Academics Accuse Howard Dean of Repeating Falsehoods About Halloween Costume Scandal

Academics Accuse Howard Dean of Repeating Falsehoods About Halloween Costume Scandal

Andy Ngo
Andy Ngo
4 min read

One of the professors at the center of the 2015 Yale Halloween costume controversy, who publicly accused the former governor of Vermont and Democratic leader, Howard Dean of dishonesty for his remarks at a free speech panel held at an Ohio college last year, is finding support among other prominent academics.

Nicholas Christakis, a physician and sociology professor at Yale University, slammed the former Democratic National Committee Chair for spreading “off-base and reckless” misinformation about him and his wife at the “Free speech, Civil Discourse” conference at Kenyon College in a series of tweets.

“We have maintained a policy of near silence for over two years—but Dean is a former presidential candidate in the U.S.A. and a former governor,” Christakis told Quillette. “The great amount of evidence that is nevertheless in the public record is one of the reasons that I think it is so important to make the effort to get the facts right if people are going to make public statements.”

Steven Pinker, who shared the stage with Dean at the conference in September, agreed with Christakis’ complaints. The Harvard cognitive scientist told Quillette that Dean indeed got some of his information “badly wrong.”

“Without a commitment to accuracy, debate becomes demagoguery and intimidation, rather than a way to ascertain reality and promote defensible policies,” Pinker said. “Certainly, the Left cannot honestly criticize the mendacity of Donald Trump while allowing fabrications and distortions such as those of Howard Dean to stand uncorrected.”

The Harvard professor recently fell victim to a misinformation campaign when a video clip of him speaking at a Harvard panel about the alt-right was lifted out of context and misrepresented by activists. Pinker says the personal cost to him was ultimately minor but for dissident academics who are untenured or without reputation, “the costs could be severe.”

At the conference on free speech at Kenyon College, organized by the Center for the Study of American Democracy, Dean faulted Erika Christakis, wife of Nicholas Christakis and a former Yale childhood development instructor and administrator, for offending students by writing a letter suggesting that they should not need institutional policing of Halloween costumes. Nicholas Christakis took particular issue with Dean’s characterization of her letter, originally written in response to guidelines issued by Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee when Dean summarized it as saying “political correctness is B.S.” and “don’t be a snowflake.”

“If [Dean] did read the Christakis Halloween costume letter and concluded that its main thrust was that political correctness was B.S., he still lacks the capacity to grasp not even particularly complex arguments,” Heather Mac Donald, a conservative commentator and writer who was on the panel, told Quillette. “[Erika’s] point, carefully couched with concerns for allegedly marginalized students, was that experimentation and alleged transgression—as if a costume is truly transgressive—is part of the process of growing up and that the adults should stop trying to overregulate student behavior. Hers was an argument based on her work in child development.”

The infamous Halloween cultural appropriation controversy occurred in October 2015 at Yale, where hundreds of students and faculty protested Erika Christakis’ email, accusing her of fostering racist violence and demanding her firing. The firestorm culminated in an aggressive student confrontation with Nicholas Christakis, which was caught on video and subsequently went viral. Both Nicholas and Erika later resigned from their administrative roles as college masters (Yale has now changed that administrative title to “head of college” for sensitivity reasons).

At the panel discussion, Dean blamed the Christakis couple for inciting the campus backlash and welcomed their resignations. While he conceded that the couple has a right to say what they want, he emphasized that “there are consequences to free speech.”

“Being the leader of the college, means you are the students’ advocate,” Dean said. “If you then choose to debunk what one group thought was protective, you have lost your purpose to having that job.”

Heather Mac Donald pushed back against Dean’s characterization of the Yale controversy on stage at the time and so continues to question if he even read Erika Christakis’ letter. I made repeated attempts to contact Howard Dean for comment, specifically to inquire if he read Erika Christakis’ letter before the conference.

I did not receive a response.

Mac Donald continued: “His claim that the Christakis’s deserved to lose their job on the basis of the innocuous, cautious, Halloween memo is a terrifying demonstration of how far campus intolerance has infected the non-academic world. If the Howard Deans of the world seize more political power, the core bedrock of American society—free speech—will disintegrate.”

Two years on from the Yale Halloween costume scandal, Nicholas Christakis is still fascinated at how he and his wife are characterized depending on the politics of the person or group. “One of the most surprising things to me about our experiences at Yale in 2015 has been the way that both the Left and the Right, and various actors both locally and nationally, have so overlooked and distorted—often willfully, I would say—basic facts about what happened.”

Heather Mac Donald echoed Christakis’ concern and issued a warning about the consequences of perpetuating misinformation based on partisan ideology: “If opponents in the ideological divide refuse to honestly characterize their opponents’ arguments, but instead deal with ignorant caricatures, there is no hope of ever bridging those divides and arriving at some common truth or mode of respectful coexistence.”

Other academics, some who were embroiled in similar controversies with social justice activists, expressed support for the Christakis couple on social media.

Bret Weinstein, a former Evergreen State College biology professor who resigned after a series of highly publicized campus protests last year, wrote two hypotheses about the ordeal on Twitter. Weinstein predicted that if Dean “was accidentally repeating falsehoods,” then on the “discovery of the truth, he will apologize fully and publicly.” His second hypothesis states that if the “falsehoods were deliberate,” then there will be “silence.”

Nicholas Christakis says he has not heard from Howard Dean.


Andy Ngo is a journalist and graduate student in political science at Portland State University.

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