Sunday, May 2, 2010

Harvard law school race flap
Tom Smith

Opinions galore can be reached via here.  The gist of it seems to be that a HLS student expressed in a private email to another student, who then helpfully made the email public, that she thought it was a scientific possibility that African-Americans were genetically disposed to be less intelligent than whites. And shortly thereafter TSHTF.  And so, as academics rather irritatingly say, what are we to make of this?

I think it's rather an instructive episode.  It does seem a pretty good example of a thought crime.  The young woman expresses a view that X is a scientific possibility, where X is a thing on the list of things that are not allowed to be the case, and the young woman is then exposed to what must be a traumatic degree of institutional opprobrium.  Surely this establishes that there is a list of things at Harvard Law School anyway of things that may not be thought, except utterly privately, and in no event expressed, not even privately, or at least not without plausible deniability, which email makes difficult. While I can see difficulties with such a policy, it would seem only fair, and consistent with the rule of law, to make this list public in advance, so students, staff and faculty know what things they should not think.  Had the student in question known in advance that X was a thought crime, she could have taken steps not to think it, and if she were to, she could have at least done so in a way so that she could claim she had not.  This latter especially is a good skill for a lawyer to develop.

Professor Volokh has elaborated his view (follow the links above) that a university is the sort of place where truth is the highest value and people should pursue it without fear or favor.  I agree with this insofar as I think it would be an interesting experiment to set up such an institution and see how it worked.  But I don't think it's wise to pretend this is what we have now.  I confess I wonder if such a thing is even possible, though in saying this, I might just be kidding.  At a minimum, before I come out as a hero of free speech and academic freedom, I would at least like to know what the costs and benefits are.

I fear I find the older I get, the skepticaler I get.  I guess I am a person of skepticaler.  I have my doubts that there really is a "g" or general cognitive ability, the thing that intelligence experts measure, or think they measure.  I doubt the ontological status of African-Americans, a group that I suspect would be hard to define scientifically.  I suspect that compared to the complexity of phenomena to be studied, assuming this is permitted, our current science is pretty primitive.

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Tom Smith


The net result of that Primitive Cult,
Whatever else may be won,
Is definite knowledge ere leaving college
Of the Things That Are Never Done.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins | May 2, 2010 12:17:55 PM

I do not always agree with your opinion Mr. Smith, but am with you 100% on this issue. What a refreshing change to see there are still some people who believe in both a free market and in free speech.

(note - you may want to change the link in your post, it contains an extra http://)

Posted by: Sam B | May 2, 2010 3:31:21 PM

well, just to be clear, I do believe strongly in both free markets and free speech. I just don't think universities are bastions of either.

Posted by: Tom Smith | May 2, 2010 5:00:51 PM

Sad, but true. Especially at many of the ivies.

Posted by: Sam B | May 2, 2010 8:12:20 PM

The idea of "free speech" at a university is absurd. The whole point of a university is to be a community of scholars dedicated to pursuing their intellectual disciplines with scrupulousness and rigor. Failure to adhere sufficiently strictly to the methodological standards imposed by a field of scholarship is grounds for rejecting an applicant, failing a student, or denying an appointment. How on earth is any of this compatible with the grand idea of "free speech"?

In fact, the very notion that a college campus should be a bastion of free speech is a fairly recent invention of the radical left. It was introduced by the Berkeley "Free Speech" movement, for whom "free speech" was a euphemistic license to use rioting, harassment and intimidation to suppress political opposition and coerce cooperation from university administrators. Their cry has lately been borrowed by conservatives, primarily because the campus activism confronting hostile administrators today is more likely to be conservative than radical-leftist.

However, free speech for campus conservatives is hardly capable of curing modern academia's many ills--a stifling political orthodoxy, a bloated body of faculty pursuing meaningless, obscurantist "research", and above all a lack of motivating purpose beyond personal and institutional self-preservation and self-perpetuation. An academic institution that has a meaningful, socially useful and well-understood mission has no need for "free speech"--it's too busy studying and educating to worry much about either political orthodoxy or challenges to it. Conservative (or simply non-leftist) scholars with a clear vision of such an institution--and it's actually far from easy to formulate, so many are the ills that plague academia these days--need to build their own institutions that embody that vision. They accomplish little by begging for protection within the rotting carcasses of the existing ones.

Posted by: Dan Simon | May 2, 2010 11:40:42 PM

Ah, Mr Simon, you are calling for a Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Posted by: dearieme | May 3, 2010 2:33:01 AM

Eugene Volokh is an authority on censorship, which he practices in spades on his blog. There are many thoughts he will censor. Try just correcting his lousy grammar sometime to see what happens!

