The Avoidance of the Intellectual

I came across a quote that I found quite compelling, and so thought I would also post it here. I first saw it on this site, which got it from here, but I think it’s actually out of this book. The quote, from Edward Said, is:

Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.

I don’t particularly agree with the rather cynical reasons given at the end, but the first part of the quote really struck a chord. I do think there is a tendency (amongst some, at least) to avoid taking some kind of stance. I suspect there are many reasons, some of which are simply related to human nature; it’s easier to just keep out of things. I also think that academia, in particular, has become very specialised. People focus on their own little area and don’t always seem interested in the broader picture. It can also be quite a selfish environment; it’s a competitive environment where permanent jobs are difficult to get, funding is hard, and your career depends on standing out in some way. You don’t have time to really care about other things that may be relevant, but don’t necessarily affect you directly.

Universities are also now run more as a business than as some institution of learning that provides a service to the broader public, be that through educating students, doing research that may have some kind of broader impact, or providing some kind of intellectual leadership. As such, the priorities are to generate income, either through teaching or through research. Of course, universities do need to be financially viable, but I do think they should be careful of prioritising income generation over the intrinsic value of education and scholarship, and I do think we’ve tipped over a bit too much in favour of the former. I think a consequence of this is that academics are encouraged to primarily focus on how to get the next research grant or on how to publish the next high-impact paper. This leaves little time for engaging more broadly and considering things outside your specific area.

Having generalised wildly about universities and academics, I do think that there is an even more insidious problem; I do think that taking some kind of stand is actually discouraged. It’s certainly very clear in the climate debate. Anyone who speaks out is regarded as some kind of activist, labelled as an environmentalist, and their objectivity is immediately questioned. Yes, objectivity and balance is important for research, but so is passion and enthusiasm. The idea that someone who feels strongly about something shouldn’t speak out because they might lose their ability to do objective research is just a little absurd. In fact, I would argue that it would be better if people did speak out more, because then it would be harder to hide their biases under a veneer of supposed objectivity. I also feel that it would be better if people who were regarded as experts were to speak out more, than if they felt that being experts required them to avoid taking a stand.

So, I’ve managed to do what I normally do, which is to start what is intended to just be a quick post, and write much more than I intended. I was really just trying to highlight the quote, some of which struck a chord. I should make clear that I’m not suggesting that academics should be given some kind of special platform, simply suggesting that it’s unfortunate that people who spend their lives trying to understand the world around them, seem content to stay in their own little bubble, rather than engaging with the broader community. Of course, this is just a gross generalisation and there are many who do, but I do think that specialisation and the commercialisation of the university sector has changed what many regard as their role. I’ve also focused here on academics, but I’m certainly not suggesting that they’re the only people who should be encouraged to speak out; it’s just the environment with which I’m most familiar.

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37 Responses to The Avoidance of the Intellectual

  1. Craig says:

    Given the ‘97% consensus’, whom would you say is taking a greater risk by speaking their mind, the climate skeptic, or the person who agrees with CAGW? Who ends up being the target of more ridicule? When you have 97% of the scientific community backing you up, I don’t see where you are really risking much agreeing with them.

  2. Craig,
    Sure, possibly, but I was trying to make a broader point. I know I focused on the climate debate, but I do think there is a general tendency to avoid speaking out.

    Something to bear in mind, though, is that speaking out doesn’t mean that you’re above criticism. There is certainly an awful lot of labelling in the climate debate and it would certainly be nicer if people could avoid labelling when critiquing what others have said. However, if someone regards themselves as an expert and yet publicly says silly things, maybe ridicule is warranted.

  3. Andrew Dodds says:

    @Craig..

    And yet I rarely mention the subject in social settings, unless I know the people very well. It’s been made into a controversial subject that you don’t want to bring up, because you may have to try and correct someone whose vehement denial of most of climate science comes from reading a few Daily Mail articles. Hard to do in a polite setting.

  4. One factor that seems to influence many scientists is related to the caveats. Scientists have been trained to take them seriously, but they don’t really know, how to handle that when presenting their understanding to a wider audience.

    The double bind of Stephen Schneider is not only ethical, but very much a practical problem for many.

  5. Craig says:

    I agree. And unfortunately the ones with the silliest things to say, seem to be much more inclined to express themselves (and rather loudly) than those with more reasoned arguments. It can put the reasonable person in the awkward position of coming to the same conclusion as the silly person, but using a completely different set of arguments. Presumably, other reasonable people would be able to evaluate the arguments of both, and determine who falls into which camp.

  6. Pekka,

    The double bind of Stephen Schneider is not only ethical, but very much a practical problem for many.

