at the American College of Clinical Pharmacy (ACCP) annual meeting in Dallas. Then, a vocal minority on X (formerly Twitter) complained. That was all it took for the organizers to cancel my lecture. If you care about free speech and the free flow of ideas, this should alarm you.
[. . .]
Then, a handful of online critics noticed I was giving the keynote. Some were anonymous accounts, but others identified themselves as members of ACCP. Altogether, I counted, at most, fewer than 200 protesters—less than one percent of the organization’s members.
What was my crime? The critics were vague. In one open letter, Alicia Lichvar, a University of California, San Diego pharmacist, alleged that I had a “history of spreading misleading and inaccurate information” about Covid policy, and that my presence on the podium would be to “spit in the faces” of virtually everyone who has been affected by Covid.
[. . .]
I invite my critics to disagree with me on any of my positions and to change my mind. Like any good scientist, I have changed my mind over the course of Covid. I was initially skeptical that Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed could develop a vaccine so quickly—I was wrong. I was optimistic that vaccination would halt the spread of the virus—I was wrong.
But instead of debate or dialogue, the ACCP organizers preferred to cancel my talk on a topic unrelated to Covid. The same thing happened to geophysicist Dorian Abbot, whose lecture on geology at MIT was canceled because of his views on affirmative action.
[. . .]
In response to the criticism, the ACCP did not ask for my opinion. They did not poll their members. They did not even discuss the controversy with me. (Remember, Covid was not the subject of my talk.) Instead, they caved to a mob—a small mob that, as far as I know, expressed itself only on X. They sent an email notifying me that my talk had been canceled because of complaints, and then posted the announcement online.
What does it say that small groups of people online can cancel talks?
I don’t know how many ACCP members agree with the decision to cancel my keynote. In fact, some members said that they were upset with the cancellation. So while ACCP wrote in their cancellation letter that “your voices have been heard,” they apparently listened only to the angry ones.
Read the whole thing.
Alan Elrod : The Petty Tyranny of a Local Majority
How much power should a community exercise over the use of its tax dollars, and when does the right to exercise that power conflict with other priorities? At ArcDigital, Alan Elrod, an adjunct instructor at Arkansas State University-Beebe, says one community in his state is taking things too far in the name of protecting their kids.
Saline County’s Quorum Court is entirely Republican. The county is consistently red in local, state, and federal elections. And even Act 372 is the product of state Republican supermajorities in the legislature and a Republican governor elected with over 60% of the vote. So there is nothing strictly undemocratic about all of this.
But it is illiberal and anti-pluralist. And it is an example of the power majorities—often numerically overwhelming ones—can exert in local politics. This tyranny of the majority is being wielded in service of Republican culture war grievances.
Saline County does, after all, have LGBTQ residents. It has non-white residents, although it is statistically a few points whiter than the state average. It is pernicious to suggest literature that reflects the interior worlds of racial, sexual, and gender minorities is not fit to display or promote in the public library.
What’s more, the books that convey the experiences and perspectives of minority groups are not solely for the edification of those groups. Stories with challenging material are not strictly for those readers who instinctively seek out the provocative or avant-garde. Reading these perspectives can make anyone more open-minded and thoughtful.
[. . .]
Empathy is crucial for the functioning of democracy. In Empathy and Democracy: Feeling, Thinking, and Deliberation, political scientist Michael E. Morrell notes that, “Research on group polarization, biases, altruism, helping behavior, reciprocity, and the commitment to continued deliberation indicates that people are highly unlikely to reach the kind of agreement posited by deliberative democrats if they do not engage in the process of empathy.” He argues, “The empirical evidence also indicates that empathy can have positive effects even in a deliberative process that focuses on decision-making in which there are winners and losers…”
[. . .]
When asked about her group’s interests in removing books, Saline County Republican Women member Mary Lewis told a local news outlet, "We need to make sure they have a solid foundation of goodness, not things that are not to be.” The obvious implication is that many objectors clearly understand the power of exposing young readers to experiences that either mirror their own or, perhaps even more powerfully, do not.
Designating these books as harmful is not only a slight against the marginalized youth of America, but a disservice to every young reader here. Across the country, kids are growing up in school districts, counties, and municipalities where local leaders are using their authority to foster cultures of restriction and illiberalism.
Read it all here.
Around Twitter (X)
Here’s Free Black Thought’s Dr. Tabia Lee on the apparent limits of DEI when it comes to Jewish inclusion and anti-Semitism:
And finally, an analogy from Nick Clairmont regarding how the media have covered the Gaza hospital explosion: