ACADEMIC FIEFDOM: Overcite vs. Oversight

The SethBlogs annual list of The Top 100 Under 100 Who Dislike Cancel Culture has come out, and I am pleased to announce that I, my very Seth, have qualified once again. I believe that cancel culture is unethical (because it uses intimidation to promote social conformity), cruel (because it dehumanizes those who don’t follow its codes), and unhelpful (because it divides us more than it yields the social improvements it claims to seek). While I’m not opposed to consequences for behaviours, my position is that punishments should stay in their jurisdiction. For instance, if you are alleged to have taken part in a crime, it is up to the legal system to take a crack at you as opposed to pre-trial panels of laymen announcing that you are to be relieved of your occupation.

Meanwhile, I have also landed on the SethBlogs Top 64 Reaching 6’4” or More Who Criticize Wokeness. I leave you to my official SethBlogs definition of wokeness for detailed reasons why, but, in short, I contend that political correctness is dogmatic (dismissing criticism as bigotry), duplicitous (employing sliding-scale standards of evidence), and punitive (utilizing a cancel culture division to deal with dissenters). To my mind, even if wokeness were correct in its one-dimensional assessments of our culture, the means by which it pursues those ends are dangerous to a free society.

One of my areas of particular anti-woke ranting is what I perceive to be woke studies within academia. (I listened to the woke PR firm, CBC Radio, for ten years, and in each of the many times that they invited a woke academic to the microphone, obvious holes in the supposed scholar’s reasoning were gaping despite the cuddly interviewer following CBC policy to never ask a “progressive” a challenging question. Examples available upon request.)

So, given my moral philosophy combo pack of anti-wokeness-in-academia and anti-cancel-culture in general, you can imagine my heartstrings being tugged in both directions when I discovered that Florida has cancelled certain woke academic programs. For instance, the New College of Florida has expelled its gender studies program.

To sort through the Sethical implications of such a restriction, let us first take a long walk on the general anti-woke side. I note there that a suspension of academic work does not necessarily fall into my definition of cancel culture if the program is being taken out by a legitimate academic authority because of clear and present anti-academic work product.

To that end, let us consider tools we might utilize to assess whether a gender studies program might be non-academic.

Popular-with-heterodox-academics journalist Jonathan Rauch suggests (in a discussion with social psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt) that we have an implied academic constitution:

“The constitution of knowledge… says that there are two things that [you’ve] got to do if you want to make knowledge. The first is: epistemically, I call it the fallible-ist rule which is anyone could be wrong, so no one gets to shut everybody else up and say we’ve reached the right answer—‘everyone go home.’ Second is the empirical rule, which says the way you make… objective knowledge is not by yourself in a room or not because you’ve had a divine revelation. You’re going to have to check with other people and do it in a very specific way… you’re going to have to go through a very disciplined process through institutions with other trained people… a lot of protocols, a lot of learning in order to establish that what you’re saying is actually true.”

Sounds reasonable. More specifically, I would say that if, within a scholar’s academic work product, they make mathematically illiterate statistical inferences, freely apply double standards, ignore alleged logical inconsistencies suggested by critics, and generally eschew the scientific method, and/or teach their students that their ideological opinions are truths (and they punish students for questioning those alleged facts), then they are failing to be academic in those cases.

I’m not saying that we should consider individual instances of not-so-academic work or teaching as an indication that a professor is a failed academic. (Even the biggest brains among us make intellectual errors sometimes. In fact, I’m told that academia works via a series of corrections zig-zagging back and forth, with a general trajectory of greater understanding of the material.) But if a thinker is clearly captured by non-academic reasoning in their work then I’m not sure how they can still be considered academic. The problem increases if particular fields of study are dominated by such pseudo-scholars. (In that case, the chance that the general direction of the discipline is towards better understanding is greatly reduced since the protective mechanism of criticism is not in place to encourage the discovery of errors.)

Whatever the measurement of academic standards, I believe we must demand that academia keeps its eyes on the goal of producing information and ideas that oscillate toward more accurate results. So certain disciplines that have announced alternate “ways of knowing” without, as far as I can detect, sending the new processes through rigorous skepticism would surely fail any reasonable test of academic work that we might imagine. (If such knowledge diversifiers had simply claimed to have discovered alternative “ways of thinking” that were worthy of exploration, I’d be happy to join the voyage myself. But, as it is, these parallel knowledge claims are running around their fields unopposed.)

This all may sound like mere speculation about gender-and-other-identity studies—Why don’t you write a DEI-stopian novel instead, SethBlogs?! (Not to worry, I did. And it’ll be coming soon!) But if you like my speculation, let us bolster it with some reader-sourced anecdotal evidence.

