Dangerous Ideas: Academic Justice or Academic Freedom?

Academic freedom — the freedom to propose, pursue, and research dangerous ideas — is not something to be feared.
Mushroom Cloud
 (United States Department of EnergyPublic Domain)

Back in 2006, the website Edge.org asked over 100 scientists, doctors, philosophers, and other intellectuals “What is your dangerous idea?”, i.e., “an idea you think about… that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?” The responses ran the gamut, touching on cosmology, psychology, the environment, and media violence (to name a few).

David M. Buss proposed that “all of us contain within our large brains adaptations whose functions are to commit despicable atrocities against our fellow humans.” Marcelo Gleiser wondered if science isn’t just a narrative we tell ourselves as opposed to something universally true. Several contributors sent in variations on the idea that we are ultimately alone in a purposeless universe. Daniel Goleman suggested that the Internet “inadvertently undermines the quality of human interaction.” And not surprisingly, Sam Harris wrote that science must destroy religion.

One particularly troubling idea was proposed by biologist J. Craig Venter, who wrote that the more we research human genetics, the more we’ll begin to see that we are not all created equal.

It will inevitably be revealed that there are strong genetic components associated with most aspects of what we attribute to human existence including personality subtypes, language capabilities, mechanical abilities, intelligence, sexual activities and preferences, intuitive thinking, quality of memory, will power, temperament, athletic abilities, etc. We will find unique manifestations of human activity linked to genetics associated with isolated and/or inbred populations.

The danger in Venter’s idea of a “realistic biology of humankind” should be readily apparent. Indeed, we’ve already seen such danger manifest itself in the racially based eugenics programs of the early 20th century, which reached their zenith in Nazi Germany’s attempts to bring about a “pure” Aryan nation while getting rid of “sub-human” individuals.

Concern regarding the dangers that such an idea poses to society seems to be at the core of Sandra Y. L. Korn’s February 18 editorial in The Harvard Crimson in which she challenges the concept of academic freedom, i.e., the idea that academics “are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results,” regardless of how offensive, troubling, or dangerous those results may be.

Korn expresses confusion by such a principle when she writes, “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 of pursuing “academic freedom,” she proposes that “when an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.” She calls this approach “academic justice” and sees it as an opportunity for “students, faculty, and workers organizing together to make our universities look as we want them to do.”

Not surprisingly, Korn’s editorial has been met with considerable criticism. Her concept of “academic justice” seems admirable at first. After all, who doesn’t want to promote justice? However, it’s nigh-impossible to ignore the Orwellian “thought police”-esque connotations of her own dangerous idea to try and contain (potentially) dangerous ideas. Who, or what, decides what is “just” or not, and by what standard? How does this approach prevent academic research from becoming politicized and agenda-driven? And, more importantly, has such an approach ever been successful, historically speaking, in suppressing dangerous ideas?

That being said, some of the criticism has been a bit unfair in its vitriol and snark. Though Korn doesn’t explicitly write about this, underlying her piece is the notion that ideas are not ethereal entities completely objective and cut off from reality. Ideas, even those discussed in the loftiest of ivory towers, have real-world consequences. They trickle down from labs and classrooms and eventually filter into the culture at large. Sometimes the effects are minimal, but they may also effect a great sea change — and that sea change may not necessarily be positive.

But there also seems to be a certain defeatism in Korn’s piece. Are we really helpless in light of such disturbing revelations? Is oppression the inevitable outcome? Let’s suppose, for just a moment, that Venter is right and that human genetics research discovers incontestable evidence that different ethnic groups have different levels of “personality subtypes, language capabilities, mechanical abilities, intelligence” and so on. Obviously, such knowledge could be used to promote and justify oppression. (It has in the past.) Based on her editorial, it seems reasonable to assume that Korn would be opposed to such research because of the evil that it might lead to. And yet, if that is the reality, then it does us no good to stick our heads in the sand and pretend otherwise. It is what it is. It would be unwise and unfair to pretend otherwise.

However, only the most reductionistic would believe that because intelligence, athletic abilities, etc., are hard-wired into our DNA, the only logical response is to define our treatment of people by such a discovery. For Christians, our treatment of our fellow persons ought to be rooted in their bearing of God’s image, not their DNA. But even if you don’t believe in God, Garrett M. Lam writes in his response to Korn’s article that

[S]cience can do many things, but it can’t justify oppression. After all, science tells us the way things are. It tells us what is natural. But just because things are a certain way does not mean they ought to be that way. And just because something is natural does not mean that it is good or right or just. If we believe people should be treated equally, an institution that treats them unequally opposes our values. But even if it were true that people are born with unequal capacities, this would not imply that we should treat them unequally.

Indeed, Venter’s dangerous and uncomfortable idea confronts us about what a just society truly looks like. Will it be based on that which is only “skin deep,” that which is revealed by microscopes and test tubes? Or will we, as a society, dig deeper, pushing past quantifiable realities (important as they may be) to seek out a standard for justice and equality that is deeper and more universal? Such a challenge is impossible without dangerous ideas pushing us.

Academic freedom — the freedom to propose and pursue dangerous ideas — is not something to be feared. True, the process can be frightening and disturbing. The results can challenge long-held notions about reality. But to shut down and silence those dangerous ideas (and those suggesting them) because we don’t like what they say, or because the truths they reveal run counter to our agenda? That’s even more frightening and disturbing. It is only by understanding, considering, and researching such “dangerous” ideas — only by facing them head on — that we can understand them, and by understanding them, discover how best to confront the uncomfortable truths that they may reveal.

This entry was originally published on Christ and Pop Culture on .