All posts filed under: Right of Reply

Are Elite Colleges Really That Bad?

The last year has been a difficult time for the US’s top universities. In March, a number of top schools including Stanford, Yale, and Georgetown were implicated in the now-infamous college admissions scandal. Over the summer, the discrimination case against Harvard by a group of Asian American students exposed important parts of the university’s internal admissions policy to criticism. And all of this comes after five turbulent years of campus debates about a range of topics from trigger warnings to academic freedom. Erich J Prince’s thoughtful Quillette essay, “Elite Colleges Reconsidered,” makes the question underlying many of these discussions explicit: To what degree is attending an elite university in the US still a worthwhile goal for a young student? Plenty of factors suggest it may not be—stifling political climates, pressures of conformity, claims of poor mental health on campus, and seemingly corrupt admissions processes. There are also plenty of bad reasons to believe that going to an elite school is a worthwhile goal, from prestige-seeking to thoughtless acceptance of the adulation their reputations invite. I …

Palestine Misunderstood

From my home on the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv, I hear the Muslim call to prayer every day as it issues from a mosque half a mile away in neighboring Jaffa. Jewish Israelis see Arabic on their money, on street signs, on buses, and on the labels adorning foodstuffs that provide consumers with nutritional information. They hear Arabic in the stores, shopping malls, and cafes they routinely frequent. And if they visit a clinic or hospital, Jewish Israelis will hear Arabic spoken by their fellow patients, and by the doctors and nurses who tend to them. Israel may be the world’s only Jewish state, but Arabs account for roughly 21 percent of its population, so the sounds and sights of the Arabic language are simply part of daily life in this corner of the Levant. So I was surprised to learn, from an article written by Michael Humeniuk for Quillette, that “when Jewish Israelis hear spoken Arabic, which they perceive as screams, they don’t know if a bomb is about to go off or …

Right of Reply: Our Response to Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne has offered a response in the pages of Quillette to David Gelernter’s provocative article, “Giving Up Darwin.” Gelernter rejected the standard model of neo-Darwinian evolution for a simple reason: he looked at three pieces of scientific evidence that appeared to be incompatible with that model: The sudden appearance of new body plans in the fossil record. The extreme rarity of protein folds. The absence of early-acting beneficial mutations, the kind that would be needed to generate new animal body plans. In knowing where to look, Gelernter had help from Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt, and David Berlinski’s The Deniable Darwin. These books both contain many references to the literature. Gelernter also highlighted the book Debating Darwin’s Doubt, which responded in detail to all notable critiques of the arguments that swayed him. For all that, Coyne faulted Gelernter for not examining counter-arguments to his own position. “One simply can’t do good science,” Coyne wrote, “by spouting only one side of an argument and ignoring the claims of the other.” A certain measure of irony is conveyed …

Against Determinism—A Brief Reply to Jerry Coyne

In my previous Quillette article, I offered what was intended to be an intellectual history of agency, drawing partly upon the traditions of the continental school of philosophy. I contended that those intellectuals most resistant to deterministic explanations for human affairs are unconsciously, and fiercely, trying to protect the historical legacy of agency from normative determinism. I linked the rise of agency to the rise of secular-humanism, and argued that a belief in agency and free will could therefore be understood as a new version of Pascal’s Wager. This provided Coyne with a great deal of ammunition for his critique of my piece; he drew many parallels between my arguments for believing in free will and the apologetics offered by religious fundamentalists for their belief in God. However, the arguments for some notion of free will are about as hard to shake as the sense that we have it, and I don’t think they are shaken much by Coyne’s hard determinism. In this brief reply to Coyne, I’ll also take my cue from Ben Burgis’s …

Is Liberal Immigration Anti-Democratic?—A Reply to Gadi Taub

In a recent Quillette essay, Gadi Taub argues that restricting voters’ power undermines the “ability of citizens to protect their hard-earned liberal rights.” He also says this is “bound to hurt these very rights, since their only real guarantee is the fact that we can dismiss our governments and appoint their replacement.” We may believe voting is an unreliable guarantor of liberal rights because more voters are turning to nationalism or socialism. We may also believe liberal rights and democracy, properly understood, imply wide restrictions on voting. The second reservation gives us a sense what’s wrong with Taub’s central argument. He says the debate over immigration is a “proxy for a far larger struggle over the future of democracy itself.” That’s true, as far as it goes. But this struggle is more complicated than he admits.   Taub claims there are two sides to the debate over immigration: one says the state may restrict immigration, and the other says the state may not. This is a caricature. Pretty much everyone believes states may exclude known …

