A related news article is available here.
Tag Archives: academic freedom
An article in The Washington Post by Dale Carpenter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota (UM) specializing in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, reports that a faculty committee at his university (Carpenter’s a member) has approved by a 7-2 vote a strong and virtually uncompromising free-speech policy. Now this is just a committee vote, but it’s an important committee, and I expect its recommendations will be approved by UM.
I can’t help but think that the statement is modeled after the University of Chicago’s own policy, adopted in 2014 and also uncompromising. The UM statement makes four points; each is longer than I reproduce but I’ll just list the main points with a few words of my own. First, though, the introduction:
University of Minnesota Board of Regents policy guarantees the freedom “to speak or write as a public citizen without institutional restraint or discipline.” The…
View original post 1,329 more words
The recent news is that Richard Dawkins was un-invited from the NECSS conference because of a tweet he sent that many found offensive. Of course it caused all sorts of uproars and divisions. Sigh… how tiresome; and at a time when there is real work to be done.
I was reminded of this short SkepticBlog post I wrote way back in 2009, another time I found myself frustrated with those supposed friends of science communication who seem to place a higher priority on finding things wrong with their allies.
Diversity has value only when it’s real diversity, and that means diversity of opinion in addition to ethnic or gender diversity. Many self-declared “champions of diversity” would do well to actually practice what they preach.
Are You Paddling, or Just Dragging?
They say you need a thick skin if you want to put yourself out there as a science communicator promoting critical thinking. And, it’s true: Trust me, I know. But that thick skin is not necessarily needed to fend off promoters of pseudoscience; just as often, you need it for public attacks launched by those who purport to be your allies.
Recently someone with a skeptical blog wrote an article criticizing me for two different things (both of which were wrong, incidentally; obviously this person didn’t care to check). I didn’t know the person, and browsed around on the blog for a few minutes. It was a generally skeptical blog, but all too often, it seemed the blogger was less interested in attacking the charlatans than in stroking their own ego by going after just about every prominent skeptic: “I’m smart because Novella, Randi, Shermer, Plait, Nickell, Klass, Radford, Dunning, (the list goes on), are wrong.”
I liken the drivers of the critical thinking movement to paddlers in a giant canoe. Some are more influential and paddle hard, others less so. But we’re all paddling. Every little bit helps. We’re paddling because what we’re doing is important and we believe in it. I welcome everyone who comes aboard to help, no matter the size of their paddle.
So it’s frustrating for me when I see people who represent themselves as paddlers, but really all they’re doing is disparaging those who actually do paddle. Oh, occasionally they may stick their paddle into the water and steer or give a little push or two, but every time they stop to lambaste the contributors, they’re dead weight; and when they shout to other boats what horrible paddlers their shipmates are, they are actively counterproductive.
One of our fellow Skeptologists here on SkepticBlog is renowned for his Libertarian politics, and frequently criticized for mixing that into his science communication. Similarly, another is renowned for his Democratic politics, and frequently criticized for mixing that into his science communication. What their critics fail to recognize is that even though one is paddling on the left side of the boat, and the other is paddling on the right side of the boat, both are paddling like hell and have done far more to advance public awareness of science and critical thinking than their critics. They are close allies and work together frequently. Take note that they do not derail their own cause by turning their attentions inward and infighting with one another.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be open to internal criticism of the way we do what we do. We have to be, and we are. But unless you’re trying to communicate to the world that skepticism is falling apart, you don’t trumpet your criticism to the world in your blog, you pick up the phone and make your suggestions appropriately. I had a huge problem with something that happened at The Amazing Meeting 7. I didn’t podcast or blog to the world that TAM is all fucked up; I communicated my concerns in private to the appropriate person. Guess what, my concerns were welcomed, and I also discovered that I didn’t know the whole story. How about that for a shocker? And the world still knows what I want them to know: That I think TAM is an incredibly positive event. We’re still paddling in step.
I invite every skeptical blogger, podcaster, or communicator to stop and consider what it is they’re trying to accomplish. Do you really have no better targets to go after than your best allies? If you feel that I or anyone else have done something counterproductive to science education, you’ll probably find that we welcome your comments if you present them appropriately. If you’re just out there trying to shout “Look how smart I am”, well, we don’t have time for you; but we’ll make time if you want to pick up a paddle and climb on board.
Reblogged from Skeptoid.
