All posts filed under: Top Stories

Cowardice at Columbia

On Thursday 11 April, shortly after 11pm, a black Columbia student named Alexander McNab walked through the gates of Barnard college—the undergraduate all-women’s school at Columbia University—after ignoring a security guard’s request to show his student ID. In search of a midnight snack, McNab got all the way to the library canteen before a public safety officer confronted him and asked for his ID a second time, a request McNab once again refused. Several more officers had arrived on the scene and were continuing to request ID when McNab began yelling. What happened next, depicted in the video below, has become the subject of a national scandal: two officers pushed McNab’s upper body onto the countertop, at which point McNab finally handed over his ID. Public safety proceeded to verify that he was indeed an active Columbia student, at which point they left him alone. Administrators reacted to the incident by placing the six public safety officers involved on paid leave until outside investigators reach a conclusion about their conduct. In the meantime, administrators have …

How to Prevent Campus Deplatformings: Lessons from Harvey Mansfield and Concordia University

It’s been a year since Atlantic magazine hired, then abruptly fired, conservative writer Kevin Williamson. Shortly after the story came full circle, I caught up with a friend who then worked closely with the Atlantic. He told me that hiring Williamson had been a mistake from the get go. “So you agreed with the decision to fire him?” I asked. “Not quite,” he replied. “Imagine you have this friend who tells you he’s going to get a puppy. And you say, ‘Don’t do it. I know you. You’re not a puppy person.’ But he gets the puppy anyway. Then the weeks pass, and he comes to you and says, ‘You were right. I shouldn’t have gotten the puppy.’ But now it’s too late. Your friend is stuck with the puppy. That’s how life works.” It’s an allegory I come back to often in this age of deplatforming. Universities have no obligation to invite any particular public figure to speak on campus. But once they’ve promised someone a platform, the stakes are raised: Both speaker and …

The Inevitable Clash of Politicians and Bureaucrats

Several Western countries have seen a surge in “populist” parties, leaders, and policies in recent years. This surge has elicited a forceful response from traditionally dominant elites. The situation also has led to tensions within governments and their bureaucracies. To cite just two examples: reports of White House officials actively assessing the possibility of ridding themselves of President Donald Trump; and Whitehall officials despairing of the “impossibility” of Brexit. In short, democratic elections, and democratic decisions, do not always seem to command the respect they deserve. Should we be worried? The short answer is: yes, we probably should. The long answer is more nuanced, and it goes far beyond conspiracy theories of “Deep State” or “elite” interest. The fact of the matter is that we were told to expect this a hundred years ago by the German sociologist Max Weber. Weber’s writings are practically inevitable as a point of reference when discussing modern public administration. (He called this bureaucracy, but I will use the term public administration interchangeably, as well as the terms officials or …

George Faludy: Hungarian Poet and Hero for Our Times

Had the poet George Faludy not written in his native Hungarian—arguably the most impenetrable of European languages—he would, as many have argued, be world famous. He died aged 95 in 2006, his life spanning the First and Second World Wars, the Russian revolution, and the Nazi and communist takeovers of his country. Having achieved literary fame at 20, he would be imprisoned by both regimes and spend much of his life as an exile in France, Morocco, America (where he was a tail-gunner for the U.S. Airforce), and Canada, where he fled communism, only to find his lectures picketed and disrupted by campus leftists to whom his experience was an inconvenient truth. A ladies’ man all his life, he surprised the world by suddenly entering a gay relationship with Eric, a Russian ballet dancer, who’d fallen in love with Faludy in print and then rushed across the globe to find him. In his 90s, after communism fell and Faludy, returning to Budapest, achieved living legend status, he married a poetess 70 years his junior with …

Why Everyone Values Freedom

On March 28, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders uploaded a video to YouTube entitled “Medicare for All Is about Freedom.” This may strike some viewers as an abuse of language. In a market system, a consumer can freely choose whether or not to pay Aetna or Blue Cross Blue Shield or no one for health insurance. In a single-payer system of Medicare for All, everyone with taxable income pays Medicare for health insurance—theirs and everyone else’s—whether or not any individual tax-payer wants to be part of that “All.” Such a system may serve many social goods. It may even save most individual taxpayers money. (If X is your current tax burden, Y is the current cost of your private health insurance plan, and Z is the cost of your tax burden after the implementation of Medicare for All, the question that matters for your bottom line is whether Z comes to a figure more or less than the combined cost of X and Y.) It may, however, be difficult for conservatives to understand the contention of …

Is the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ Politically Diverse?

