Against Academic Cancel Culture: On Engaging With Biased Academics with Political Agendas
Another Academic Outrage Mob
The National Association of Scholars NASC (for short) is holding a conference on Fixing Science, to which I was invited as both a moderator of a panel and as a speaker. The conference is now being targeted by outrage mobs of academics, a topic I wrote about here: The Threat to Academic Freedom…From Academics. At the time, I was writing about other academics. I will now have to add this conference, and by extension, me, to that list.
Who Are the National Association of Scholars?
Wikipedia describes them as “de jure independent, de facto conservative.” This means that though there is no organizational document that declares “We, the NASC, are Conservative,” in fact, it mostly attracts rightwing scholars. Its activities and products are often consistent with conservative perspectives.
There seem to be several accusations: but the main ones are that they are holding a “manference” (a conference with all male speakers), that they use subterfuge to advance all sorts of nasty, hidden agendas, that they are engaging in conservative advocacy masquerading as science, and that they are exploiting serious scientists to advance their nefarious agendas.
The released schedule includes about 25 speakers, nearly all white males.
This is bad. Excellent scientists doing important work to improve science are not only white and male. I cannot blame anyone who criticizes the NASC on these grounds; whether the demography of the speakers stems from old-fashioned bias or segregated professional networks hardly matters. As Social Justice academia sometimes puts it, it behooves them to “do better.” And it really is “better” because, for all sorts of reasons, diversity, including demographic diversity, improves science (for example, by virtue of having different biases, previously unseen flaws in science may be identified). In the context of a conference on “fixing science,” this is a huge scientific failing.
NASC has had women speakers at all of its prior conferences that I could find, so there is no reason any of the invitees could have anticipated this. (This obvious fact has done nothing to prevent the Academic Twittersphere from condemning attendees).
Now, NASC organizers have stated that they invited female scientists, but all turned them down. I take them at their word. Furthermore, many of the women scientists at the forefront of science reform are also committed to Social Justice in some form or another. I strongly suspect relatively few would have much interest in cooperating with an organization that has criticized Social Justice efforts and which is widely viewed as conservative.
However, in my view, this is an inadequate explanation for the lack of demographic diversity. There are still plenty of scientists other than white males with relevant expertise; who do not subscribe to Social Justice Ideology and/or whose work sometimes contests cherised academic Social Justice narratives. I strongly suspect many would be interested in attending such a conference.
You might think I am making this up. I am not.
This tweet is deliciously ridiculous. As the guy is calling the NASC a KKK front organization, he screenshots from the NASC website a discussion between Glenn Loury and John McWhorter. If you do not know them:
That is a screenshot of them critically evaluating the NYTimes’ 1619 Project.
The same guy referred to the NASC as “rapist supporters.” I would love to see this guy sued for defamation and have to go to court to justify his allegations. But, on Twitter, when Social Justice Outrage Mobs get going, things like evidence, facts, and due process fly out the window. All many mobbers need to convict and punish is an accusation by the “good” person (someone on their “side”) that the “bad” people (someone on “the other side”) has somehow violated some tenet of Social Justice.
Hidden Agendas/Exploiting Naive But Well-Intended Scientists
The idea here is that NASC is not “really” (whatever that means) a scholarly organization because it has hidden political agendas, such as advancing conservative policy preferences. A natural extension of this idea is that, by crafting a plausibly-serious-but-really-nefarious agenda, they are suckering in serious scientists. These “useful idiots” provide justification, rhetoric, and soundbites that they can use in their advocacy work that corrodes rather than advances science.
The strongest, least histrionic case for scientists to avoid this conference, and which makes many of these sorts of arguments (without most of the derogatory language, e.g., she never uses the term “useful idiot”), can be found here by Dorothy Bishop, a prominent, accomplished, important, and longtime science reformer:
Is Bias and Political Agenda a Reason Not to Attend a Conference?
I love Dorothy Bishop’s work, which has done about as much as anyone else’s to improve the conduct and validity of scientific research. Here is why I disagree with her on this:
If I opted out of every Psychology Conference that was riddled with political agendas, or run by an organization with political agendas (see, e.g., the APA Guidelines for therapy with men; see also the emphasis on ‘social justice’ that pervades many conventional conferences), I would almost never attend conferences.
This essay is not the place to explain why “social justice” is an inherently moral/political rather than scientific notion. If this is not immediately obvious to you, allow me to recommend two sources (though there are many more):
Social Justice and Words Words Words (Scott Alexander)
Hidden agendas and bad actors pervade the social sciences. Its just that they are usually bad actors with hidden agendas that are on the “correct” (left) end of the political spectrum and most of their academic colleagues either share those views or fear to speak up. The problem does not seem to be having hidden agendas and political goals; its not having the “right” ones (and by “right” I mean “left”). One’s fine as long as one‘s hidden agendas advance leftist goals.
