Dr. Deonandan Lives!

To the left is a photo of me giving my big Indian Arrival Day speech in Trinidad. There are other pics from the event, courtesy of TriniView. (For the truly voyeurish, here’s a pic of me and some of the dignitaries in the audience.)

It is rare that a blog post rises to the level of prose poetry, especially when its topic is something as arcane and inaccessible as “missing data”. But I want to congratulate Nasty Nick for his recent missive about statisticians dealing with missing data within datafiles. Yes, it’s a niche market, but it’s a remarkably well written post.

But this blog is all about me and my take on things. So let’s talk about something that’s not big in the news yet: Ryerson University’s conferring upon Margaret Somerville an honourary degree for her work in ethics. The problem is that Somerville is known to most non-ethicists primarily for her philosophical arguments in opposition to same-sex marriage. Thus, many see a fundamental problem with honouring a person who would hold such views. It seems that at the ceremony, several professors on stage with Somerville, turned their backs to her and some held up placards denouncing her.

This is a tough one. On the one hand, it is not unreasonable to expect one’s institution to embrace some core values that have been agreed upon, and then to see those values reflected in the selection of appropriate recipients of honourary degrees. On the other hand, it is my understanding that Somerville is receiving the degree for her life’s body of work in her field; is it right for us to deny the quality of that work simply because she espouses a view that many hold to be heretical?

Personally, of course, I am not against gay marriage. I phrase my position thusly with intention. It is my belief that marriage is a matter for individuals, families and small communities to recognize; it should have nothing to do with governments and the law. But as a great believer in intellectual freedom, I feel that Dr Somerville is entitled to whatever view she chooses, even if it conflicts with my own; moreso if she can support it with reasoned debate, as she clearly can. All of this is, of course, moot to the matter of apropriateness.

What is useful, though, is to look at the case of Henry Morgentaler, who recently received an honourary degree from the University of Western Ontario for his pioneering work in making abortions accessible across Canada. Many of the same people who are presently defending Dr Somerville are those who decried the honouring of Morgentaler; and, conversely, Somerville’s present protesters overlap with Morgentaler’s defenders. So, as one online commenter put it, there’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around.

None of this helps us to understand what constitutes an apropriate choice for the University. So in my naive, idealistic way, I suggest this: that it is okay for a person to be honoured for the good work that he or she has done, even if he or she has also done some work that we might find offensive. We should all strive to accentuate the positive, no?

I leave you with some interesting news. A friend is a screenwriter on the Canadian TV show, ReGenesis, which deals with smart, goodlooking people trying to contain bioterror disease outbreaks. As an epidemiologist, I’ve given my friend some content advice. My reward is that the show’s sexy new female epidemiologist will be named… Dr. Deonandan. The producers might still veto the name, but until then I will bask in my name’s celluloid immortality.