Should Academics Stay Out of Political Activism?

ivory towerThat’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.

44 thoughts on “Should Academics Stay Out of Political Activism?

  1. Tim Harding

    I support academics commenting on political issues as a form of public education, but stopping short of endorsing a particular party or candidate so as to retain an appearance of independence and objectivity.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Robin Herbert

    I would sound one word of caution. Activism is an area of expertise in and of itself. Being thoroughly across your brief in your area does not, of itself, make a good activist.

    Take the Discovery Institute. I don’t doubt that they are fundamentally and irremediably wrong, but boy are they a tight and smart unit when it comes to activism. And they are also pretty well across their brief in a number of areas.

    For example on the day the BICEP2 results came out, the DI published an article confidently predicting the results would not hold up and stating exactly why they wouldn’t hold up. And the article was correct on both counts. At the same time the well known physicists were gushing about it and only making half hearted caveats about the results holding up.

    That is what you are up against. I have two friends who were members of the Gay Liberation Front in Britain from the early days and they both say that activism is a career choice and requires as much skill and commitment as most careers.


  3. SocraticGadfly

    I wasn’t thinking IDers vs. creationists, Massimo. I immediately thought of climate change, and rank after rank of rightist US politicians trotting out the tired old red herring trope, “I’m not a scientist, but … ”

    And, Tim, in a case like this, or gay rights and claims of “conversion therapy,” when the split among politicians pretty neatly follows party lines, scientific activism in the public square becomes a default version of party endorsement. (On other issues, like GMOs, while that’s largely a “green” issue, per Massimo’s link last week about people wanting to label food that contains DNA, it probably transcends parties more.(


  4. SocraticGadfly

    As to van der Vossen’s larger concerns, the answer isn’t less activism.

    Per the scientists themselves, it’s better activism with more self-reflectiveness, self-skepticism, etc.

    Per the public square, which, pace my comment above on in-group bias, people resisting the science behind the activism have even larger biases, the answer is better activism using research from social psychology to figure out how to better present the message.


  5. SocraticGadfly

    Robin, I don’t know about in Europe, but in the US, and seemingly in recent years in Canada, that seems to be an almost stereotypical right-left split, on being “on target” and “tight” on messaging and focus.


  6. Paul Braterman

    Reblogged this on Primate's Progress and commented:
    The dispassionate scientist is a myth (or perhaps a Stoic’s ideal). We all show personal involvement in our theories and research programmes, and confirmation bias when evaluating them. But if we stay out of political activism, that will deprive the public of the best informed opinion.

    And when we indulge in activism, then of course we should aim to do so competently. I consider public understanding of major issues to be a precondition for sane policy-making, and for this reason I regard my own efforts at public education as a form of activism.


  7. Daniel Kaufman

    Beyond the merits of the issue, there is also the perception, which is just as important. The general public already thinks that humanities and liberal arts faculty are a bunch of pinko liberals. Engaging in public activism only encourages this perception. (Certain disciplines, like sociology and anthropology, have been damaged to the point of near destruction, because of the perception — not entirely incorrect — that they have been adulterated by politics.) My university depends heavily upon the State legislature — full of conservatives — for its funding and thus, this sort of activism does us enormous harm.

    Surely, we’re all busy enough with our work, aren’t we?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Massimo Post author


    “I would sound one word of caution. Activism is an area of expertise in and of itself.”

    I agree, but perhaps here the word “activism” simply means political engagement, or even simply public advocacy.


    “the answer isn’t less activism. Per the scientists themselves, it’s better activism with more self-reflectiveness, self-skepticism, etc”

    Right, though that doesn’t really affect the author’s concern with bias and loss of credibility. I really don’t think there are easy answers here. I can see the near self-destruction of fields like cultural anthropology and sociology mentioned by Dan as cautionary tales. But at the same time I think it is my duty as intellectual to engage the public.

    “Surely, we’re all busy enough with our work, aren’t we?”

    Apparently not, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing two blogs every week, you wouldn’t have started the Electric Agora, and the two of us wouldn’t be doing our occasional series of philo-videos!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. SocraticGadfly

    Agreed on the “not too busy.” I have my main blog, a secondary blog which focuses on arts, aesthetics and philosophy, a third blog where I cross-post and expand on media-related posts from my primary blog, occasionally do something for Dan, and am part of a group blog about professional baseball.