Posted by: Jimbino | May 3, 2010 6:27:11 AM

Dan -- I can't tell whether I agree with you or not. What I mean by free speech in an academic context is that a researcher should be free to pursue the truth wherever it leads him. I don't think math teachers should have the freedom to teach their students that 2+2=5. It's not just conservative activists who face opposition from academic powers that be. It can also affect for example young scholars whose thinking is leading them away from current orthodoxy. A lot of what passes for education is moreover just indoctrination in various social and political theories that are either just false as a matter of fact, or embody philosophies of life that are likely to lead to unhappiness if adopted by the students on whom they are pushed. Resisting that may look like conservative activism, but resistance anyway is warranted. But I agree complaining about entrenched left wing ideas at universities does little good and that the better approach is to build alternative institutions.

Posted by: Tom Smith | May 3, 2010 7:12:22 AM

The fact that some ideas simply cannot even be thought - even where there may be a solid foundation for them to be true - is a dangerous downfall point for academia. It is the point where academia goes from being Gallileo and Copernicus to the institutional inquisitors who persecuted them.

Posted by: km | May 3, 2010 8:17:48 AM

Actually, the email was not quite that it was a scientific possibility that Blacks were geneticaly predisposed to be less intelligent than Whites, as you characterize it. What the student was even less positive than that, rather that she could not exclude such possibility. For those of who still think that words matter, there is a distinction.

When we examine the criticism of this position, we are moved to sadness. The only explanation for this degree of distortion is that the harpies descending one one who has done no more than observe that the evidence does not exclude such a possibility, are themselves convinced that their position cannot stand being put to the test of the marketplace of ideas.

The pathos is overwhemling. Pity the self-contempt which clings bitterly to almost facetious explanations for mountains of evidence.

Posted by: Lou Gots | May 3, 2010 9:05:47 AM

“This is technique was invented by the Maoists in the Cultural Revolution. Put someone in a chair, and surround them with a dozen close friends and associates. One by one, each of the people in the circle tells the person in the middle what they most dislike about them (and none of them offer any defense of the surrounded person). This technique completely shatters the person, and can actually induce a nervous breakdown.”

Posted by: mark | May 3, 2010 9:52:13 AM

Tom, you're conflating "free speech" and "academic freedom". The latter is the idea that scholars should be free from interference from meddling authorities who place politics, religion or some broader purpose above scrupulous, rigorous scholarship.

It's a lovely ideal, but not only is it not the solution to academia's problems--it's not even in serious jeopardy. On matters of political orthodoxy, university administrations these days meekly submit to the faculty consensus, not vice versa. (Case in point: Larry Summers.) If the community of scholars groans under the lash of excessive conformist pressure, then it is an entirely self-imposed bondage.

The simple fact is that the discipline of peer review is a vital part of the pursuit of serious scholarship, and works reasonably well in cases where good-faith researchers are pursuing a well-defined, worthy and achievable goal. Unfortunately, these cases form an increasingly marginal subset of the research academy as a whole. The norm is rather a community of intellectual fashion-conscious trend-followers, who simply generate "scholarship" tailored to appeal to the ephemeral tastes of their colleagues, without the slightest concern for its value to anyone on the outside. These communities, moreover, are forever growing, splitting and changing over time, producing new pointless subfields and submethodologies within which subpar researchers can produce subpar research and still flourish.

Demanding that conservatives be offered a piece of this stinking, decomposing pie is a waste of effort. Better to bake a new pastry from scratch.

Posted by: Dan Simon | May 3, 2010 2:20:29 PM

Well you have obviously thought about the argument that conservatives should be "protected" within the academy and I'm not unsympathetic to your view. In a field such as law, I would argue that it is a bad thing that those on the right in certain fields such as con law, environmental law and so on are discriminated against, but perhaps you would not disagree with that. Tyranny of the majority consensus is still tyranny, however, and it seems to me that is a problem for such as Larry Summers, though he does seem able to take care of himself well enough.

But as to free speech, I still think there is an important role for free speech within the academy. It seems to me quite important that people informally and formerly be able to say what they think are true things and to take positions for the sake of argument, without taking the risk that their reputations will be sullied by accusations of racism, etc. Not every statement made in an academic discussion is going to be peer reviewed. Conversation and debate is an important part of both professional development and education of students. Seems to me you need a norm of free speech to keep that going.

Posted by: Tom Smith | May 3, 2010 3:00:35 PM

Tom, I understand your point, but I don't think "free speech" is the norm you're looking for. There are plenty of crackpots in academia who have latched onto one or another bizarre belief, and are ostracized as a result. This is perfectly appropriate--there's no rule that says that, say, an astronomy conference needs to give equal time to Velikovsky theorists.

Of course, you didn't mention accusations of Velikovskianism, but rather accusations of racism. What I take you to mean is that an astronomy conference should stick to astronomy, and not declare astronomical theories to be unacceptable on political grounds such as opposition to racism. And that's quite reasonable--except that "free speech" doesn't distinguish among grounds for ostracism. "Free speech" is precisely about content neutrality--and therefore must apply equally to the IQ theorist and the Velikovskian.

