Imagine a young Isaac Newton

Imagine a young Isaac Newton time-travelling from 1670s England to teach Harvard undergrads in 2017. After the time-jump, Newton still has an obsessive, paranoid personality, with Asperger’s syndrome, a bad stutter, unstable moods, and episodes of psychotic mania and depression. But now he’s subject to Harvard’s speech codes that prohibit any “disrespect for the dignity of others”; any violations will get him in trouble with Harvard’s Inquisition (the ‘Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion’). Newton also wants to publish Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, to explain the laws of motion governing the universe. But his literary agent explains that he can’t get a decent book deal until Newton builds his ‘author platform’ to include at least 20k Twitter followers – without provoking any backlash for airing his eccentric views on ancient Greek alchemy, Biblical cryptography, fiat currency, Jewish mysticism, or how to predict the exact date of the Apocalypse.

Newton wouldn’t last long as a ‘public intellectual’ in modern American culture. Sooner or later, he would say ‘offensive’ things that get reported to Harvard and that get picked up by mainstream media as moral-outrage clickbait. His eccentric, ornery awkwardness would lead to swift expulsion from academia, social media, and publishing. Result? On the upside, he’d drive some traffic through Huffpost, Buzzfeed, and Jezebel, and people would have a fresh controversy to virtue-signal about on Facebook. On the downside, we wouldn’t have Newton’s Laws of Motion.

Geoffrey Miller

4 thoughts on “Imagine a young Isaac Newton”

  1. I respectfully — no, not too respectfully, but this is a family-friendly forum* — suggest that one consider the source’s academic predispositions and the lack of verifiable evidence supporting the source’s opinion before going too far down the partisan path this particular source would prefer one follow. (See? I know how to play the “academic insult” game, too!)

    Which is not to say that the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion doesn’t get a little bit irrational at times. It is, however, to say that virtually no academic publisher — that is, the actual target — gives a plague-infested rat’s nether regions (snark: look at the OP’s academic affiliation) about antisocial-media platforms, particularly for works in STEM like Principia Mathematica.** That vague muttering you’re hearing about how typical it is for evolutionary psychologists to wrench what little evidence they have from a dubious context to a wholly inapplicable one is just a coincidence.

    * For some value of “family” obviously not including the Addams Family.

    ** N.B. I’ve been a referee for peer-reviewed publications, both article- and book-length, from a certain well-known academic press about 80km west of Big Ben since the early oughts, and inside a lot more academic-publishing efforts than that (extending back to the 1980s and up to the present). The academic press — not even for trade-crossover material, or mixed-purpose presses like Beacon — doesn’t care much about “platform” at acquisition time (only for marketing), and especially not in STEM. And this is especially so for tenure- and promotion-oriented material like Principia Mathematica. Because this remains a family-friendly forum not of my own, I will refrain from substituting the OP’s source into Dan Ayckroyd’s 1970s response to Jane Curtin’s “Weekend Update” commentaries on SNL in response to the OP’s source’s apparent ignorance… or, more likely, unjustified association of his own field with STEM.

    • C.E., the OP’s point was that Newton, with his ideas on matters other than physics, and his inability to conceal them, would not last long enough in his position to publish anything. (Actually, in the current university environment, he would not last long enough to gain the needed credentials in the first place.)

      A belief that a river is not polluted will not save you from serious consequences if you drink from it’s waters.

      • The OP appears based on less knowledge about STEM faculty, and the latitude afforded STEM faculty and prospective faculty so long as they prove they can get grant money (and Newton’s history showed he could “get grants”), than it does about academic publishing. Consider, for example, James Watson (his “problematic views” were known in the medical-research community by the early 1980s).

        More to the point, though, the “outside views” issue has always been a problem. Watson’s coauthor Francis Crick was denied a Professorship (in US usage, “endowed chair”) largely because Crick was public about his atheism and disdain for organized religion — something that was Just Not Cricket in the 1950s and 1960s. The number of potential faculty members who protested against Vietnam and never saw the inside of a classroom again is another example. The undercurrent of the OP is that the current “external views” issue is both a new and unique phenomenon, while simultaneously ignoring the OP’s author’s… personal encounter… with the consequences of being an insensitive jerk making overbroad statements.

        The OP is a disturbingly “proficient” example of the inductive fallacy — even more so than is most legal reasoning where it intersects with the sciences.

        • FWIW, my takeaway wasn’t about the dead horse of cancel culture (no value in beating it) but about how weird Newton was, by current standards. He was a creature of his times as *all* historical figures were. By extension, and more relevant to me at least, is that future times will look upon us with at least as much disdain as presentists do to the past. The future will be as alien as the past.

          Social fads aside, I expect the 22nd will snicker at mentions of dark energy/dark matter as much as we eyeroll at mentions of phlogiston. On the other hand, Lamarck’s ghost may yet get the last laugh.

          Presentism is a set of blinders that must be constantly accounted for: we are all prisoners of our times and microenvironment, as much as Newton or Colombo.

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