  10. SocraticGadfly

    Michael, agreed. That said, even disclosure doesn’t matter. Look at the BS over the East Anglia climate emails. When people want to spin, they’ll spin. And, often, with big business $$ behind them. Even Folta’s case shows this. He was attacked by Corporate Big Organic.


  11. Coel

    I’d agree with Massimo’s comment that:

    But at the same time I think it is my duty as intellectual to engage the public.

    Certainly in the UK we’re judged on the “impact” of our research on wider society, and one can ask why the public would fund the research unless it influences wider society.

    In the areas where the truth of the matter is clear cut (e.g. creationism v biology) I don’t think there is a problem of bias of scientists. There likely is a problem, however, in areas of “soft science” where ideological advocacy is thoroughly entwined with the subjects. Personally I don’t really work in areas that are controversial, so don’t have to worry.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. michaelfugate

    SG, I am not sure there are any “good” sides in the GMO debate. Since GMOs themselves are not the problem, I have argued with scientists who think that means they should be promoted regardless. It is the collateral damage – losses of genetic diversity from locally adapted seeds to biodiversity loss due to monoculture/pesticide/herbicide/fertilizer overuse that is the problem. Of course, the “organic” lifestyle vibe is silly, but maybe not so dangerous – unless we all starve.


  13. Massimo Post author


    “In the areas where the truth of the matter is clear cut (e.g. creationism v biology) I don’t think there is a problem of bias of scientists. There likely is a problem, however, in areas of “soft science” where ideological advocacy is thoroughly entwined with the subjects.”

    Right, that’s my approach. If we are talking scientific facts of the kind that have been reasonably settled, then its education, not advocacy. But when we slide toward the ideological/political things get slippery.

    I still think that academics in those areas ought to write for the general public and present their opinions, but the more they move from that stand toward actual advocacy the more they risk losing credibility — not just individually, but even as a field, as the case of cultural anthropology (or of many “studies” programs) clearly shows.


  14. Philosopher Eric

    Massimo, while you did display due apprehension, I still don’t believe it’s wise to state the following:

    the creationist is fundamentally and irremediably wrong, while the biologist is much closer to how things really are.

    I appreciate the sentiment of course, though this should neither help our cause, nor technically be sound. Here you’re trying to challenge the faithful, and even when you cannot truly deny the possibility of a creator. I instead like to go about this by noting what the scientific community has done in recent centuries:

    Observe that there is only one way (beyond “faith” perhaps) to figure anything out. We take what we think we know (evidence), and then check its consistency against what we’re not so sure about (theory). Even a bird does this, I think. The scientific community recently emerged as we gained greater proficiency figuring things out, and seems to have quickly given us tremendous power. If the scientific community’s accepted understandings were generally false, then it just wouldn’t make sense that science would have given us such amazing abilities. Thus if associated scientists have generally decided that there are natural rather than supernatural explanations out there, then this position ought to be reasonable. Observe that before the rise of science, an argument this strong simply did not exist. Of course the faithful can always deny such reasoning, but what can’t they deny?

    From here I must venture off to my own “crusade”:

    If science has quickly given humanity tremendous power, what might happen without similar strides regarding the proper use of power? Personally I’d expect the exact sorts of horrors associated with our world today. Thus “science” (or fill in the blank if you like) will need to balance us out by teaching us how to effectively lead our lives, as well as structure our societies. The longer we delay, the worse things should become.


  15. Massimo Post author


    I know, the word “activism” is a bit loaded. But I for one certainly engage in public advocacy of science and equally public criticism of pseudoscience. Is that “activism”? Not in the traditional sense of the term. Does it have political consequences? You bet.


    “Here you’re trying to challenge the faithful, and even when you cannot truly deny the possibility of a creator.”

    Actually, my aim was a bit more narrow. I cannot deny the possibility of a creator in the deist sense of the term, nor am I interested in doing so. But I can pretty categorically deny that the universe is a few thousand years old. That’s the sort of creationism that was the target of my criticism.


  16. michaelfugate

    Eric, the “horrors” of today? How are they different than the “horrors” of yesterday? Why are they worse? Were we better off without science and with superstition? We have problems to solve today, we had problems to solve yesterday and we will have problems to solve tomorrow – science has altered what those problems are and are likely to be, but why so pessimistic?


