Thoughts on academic freedom and crackpottery

Things academic freedom does not mean:

  1. Profs allowed to say whatever they want in class lectures.  They largely do have that freedom, but only because neither the department, nor the college, nor the university give a rat’s ass what goes in in classrooms.  Faculty exist to publish papers and bring in grant money.
  2. Profs allowed to write what they want, protected from having their careers hurt by tenure.  This is closer to the truth, but it’s not really what academics mean by their “freedom”.  It’s not too hard to put pressure on a tenured professor.  He still has to worry about funding, committee assignments, and promotions.  Being labeled a crackpot would be devastating to him.

Actually, it seems to me that “academic freedom” means something different in the natural sciences and in the humanities/social sciences.  For most of us natural scientists, it’s inconceivable that a department or funding agency would try to dictate our results to us.  Academic freedom for a scientist means the right to work on whatever problem he wants.  Not everybody has this freedom.  Postdocs (the one’s not on fellowships) don’t have academic freedom; they have to spend most of their time working on the problem the professor who pays their salary wants them to.  In theory, a tenured professor who was hired as a biophysicist can decide to start doing research in solid state physics, and he can’t be punished for that.  Of course, there are practical difficulties with such branching which makes it uncommon.

In the social sciences/humanities, there obviously are restrictions on what claims one can make.  Deviation from PC brings terrible retaliation–“hostile work environment” for minorities and perverts, and all that.  How do they square this with their purported commitment to academic freedom?  Perhaps JMSmith can help me out on this, but my impression is that, in the social sciences and humanities, “academic freedom” refers to the department, or perhaps the field, as a whole.  Society at large shall not retaliate against sociology as a discipline or against any particular sociology department because of sociologists’ work to delegitimize that society.  The discipline’s internal policing is an entirely separate matter.

We do have some such internal policing in the natural sciences:  the terrible assignation of someone as a crackpot.  This isn’t an official thing, of course.  Physics has no ceremony of excommunication.  Still, we all know if someone has a reputation as a loon.  How, you may ask, can a field that toys with ideas of extra dimensions and other universes ever decide that one of their number is a nut?  That, my friends, is an interesting sociological question.  In physics, there are no crackpot ideas; there are just crackpot ways of advocating them.

If there’s a generally accepted explanation for some phenomenon, you can investigate alternative explanations.  Just don’t say you believe the alternate explanation.  You can say, if you like, that you’re helping to establish the accepted position beyond doubt, if it is true, by seeing if the data can validate this theory against its most plausible competitor.  For example, in astrophysics, we’ve got people who study boson stars and quark stars, objects for which we have no evidence, as the most reasonable alternate explanation for what we think are black holes and neutron stars.  That work is accepted as not crackpot (although many also accept it as not interesting).

When it comes to really far-out stuff–like time machines and wormholes–once again, knock yourself out, but be sure to obey the following rules.  First, make sure you’ve got some more “serious” work going on at the same time.  Second, play up the outreach or teaching potential.  Morris & Thorne’s famous wormhole paper billed itself as an instructive problem for general relativity students.  They didn’t write in the introduction that they had *really* found a way to build a wormhole, and we should totally do it now.  Third, it’s probably best to hold off on that stuff until after you’ve got tenure.  Same goes with philosophy of science, e.g. interpretations of quantum mechanics & measurement problem, type stuff.

One last thing:  no conspiracy theories.  Suggesting that the field is conspiring to suppress your findings is an instant one-way ticket to crackpotdom.  The scientific community is quite indulgent, in its way, but turn on it, and it will squash you like a bug.  There actually are reasons for the rules.  Science thrives on civil disagreement, but it simply shuts down when people start trading accusations of ill-will.  We must maintain the rules that make our discourse fruitful.

12 Responses

  1. Given your support for censorship, do you generally find these rules of discourse beneficial Bonald?

  2. The convention that character attacks and conspiracy-mongering are not tolerated is a good thing, I think. Look at the one scientific case where the rule is not enforced: global warming. There accusations of bad faith and conspiracy seem to be ubiquitous, and I think this really has hampered the debate, at least on this site.

    The downside is that if a scientist really is guilty of some impropriety, it’s dangerous to accuse him of it. You’d better be able to prove your case without doubt, or it will bounce back at you. We compensate for that by treating proven bad actors brutally. One proven case of plagiarism or data tampering, and your career in science is over.

    In my defense of science, I made the argument–no doubt shocking to many–that science is a good example of censorship working well.

  3. Disturbing post.

    The analysis and reasoning method employed in this post is that of the careerist technician niche-seeking in a large bureaucracy – ‘how to get on in business’/ ‘how to make friends and influence people’ stuff; but it has nothing to do with real science, which is about truthful and self-motivated individuals, and small groups of such.

    Of course real science is (all but) extinct, and has been replaced by peer-reviewed research.

  4. Hi Bruce,

    Given your cynicism about the modern scientific enterprise, I thought you would enjoy my observations on how the field works. My observations do corroborate some of your cynicism, but for what I thought was a more idealistic end. My advice is addressed to a young researcher who has in mind an investigation that will really advance human knowledge but may be regarded as dangerously unconventional by his colleagues. My sense is that he will be able to carry out his program if he knows the system and avoids some pitfalls. I don’t think it’s fair to call me a “careerist technician” for observing how the system works and looking for strategies to do genuinely valuable work within it.

  5. With respect to publication, academic freedom in the social sciences exists for any cabal large enough to control some funding streams and a couple of “peer reviewed” journals. And for many sorts of “research,” all that is needed is a journal or two. An eccentric social scientist will be unable to publish his work, and so has no effective freedom, but an eccentric group of social scientists can get along very nicely. Practitioners of “queer theory” would be an example.