Joanna Williams, University of Kent
Recent months have witnessed a great deal of public hand-wringing over the antics of students seeking to turn higher education into an intellectual and emotional safe space. A vocal minority of students have called for the removal from universities of sombreros, comedians, pop songs and tabloid newspapers. They have petitioned to get speakers, including most notably Germaine Greer, no-platformed and debates cancelled.
The desire to censor spreads beyond the contemporary, too. Oxford University’s Rhodes Must Fall campaign demonstrates the desire of some of the most privileged students in England to see themselves as victims of history and oppressed by its inanimate representation in the present.
The significance of academic freedom reaches beyond any individual student-led campaign to ban a poster or costume event: it is central to the advance of knowledge. Education, as opposed to indoctrination, requires people to have the freedom to test out new ideas and question existing orthodoxies. Throughout history, every major intellectual breakthrough has inevitably involved upsetting those whose entrenched beliefs finally have been scrutinised.
More than a century ago, scientists who made the case for evolution upset institutional benefactors and colleagues who maintained a belief in creationism. The university that is a safe space is no longer concerned with education. For this reason, preventing offence is the very worst justification for curtailing free speech on campus.
Students at the forefront of campaigns to deny platforms to various speakers and stop the sale of newspapers of which they disapprove deserve to be challenged for the threat they pose to academic freedom. Yet such criticism that exists most frequently comes from outside, rather than from within, higher education. As a result, universities appear quietly to condone censorship.
Many academics are, quite rightly, quick to point out the restrictions on academic freedom brought about by the government’s anti-terrorism legislation. The Prevent strategy places an onus on universities to stop radicalisation through increased monitoring of speakers, students and even reading material. While such policies must indeed be vigorously countered, it needs to be recognised that they pose neither the only, nor the biggest, threat to academic freedom today.
There are many reasons why academics might be reluctant to challenge students who demand trigger warnings for course content, the right to veto guest speakers and the removal of statues. In a marketised higher education sector where customer satisfaction is pre-eminent there will always be a temptation to flatter and appease, rather than challenge, students.
Furthermore, some academics argue that student censorship is simply none of their business and that a students’ union should be free to enforce whatever rules it likes. All too often this can mean that a handful of students, voted into office by a tiny minority of the student body, can be given the power to dictate what the vast majority can see, read or hear.
Often it is the case that academics do not challenge student censors because they support their cause. They share the view that students are vulnerable and need to be protected from potentially triggering material. They are equally convinced about the power of statues and pictures to inflict emotional violence, objectify and oppress. They share, and indeed teach, the view that words and images are all-powerful in constructing reality.
Such academics act out the idea that censorship is the best way to deal with ideas they find unpleasant. It wasn’t students but fellow academics whose persecution of the Nobel prize-winning scientist Tim Hunt led ultimately to his resignation. It was academics who demanded David Starkey be removed from a video promoting Cambridge University. It was academics who petitioned the London School of Economics to restrict the dissemination of views they opposed in a discussion entitled “Is Rape Different?” Academics are at the forefront of campaigns to boycott Israeli universities. Those in favour of open debate can find themselves loath to speak out for fear of being labelled racist or sexist.
The need for difference
Over recent decades, universities have, again quite rightly, paid a great deal of attention to widening participation and ensuring diversity among students and staff. Far less attention has been paid to intellectual diversity. A survey published in the Times Higher Education prior to last year’s general election revealed the voting intentions of UK academics to be far more skewed in favour of the Labour or Green Party than the population as a whole. This political homogeneity makes it less likely that students will hear alternative viewpoints.
The importance to careers of peer review processes and securing publication in a narrow range of journals reinforces a need for academics to conform to a disciplinary consensus. Such intellectual and political conformity is damaging to academia and the pursuit of knowledge. Particularly within social science disciplines, homogeneity of viewpoint means some questions do not get asked and some explanations are not considered. If no one risks offence and asks awkward questions then research confirms bias as scholars simply discover the answers they were looking for all along.
In order for academic freedom to be better protected in the future, intellectual diversity must become as important to universities as equality and inclusivity are today. Not only do academics need to challenge student censors but, crucially, they need to lead by example in seeking out and engaging with speakers and arguments that run counter to their own. The biggest threat to academic freedom today is neither students nor government policy but the reluctance of academics to defend universities as places of intellectual dissent where diverse views are heard and robustly debated. Higher education should teach students how to think and not what to think.