  17. brodix

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It certainly makes sense to advocate for what you may have spent your life studying, but then it does draw a lot of blowback from those opposed to your point of view. Such is life.

    Personally I would say I’ve become increasingly apolitical.

    Liberals are inherently disorganized. The premise is inclusiveness, forward thinking, knowledge based, etc. But then when they try to make sense of some bigger picture, lines are drawn, structures are build, some groups gain advantage over others, for good reasons and not so good reasons, decisions are made, etc and they start acting like conservatives. Then it all devolves into infighting and the movement breaks down and branches out into all its most pure forms.

    Conservatism, on the other hand, is really all about order. If its some six thousand year old creation myth, some wild eyed Jewish revolutionary, or crazy Arab warrior that is the grain of sand at the center, what really matters is the thousands of years old pearl of culture that has grown up around it and some rationalizing professor, going on about evidence based theories, is no match for this generation’s culture warrior, upholding the tradition and protecting the faith.

    Consequently neither side really has any clue what is really going on. Yes, on the whole, liberals are individually smarter, but that means nothing, if they have no larger movement to get behind.
    While conservatives might not always be the brightest crayons in the box, their inherent bull headedness is always a useful tool for those actually running society. Until of course, even they start to realize what tools they are and Frankenstein’s monster escapes.

    Meanwhile those lawyers that cut their teeth on the tobacco settlements have taken their talents to the arms manufacturers and big oil and are getting paid gobs of money to keep the waters muddied. Why? Because, as Dan K implies above, money rules all.

    There is this fiction that government just creates money and its not backed by anything, which is nonsense. Money is a contract. Every asset is backed by a debt. In this case, public debt.

    For those of us who remember the 70’s, there was this problem called inflation and it meant more money chasing less goods, thus the money became less valuable. Presumably it was cured by higher interest rates and thus less money entering circulation. One way to do this is by the central bank selling debt it bought to issue that money in the first place. Along with people and companies being blamed for wanting more money for their services, hence, air traffic controllers being union busted.

    Unfortunately it slowed the economy and so less money was needed. Damn!

    Now inflation didn’t really start to come under control until about 82, by which time the Federal deficit was over 200 billion and that was real money in those days.

    The question I would ask is, what is the effective difference between the Fed selling debt it is holding and the Treasury issuing new debt? Other then the borrowed money gets spend on lots of public works pump priming, while the bonds sold to the public is more interest paid to the public.

    Now these bonds were sold to people with the excesses of wealth and savings needed to buy them. Which logically means the surplus of money in the system is in the hands of those with a surplus of money. Yet that would be politically uncouth to mention.

    And ever since, they keep finding ways to create and store enormous amounts of notional wealth, far beyond what the actual economy can support. So just consider for a moment, how much of this global warming and resource depletion is due to sustaining a system designed to extract notional value out of virtually every possible source and store it in these deep wells of excess wealth? Which necessarily makes everyone else extract a little more from the environment, or starve.

    Yet when people talk about global warming, is this an aspect of the issue that gets raised? Not likely. Why? Well, for one thing, the scientists which study the specific effects spend their time butting heads with people mostly trained to butt heads and everyone else is diverted by the spectacle.

    So that’s a small part of why I find myself increasingly apolitical. It is a diversion.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. SocraticGadfly

    Michael, tis true that loss of seed gene diversity is an issue. That said, it was with pre-GMO Big Ag hybrids. It is with corporatized Big Organic as well. Seed vaults help, but they’re not perfect. On the other hand, “standardization” of crops is like McDonald’s and has good as well as bad sides. The good is low cost, of course, and standardization of results.


  19. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo, virtually everything we do has political consequences. I would agree that some of what you describe would count as political activism on your part. But I would not agree that my editing a magazine constitutes political activism on my part.

    I was simply pointing out the very real and negative consequences of such activism, not just on fields of study, like anthropology and sociology, but on entire institutions, like state universities, in conservative states.

