Should Academics Stay Out of Political Activism?

The fine line between a credible expert and a biased activist

A few weeks ago I had a lovely conversation over coffee with Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, with whom, shall we say, I haven’t always seen eye to eye in terms of the function and make up of the modern academy. The conversation was the result of a tweet I published where I said that, for a change, I (broadly, though not exactly) agreed with Jonathan on something: that so-called “trigger warnings” in college classes are more problematic than useful.

A few days later Jonathan sent me a copy of a paper by Bas van der Vossen, published in Philosophical Psychology, and entitled “In defense of the ivory tower: Why philosophers should stay out of politics” (behind paywall, unfortunately, but you can This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for a copy). van der Vossen’s argument specifically targets philosophers, but I think the same approach can be broadened to the academy more generally.

The basic idea of the paper is that engaging in political activism, particularly on topics that are of direct concern to one’s scholarship, comes into conflict with one’s professional duties, and may undermine both the academic’s reputation within her field as well as her effectiveness as an activist.

van der Vossen is very aware that he’s going against a long tradition, especially in philosophy. It was Karl Marx who said that the point (of philosophy) is not to interpret the world, but to change it. And of course Plato went well beyond activism, arguing that philosophers make for ideal rulers of an enlightened society! (Turns out, the latter does not appear to be empirically the case, though there are arguably too few case studies to draw sweeping conclusions…) The modern ideal academic, at any rate, seems to be one who is socially involved — as much as such ideal actually seldom translates into practice.

I think van der Vossen makes a number of interesting points, which ought to be seriously considered. What I’ll do here is to summarize his argument, and then apply it to my own form of “activism,” my public engagement with and criticism of pseudoscience.

van der Vossen’s concern is that engaging in political activism encourages people to think in partisan terms. This in turn carries two problems: i) the academic immediately loses credibility with his own students and colleagues, since she is now seen as insufficiently detached from her subject matter to be able to make impartial judgments (or as impartial as human beings are capable of); ii) there is mounting evidence from cognitive science research showing that once one adopts a partisan position that person becomes even more susceptible than normal to a number of biases, particularly confirmation bias and in-group bias.

van der Vossen illustrates his point by way of a couple of thought experiments, one of which involves Sam, a hypothetical surgeon: “Sam is a surgeon who is scheduled to perform major surgery on a patient early tomorrow morning. Sam knows this. Sam also knows that he generally performs better after a good night’s sleep. Yet Sam goes out drinking with his friends the night before. Sam turns up for work on a few hours’ sleep, hungover, to perform the surgery.” The point is that even if the operation goes well, Sam has engaged in a significant dereliction of his professional duties, because he willingly took a risk by doing something he knew may have impaired his professional judgment. The same, van der Vossen argues, goes for politically active academics who willingly risk augmented confirmation bias in order to conduct their activism on the side of their professional duties as scholars and teachers.

van der Vossen then arrives at a precautionary principle, which he calls the Principle of Responsible Professionalism (RP): “People who take up a certain role or profession thereby acquire a prima facie moral duty to make a reasonable effort to avoid things that predictably make them worse at their tasks.”

Again, I think he’s got a point. He goes on to apply his principle to the specific situation of the political philosopher. van der Vossen claims that the task of that sort of academic is to seek the truth about politics (or, if the “t-word” makes you bristle, let’s say to understand political matters as objectively as possible). He is careful to acknowledge that that job may fairly be done either in a descriptive or prescriptive sense, but it should be clear that even the latter is not the same as activism. Imagine, by analogy, an engineer who studies stress points in bridges. He can do so descriptively, but when people start building actual bridges the engineer’s work better be interpreted prescriptively: we ought to build bridges in a certain way, or they will collapse, thereby injuring or killing people, which presumably is an outcome that nobody wants.

