Showing No Embarrassment: A review of Ulrich Baer, What Snowflakes Get Right

September 2021

A review of Ulrich Baer (2019), What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech, Truth, and Equality on Campus. Oxford University Press, 176 pages.

There are jokes constantly circulating around STEM faculties in universities about humanities’ professors, including those in the Studies departments, from Women’s to Fat, showing their ignorance of basic mathematics and science. Sadly, some jokes are based on actual anecdotes, and indeed are funnier because individuals from these departments show pride in their ignorance. (Witness the faculty members of Women’s Studies departments proclaiming the superiority of Women’s Ways of Knowing – formerly known as “women’s intuition” – over logic, statistics and mathematics.) The jokes become especially pointed when these academics make mathematical or logical blunders they are repeatedly warned against, not just in the elementary texts in mathematics and logic, but in popular writings as well. While the rest of us in the Humanities respect the power of science and mathematics, the aforesaid colleagues leave us in the position we are in when someone breaks wind. We are embarrassed for them, especially if they show no embarrassment themselves.

This is how I feel reading the book under review. The author, Ulrich Baer, is a Professor of English and Photography at New York University, and a sometime administrator at that institution. The former of his two disciplines is close enough to my own (philosophy) that I want to look in any direction but his when I see that he has written a whole book defending a thesis based on the Fallacy of Division. This fallacy is committed when a person confuses a claim about a group or class with a claim about individuals belonging to that class; for example, if one confuses the claim that the class of insects is very large with the claim that each insect is very large. As the example shows, the error is obvious to the point that an educated person, even if their education is not in statistics, should easily be able to avoid making it.

So how does he commit this fallacy? Let’s look at the first place (of many throughout the book) where he states it: “[I]deas of a particular group’s innate inferiority, whether this takes the form of white supremacy, or virulent anti-Muslim or anti-Semitism, unacceptably alter the conditions for speech on campus by requiring some students, faculty or members of the staff to prove their humanity as a condition of participation, while others can confidently take their humanity for granted.” (41) So there we have it: according to Ulrich, students who are iniquitously characterised as snowflakes, unwilling to even listen to controversial ideas, let alone debate them, are entirely misunderstood. In fact, what they are doing is defending the community of scholars by demanding a level playing field, where all can be taken seriously and have their contributions fairly assessed by the standards of academia. The controversial ideas in play here are claims about averages of certain traits such as intelligence or interest in STEM subjects amongst certain groups such as races, sexes or genders, and whether genetics may have some role to play in explanations of these group differences. But, as snowflakes are wont to do, individuals belonging to these groups take these claims personally (everything is about them), thus committing the fallacy of Division. And there is Baer, egging them on.

As I mentioned above, the jokes I’ve been talking about are often about committing an obvious fallacy such as Division after just having been warned about it. The scholars that snowflakes don’t want to allow to appear on campus, or even have their ideas discussed, such as Charles Murray, Steven Pinker, Christina Hoff Sommers, the late Doreen Kimura and Jordan Peterson, who demonstrate correlations between race, sex or gender and certain traits, bend over backwards to emphasize that the correlations they find are far too small to attribute these traits to an individual. And, when they compound their heresies (in the snowflake mentality) by suggesting that genes may play a role in these differences, they emphasize the environmental factors which often mitigate or negate the genetic effects on the traits in question. The care they exhibit here is designed just to save people the embarrassment of committing the Fallacy of Division. Of course they also have a more serious purpose than that – they want to prevent the drawing of consequences from their work that would fuel racism, sexism or other -isms that involve injustice. But all this seems to have gone over the heads of Baer and the snowflakes he encourages.

Or has it? Look at another passage where he rings changes on the same the theme: “When a visitor to the physics department argues that women are by nature not equipped for high-level science, it changes the educational space in unacceptable ways. Female students, faculty and staff … are now placed in the position of having to prove that they are not inferior in the way the speaker describes, even when they reject that position outright.” (43) Now, given the linguistic reform that allows ‘they’ to refer to either an individual or a group, and Baer’s ignoring the grammatical stricture not to have two possible referents in the beginning of a sentence, his meaning is not entirely clear: does that pronoun refer to the speaker who refers to women in general but is denying that it refers to the group being addressed, or to the women in the group who are denying the speaker’s position outright? The latter interpretation makes no sense. Why would a woman have to prove that she is not inferior when that position follows from her denial of the claim that women in general are inferior? The latter claim may require proof, but that is a separate issue.