    So, yes, I am, for the most part, against it. Of course, people can do what they like.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. ejwinner

    Although I’m no longer in the academy, I admit I’m conflicted here. On the one hand, the understandable wish to maintain the reputation of the Academy as a whole (combined with some embarrassing examples of professors who stepped out too far for questionable causes) makes one appreciate van der Vossen’s essential claim. On the other hand, when I think of Russell’s protesting the First World War, or Dewey’s willingness to march against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, or Foucault’s dedicated efforts to protest the Soviet Gulag, and his later involvement in the movement for gay rights…. I mean, first, aren’t there some causes one simply ought to speak out on, regardless of profession? And don’t professors enjoy the same right to public commitment to causes as others? Perhaps the best idea would be for professors to engage in activism only in which they *don’t* have any expertise, just to make clear that they are speaking as citizens rather than as experts. Or perhaps the deployment of expertise is unavoidable, especially for philosophers…. Again, frankly, I just don’t know.


  21. Daniel Kaufman

    EJ: Of course professors retain their “right” to speak out on topics and even to engage in activism. And they may even be right, morally speaking, in doing so. I was simply pointing out a very real consequence in today’s political/educational climate. This may just be one of those times in which doing the right thing has bad results. Then, we have a difficult decision to make. I’ve made mine, and I’ll speak to it, but I’m not going out on missions to stop others from doing so or even to call them out on it. The consequences, however, are, I believe, as I described them.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. Philosopher Eric

    Hi Michael,

    It does feel strange to be perceived as a pessimist, when I actually consider myself to be an optimist. Anyway the reason for my negativity above stems from how humanity has become amazingly powerful, but without much credible theory from which to effectively put its power to good use. Observe that some of humanity is ruled by those who gain sufficient military power, while many governments simply seem like crap. Furthermore even in modern western countries there is widespread disagreement regarding productive personal and social policy. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a theoretical grasp of what’s good/bad for a given subject, and especially given that our modern power does bring the potential for tremendous mistakes to be made? Surely humanity didn’t have such vulnerability five, ten, and fifteen hundred years ago? Surely there is far more general suffering today?

    My own theory might be considered an “ethics,” though it concerns actual good/bad existence itself rather than morality. Perhaps philosophers will permit such study to enter their domain at some point, though I believe that our mental and behavioral sciences will require these kinds of understandings in order for them to advance.


  23. rommeytx

    Great post and outstanding thread. I am just listening to you all, with no intention to argue anything, Just a thought coming up to the surface after pondering on your comments…
    A conscious mind —humanistic— listens to everybody, engages it all, examines every proposition with self-reflectiveness, self-skepticism, and humility… not losing its own perspective but shifting it as one drinks from the fountain of knowledge. Then before we become witnesses, we should reflect on the oath we are asked to give.
    Fishing was a good mentor for me. It all starts with picking your waters, and selecting your jig and line for the purpose. When the fish nibbles, one doesn’t jump the gun. Waiting for the fish to take the jig is a Zen practice. Once you got your fish on the line, you follow the fish getting closer to it, rather than dragging it to you. Only when you got close enough to take it in, then you bring up your net and safely extract your fish from the water. If the fish is the wrong kind, then you put it back into the waters, thus letting it to complete its intended purpose in life…
    If we would use this approach when dealing with our lives, it would be a lot less unhappy people and a huge heap of waste wouldn’t have a chance of getting in our way… Just a thought, perhaps we got the assembling of it right…

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Massimo Post author


    I agree that editing the Electric Agora is not activism. But it is a type of public outreach, and I was simply responding to your “who’s got the time?” comment. We make the time, if we think it’s important enough.


    “Again, frankly, I just don’t know.”

    Exactly. I used to think the answer was an obvious yes. Haidt thinks the answer is an obvious no. Now I think this requires wisdom: some times yes, some times no, depending on circumstances, and with due safeguards and self-imposed limitations.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. David Ottlinger (@DavidOttlinger)

    Massimo, Dan,

    I’ve been trying to look into debates about activism within the academy and particularly what has happened to anthropology and related fields. I’ve just started searching Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle but I’ve been surprised how little I have found about the pitfalls of activism. It seems to me so far that only recently has this become an explicit discussion and that for the most part debate has been about how to be a better activist. If I am wrong I would love to be set right and any great articles anyone has seen would be much appreciated.


  26. Massimo Post author

    David, I think you are correct, there hasn’t been much discussion of this topic, as it has generally been assumed that of course activism is a good thing, and that naturally we don’t want to infringe on academic freedom (which is actually not the issue here).


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