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At Dalhousie University, Ideology Comes First, Science Comes Second

The massive COVID-19 death toll in the United States—206,000 and counting—shows what happens when science becomes politicized, and people make health decisions on the basis of political ideology. Donald Trump was originally dismissive of coronavirus and the efficacy of masks. On the other side of the political spectrum, meanwhile, liberal contagious-disease experts lined up to tell Americans that it was fine to join massive street protests in June and July, so long as the participants were on the side of social justice. It is one thing to pollute the liberal arts with absurd misinformation and vapid grievances. But when actual science is subordinated to ideological cults, there are real-world consequences.

The same unsettling pattern is now playing out in and around the Atlantic Canadian city of Halifax, whose radicalized political culture I wrote about for Quillette back in July. Over the summer, a group of Indigenous-run lobster fishermen began flouting federal rules by creating a small out-of-season fishery in St. Mary’s Bay, off the west coast of Nova Scotia. These fisheries are closely regulated, in part to preserve the lobster stock and give the animals a chance to reproduce. (The local fishing season typically doesn’t begin until November for this reason.) Predictably, non-Indigenous fishermen are furious, and have destroyed some of the traps set out by Indigenous counterparts. For their part, meanwhile, the Indigenous fishermen have protested (rightly) that they are owed certain fishing rights under treaties entered into by Mi’kmaq signatories with the British in the early 1700s. It’s a complicated issue involving constitutional law, conservation policy, and race relations. And everyone would like to see it resolved before fishermen from either side get hurt on St. Mary’s Bay.

On September 23rd, two officials at Dalhousie, Nova Scotia’s biggest university—Deep Saini, Dalhousie’s President and Vice-Chancellor, and Theresa Rajack-Talley, Vice-Provost for Equity and Inclusion—sent out the following mass email, under the subject line “Commitment to Mi’kmaq and Indigenous communities”:

Negative comments against the Indigenous community exercising their right to a livelihood are not reflective of Dalhousie’s core values and those specific to the Indigenous/Mi’kmaq peoples. This includes any disparaging comments by any Dalhousie community member(s). Such comments reflect the need for greater understanding of Indigenous people and their rights, and Dalhousie continues to be committed to furthering education and improved understanding in our community and beyond. We are reminded by the Director of Indigenous Community Engagement at Dalhousie, Catherine Martin, who herself is a Mi’kmaw woman, that “reconciliation is about owning what has happened… telling the truth”… We want to use this teachable moment to assure our community and the broader Mi’kmaq and Indigenous community that there is ongoing Equity, Diversity and Inclusiveness work at the university… We also want to use this moment to rededicate our efforts in redressing our institutional colonial history and the impact on Indigenous/Mi’kmaq faculty, staff, students and community. We are reminded that as an institution of higher education we have a social obligation to provide an education that combats systemic racism and all forms of discrimination and intolerance. We will continue to be guided by the Indigenous Advisory Council and other Indigenous/Mi’kmaq members on our campus as well as through our community outreach by that of the Elders and the wider Indigenous communities.

In recent years, Canadians have heard a lot about “indigenizing the academy,” a vague term that doesn’t yet have any fixed meaning. With Dalhousie’s pronouncement, we get a good look at what such indigenizing efforts might mean in practice: censorship of viewpoints deemed offside of Indigenous political demands. And yet it is also interesting to note that, once you strip away the fine words about reconciliation and community outreach, the university’s ideological diktat also happens to look a lot like ordinary corporate branding: The first sentence of the quoted text makes clear that Dalhousie is seeking to publicly position itself in a certain light, and so it would be unhelpful if anyone connected to the university went off-script.

What’s more worrying still is that this message isn’t just being endorsed by the university’s diversity bureaucrats. While Rajack-Talley has the kind of CV you’d expect, Saini is a well-known plant-biology scientist. And Dalhousie’s Biology department has put out an openly political statement declaring that it “stands in solidarity with Mi’kmaw fishers… We denounce, in the strongest possible terms, the acts of violence perpetrated by anyone against Mi’kmaw harvesters pursuing their rights, and likewise denounce any claim that such actions are justified in the name of conservation. There is no credibility on biological grounds to the conservation concerns, given the terms of the fishery initiated by the Mi’kmaw community. We call on the Governments of Canada and Nova Scotia, and the RCMP, to support and protect Mi’kmaw harvesters as they pursue their legal fishery.”

I know of no other example, in all of Canadian academia, of an entire university, including its own scientists, declaring a priori that an ongoing controversy shall be treated as off-limits to free academic discussion or technical analysis. Nor do I know of academics making statements such as “The Department of Biology at Dalhousie University stands in solidarity with Mi’kmaw fishers,” as if they constituted an editorial board or a political party, as opposed to an administrative grouping of independent academics who happen to work in the same faculty. And so I was gratified to learn that the Dalhousie Association of University Teachers, had the courage to speak up (albeit in fairly guarded terms) about this fairly obvious threat to free academic inquiry and expression. (A spokesperson for the university responded with the plainly disingenuous claim that “We shared the memo to promote and emphasize respectful dialogue within our community as part of Dalhousie’s commitment to our values of equity, diversity and inclusiveness… This was not related to academics sharing their expertise. Academic freedom is a core value of Dalhousie University and we support our faculty’s right to express their opinions.”)

