Academics Should Not Be Activists

by Thomas R. Wells

Academics have a privileged epistemic position in society. They deserve to be listened to, their claims believed, and their recommendations considered seriously. What they say about their subject of expertise is more likely to be true than what anyone else has to say about it.

Unfortunately, some academics believe they have a right – or even a duty – to use their privileged position to shape society in the right way. They join organisations and campaign systematically for specific laws, policies, and political candidates. They tell their students who to vote for and help them organise protest marches. They launch boycotts of companies and countries they disapprove of.

Such activism is an abuse of academics’ privileged status that undermines the respect that academic expertise should command and the functioning of academia itself.

I

Academics’ expertise derives from their membership of specialized epistemic communities (what I have elsewhere called ‘truth machines‘) that develop methods to investigate particular issues or features of how the world works, whether that be the effects of international migration on labour markets or the geo-physics of climate change. The outcome of this is not that academics are guaranteed to be correct (just look at the history of science). It is that they have access to the best understanding of the topic that those people in the world most dedicated and able to investigate it have yet managed to figure out.

Academics are not perfect seekers after truth. They just have better methods and answers than anyone else. If you reject what relevant academic experts claim about something like GM crop safety then the burden of proof is on you to justify why you think you know better. Epistemology can be thought of as a bet. Imagine placing a $10,000 bet of your own money on whether global warming is real or not. Would you bet with the overwhelming consensus of the thousands of specialized scientists whose work is aggregated into the IPCC reports? Or would you go with the next best alternative: some consultant hired by Exon to talk up this year’s snowstorms on Fox News?

So much for why academic experts deserve our trust in the first place. The academic activist does not deserve this trust. They substitute righteousness for genuine expertise, all the while continuing to exploit the credibility that genuine academic experts deserve.

II

The first problem is that academic activists have overstepped their proper role as trusted advisers to society. Academic experts have a special epistemic authority to tell us of inconvenient but significant truths (such as climate change). That is a valuable informational service that can extend to advocating certain policy solutions. But it is the society as a whole that gets to determine the value of any particular piece of advice. Academics who believe that their ideas should rule society merely because they are true have misunderstood the division of labour in a democracy. We need specialists with appropriate training and resources to investigate complex, often non-intuitive matters of fact and to explain them to us. We don’t need those specialists to decide for us what we should do with those facts. That is a conversation and a decision we can all be a part of. In a democracy the people are in charge; not Truth.

When academics attempt to lead rather than merely inform the wider society they don’t merely contradict the ideal of valuational equality at the heart of democracy. They also bring politics back into academia. It was a hard and continuing struggle to carve out a space free from politics where people could be free to pursue the truth even if it were inconvenient to the powerful or to the masses. When activists reach out to intervene anti-democratically in political matters, they put the whole project of impartial truth seeking in jeopardy.

Academia becomes seen as nothing more than an extension of politics, of people demanding attention for their opinions, rather than an independent truth machine that serves democratic deliberation. Now when academics make a claim that is even mildly counter-intuitive or controversial, anyone who doesn’t want to believe it will simply refuse to accept its epistemic authority. They will attribute such claims to the politico-moral ideology of the researchers, rather than to the objective evaluation of evidence. That is, as bullshit at best and propaganda at worst.

The second problem is that activist academics misrepresent what they are doing. As academics they are supposed to be committed to following the evidence wherever it goes, to find the truth however inconvenient. This commitment to be on the side of the truth is what makes academic expertise trustworthy, in contrast to the mob of special interests and political partisans who also seek to ‘inform’ society. But the activist lacks this commitment. He has finished with the journey and arrived at the final destination. He believes he has discovered all the truth worth knowing on the subject, and has embarked instead on a new political project of implementation.

One of the more irritating results of this commitment to a higher Truth is that it seems to license a shameless disinterest in more ordinary truths. Activist organisations produce lots of fact-like information about their chosen cause, sometimes including lengthy research reports modeled on academic forms. But the form is deceptive. These are not works of investigation but of attention-seeking. They are what Harry Frankfurt would call bullshit.

Let me add a personal anecdote. I have occasionally attended an academic conference that turned out to be activist in character. The experience was strange. In a normal academic conference people are generally grateful when you point out a problem with their ideas and arguments. (I even sometimes think of academia as a gift economy founded on the reciprocal exchange of interesting problems.) Activist academics react with consternation and hurt to the gift of a problem. ‘But aren’t you on our side?’ For them, a conference is a political exercise; held to reinvigorate the unity, organizational structure, and motivation of the movement.

