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. more…