If you have spent any time in or near academia in the last few decades, you may have noticed that some professors—and, in turn, some disciplines—are more dogmatic about their arguments than others. For instance, while I was acquiring my philosophy degree, I met a sociology final exam that featured a multiple-choice question regarding the correct opinion of a certain sociological case. I don’t recall the exact question, but I can report it was not asking a familiarity-with-the-material question such as, According to X-ideology, what would be the most likely view on Y situation? No, it was literally claiming that there was an objectively correct moral interpretation of a scenario that could be checked via a multiple-choice question.

In contrast, in all of my philosophy classes, opinions were never facts. Instead, we were tested on our knowledge of previous arguments, our logical consistency in critiquing them, and our abilities to rationally construct our own case for anything we wished. On my favourite occasion, I wrote an ethical critique of Affirmative Action, and the professor poured red-inked criticism all over it, and yet he also gave me the highest mark I’d ever received on an essay.

And, yes, all of that’s anecdotal evidence. But anecdotal evidence isn’t intrinsically irrational. It depends on what it is intended to do. It should not be used in academia to prove a generality, but it can be used to persuade that a generality is worth considering (and perhaps even investigating). In this case, I would like to draw upon your experience and suggest that you too have been where I have been. I’ll bet your continued reading of this essay that you have encountered a demagogue ideologue of an instructor. And I’ll bet you’ve also met the opposite: the smile-provoking scholar who is not only open to contrary opinions but seems to invite them.

Now, if your memory does include such case studies, then I’ll thank you to stick around and take in my additional prediction that you have likely also noticed instances of my second, more vital claim that certain academic disciplines are waterlogged with unscientific scholars—and thus peer-review pressure to support all of their preferred ideological conclusions. And, if we’re right about that, those departments’ entire relationship with the truth-finding mission of academia seems to be in danger of sinking.

Consider again gender studies (née women’s studies).

[Gender is a fascinating topic worthy of many questions and hypotheses, but I think it’s simpler—and less dangerous—to aim this critique at gender studies’ most long-standing faith-based ideology, feminism.]

How many in gender studies’ feminist leadership have ever considered legitimate counterarguments and possible counterfactuals to their presumed conclusion that, say, we in the West live in an anti-female patriarchy? How many feminist professors have asked, for instance, If Western Society is built by men for the benefit of men—as is a popular feminist claim—why do men keep sending their favoured selves face first into wars as well as the most dangerous occupations? And how many women’s studies professors have raised their eyebrows at the corollary claim from public feminists such as Margaret Atwood and Hilary Clinton that women are actually the primary victims of war?

Furthermore, if you’ve ever taken a women’s/gender studies class or any other identity-honouring course, have you ever noticed a tendency in them to apply reasoning differently when it comes to the group they’re allegedly studying versus less welcome populations? For instance, when investigating, let’s say, negative stereotypes that women (in contrast with men) might encounter, do feminist academics design their survey questions to illicit a check mark from female respondents while not offering questions that might produce similar victimhood-confirming results from male respondents?

(If you’re still not sure, please refer yourself to any of the “privilege” tests available in academia-inspired DEI workshops. Do you think the questions cover an even-handed collection of positive and negative experiences associated with a variety of demographics? Or are they blatantly calibrated to match up with the sort of presumed experiences that will put specific groups in the hated “privileged” positions? It’s like creating a Dog vs. Cat Friendliness Test and asking the critters to step forward if they recall wagging their tails when they greet their humans and yet not asking the creatures to move forward if they purr upon receiving a neck rub—or whatever the vile felines like. I’ve even seen some privilege assessment tools that literally ask people to step forward towards the privilege guillotine if they match a particular identity marker, and then when those groups are found to be standing farther forward than others, the facilitators note they now have additional proof that those demographics are privileged! In our imagined pet friendliness appraisal, this would be akin to simply asking the dogs to step forward if they are dogs, and then saying, “Wow, dogs really are the friendliest! This isn’t something you cats should feel bad about—it’s just something you should be aware of so you can do something about it.” It may be the most baffling example of circular reasoning that I have ever witnessed.)

Along with your and my individual anecdotal experiences, evidence that pseudo-scientific work might be proliferating in academia can be found (as I’ve mentioned before) in the Grievance Studies Affair wherein three scholars—Dr. Peter Boghossian (from Philosophy), Dr. James Lindsay (from Mathematics), and Helen Pluckrose (from Early Modern Studies)—successfully pranked academic journals. First, the trio invented ridiculous conclusions that flattered woke-leaning descriptions of the world, and then our clandestine triad reverse-engineered ways to “justify” their wild claims. In other words, they produced deliberately bogus academic work to see if woke-seeming academic journals would evict them from consideration. Seven such papers—including a re-write of Mein Kampf in feminist language—were accepted, and more seemed to be on the path for the same, but the project was spotted by a nosey journalist first.

