Where does the Threat to Academic Freedom Come From?

Where does the Threat to Academic Freedom Come From? September 11, 2018

When I studied anti-Christian sentiment, there were some common stereotypes that kept reemerging from those with that sort of hatred. One of those stereotypes was that Christians are anti-science. Some of this stereotype is grounded in the resistance of many conservative Christians to evolution. However, my respondents also showed concern about Christians who resisted the use of stem-cells in research and who inaccurately argued that America was founded as a Christian nation.

I am very familiar with the anti-intellectual strain within Christian circles. I remember in graduate school having to address Christians who thought that the social sciences were of the Devil. And they thought that those in the hard sciences were only a little better than us social scientists. So I am not going to deny the fact that some Christians do not have an appreciation of science and tend to dismiss the scientific findings they do not like. In fact, I will affirm that, unfortunately, this is true.

But for me the real problem of this stereotype is that it seems to assume that Christians are the only ones who dismiss scientific findings they do not like. I have repeatedly seen that this is not the case. You may or may not have heard of the story at Brown University. A paper questioned whether an increase of gender dysphoria among the youth may be impacted by social media. This hypothesis would suggest that not all with gender dysphoria suffer due to their own innate propensities. Due to the backlash of LGBT groups, the journal that published the work – PLOU One – and the researcher’s own university – Brown University – began to reject the research. They pointed out concerns about how the results of the research may negatively impact the trans community. Lisa Littman, the researcher has every reason to feel that she was being thrown under the bus.

The events at Brown and PLOS One did not surprise me. I saw a similar situation occur a few years back when Mark Regnerus did a national probability study addressing same-sex parenting. Contrary to the other research on the subject, he found that same-sex parenting could be correlated to potential negative outcomes. As a result of pressure from LGBT groups, the peer review of the article was audited and attempts were made to have the article removed from the journal. It was once again an attempt to smother science and I let my displeasure of these circumstances be known.

Let me make something clear about both of these situations. I am not opposing criticism of either research. In fact, I have not read Dr. Littman’s work, and for all I know it may be garbage. I do know that Dr. Regnerus’s work is a natural progression of moving from convenience samples to national probability work, and many of the attacks upon it were quite hypocritical. But his work is not, and should not be, the last word on the subject. Science, when done correctly, moves us closer to truth but never quite gets there. Criticism is part of how we learn from previous academic efforts and move on to do better work.

My problem is with the attempts to remove research from being considered due to nonempirical reasons. Efforts to squash research because certain communities are offended is not how science is supposed to be done. In theory science is supposed to be dispassionate about results, and attempts to make sure that results fit a certain political narrative are anti-science. Because of the actions from LGBT activists, I have personally come to the conclusion that research on sexuality issues cannot be trusted. I tend to assume, rightly or wrongly, that the results have been predetermined due to political bias.

So it is not just Christians who oppose science when results do not fit their desires. I am not even saying that it is only Christians or the LGBT community that acts in such ways. I believe that any who hold strongly to certain beliefs are vulnerable to developing attitudes that are anti-science. Is it possible that Christians are more anti-scientific than others? Certainly. But to the best of my knowledge, I have not seen a study that fairly tested this possibility. Most of the research I have seen only tests the presuppositions of Christians and that is not very convincing.

But let us move away from the question of who might be more anti-science and instead look at who has the greater impact on science. Let us suppose that Dr. Littman’s research was not opposed by the LGBT community but by Christians. Let us say that the hypothesis was that people become Christians because they were indoctrinated, or even brainwashed, when they were children. Let us also say that because of her controversial work that Christian communities were putting pressure on Brown University and PLOS One to disavow that research. Let me see a show of hands from those who think that either the journal or the university would cave to those pressures.

If you put your hand up, then you really lack a knowledge of who has power in academia (hint: it is not the Christians). I cannot see any secular university failing to protect their professors from the complaints of Christians. In fact, they would probably see dismissing the concerns of the “narrow-minded” Christians as a badge of honor. Indeed, I see the promotion of badly conceived theories such as Right Wing Authoritarianism in scholarly work despite their biased measurements (I critiqued this theory in a previous book) as evidence that scholars are not afraid of Christians. This indicates that Christians with an anti-intellectual outlook do not have nearly the power of those in the LGBT community with an anti-intellectual outlook to impact the results of scientific work.

The best anti-science Christians can do is reduce the governmental resources academics can receive through political activism. That is not something to ignore and indeed we should be concerned with the decreasing confidence political conservatives have with the institutions of higher education. But I believe that internal pressures are more important than external ones. Christians do not have the ability to provide internal pressure within academia. At best they impact academia from without. The real power is tied to groups that academics are afraid to offend and that does not include Christians.