Secular Morality Does Not Depend on Faith

In his piece ‘Values: Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne,’ John Staddon denies he ever claimed that secular humanism is a religion. Yet in Staddon’s original article, ‘Is Secular Humanism a Religion?,’ which I criticized in my response, ‘Secular Humanism Is Not A Religion,’ his very first sentence is this: “It is now a rather old story: secular humanism is a religion.” Has he already forgotten this? But forget Staddon’s rewriting of history. In his new piece, he concentrates on one similarity he finds between religious and secular morality—both, he says, are based on faith: . . . in no case are secular commandments derivable from reason. Like religious “oughts” they are also matters of faith. Secular morals are as unprovable as the morals of religion. Nevertheless, he sees religious morals as superior because they rest on religious stories, stories that he admits are myths: The fact that religious morals are derived from religious stories—myths in Mr. Coyne’s book—does not make them any more dismissible than Mr. Coyne’s morals, which are …

On the IDW: A Response to Eric Weinstein

Over the past few weeks, I’ve published two Quillette articles encouraging the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) to engage more with the ideas of identity, privilege, and structural oppression (often referred to collectively as “social justice”) that have become prevalent on the left. On Friday, YouTube media channel Rebel Wisdom released an interview with IDW member Eric Weinstein—conducted by journalist David Fuller—responding to my two articles. Weinstein’s response, as I understand it, explains why the IDW hasn’t engaged more with these views through the following: An “upgrade” has occurred recently on the left, redefining social justice activism as authoritarian, bigoted, and anti-intellectual. This has split the left into two parts: a part that has embraced the upgrade and therefore become authoritarian, bigoted, and anti-intellectual themselves (thus making them impossible to engage with productively); and a part that rejects the upgrade but has been intimidated and pushed out of the discourse. This second part has itself split into two parts: a part that thinks the left is never going back to what it was and has moved …

Values, Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne’s article “Secular Humanism is Not a Religion” is longer than my “Is Secular Humanism a Religion?”, perhaps because he is confused about what I said. Or perhaps I was too concise. Possibly the problem was my title (not mine, but Quillette’s) which is a bit misleading. I wasn’t saying that secular humanism is a religion. I was saying that in those aspects of religion which actually affect and seek to guide human behavior, secular humanism does not differ from religion. It has commandments, just as Christianity has. But they are covert, not in plain sight and not easily accessible: not, therefore, as vulnerable to criticism as religious dicta. Moreover, in no case are secular commandments derivable from reason. Like religious “oughts” they are also matters of faith. Secular morals are as unprovable as the morals of religion. Coyne asks us to believe that secularists are somehow above the fray: “In contrast [to religious morality], the morality of secular humanists derives from rational consideration about how we ought to act—principles based largely on reason …

Alessandro Strumia: Another Politically-Correct Witch-Hunt, or a More Complicated Story?

In recent and even not-so-recent years, the quest for gender balance in science and technology has taken some troubling turns—from the collection of male scalps over trifling offenses (such as the pillorying of British physicist Matt Taylor over a shirt adorned with comic-book-style scantily-clad babes) to the squelching of dissent on whether gender gaps in STEM are caused solely by discrimination (heresy that got software engineer James Damore fired from Google two years ago and cost Lawrence Summers his post as Harvard president in 2005). In this climate, it’s easy to see another “politically correct” witch-hunt in the recent drama surrounding Italian physicist Alessandro Strumia. Last month, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, elected not to extend Strumia’s guest professorship after previously suspending him over a controversial presentation at a CERN gender diversity workshop in September 2018. From the start, the Strumia scandal elicited warnings about an orthodoxy that disallows questioning claims of pervasive anti-female discrimination in science. In a recent article in the French weekly Le Point (reprinted in translation in Quillette), science …

The Case for a Second Brexit Referendum Revisited: A Response to Madeline Grant

In her article “The Case Against a Second Referendum,” Madeline Grant has written an extensive critique of my “The Case For a Second Referendum.” Restrictions of space preclude a detailed consideration of the numerous objections she raises. I ignore altogether the personal comments she makes in the section portentiously titled “Bias,” and elsewhere, on the basis that they are irrelevant. It is worth standing back and re-iterating the basic, and quite simple, position set out in my article—that the best argument for a second referendum is that the “Leave” proposition in the first referendum in 2016 was, necessarily, extremely general, and that the terms of Theresa May’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement are, by contrast, very specific. The Withdrawal Agreement provides a glide-path to a future which many Leave voters did not and indeed could not have anticipated in 2016. The two most prominent advocates for the Leave proposition, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, have both said in terms that the Withdrawal Agreement is worse than staying in the EU. They also insist that the electorate not be …