    I agree, and I can see that being a factor. I guess, I can see the problem, but I suspect it’s not ideal that some of reluctant to speak out because they don’t know how to handle this issue. There’s also this quote which I put in this post

    The other thing that led me into a retreat is you would go out there and try to limit your emphasis on caveats and speak more crisply or without the caveats and with more black and white and you would be shot in the back by your colleagues. …… But you have to consider the audience. If all you do is lace it with uncertainty, it gives them reason to do nothing.

  7. Craig,

    And unfortunately the ones with the silliest things to say, seem to be much more inclined to express themselves (and rather loudly) than those with more reasoned arguments.

    Yes, and it can be hard to know how to deal with this. If they won’t recognise that they’re talking nonsense, how do you counter it? You can try to convince people, but the other person may also sound convincing. If you try to ridicule them, you end up appearing to be engaing in name-calling.

  8. aTTP,
    That brings up another issue. Many scientists are highly specialized. What they know best may by itself be of little interest to the wider public. To make the knowledge genuinely significant requires combining it with other knowledge that the scientist does not know as well.

    Much of the criticism that has been presented about the combination of an activist and a scientist is actually related to the way they present the final conclusions that depend also on issues that go beyond their scientific expertize.

  9. You can try to convince people, but the other person may also sound convincing. If you try to ridicule them, you end up appearing to be engaing in name-calling.

    If you cannot be more convincing then trying to ridicule your opponent can only fail.

  10. Pekka,

    Many scientists are highly specialized. What they know best may by itself be of little interest to the wider public.

    Well, sure, but that’s partly a consequence of how things have become more specialised. However, I wasn’t arguing that all scientists should speak out. I was really just suggesting that there is a tendency to not speak out even when their expertise may be suitable.

    If you cannot be more convincing then trying to ridicule your opponent can only fail.

    Yes, I probably agree. However, that doesn’t really change that it is quite difficult to rebut someone who is particularly convincing, even if they’re obviously wrong to anyone who understands the topic.

  11. Craig says:

    I think that the internet is also partly to blame for some of the silence. Say something that someone else doesn’t like, and you will be Googled to death, until something can be found to discredit you, no matter how unrelated it may be to your position on a matter. Who needs that kind of grief, especially if it has the chance to hurt your personal or professional life?

  12. Brandon Gates says:

    ATTP,

    Anyone who speaks out is regarded as some kind of activist, labelled as an environmentalist, and their objectivity is immediately questioned.

    Highly annoying, especially when who is saying such things is so evidently not spot-free in that regard. This is something that has driven me nuts about opinionators across the board since before I was even aware of the concept human-induced climate change.

    The discussion about caveats strikes a chord with me as they’re so often labelled as “weasel wording”. Again, those who cry foul so often are blind to their own bad faith tactics. This wants an example; here’s one from just an hour or so ago in the form of a “question” to me regarding my opinion on the moral use of political power:

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2015/04/21/nobody-expects-the-climate-inquisition-2/#comment-1913338

    Is it your opinion that it is justified and moral that the might of the Whitehouse Synod, the governors, world bodies, every university, Senate bulldogs, multimillion dollar ad campaigns… should rail against the 3% of dissenting taxpayers who not only don’t buy into the CO2 hysteria but appear to offer effective scientific and economic reasons why?

    Where does one even begin unpacking such an “are you still beating your wife” question? As we here in the Colonies say, I did give it the college try — ending my reply with, “Who defines moral?” Along the way I indicated that yes, this is how the political process legally works in a constitutional republican democracy. I have a favourite quote for such occasions:

    “When you vote, you are exercising political authority, you’re using force. And force, my friends, is violence. The supreme authority from which all other authorities are derived.” ― Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers

    As you can probably imagine, it often doesn’t go over so well.

  13. victorpetri says:

    It’s a difficult subject, and I haven’t made up my mind.
    I read this on Spiked, on discussing certain ideas/ideologies, I agree to this
    http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/why-wont-we-tell-students-that-kant-is-better-than-the-koran/16736#.VTdfWCGeDRY
    On the other hand concerning the hard sciences, scientists are attempting to unravel realities. Realities do not need passion or activism (in contrast to ideologies), they just need to be uncovered. If anything, activism might hinder attempts to unravel the objective reality, since people can get invested in entrenched positions, emotionally.
    If activism might in any way hinder the scientific method (and I would not know how to prove it beyond my gut feeling), I think it should go.

  14. vp,

    Realities do not need passion or activism (in contrast to ideologies), they just need to be uncovered.