The anti-scientific attitudes of Christians is a problem. But it is not the biggest problem as it concerns the shaping of scientific work. If we are going to prioritize the protection of the values important to promote science, then Christians are not the group we should be concerned about. Anti-intellectualism is a problem no matter where we find it. But the attention to it in the Christian community is misplaced if our concern is protection of academic freedom. I argue that this inappropriate attention to Christian anti-intellectualism is due to anti-religious or anti-Christian attitudes more than actual threat to science. Those in the sciences need to address the real threats if we want to make sure that scholars are free to pursue the academic questions they deem to be important.

Addendum: Since I wrote this piece another case of scientific expression, even more egregious, has been unearthed. Rather than rework this article I will simply leave it up to the reader to connect my argument to this new case.

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2 responses to “Where does the Threat to Academic Freedom Come From?”

  1. Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve is the first example I know of where anti-intellectualism on the American Left shut down scientific research. Any research into intelligence differences that correlate with race has been effectively verboten since then, which is straight up stupid. We know that genetics plays a large role in intelligence. We also know that the vast majority of the markers we use to classify “race” on the social science level are, in fact, genetically determined. Furthermore, we know that West Africans or those of West African descent tend, due to genetics, to make lousy swimmers and fantastic sprinters, whereas East Africans are massively over-represented among the world’s top long distance runners. Finally, there are numerous “racial” diseases, i.e. diseases or conditions to which one race is especially prone. Sickle cell anemia is likely the best known. In short, genetics and “race” are closely linked. Genetics and intelligence are also closely linked. Ergo… “race” and intelligence almost certainly are linked. Logic says they are, but that’s logic based on limited known facts. Are they really linked? “ahem, you really shouldn’t be asking that.” How much is it linked? “Don’t ask, definitely don’t tell.” How much variation WITHIN populations? Verboten. WHY might differences have arisen? VERBOTEN. Is there anything that we can and should do on account of whatever differences may exist? NEIN!! NEIN!! DAS IST VERBOTENNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!

    So, the notion that there can’t be any link between race and intelligence is about as anti-scientific as one can get. But hey, once they were willing to throw up that wall, then moving to the current gender madness was almost inevitable.

    btw, I think one reason why the science community was so quick and willing to go along to with the “disfavoring” of research on race and intelligence isn’t even a case of anti-intellectualism OR knuckling under to the attacks of “anti-racists.” No, I think it was fundamentally more personal than that. For scientists and most within the “science community”, intelligence is a core component of personal worth. It is an oft noted flaw among scientists, being jerks to the “less intelligent” simply because they’re less intelligent. They, understandably, didn’t want to consciously be party to something that would potentially cast vast swaths of humanity as “inferior.” For most secular, hard core materialist scientists, it was even more difficult, because engaging the question of “human value” is mighty difficult when there is no soul of infinite worth. Best to avoid the matter entirely, which also means enforcing the avoidance upon others. The distinction between generalizations of race based on statistical aggregations versus the discrete characteristics of a single individual is cold comfort to those who with any awareness of history.

    After all, the eugenics movement was “based in science.”

    This is why almost invariably the first and most frequent line of attack that the anti-intellectuals on the Left take against science that raises uncomfortable questions about humans and human nature is “you’re attempting to dehumanize them, to denigrate them, etc”. They take that line because that’s what the possible conclusions say to THEM. Less intelligent = less of a person. Mentally ill (transgender) = less of a person. They KNOW this is the “logic” of their worldview, because they’ll ardently articulate it when it comes to aborting a child with Down’s Syndrome or some other birth defect. Combine that with their having gone all in on collectivism, and they recoil at the implications of research that would indicate any of their “favored” groups is flawed. This is why you’ll see plenty of research, both real science and more commonly pseudo-science, into the collective flaws of men (toxic masculinity, anyone?) or “whites” or Christians, but rarely other groups.

    For society, the continued rejection of reality is going to come at a high cost. For Christians, the foundation of scientific inquiry should be the fact that God created it all, and that each human soul is of infinite value.

  2. The Bell Curve was very flawed science, and to call opposing it “anti-intellectualism” is rhetorical nonsense.

    First, you ignore that there is no “race”. Races cannot be delineated, they cannot be defined, and they are not valid categories to begin with. Assuming there are “races” creates a teleology which poisons the research.

    First you’d have to establish that there is some “racial” commonality.

    Once having assumed that race exists, did Murray then sample from all segments of those “races”? He talked mostly of Yanks, African-Americans and whites.

    So a poor sample from within unsubstantiated categories.

    Pfffffftttttttttt… utter bulldooky.