If one has any doubt about hidden agendas in academia, consider Diversity Statements. “Diversity” statements do not refer to diversity as normally defined, which is synonymous with “variety.” Diversity, in academic circles, is code. To paraphrase Animal Farm, some types of diversity are more diverse than others. Same for “underrepresented.” Even though conservatives are often the most underrepresented group on most college faculties, they do not count as an underrepresented group with respect to programs designed to advance representation of underrepresented groups. Most of the academics reading this are probably now furious because they are so sure their view of who does and does not count as ‘underrepresented’ is justified. I am not going to litigate that here.
But surely you can see how that does not matter with respect to the point of hidden agendas. One should not be referring to “diversity” or “underrepresented groups” if one really means “there are certain groups we have identified that are targeted for institutional largesse.” If one uses “diversity” or “underrepresented groups” to refer to only some select subset, one has a hidden agenda.
This is compounded by the “fish don’t see the water” problem. When leftwing academics impose their biases on the field, hardly anyone else among them even notices, let alone objects. What is little more than subjective moral worldview is so “normal” that it is “obvious” and anyone who thinks differently must be stupid, morally repugnant or some sort of bad actor.
NASC need to own their biases and dysfunctions, including those that led them to create a manference. But mainstream organizations also need to own their biases. I do not see that happening anytime soon. Plus the worst takes — by academics, scientists, and science reporters — characterize the NASC as Nazis and KKK, with almost no pushback from supposedly “more reasonable” scholars — which is beyond ridiculous, but testifies to how bad it is out there.
“Don’t go, they have biases!” is a nonstarter. They all have biases — including the academics and organizations that you like and respect.
Are We “Being Played”?
Dorothy Bishop wrote: “ But this is really not about regular scientific debate. It’s about weaponising the reproducibility debate to bolster the message that everything in science is uncertain — which is very convenient for those who wish to promote fringe ideas.”
I do not know what to make of this. Much of science is uncertain, and certainly, the work produced in my field of psychology is vastly more uncertain than once believed. Might NASC overdo it? They might — but psychologists have overdone it regularly on politicized issues to advance policy agendas. If one is disqualifying, why isn’t the other?
Dorothy Bishop also wrote: “ They will find that their arguments are scooped up by the Merchants of Doubt and used to argue that science is so uncertain that we should not accept the consensus view. We cannot be sure whether anthropogenic climate change is exaggerated, whether pollution is not really harmful, and whether gay relationships are damaging. Those who are concerned to see such ideas promoted without any debate between experts in those areas may wish to reconsider…”
It is possible that “there will be no debate between experts” at this conference. I have no idea. But scientific differences are not resolved by debates held at any one conference. Scientific debates are conducted widely, and, sometimes, without scholars even directly talking to one another. They are conducted primarily in the peer reviewed literature, but also in books, blogs, op-eds, social media, and pretty much every way humans communicate.
I have now “reconsidered.” I conclude that “we might be played” has a family resemblance to “scientists, policy-makers, and laypeople take scientific work and spin it to fit their preferred narratives” — something that, as far as I can tell, is pervasive in many scientific disciplines, including medicine and psychology. I see few examples of science reformers, and even fewer among those condemning this conference, taking scientists or other academics to task for spinning scientific work to support leftist or Social Justice narratives.
What would a principled refusal to participate in agenda-driven scholarship & academic events look like? On principled grounds, one could certainly call on academics to boycott the NASC conference; there is plausible evidence of political agenda.
But if one only boycotts events or groups that lean right, one’s call-to-boycott is political not principled. And there are more than ample opportunities to boycott, or object to agenda-driven academia. Whole fields and large swaths of subfields have embraced leftist and social justice activism over truth. For some examples go here, here, here, here or here. Where are the howls of outrage? The calls to boycott? Even the criticism?
Leftist & social justice activism driving scholarship pervades the academy. Anyone wishing to take a principled moral stand against activism-driven-scholarship has a target-rich environment in which to operate. Nonetheless, there has been almost complete radio silence of science reformers regarding pervasive left & social justice activism in academia.
This deafening silence among science reformers regarding the academic Social Justice left, gentle reader, is what reveals calls to boycott the NASC as political, not principled.
There is a long list of moral failings that could lead me to avoid a conference (violence, abuse, corruption, fraud etc.). “Bias” and “political agenda” do not make the list.
Any scientist who is so seriously committed to eliminating “bias” and “political agendas” from scientific research that they are demanding others not attend some conference that they suspect as having biases and political agendas? They might want to clean their own house first. That should keep them busy cleaning and not attending conferences for a long time; hopefully, too busy to be generating outrage mobs directed at other academics for going to the “wrong” conferences.