Dorian Abbot, a distinguished geophysicist and associate professor at the University of Chicago, was slated to give the prestigious John Carlson Lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on October 21st. However, MIT soon caved to cancel culture. The university disinvited Abbot from his lecture because he supports basing admission and hiring decisions on merit and qualifications, rather than diversity, equity, and inclusion priorities.
Opposition to Abbot dates to at least December 2020, when UChicago staff, students, and alumni of the Geophysical Sciences Department called for Abbot to be stripped of his departmental titles and privileges, among other punishments, due to his support for merit-based hiring. However, MIT’s recent cancelation of Abbot’s lecture sparked a national outcry because the talk was intended to be scientific and nonpolitical. In a piece for Bari Weiss’s Substack, Abbot, who says “I have never considered myself a political person,” notes, “I am a professor who just had a prestigious public science lecture at MIT cancelled because of an outrage mob on Twitter. My crime? Arguing for academic evaluations based on academic merit.”
Enter Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. A stalwart of intellectual freedom, he heads up the school’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, and was distraught by MIT’s revocation of Abbot’s invitation. As George told the Chicago Thinker, MIT “compromised their principles—bringing disgrace upon the greatest science, technology, engineering, and mathematics university in the world—by capitulating to pressure for the lecture to be canceled for reasons having nothing to do with the lecturer’s qualifications or achievements or with the quality of his proposed presentation.”
Not content with passively observing MIT’s actions, George offered to facilitate Abbot’s October 21st lecture instead. “All I can say is that when I heard about the shameful cancelation of the lecture by MIT,” George informed the Thinker, “I immediately knew that offering to host the lecture was the right thing to do.”
As George told the Thinker, Princeton was the second school to adopt the University of Chicago’s statement on free expression (also called the Chicago Principles), which codifies and protects the freedom of the university community to express both popular and unpopular viewpoints. George celebrates UChicago and Princeton’s stated dedication to free expression because, as he puts it, “freedom is as necessary to intellectual life as oxygen is to biological life,” whereas repressing the ideas of students and faculty “encourages vices such as indoctrination, conformism, and groupthink that are toxic to the truth-seeking enterprise.”
Thanks to George’s efforts and Princeton’s institutional credo, Abbot delivered his lecture on October 21 in a webinar open to the public. 3,000 people attended.
Fittingly, George offered the initial remarks and led the program. In line with his comments to the Thinker, he stated that his goal was to rectify Abbot’s disinvitation from MIT—which George described as chilling to academic freedom and freedom of speech—by giving Abbot a venue to deliver the address he had prepared for his initial Boston audience.
Professor Bernhardt Trout, succeeding George in the program, observed that Princeton was “picking up the ball MIT dropped” and stressed the importance of free speech to scientific inquiry. While Trout noted some faculty members’ objection to Abbot’s disinvitation, he also bemoaned academics’ fear, trepidation, and lack of courage in opposing cancel culture. Trout inveighed his colleagues to defend the Western liberal order, and charged them to “[s]top making excuses” to justify holding back.
Clocking in at about half an hour, Abbot’s lecture was squarely nonpolitical. As he planned to do at MIT, Abbot presented on his search for the “Earth 2.0” orbiting “Sun 2.0,” even in the absence of sufficient telescopes, and contemplated the potential for life on other planets. He proceeded to describe how he and Jun Yang, then a University of Chicago postdoctoral student and now a professor at Peking University, modeled the climate of exoplanets—i.e., those that orbit stars other than our Sun. They did so in 3D, applying a model for Earth and considering radiation, motion, and clouds (a determinant of light absorption and planetary temperature). The fruit of Abbot and Yang’s research was a doubling of the list of planets that may be habitable.
Toward the end of his lecture, Abbot speculated about the absence of evidence for intelligent extraterrestrial life, known as the Fermi Paradox. One explanation, which Abbot referred to as the “rare earth hypothesis,” posits that Earth is unique and that there may be little to no complex life elsewhere. Another explanation contends that extraterrestrial life killed itself off via nuclear war, environmental degradation, and other such catastrophes. Perhaps optimistically, Abbot is not convinced of the second hypothesis.
After Abbot concluded, George offered closing remarks in which he reiterated that “[s]cience is all about truth-seeking,” achieved by free thought, discovery, and discussion. Ending his webinar in jubilation, he proclaimed, “Hurrah for freedom. Hurrah for truth-seeking.”
When the Thinker asked George what he had to say to the UChicago community, he encouraged students and teachers to “keep faith with Chicago’s great legacy” under the newly inaugurated administration of Paul Alivisatos, because “no university president can maintain an institution’s legacy of respect for freedom of thought, inquiry, discussion, and expression without strong support from faculty and students.”
“Keep the university true to its truth-seeking mission,” George pled.
In Abbot’s Substack piece, he notes that academic freedom is not a partisan issue. “Do we want a culture of fear and repression in which a small number of ideologues exert their power and cultural dominance to silence anyone who disagrees with them? Or do we want our children to enjoy truth-seeking discourse consisting of good-natured exchanges that are ultimately grounded in a spirit of epistemic humility?” Abbot writes, “If you want the latter, it’s time to [. . .] say no to the mob, no to the cancellations. And it’s time to be forthright about your true opinions. This is not a partisan issue.”