Reflections on the Harvard “Emailgate” controversy

The Volokh Conspiracy has been covering at length [link leads to subject tag] an “emailgate” at Harvard that is really getting my goat.

Executive summary: a Harvard law student sends a private Email (relevant passages reproduced here) in which she basically says she is “not 100% sure” that the intellectual achievement gap between ethnic groups might not contain a genetic component somewhere. Months later, without her permission, somebody forwards her email to the discussion list of the Black Law Students Association, where it (as expected) unleashes a firestorm. The student has been censored by the Dean of the Law School, has abjectly apologized in public, and is subject to calls for her expulsion.

Eugene Volokh (himself a law prof at UCLA), while not sympathetic to the content of what she said, says the whole incident reminds him of the former Soviet Union where he was born. He goes at great length into what he terms “the practical costs of condemning openness to distressing answers on factual questions“. David Bernstein gives a catalog of outrageous public statements that apparently are not taboo at elite universities, but happen to fit the prevailing PC, post-Marxist, Third-Worldist orthodoxy.

Personally, I think we understand as little about the mechanisms of heredity of intelligence as we understand about global climate, possibly even less. Thomas Sowell — whom I admire greatly — makes a strong case for an “all-nurture” origin of differences between groups. If this were a lecturer or professor having made a statement in public, this would be one thing: “Scholars, heed your words, lest you lead your students to a place of evil waters, and they drink from it and die” (Pirkei Avot 1:11).

But the idea that a student could be expelled for expressing in private even openness to an answer that runs counter to the politically correct orthodoxy — even on such a “third-rail” subject, but where we don’t really know what’s going on  — is truly chilling. Squatch at C2 quotes:

Thoughtcrime is death. Thoughtcrime does not entail death. Thoughtcrime IS death. I have committed even before setting pen to paper the essential crime that contains all others unto itself.

And indeed, the whole incident reminds me more of George Orwell’s “1984” than of the principle of academic free inquiry as I’ve always understood it, and as best expressed by the Poincaré Declaration:

La pensée ne doit jamais se soumettre, ni à un dogme, ni à un parti, ni à une passion, ni à un intérêt, ni à une idée préconçue, ni à quoi que ce soit, si ce n’est aux faits eux-mêmes, parce que, pour elle, se soumettre, ce serait cesser d’être. (Henri Poincaré, Fêtes du LXXVe anniversaire, 21 novembre 1909).

[My free translation:] “Thought must never submit, neither to dogma, nor to partisanship, nor to passion, nor to interests, nor to preconceptions — nor to anything but the facts themselves — since for thought, submission would mean ceasing to exist.” (Henri Poincaré, remarks at the 75th anniversary celebration of Brussels Free University, November 21, 1909)

UPDATE: Taxprof has a roundup.

UPDATE 2: Some good verbal ju-jitsu from Ann Althouse. See also Neo-Neocon.

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3 thoughts on “Reflections on the Harvard “Emailgate” controversy

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