Tag Archives: academia

Strike a blow for (and against) academic freedom

I am in favor of academic freedom. I am opposed to “academic freedom.” 

“America, meet the new creationism-in-sheep’s-clothing: The ‘academic freedom’ bill.” So begins Dana Liebelson on The Week, in an article on the latest version of the anti-science wedge being pushed into our schools. According to the National Center for Science Education, since 2004 more than 50 bills have been proposed that would require biology teachers to present conservative ideologies as science—in particular, the rejection of climate change and Intelligent Design (which I capitalize not to dignify it but to mark it as a dogma, distinct from engineering).

In the introduction to The Panda’s Black Box (Johns Hopkins, 2007), I traced the history of anti-Darwinist efforts and showed that they were getting simultaneously logically weaker and politically more potent. Each iteration, from the Scopes trial on down, has become more science-like and hence more insidious—harder to tell from the real thing. I wrote,

Thus, only vestiges of creationism remain in the public case for anti-Darwinism. On the current trajectory, one can easily imagine an anti-Darwinism so feeble that the Supreme Court cannot ban it. One must not forget that the so-called wedge strategy, the 1998 manifesto produced by the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, is to make anti-Darwinism superficially indistinguishable from science, and thereby to gain access for more strongly theistic doctrines in the public schools. But this fact does not weaken the point: anti-Darwinism today is rhetorically formidable but intellectually anemic.

My point was that anti-science rhetoric has, ironically, become increasingly scientistic—ever more committed to the principle of explaining everything with science—including opposition to particular scientific findings. (Evolution, climate change, and gravity are all both findings and theories—the former in the sense that they are by now incontrovertible; the latter in the sense that they generate predictions and testable hypotheses.) This is their proponents’ strategy for insinuating crackpot ideologies into science classrooms, in order to undermine data they find ideologically inconvenient.

“Academic freedom” is just that kind of feebler anti-Darwinism (and anti-climate change) that I was talking about. Conservatives have appropriated a term that used to be a justification for tenure, mainly bandied around by tweedy academics in their cups at faculty dinner parties, and turned it into a wedge for intelligent design and struthian opposition to the fact that it is getting warmer, perhaps inexorably.

For now, academic freedom bills have not done well in state legislatures. The NCSE lists only two out of the 51 attempts as successful (Tennessee and Louisiana). But six such bills have already been proposed in 2013—more than in all of 2012—which suggests a ramping up of the effort.

I will say that I think that the climate change debate and anti-Darwinism in all its 31 flavors ought to be taught in school—but not in science class. They belong in the humanities curriculum, as part of an effort to teach the social context of science. Teaching this stuff as if it were science hamstrings good teachers by diverting precious class time from the real thing—which harms our students. However, there is no doubt that these are real controversies. They are social and cultural controversies that use science as their weapons. The existence of “academic freedom” bills is a potent argument for teaching our children not just a scientific approach to science but also a humanistic approach to science.

In social studies or a history of science or STS (science and technology studies) class, bring it on: let’s teach the controversy. But leave them out of science class, for chrissakes.


Against turgidity as a quality measure in academia

It happened again last night.

I was at dinner with a group of smart, honest colleagues–a small table-ful of the people in my field I respect most. The conversation turned to another colleague, one who everyone at the table admires, not just as a scholar but as a force of nature. He is enormously productive, a serious scholar–and, damn him, he sometimes reaches a broad audience. In discussing this man’s recent work, one of my table-mates said, “I must confess: he writes so beautifully that sometimes I don’t trust what he’s saying!”

It was meant as a quip, but there was a serious point to it. I have heard this line for nearly 30 years. I’ve heard it in the sciences and I’ve heard it in the humanities. Among some academics, style is a demerit. Attention to rhythm or sonority or, Twain-help-you, wordplay, marks you as unserious, a mere Sophist rather than a Philosophe. Serious researchers are too invested in their ideas to pay attention to communicating them. They have been in the lab or the archive generating data, or in the stacks reviewing the historiography, or at their desktop spinning cotton candy out of the latest theoretical buzzwords. Attention to audience is mere marketing, a sell-out. Turgidity is the mark of a true scholar.

The fallacy involved in this slight on stylists is the confusion of pleasing with slick. Somehow they think that if your prose is graceful you must be doing something slippery that they don’t understand. You must not be revealing all your evidence, or your argument is merely clever instead of well-substantiated. The conflation, frankly, can only be made by someone so grossly unattuned to style that they can’t distinguish wit from reasoning–or persuasion from persuasiveness. But there are a lot of such people in academia, and some of them are distinguished scholars and scientists.

In a way, these crass critics are right. Style can be used to make a point. Scholars who I consider stylists (Hisa Kuriyama’s Expressiveness of the Body is a good example) use word choice, rhythm, sonority, image, and structure to help convey a point. It’s an idea journalists and English majors take in with their first undergraduate lattés: style operates on the aesthetic level, where argument operates on the rational level. A persuasive argument is layered, using evidence, argumentation, and aesthetic elements to make the case.

Pulling that off makes a piece more rigorous, not less. Whether it counts as good academic writing is another story.