According to the Burlington Free Press, bit-actor and intelligent design enthusiast Ben Stein will no longer be serving as this year's University of Vermont commencement speaker. The offer was withdrawn by University president Dan Fogel, apparently after the decision touched off a firestorm of critical emails from people objecting to Stein's take on evolution. Somehow, Fogel managed to miss Stein's views on the subject, which he elucidated in the movie Expelled, complete with histrionic Darwin-caused-the-Holocaust metaphors. (Stein contends that "Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people," which is surely news to everyone who participated in the Crusades.)
Stein was originally tapped by the University of Vermont because of his participation in a successful lecture series on the economy. "It was on the basis of that experience," Fogel says, "that I extended him an invitation to be our commencement speaker." That is, in itself, a little laughable, as anyone who's seen this video, in which Stein makes an apperarance, farcically getting the economy as about as wrong as you can get, can tell you:
One way of looking at the decision to put the kibosh on Stein's commencement address is that it's struck a blow for reason, and academia, and evolutionary science. To that I say: don't be such a whinging idiot. Reason was not literally at risk in the decision to tap Stein as a commencement speaker. If anything, the strength of reason as a competing argument to Stein's pseudoscientific drivel is at risk now. Ultimately, this move will rebound to the detriment of the University of Vermont, and no one who cares about science will remember this by next week.
See, Stein is part of this coterie of conservative pundits that have declared war on academia on the grounds that they stifle the views of movement conservatives. I hesitate to say that their point of view has gained the upper hand, but I'd remind you that we live in a media world in which Dr. Sciencey McKnowsalot can go on the typical cable news pundit show to make a case for the moon not being made of green cheese, only to have the anchor pull out and tell the audience, "Yet some say that the moon is made of Havarti, and is mined by aggressively sexual space cows. The debate continues."
You can see the concern about being labelled as a censor of conservative thought all over the way in which Fogel is dispensing the news:
"I did not ask him not to come," Fogel said in an interview Monday, adding, "I was not going to let him be blindsided by controversy.
"I hugely regret I didn't anticipate the intensity of the concerns," Fogel said. He stressed that the issue is not one of academic freedom, or of Stein's right to offer his controversial opinions on campus, but rather whether someone who holds views antithetical to scientific inquiry should be honored as commencement speaker.
At the risk of sounding like a complete radical, here's my idea: why not let infotainers like Ben Stein come to your college and wish your graduates well, confident in the knowledge that if he breaks off into some nutlog jag about his booga-booga-foo-foo quasi-science beliefs, it's not going to result in the complete invalidation of the science your professors taught, or widespread torch-burning chaos on campus. To the contrary, it might...I don't know...send a message that as an institution, you are confident enough in your argument that setting it alongside a competing argument doesn't frighten you. It may demonstrate that institutionally, you can face opposing contentions and confidently repeat Shakespeare's words, "There is no terror...in your threats, for I am arm'd so strong in honesty, that they pass by me as the idle wind, which I respect not."
It's called: "having balls." Anyway, it's a commencement address. Will Ferrell will probably give a few of them this spring, and it's not like they'll be peer reviewed by the Lancet, either.