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Identifying “Academia’s Bermuda Triangle”

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Complete the last word in the second of the following two paragraphs:

This is an essay about how to avoid carpet-bombing your career as a scientist. The academy, in general, is a wonderful place to work, but not everyone plays nice. Veer too far from carefully charted courses and someone may slip quietly up behind you and slide a cold piece of steel in between the ribs of your budding research career.

They’ll do this believing that they are serving public interest by snuffing out dangerous research agendas, but that won’t make any difference to you. It’ll be your reputation that will suffer grievous injury. What in the world might elicit such harsh rebuke from a community of otherwise broadminded, free speech spouting scholars? What is so verboten that it constitutes academia’s Bermuda Triangle, a place where careers disappear more often than ships in the actual Bermuda Triangle? In one word, it’s….

In a word, it’s what? Intelligent design? That is what I would have said, but no, that’s two words. The essay by St. Louis University criminologist Brian Boutwell, published at Quilette, is titled “The Bermuda Triangle of Science.” He contends that the area of scholarship that imperils all who enter is not a skeptical approach to Darwinian evolution but rather the fraught subject of race.

Well, well. Without denying that race is explosive on campuses, surely evolution is no less dangerous, subject to “obscene…violations of free speech,” “grant dollars denied…, denied promotions, removal of a course from course listings, and an atmosphere of general harassment.” This is all depressingly familiar:

[C]rossing the boundaries of the Triangle (even if only to defend a colleague) can be frightening. Angry invectives hurled in your direction will come so fast, and so fierce, it will likely leave your head spinning.

Within the Bermuda Triangle, you see, it is a free for all when it comes to accusations and motive indictment. There is no suitable defense, trying to mount in fact one will only fan the flames.

Techniques to preclude such dangerous knowledge from seeping out of the Ivory Tower don’t even have to take the form of a full frontal ad hominem assault (recall our earlier imagery of the knife slid silently in the back).

Boutwell concludes with practical counsel:

I would advise young scholars not to study race, and it’s not because the area is unimportant. Understanding genetic differences between human populations is critical. My warnings come because if you’re not careful, you may very well have your career stripped away from you.

Yep. Remember the Sternberg case?

Some observations on race and evolution: First, if the scientific study of racial differences incites anger, that’s in part because of the history of racial pseudoscience going back to Darwin’s own notorious writings, especially in The Descent of Man, that inspired venomous Nazi and eugenic theorizing. Whatever the merit of the research cited by Dr. Boutwell, it stands in a tradition that has treaded some very sinister paths.

Second, do you ever notice how campaigners for free speech on campus ignore the danger to scholars who investigate evidence for design in nature? Jerry Coyne, for example, talks a pretty good game about academic freedom. Today, he applauds a committee vote at the University of Minnesota supporting free speech by 7-2. (Who are the two faculty members that voted against?) But Coyne is the same guy who, with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, agitated to silence a pro-ID scientist at Ball State University. I’m sorry to say, intellectuals who decry manacles on scholars in other areas, for the most part couldn’t care less about protecting freedom for scientists when it comes to evolution. Intelligent design, not race, is the field of scholarly study that really dare not speak its name.

Finally, I wonder if the persecution of ID scientists escapes notice because students, for the most part, don’t get worked up about evolution. They absorb the orthodoxy without question, for the most part. Race, ethnicity, and sexuality, meanwhile, are hot topics at universities in part because they are so immediate and personal. When it comes to the Darwin debate, the “Why does it matter?” question take a bit more explaining, something for which elite young people seem to have little patience.

You’re not going to find pampered Yale or Brown students screaming at administrators for failing to create a safe space for their confidence in evolutionary theory. To borrow Dr. Boutwell’s language, the damage would be done, the threat carried out, much more quietly, with “a cold piece of steel in between the ribs,” delivered by smiling colleagues.

Image: US Navy Avengers, like the famed “lost” Flight 19, via Wikicommons.