University of Chicago graduate claims that disrupting debates promotes healthy, educational discourse

When I read this op-ed in the Maroon, the University of Chicago student newspaper, I thought it was by a current student of the snowflake variety, but it turned out that the author of “No debate without defiance” was one Matthew Andersson, who got his masters of business administration from our school in 1996.

From this you learn two things: first, that an MBA from Chicago doesn’t guarantee that you can write. More important, you learn that even a student from of our notoriously conservative business school can be an Illiberal Leftist. For Andersson’s piece is a long-winded excuse for the value of students disrupting talks they don’t like. I haven’t seen such a justification before—at least not as explicitly as here.

Andersson’s point is that for several reasons students or protestors have a right to disrupt public lectures in universities. First, universities supposedly have mechanisms to prevent challenging “establishment representatives”, and in fact an invitation to speak constitutes a tacit university endorsement of the speaker’s views:

A university is a highly organized corporate institution that sustains numerous formal barriers to meaningfully challenge establishment representatives, let alone allow students to gain any kind of equal footing in a university-sponsored speaker venue. Universities do indeed, as Bittle said, “sanitize” debate; and perhaps somewhat ironically, tacitly validate and shield visiting speakers.

That of course is bogus; many speakers are invited not by the University itself but by student organizations, and universities have in fact expressed distaste for student invitations of speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos. Colleges, of course, have Republican organizations, libertarian organizations, men’s rights organization, and so on. They can all invite speakers.

The author gives more reasons:

It may seem surprising that students, whether in the college or the professional schools, can be well-informed and more emotionally poised to express their intuitive, instinctive reactions to what are often highly corrupted or compromised guests. There is much wisdom in students that can be thoughtlessly dismissed in university or corporate hierarchies where titles, and perhaps political power, are so faithfully coveted and protected. 

What Andersson is talking about here, of course, is the right to disrupt speech of which he doesn’t approve: speech by those who are “highly corrupted or compromised.” I doubt that he’d be writing the same thing if the speaker was talking about the value of affirmative action or relaxed immigration, or about abortion rights. Would he be writing in support of right-wing students to disrupt talks by these people or to shout the speaker down?

Well, can’t students have their own counter-speeches, have a debate, or demonstrate outside the venue? No, because colleges are, says Andersson, set up to prevent such challenges:

Tucker Carlson suggested that a more civilized, formal debating approach would yield better results. But he knows as well as anyone that the preponderance of institutional college decorum does not allow students to meaningfully challenge speakers, outside of a limited and quickly forgotten comment. In matters of such emotional and ideological weight as national politics, often a disruptive, insistent, and memorable challenge not only vividly communicates an opposing viewpoint, but also galvanizes an audience into more critical thinking and a less guarded response. In these cases, real learning can take place as emotional content is introduced or heightened, and with it, deeper convictions.

Andersson is completely oblivious to reality, or else hasn’t seen these disruptions. There is no promotion of critical thinking, there is no stimulation of the audience’s cogitation, there is no learning. What happens is that students already convinced that they’re right try to prevent speakers from giving their views. There is no chance that the disrupting students will change their mind: they are there not to promote learning, but to prevent the speaker from speaking. And really, does the introduction or heightening of “emotional content” really promote critical thinking? What world is this man living in? In the end, he uses doublespeak to equate disruption of speech with freedom of speech:

[Jack] Chatfield was famous for nearly inciting a riot at speaker events and seminars, while also marshaling his facts in an organized manner. Speakers (or more cautious students or administrators) rarely left an event without memorable inspiration, and more often, with decisive reconsideration of their assumptions.

Sadly, on many college campuses across the country, such methods and freedoms are under constant assault or institutional dampening. With so many behavioral reinforcement factors—grades, degrees, careers, and recommendations—hanging over the heads of students, some healthy defiance is surely one of the most liberating skills any student can learn (and one indicative of leadership). As Frederick Douglass said, “power concedes nothing without a demand.”

Defiance is one thing; disruption another. And here we see disruption characterized as a “freedom”.  Institutions like mine, which explicitly bans such disruptions, are said to be dampening this freedom.

Andersson, of course, has it exactly backwards. There is no freedom of speech if a speaker isn’t allowed to speak, or is constantly interrupted. And I deeply suspect that Andersson only approves of the interruption of certain speech, that which, he thinks, fosters “establishment values.”

