Free Speech

MIT "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."


From Prof. Yascha Mounk, writing in The Atlantic, writing about MIT's cancellation of Prof. Dorian Abbot's invited lecture about climate science, because of Abbot's criticism of race-based affirmative action:

Abbot's case is far more shocking than that of either Murray or Yiannopoulos. 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….

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….

[T]he principle that MIT has effectively established is deeply worrying. For it would, if other institutions should follow the university's example, amount to a severe restriction on the ability of Americans to disagree with a specific set of beliefs about how to remedy injustice without raising the risk that they might no longer be able to carry on their work, even if it is completely unrelated to politics. In effect, this would create a prohibition on controversial political speech for all academics—and eventually, perhaps, professionals in other highly visible domains.

MIT's decision is not just another in a long series of campus controversies, then. It sets a precedent that will, unless it is forcefully resisted, pose a serious threat to the maintenance of a free society.

NEXT: Chief Judge William Pryor delivers the 14th Joseph Story Distinguished Lecture

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. He’s much less EXTREME than that gay guy against pronoun policing and the concept of 57 genders. Real reichwing territory there.

    1. That struck me too — that it never occurred to the author that anything on his could ever be considered extreme. I don’t think they realize how much they desensitize the public to the phrases they like to bandy about — “extreme right wing”, “neo-Nazi”, “white supremacist”. It’s gotten to be such a joke that friends, who are by no means right wingers, joke about being neo-Nazi white supremacists for not knowing somebody’s current gender and pronouns.

      1. I’m trying to figure out what’s “extreme” about Murray. Perhaps I just don’t understand what is meant by “extreme”.

        1. Probably has white skin. I don’t know who he is. My first reaction was Rothbard? but I figure he must mean somebody more recent.

          1. Political scientist Charles A. Murray, of The Bell Curve fame or infamy. Some people think that him working at the American Enterprise Institute says all they need to know about him.

          2. I hope everyone here has read and re-read *The Bell Curve* (The Free Press) by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray.

        2. Or perhaps you just fall on the wrong end of the bell curve.

          1. No, I don’t think you’ll find him in the pile where you fell off.

        3. Abbot’s case is far more shocking than that of either Murray or Yiannopoulos. That’s partly because his opinions are much less extreme.

          Watching the Progs eat the crying Libsis of course popcorn time. Mounk quotes Abbott as follows…

          This, Abbot emphasized, would also entail “an end to legacy and athletic admission advantages, which significantly favor white applicants.” / There are rational grounds for criticizing Abbot…

          …but it never crosses his mind that a rational ground for criticizing Abbott’s declaration about group benefits is that whites who aren’t legacy or athletic admits don’t in fact benefit from those advantages.

          1. Prof. Abbott seems like the kind of guy who just wants to keep the world safe for decisions like Judge Pryor’s hiring of Crystal Clanton. You know, ‘keep it fair, like it traditionally has been.’

            Let’s hope Prof. Abbott is better in his scientific field than he is at anything else about which he has publicly opined.

            1. “Prof. Abbott seems like the kind of guy who just wants to keep the world safe for decisions like Judge Pryor’s hiring of Crystal Clanton.”

              I didn’t hear you complaining when the NYT hired Sarah Jeong.

              1. I am not familiar with Sarah Jeong. Should I be?

            2. Anything that “seems true” to you is almost certainly nonsense.

        4. He coauthored a book that racist blacks and liberals used to demonize the right wing.

          The Bell Curve pointed out uncomfortable truths about IQ disparity among racial groups and suggested that disadvantaged youth should be afforded opportunities to reach parity with peers who had greater success.

          It made a very free thinking argument for its day, that was rejected, because liberals and racist blacks didn’t want to hear that minorities could benefit from a hand up. Instead, they attacked the book’s analysis, labeled IQ scores as racist, and condemned Murray and his late coauthor.

          Funny thing is, Murray is and was right.

          1. Only those with IQ embrace it. Them others deny it.

          2. IQ is quite reductive. Best guess it’s about pattern processing; which is nice to have, but hardly all there is to intelligence.

            More importantly, the methodology in the book is bunk.

            1. Most of the critics of the book appear not to have read the book, but only hostile reviews of it.

              1. I can certainly tell you haven’t read a lot.
                Wiki has some decent refs.

                My favorite is, alas, verbal so you probably aren’t going to like it.

      2. Where did the author call the professor “extreme”?

        The only quote I see that’s close is “his opinions are much less extreme” – which is true since ‘not at all’ is “much less” than ‘any’.

  2. Some telling quotes from the article:

    “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.”

    Really, Dr. Frankenstein? Your monster is beginning to scare you now?

