George Orwell famously said that “there are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.”
His adage now applies to anyone associated with academia in any capacity.
The New York Times ran a report the other day on the canceling of University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot for his dissenting views on affirmative action. The paper quoted a Williams College geosciences professor, Phoebe A. Cohen, who supports Abbot’s shunning. She explained her dim view of academic freedom thusly, “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.”
Ah, yes, that poisoned fruit of the patriarchy — intellectual debate and rigor.
This idea isn’t new, even if Cohen expressed it in a memorably pithy and direct way. Of all the faddish notions blighting college campuses and the broader culture, it is among the most indefensible and self-destructive.
Start with the fact that to reason is deeply human.
Steven Pinker points out in his latest book, “Rationality,” that one of the world’s oldest people, the San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, don’t survive by happenstance. These hunter-gatherers make closely reasoned, evidence-based judgments about their prey and without the use of logic wouldn’t be successful.
If someone told them they needed to give up all this reasoning and cede it to white males, they’d presumably react with fury and incomprehension.
Needless to say, other cultures and civilizations are capable of great intellectual rigor. It doesn’t require endorsing the fashionable theories that the West invented nothing and rose to preeminence through colonialism and theft to acknowledge the historic achievements of China, India and the Islamic world.
It was Muslims who transmitted Arabic numerals and various important mathematical concepts to the West and played an outsized part in preserving the legacy of the classic Greeks.
The West did indeed forge the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, along with the Enlightenment, that shaped the modern world, and did so at a time when white males occupied a privileged position in society through law and custom.
Still, there wasn’t a “white male” opinion on the high-stakes questions roiling Western society at that time. When Galileo encountered resistance to his defense of heliocentrism in the early 1600s, he didn’t find trans people of color arrayed against him, but other white males.
The beauty of reason is that it is open to everyone and is a powerful tool of truth and justice. What would Frederick Douglass, whose career was based on using facts and logic to convince people they were wrong, make of the idea that intellectual rigor is a white male thing?
The implication that women and minorities somehow aren’t as capable of rigorous thought as while males, or shouldn’t be as interested in it, is deeply insulting. This is taking one of the worst beliefs of the Western past, dressing it up on the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion, and pretending it’s somehow a blow for progress.
Certainly, the work of Phoebe Cohen herself gives every indication of reflecting rigor. She’s a paleontologist after all, not a sociologist or women’s study professor. And she went to the trouble of getting a Ph.D. from Harvard that, one assumes, wasn’t earned on the basis of her feelings.
In 2019, for example, she co-authored a paper titled, “Biogeochemical controls on black shale deposition during the Frasnian-Famennian biotic crisis in the Illinois and Appalachian Basins, USA, inferred from stable isotopes of nitrogen and carbon.” The paper, naturally enough, rests on a foundation of evidence and careful reasoning, without a hint of guilt at using what are allegedly tools of a racist patriarchy.
What’s the alternative to intellectual debate and rigor? Superstition, personal preference and, ultimately, sheer power. It’s the latter that the woke critics of Western reason believe they can wield to crush their enemies, facts and logic be damned.
(Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.)