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When and how the virtue of academic truth seeking can turn into a vice

This is a guest post by Jochen Weber, who I met at Heterodox Academy’s Open Minds Conference in New York City on June 15th, and with whom I had several entertaining and enlightening conversations which turned out to be the highlights of my day.  Jochen originally published this post on his own blog, Spare-Time Philosophy, and graciously gave me permission to post it here too.

This past Friday, I went to the HxA Open Mind Conference 2018. At several moments during that day I distinctly experienced some disappointment and confusion, as I was thinking: “something is missing here“.

It may require some of the frequently invoked academic humility to follow the argument I am about to lay out, as it probably can not be considered an academic one–in the sense that I do not present any empiric study. Instead I rely on my own, anecdotal evidence. And the first question I have is: does personal experience even count? If not, does that not already pose a limitation on the free exchange of ideas, especially when it comes to stimulating new research topics?

For me, this conference–no less of an organization aiming for more viewpoint diversity–was somewhat disappointing mainly for its lack of a kind of diversity that I believe is essential for achieving the overarching goal. Why do I think that way? One thought in support of my line of arguing comes from Aristotle, who observed (probably not proved, mind!) that a virtue is the middle ground on a dimension that, if acted upon “in excess” in either direction (or, as I would put it, at the expense of other virtues or rather values), can become a vice. So what other virtues (or values) can become easily relegated to a second-best place, leading to problems?

The most pronounced experience of disappointment happened during a debate in which it became clear that all participants seemed to agree that “Trump is a bad President.” And even if persuasive evidence for this proposition could be presented, in either an academic or some other way, what are the consequences of believing this proposition, both for the people on stage as well as for people who, in the academy and out, have supported and quite possibly still support Trump?

To make this point, I would have liked to ask the following question at the end of this particular panel discussion: Imagine that I have voted for Trump in the last election.When I now listen to your mocking of Trump on stage, and no-one has the slightest bit of a problem with this, what place do you think I have in your organization or the academy? And if I do not have a place there, how do you believe you can persuade me of any truths that you may discover?

In other words, I believe that while academic truth seeking is an important goal, wherever it (seemingly) collides with or ignores respect (another important value), whatever truth may be discovered will probably not make it very far outside the circle of people the person touting their truth already “respects”.

So the main aspect I saw as lacking at the conference was respect. For what exactly? One of the major themes of critique of Trump for me came across as a variation of: “arguments need to be presented in an academic format, they need to follow reason and logic, and if a person does not use this academic format, their utterances are not arguments but mere opinions, and can be dismissed from the debate.” Put differently, what is happening is the formation of an “academic truth elite” by way of dismissing propositions not stated in “academic language”, creating a group of people who no longer care about the consequences of their attitudes towards those who cannot partake in their activities “on their level”. And to some extent, maybe a better slogan for Trump would have been “Drain the Intellectual Elites!”

The disappointment over this kind of thinking mainly stems from my belief that those conservatives who hold very critical views of the academy (and the scientific research and truth that comes out of arguably the more dogmatic fields, like some social sciences such as gender studies) typically are not in the business of making their arguments in an academic way, and yet I strongly feel that it would be a mistake to exclude their voices from the discourse.

What if, for instance, in an argument about the value of having two opposite-sex parents, a conservative offers the position: “children should grow up with a father and a mother!” In other words, attempting a translation into slightly more academic language: “I believe that men and women have different sets of qualities and traits, and children are better off being exposed to both sets during childrearing, modeled by the two people that most intimately interact with the child.” And if this person is not able to present specific empiric evidence in support of this proposition, does that mean it should be summarily dismissed? What if no-one in the academy is actually interested in studying this in search of evidence for this proposition, because—quite frankly—it would require rehashing long and dearly held beliefs that parents of either sex can perform all essential roles of child rearing equally well?

Importantly, I am not making the argument that gay parents are bad parents, let alone that they should not be allowed to be parents, although it is easy to twist what I said that way… What I am rather saying is that not being listened to when making an assertion for which one cannot produce academic evidence creates resentment.

In short, I was missing a sort of respect for viewpoints that are frequently not presented in an academic form. And the consequence I see, down the line, is that the people whose views are most sorely missed in the academy, something HxA set out to address, will still not be represented, because those views may not have any evidence to offer that satisfies the requirement of academic quality. And excluding viewpoints because they are not presented academically (yet), due to a lack of respect, from my perspective would be a mistake.

What I believe needs to happen is to apply the same rigorous methods of inquiry to positions that one does not agree with, even if they are being expressed in a way that does follow the academic format, particularly for the value of inclusion and diversity!


One thought on “When and how the virtue of academic truth seeking can turn into a vice

  1. As you state, “academic truth seeking is an important goal.” I would go further and say that it is the central goal of any academic organization. It is the role of social, civic and political leaders to apply these findings to society.

    From any perspective, the role of truth, facts and evidence is paramount in any intelligent, productive discussion and here is where the Trump apologists fall down. Donald Trump tells multiple false and misleading statements every day and is increasingly relying on bald-faced lies to promote his administration and his actions. Granted, all politicians stretch the truth, but Trump, as Steve Bannon observed over the weekend, has turned factual misstatements into a vernacular. In other words, he has developed a language where facts and falsehoods flow together without any distinction, as long as it elevates the principal. An additional affront to truth and reason, both Trump and Bannon have previously stated that the definition of their beloved term, “fake news” is any coverage of Trump that is negative.

    So, in an academic organization that is focused on truth seeking, how could Trump or anyone who supports a person who holds truth and truth seeking in such low regard, be taken seriously? If you knew an academic paper was riddled with errors, falsehoods, and biased experiments, would you bother even reading it, let alone discuss it at a conference?

    This reminds me of the classic question of should a tolerant society be tolerant of the intolerant? You want respect for the Trumpian worldview, but the Trumpian world view does not offer large swaths of humanity, or the truth, any respect. Should we also be careful not to offend Nazis or holocaust deniers? How far does the toleration of the intolerant extend? Is there a limit?

    Lastly, the fact that a person voted for Trump has nothing to do with whether or not Trump is a good president. Much to the chagrin of Brietbart writers, having a point of view is not the same thing as having a point of view that can be taken seriously. Starting with a healthy respect for facts, evidence and truth seems like a low bar for entry in an academic setting, even for the demagogically orientated.


    Posted by Tom | June 18, 2018, 10:53 am

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