    “[Abbot] made an ill-advised comparison with 1930s Germany”

    Oh, come off it. Check the Atlantic archives for “Trump Nazi.” (sample quote: “Trump’s no Hitler, obviously. But they share some ways of thinking.”). At least Dr. Frankenstein recognizes that Nazi analogies are sufficiently common that banning everyone who makes such analogies isn’t practical.

    “Even though I strongly disagree with Murray’s views on race and find Yiannopoulos to be a trollish provocateur, I have also disagreed with attempts to stop either of them from going through with their talks. As the Yale professor Nicholas Christakis succinctly put it, “There is no right to be invited to speak at a college. But, once a person is invited, a college should never yield to demands to withdraw an invitation.””

    At least he doesn’t claim to be a supporter of “academic freedom,” just against outside meddling in university affairs once they’ve exercised their discretion to invite someone.

    Dr. Frankenstein’s objections could be met by simply not inviting the “provocateurs” and “trolls” in the first place. Then there would be no invitations to rescind.

    But this ban on Abbot makes Dr. Frankenstein think that maybe there should be a right for *some* people to speak at colleges:

    “In effect, this [Abbot ban] would create a prohibition on controversial political speech for all academics—and eventually, perhaps, professionals in other highly visible domains.”

    I’m not a big fan of the “academic freedom” framing – I do in fact think private colleges should vet people before inviting them. But they should be vetted for academic relevance, not for conformity to PC dogma.

    But the principle on which the PC crowd operates does not draw distinctions between what is and what is not academically valuable. It doesn’t care about inviting academically-dubious speakers and events to campus, just so long as they’re the correct politics. Nor does it draw distinctions based on academic criteria when deciding who ought to be banned.

    Facing such a movement, Dr. Frankenstein should consider rejecting *any* attempt to set aside academic considerations and make invitations based on politics.

    1. I’d actually go further and say universities, based on their own policies, not based on following the mob, should vet *even academically-credentialed people* if they want to attack the institutions foundational beliefs – e.g., if a professor of genetics wants to make the case for eugenics at an anti-eugenics institution, or if a professor of religion wants to mock the Nicene Creed at a Christian school, or if Professor McHippie wants to come to West Point and rant against the military (except in the context of an actual debate with a defender of the university).

    2. Why was the comparison to 1930s Germany “ill-advised”. Based on MIT’s actions, it was spot-on. Many great thinkers were “disinvited” from German universities, not because of their academic achievements, but because they were Jews.

      1. Right. People don’t like being compared to 1930’s Germany, because of 1940’s Germany. But, Germany wasn’t shipping people to death camps in the 1930’s, they were ‘just’ illiberal, and in a way which has some nasty parallels to today.

        1. Although systematic killing of the allegedly mentally ill and the handicapped wasn’t formalized until October 1939, forced sterilizations began in January 1934, according to this source. (It also gives a total for forced sterilizations going back to 1907, so…?)

          1. And taking people who won’t get vaccinated off transplant lists has begun here.

            1. You get taken off transplant lists for all sorts of voluntary unhealthy behaviors. Why should vaccination be any different?

              1. It isn’t but that wont stop the ignorant from whining.

            2. I agree Brett. That is just another example of moral cowardice.

        2. The death caps that immediately killed most of the people arriving (as opposed to select political opponents) didn’t start until the 1940’s, but ‘concentration camps’ where political opponents were kept extra-judicially were a thing right after Hitler took power – Dachau opened in March 1933. Forced labor was a feature by 1934.

          I’m just making the point that the Nazis were rogue right fro the start; it wasn’t like they were an normalish authoritarian regime until the 1940’s.

    3. To be accurate, Prof. Abbott has not been banned from speaking on the MIT campus. The off-campus event was cancelled, and he was invited to speak about his scientific work on campus. He has accepted that invitation

      1. Abbot:

        The Carlson lecture is a big honorific public lecture that is associated with a week-long visit during which the speaker also gives a department colloquium (technical material for specialists). My entire visit (scheduled for the week of October 18) has been cancelled, but they have said that they would like me to come give a technical talk at some point, either a department colloquium or something else. I want to forgive and work on maintaining/rebuilding scientific relationships, and I am planning to go when they ask me officially, but this hasn’t happened yet.

        I think it’s important to emphasize, however, that this isn’t a replacement for being the Carlson Lecturer. Cancelling the Carlson Lecture sends the message that scientific honors and recognition are conditioned on holding the correct political positions, and that a small group of activists gets to define the acceptable positions.

        1. Thank you for presenting Prof. Abbott’s description of the event and the cancellation of the Carlson Lecture.
          Abbott is to be commended for his willingness to come to campus in the interest of maintaining scientific relationships

  3. “MIT’s decision is not just another in a long series of campus controversies, then. It sets a precedent that will, unless it is forcefully resisted, pose a serious threat to the maintenance of a free society.”

    That IS actually the point of doing it, in case you hadn’t figured it out yet.

