A Rebuttal to some CS Academics’ “Free Speech” Open Letter to the ACM

There is a “free speech” petition circulating right now in my academic community. I feel that simply not signing it is insufficient; here I want to explain why I am not signing as an argument to others that they should not sign either.

I respect many of the signatories as brilliant academics. And count some of them as friends. I even agree with most of the petition taken literally or “in theory” (bar one crucial problem I’ll mention below). However, I strongly disagree with the practical implications of the message in the context of today’s discourse.

I’ll start with the meat of the petition, three bullet points I’ll quote here:

1. Scientific work should be judged on the basis of scientific merit, independent of the researcher’s identity or personal views,

2. Discussion and debate in the scientific community must be free of prior restraint as to topic or viewpoint, and

3. No individual should suffer harassment or attack based on their personal or political views, religion, nationality, race, gender, or sexual orientation.

On first reading, all three of the statements seem innocuous, even admirable articulations of the need to treat all people equally and permit free speech. Indeed, yesterday I posted that I agreed with the first two bullets and only differed on the third. But reflecting further, the blanket nature of all these bullets covers far too much.

Let’s start with bullet 1, “scientific work should be judged on its merits, independent of the researcher’s identity or personal views.” This is absolutely true but is also not in need of defense. This principle is why our conferences use blind peer review: when we review scientific work, we don’t know who the authors are, which forces us to judge the work entirely on its merits. So, if this problem is solved, why does the petition raise it? I can imagine two likely interpretations, both of which I reject.

First, the petition may be addressing situations (faced by some petition authors) where a respected scientist makes statements that harm others and therefore attract opprobrium from the community. But this is a judgment of the scientist, not the science, and so bullet 1 is irrelevant.

Second, the petition may be addressing controversies like the recent one where Nature Communications published a work claiming negative effects of mentorship by female scientists that attracted a tremendous amount of negative attention and was ultimately retracted by the authors. But bullet 1 is irrelevant here as well. Although attention was drawn to the work by people who disliked its social implications, the retraction was due to a realization that the science in the paper was flawed. That flawed science made it past peer review, a failing of the system. One could argue that it’s somehow unfair that this paper was subjected to more careful scientific review, but it certainly was the science, not the “personal views of the authors” that led to the revised judgment to retract.

To give the petition the best possible light, let me raise one other possibility where bullet 1 might be relevant, at least in theory. Suppose that some scientist is continuing to do great work but has for example stated publicly that a certain race or gender is inferior. Suppose this individual submits their great work to a conference. Should the conference refuse to judge that work? I could see that as going too far. But I think it would be perfectly appropriate for the conference to accept the work but deny the scientist the opportunity to attend the conference to present it. Let some proxy come to make the presentation. Preventing attendance by such an individual would be a reflection of our desire to support and respect the feelings of the maligned group, not a judgment of the science. If the scientist were uncomfortable with a proxy presentation, they could still post their work on Arxiv, and scientists would have, and I am sure would fulfill, an obligation to cite it *regardless* of the author’s personal views.

This last example points at the last subtext of bullet 1 that I want to reject: that when science is good, it is our obligation to respect or admire or fete that scientist who did the work. That’s just not true. If the person who did the great science is a jerk, I can say so. I can call them out for it. I can shun them. None of that judges the science.

I turn to bullet 2, “Discussion and debate in the scientific community must be free of prior restraint as to topic or viewpoint.” Again, taken literally this statement is vacuously satisfied. There is no prior restraint, as there is nothing that can stop me from saying whatever I want in my academic community, posting whatever I want on Facebook, or writing whatever I want in a conference or journal submission. So to understand this bullet we have to broaden the interpretation.

One possible interpretation goes back to what I already discussed and dismissed with bullet 1: confusing rejection of the scientist with rejection of the science. Another is that the authors are attacking statements that warn that certain kinds of submissions will be rejected. For example, the NSF states that proposals submitted without a “broader impact statement” discussing the effect of the research on society will be rejected. Similarly, the NeurIPS conference has begun requiring a statement in each paper about potential broader impacts including ethical aspects. Of course these don’t literally restrain my discussion, but it does tell me certain kinds won’t be accepted or published. But there’s nothing new about that: every call for papers describes the subject matter they are looking for, with the implicit guidance that papers about other subject matter will be rejected. That’s a pretty clear “prior restraint as to topic.” So there’s some fatal ambiguity in this bullet, where the authors are failing to explain what kinds of prior restraint they consider acceptable.