Earlier this month, popular author and podcaster Sam Harris tweeted out a graph titled, “A Visual Breakdown of Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) Positions.” The graph purports to compare the political positions of six prominent members of the IDW on the main issues that supposedly divide liberals and conservatives. The tweet links to a blog post by cybersecurity expert and writer Daniel Miessler, where he explains his motive for producing the graph. Miessler was frustrated that members of the IDW often are labelled conservative or even alt-right, so he set out to gather information on the positions of six prominent members—Harris, Eric Weinstein, Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Jordan Peterson, and Ben Shapiro—on some important political issues. The resulting graph indicates that all these people, with the partial exception of Ben Shapiro, are far more aligned with liberals than with conservatives on the issues that Miessler believes divide liberals and conservatives. The IDW members are not conservatives, Miessler argues, but “mostly a collection of disilliusioned liberals looking for a place to have honest conversation.” Now, this claim …

Why Are Women Under-Represented in Physics?

Six months ago CERN hosted a workshop on “High Energy Theory and Gender.” Nearly all the contributors to this and previous workshops on the same topic endorsed the view that gender imbalances in physics, particularly in the higher echelons, are predominantly due to sexual discrimination. The following phrases appeared in the presentations: “men mobilize their masculinity supporting…men in ways that advance careers,” “evaluators tend to favor men,” “scientific quality is a gender social construction,” “practically all women share the same kind of sad and unfair experiences since the beginning of their scientific career,” and physics is an “oppressive ambient.” One attendee claimed that only the military has a higher rate of sexual harassment, although she didn’t say which country’s armed forces she was thinking of. In an attempt to go beyond mere anecdotes and measure the amount of discrimination, I did a bibliometric analysis using a public database of publications, references, authors and hiring decisions in fundamental physics world-wide over the past 50 years. CERN maintains this database, but nobody had used it for this …

Divorce and the ‘Silver Bullet’

Divorce is almost always an ugly and painful experience. But for parents with children, there are additional heart-rending realities to confront. No loving parent wants to be absent for their kids’ many firsts and bests—the first tooth falling out, the first goal scored, and so on. Countless goodnight kisses will be missed, and at crisis moments when they need you most (and for the many moments when they don’t need anything more than knowing you’re close by), one parent will not be there to provide advice, compassion, and comfort. Also hanging in the balance are hundreds of thousands of dollars of shelter and vehicles and toys and books and worthless junk priceless only to you. These stakes drive people to lie. Lies are at the messy heart of divorce, almost by definition. Sometimes the lies are so large and consequential that lawyers and judges are pressed into service to officiate a death match of he-said-she-said. But there is a lie among lies that practically guarantees child custody, optimal parenting time, the money you’re sure you …

Scientific Progress and the Culture Wars

On April 10, 2019, an international team of scientists from dozens of research institutions involved in the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration published the first direct image of a black hole. This groundbreaking achievement, representing tremendous progress in both fundamental astrophysics as well as the many technologies adopted and advanced for this work, received acclaim around the world and throughout the internet. Scientists had shed metaphorical light on the literal darkest objects in the universe, and they had done it by combining signals from radio telescopes at opposite ends of the globe, a technical achievement with far-reaching implications in many areas of science. (Indeed, I believe that my own research specialty, quite remote from astrophysics, will draw upon some of the fruits of this imaging technique.) Of course, no good thing can last, and people soon found a way to turn this scientific accomplishment into a cultural flashpoint over the issue of gender equity in science. It began on the morning of the announcement, when Twitter activists chided news outlets for not paying attention to Dr. …

Has the Postmodern Revolution Come Full Circle?

While discussions about the philosophical foundations of judgements of right and wrong are often framed in terms of rational versus irrational perspectives—those based on the enlightened values of science and reason versus those based on authority or faith—this is not altogether an accurate view of where the real centre of moral debate currently lies. The game-changer has been the hegemony postmodern ideology has established over most debate about public policy and morality. This assertion may come as a surprise to many who are aware of the existence of a philosophical perspective called “postmodernism” but do not see it as having much to do with how they frame their moral judgements or how society around them is ordered. They would, I suggest, probably be wrong to believe so. It is important to recognise that postmodernism arose not as a logical corollary of the efforts in the Enlightenment period to establish a rational foundation for addressing moral dilemmas and resisting the tyranny of religious and traditionalist worldviews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but as a rejection …