Biden gets the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Now tell me that this video from yesterday (longer 17-minute version here) doesn’t bring a tear to your eye—it sure did to Biden’s—or at least a glow in your heart. Here Vice-President Joe Biden, a good man, is surprised by President Obama awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

God, I’ll miss these guys. In only a short week we’ll be plunged into at least four years of darkness, but at least we can remember these final days. Goodbye, guys: it wasn’t a perfect run, but it was a good one.

Reader’s wildlife videos

Tara Tanaka (flickr site here, Vimeo site here) has produced a very short (12 second) video of a Northern Flicker. Have a look, preferably on its Vimeo site in high definition. Her notes:

Taken from my blind this morning – probably the best view I’ve ever had of a Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker [Colaptes auratus]. I had one land briefly in the window of my blind, but the view was nothing like this.

Tara added this later:

it’s not often you get to see Flickers so close.  You can tell this is a female by the lack of a black moustache.

Friday, Hili dialogue

When you read this on the morning of January 13, I’ll be waiting at Midway Airport for my flight to LAX (yes, Friday the 13th). As a food holiday, it’s a double: National Gluten-Free Day and National Peach Melba Day. Fortunately, I don’t think Peach Melba (named after the singer Nellie Melba) has gluten, so you can observe both days at once. But did you know that she also gave her name to Melba toast? It’s also “Stephen Foster Day” in the US, named after the songwriter who died on this day in 1864.

On this day in 1898, Émile Zola wrote a piece for the paper L’Aurore called “J’accuse…! arguing that the French officer Alfred Dreyfus had been unjustly accused and convicted of treason, and that anti-Semitism was partly responsible (Dreyfus was Jewish). The famous article had some role in Dreyfus’s subsequent pardoning and then the annulment of his verdict. Here’s the article, which has become a synonym for speaking truth to power (it was addressed to the President of France):


On this day in 1910, the first public radio broadcast took place: a performance of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. And, in 1968, Johnny Cash performed his famous concert for the inmates of Folsom State Prison, which is still in operation.

Notables born on this day include Horatio Alger, Jr. (1832), Sophie Tucker (1887), Robert “Eliot Ness” Stack (1919), Paul Feyerabend (1924), and the French cartoonist Cabu (1938, died in the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in 2015). Those who died on this day include Wyatt Earp (1929), James Joyce (1941 ♥), Lyonel Feininger (1956, one of my favorite painters), Ernie Kovacs (1962), and Hubert Humphrey (1978). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is having a good laugh at humans.

A: Homo sapiens sapiens.
Hili: It amuses me too.
In Polish:
A: Homo sapiens sapiens.
Hili: Też mnie to śmieszy.
Out in the barren tundras of Winnipeg, Gus, too, has a secret smile:

And, courtesy of reader Michael, enjoy “Snow day at the Oregon Zoo”, put up two days ago. I don’t know how on Earth an Indian elephant can tolerate that stuff!

Homeless in Chicago

Here’s how a small group of homeless people deal with the winter in Chicago: constructing warm nests under a train overpass. This is only three blocks from my house. As far as I could see, there are no humans in this photo; the residents are probably out foraging.

It’s heartbreaking that we have this in America.

UPDATE: A Facebook reader pointed out that there are people here, lying in the fetal position. I didn’t notice them, and wouldn’t have taken this photo if I had.


Pseudo’s (pseudosciece) corner, Private Eye

I don’t read Private Eye, the British humor magazine, but Matthew Cobb sent a screenshot from his issue singling out what I thought was a joke, but isn’t. His notes:

Pseud’s corner is the bit in Private Eye where they publish genuine pseud0-intellectual garbage. This appears to be true.

I can’t explain it. I can understand why you might be interested in people’s responses to plastic bags but that’s not the same thing as saying they are conscious!


The tiniest moths: the Philodoria of Hawaii

Doctoral Student Chris Johns at the University of Florida made this lovely ten-minute video about endemic (“native”) Hawaiian “micromoths” and their caterpillars (genus Philodoria), as well as about those who study them. Do watch the whole thing.

The caterpillars are “leaf miners”, eating the insides of leaves (this affords them protection from predators), and many of the host plants they inhabit are endangered, which means the Philodoria, each species of which is specific to a single species of plant, are also endangered. The adults can be quite beautiful.

Click on the word “vimeo” to enlarge.

Official Selection, Hawaii International Film Festival 2016

Produced by Chris A. Johns
Original Score by Tristan Whitehill
Design by Narayan Ghiotti

With support from the Florida Museum of Natural History, National Geographic Society, International Biodiversity Foundation, and National Science Foundation.

Here’s a National Geographic video on the genus, which says the adults are about the size of an eyelash, both in length and width. You can see that here, as well as their beauty.