I turn finally to bullet 3, “No individual should suffer harassment or attack based on their personal or political views, religion, nationality, race, gender, or sexual orientation.” Again on first reading this seems an admirable defense of equality. But there’s one injection that makes me completely reject this statement as given: “attack based on personal or political views.”

I cannot think of any circumstance in which it would be appropriate to attack someone based on religion, nationality, race, gender, or sexual orientation. These are innate, uncontrollable individual characteristics whose diversity we should always treasure or at minimum accept. And harassment, at least in its current incarnation on the internet, is explicitly seeking to harm an individual much as physical violence would be, and should be rejected in the same circumstances (i.e., almost always).

But agreeing with all these aspects still leaves “attack based on personal or political views” and I strongly approve of this activity in the right circumstances. If someone declares that a certain group is inferior, I want that “personal or political view” to be “attacked”. Indeed, this petition is doing that — -attacking those who would violate the bullets. Obviously, such attacks should not be ad hominem — -they should attack the individual on the grounds of the views they hold, not because they are short or smell bad or whatever. But an attack is justified. So I firmly reject bullet 3 as written.

Now I want to broaden the context. Why was this petition drafted? I know that several of the signatories have faced significant backlash for some of their statements. So I have to suspect that the impetus for this petition is, in the end, a desire to prevent those kinds of backlashes. I can’t support that. I consider some of that backlash justified and some of it unjustified. But overall, I support the increased pushback over speech that is occurring in our field.

Those of us who work in information retrieval, or scientific experimentation more broadly, understand the concept of false positives and false negatives in detection. If you’re have a test for something like a positive Covid infection, that test might sometimes fail to detect an infection — -that’s a false negative — -and may sometimes declare an infection that doesn’t exist — -that’s a false positive. Such errors are generally unavoidable, since no science is perfect. But, you can often trade off one for the other by shifting the “sensitivity threshold” of your test. If you make the test more positive, you’ll detect more Covid infections — -some real (you’re reducing false negatives) and some imagined (you’re increasing false positives). If you make it less sensitive, you’ll do the reverse, decreasing false positives at the cost of more false negatives. You have to decide on the relative “cost” of false positives (making someone quarantine unnecessarily) versus false negatives (infecting more people with Covid) to decide where to put the threshold.

We face a similar situation with racism, sexism, and other isms. For a long time, we ignored them. Our detection threshold was way too low, and people offended with impunity. We had a huge amount of false negatives, failures to detect isms when they were on display. One of the strongest justifications for our failure to respond was “innocent until proven guilty”, declaring that there was some ambiguity in the offense, that we couldn’t be sure it was racism, that there are other interpretations. In other words, we refused to tolerate any false positives at all.

Imagine if we applied this rule to Covid, saying we can’t quarantine anyone, because it would be simply unfair to force anyone uninfected to quarantine. Forcing such a quarantine might be unfair at the individual level, but it’s the right choice to benefit society.

The same holds true for the isms. Our rejection of false positives, our refusal to push back on ambiguous isms, has directed all the damage at specific groups in our community, such as minorities and women. That is unfair at a huge scale. The shift we’re seeing now, being more sensitive to these isms when we see them, is a significant improvement, a way to shift some of the burden of those false negatives off of these historically targeted groups. It comes at a cost: those of us (like me) who have historically been untouchable *and* given the benefit of the doubt are suddenly being hit by false positives — -we didn’t mean it, but they’re coming after us anyway. But at least some amount of that cost is worth bearing. A system with no false positives, only false negatives, is not an optimally configured system. We have to balance out the impact of our imperfect assessments, making sure that everyone shoulders a part of the burden.

Professor of Computer Science at MIT CSAIL

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store