  4. It was an MIT senior professor/emeritus who just recently said that in the 1970s, she and her friends jokingly invented the term ‘political correctness’ as a joke, and were horrified when the right wing picked it up and started using it against nice people.

    Never mind that the term comes straight out of the Soviet communist party, and was used entirely without irony for decades – in writing. The problem goes back far beyond the recent ‘woke’ era.

  5. And MIT’s actions are not anti-intellectual, how?

    1. If you don’t understand, you are obviously an anti-intellectual. Nekulturny, even.

      1. If you disagree with those who wanted (and got!) Prof. Abbot disinvited, you’re несознательный.

        1. Weird how you flipped it from “not understanding” to “disagreeing” as if you are incapable of understanding the difference in meaning between those two words.

    2. BL,
      I don’t know about anti-intellectual. In what sense.
      What I do see is that the decision by the chair of the EAPS department is an act of intellectual and moral cowardice.

  6. It’s hardly the first time that the 21st century equivalents of words like “fascist” have been used to mean nothing more than somebody who is less than completely enthusistic about the current Party line of the moment.

    Nor is it the first time that it has been posited that since the Party is the only path to justice, anyone who criticises its program is necessarily the enemy of justice.

    As George Orwell succinctly put it, “ex ecclesia nullo sallus.”

    1. “Somebody who is less than completely enthusiastic about the current Party line” is a good definition of несознательный (see my comment above).

  7. LOL. The university professors of America are going to “forcefully resist” MIT’s action? That contemptible mix of cowards and wannabe totalitarians? What a joke.

  8. So exactly what form does “forceful” resistance take against a major university take?
    A sharply worded email that gets deleted?
    Mostly peaceful protests that burn down parts of the campus?
    Insurrections that leave footprints on desks?
    Please provide a bit more detail for those without advanced degrees.

  9. A few facts about Abbott and the Carlson Lecture.
    1) The Carlson Lecture is an annual lecture by an outstanding scientist offered by MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.
    2) The Carlson Lecture is not a standard scientific talk for fellow scientists. It is a public outreach event that brings planetary science to the local public.
    3) Typically the Carlson Lecture is held at a major off-campus venue away
    4) Abbott was subsequently invited to present an on-campus lecture to present his climate work to MIT faculty and students.
    5) Abbott has accepted this invitation.

    1. Don Nico is apparently saying that it is consistent with respect for free expression if MIT investigates the party registration of each possible speaker, and allows Republicans to speak in some places, but not in others, while allowing Democrats to speak anywhere.

      1. y81,
        I said NOTHING of the sort. You need new reading glasses.
        I merely wrote down 5 points of fact that are completely consistent with Prof. Abbott’s own description.
        Next time skip the mind-raping.

  10. The IRS Non-Profit Office should rescind the MIT exemption. To deter.

    1. David,
      There is no basis for such a decision.

      1. There’s all sorts of things happening where that’s not stopping anyone.

      2. Don Nico, given the last 19 months, our current social-legal-cultural-political environment…does that statement – There is no basis for such a decision – even hold water anymore?

        It should, but it has become problematic now.

        1. No, it hasn’t. The right wing narrative is not the same as established truth.
          I get it *feels* problematic to you, but that’s as empty as someone on the left trying to insist natural history is problematic since it was all white imperialists.

          1. Wait, so this doesn’t feel problematic to you?

            1. Oh it’s bad. But it’s not ‘make them lose their tax exemption’ bad.

          2. When the president says that most academics don’t believe that the eviction moratorium is constitutional, but that at least it will take a while before the Supreme Court will overturn it at the press conference where he unveils said moritorium, it seems a heck of a lot less far fetched for the IRS to pull MIT’s 501c3 in December when folks are doing their end of the year giving just to screw with them. Sure, it would get overturned, but by then the damage is done.

        2. C_XY,
          You have a good point. The rules, regulations and laws seem not to hold as much water as they used to.
          But in this case, I’d love to see Behar’s justification for his suggestion.

    2. Probably should rescind for all museums, universities and colleges that accept federal funds or loan money backed by federal funds.

  11. MIT’s decision is not just another in a long series of campus controversies, then. It sets a precedent that will, unless it is forcefully resisted, pose a serious threat to the maintenance of a free society.

    The people who successfully got Prof. Abbot disinvited do not wish to maintain a free society.

    1. Fortunately, they represent a tiny but loud fraction of the population. The sooner people recognize that stopn pandering to them, the better.

  12. That’s partly because his opinions are much less extreme.

    after daring to express unrelated views that, although controversial, happen to be held by a majority of the American public.

    Interesting values of “extreme” and “controversial.” I suppose it’s possible for a majority opinion to be “controversial” but that would make all other contrary opinions on the same topic, even more controversial.