The more important ideal, I'd argue, is what I'd call "good-faith" scholarship. It's characterized, as I suggested earlier, by consensus around a set of well-defined, worthy and achievable goals. In a community of good-faith scholars, accusations of racism would simply not come into play in a scholarly discussion, since they would obviously be irrelevant to the community's consensus goals.

Unfortunately, good-faith scholarship is slowly but surely being crowded out by the bad-faith kind. There are many reasons for this, most of which have to do with the politics, economics and demographics of academia, rather than with any kind of intellectual crisis in society at large. (Indeed, there's plenty of fine scholarship going on all over the world--it's just that very little of what goes on in universities these days qualifies as such.)

The underlying forces driving the corruption of academia are unlikely to be impeded by earnest, well-formulated calls for reform, let alone cries of "free speech". What's needed is a clear-eyed recognition of the depth and breadth of the problem, and a willingness to consider some fundamental rethinking of the basic institutions that we associate with scholarship. My own hunch is that this recognition and rethinking will actually come sooner rather than later, and that the complacent denizens of the modern university are in for a very, very rude awakening.

Posted by: Dan Simon | May 3, 2010 4:15:29 PM

Hmmm. Well, that's interesting. I see your point. What are the factors leading to this corruption in your view and why do you think a restructuring is likely to happen?

I see your point that persons who are dragging the discourse down have to be ostracized. You can't have idiots disrupting a serious philosophy conference for example. But then I'm not sure what norm it is that prevents people from shouting down scientists whose work they feel is too un PC to be endured. These censors are acting in what they think is good faith. The sociobiology debate is a good example of this. Lowentin and Gould really thought they were doing science a favor by trying to stop E A Wilson's work from getting out. Yet now second or third generation sociobiology, under other names, is standard in biology departments, so I take it that argument has been settled. Yet Lowentin and Gould are/were nothing if not convinced of the correctness of their views. Hard to accuse them of bad faith.

Posted by: Tom Smith | May 3, 2010 6:36:41 PM

Perhaps "good-faith" and "bad-faith" are the wrong terms, since they suggest the primacy of individual motivation, which I don't think is all that important. (Most Velikovskians are also acting in good faith at some level, after all, as were Leewontin and Gould, as you point out.) Rather, what matters is that entire disciplines exhibit what I'd describe as good-faith behavior: adoption of a set of consensus goals for the discipliine that are well-defined, achievable, genuinely intellectual (as opposed to political or economic) and of clear value to those outside the discipline--and ideally, outside academia altogether. A field that behaves this way is much more resistant to factional battles, political dogmas or obscurantist ratholes, because the consensus goals will pull its scholars away from such distractions and towards more productive pursuits. And conversely, the fields that most easily fall victim to these pitfalls are the ones that most sorely lack such "good-faith" goals.

How did "bad-faith" disciplines come to dominate academia? There are many factors, of course, but by far the most important, I think, is the absurdly excessive growth of academic research over the past sixty-odd years. Back when a tiny percentage of the population went to college, it made sense for this true elite to be taught by only the finest scholars. But as the college-going cohort expanded, the rule that college faculty must all be world-class researchers distorted academia beyond recognition. The average quality of research declined precipitously, as hordes of mediocre new faculty flooded new and expanded universities, looking for a way to demonstrate their "scholarship". The proliferation of third-rate research--obscure, pointless, intellectually empty and/or outright dishonest--thus became a de facto necessity, and entire fields and organizations sprang up for the sole purpose of dressing up this make-work junk as serious research. Eventually, these mediocre faculty became the heart, soul and voice of academia, with the inevitable consequences.

As for why I think the current structure is doomed, my argument is basically economic. The academic corruption I've described depends crucially on the research community's monopoly power over post-secondary education and credentialing. They exploit reputation-based high barriers to entry--who, after all, would trust, let alone pay for, a diploma from an institution shunned by all the established ones?--to extract monopoly rents from students (and from taxpayers, who understandably want to try to help students survive the crushing cost of these rents).

But monopolies don't last forever, and eventually someone--probably with the help of modern "distance learning" technology--will crack the difficult nut of creating truly reputable college degree programs without paying rent to researchers. Such degrees will of course come at a fraction of the price of traditional college degrees, and will thus be able to attract a large number of high-quality applicants, who can be taught and credentialed at scale, draining critical resources from traditional institutions. The latter might well end up going the way of today's obsolete local "dead tree" newspaper.

Posted by: Dan Simon | May 3, 2010 10:19:21 PM

It seems interesting that the prior dean, Elena Kagan, back in 2007 failed to publicly attack a racist e-mail sent by a student, even after several students asked her to address the matter:

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