Why academics should steer clear of public debate

Are these the sorts of speakers you go to a university to hear? AAP.

The most important issue raised by Lord Monckton’s controversial appearance on two Western Australian campuses is not the limit of free speech or Monckton’s scientific competence. Rather it is whether research-focused universities should take an active part in public debate at all.

While the idea of universities having a greater role in public policy is popular, in the end their primary focus should be research.

Allowing universities to become too political can be problematic as ultimately they could be seen to be endorsing some views over others.

Diverse views or a question of credibility?

Michael Levine, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Western Australia (UWA) advanced the argument against giving Lord Monckton a hearing when he observed that:

“It’s not about free speech. The issue is about the best available scientific evidence and the kind of speaker one wants to hear on this type of issue.”

Presumably everyone prefers to hear the best available evidence and most credible speakers on global warming but one suspects that if, say, actress Angelina Jolie chose to use UWA as a platform to sound a clarion call about climate change the protests about competence would be considerably more muted, if at all audible (and the queue to the lecture hall much longer).

One also doesn’t imagine that the famed Oxford Union had scientific authority foremost in mind in 2010 when it invited former Baywatch star, Pamela Anderson, to speak on vegetarianism and its impact on the environment.

Ms Anderson followed in Kermit the Frog’s hop steps who was invited some years earlier by the Union to speak about “going green”, beginning with students’ dorm rooms.

The point is that celebrity endorsement of popular causes is an established tradition in the ivory tower. There is no reason to believe that universities need more protection than the public against exposure to Lord Monckton’s controversial ideas.

Should academics engage with policy?

It is fair to note that the opponents of Lord Monckton speaking on campus were most likely not so much concerned with censoring him for his campus audience but rather anxious to ensure that his views on climate change were not lent undue credibility in the public’s eyes by seeming to be endorsed by a university.

It is understandable to wish to avoid giving charlatan views – or at least ideas one considers charlatan – a spurious authority.

But this is where the role of universities as institutions designed for fundamental inquiry becomes untenable with the popular view of universities as would-be actors in political debate.

The latter view was implicit in an argument by Peter Shergold, Chancellor of University of Western Sydney, when he asked: “Why does Australia’s large public investment in research and development contribute so little to addressing the political response to the nation’s economic and social challenges?”

See Peter Shergold’s Response here

It seems a reasonable question and there is a plain answer. Pursuing the fundamental inquiry for which research universities are designed is not compatible with addressing the political response to economic and social challenges du jour.

Political responses entail actions with substantive consequences. The smear tactics observed in the debate on climate change legislation is indicative of what participants in politically charged debates can expect to face.

Freedom to research

It’s not that academics are new to the hand-to-hand combat of political engagement. After all, it’s a rare faculty meeting that doesn’t end with some witticism about academic bunfights being so bitter because the stakes are so small.

The issue is that academic researchers work effectively only when they are free to address the (ironic) certainty that knowledge is tentative and not defined in absolutes.

Political activity involving matters of consequence and engaging the wider public isn’t conducive to conveying inquiry that admits shades of grey and with conclusions hedged by subtle and numerous qualification yet this is the nature of just about all scientific inquiry, including that on climate change.

When research gets political

Notwithstanding the above, there comes a time when the research evidence on a particular issue seems so overwhelming and the consequences of not acting on it so severe that some scientists will feel a moral obligation to enter the political sphere.

This is a fine and commendable stand but those scientists who do so should expect that at this point the gloves come off and, almost inevitably, further scientific work by them becomes almost impossible to carry out as the political dynamic of policy-making overwhelms their capacity to convey nuanced, qualified argument.

It can be a heady and exhilarating experience for any institution to be part of an effective campaign in a great cause. Ultimately, however, a university and its researchers individually must ask the question, what is the level of political engagement compatible with disinterested scientific activity?

Those who reap the political whirlwind should beware the consequences.

It’s widely believed that the increasingly quaint seeming university tradition of granting tenure allows academics to speak freely without fear of losing their job. This rationale for tenure lends implicit support for academic engagement with pressing controversial social issues, however, the interpretation is misguided.

Tenure features at universities not so much to facilitate politically charged debate but rather to foster scientifically risky lines of inquiry.

The reality is that one will find more politically controversial statements in any edition of the local community newspaper than in the typical university newsletter, which is as things should be.

Tenure is granted to facilitate well-regarded academics to pursue what their colleagues might regard as unpromising or even boring lines of research. As has been recently documented by economists Pierre Azoulay, Joshua Gra, and Zivin Manso in “Incentives and creativity: Evidence from the academic life sciences” this freedom from strict accountability is more likely to generate radical innovation.

Do we expect too much?

In the end, the key mistake we make is to expect too much of universities. They are but one kind of institution in the social order.

Teaching and engaging in fundamental inquiry are endeavours most effectively pursued without the distraction of attending to the political issues of the day.

This argument is not original. The University of Chicago’s impressive roster of 85 Nobel Prize winners underpins its status as one of the world’s leading universities, however, a former president of Chicago, Edward Levi, cautioned against viewing universities as the vehicles for social change and leaders in public debate.

Levi observed: “There is an enormous and erroneous temptation to jump from the spectaculars of the applied group work of science to the assumption that this kind of strength is the normal and proper attribute of the teaching research institution which is a university. The assumed importance of universities for a particular kind of national strength is disconcerting.” [emphasis added]

As I hope I have shown, there is good reason the halls of academe are cloistered.

Read Peter Shergold’s response to this article here. What’s your point of view? Leave your comments below.

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