And then, from the other woke flank, peer-reviewed papers (such as by political scientist Dr. Bruce Gilley or psychologist and behavioural geneticist Dr. Mike Bailey) have been withdrawn and retracted respectively not because errors were found in their facts or reasoning but because woke individuals protested the PhDs’ controversial arguments.

Social Psychologist Dr. Cory Clark argues (in a discussion with social critic Chris Williamson) that changing priorities within new cohorts of academics has likely resulted in a larger percentage of researchers who view protecting people from unpalatable scientific findings as more important than truth itself.

“Some of the most prominent journals in all of science…” she says, “have put out a series of editorials over these past few years saying that they would not publish—and potentially would retract—science that has likely potential to, I think the phrasing was, undermine the dignity of human social groups.”

I can understand such an inclination to prefer one’s research to have a positive effect on society than for it to add new hurtful data to our collection. I too would rather be a net contributor to happiness than truthfulness. Yet, if scholars are no longer on a treasure hunt for truth, how can we be confident that they’re on the most-likely-to-find-goodness path? Indeed, if a rigorous checking of the evidence is not guiding our scholars (and, instead, they are censoring legitimate hypotheses and conclusions), then what intellectual legitimacy does academia maintain in its efforts to help us sort through our public policy questions?

Moreover, as Clark points out, how do we know that the presumed short-term positive benefits of suffocating uncomfortable results are a net positive for our well-being? Let’s say a study seems to demonstrate that a certain charity’s work doesn’t help those it claims to uplift. Such a determination might have an immediate negative consequence that, say, fewer people will donate to charities in general. Yet learning about the flaws of that one organization may also push public policy advisors to seek out beneficial new ways of helping people, which, in turn, may be a net profit for non-profits.

I submit that pursuing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is not only worthwhile for its own sake, but it should also be the prime motivating value of academia for the sake of assisting non-academia in selecting the most effective policies to pursue our ethical hopes.

Therefore, I think a case can be made for regulating professional academic standards in the same way that we do other professions.

Indeed, in most occupations, there is a range of practices that fall within and without what is considered to be professional practice. For instance, an on-duty lawyer can take on any side of any issue that they prefer. However, if the lawyer builds their case by suborning perjury or intentionally acting outside the best interests of their client, they may be disbarred for not following their professional oath. (This is not cancel culture, which occurs when a portion of a culture attempts to oust someone from a profession or other role due to actions outside of their work.)

And yet a major trouble with the notion of regulating academic work is that academic standards have an additional consideration beyond just producing quality material. As I understand it, we also include in our reasons for protecting professors the notion of academic freedom so that we can ensure that these leading minds are allowed to go wherever their insights take them without fear of social or financial de-incentivization.

[I define academic freedom as an unfettered right of scholars to pursue any topic, hypothesis, and/or argument that they wish. This includes the options to write about their findings, to be criticized for their assumptions, methodology, and logic, and even to be proven wrong, and perhaps, along the way, to present their arguments to their students to test them some more.]

Technically, I do see a theoretical pathway to regulating academic standards without annihilating academic freedom. Perhaps an academic department builds its arguments on the presumed correctness of controversial premises and the practice of rigor-free methods to then prove new claims that their professors will then describe to their students as “something we know.” I would contend that such work—and the sermony teaching it provokes—is not academic: it is an anti-intellectual faith haven that does not adhere to best academic practices. Therefore, regulating such anti-intellectual work is not necessarily the same as infringing upon academic freedom to pursue—and comment freely on—whatever line of inquiry interests individual scholars.

Nevertheless, telling academics they’re on the wrong side of academic methodology and best teaching practice is still dangerous because the line we cut to itemize what counts as academic work and teaching practice must be laser-sharp. Otherwise, we risk our own ideological bias sneaking into the oversight and taking out our enemies for points of view instead of points of order.

Al Capone was convicted for tax evasion instead of his more infamous activities because law enforcement had trouble proving he was responsible for deadly violence in Chicago. I don’t object to that: prosecuting Capone for lesser crimes that could be demonstrated in court was a clever strategy that had a clear ethical upside. However, I worry that the power of academic oversight could be used in a similar manner. I can imagine a case where the academic regulators dislike the political perspective (or irrelevant-to-work behaviours) of a scholar, so they help themselves to a few inadvertent and petty technical violations of academic-work policy so that they can legitimately cancel the problematic thinker.

Such an unintended means of taking people out is a risk with all oversight, but again academic freedom is, I suspect, a particularly vital component of academia, where our membership includes a wide variety of special, potentially earth-saving brains, many of whom run on various levels of genius, eccentricity, and curmudgeonliness.

