Tweeting into a PC Storm: Geoffrey Miller and Obesity

Geoffrey Miller is a respected evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico. Miller made a mistake, but his big problem was that his mistake was very politically incorrect.

Miller tweeted: “Dear obese Ph.D. applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.”

In my view, this tweet was clearly improper. My guess is that self control over eating may be different than the discipline to complete academic work. But in any event, it was not an appropriate thing to say to Ph.D applicants.

The question, though, is how bad of a thing this tweet was, and what sanction, if any, it required. In my view, it was appropriate for the university to ask Miller to apologize and to promise not to take obesity into account when making admission decisions. If he did not cooperate with these sanctions, then perhaps additional matters would be appropriate.

But nothing so reasonable happened to Miller. He apologized and that should have been the end of it:

My sincere apologies to all for that idiotic, impulsive, and badly judged tweet. It does not reflect my true views, values, or standards. Obviously my previous tweet does not represent the selection policies of any university, or my own selection criteria.

But the PC police went into gear and now the University has issued its discipline, requiring Miller to:

Not serve on any committee involving the admission of graduate students to the psychology department for the duration of his time as a faculty member at the university.

Work with the faculty co-advisers of the psychology department’s diversity organization to develop a plan for sensitivity training on obesity (for himself to undergo, said a university spokeswoman). The plan must be approved by a co-adviser or by the chair of the department.

Be assigned a faculty mentor for three years with whom he will meet on a regular basis to discuss potential problems.

Have his work monitored by the chair of the department.

Apologize to the department and his colleagues for his behavior.

In my view, what is going on here is an attempt to send a signal to other people that they must abide by PC criteria or else their life is going to be hell. It is an attempt to exercise power. The PC groups that got involved know they have power and plan to use it. (Part of what got this PC train going was a bunch of feminist blogs, which went after Miller.)

But the exercise of power is a double edged sword. Inappropriate exercises create resentment and backlash, and that has only been growing. Whether its growth is quick and large enough to create a significant backlash, only time will tell. But there is already something of a backlash against such excessiveness.

To see the PC inconsistency, imagine if Miller’s tweet had involved other groups less within the PC umbrella – say something similar about smokers.  Would it have resulted in the same reaction from the psychology? My guess is, no. There are academics out there who blog and tweet incredibly insulting and disparaging things about conservatives and libertarians, yet no one suggests that they should be disciplined. Perhaps conservatives and libertarians should. If you don’t stand up for your rights, no one will.  And if they did, the PC groups might find themselves getting disciplined and might find it harder to seek such excessive discipline in other cases.