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From the File Marked “This Can’t End Well”

25 Nov, 13 | by Iain Brassington

… and cross-referenced with the file marked “You Wouldn’t Let It Lie”.

Francesca Minerva has a paper in Bioethics in which she refers – none-too-obliquely – to the furore surrounding The Paper Of Which We Do Not Speak.  Her central claim is that there is a threat to academic freedom posed by modern communications, inasmuch as that a paper in a journal can now attract to the author intimidation and threats.  A case in point would be The Paper.  But, she claims, it’s vital to the academic exercise that people be able to knock ideas around.  This ability is limited by things such as the response to The Paper; academic freedom is therefore threatened.

Yeah, but no.  I think it’s reasonable enough to say that academic progress depends on the free exchange of ideas, and that there should be no sacred cows.  Sometimes conventional ideas turn out to be untenable or flat-out wrong; and we tend to take it as axiomatic that it’s desirable to have fewer wrong ideas.  (I suppose we could imagine a culture that is satisfied with its opinions as they are, and is not bothered by their truth so much as by some other value they might have, such as their ability to promote social cohesion; but I’ll leave such cultures aside for the moment.)  I’d go along with the idea that we shouldn’t back away from controversial claims, on the basis that repugnance is no objection to the truth of a claim; that if a claim’s true, we should accept it as best we can, like it or not; and that if a claim is false, we shouldn’t have cause to fear its articulation, because we can take it that it won’t survive scrutiny.

And I’d agree that some of the responses to the paper – and to Julian’s defence of publication – were indefensible, and that this is so irrespective of the merits or demerits of the paper or the defence.  But not all of them were.  While some were from obvious dingbats and keyboard warriors (Jonolan remains even now the sole occupant of the banned commenters list here – and I rather suspect that he rather enjoys that honour), other responses were from people whom one might think wrong, but whose response was nonetheless worth taking seriously because it was much more considered and at least on the face of it amenable to argument – which is what academic discourse is all about.

Does any of this tell us about threats to academic freedom, though?  I don’t think so.  I struggle to see how you can claim that your freedom is under threat when the very paper you have in mind and that you’re using as an example of the kind of thing that’s allegedly threatened was accepted, was published, and is still available to be read.

While it’s true that the internet has meant faster and wider dissemination of ideas, and that it has a very long memory… well, it has a very short memory too, precisely because it allows for such huge dissemination of information.  Just about everything gets overwhelmed almost straight away; and it’s hard to stay angry, as Homer demonstrates.  Things stay on the internet for a long time; but they also stay on the printed page for a long time.  More people see online stuff – but isn’t that a good thing?  Isn’t it odd to complain that research is insufficiently hard to find, and to dress that complaint up as a claim about academic freedom?

Other points Minerva raises strike me as being a little melodramatic:

As the majority of the emails we received were sent from people in the USA, we have been advised against presenting talks in the States for the next year or so.  If this precaution were actually necessary, it constitutes a significant limitation on our professional freedom.

Hmmm.  Note the grammatical twist in the final sentence: we go from an if clause, to an is.  If it were necessary, it might well constitute a limitation.  But we don’t know if it is necessary.  We’re dealing with hypotheticals; and it’s a hypothetical that isn’t a new threat to academic freedom anyway – not least because any work on abortion already attracts its fair share of wingnuts, especially in the States.  Either way, to publish a paper defending infanticide and expect not to face at lesast a similar blowback is… well, a touch naive.

She continues:

Our productivity decreased for the weeks following the publication of the paper, while we were worn down by the hate emails and requests for interviews from journalists.  More generally, thinking and writing are activities that require a minimal level of tranquillity, something we certainly lacked in those weeks.

Whole weeks, eh?  Gee, whizz.  Also, anyone who has teaching and administrative responsibilities is doubtless going to be wondering when they get this tranquility.  I hate to sound like the chippy provincial here, but: really.  Come on.

Minerva’s suggestion is that papers be published anonymously.  As she admits, this is not a new idea; and I think that some of the coverage of The Paper that I saw in the mainstream media was not only over-personal, but outright leery, so I can understand the basis for the thought.  On the anonymity proposal,

papers may still elicit hateful reactions from the public and the media, but these would be directed at the idea itself rather than at its author.  A difference that is often forgotten in this kind of public pillory is that between the person who proposes an argument and the argument itself.