    Firstly, you’ve managed to throw in the term “activism” which is kind of making my point. Secondly, doing science may not require passion, but I would suggest that most good scientists are passionate. Trying to do quality research when you don’t really care about the subject you’re studying is a good deal more difficult than when you do.

    If activism might in any way hinder the scientific method (and I would not know how to prove it beyond my gut feeling), I think it should go.

    What’s your suggestion? That we should prohibit scientists from speaking out? That they should hide their views under a veneer of objectivity even if they have views? That they should be dispassionate? Maybe we just need robots who can follow whatever rules we think scientists should follow? Maybe let’s prevent scientists from voting? Would that ensure their objectivity? You seem to think that we can divorce scientists/researchers from the world in which they live and which they are studying. I don’t think we can, or should.

    Also, my point wasn’t really just about scientists, it was about the bigger issue of speaking out, in general. It also wasn’t just about climate science. I see numerous examples of people who privately will be critical of, for example, university hiring practices, but publicly say nothing because “it’s just how things work”. If people whose careers are based on studying the world around them (be it the physical world, or society) can’t really be bothered to speak out about something which they “know” to be wrong, then who does?

  15. victorpetri says:

    @attp
    “Secondly, doing science may not require passion, but I would suggest that most good scientists are passionate. ”
    I did not say scientists couldn’t be passionate, and passionate scientists are probably better at uncovering truths, what I meant was: reality is impartial, reality just is. So forget about the word passion, my beef is with activism.

    I am not veering on the practical implications, I just looking at the question, is it a good idea that scientists are activists as well, and I think it is not a good idea.

    They can personal opinions on anything they want, e.g. on university hiring practices. But to be an activist on the topic you research, I think is problematic.

    Let’s give an example:
    Gilles-Éric Séralini is an anti GMO activist from France.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%A9ralini_affair

    He took a type of rat that is extremely prone to cancer, took an unpresentable statistically small sample of them, fed them GMO corn and watched them develop cancers.
    His results got published, and millions jumped the bandwagon, happy their long standing antipathy against GMO finally got some proof. Reality did catch up with it, the paper was retracted and condemned by anyone with any respect for the scientific method, however most of the damage was done. Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s impossible to get it back in.

  16. vp,

    So forget about the word passion, my beef is with activism.

    Yes, and my point is that you’re defining someone who might speak passionately about what their research indicates as an activist. I think that’s wrong. You can disagree. However, you are rather proving the point in my post. You can disagree with the point, but that you’re largely proving it seems clear.

  17. vp,

    But to be an activist on the topic you research, I think is problematic.

    Okay, but how do you stop it? Rules? How would that work? Researchers have academic freedom. If you impinge on that, you violate that basic idea? You gave an example of someone doing poor research and it then being used by them and others to advocate for their position. That’s very poor, but how do you stop it? What if speaking out was more common and those who understood it to be wrong had quickly spoken out against it? Also, it’s one example. Do you want perfection? That’s impossible. I could probably find plenty of examples that illustrate a good side to this.

  18. vp,
    I should make clear (because, again, I think you’re rather misinterpreting things) that I’m not suggesting that all scientists should be speaking out all the time. If you read the quote it’s about turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. So, for example, someone does what you illustrate (uses poor research to advocate for something) is it better if other experts quickly speak out against this, or not?

  19. victorpetri says:

    @attp
    “Okay, but how do you stop it? Rules? How would that work? ”
    You speak out against activism, and not approve of it.

  20. vp,

    You speak out against activism, and not approve of it.

    That is a form of activism. Do you see the problem?

    Plus, IMO, it’s fundamentally undemocratic. You’re trying to disenfranchise a community on the basis of their expertise.

  21. Marco says:

    “You’re trying to disenfranchise a community on the basis of their expertise.”

    That’s the main goal of the delayers – don’t want no experts to say what to expect, you want the interpreters of the interpretations doing so.

  22. verytallguy11 says:

    VP,

    But to be an activist on the topic you research, I think is problematic.

    Is one perspective.

    An alternative would be that not to be an activist in a topic you research where the consequences of inaction are devastating, I think is immoral.

    Personally I think both these perspectives are valid, so we should not criticise scientists who choose either path.

  23. victorpetri says:

    @attp
    “That is a form of activism. Do you see the problem?”
    No, I don’t, people can speak out on anything they like, just like on the example of university hiring practices, just not be an activist for the topic that you research.

  24. Marco says:

    If Victor considers Séralini the prime example of an activist, he sure knows how to pick his examples. Séralini is a good example of someone actively promoting his own fringe science.