Here are photos of two species:



Here’s an adult to scale: that’s a U.S. quarter, about an inch in diameter:


h/t: Mathew Cobb

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reviews Ali Rizvi’s “The Atheist Muslim” in the NYT (and a new book by Omar Saif Ghobash)

Last November I wrote about Ali Rizvi‘s new book, The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason, and recommended it. I had read it in galleys and provided a cover blurb, which is below:

“In this timely and important book, Ali Rizvi deftly weaves together two narratives: the abandonment of his Muslim faith, and a critique of those doctrines of Islam that create terrorism and oppression. It turns out that these are connected, for the very reasons Rizvi became an apostate are the reasons why it’s no longer possible to see Islam as a “religion of peace.” ––Jerry Coyne, Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago, author of Faith Versus Fact and the New York Times bestseller Why Evolution is True

As I said, the book is an engrossing interweaving of Rizvi’s personal story as an apostate Muslim and the teachings of Islam that he finds reprehensible and oppressive. I was thus pleased to hear from reader Bryan that the New York Times reviewed that book in its Sunday Book Review section, and that the reviewer was none other than Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, once a basketball great and now a public intellectual. Jabbar is also a practicing and moderate Muslim.

Jabbar actually reviewed not only Rizvi’s book, but also the related book Letters to a Young Muslim, by Omar Saif Ghobash, the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia and a promoter of moderate Islam and a prominent writer and speaker on the topic. While Rizvi is an atheist, and readily admits it, Ghobash, like Jabbar, is a practicing Muslim. The letters in question are directed to his son, and explicitly at the younger generation of Muslims.

While Ghobash’s book, according to Jabbar, is accommodationist, I wouldn’t beef about that if it helped tame Islam the way Christianity was tamed by the Enlightenment and its sequelae. That, by the way, is also the goal of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation NowHere’s Jabbar on Ghobash’s book:

Ghobash is not an apologist for Islam because there is no need. He argues that reason and religion can coexist because we are meant to use our intelligence to reject manipulative and myopic interpretations of the scriptures. In essence, he is suggesting a compromise between blind faith and nibbling on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. There are certain heavenly ordained teachings, but followers must be ever-vigilant that these not be perverted by people with personal or political ambitions. He writes: “I want my sons’ generation of Muslims to realize that they have the right to think and decide what is right and what is wrong, what is Islamic and what is peripheral to the faith. It is their burden to bear whatever decision they make.”

. . . In the end, Ghobash encourages the reader to accept a modern, enlightened path that embraces diversity, not just within Islam but among all religions: “If you begin to accept the individual diversity of your fellow Muslims, you are likely to do the same for those of other faiths as well.” It is this sort of wisdom that creates hope for a world in which people are smart enough to work together toward a common good rather than claw at one another while slowly sinking in quicksand.

Well, I don’t agree that reason and religion can coexist, not even in the way Jabbar notes, for the “heavenly ordained teachings” that are said to be followed are either based on pure fiction or are likely the product of a secular humanist philosophy. To tell extremist Muslims that their faith is “perverted” is not a tactic that will win them over, nor appeal to many of the world’s Muslims who adhere to the general and literalistic view of the Qur’an (or at least follow its oppressive teachings). I welcome a call for the de-fanging of Islam, but given the Pew data in the survey I just linked to, it seems unlikely. I had the same view of Hirsi Ali’s book: its calls for reform were good, but not likely to be effective. Right now Islam doesn’t seem ripe for a reformation, if for no other reason that those who promote it live under fear of death (I do worry about Ghobash and Rizvi).

Rizvi’s book also garners high praise from Jabbar:

The oncologic pathologist Ali A. Rizvi is in the unenviable position of being in the two religious groups that are, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, ranked lowest by Americans: atheists and Muslims. His book, “The Atheist Muslim: A Journey From Religion to Reason,” is just what the title promises: a close look at Rizvi’s journey from his Muslim upbringing to his rejection of Islam as well as all religion. The arguments presented are thoughtful, articulate, well documented, logical and made accessible by many personal anecdotes and pop culture references.

. . . Rizvi’s specific criticisms of the Muslim orthodoxy as stated in the Quran are surgically accurate. He cites various passages that are either contradictory or seemingly absurd in the modern world. But this is not a moving target. For centuries we have known that the holy books of most religions have the same weaknesses. The older they are, the more they are the product of their specific time and fraught with the misinformation of that era. Rizvi’s descriptions of historical sects of Islam and their conflicts with one another are especially illuminating. He concludes that a current disagreement “would never be an issue if its consequences weren’t so deadly. In effect, it is similar to two groups fighting about whether the green or the blue unicorn is the right one.”

