Is MIT’s Cancellation of Dorian Abbot Different?

At The Atlantic, Yascha Monk argues that the cancellation of University of Chicago geophysics prof Dorian Abbot from being the prestigious John Carlson Lecture on climate change reflects a shift in cancel culture. This time was different.

Then the campaign to cancel Abbot’s lecture began. On Twitter, some students and professors called on the university to retract its invitation. And, sure enough, MIT buckled, becoming yet another major institution in American life to demonstrate that the commitment to free speech it trumpets on its website evaporates the moment some loud voices on social media call for a speaker’s head.

But there is more to this story than meets the eye. For although most outlets have covered Abbot’s disinvitation as but the latest example of an illiberal culture on campus, it is qualitatively different from other recent instances in which invitations have been rescinded—and suggests that the scope of censorship is continuing to morph and expand.

To appreciate the controversy, one need be aware of two things about Abbot, both of which are likely to be said since few outside his scientific niche would have the slightest clue who he is absent his being canceled. The first is that there was nothing controversial about the subject of Abbot’s presentation. The second is that the outrage stemmed from his unrelated views about affirmative action.

Back in August, Abbot and a colleague criticized affirmative action and other ways to give candidates for admission or employment a leg up on the basis of their ethnic or racial identity in Newsweek. In their place, Abbot advocated what he calls a Merit, Fairness, and Equality (MFE) framework in which applicants would be “treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone.” This, Abbot emphasized, would also entail “an end to legacy and athletic admission advantages, which significantly favor white applicants.”

Granted, a call for merit without regard to race isn’t the same as a call for “equity,” for representation by race without regard to merit. But this was his offense, and it was enough to give rise to demands that he be canceled, which was enough for MIT to capitulate to these demands.

That’s partly because his opinions are much less extreme. It is also because the views that provoked such controversy are completely unrelated to the subject on which he was invited to lecture. “Omg how did *anyone* in @eapsMIT think this was ok?” read one tweet calling for the cancellation of Abbot’s lecture, referring to MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “As an alum, I’m asking you to fix this—now. Totally unacceptable and sends a message to any student that isn’t a white man that they don’t matter and that EAPS isn’t serious about (and is actively hostile towards) DEI.”

While Mounk is right to note both distinctions, does this make if different?

MIT did not rescind its invitation to Abbot in the expectation that he would repeat his views about affirmative action. Rather, he was disinvited from one of the most important research universities in the world because it could not tolerate that a scientist be permitted to speak about his uncontroversial research after daring to express unrelated views that, although controversial, happen to be held by a majority of the American public.

While this may be particularly noteworthy to an academic, and perhaps the juxtaposition of other academics making far more outrageous and inflammatory statements, such as calling for white genocide, which evokes a sudden interest in free speech from the left, Mounk’s argument that this is qualitatively different than what has been happening over the past few years rings hollow. It’s unclear that others haven’t been canceled for similar, if not lesser, transgressions.

Their stories may not be as widely known, or they may not be as closely associated with academia, but if one looks behind the screeches of racism and sexism, there’s often nothing particularly controversial to see. Mounk uses the examples of Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos as extremes warranting sufficient concern to at least explain why the censors wanted to silence them. Abbot? Who?

But while I share Mounk’s distinctions, I have a very different reason. This was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This wasn’t the third best engineering school on Mass Ave., with its finishing school atmosphere and entitled students desperately seeking reasons to be outraged. These were students of extreme intelligence, most of whom suffered from social awkwardness and many from severe anxiety. Having exceptional analytical skills doesn’t make you wise, but it does tend to make you appreciate the calculus of logic. At the same time, it leaves you exposed to believing you need to belong, as the students at MIT weren’t necessarily the more popular kids growing up.

What the minds of students like these do is invent magic, technological innovations that seem like voodoo to those of us lacking their particular type of intellect. And part of the way that happens is to listen to, learn from and expand on the discoveries of those who came before them so they aren’t reinventing the wheel but can invent WiFi and robots instead. And, perhaps, save us from the ravages of climate change.

Professor Dorian Abbot was to give the John Carlson Lecture on new scientific developments in climate change. What MIT did was make the substance secondary to the social justice grievance of his not conforming, completely, to the ideology of equity. So the lecture was canceled (although Princeton, to its credit, picked up the ball) and what could have been told MIT students was not to be. MIT chose to make science secondary to ideology. Had it been Harvard, perhaps it wouldn’t matter as much as their climate is as cloudy as the feelings of its humanities majors. But this was MIT, the only purpose of which is to put science above all else. And now it doesn’t, and that is a qualitative difference that matters.

8 thoughts on “Is MIT’s Cancellation of Dorian Abbot Different?

  1. Loki

    It’s not new a new shift in cancel culture at all. This case strongly mirrors the 2015 disinvitation of Curtis Yarvin from the Strange Loop programming conference; not for his expected topic – a technical talk on an obscure programming language – but rather for his unrelated neo-monarchical views written under a pseudonym.

  2. orthodoc

    Calling this “MIT’s Cancellation” is true enough, but it overlooks the fact that there was a real person who did this, and it may not be fair to tar the entire Institute. Universities like MIT are highly decentralized. Just as (it is likely) Professor Robert George brought this cancelled lecture to Princeton on his own initiative, the cancellation at MIT was the decision of a specific person, or group of people. The “institutional response” has yet to be heard. Big universities should not be held responsible for every action its (academically-free) faculty commits. They should be held responsible for how they react.
    If Yale Med, for example, hosts a whackadoodle speaker who describes “fantasies of unloading a revolver into the head of any white person that got in my way”, as it did, that’s not on Yale, necessarily. “Yale” did not invite the speaker; some individual did. On the other hand, the university’s official response –given only after the talk was posted online, decrying the speaker’s use of profanity, foremost– certainly is.
    Soon enough, MIT will offer an institutional response. I hope and expect that it will not be an embarrassment. That’s the scientific way: not so much avoiding error, but correcting it.

  3. Brian Cowles

    FIRE makes the point that Abbot wasn’t disinvited by the MIT administration but by the faculty, and that this is a departure from the norm.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m not sure that’s quite what FIRE was saying, or that the administration was unaware or uninvolved with the decision to disinvite.


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