A Canceled Talk, and Questions About Just Who Is Politicizing Science

A professor of climate science who opposed diversity initiatives cries foul over a canceled lecture. His supporters say this threatens science communication, but he’s been invited to speak at MIT in another capacity.

October 6, 2021
 
University of Chicago
Dorian Abbot

Dorian S. Abbot, an associate professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, is speaking out against the cancellation of a lecture he was scheduled to give later this month at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He says he’s being punished for his views on higher education’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, which he’s referred to as a top-down “regime.”

“I view this episode as an example as well as a striking illustration of the threat woke ideology poses to our culture, our institutions and to our freedoms,” Abbot wrote in a guest post for former New York Times writer Bari Weiss’s Substack newsletter, which is becoming a go-to venue for professors who feel they’ve been wronged by the academic left. “I have consistently maintained that woke ideology is essentially totalitarian in nature: it attempts to corral the entirety of human existence into one narrow ideological viewpoint and to silence anyone who disagrees.”

MIT says that Abbot was disinvited from giving a planned public outreach lecture aimed, in part, at engaging local high school students. The university says it invited Abbot to campus to address fellow climate scientists about his research instead.

Abbot says that he was first targeted for “cancellation” by a group of graduate students in his department at Chicago, but that his detractors grew in number following the an opinion piece he wrote for Newsweek in August. That piece attacks academe’s increasing focus on DEI, saying it “violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment” and “entails treating people as members of a group rather than as individuals, repeating the mistake that made possible the atrocities of the 20th century.”

Abbot in Newsweek also proposed a supposedly novel framework called “Merit, Fairness, and Equality (MFE), whereby university applicants are treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone.” This would mean ending legacy and athletic admissions advantages, in addition to consideration of “group membership,” and involve “universities investing in education projects in neighborhoods where public education is failing to help children from those areas compete.” Such projects would be “evidence-based and non-ideological, testing a variety of different options such as increased public school funding, charter schools and voucher programs,” he said.

The John Carlson lecture at MIT, which Abbot was scheduled to deliver, is described as communicating “exciting new results in climate science to the general public.” Abbot, who had planned to discuss climate and the potential for life on other planets, said in Weiss’s Substack that this was a major career coup -- and that’s partly why a “Twitter mob” demanded that he be uninvited.

“It worked. And quickly,” he said of this criticism. The sponsoring department chair at MIT “called to tell me that they would be cancelling the Carlson lecture this year in order to avoid controversy.”

Abbot continued, “It’s worth stating what happened again: a small group of ideologues mounted a Twitter campaign to cancel a distinguished science lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because they disagreed with some of the political positions the speaker had taken. And they were successful within eight days.”

Abbot also said on Twitter that the MIT program in question, in earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, is a “great department full of excellent scientists who I admire and respect. The department chair ultimately made the decision to cancel my Carlson Lecture, not them. The chair is a good person, but made a bad decision under pressure in this case.”

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MIT said in a statement that the public outreach Carlson lecture “will not be held this year at the discretion of the department. At the same time, Professor Abbot was invited by the department to present his scientific work on MIT’s campus to students and faculty. This was conveyed by the department head in a conversation with Professor Abbot last week.”

Abbot “embraced this offer,” MIT said, and he and the department are working on setting a date.

Abbot did not immediately respond to a request for comment about this second lecture opportunity. He did not mention a second invitation to talk at MIT in his Substack piece.

Robert van der Hilst, head of MIT’s earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences department, said in a separate statement that the Carlson lecture “isn’t a scientific talk for fellow scientists. It has a very specific format and public outreach component, seeking to build public understanding of climate science and to inspire and engage with area high school students.”

In this light, “We felt that with the current distractions we would not be in a position to hold an effective outreach event,” van der Hilst continued. “I made this decision at my discretion, after consulting with faculty and students in the department, and knowing that some might mistake it as an affront on academic freedom -- a characterization I do not agree with.”

Abbot disagrees, arguing that his canceled talk does have implications for academic freedom. Some of his supporters, including the Academic Freedom Alliance, have appealed to MIT to reschedule the Carlson lecture.

Anna Krylov, professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California, said via the alliance that Abbot’s “is an alarming case of scholarship suppression and censorship in STEM. This cancellation was facilitated by Twitter vigilantes and enabled by the complacency of the leadership of our institutions.”

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