I came across an article that I’ve been thinking about for a few days. I thought I would simply post some thoughts. They may not be well-formed, and my views could certainly change. I should say that I got it from a tweet by Tom Levenson, who posted a bit of a Tweet storm about it. He also had a Tweet storm about Andy Revkin’s interview with William Happer, that is worth reading.
Anyway, I’m already off-track. The article that I’ve been pondering is called the threat from within. It’s about a speech by John Etchemendy, former Provost of Stanford, in which he discusses threats to universities. The bit that stuck me was the following
But I’m actually more worried about the threat from within. Over the years, I have watched a growing intolerance at universities in this country – not intolerance along racial or ethnic or gender lines – there, we have made laudable progress. Rather, a kind of intellectual intolerance, a political one-sidedness, that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for. It manifests itself in many ways: in the intellectual monocultures that have taken over certain disciplines; in the demands to disinvite speakers and outlaw groups whose views we find offensive; in constant calls for the university itself to take political stands. We decry certain news outlets as echo chambers, while we fail to notice the echo chamber we’ve built around ourselves.
There are some things I agree with. I think universities are places where our views should be challenged. They should also be places where we encourage people to have interests beyond their own narrow domains. We should want to think about the world around us and be exposed to a wide range of different views. However, I think the above is a far too simplistic view of the issues and conflates many different, and largely unrelated, issues.
A key aspect of a university is, obviously, research. A goal of research is to understand the system being studied, ideally in a way that minimises the impact of biases, or personal opinions/views. Typically research involves collecting information about the system being studied, analysing that information, developing models of the system, and rejecting those that don’t fit the information collected. In the physical sciences, there is often an expectation that we can use this information to constrain our understanding and, in many cases, can constrain our understanding quite tightly. In other words, there is an expectation that we might eventually develop an understanding about which there is overwhelming agreement. This is not a bad thing and, in some sense, is the goal.
Maybe in other areas, this is not necessarily the case. There may well be systems for which it is not possible to develop a well-defined understanding about which everyone would agree. However, it still seems that the understanding of such systems should be constrained by the information available. If there isn’t a single well-defined understanding, does that mean that the information simply can’t constrain our understanding, or does it mean that the information actually indicates that there are indeed multiple valid understandings. Something that has always bothered me about disciplines that are heterogeneous is that it’s not clear if this is because those involved are being strongly influenced by their ideologies, or because the data is actually consistent with these various interpretations.
Of course there will always be people who challenge our current understanding. This is a good thing. However, a well-developed understanding can often be built up over a long period of time, and can involve an enormous amount of information. Challenging such an understanding is therefore very likely to be difficult and, in many cases, is more likely to be wrong than right. Therefore, even though we should accept that some will challenge consensus views, there’s no real reason to embrace it, or give it any special place. Those challenging accepted views need to do the work of convincing others; it’s meant to be, and should be, difficult. If it were easy, it would probably indicate that our original understanding was not very robust.
Those are my thoughts for the moment. As I said at the beginning, this is mainly something I’ve just been pondering. I do think that universities should be places where our views can be challenged, and so preventing people from speaking is something that should typically be avoided (with some exceptions). However, the criticism of intellectual monocultures within some disciplines, in my view, ignores that the goal of research is to develop, and constrain, our understanding. A high-level of agreement more likely indicates that a consistent picture has developed, rather than indicating some kind of fundamental problem with that discipline. Academics love arguing with each other, so even if there is a strong agreement about the basics, they’ll almost certainly still be fighting about the details.