Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Kate Clancy Gets James Watson Disinvited

"Moral character and ethics matter more than science."
(Kate Clancy)

I wouldn't normally write about this, but Kate Clancy happens to be in my wheel house, or perhaps just a little stuck in my craw. It seems she led the charge against James Watson speaking at the University of Illinois. I want to deal with this both at the level of principle and the particulars of the case. For good order: I refuse to send the obligatory virtue signal of "denouncing" the man's views before defending his right to speak.

I think this sort of silencing is distasteful, no matter who is speaking. Someone at UI wanted to hear what Watson had to say and there was no reason to think that he was going to incite anyone to violence or otherwise undermine the institutions of Western democracy. By contrast, Clancy threatened to organize a protest against those institutions if the talk was to go ahead. Clancy was objecting to the peaceful exchange of ideas between interested parties in a university setting. Watson appears to have had something on his mind that he wanted to share; an institute appeared to be willing to listen. The fact that Clancy couldn't abide this event says a great deal about her and people like her. The fact that the talk was immediately cancelled because of her Twitter-based objections says something about the institute and perhaps the larger institution. The weakness of our institutions against even the threat of protest is a bit disconcerting. But there it is.

But what about the basis of the complaint itself? James Watson is, of course, one of the discoverers of DNA, something for which he is justly famous. He doesn't just know a thing or two about genes. He knows what is, arguably, the first thing about them. It is not surprising that an institute devoted to the study of genomic biology* would want to hear his thoughts on cancer.

The News-Gazette article points out that he was going hold a narrowly "scientific" talk, but why should this matter? Watson apparently once held and perhaps still holds views about the genetic basis of intelligence and, well, "fun". He thinks, or thought, that black people are less intelligent, and women more fun, than he is. That is or was his opinion, or is at least something he accidentally said and later regretted saying. Regardless of what he now thinks, as a question of the distribution of traits in a population it may or may not be true. (We are told it is scientifically "discredited".) Watson's proposed mechanism (genes) may or may not explain the phenomenon. Now, even if that was what he had wanted to talk about, and if the Carl Woese Institute had wanted to hear him talk about it, what business is it of Clancy's?

Or we can put this point even more strongly. If James Watson can't say that intelligence has a genetic component, who can? How can this idea ever be discussed if the Nobel prize winner on the topic can't discuss it? Likewise, if not even a Nobel prize winner can talk about how to have fun in the lab, who can? But, again, that wasn't even what he was going to talk about. On Clancy's view, it seems, once you have said something that she thinks science has "discredited" you shouldn't be allowed to speak anywhere again about anything. This is a very strange view to me. I don't mind her not inviting him to dinner, or even not putting him at the top of her list of suggested speakers for her events. But to prevent researchers (and students) from hearing what he wants to tell them seems like overreach to me.

Unfortunately, she does seem to understand the power she wields. The Carl Woese Institute was certainly sufficiently cowed by the prospect of her "plan to organize against it". She may call it "moral character and ethics" but what she really thinks matters more than science is her morality. For Clancy, ideology trumps knowledge.** It saddens me. I hope this tactic will soon be sufficiently discredited to be immediately ignored by our institutions of higher learning.

*I wonder if some sort of underlying conflict between biological anthropology (Clancy's field) and genomic biology is playing out here. It would be interesting to look into that.
**I added these two sentences and the epigraph. I'm grateful to my anonymous commenter for bringing this tweet to my attention.


Anonymous said...

A recent quote from Clancy on #astroSH, in regard to allowing Christian Ott back on the CalTech campus.
"If #safe13, #astroSH, and #ripplesofdoubt has taught us anything, it should be that moral character and ethics matter more than science."

That's where she stands. It appears that she means you are immoral and unethical if you espouse views that she doesn't agree with that might make people "uncomfortable." And people being comfortable at all times is more important than science, in her view.

She is making me uncomfortable--makes me want to ban her from all campuses anywhere, so no one will be "harmed" and become a victim of hers. But you know what? I think people are tougher than that. Discomfort is a part of life---just deal with it.

Thomas said...

Thanks for this. I've updated the post with that quote as an epigraph and few sentences at the end. What she means is: ideology is more important than science.

Anonymous said...

The fault is not with Clancy as much as with Director Robinson. His response (to disinvite Watson) reinforces Clancy's behavior (threatening protest) and by doing so, encourages more of it in the future, both by her and by others.

Although I would still disagree with his action to disinvite, I would sympathize with Robinson if he had invited Watson without knowing of the potential controversy, and then when someone else did his due diligence for him, he realized he didn't want that person speaking after all, but I have no sympathy in this case: Robinson had done his own due diligence and made the invitation accordingly.

He is guilty not simply of enabling the heckler's veto, but of enabling the veto of a single faculty member who merely threatened to heckle.

Thomas said...

I agree with you that it's always the institutional actors that are most responsible. As I've said in another post, I believe universities should facilitate the assembly of people for the discussion of ideas of mutual interest. They should protect the spaces that academics choose to convene such meetings in.

So I think Clancy's activism is really as unseemly as objecting to Robinson taking a meeting with Watson in his office. (In the post I link to I work through the intermediate cases of seminars and classes before getting to the public lecture.) The objection to giving Watson a "platform" forgets that what is really happening is that the audience is being given a space to hear ideas they are interested in.

But you are right, like I say. Though I find her threat to "organize against" the talk distasteful, and a violation of the spirit of free inquiry in academia, she's free to tweet whatever she likes. The institutions should be strong enough to resist it.