Author: Noah Carl

Britain’s Academic Free Speech Bill

The British Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, recently set out proposals to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities in England. These include: appointing an Academic Freedom Champion with a remit to champion free speech and investigate alleged breaches thereof; stipulating that universities will have to “actively promote” freedom of speech on campus; and introducing a tort that will allow individuals to seek redress for breaches of their rights to free speech and academic freedom. The announcement sparked a lively debate in the British press and on social media, with some commentators welcoming the proposed changes, and others arguing that they are unnecessary and/or actively harmful. As I see it, this debate can be broken down into two key questions. Are free speech and academic freedom under threat at English universities? And if so, are the new proposals worth supporting? In this essay, I will argue that the answer to the first question is an unequivocal “yes,” and the answer to the second question is a qualified “yes.” Before proceeding: what is meant by “free …

Lockdown Scepticism Was Never a ‘Fringe’ Viewpoint

Whether or not lockdowns are justifiable on public-health grounds, they certainly represent the greatest infringement on civil liberties in modern history. In the UK, lockdowns have contributed to the largest economic contraction in more than 300 years, as well as countless bankruptcies, and a dramatic rise in public borrowing. This does not mean that lockdowns were the wrong policy, since they might have been necessary to prevent the National Health Service from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 critical-care patients. (And such measures are justified, proponents argue, on the grounds that they prevent infected individuals from harming others by inadvertently transmitting a deadly disease.) But as I will argue below, there’s plenty of evidence that supports those on the other side of this issue, notwithstanding the efforts of politicians, experts, and social-media companies to paint such dissent as marginal or even dangerous. * * * Throughout the pandemic, the British government has assured the public that it is being “led by the science.” However, a number of scientists and other commentators have disputed this claim. These “lockdown …

Do Lockdowns Work? Only If You Lock the Borders Down, Too

For almost a year, the central policy debate in most Western countries has been whether—and for how long—to impose lockdowns. Advocates of stringent lockdowns argue that measures such as stay-at-home orders and forced closures of businesses are necessary to save lives and prevent health-care systems from being overwhelmed. So-called “lockdown sceptics,” on the other hand, argue either that such measures are ineffective, or that their benefits are outweighed by the associated social and economic costs; and that a focussed protection strategy is preferable. (The term “lockdown,” as I am using it, does not encompass all non-pharmaceutical interventions. In particular, I am excluding non-onerous, common-sense measures like asking symptomatic individuals to self-isolate, encouraging vulnerable people to work from home, and restricting large indoor gatherings.) The evidence suggests that lockdowns have been effective, but only when they were combined with strict border controls. Looking across the Western world—Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—just six countries have kept the rate of confirmed COVID-19 deaths below 300 per million. Those six are: Iceland, Norway, Finland, Cyprus, …

COVID-19’s Death Toll: A Historical Perspective

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, public discussion of the virus’s lethality has focussed on two metrics: the infection fatality rate (the percentage of those who become infected that go on to die), and the absolute number of deaths attributable to COVID-19. The latter quantity has been estimated in two different ways: (1) the number of deaths in which COVID-19 was a plausible contributing factor (“confirmed deaths”), and (2) the number of all-cause deaths in excess of the average over the last five years (“excess deaths”). Governments typically report confirmed deaths on the basis of whether the deceased recently tested positive for COVID-19, or whether COVID-19 is mentioned on the death certificate. Many national health authorities also report data on excess deaths, much of which is compiled on the Our World in Data website. There may be a significant discrepancy between confirmed deaths and excess deaths. If a country lacks testing infrastructure or many people die without being properly diagnosed, confirmed deaths are likely to be lower than excess deaths (false negatives). By contrast, if many …

Bruce Gilley vs Cancel Culture

Professor Bruce Gilley of Portland State University is a man not unfamiliar with controversy. In 2017, he wrote an article titled “The Case for Colonialism,” which argued that Western colonialism was “both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found.” Soon after the article appeared on the website for Third World Quarterly, the journal where it had been accepted for publication, two petitions were launched demanding its retraction. One of these, which got more than 7,000 signatures, claimed that sentiments expressed in the article “reek of colonial disdain for Indigenous peoples and ignore ongoing colonialism in white settler nations.” (The other petition, incidentally, got more than 11,000 signatures.) By the time the dust settled, Third World Quarterly’s editor had received “serious and credible threats of personal violence,” 15 members of the editorial board had resigned, and Gilley’s article had been retracted. For Gilley, however, things were just getting started. A group of current and former students from Portland State University wrote to his bosses to express their “collective outrage, …

The Lawrence Mead Affair

Lawrence Mead, a long-time proponent of welfare reform, is a professor of politics and public policy at New York University. On July 21st this year, an ill-advised article he had written, ‘Poverty and Culture’, appeared in the academic journal Society. The article began by asking, “Why do so many Americans remain destitute… even when jobs are available?” According to Mead, the answer is not “social barriers, such as racial discrimination or lack of jobs,” but rather “cultural difference.” Noting that “the seriously poor are mostly blacks and Hispanics,” he argued that such individuals have not internalised Western norms of individualism. As a consequence, he maintained, “they are at a disadvantage competing with the European groups—even if they face no mistreatment on racial grounds.” Regarding the claim that “black social problems” are due to “white oppression,” Mead argued, “By that logic, the problems should have been worst prior to the civil rights reforms in the 1960s.” Yet in his reading of events, “The collapse of the black family occurred mostly after civil rights rather than before.” …

Yes, There Is Such a Thing as Cancel Culture

On July 7th, 153 mostly left-leaning intellectuals wrote a letter to Harper’s Magazine, expressing their opposition to “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate.” The Harper’s letter prompted a discussion about the scale, and indeed the existence, of what has become known as “cancel culture” (though the signatories did not explicitly use that term). While almost everyone on the Right is concerned about cancel culture, many left-wing commentators took issue with the letter, despite the palpable efforts the signatories made to show that they are really, really not right-wing. For example, they were at pains to remind readers that Donald Trump “represents a real threat to Democracy,” and—as both Tyler Cowen and Douglas Murray pointed out—their number were apparently hand-picked to ensure sufficient demographic diversity without including anyone too ideologically unpalatable. On July 10th, a counter-letter, signed by 164 journalists, writers, and academics, was published in The Objective. (Although it should be noted that 25 of the “signatories” did not actually disclose their names, …