And here Rizvi is right on the mark. Whether Islam be literalistic or metaphorical, it still rests on fiction, and if you are to promote a moderate Islam, you are in effect cherry-picking those parts of the Qur’an that promote a humanistic philosophy while ignoring the many parts that call for the death of infidels, gays, and apostates, as well as for the subjugation of women. Why not jettison the whole enterprise?

Jabbar doesn’t agree, for in the end he emphasizes a comity between reason and faith:

How would a person of faith, like Ghobash, respond? Faith is the belief in something for which there is no conclusive evidence. To demand concrete proof of God’s existence contradicts the very notion of faith, which requires a person to examine their interior world rather than anything on the outside. But faith does not preclude logic. Choosing to demonstrate faith in humanity’s ultimate goodness, despite all the evidence to the contrary, allows us to embrace certain religious teachings. But it does not relieve us of the responsibility of choosing which teachings express that faith and dismissing those that do not. Both authors would agree to that. And that should give us all hope.

What Jabbar is saying here is that we should simply believe something based on revelation or personal feelings rather than evidence. Yes, you can use logic to show that, say, female genital mutilation is not good for the women themselves or society in general. But if you’re picking and choosing as Jabbar suggests we do, and making those choices based on “humanity’s ultimate goodness,” then you are not practicing Islam but secular humanism.  That is the problem with telling Muslims to reject some teaching of the Qur’an or hadith and rejecting others. On what basis do we do so? It can only be humanism itself: a philosophy that is extra-scriptural.

I don’t share Jabbar’s accommodationism, of course, nor do I share his optimism. But I would be glad to be proven wrong. My money, however, is on the proposition that it will take centuries to tame Islam in the way the world has tamed Christianity.

In the meantime, I highly recommend Rizvi’s book, and though I haven’t read Ghobash’s, it may be worth a look. And I hope both men stay safe.

I get emails hoping I’ll find Jesus

I got an email this morning from a male student (name omitted) from Academic Magnet High School in North Charleston, South Carolina. I’ve verified the student’s identity.

Hello Mr. Coyne. I am a student at the Academic Magnet High School. My biology teacher has a list of extra credit books to read and I chose yours as it looked interesting. I myself am a devoted Christian and naturally a creationist and I could not force myself to finish your book as it was very harsh towards creationists and all I could think of while reading your book is that you don’t know Jesus’s love and acceptance. I understand that you are a very busy man and that your job and life’s work is against certain Christian ideals. I come to you in this email hoping that I’m not the first person to try and talk to you about Christ but if I am then so be it. I simply cannot just sit around knowing that you are separated from God and if you were to die reading this email you’d spend an eternity away from him. Jesus loves you and I just want to let you know that. What you do with that information is up to you.

Thank you for your time and God bless.

The school appears to be a rigorous one with a decent science program, but I guess they haven’t convinced NAME REDACTED about evolution. I deny, however, that my book was “harsh towards creationists”: it doesn’t mock them or denigrate them, but simply dispels their arguments. And so far I haven’t felt the love of Jesus!

Your task as readers: respond to this young man without being nasty, as I may, if the comments are okay, refer him to this thread. (I may delete any comments that are out of line before doing so.)

Readers’ wildlife photos

We have two contributors today. Reader Ivar sent some diverse photos, and we’ll have some moths (not from readers) later today. His notes are indented.

I bought an exceptionally versatile new lens that has helped create beautiful bird images as well as bugs in good detail.

Grasshopper– I don’t know for species details [readers?]- caught amongst my cannabis plants this spring.


Snowy Plover (Charadrius nivosus) observed at the pacific Ocean near Westport, WA.


Red-flanked Bluetail– (Tarsiger cyanurus) included more for its rarity in North America, this bird near Lewiston, Idaho being only the fourth instance of its observation in North America. It is native primarily to Russia.


Northern ShrikeLanius excubitor , juvenile


Reader Greg Geisler sent owls, or rather Four Ways of Looking at an Owl. His notes:

I don’t have a fancy camera so I’m hoping that these pass your standards!
These are photos of a Western Screech Owl [Megascops kennicottii]that lives in our backyard about 25 feet from my office window. We put up this roosting box about four years ago and we have had a Winter tenant every year since. He appears a bit miffed by the paparazzi in the first image!
decowl owl1015 owl1216 owl031615