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