That’s the question I tackled in a recent essay at The Philosophers’ Magazine online, prompted by a conversation over coffee with Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU with whom I’ve had a number of disagreements about the intersection of social science, politics, and philosophy.
The article I comment on at TMP was suggested to me by Jonathan, and is by Bas van der Vossen. It was published in Philosophical Psychology with the title “In defense of the ivory tower: Why philosophers should stay out of politics” (behind paywall, unfortunately, but you can email the author for a copy).
The basic idea of the paper is that engaging in political activism, particularly on topics that are of direct concern to one’s scholarship, comes into conflict with one’s professional duties, and may undermine both the academic’s reputation within her field as well as her effectiveness as an activist. This is a notion from I naturally recoil, and that — if applied to both my careers as an evolutionary biologist and now a philosopher of science — would make me question my public engagement on behalf of science and critical thinking and against pseudoscience and mythical thinking. Still, van der Vossen’s argument is clearly laid out, and it is worth for any academic who is also doing “activism” to read it and to ponder it carefully before assessing whether what she is doing does in fact undermine her role as a professional educator.
van der Vossen’s concern is that engaging in political activism encourages people to think in partisan terms. This in turn carries two problems: i) the academic loses credibility with his own students and colleagues, since she is now seen as insufficiently detached from her subject matter to be able to make impartial judgments; ii) there is mounting evidence from cognitive science research showing that once one adopts a partisan position that person becomes even more susceptible than normal to a number of biases, particularly confirmation bias and in-group bias.
van der Vossen then proposes a precautionary principle, which he calls the Principle of Responsible Professionalism (RP): “People who take up a certain role or profession thereby acquire a prima facie moral duty to make a reasonable effort to avoid things that predictably make them worse at their tasks.”
As I said above, there is research backing up van der Vossen’s concerns. For instance, studies by Cohen, Haidt, Leary, Lerner, and Tetlock, have clearly shown over the past decade or so that the way we reason is strongly affected by our identification with a particular social group, to which we think we are accountable. This isn’t the case just in political philosophy, of course. Try telling a fellow evolutionary biologist that you are seriously entertaining arguments from intelligent design, or a skeptic of pseudoscience that you think there may be something to all this talk about extrasensorial perception. You are guaranteed to receive a strong and very negative response.
The problem that I have with these sociological studies, however, is that they pretty much ignore — by design, I think — the epistemic aspect of the issue. Consider, for instance, a creationist and an evolutionary biologist engaging in a public debate. Superficially, their language will be similar, both citing what they consider authorities on the subject matter; both deploying a number of rhetorical strategies; and perhaps both slipping into a logical fallacy or two. Moreover, they are both convinced not only that they are right, but that their opponent is seriously misguided and potentially dangerous (to public morality for the creationist, to science education and democracy for the biologist). Indeed, it is very possible that both built their presentations by indulging into a significant amount of confirmation bias, and their passion at the debate stems in part from a type of in-group loyalty.
But our analysis simply cannot stop there: at these levels, there is no way to tell the difference between the creationist and the evolutionary biologist. Yet — and I’m going out on a limb here — the creationist is fundamentally and irremediably wrong, while the biologist is much closer to how things really are.
Ultimately, that’s what complicates both Haidt’s general critique of publicly engaged academics, as well as van der Vossen’s more targeted points about political philosophers. That said, however, I think it would be to our own peril if we entirely dismissed such arguments. Cognitive biases are real, and academics are certainly not magically immune to them. And a reputation as serious scholars who can comment on matters of public importance while remaining super partes is a major asset not to be thrown away lightly.