How would this apply to a political philosopher? Well, for instance she may have libertarian leanings (van der Vossen’s example), so she may refuse to engage with scholarly literature that does not lean that way, ignoring or downplaying the work of John Rawls because, you know, she knows it’s wrong. (A perfectly analogous example could be made featuring a progressive liberal who refuses to engage with libertarian political philosophers, such as Robert Nozick.)

van der Vossen’s argument isn’t only theoretical, he relies on a wealth of evidence from cognitive science as well. For instance, he cites a study by Westen, published in 2008, who “asked committed Democrats and Republicans to evaluate the behavior of politicians as consistent, hypocritical, trustworthy, and so on. He found that the more politically involved participants engage in the most seriously biased reasoning.”

Additional research, by Cohen, Haidt, Leary, and Lerner and Tetlock, has clearly shown over the past decade or so that the way we reason is strongly affected by our identification with a particular social group, to which we think we are accountable. This isn’t the case just in political philosophy, of course. Try telling a fellow evolutionary biologist that you are seriously entertaining arguments from intelligent design, or a skeptic of pseudoscience that you think there may be something to all this talk about extra sensorial perception. You are guaranteed to receive a strong and very negative response.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that intelligent design arguments ought to be taken seriously, or that there really is strong evidence of ESP. But that’s the point: once we begin to strongly identify with a particular group and its (more or less) “official” positions, our conclusions become rigid and impervious to further evidence, and we may lose both objectivity and credibility.

Which brings me to my own “activism” in defense of science and as a critic of pseudoscience. I have done that since I was a young evolutionary biologist at the University of Tennessee, back in the late ‘90s, and I continue to do so now that I work as a philosopher of science at the City College of New York. Am I, thereby, violating van der Vossen’s principle of responsible professionalism? It’s a serious question, which I keep pondering, and which I think my colleagues who involve themselves in political activism of any sort ought to seriously ask themselves.

Seems to me that the answer depends on a number of further issues. First off, what qualifies as “activism”? In political philosophy, that’s probably more clear than in other fields. If a political philosopher, for instance, openly endorses a particular presidential candidate, or works on behalf of his campaign, that’s pretty much unquestionably activism. And I agree with van der Vossen that it should be avoided. The scholar in question, however, could still write op-ed pieces on the presidential campaign, commenting on issues and even candidates, as long as she does that from the point of view of an expert, not that of a partisan.

In the case of pseudoscience, the line between functioning as an expert and engaging in activism may be a bit more blurred. Probably going to “skeptic” conferences qualifies as activism, and this is something I will need to consider the next time I get one such invitation. But writing an op-ed piece pointing out why, say, the refusal to vaccinate one’s kids is — to the best of our knowledge — a dangerous and irrational practice, is simply stating my understanding of facts within my own domain of expertise (particularly since I’m a biologist, not just a philosopher).

What about writing a book on pseudoscience for the public? Again, I think it depends on how it is written, just like in the case of van der Vossen’s political philosopher. I don’t think he is arguing that professionals should not write for the general public (despite the obviously provocative title of his paper). Rather, he is saying that they should do so qua experts on a particular domain, not as activists advocating a specific partisan position.

A difficult problem, seems to me, presents itself when we move from areas where there is reasonable disagreement (e.g., political science, economics) to areas where the disagreement is, well, unreasonable (e.g., pseudoscience). Even within the former there will be some positions that any expert, no matter what her personal leanings, will be able to dismiss as nonsense, or as having been decidedly refuted by the accumulated empirical evidence. But it would be ridiculous, say, to accuse a scientist who rejects astrology without (further) looking at data or arguments as being “partisan.” Astrology is dead, and saying so doesn’t seem to reflect a cognitive bias, it just reflects reality.

All of the above said, I think van der Vossen raises a thorny issue, and one that really should carefully be considered by any academic who ventures outside the proverbial ivory tower. We should always ask ourselves whether our public writing and speaking has crossed the admittedly fuzzy line between contributing our expertise in order to address society’s issues and becoming an ideologue committed to a specific cause no matter what. The first case is what makes academia valuable, the second one is what undermines its credibility.