She blinded me with science’  is a wonderful 1980s song by the Brit Thomas Dolby.  It could be the signature tune for Professor Lisa Barrett’s fake-science New York Times Gray Matter article on speech as violence.  Professor Barrett’s arguments are supposedly based on science, but the facts don’t support them.  She uses eugenics as a bad example, but her proposal is itself a kind of mental eugenics. 

She writes: “Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system. Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sick, alter your brain – even kill neurons – and shorten your life.”  Pretty scary!  Better watch what you say lest you cause injury.  

Some of this is true.  Yes, anything that has an effect on your behavior, from words to revelations, must have an effect on your brain – unless we are to abandon the basis for all neuroscience, namely that mind and behavior depend entirely on brain activity.  But all else is irrelevant conjecture.   Irrelevant because even if free speech is risky, some risks are worth taking.

Maybe speech can kill neurons, but neuron death is also a normal part of brain development.  The “make you sick” claim comes from an article claiming “A growing body of evidence…that children reared in harsh families are prone to chronic disease.”  Really?  Was there an experiment?  Were these children randomly placed in good and bad families and their sickness assessed over the next 15 or 20 years?  Er, no, actually.  So are there factors other than ‘stress’ that might be responsible for these differences?  Maybe; but a correlation like this cannot –  should not – be taken as causal. 

The effect of stress on longevity comes from a study with baboons which concluded “ Females who experience the most adversity are also socially isolated in adulthood, suggesting that social processes partially explain the link between early adversity and adult survival”;  “suggests”, yes; “proves”, absolutely not.  Why do some animals experience more “adversity” than others?  Could it be something about the animals which also affects their longevity?  Also possibly “yes”.  The same applies to the “stress affects telomeres” argument, taken from an article co-authored by Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn. Were different levels of stress applied experimentally to different groups of women?  Were the women matched for telomere length before the stress was applied?  Well no; they were selected based on whether they had a healthy or diseased child.  So just correlation, again – and the effects were not large.  Besides which, many years of dealing with a sick child can hardly be compared to hearing a talk by campus provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.  

These data simply do not support Prof. Barrett’s implausible claim that speech directed at college students can cause them physiological harm.  In any case, it should not matter: harm or no harm is irrelevant.  Men are happy to fight if their loved ones are in danger, even though fighting is dangerous.  Many sports are hazardous: people surf, climb mountains, sail across oceans, even though all these sports are risky – arguably a great deal more so than sound waves emanating from Mr. Yiannopulos.  Risky or not, we play sports for the other “goods” they embody, team spirit, courage, excellence, general health

The same can be said for listening to Mr. Yiannopoulos.  I have not heard him myself, but he is apparently generally civil, funny and occasionally preposterous.  In a movie review, he made nasty remarks about Ms. Leslie Jones, an African-American comedy actor who is one of my personal favorites.  But that hardly qualifies as more than rudeness and bad judgment. He doesn’t urge his audience to violence.  He doesn’t condemn all black people.  He’s not yelling “fire” in a crowded theater”.  His rejection by so many colleges shows that there really is a problem, though not the one identified by Prof. Barrett.  Mr. Yiannopoulos is needed as an antidote to coercive limits on speech in academe that have existed for some years and have reached sort of peak right now.

  Prof. Barrett illustrates the problem herself:

Early in my career, I taught a course that covered the eugenics movement, which advocated the selective breeding of humans. Eugenics, in its time, became a scientific justification for racism. To help my students understand this ugly part of scientific history, I assigned them to debate its pros and cons. The students refused.

There are several problems with this.  First eugenics did not advocate selective breeding, which suggests some kind of state-run people-farm.  Eugenics was a point of view advanced by a liberal and well-educated elite in the UK and US during the early part of the 20th century.  Francis Galton, the founding father of the movement, simply directed attention to what he thought were possible social problems, such as the greater reproductive rate of poor people.  Many US states took actions, now regarded as deplorable invasions of personal freedom, to limit what they saw as bad reproductive trends. And yes, the idea was perverted beyond recognition by the Nazis. 

The facts underlying eugenics are clear: many human characteristics are to some degree inherited.  What was wrong were the compulsory and even murderous actions these facts were used to justify.

Prof. Barrett’s concern is in fact quite similar to Galton’s.  He wanted to protect society from bad genotypes; she wants to protect it from what she regards as toxic ideas.  She and others who agree with her have in large measure succeeded.  As her quote shows, her students simply refused, even as an academic exercise, to present the despised case for eugenics. 

Prof. Barrett seems to regard her students’ reluctance as rather admirable.  It was not admirable; it was a sorry demonstration of very effective censorship.  It shows the results of indoctrination, of past conditioning, that prevented her students from even saying some things, no matter what the context. 

The response of her class is evidence of a barrier to free inquiry that should have been wake-up call to Prof. Barrett and her fellow academics.  Instead she welcomed it, showing that she and her like-minded colleagues are in fact the source of the problem.  They believe that some ideas are unmentionable.  They have very effectively trained their students to think likewise.  They are even ingenious enough to invoke essentially irrelevant science to justify intentional censorship of free intellectual speech in our country’s colleges and universities.   

Words are not violence, free speech is free speech and censorship is censorship no matter how artfully achieved.

John Staddon

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