    And it isn’t even true that the paper was “condemned by anyone with any respect for the scientific method”. In fact, plenty of scientists, even those critical of Séralini’s actions, have complained about the retraction. The paper was overhyped in the press by Séralini, there’s plenty to criticize in the paper itself, but even I, as critical as I am of the paper, am rather hesitant to *condemn* the paper’s contents. I do condemn how Séralini and others handled the process *around* the paper and its promotion as the final nail in the coffin of GMO safety.

    In that sense it isn’t much different from Spencer & Braswell’s paper in Remote Sensing. Not a good paper, plenty of issues, but it wasn’t its poor content that made Wagner resign – it was the way the paper was promoted, and Wagner’s impression (without direct evidence) that they had deliberately sought a journal that would possibly not have the most knowledgable reviewers in this field. Should that paper be retracted? In my opinion, no, unless direct evidence comes forward they misrepresented anything in the paper or in the reviewing process.

  25. vp,

    No, I don’t, people can speak out on anything they like

    That doesn’t make it not activism.

    just not be an activist for the topic that you research.

    Okay, but you still haven’t really said how we can stop this. Also, you haven’t explained at what point someone speaking about their own research becomes an activist. I’ve seen many people who have been accused of being an activist for saying things that don’t seem to be very activist in nature. Who decides and who gets to speak out? By your definition, noone working in the same research area can speak out against another researcher who they regard as being an activist.

  26. jsam says:

    Who better to be an activist than someone who knows his subject cold?

  27. victorpetri says:

    @vth
    “Personally I think both these perspectives are valid, so we should not criticise scientists who choose either path.”
    So you are against activists that advocate against activism?

  28. So you are against activists that advocate against activism?

    Does speaking out against hypocrisy also qualify as activism?

  29. izen says:

    @-victorpetri
    “They can personal opinions on anything they want, e.g. on university hiring practices. But to be an activist on the topic you research, I think is problematic.”

    I think you are conflating disinterested with impartial.

    @-“Let’s give an example:
    “Gilles-Éric Séralini is an anti GMO activist from France.
    He took a type of rat that is extremely prone to cancer, took an unpresentable statistically small sample of them, fed them GMO corn and watched them develop cancers.
    His results got published, and millions jumped the bandwagon, happy their long standing antipathy against GMO finally got some proof.”

    Really bad example.
    The fact that scientists carry out research that provides confirmation bias for their pet ideas, or the preferred profitable result desired by the industry that funds them, is inevitable. The whole point of the ‘scientific method’, the open publishing of results, peer review etc, is despite its failings, it selects out the un(re)productive ideas. Crank and fringe ideas go extinct in the scientific literature, even if they do survive in the odd protected zoo of ideological activism.

    If Seralini’s results, derived though they are from a poor sample and sub-optimal statistics, were replicated and confirmed by many subsequent studies and research using diverse methods, and a bio-genetic pathway was identified that explained the results, then rather like the MBH98 ‘Hockey stick’ it would be widely accepted.
    It is the slow, fine grinding of scientific knowledge by its gradual accumulation that determines what survives, the test is not whether the researcher is sufficiently disinterested in the result, it is how well the research integrates with past established knowledge and new, subsequent results.

    That there are fringe social groups who STILL hold Seralini’s results as definitive ‘proof’ of the dangers of GMOs, or that there is a fringe that STILL deny the validity of paleoclimate reconstructions is not the fault of activist researchers.

  30. izen,
    Yes, a very good point

    t is the slow, fine grinding of scientific knowledge by its gradual accumulation that determines what survives, the test is not whether the researcher is sufficiently disinterested in the result, it is how well the research integrates with past established knowledge and new, subsequent results.

    There are those who think science would improve if we imposed stricter conditions on the behaviour of individuals. What they don’t seem to realise/acknowledge is that the whole point of the scientific method is to counter potential biases. We only trust a result once it has been replicated and reproduced. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if some research is produced by someone who is regarded as trustworthy or not; what matters is if others can replicate, reproduce and ultimately confirm the earlier work.

  31. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:

    Complaining about scientific “activism” is for kids.

    Pasteur should not have been an activist for vaccination – and let millions die from preventable diseases?
    Einstein should not have advised the US government on the rapid development of the bomb – and allowed the Nazis to produce them first?

    Rowland and Molina should not have campaigned against CFCs?
    Hansen should not speak about the dangers of rapid climate change?

    Pffft.

    Yes – we occasionally get a Velikovsky, or a Wakefield, or a Salby.
    But who cares?
    Their lack of scientific evidence eventually undercuts their positions.

    Science doesn’t need honest brokers.