So it is more charitable to Baer to treat his claim as being about the former, which would suggest that he is aware that academics who talk about group differences, and the extent to which they are genetically determined, do maintain that the findings they cite do not warrant any inferences to claims about individuals. It’s just that he doesn’t follow the basic statistical reasonings for why they maintain this.

It might be maintained that I myself am committing a basic fallacy, that of straw man. That fallacy is committed when one attributes to someone else a position the latter does not hold, with the intention of making it easier to refute their original position. And of the people I mentioned above, Murray, Pinker, Sommers, Kimura and Peterson, only the first two are mentioned in Baer’s book. And Murray is mentioned only three times and Pinker twice. However, it is how they are mentioned that is crucial. For example, consider one of the references to Murray: “The recent student demonstrations at Auburn against Spencer’s visit – as well as protests on other campuses against Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others – should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.” (94) Baer lumps Murray in with an avowed neo-Nazi, Richard Spencer, and an avowed rabble-rouser, Milo Yiannopoulos. In other words, he is engaging in the fallacy of Guilt by Association. But he doesn’t see it that way, as I’ll show in a moment.

Baer has a second line of defence of snowflakes’ attempts to shut down the speech with which they disagree. It involves his conception of the university’s mission to seek the truth: “The university’s mission is to teach students, often through the vigorous debate of a great range of viewpoints, and to conduct research that advances knowledge via open intellectual exchange. In practice, this means the testing of old ideas, the presentation of new ones, and the open-ended exploration of entirely novel questions based on verifiable evidence. … The aim is to establish the truth, not as a matter of blind faith in a given hypothesis, but via a consensus of experts in a relevant community who have studied an issue in depth.” (11)

So far this doesn’t look too bad, especially his use of the “open intellectual exchange” and “open ended exploration” phrases. The trouble is with “the consensus of experts” part. The main point is that Baer is a postmodernist through and through – the philosophers and writers he cites throughout the book come from the pantheon of postmodernism: Foucault, Delgado, Fish, Crenshaw and MacKinnon, to name the big ones. Thus, when he says above that the university’s aim is to seek the truth, he doesn’t mean that it should be seeking anything objective or having to do with facts, although in several places he sounds as if he might be. He defends the postmodernist line that truth makes no sense unless one understands its connection with power and those who wield it. So now the “consensus of experts” part: “Once the truth has been established by considering the evidence, it becomes a paradigm that guides further research, both as a methodology and as an implicit set of accepted ideas. Often skeptics remain.... But at some point, the community of experts has accepted some facts as settled opinion, and moves on to discover new things within this paradigm. Skeptics are largely ignored in serious academic debate, since to discuss their denial of proven facts does not advance knowledge.” (12)

In a nutshell, the difference between what most of us think of as academic debate and Baer’s postmodern view is this: Whereas the former group thinks of academic debate as the best tool we have to get closer and closer to the truth, which is independent from us, Baer thinks that the consensus reached in an academic debate is the truth. So, of course, it makes sense to him that, once the consensus (the truth) is reached, allowing skeptics, or those with different views, to speak is nothing but a pernicious waste of time. Hence snowflakes are pursuing the truth by shouting certain speakers down.

Now, one last detail is necessary to understand Baer’s defense of snowflakes. Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate (2016), extensively catalogues the extent to which the members of the ‘woke’ segments of the university, to which Baer belongs, have made themselves willfully blind to any scientific research that either establishes group differences between races, sexes or genders, or offers an explanation of them which involves genes. Worse, they simply assume that these studies have been refuted by competent researchers, without actually citing any. In this group the consensus (hence the truth) is that such explanations are as far from the truth as anything shouted by a Nazi, neo-Nazi or Fascist on a street corner. Now, it wouldn’t be seemly for a middle-aged professor such as Baer to jump up and down and shout “Nazi” at Charles Murray, but an 18-year-old doing so doesn’t seem so outlandish. So Baer needs to support the snowflakes. They are the ones in the forefront of policing the academy, keeping out evil and false views.