We are entering a strange and unsettling period in the life of universities, and in the sciences, in particular. As my Quillette colleague Colin Wright noted recently, academics are increasingly being asked to falsify their beliefs by denying the very existence of biological sex, a campaign openly endorsed by some self-described scientific publications. And in one extraordinary case, authors of a 2019 article on race and police shootings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently demanded the retraction of their own article because, they complained, their findings were being used to support arguments from which they seek to distance themselves.

If you want to see where all of this leads, just watch (or, for masochists, rewatch) Tuesday night’s US presidential debate, and the gross distortions of science therein on display. This is what happens when science is subordinated to tribalism, branding, or virtue signaling: The intellectual tools we count on to improve our lives and keep us safe become an object of distrust. And all too often, lives are lost as a result.



Jonathan Kay is Canadian Editor of Quillette. He tweets at @jonkay.

Featured image: The Henry Hicks Academic Building at Dalhousie University. 



  1. Firstly, everyone downplayed the virus at the beginning. Why no mention of maskless Nancy Pelosi inviting everyone down to China Town? And is there not a meaningful distinction between downplaying the virus when there were very few infections and we didn’t know much about it, and lying about racism being a more serious health problem and encouraging people to break lockdown over the overdose death of a home invader at the height of the crisis? This false equivalency on COVID is a bad way to start an article about leftist DIE shenanigans.

  2. @quillette

    On the other side of the political spectrum, meanwhile, liberal contagious-disease experts lined up to tell Americans that it was fine to join massive street protests in June and July, so long as the participants were on the side of social justice.

    I wonder if a case can be made for the proposition that BLM activists have cause a greater number of COVID deaths than Donald Trump.

  3. The CDC release statistics that showed on 6% of reported COVID-19 deaths were actually FROM COVID-19. So your 206,000 number becomes 12,360 which is not even a bad influenza year for the USA. The average age of the COVID related deaths is about 3 months older than the average age of death in the general population. Of the other 94%, the statistical probability that those people lived another year given the co-morbility factors is approaching zero. Let us not forget the initial scramble for ventilators which turned out to be the medically incorrect process for recovery and the prejudice against hydroxychloroquine which has proved itself to be affective but since it was advocated by Trump, the leftest establishment immediately pronounced it the equivalent of putting people in gas chambers.

    There is proof that the medical establishment in Democrat cities had an incentive to overstate the death toll to make COVID-19 seem worse than it was.

    The lies that have been spread by leftist reporting on this disease has allowed (or intended to allow) the collectivists to grab power and control.

    The only effect that COVID-19 has had is to facilitate a power grab by the collectivists and the vast bulk of the population has been too timid to fight back.

  4. I’m not sure if Trump is to blame for Dalhousie University becoming a gutter. The author should look in the mirror, maybe there he will find the culprit :thinking:
    In the old days in the USSR, references to the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin could be found even in textbooks on gynecology.
    Today, gynecological textbooks should begin with the phrase “the Orange man is Bad”

  5. Yeah, the author lost me on the first sentence since Covid was politicized at its inception, and there are still, as yet, no certain facts about it. WHO is China-controlled and its unwillingness to acknowledge Taiwan’s success in handling the outbreak is a case in point. It’s not even about ideology sometimes, but opportunism. Media goes with the story that sells. Governments, left and right, saw a way to gain power. People who could work at home liked the idea of working at home. Digital businesses like Amazon saw dollar signs. Pretty sure certain odd sales embargoes involved politicians taking money under the table. Everyone just used Covid for an edge. And no one knows anything about Covid. The death tolls will be endlessly revised. Is Covid serious or overblown. Were the lockdowns the best move, an honest mistake or a deliberate ploy. Who knows? Trust is low, because honesty and altruism are low.

  6. What gets me about the issue that is causing the furore - indigenous lobstermen catching lobsters outside the government-ordained period that commercial fishing is allowed - is that I imagine the indigenous lobstermen, while claiming a right granted 300 years ago, are not using the same technology’s that were available to them back then. If my assumption is correct, surely they are acting in a culturally inappropriate way, actions that should be decried by all the usual suspects, rather than supported by them.

  7. Jonathon, why bring Trump into this, he has no place here except for you to advertise your TDS.

    Belgium, the UK, Spain, Italy, Sweden, even France are in the ballpark of the United States when it comes to the Covid death rate.

    And, as you well know, the governors are responsible for the Covid response in their state - they can override Trump.

    Dalhousie, for those who aren’t aware, is Canada’s “loser” university dedicated to indoctrinating all its students into Critical Race Theory. Know the name of this university and do yourselves a favor - don’t hire its graduates.

