Tag Archives: Geoffrey Miller

Who Is at Risk? Neurodiversity and Free Speech


Laurie and Debbie say:

Geoffrey Miller, writing at Quillette, offers “The Neurodiversity Case for Free Speech,” which is perhaps better characterized as the Oversimplified Neurodiversity Case for Protecting White Men.

Neurodiversity is an extremely important issue. Miller is writing primarily about universities, places where conditions such as autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia syndrome disorders and other conditions mentioned by Miller are insufficiently addressed.

Neurodiversity is a major issue, and very under-examined and under-respected. Universities, like most other institutions, have extraordinary work to improve conditions in classrooms, in grading structures, in application and acceptance processes, in graduation standards, and many other places.

Miller, however, is focused on none of these things. He doesn’t want universities to be a place where people he is calling neurodiverse learn better, or are more welcome, or have accommodations made for their specific needs. He only wants his group of neurodiverse people to have what he blithely calls “free speech,” which means the right to insult anyone at any time and get a pass because they are neurodiverse. Real free speech also considers who is being silenced, not just who is allowed to say everything they want to say. It’s no accident that nowhere in Miller’s long article does he even consider the possibility that a person could be neurodiverse and dark-skinned, or neurodiverse and physically disabled. In his list of important and famous people whom he chooses to label as neurodiverse, he mentions four women out of about thirty people (two of them long dead), and no people of color.

Once he tips the scales so that neurodiversity is a problem that belongs to people who are all white and mostly male, he then skews things further by claiming that campus speech codes cause harm, while never acknowledging for an instant that they also prevent harm. He offers a long list of conditions that might make people insensitive, rude, or even hostile, while never acknowledging that the very same conditions can make other people timid, fearful, and easily hurt. If one person’s difficulty in avoiding insensitive speech tramples on that person’s freedom, why doesn’t another person’s strong reaction to hearing insensitive speech also deserve concern?

Our friend Guy Thomas, long-time disabled activist, says “Some people need service dogs; some people are allergic to dogs.” So you can’t make a space where everyone is comfortable and safe all the time. Instead, the intention behind the creation of formal speech codes is the search for compromises, middle grounds, ways to encourage discourse among all of us with our gloriously diverse styles, abilities, and limitations: yes, campus speech codes may make some people with some brain styles uncomfortable, while they are also making others comfortable for the first time in their lives.

Of course, white men are the people who are most accustomed to comfort, to having things their way, to having the world made for them. Miller makes the dubious claim that “formal speech codes at American universities were also written by and for the [allegedly] ‘neurotypical,'” especially dubious because he continually claims that universities attract neurodiverse people in high numbers.

What’s wrong with this formulation?  Formal speech codes were written by a newly diverse university leadership, with more women, more people of color, probably more neurodiverse people, and more people from other marginalized groups than universities have historically seen. Thus, they are among the first such codes written with attention to other factors than the comfort and safety of white men. Also, universities do not attract neurodiverse people in higher numbers than anywhere else; neurodiverse people are everywhere, doing everything. Universities, rather, have in the fairly recent past been a place where eccentric white men, neurodiverse or not, could get more of a pass than they could in other places.

We can get much more specific.

  • Isaac Newton, to whom Miller devotes his first few paragraphs, was known to be rude and condescending, but his ideas which Miller describes as “eccentric” were not uncommon for his time and place. He hid and obscured those ideas because otherwise he would have been burned as a heretic; universities at that time were not sanctuaries for eccentric ideas.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder is something that happens to people as they live their lives, and does not fit well under the label of neurodiversity, unless (as Miller does) you just want a laundry list of reasons people might not be good at obeying formal speech codes.
  • Miller says:

“Censorship kills creativity, truth, and progress in obvious ways. Without the free exchange of ideas, people can’t share risky new ideas (creativity), test them against other people’s logic and facts (truth), or compile them into civilizational advances (progress). But censorship also kills rational culture in a less obvious way: it silences the eccentric.”

In Newton’s day they didn’t silence you, they killed you. Perhaps more to the point, believing that you will be called names, patronized, and/or attacked every time you open your mouth also  “kills rational culture.”

The article is bursting with similar errors, poking out through Miller’s more generalized inaccuracies and indefensible claims.

He left one out, though. He doesn’t talk at all about ISWMS: Insecure White Male Syndrome, a condition which formal speech codes at universities and elsewhere does threaten. Too bad.

Thanks to Lizzy Lynn for pointing out the article, and to Rich Dutcher for advice and input while we were writing.


Evolutionary Psychology Gets the Thrashing It Deserves

Debbie says:

Before I start this post on an almost completely unrelated topic, I just want to say briefly that I wish I had the superpowers to protect all the young black men who are at newly-empowered risk of vigilante violence. Justice has not been served, racism is alive and well, and there is almost nothing good about the verdict or the process that got to the verdict.  I’ll stop there, because I don’t have anything original or fresh to say.

So, on to the latest evolutionary psychology jackass:


Geoffrey Miller apparently knows everything.  He’s gotten a lot of attention (not much of it positive) for his early June tweet in which he said, “Dear PhD Student: If you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation.”

If I started naming fat PhD’s whom I know personally, this would be a long blog.

Miller’s asshole tweet did some good: it was at least one jumping-off point for this informational, thoughtful, complex piece by David Berreby (which has more scientific complexities of obesity than I was aware of, and I’m well read in this area).

It also got Annalee Newitz at io9 to do a thorough, painstaking and deeply satisfying takedown of Miller’s other evo-psych idiocies, which include:

He deleted the fat-shaming tweet and claimed it wasn’t his opinion, just part of his research. But it’s irrelevant to his research. His department chair says: “”[Miller] claims that he’s been sending out provocative tweets over a number of months now to measure people’s reactions to them, and so we’ll be investigating that.”

A tenured professor at the University of New Mexico, Miller apparently thought he was contributing DNA to a “Japanese eugenics project,” and didn’t understand the difference between a research study and a eugenics project. (If you don’t, there’s no shame in that, unless you have a doctorate in the sciences: eugenics is an actual attempt to change a population–usually a human population–by breeding, culling, or otherwise changing the genetic makeup of the group. Research studies on intelligence can lead to eugenics initiatives, but they certainly don’t have to.)

He also got a lot of attention in 2007, by publishing one of those tiny-source evo-psych studies that Laurie and I love to make fun of, this one claiming that lap dancers get better tips when they are ovulating.

At the end of her article, Newitz makes a quick reference to the direct line between evo-psych baloney and the pick-up artist culture I wrote about here.

In both groups, the common sense belief is that sexuality is based on a very old game that isn’t terribly different from clubbing women on the head and dragging them back to an anthropologically inaccurate cave. Other kinds of human relationships aren’t much better.

She is, of course, correct, but it’s even worse than that. Evolutionary psychology is blanket permission to oversimplify anything down to the cartoon level, whether it is pick-up artistry, the relationship between weight and willpower, the changes in a woman’s body when she is ovulating, or the relationship of the butterfly’s wing flapping to the price of tea in China. And oversimplification to this degree allows anyone with a prejudice, a preconception, or even a wish that things were different see the world through their own black-and-white lens. It’s a free pass to lazy (at best) and vicious (at worst) excuses for real thought.

The shame is that men like Miller are tenured professors. I’m not on Twitter, but here’s my response:

“Dear Professor: If you don’t have the common sense to stop doing evo-psych, you don’t have the sense god gave a gerbil. Get another job.”

(Thanks to jae for the David Berreby link.)