The third problem is that academic activists often misrepresent what they know. Some claim things about topics that lie outside the focus of the epistemic communities in which they trained and are an acknowledged valuable contributor. Such as the physicist weighing in on global warming, or the microeconomics professor debating the economics of Brexit. They have confused what they feel to be true with what they actually know. They may well be quite sincere, but sincerity is cheap. It is wisdom that is hard to get.

This confusion extends even to those topics on which the academic activists ought to be an expert. Activism has a pernicious effect on academic integrity because it stands the normal order of business on its head. The activist begins with the correct conclusion and then works backward to find the evidence that would justify it, while finding excuses to dismiss criticism and counter-evidence. Such motivated reasoning allows false opinions to masquerade as knowledge for decades.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

Marxism provides a classical example of this process in action (even motivating Karl Popper’s account of how a pseudo-science works). Marx himself formed his conclusion about capitalism in 1848, and then spent the rest of his life putting together the argument for it. As is typical of the activist, he spent a lot of his time criticizing and feuding with other socialists who didn’t quite share his Truth. His intellectual abilities and immense knowledge of political economy did not make him any more open to counter evidence. For example, he insisted on the Truth of the increasing immiseration of the working class even while, decade after decade, their living and working conditions improved.

III

Can academic activism ever be justified? I briefly consider three cases: the rights of academic-citizens; the ubiquity of ideology; emergencies like global warming.

Academics are not only members of epistemic communities engaged in trying to understand some aspect of the world as it truly is. They are also citizens, with all the rights to freedom of opinion and speech of any other citizen. Noam Chomsky, for example, is both an activist about global justice and a researcher who has made significant contributions to the field of linguistics. Chomsky may be a good example of the academic citizen exactly because his activism seems separate from his academic authority: no one listening to a speech by Chomsky about how terribly America oppresses other countries thinks they should believe him because he is a professor of linguistics.

That is, it doesn’t seem particularly problematic for academics to directly engage in political activities so long as they are careful not to mix that up with their academic expertise, in their minds or those of their audience. This would be greatly helped if universities would enforce a clearer distinction between academic and personal roles. For example by requiring activist academics to be active in their own time and not to mention their university position when they do.

Many of the academic sub-disciplines which have the worst reputation for activism (like gender studies, African studies, or Marxian economics) were founded in reaction to the perception that more mainstream academic fields are dominated by an implicit politico-moral ideology (such as androcentrism, eurocentrism, capitalism). Such complaints are not baseless. Yet this is nonetheless the wrong motivation to found a new epistemic community, since it will be set up as a political movement from the first and may never escape that identity. It is surely better to try to do good work within the original field that demonstrates the relevance of the things you consider important (the Darwin model), than to run off to found a new community of fellow believers (the Intelligent Design model).

Activist academics believe they have an urgent moral duty to try to change society, and that this requires more than providing society with the objective facts of the matter. They need to implement their beliefs on campuses; launch lawsuits; recruit their students to join protests; and so on. They see their privileged social position as academic experts as a valuable resource in this struggle for good over evil. Most of the time, I have argued, this does more harm than good. But might there be some genuine emergencies when academic activism is justified? For example, where addressing an inconvenient truth requires an inconvenient policy. Don’t the climate scientists who really understand the risk we are taking have a duty to engage in political activism to push their views about what should be done? Weren’t the economists who tried to protest anti-poor government austerity policies during the Great Recession right to do so?

Note however that this kind of activism still follows from the research rather than leading it. These researchers did what they were supposed to do – investigated how the world works with the best methodology they had available – and only then discovered the urgent problem. Further, the character of the problem is not in itself controversial. That is, pretty much everyone would already agree that things like prolonged mass unemployment and megawarming are very bad indeed. Intervening in politics to articulate this problem and one’s expert suggestions for what to do to prevent it does not impose one’s own private moral views on others in the way that other forms of academic activism seek to do.

 

***

As members of specialist truth machines, academics have a privileged view of how at least a part of the world really works, and thus a privileged ability to make pronouncements with high epistemic authority. Yet this also makes their pronouncements hard for the general public to scrutinise. Academic activists take advantage of this by illegitimately conflating their private moral beliefs with their special status, to produce opinions masquerading as the results of objective factual research. Unfortunately this behaviour quickly corrupts the very epistemic authority of academia which made it so attractive for activists in the first place. If academics want to engage in politics, that is their right, but they should clearly distinguish between the promotion of their personal opinions and their role as academic researchers, in their own minds and in those of their audience. Otherwise academia will become as politicised and unreliable as the billionaire funded thinktanks that churn out politically convenient truths day in and day out.

 

Thomas Wells is a philosopher in the Netherlands. He blogs at The Philosopher’s Beard.

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