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Unchallengeable Orthodoxy in Academia and Science

March 12, 2009

Next week there is a big conference here at ASU – hosted in conjunction with University of Cambridge – examining the concept of “Unchallengeable Orthodoxy in Academia and Science.” The general purpose of the conference is:

  • To critically examine the precept that American and British universities and the scientific communities in these countries are, and should be places, in which people are free to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” (Quoting 1975 Statement of Yale Committee on Freedom of Expression).
  • Specifically, the conference will investigate if there are in fact “unchallengeable orthodoxies” in these communities, and to the extent there are, whether there should be.
  • Case studies of restrictions on ideas and research on racial differences, treatment of dissenters about global warming and the exclusion or marginalization of those who believe in creationism or intelligent design.

I am offering the case study on creationism/ID. I’ve been asked to be as neutral as possible and to restrict myself to laying out the claims and counterclaims of both sides without any normative interjections. And I’ve only got twenty minutes to do so. The participants are largely trained in the law, so this should be an interesting experience.

There is a public session on Thursday evening covering the topic of “Academic Freedom and the Treatment of Dissenting Ideas in the Modern University.” More details here.

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  1. pough
    March 12, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    I’ve always been under the impression that everything is challengeable, but you can’t expect challenges themselves to go unchallenged. You don’t get a free pass just because you’ve managed to convince yourself you’re right.
    Will your talk or your notes get published somewhere?

  2. D. C. Sessions
    March 12, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    Evolution/Creationism?
    Well, you can shorten it up quite a bit by screening out the special pleading. In particular, ask each side to propose an empirical test that would falsify their position.
    If the answer is, “that’s not possible,” then wouldn’t it be pretty clear that they are demanding freedom from academic challenge?

  3. jpj
    March 12, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    The three topics in your session (creationism, global warming, race research) all share a common rhetorical trope: that of conspiracy rhetoric. The minority view, in all three cases, claim that they are victims of a scientific conspiracy to stifle free inquiry. In all three cases the minority wraps itself in the Galileo myth that their scientific research is unfunded or unpublished because of politics, which they claim is unscientific. It is a very tired script indeed–in the case of race researchers one that goes back to the 1920s.

  4. John Lynch
    March 12, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    @ pough
    I’ll probably post some slides w/o commentary. I never actually write down anything I say, so you’ll just have to imagine!
    @ jpj
    Couldn’t agree more. It is going to be interesting to see what the legal-types have to say though.

  5. March 13, 2009 at 12:58 am

    I’m tempted to get all philosophical here, just to be snarky.
    Think the unthinkable? That’s by definition impossible. Short of that, everyone can think what they want; we have no true thought police (yet).
    Discuss the unmentionable. Sounds like they’re talking about undergarments. Anything can be discussed. But should it be taught? Is it productive to do so? Those are the real questions.
    [I'm preaching to the choir here, I know].
    Challenge the unchallengeble. Again, impossible. But short of that, sure, we ought to challenge everything. Challenge evolution ’til the cows come home. That still doesn’t open the door to teaching creationism.

  6. jpj
    March 13, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    I think the other “real” question, Roberta, is “who has the power/ability to determine what should be productive to teach?” Indeed that might be the “realer” question: are scientific communities relatively autonomous bodies of knowers who determine for themselves what counts as knowledge within their disciplinary boundaries? Or should they be regulated by someone outside the discipline who insures that “both sides” of the issue are taught?

  7. abb3w
    March 13, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Perhaps raise a challenge to the “Law Of Noncontradiction”?

  8. March 13, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    I think it’s entirely possible to challenge orthodoxy and even deeply-held theories in science. There are revolutions in science which overturn theories thought to be unassailable for decades.
    The issue with creationism/ID and other kinds of “dissent” is that they’re dishonest. They’re not interested in the pursuit of scientific truth and their methods are unscientific and dishonest.
    All you have to do is show one slide – the cdesign proponentsists slide – and you’re done. You’re allowed to have debate and dissent, but it has to be honest dissent.

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