This episode smacks a bit of internet drama, which I try to avoid, but it also bears on scientific discourse, censorship, and civility, and I wanted to say a few words.
According to the “Arts Beat” site of the New York Times, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who organized a prestigious debate on the origins of the universe at The American Museum of Natural History, subsequently withdrew an invitation to one participant: the physicist/philosopher David Albert. Last April I wrote about how Albert had given a pretty negative review to Lawrence Krauss’s new book, A Universe from Nothing: Why there is Something Rather Than Nothing (a book that I wasn’t too keen on, either, but for different reasons). And, sure enough, Albert and others—including Krauss—had been invited to debate the topic of how something comes from nothing at the Museum. Then came the rude gesture:
The annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate is the American Museum of Natural History’s biggest public event, drawing sold-out crowds for an evening billed as bringing together “the finest minds in the world” to debate “pressing questions on the frontiers of scientific discovery.”
But this year’s installment, to be held March 20 under the heading “The Existence of Nothing,” may also be notable for the panelist who disappeared.
Among the speakers will be several leading physicists, including Lawrence M. Krauss, whose book “A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing” became a cause célèbre in the scientific blogosphere last spring after a scathing review in the New York Times Book Review by the philosopher David Z. Albert.
But Mr. Albert will not be onstage, having been abruptly disinvited by the museum several months after he agreed to take part.
Not only was Albert disinvited, but he was disinvited by a hero to many readers: Neil deGrasse Tyson:
The museum originally planned to take the fight inside. Last October, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, sent Mr. Albert an e-mail inviting him to take part in a discussion exploring the “kerfuffle” surrounding his review. The panel, he said, would probably have two or three physicists on it (including Mr. Krauss), a philosopher (Mr. Albert) and another person, to be determined.
But in early January, Mr. de Grasse Tyson sent Mr. Albert another e-mail rescinding the invitation, citing changes in the panel that shifted the focus “somewhat away from the original reasons that led me to invite you.” An invitation was issued shortly afterward to Jim Holt, the author of the recent best seller “Why Does the World Exist?,” which surveys the ways philosophers, cosmologists and theologians have answered the question.
Mr. Albert, who teaches at Columbia, noted in an interview that neither the title of the panel nor its basic composition — it also includes the physicists J. Richard Gott and Eva Silverstein and the journalist Charles Seife — had changed.
Note that Tyson was anticipating a “kerfuffle,” but both Albert and Krauss can be civil debaters, and both have stuff to say on this issue. Albert maintains, among other things, that Krauss’s definition of “nothing” wasn’t really nothing, and that Krauss ignored the source of physical laws that shape a quantum vacuum. (There were other issues on the value of philosophy that I’ll ignore here.) At any rate, I would have loved to see a lively discussion of these issues by the two men, both practicing physicists. I’ve always been curious about those laws of physics, as well as about “nothing”, and though I’m a tyro—and realize that the answer to “why are the laws of physics as they are?” is simply “we don’t yet know”—this would have made for an interesting if contentious discussion. But I’m sure it would have been civil. Krauss and Albert are adults and well known academics, and with that (usually) comes the ability to control oneself onstage.
So why did Tyson withdraw the invitation? For no good reason, apparently. His explanation given above seems quite flimsy given that the topic of the debate remained unchanged.
“It sparked a suspicion that Krauss must have demanded that I not be invited,” [Albert] said. “But of course I’ve got no proof.”
Mr. Tyson, in an interview, said he had withdrawn the invitation out of concern that the event (which will be streamed live at amnh.org/live) had drifted too far from the Asimov core purpose of “exposing the frontier of science as conducted by scientists.”
“I was intrigued by his argument with Krauss,” he said of Mr. Albert. “But once the panel was assembled, I took a step back and said it can’t just be an argument with Krauss.”
Mr. Krauss, who teaches at Arizona State University, said via e-mail that decisions about the lineup were Mr. Tyson’s but reiterated that he “wasn’t impressed” by Mr. Albert’s review. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t choose to spend time onstage with him,” he added.
This is unconscionable, and reflects poorly on both Krauss (who could have stood up for Albert) and, especially, Tyson. The event was a debate, Tyson anticipated a “kerfuffle” (i.e. an academic disagreement), and both men have things to say on the topic, which is, after all, “The Existence of Nothing.” If they were worried that the Krauss/Albert debate would dominate the symposium, well, that’s what a moderator is for. To extend an invitation and then withdraw it is not only rude but insupportable, depriving the public of what could have been an enlightening exchange of views.
Withdrawing invitations on such flimsy grounds is simply not done in academia, and reflects poorly on Tyson and The American Museum. I will let Tyson know this, and refer him to this post and any comments. I am appalled at his behavior, and, though I am not by any means in Albert’s corner, the foundation of science is free and open debate. By contravening that, Tyson shames himself and his employer.
h/t: Sean Carroll
Note: Some readers may say I’m too hard on Krauss because of his recent objection to debating the Muslim apologist Hamza Tzortzis at University College London after Krauss found out that audience seating was segregated by gender (males on one side, females on the other). Krauss’s threat to walk out was indeed an admirable gesture, but was later devalued, in my opinion, by his return to the forum and participation in the debate when the seating still remained segregated (only three men moved to the women’s section, and security guards threatened to eject those three). Had I been Krauss, I would have walked out at the beginning given that the segregation wasn’t mentioned to the speaker in advance. I agree with Richard Dawkins, who, writing about the episode on the RDFRS site, said:
Unfortunately in my opinion, Lawrence agreed to return. It was a decent gesture on his part, but I can’t help wishing he had refused and generated maximum publicity for this disgraceful episode. I suspect that he too now regrets his bending over backwards to be polite, and to return. I also regret that more people didn’t move along with the three men, and it’s a bit of a shame that no women, in the spirit of Rosa Parks, moved to the men’s section.
But I wouldn’t have debated the odious Tzortzis in the first place (see his antievolution views here). To paraphrase Dawkins, it would have looked good on his c.v., but not so much on mine.