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. Daniel Kaufman

    David: Anthropology’s objectivity has been questioned since, at least Margaret Mead. The damage you speak of is something that we see in the struggling of these disciplines. (Social Psychology has had similar problems.)


  2. michaelfugate

    Eric, we have always been vulnerable to extinction like any other species on the planet. The Black Death killed 30-60% of Europe in less than a decade. Can you imagine what that was like? Can you imagine losing most of your children before the age of five? We are often arrogant and short-sighted, we often assume we know more than we do, but has that changed?


  3. ejwinner


    The problem is that Jussim’s right-wing bias is just as evident as Lewandowsky’s left-wing bias, as is his activism, given that his work has largely been to justify the use of stereotypes in social policy.

    I’ll quote one of the more level headed comments to that article: from infovoy:

    “You’re ignoring what a stereotype is. They are not ‘simply beliefs about a group of people’ but ones specifically for use in the act of stereotyping, that is, in assuming that statistical generalizations about groups hold for individuals in those group, without knowing them.

    Therefore, while statistical generalizations can be right or in error depending on their accuracy stereotypes are always in error by definition, regardless how well they predict.

    You could of course disagree by thinking it’s fine to make assumptions about individual people without knowing them and this would then be the core disagreement here. But the short term for that is ‘prejudice’.”


  4. Coel

    Hi ej,

    Jussim’s right-wing bias is just as evident as Lewandowsky’s left-wing bias, as is his activism, given that his work has largely been to justify the use of stereotypes in social policy.

    I’m interested, can you give some pointers to Jussim’s “activism” supporting the use of stereotypes in social policy?


  5. ejwinner


    Well, I read some posts at Jussim’s rather overtly political blog “Rabble Rouser” at Psychology Today, some reasonable enough, some rather question-begging, but all with an undeniable agenda for making a space for conservatives in the social sciences; and perhaps they should have more space, although I don’t see that balancing one bias against another gets you more than two wrongs butting heads. At any rate, the activism is apparent simply in the nature of the blog.

    Beyond that, my initial response was to a summary by Lehmann in the article you linked: “Jussim and his co-authors have found that stereotypes accurately predict demographic criteria, academic achievement, personality and behaviour.” The implications of this, if true, could have enormous impact on social policy.

    But the trouble is, while Jussim’s charges of research bias on the left may have some truth to it, Jussim’s has a terminological bias toawrd the right – that is, he decides in advance what he would be looking for – How ‘political correctness’ pressures people into lying or treating minorities with leniency, or how ‘liberal bias’ restricts research, etc.

    So, I’m willing to say (for now), a curse on both houses; I’m not persuaded to allow Jussim’s own biases and let him off the hook.


  6. Coel

    Hi ej,

    … summary by Lehmann in the article you linked: “Jussim and his co-authors have found that stereotypes accurately predict demographic criteria, academic achievement, personality and behaviour.” The implications of this, if true, could have enormous impact on social policy.

    It’s also possible that that might be true, and yet be relatively inconsequential for social policy for exactly the reason that you give.

    For comparison, I’m pretty convinced that there are significant differences in the *averages* of the behaviours of men versus women (for example, men are about 10:1 more likely to be jailed for violent crime, an imbalance that seems to hold across times and across cultures) and yet that has relatively little consequence for how we treat any given individual.


  7. Philosopher Eric

    Yes Michael, I do see a fundamental type of change which has occurred as humanity has become more powerful, so let me try to clarify. The Black Death could certainly be used as one example. Here a horrible pathogen arose, though it was through the power of the people to travel from city to city that led to the devastation in Europe. Thus a counteracting social policy might have been helpful. Obviously whatever killed off the dinosaurs might kill us off as well, but power, whether resulting in the bombs that we build or emissions that we spew, should certainly bring its own vulnerabilities. Thus as we become more powerful, we should require corresponding understandings of how to effectively use it. If a really clever pathogen were to surface today, would the governments of our world react decisively and strongly enough to sacrifice thousands rather than doom millions or billions? Hindsight is 20/20, though most of us do not seem all that confident about government effectiveness.

    “Apocalypse,” however, isn’t really my point. I’m talking about the welfare of a progressively more powerful animal, which seems quite clueless about what is theoretically good for it. Yes science brings us power, but what field addresses the proper use of power? None that I know of. Instead we have various interest groups which fight things out.

    In the present post for example, Massimo is questioning whether or not the academy ought to engage in political activity (and especially, I could add, given that it seems so far left that it could be paraded with movie stars on the red carpet 🙂 ). But is it not possible to get down to the fundamentals? What, theoretically, is good/bad for any given subject?

    Now you could tell me that I’m looking for an answer when there truly isn’t a problem, or say that I’m trying to solve a problem, which truly has no answer. Either way I think you’d raise few eyebrows. Nevertheless I am indeed trying to help humanity develop a field from which good/bad can be theorized for any given subject, and I believe that the success of this field will become progressively more critical, as we become progressively more powerful.


  8. michaelfugate

    If a really clever pathogen were to surface today, would the governments of our world react decisively and strongly enough to sacrifice thousands rather than doom millions or billions?

    Um, Ebola? Go read some Paul Farmer, you might be enlightened. You have addressed the past at all – it wasn’t better. Do you want to move forward? If so, don’t diss science.


  9. brodix


    “It all starts with picking your waters, and selecting your jig and line for the purpose.’

    The fish and the fishermen are as connected as the puppet and puppet master. The fox and the rabbit, the lover and the loved, the left and the right.
    It is all connected. So select that which you oppose, as carefully as that which you compose. Our boundaries are what give us definition and meaning.

    Which goes to the issue in question; How to express yourself, without becoming too ensnared. Carefully. Take only what you need. Give what you can afford. Excess creates its own problems.


  10. Philosopher Eric

    Ah, I get it now Michael. Yes I’ve adopted various extreme positions, and thus some may take them disrespectfully. I don’t know if you have much stake in a field like psychology, for example, though I must presume that I’ve left a few associated professionals muttered under their breaths over the two years that I’ve been blogging. In truth I do simply seek constructive conversation, and so if issues with my position become apparent, then we ought to be able to discuss them. In practice however I’m commonly not directly objected to, but merely given a frosty stance. I’m not sure how this might be remedied however, since I won’t be changing my position without reason to.

    So you believe that modern science is functioning reasonably well, and that the challenges which humanity faces today are essentially like the ones it has always faced? Yes it could be that your intuition does happen to be better than my own. Personally I’d love for historian economists to go through and roughly estimate aggregate human utility over time. To me the graph’s trend lines would be interesting at least, since utility at any given moment would surely just be fabricated.


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