I’m sympathetic.  But I do still think that the case for anonymity is unconvincing.  The main reason for this is that it’s not a guarantee of academic freedom, but rather a distortion at best, and maybe a harm to it.  Minerva suggests that

if the author agrees, we could also consider disclosing her name (e.g. added to the online version of the paper, or just published on the Website of the journal) after a certain amount of time, for instance five years.  The time interval between the publication and the disclosure of the name should be long enough to let the possible media storm calm down and to make sure that any debate about a paper focuses on the ideas there developed, rather than being directed at the author.


Image via IshiatamaMoggy

But this wouldn’t work.  Maybe debate in journals could continue in its sedate way, and we’d see sentences that begin with phrases like “What Author w26/qxv argues is that…” instead of “What Smith argues is that…” – but it’d mean that students or other readers who wanted quick clarification on a particular point would be unable to get it.  It’d mean, too, that people couldn’t give papers a dry-run in conferences, unless they wore a bag on their head – or that conference attendees would be forbidden from talking about papers they heard afterwards.  The proposal would be, in other words, unworkable, and undesirable.  It’d stultify academia, not guarantee its freedom.

Besides: even if editors would know the identity of authors, that wouldn’t stop authors using anonymity to publish a string of papers in several journals with different editors in which they praise their own contributions lavishly.

One of Minerva’s other proposals seems even stranger to me.  The name of a paper’s author, she suggests,

should always be disclosed to the head of the department where the scholar works.  When publishing an anonymous paper, journals could notify those who directly deal with the author and inform them about the research, so as to allow the department to make informed decisions about whether or not to retain a certain person as an employee.

No, no, no.  One of the things academic freedom means is that your HoD doesn’t get to tell you what you can and can’t do.  I can see that anonymity might protect against the collateral damage that a controversial paper might do to a department as a whole, but why should the HoD have the veil lifted?  The fact that there’d be less chance for others to be associated with a paper against their will under anonymity would give colleagues less reason to be bothered; but it’d also mean that there’d be a much higher chance for Heads to use their privileged information to take decisions about recruitment on a personal basis, and for it not to be scrutable.  It’s not as if there isn’t bitchiness and back-stabbing in any given department.  Letting the HoD know simply allows him to play politics, and is, as such, a much bigger threat to academic freedom than would be any number of spotty World of Warcraft obsessives who like the idea of killing a few academics but who are in reality too scared of sunlight even to go outside.

Yes, a lot of the response to The Paper was nasty.  Yet it was hardly surprising; and it was hardly new; and it was hardly a threat to academic freedom.  By contrast, anonymity would, at best, replace those problems with other ones that may be new and may be genuine threats to academic freedom.

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  • Mike Sullivan

    Maybe Minerva and co are confused about being accountable for their own actions. If she advocates killing new borns with Down syndrome, she will be held accountable and our community will hold her responsible.

    Maybe one day, she may even bother to involve people with Down syndrome in her ideas. It is, after all, unethical to exclude them their families from discussions that effect them.

    • Iain Brassington

      I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. What do you mean by being accountable? Accountable for what?

      And I don’t think that Minerva was excluding anyone from any discussion. (Have you read the paper?) Rather, she – like pretty much every philosopher – was examining an argument and following where it goes. She may have made an argumentative misstep – lots of people think that – but the idea that that misstep has been to exclude anyone from discussions about them mischaracterises what the paper was doing, doesn’t it?

  • Murf Mensch

    What if a journal were to use a pseudonym for a little while and then release the name a little later. This could be all that is needed to prevent mounting internet fury. It is important to remember that she listed death threats among her problems. That is more than “nasty”.

    Jason Burke Murphy

    • Iain Brassington

      I’m not convinced that that’d solve the problem (or, actually, that there’s that much of a problem to begin with). There’d still be the upshot that there could be no discussion of papers except via the printed medium, for example.

      If death threats are issued, it shouldn’t be the person to whom they’re issued that has to change.

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