Have you ever known the joy of meeting an eccentric, genius, curmudgeon professor? While such a scholar can frustrate one’s sense of fair contemplation, if a student can let go of the gruff delivery and learn to understand half of what the tough prof is saying, they’ll learn lessons of thinking, argumentation, and even style that they get to keep permanently on their own talent belt.

If we do attempt to evict the bath water in which clearly non-academic professors are swimming, do we risk losing our eccentric, genius curmudgeons in the process?

As you can see by the length of my argument defending the notion of defunding non-academic disciplines, my heart says the risk is worth the reward. Nevertheless, I fear that my long frustration with woke academia may be causing me to underestimate the unintended consequences of regulating faith-based thinkers out.

To be safe—in lieu of going straight to professor or department exile—I wonder if it would be reasonable to offer academic probation with various options for helping the unscholarly academics to reset their courses.

Perhaps, as in other professions, some professional-to-professional mentoring might be undertaken. If that sounds too punitive to the professorial ego, maybe professors proven to be utilizing the unscientific method in their academic work could be given the option to take part in an Adversarial Collaboration Project (as co-authored by Dr. Clark at the University of Pennsylvania) which gathers academics who disagree with each other to see if they can find some results in common. Finally going paper to paper with their critics might help the previously unmoored thinkers to see the value of looking in advance for vacancies in their own arguments.

In conclusion, I am technically ambivalent about the solution to the conundrum of non-academic proselytizing in higher education. But I hope that Western academia recognizes soon that they have a complicated problem that requires their big brains to balance academic rigor, academic freedom, academic eccentricity, academic oversight, and oversight protocols to keep the regulators, themselves, from wielding the same ideological bullying that they would be intended to eliminate.

If they can do that, they may just qualify for the SethBlogs Top 10 Over 10 Wonders of the World.


One thought on “ACADEMIC FIEFDOM: Overcite vs. Oversight”

  1. Having read both of your recent most interesting effusions, I shall attempt a comment of two.
    I have to say, first, that I have no better idea of what “woke” is about than I’ve ever had. If I’m not mistaken it just seems ridiculous to form a cult over the obvious, “obvious” that there are moral and cultural standards or principles that any reasonably sane and thoughtful person could determine. At the same time, as I am fond of saying, common sense is as often as not common nonsense. Certain principles are espoused simply because “daddy said so,” “it says right here in the Bible,” or “I saw it on the internet.” And yes, many of us have been taught (and have not questioned) to believe authority.

    As for cancel culture, any sane person would see the absurdity of banning books or making a big thing of righting previous wrongs. Imagine the plight of the great operatic tenor Placido Domingo. After a brilliant career of more than sixty years as a leading tenor all over the world, he was summarily ousted from all American theatres because at some point in his career (undoubtedly early on ,years ago) he was accused of pinching a female chorister’s bottom. There was never any open discussion of the truth or relevance if that occurrence, his contracts were abruptly cancelled. (By the way, his appearances in Europe have continued without controversy.)
    A similar story could be told about James Levine, the beloved conductor who put the Metropolitan Opera on the world musical stage. Suddenly, because of some juvenile peccadillo he was persona-non-grata. The point is that the achievements of people who have contributed mightily the the cultural world are dismissed with condemnation from those who believe themselves to be morally superior. Enough of that.

    As I read your comments about academia I am in despair about the future of scholarship. I understand that professors must now guard their words in lectures because the might say something to “trigger” a tender and sensitive young person. (I’ll bet that tender and sensitive young person has one ear out to catch that damned prof spewing his devilish and overly-liberal pronouncements.) Watch out for free-thinkers, they’re out to corrupt your morals. And if it has some sexual implications, the public will be all the more titillated.

    Oh yes, I circled the paragraph concerning multiple choice tests. As you know, such tests dominate the academic world, from kindergarten on up. They are easy to use, simple to correct and grade, and virtually meaningless. The standardized test implies that there is only one answer to any question. Take your pick A, B, C, or D. What this has to do with scholarship is beyond me. (By there way there is quite a bit about tests and grades in my book.)

    Ere I go on too long: I was brought up short by the words “vile felines.” I immediately consulted Minnie, my believed felis domestica, who simply replied “Meow,” meaning “When you’re already a superior being, you don’t give a fig about what lesser others may think.”

    And perhaps finally: “the truth and nothing but the truth.” Huh? Remember that science never knows the TRUTH, only probabilities. If everyone could accept that, the world might be a better place to live.

    Finally, some people should be told, and I quote James Thurber: “You might was well fall flat on your face as bend over too far backward.”

    PS Hasn’t the CBC carried feminism just a bit too far. Every time I turn on the radio I hear women talking. As a male person, I’m beginning to feel oppressed. Perhaps I should start a movement?

    Cheers, and keep up the good work,

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