Danegeld (paid to outrage mobs by academic institutions)

«WARNING. At this university students could be exposed, at any moment, without warning, to ideas, comments, readings, or other materials that they find shocking, offensive, absurd, annoying, racist, sexist, homophobic, discriminatory, or generally obnoxious.
We call this education.»
Jonathan Rauch on Free Speech (2015)

Yesterday I wrote a comment about the reaction of a scientific journal to an (apparently) politically incorrect article that was deleted. I strongly suggest to read the article yourself first and make up your own mind. Personally I was (and am) extremely critical of the reaction — of the journal, of the reaction to the points made (argument and evidence anyone?) and the points not discussed.

But one other thing stuck with me — and that was the reaction of the provost of the institution the author works for:

Together we have made significant strides to foster an institutional culture advancing human rights and reconciliation. Among other actions, in recent years the University has:

  • established a Human Rights and Equity Office;
  • created a new Ombuds Office;
  • hired its first Vice-Provost, Indigenous Engagement;
  • launched the President’s Advisory Council on Human Rights, Equity, and Decolonization;
  • invested significant resources in training and education, including sessions on unconscious bias;
  • collectively made an explicit commitment to foster a culture of inclusivity, accessibility,
  • reconciliation and decolonization, under Brock’s Institutional Strategic Plan.

Despite this progress, and the shared values that animate these efforts, we recognize there is still much work to do.


And looking at the journal, now of the publisher as well:

We recognize and take very seriously the role we play in the academic system. Today, we also pledge to:

  1. Assemble a diverse group of external advisors to evaluate our current processes and aid in the creation of new ones that aim to eliminate the potential for discrimination and foster diversity at all levels
  2. Be transparent with both the COPE findings and external review
  3. Launch a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) training program for the journal leadership team
  4. Focus on building more diversity within the Editorial and Advisory boards
  5. Develop new editorial guidelines incorporating DE&I principles and practices
  6. Create forums for external dialogues on DE&I issues, partnering with relevant associations in driving the conversation

Strong action is of the utmost importance. Improving DE&I at Angewandte Chemie will not stop here. As a journal and as a community, we must take an inward look at how we can meaningfully contribute to the dismantling of an often-biased academic system. Diversity only strengthens science, and inclusive science that reflects the world’s best thinking is our greatest hope for solving the problems facing society.


Given the rather loud and obnoxious outrage mobs on Twitter and — likely — on campus, I cannot wonder whether this is some kind of Danegeld. Money paid as «tribute to the Viking raiders to save a land from being ravaged».

Sure, the mob members are hardly Vikings (although looking at some videos from Sweden, they could meet somewhere at the bottom soon). But pointing to all the money spend, the positions established … it’s not that far away.

It’s also interesting how there are always these two steps: 1. This is what we have done, and 2. We will do more.

And to be perfectly clear here (i.e. what will be cut later if this is ever selectively cited): Anything that hampers the universities mission — the Search for Truth, knowing one can never find it, but we might get closer and closer to it — should be fought. That includes discrimination on — for the search for truth — irrelevant grounds. And yeah, that includes the stupid assertion of judging people by some category (that isn’t merit, with all its criticism). But that also works the other way, of making irrelevant aspects a deciding factor, of seeing differences in equality of outcome as indicator for biases in equality of opportunity.

And I seriously wonder whether creating these positions and spending money there is the way to go. I think it undermines the people it is purported to help. The (in the other posting) mentioned “soft bigotry of low expectations“.

And it smacks of extortion, of paying Danegeld.

And that’s not only ineffective, it’s also damaging to the university (opportunity cost: money not spend on research) and an actual detriment to the students (if they pay tuition) or the population (who have to fund the university with their taxes).

BTW, with all criticism, I strongly agree with the assertion that:

Diversity only strengthens science, and inclusive science that reflects the world’s best thinking is our greatest hope for solving the problems facing society.

but I think what matters is which kind of diversity. There is demographic diversity — people looking different and having different backgrounds — and there is functional diversity — people having different skills, expertise, cognitive styles and viewpoints (part of it can be summarized as “viewpoint diversity”). And I think it’s the later that is useful. Even though you can get fired for saying so (e.g., at Apple when you think too different), but you can have a group of demographically similar people who are extremely diverse — if they have functional diversity. That’s worth more than the same number of people who look different yet have the same educational background and viewpoint (interesting that the social class aspect is usually ignored when it comes to diversity, BTW). Thing is, demographic diversity doesn’t matter, it’s neither a plus nor a minus — it’s the functional diversity that matters.

And yeah, this is a complex issue not suited for Twitter or a newspaper headline. Other issues are at play as well — just putting experts in a room will not work if they cannot work in interdisciplinary teams (perspective taking is necessary here as well) and if they cannot keep their egos in check.

Personally, I just hope that the university survives the current trend of social justice, even it that means a split into those who see their function as “improving the world” (from their perspective) vs. “understanding the world”, as Haidt pointed out (should be the right video).


Update: Clarified the title (few minutes after posting it) and the demographic/functional diversity paragraph (a couple of minutes later).

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