    If you find yourself, like Judith Curry, complaining about ‘activist’ scientists, maybe you should ask yourself why you feel the need to ‘defend science’ that way. Complaining frequently and publicly that other people are ‘doing it wrong’ because they voice a personal opinion or suggest a policy preference is the height of hypocrisy.

  32. matt says:

    @VP

    So climate scientists like Gavin Schmidt should be criticised for activism because he actually studies the topic. What about those that don’t do any scientific research and are activists – the right wing think tanks, politicians, Monckton, Ridley, etc? What about JC, Lindzen, Soon? Are they activists? Can you point out comments you have made that criticise their activism?

  33. victorpetri says:

    @matt
    Ideally, they should accept the science at face value, since it was collected by totally objective and non-invested scientists, that have shown no possible reason to have produced biased results.

  34. vp,

    Ideally, they should accept the science at face value, since it was collected by totally objective and non-invested scientists, that have shown no possible reason to have produced biased results.

    Are you being serious? The point of the scientific method is that it – ideally, I guess – corrects for all issues; bias, sloppiness, silly mistakes, poor data quality. You don’t trust a result until it has been reproduced and replicated. I guess there is no hard or fast rule as to how often it should happen, but in a sense it takes more if the result is particularly controversial or important and less if it seems consistent with our current understanding. So, it’s the method that’s important, not the specific people or their behaviour. Of course, I’m not suggesting we should ignore fraud or genuine misconduct, simply that some scientists choosing to speak out doesn’t immediately mean one should dismiss their work.

  35. izen says:

    @-victorpetri
    “Ideally, they should accept the science at face value, since it was collected by totally objective and non-invested scientists, that have shown no possible reason to have produced biased results.”

    I know you mean this as ‘snark’, but in framing it as the opposite of reality you do highlight how the social institution of science works.

    Scientific understanding emerges from an ecology where it is survival of the fittest. Or if you prefer libertarian ideology, it is a free market of ideas where it is expected that people will come up with nonsense, as well as fundamental insights. The selection process winnows out the chaff.

    ALL scientists are advocates for the ideas they research and the experiments they carry out to test those ideas.
    But The ‘advocacy’ that you seem to be tone-concerning about is that which occupies a economic and ideological context. It is not the advocacy, or the advocate that is the source of the problem here, it is that the clear exposition of the science in this field, has triggered a ‘shoot the messenger’ response amongst the economic and political interests in BAU.

    There is a history of advocates, like the CFCs guys mentioned above, but also Clair Cameron Patterson with Lead, that advocated strongly for action in response to their findings.

    Luckily their advocacy was opposed and depreciated until the evidence of the harm they claim would be caused was undeniable.
    (sarc/off)

  36. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:

    victorpetri says:
    April 22, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    @matt
    Ideally, they should accept the science at face value, since it was collected by totally objective and non-invested scientists, that have shown no possible reason to have produced biased results.

    In an ideal world there would be no subjectivity, no second-guessing, no ulterior motives, no conflicts of interest.

    We do not live in such a world. We never have.

    In the real world of science-made-by-fallible-human-beings, it is often more productive to simply disregard the character traits of the practitioners involved, and to judge the science on its own merits.

    Issac Newton was a brilliant polymath scientist – also an alchemist, numerologist, and theologist – and a nasty, vindictive person, who railed against his perceived enemies.

    Kary Mullis is a person who believes in efficacy of astrology, who denies that HIV causes AIDS, and who is a conspiracy-invoking climate change ‘skeptic’ – but PCR works, and Mullis got a Nobel prize for that, not for his quaint musings on subjects that he knows little about.

  37. “You speak out against activism, and not approve of it.”

    I will believe this when I see the mitigation sceptics speak out against the activism of Watts, Monckton, Soon, Spencer, Curry, Bengtsson, etc. Most freely offer their political advice on energy policies and mitigation. All of them judge scientific papers based on whether they can be spun into a case against mitigation. If is is possible, the article is a breakthrough, if not the article should be condemned.

    Roy Spencer even recently condemned in an article a colleague for having a private opinion on energy policies, while giving his opinion on energy policies in the same paragraph. One of the most read articles on the Climate Onion is a big fat opinion of Lennart Bengtsson on nuclear power.

    The amazing lack of self-awareness of the political radicals calling themselves climate sceptics.

    People who listen to them are themselves to blame for making utter fools of themselves.

    The idealistic liberals told them the global poor would be mainly affected. They will stop thinking climate change is fun when they notice it hurts the power of the West much more than other groups. Unfortunately then it will still take decades before the problems slowly again become a little better.

    I am looking forward to mitigation sceptics ritually burning the article of their own political activist heroes. Then I will believe they believe the activism is bad. But I think I can wait a long long time.

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