    Academic freedom is more often mentioned when questions are raised about course content. Sometimes this is a cover for ideologically biased courses, but it is more frequently used to defend an idiosyncratic syllabus. I don’t have a problem with a somewhat idiosyncratic syllabus. In most of the social sciences there are many things one may teach and few things one must teach, and professors teach best when they are interested in the material.

    One could argue that crackpots are a majority in many social sciences. These are, after all, people who believe in the labor theory of value, contact theory, and the idea that sex is a social construct. But I think what you’re describing is what I call the “wild man.” A wild man is either embarrassingly passionate or embarrassingly angry (often about his own professional disappointments). His hair is often wild, his dress slovenly, and he is known for shouting at professional meetings. All of this is in very bad taste. An academic is expected to be serious, not passionate. And if he gets shafted, he must never mention it.

    As I understand it, the concept of academic freedom came from the German universities, where it meant that professors were not subject to religious or political tests. One didn’t have to belong to the ruling party or the state religion in order to teach, say, chemistry at the university. So academic freedom was originally a means to ensure that academics was a meritocracy, not a patronage system. It was not a license to do as one pleased.

  6. Bruce,
    I thought of you the other day as I was reading a tenure file. As you probably know, a very important part of an American academic’s tenure file is letters written by “outside reviewers.” These are academics in the candidate’s field of research who have been sent the candidate’s vita and a bundle of his papers, and who are asked, among other things, whether the candidate would receive tenure at the outside reviewer’s institution. The file I was reading the other day contained a letter from a professor at what is almost certainly the premier institute of its type in the world, and he blithely assured us that our candidate would indeed be granted tenure there. The truth is that this candidate would never be short-listed for a job at that institute, much less hired or tenured. The academic world is riven with this sort of routine falsehood. I’m sure it was written with benevolent intention, but as you would say, writing it weakened the habit of truthfulness.

  7. Hi JMSmith,

    It seems crackpottery has the same nature in social sciences as in natural sciences: it’s not what you say; it’s how you say it. Also with physics, one could say that a good fraction of us are really crackpots. We’re the only people in the world who aren’t sure how many dimensions there are.

  8. Boland

    You remind me of that ingenious Jesuit mathematician Girolamo Sacchari and his Euclides ab omni naevo vindicatus (Euclid Freed of Every Flaw) a work in which he ostensibly sets out to defend Euclid’s parallel axiom against those who were calling it “the scandal of geometry,” when, in reality, what he does is to demonstrate the possibility of an alternative axiom and so of non-Euclidian geometry. His treatment was so ironic that some people still claim that he missed the implications of his own work

  9. The convention that character attacks and conspiracy-mongering are not tolerated is a good thing, I think. Look at the one scientific case where the rule is not enforced: global warming. There accusations of bad faith and conspiracy seem to be ubiquitous, and I think this really has hampered the debate, at least on this site.

    I am pleased that you are flirting here with an endorsement of an extreme skeptical position. Namely mine, that the process in climate science is so broken as to strip it of the epistemological privilege which normally goes with science. I guess one could argue about whose fault that is, but that conversation would be such a train wreck that it is better left alone.

    Has there been debate on this site? I see two substantive posts under the climate tag. In one, you argue that climate sensitivity is plausibly thought to be somewhere between 0 and positive . (Of course, the seemingly mainstream speculation that global warming may trigger a glaciation would argue for minus to positive , but whatever). In the other, you make some empirical claims about temperature, sea level, and glaciers, which, although some are debatable, none are really critical to the debate.

    I’m leaning a bit in Mr Patterson-Seymour’s direction. The three biggest taboos of the modern academy seem to be racial science, holocaust denial / antisemitism, and global warming. If I were a junior guy trying to signal that I was not on board with the required consensus on 1 and 3 but I did not want to screw myself over, I might post arguments in favor of the consensus which did not actually cut in favor of the consensus. The problem is that Our Heroes are so lost in unintentional self-parody that there is really not that much room to pursue such a course, so sending the signal and maintaining plausible deniability is hard.

    In defense of Mr Patterson-Seymour’s theory, though, is this surely sarcastic claim:

    One proven case of plagiarism or data tampering, and your career in science is over.

    For example, the priority dispute in relativity is pretty interesting. The least interesting part of it, however, is “was Einstein a plagiarist?” He was. There are real questions about how credit should be apportioned, but Einstein used other people’s ideas liberally and without citation. He also falsely accused one of his victims, Hilbert, of plagiarism (for which accusation he was mysteriously, for your theory, unpunished) Similar things are true for Galileo. I personally know of cases of quite blatant idea-stealing in my own field; there were a number of publicly documented cases in law and in history; and I am shocked that you pretend this is rare and/or punished.

    One of the interesting things about modern heroes (which Paul Johnson takes up in _Intellectuals_) is what amazing dirtbags they usually are.

  10. Fruitful debate on the core AGW belief does seem to be impossible in any company. On the other hand, debate on smaller issues–such as the interpretation of this or that measurement or the reliability of this or that subgrid model–seems to be going along fine. Eventually, this may force conclusions on the higher issues. Unfortunately, because of the oceans’ large heat capacity, we will probably be locked into a decision before things become that clear.

  11. My theory is that all particles (except photons + neutrinos) are just collections of positive and negative charges. So far nobody has called me a crackpot, (though a moderator on a forum did call me a lunatic), but nobody has been prepared to consider the evidence to support my theory either.

    Is that what you mean when you say the scientific community is quite indulgent?

  12. […] DrBill’s recent post, my earlier musing on what people mean by “academic freedom” may be of interest.  The relevant […]

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