It’s not as if he were arguing that the earth is flat or gravity doesn’t exist. Still it cost him his job as a tenure-track professor.
My troubles began in October 2019 when I was invited to address an evolutionary group at the University of Alabama. I had decided that I would discuss human population variation, the hypothesis that human biological differences are at least partially produced by different environments selecting for different physical and psychological traits in their populations over time. I planned to defend this view as most consistent with a Darwinian understanding of the world.
Sound crazy or like, well, science?
My first day in Tuscaloosa was uneventful. On the second day, I visited a class and had an enjoyable discussion with students about various topics, including human evolution and social signaling. I was then supposed to meet professors and students for lunch, but instead my guide delivered me to an empty room where I received a number of texts from my host: The professors had found my RationalWiki entry, which accuses me—inter alia—of writing “racist bullshit for the right-wing online magazine Quillette.”
So some woke profs chose to take offense at the fact that Bo wrote at Quillette, which was enough to taint him so badly as to make being in the same room as him unacceptable. His post-lunch presentation went poorly, as he was attacked as a racist, and an article in the student newspaper followed suit.
My lecture, they explained, was “non-scientific” (it formed the basis for an article that passed three reviewers at a professional psychology journal) and they had been unaware of what I planned to say (I had provided them with an outline of my talk at least two months in advance, which they had approved). And as soon as controversy arose, they denounced me and my expressed views (most of which are undisputed in the relevant literature), and explained that the invitation they had extended had been a mistake.
All things considered, his trip to Tuscaloosa wasn’t as productive as he might have hoped. Unfortunately, but unsurprising these days. Had it ended there, it would have been another example of the crazy campus shenanigans that, we’re told, don’t really happen. But it didn’t stop there.
When the newspaper article was emailed by persons unknown to my university’s provost and president, I was called for a meeting. They were not terribly pleased, but the meeting was uneventful and I was told to be more strategic in my navigation of such a sensitive topic. I agreed that I would try. A few months later, however, someone using a pseudonym began emailing my provost, my president, and my entire department (but not me) links to my articles (including those written for this outlet) and screenshots of “offensive” tweets. My anonymous accuser held me to be guilty of all kinds of treachery and threatened to inform the board of trustees of my sins.
Then came another meeting, this time not so cordial, but not necessarily tragic either. Bo had published a paper and twitter, being twitter, pushed back.
As it turned out, the article provoked a minor fuss on Twitter, but nothing that caused any noticeable concern at work. I was enormously relieved. My colleagues and I had managed to write about human population variation and the world hadn’t come to an end.
So when it happened, Bo was blindsided.
A few days later, however, my boss informed me, without any warning, that the college was not renewing my contract—in other words, they were firing me. I don’t know if my paper was the proximate cause of my firing, but in the light of the foregoing weeks’ tumult, it was plausibly the last straw.
As a non-tenured prof, the college was absolutely entitled to choose not renew Bo’s contract. Maybe he was just too high-maintenance, given the nature of his research and writing and the reaction to it, and the school administration didn’t need another headache. They might not have cared one way or the other about the substance of his research, whether it was contrary to the current trend of science only in the cause of social justice or just for the sake of science.
But either way, if the nature of his research, and the reaction to it, played a role in his dismissal, it raises the same problem.
I followed all of the protocols of academia. I published articles in peer-reviewed journals. I shared my ideas, always politely, on Twitter, and I encouraged people to debate me and to criticize my ideas. And I was fired. If it can happen to me, then it can happen to any academic who challenges the prevailing views of their discipline. You may disagree with everything I believe, say, and write, but it is in everyone’s interests that you support my freedom to believe, say, and write it.
I saw Bo’s twits, and agreed with him at times and disagreed at other times. He was always thoughtful, even though he raised issues that challenged the progressive orthodoxy. Now he’s unemployed.
Some may say that his flaw was being too controversial before getting tenure, after which he could be crazy as a loon and never have to worry that his position in the Academy is at risk. On the other hand, Bo’s views are hardly outside the pale of rational science, and yet he’s unemployed. There’s a message here to young academics who might not toe the line and want to remain in the good graces of their bosses. Having a job matters, as does academic freedom, but you can’t enjoy academic freedom if they fire you as an academic.