    Dalhousie is the university, that when there was a job opening, proudly declared Whites Need Not Apply

    Dalhousie’s biology department most likely teaches that sperm is produced in women and that babies grow in the wombs of men - if that isn’t too binary for them.

    We saw the same kind of unscientific nonsense with the idiots attacking James Lindsay this summer - when woke educational theorists and math post grads (even a Fields Medal winner) promoted the idea that 2+2=5 because 2+2=4 was racist and oppressive.

    Why are such people even part of academia?

    You are spot on to call out the medical practitioners (notice I didn’t call them professionals) who put ideology before science and promoted and defended the BLM riots, because - racism is a medical emergency.

    It is extremely likely people died as a consequence.

    As we all know our universities are propagating the intellectual equivalent of the Bubonic plague.

    We must defund the universities; the ideological miscreants who teach there don’t deserve their jobs and taxpayers should refuse to foot the bill for this garbage.

  8. Welcome to QC, @Andi.

    I would say everyone on the left who claimed that racism was a bigger health problem than covid were downplaying the virus. That was long after even Trump was talking serious.

    My guess is we’re unlikely to see any research published in peer reviewed scientific journals about this. The fear of being deemed insufficiently woke would dissuade researchers from even suggesting such a project.

    You’re talking like he was raped then set on fire or something. He was tripping on fentanyl, insisted he had to get out of the police vehicle, was identified as having EDS, and subdued in the approved manner according to the Baltimore PD pending the arrival of an ambulance. Maybe the police officer should have let up when he passed out, but it’s hardly the most horrific way to go, and entirely of his own doing by consuming designer drugs.

    Floyd held a knife to a pregnant woman’s stomach after invading her home and robbing her. The way he died was far less horrific than what he did to that woman. I feel more sorry for his victim, who has to see the man who threatened her child turned into a saint, than I do for him, who overdosed while being a burden on police, business owners, and all the people in the general vicinity.

  9. I’ve seen nobody claim that Floyd’s death was justified, should have happened, or that the police involved not be held responsible for their actions. So why does it seem as if the BLM think his death is a sign of anything other than excess police force at the time?
    BLM and the “anti-racism” movement (which promotes policies that used to be called reverse racism)
    do almost nothing to reduce the amount of racism in the US and as Sowell points out, actually do much damage to black people.
  10. " Dalhousie, for those who aren’t aware, is Canada’s “loser” university dedicated to indoctrinating all its students into Critical Race Theory. Know the name of this university and do yourselves a favor - don’t hire its graduates.

    Dalhousie is the university, that when there was a job opening, proudly declared Whites Need Not Apply"

    Hate to tell you this but that describes many, many uni’s in Canada, if not all of them, with very specific programs being exceptions. And yes, I was told to my face by a full interview committee that I did not get a full-time position because I was a white male despite my years of experience at the university I applied for. The entire system is wretched, bloated, and due for immediate immolation.

  11. That is not, in fact, his responsibility. His responsibility is to uphold the constitution. Safety is an illusory concept. If you want to be “safe,” go back to kindergarten.

  12. The US are an armed country. (We like it that way.) In view of this, and on the whole, policing in the US falls in the “necessary and proper” parameter. Cops die regularly in the line of duty----one every 48-72 hours on average. The US are not like other countries.

    There are errors made in all professions. Medical malpractice takes many more lives than the cops, for example. There are occasions when deliberate malice is present, but there is a system for redressing that. Juries tend to be reluctant to convict cops.

    Since I do not know what is meant particularly in any instance by the word “racism” I am not going to give credence to such incendiary rhetorical projectiles. The disparities visible in policing correspond to the disparities in the commission of crime. Prejudice and discrimination are facts of life that will never go away----the important question is whether they correspond to the facts of reality. In the US (as elsewhere, I suspect) they do, overwhelmingly.

  13. You so easily forget that his tax policies increased employment and salaries of minorities lessening their dependency on government hand outs. We can’t have this, can we. Nothing worse than this.

  14. It’s unbelievable that Kay can still think this after all he’s read at his own publication:

    It is one thing to pollute the liberal arts with absurd misinformation and vapid grievances. But when actual science is subordinated to ideological cults, there are real-world consequences.

    The pollution of the liberal arts did have real-world consequences. That beachhead became the staging ground for the invasion other institutions, like the sciences.

  15. The double-standard among Canada’s intellectual class has become risible. Trump was “illegitimate” because he lost the popular vote, but the same question was never asked about Trudeau losing the pop vote and only getting 34% of it. Nothing to see here. Trump was evil because of the Russia scandal, the media reporting the American MSM line, even though Trump allowed the investigation against him. But the WE investigation just prorogued with Parliament and now has been shut down by the Liberal gov’t and…crickets. I could go on, but the trend points in one undeniable direction: The Canadian elite has become an intelligentsia, its principles replaced by loyalty to the Party and the Great Leader.

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