    But as for “extreme” – how can majority opinion be “extreme” ? Compared to what ? You can adjust your “demos” I suppose, and measure “extreme” in compariosn with historical opinion, or the opinion in other countries. But it’s vanishingly unlikely that other countries, including the past, are serious;y woker than the US.

    So you’re kinda left with narrowing down the Overton window to the opinion in the faculty lounge of MIT. But that kinda emphasises that by the standards of the common people, we do have some extremists on view, and they ain’t Mr Abbot.

    1. I suppose that, trivially, “controversial” means nothing more than “people disagree about it”, with some extra connotational baggage. But if you’re going with that definition, you’d be hard put to find anything that isn’t “controversial”. “Water is wet”, maybe.

  13. Groupthink enforcement is more important than freedom of speech and freedom from the Thought Police. I’m not sure why anyone would be surprised that this is happening in academia or any other place in a society infested with intolerant social justice warriors who have a negligible understanding of civics, civility, or facts of history. Feelings, emotions, and pronouns have been elevated over demonstrable facts. No facts or thoughts will be allowed to interfere with the fantasy world of academia safe places. Not so long ago actual civil rights organizations would oppose this intolerance. Today they foster and encourage intolerance.

  14. I remember MIT when the likes of Noam Chomsky and Kosta Tsipis were balanced by normal people, maybe even a professor or two who worked on weapons programs. Actual diversity, not diversity as a code word. Much more recently I was in a video call talking about scheduling and learned they’d switched over to the woke holidays.

    I thought Sean Carroll’s interview with Musa al-Gharbi “on the Value of Intellectual Diversity” ( had some interesting points. Conservatives feel pushed out of mainstream academia. They can still find employment, even in research, but it’s like segregated housing. Think tanks for the red, colleges for the blue. And students don’t have the benefit of choice or diversity.

    1. LOL if you don’t think MIT lots of profs working with the DoD.
      Check out Lincoln Labs some time.

      Yes there some bad stuff going on, but the narrative being pushed is making some of you depart from reality.

  15. This stuff is hardly new. In 1937 Leon Trotsky was barred from speaking at the University of North Carolina, even though he was not going to speak on a political subject, because of his “known beliefs, activities, and advocations.” ( Not surprisingly, the right gets excited when a right-wing speaker is barred, and the left gets excited when a left-wing speaker is barred. These days, the speakers barred at universities tend to be right-wing, while left-wing high school students are more often censored at high schools with more conservative administrators. Either way, prohibiting the speech is inconsistent with the policies underlying the First Amendment and the academic freedom that should be the norm at public schools.

    1. There are many extreme progressive/”left wing” speakers on most college campuses today. I rarely if ever hear any significant attempt by “right wing” activists to get them banned from speaking.

      Yes, “right wing” activists do critique the content of these progressive/”left wing” speeches, but I don’t see much energy at trying to prevent (or even interfere by “shouting down”) such speeches.

      It’s not 1937 and there are very few people who were adults in 1937 who are still influential in today’s political and social scene.

  16. It hardly makes any difference. MIT isn’t what it once was. Having worked with many MIT engineering and science alumni in my career it seems that at some point in the ’90s that the quality changed dramatically for the worse. It’s clear that the focus of education at MIT shifted from active thinkers and problem solvers to mindless regurgitation of the book – probably written by the professor.

    That’s a real problem because the best from MIT are now not long from retirement and the “book smart” generation is almost guaranteed to do MIT no favors in regard to its reputation.

    1. Tango,
      Actually MIT remains a leading research institution. MIT students still become intellectual leaders in their respective fields and the faculty are still top notch

      1. Which only bodes that more poorly for the future. I speak not only as one who has worked with many MIT science and engineering grads but as one who has relatives who attended MIT and got to witness the degradation first hand. It would be easy to dismiss one bad review but several coming from siblings to second cousins over more than a decade is disturbing.

      2. I’ll also concede that they may keep the best internally and only let go of the underperformers in each group. It may explain my relatives experience as well as my own. Still, it doesn’t bode well for hiring an MIT grad as I assume many will be quite comfortable working in the known environment.

    2. It was thought around campus 15-20 years ago that MIT tried to admit more boring students to cut down on bad press. This possibly started with the death of Scott Krueger in 1997. MIT didn’t want dumb students, but it wanted less individualist students with less personality. There was also an attempt to homogenize the student body by making it harder for students to pick dorms. In the decades before each dorm had its own culture. Troublemakers could hang out with troublemakers while boring people went to the West Campus dorms.

  17. MIT gets public (tax dollars) and hence should be forced to stop this stupidity. I’ve noticed MIT might have good engineering, its economic dept is full of idiots/keynsians. (the same thing).

    When you don’t get the social outcomes that make you feel better about yourself or enrich your tribe it seems “educated” folks at MIT think its ok to discriminate.
    OH and Happy Columbus Day…a great Italian

Please to post comments