Dark Brightness

Bleak Theology: Hopeful Science

Academic Twits, one each.


There is always opposition. There are always those who will not only choose evil, but preach it. Who will see what they are doing as good, and not in any way account for the blowback. In fact, they may censor you if you try to say something that criticisms them, or predict consequences they do not like.

This twit is writing in the Harvard Crimson. (Thanks, SSM for the link) She misses the point in so many ways — not understanding that some of the questions that one asks are going to subvert the current ideology. Truth has that habit.

Yet the liberal obsession with “academic freedom” seems a bit misplaced to me. After all, no one ever has “full freedom” in research and publication. Which research proposals receive funding and what papers are accepted for publication are always contingent on political priorities. The words used to articulate a research question can have implications for its outcome. No academic question is ever “free” from political realities. If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of “academic freedom”?

Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of “academic justice.” When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.

The power to enforce academic justice comes from students, faculty, and workers organizing together to make our universities look as we want them to do. Two years ago, when former summer school instructor Subramanian Swamy published hateful commentary about Muslims in India, the Harvard community organized to ensure that he would not return to teach on campus. I consider that sort of organizing both appropriate and commendable.

The idea that Swamy is hounded out of Harvard — he has been teaching there since 1962, and is a Hindu nationalist — is repugnant. I don’t like Hindu nationalists: they have killed Christians in riots before. But not as many as their Muslim counterparts. Interpreting the heated debates that occur within India as “hate speech” is projecting some very insular ideas — and assuming universality of those ideas, while at the same time preaching relativism.

And not all research is funded: most of the stuff I do costs under 100K: one of the things that my managers want to see me do is get the big grants, but I keep on doing studies quickly, quietly and cheaply.

The logic of this is lacking. Ideas are either universal or not. Projecting politics into everything is foolish. As if offense is important. It is not. Debt is. Avoiding evil is: and being wise when evil people are after you is.

Proverbs 6:1-19

1My child, if you have given your pledge to your neighbor, if you have bound yourself to another, 2 you are snared by the utterance of your lips, caught by the words of your mouth. 3 So do this, my child, and save yourself, for you have come into your neighbor’s power: go, hurry, and plead with your neighbor. 4 Give your eyes no sleep and your eyelids no slumber; 5 save yourself like a gazelle from the hunter, like a bird from the hand of the fowler.

6 Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise. 7 Without having any chief or officer or ruler, 8 it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest. 9 How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from your sleep? 10 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, 11 and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior.

12 A scoundrel and a villain goes around with crooked speech, 13 winking the eyes, shuffling the feet, pointing the fingers, 14 with perverted mind devising evil, continually sowing discord; 15 on such a one calamity will descend suddenly; in a moment, damage beyond repair.

16 There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, 19 a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.

John 11:45-54

45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 47So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” 49But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! 50You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” 51He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

54Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.

But coming back to the twit from Harvard. (Ms Korn, if you are reading this, my H-factor is six measured conservatively, what is yours?). There are consequences for shutting down questioning.

It’s not quite true that Ms. Korn’s wishes have been realized. The academy is completely politicized, that is certainly true, but tenure is still in place. Professors willing to challenge the status quo do have legal protection to do so. However, many fewer of them are willing to risk the ostracization that would follow, even with tenure protections, so they don’t. But the biggest reason is that for 40+ years, nearly all hiring in academia has been done on ideological grounds, so there is almost no one in the professoriate who even wants to challenge the left anyway.

Beyond this, one might ask Ms. Korn–a la Socrates–”What is justice?” She thinks she knows, but she does not. She merely takes if for granted that justice is what the progressive academic left thinks it is. That she is wrong, and that this question cannot be allowed to be closed, is one reason why we still need tenure, even if very few profs use it to do anything important or valuable.

When I was trying to get into a professional programmer and a little younger than Son one, my “B” plan was to not attend Auckland but go to Otago university and do the same course the son is doing. My “C” plan was to do an English Degree: I loved reading (still do) and had grown up reading real critics from Tolkien and lewis to Pound. What I did not know was this was around the time that postmodernists took over the academy and used cod Foucault and Derrida to tell people who want to learn from books, who love books that the texts did not matter, leaving them ignorant.

I now see the consequences of groupthink when I go to conferences, and I see academics (and particularly PhD students) thinking that their theories are correct, frequently without questioning fundamental assumptions. An example would be the neuro-imaging and genetics studies of psychosis — where the first generation of studies used DSM as if it was describing a disease, not a collection of syndromes (the authors of DSM had clearly warned of this, as would any experienced clinician). It is now when people are looking at symptom clusters across diagnostic groups that we are able to distinguish signal for noise. But when one said this — and I did — I was told I was wrong (with a side serving of condescension on a clinician and colonial hick).

And a few million dollars of funding and patient hours was lost: because people did not question assumptions.

So — we must confront and question when we can: and if we cannot? Then we go to the wilderness: we leave the academics or elite in their error. If Korn and her coterie have their way that day will be sooner than one thinks: to the detriment of the academy, for the physicians, engineers and physicists — those people who consider that totally wrong idea that there is an absolute truth — are the people who bring in the money and keep the university going.

And we can take the money elsewhere. leaving whatever gate people like Korn think they have rotten, broken and useless.

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