Even for a critic of academia, scholarly values are worth defending.
In the half century of my academic career, I’ve repeatedly studied and exposed shortcomings in academic systems and behaviour. Problems include bias, misrepresentation, suppression of dissent, and unquestioning service to vested interests such as the military. This is not to mention bitter and destructive interpersonal and organisational politics. It is safe to say there are lots of negatives in academic life.
In recent years, though, I’ve come to a greater appreciation of scholarly values. These values include respect for evidence and arguments, willingness to address the views of others, and the freedom to investigate and speak out about sensitive topics.
Much of my research has been about public scientific controversies such as over nuclear power, pesticides and fluoridation. These provide a window into some of the most extreme behaviour by researchers, administrators and outside groups. However, it was only when I started studying the Australian vaccination debate that the importance of scholarly values really hit home. (This was years before Covid came on the scene.)
Ad hominem unlimited
Let’s start with respect for evidence and arguments. Scholars, ideally, engage with each other’s work by addressing, contesting and debating facts, methods, theories and perspectives. It is widely considered improper to openly criticise researchers as individuals. Behind the scenes, in private conversations, many researchers, including top ones, can be harshly critical of their opponents. Ian Mitroff in his classic book The Subjective Side of Science found that, in private, leading moon scientists would make derogatory comments about researchers with contrary views. However, personal attacks in the open literature are rare. Most scientific disputes are carried out in a seemingly respectful fashion.
Outside scholarly forums, things can be much rougher. In the Australian vaccination debate, personal slurs are commonplace on blogs, Facebook pages and in some mass media outlets. Enough people in the debate have been sufficiently nasty to degrade the tone and deter others from participating.
Although I engaged in the debate as a sociologist and defender of free speech, I became a regular target of ad hominem comments. Here’s a typical one: “I’d be embarrassed for a schoolkid that lazy or stupid. For a professional scholar, it’s gobsmacking. What a moron.”
I get a laugh out of comments like these but abuse is not always funny. Many prominent women commentators regularly receive threats of rape or murder. This is remote from scholarly decorum.
Many partisans in scientific controversies identify some mistake or shortcoming in the opponent’s case and seize on it, as if a single mistake or logical flaw invalidates the entire case. For example, pro-vaccination campaigners regularly refer to alleged fraud by British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, implying that this discredits all criticisms of vaccination. For serious scholars, using this sort of point-scoring technique should be an embarrassment. It would be like discrediting a social theory because a leading theorist allegedly plagiarised.
Presenting contrary arguments
In philosophy, it is common to carefully present the arguments supporting a contrary view, critically examine them and, if possible, demolish them in terms of logic and evidence. This approach can be applied in examining controversial and provocative topics, as in Aaron James’ book Assholes.
In many public controversies, this willingness to engage with the opponent’s arguments is sadly lacking. In the vaccination debate, each side presents evidence and arguments supporting its own position and attacking the opponent’s position. I am yet to discover a partisan on either side who presents the opponent’s argument in a fair fashion. The usual approach is to say, “Here are my strong points and there are your weak points,” with no acknowledgement of one’s own weak points or the opponent’s strong points.
There is a reason for this. In polarised controversies, making any admission of weakness may be seized upon by opponents and used relentlessly. Many campaigners never admit a weakness or a source of bias, instead focusing exclusively on the weaknesses and biases of the opponent. In contrast, a good scholar should be willing to acknowledge weaknesses and to be open about possible sources of bias, in what is called reflexivity.
Scholars like to imagine they can undertake investigations into controversial areas and be protected from adverse consequences. The reality is that few scholars ever tackle really sensitive topics, knowing it may be career suicide to challenge orthodoxy. Nevertheless, despite shortcomings in practice, freedom of inquiry remains a crucial academic value.
Threats to academic freedom have come both from outside vested interests, such as big business, and from university administrators. With the advent of social media, it is now easier to express displeasure with researchers and their work, and easier to mount campaigns against academics whose views are unwelcome.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, hurricane researcher Ivor van Heerden criticised the Army Corps of Engineers. He ended up losing his job at Louisiana State University.
Canadian political scientist Tom Flanagan, identified with the conservative side of politics, was attacked online by the circulation of an extract from a talk he gave, surreptitiously recorded and misleadingly labelled, to discredit him personally. As recounted in his lucid book Persona Non Grata, the campaign had a damaging effect on his work, while his university did little to defend him.
University administrations depend on their public reputations for recruiting high-quality staff and obtaining income via donations and student enrolments. As a result, they take a risk in standing up to campaigns against stigmatised scholars.
Scholarly values, another look
Having observed up close some online campaigns against dissident scholars, it seems to me that the rejection of scholarly values is less a betrayal than a disregard. In much political campaigning as well as in public scientific controversies, many members of the public are more concerned about winning by discrediting opponents than they are in having a rational conversation about an issue of social importance. Scholarly values can be boiled down to encouraging engagement on the basis of respectful interactions that address the issues. This means avoiding, when possible, making abusive comments, manipulating evidence and arguments, or trying to silence opponents.
Though the academic system has many shortcomings, I realise now that many of them are due to a failure to live up to the values of respectful engagement and freedom of expression that are widely given lip service. The degraded commentary in many online confrontations should serve as a reminder of the positive aspects of academic discourse.