December 9, 2023

A pair of professors from Arizona State University wrote an essay which was published last week by the Chronicle of Higher Education. The gist of the article is that academics are overestimating the value of free speech. In fact, they come to the conclusion that free speech is a right-wing framing which ought to be rejected by colleges who, after all, have lots of experts on hand to determine what is and is not acceptable speech on a given topic. Here’s how they set up the argument:

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Whether and by whom free speech is under threat on campuses are hotly debated questions. Less commonly examined, however, are the assumptions that free speech is a cardinal virtue of higher education, and that colleges should aspire to a diversity of opinions. Are these goals in their own right, as college administrators often seem to think, or means for achieving something else altogether?

In other words, why argue about free speech being under threat on campus if free speech on campus is the wrong goal.

Our contention is that calls for greater freedom of speech on campuses, however well-intentioned, risk undermining colleges’ central purpose, namely, the production of expert knowledge and understanding, in the sense of disciplinarily warranted opinion. Expertise requires freedom of speech, but it is the result of a process of winnowing and refinement that is premised on the understanding that not all opinions are equally valid. Efforts to “democratize” opinion are antithetical to the role colleges play in educating the public and informing democratic debate. We urge administrators toward caution before uncritically endorsing calls for intellectual diversity in place of academic expertise…

A diversity of opinion — “intellectual diversity” — isn’t itself the goal; rather, it is of value only insofar as it serves the goal of producing knowledge. On most unanswered questions, there is, at least initially, a range of plausible opinions, but answering questions requires the vetting of opinions. As some opinions are found wanting, the range of opinion deserving of continued consideration narrows.

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Right away, this is just wrong and seemingly ignorant. College may be the process of passing along knowledge to young adults and knowledge necessarily requires that we distinguish between what is true and what isn’t. The problem is that even among credentialed experts there can be significant differences of opinion on major issues that last for decades. What is considered true today could be considered false tomorrow and this can be the case even in the area of the hard sciences. For instance, the argument about string theory has been going on for decades. Ruling out free speech (among experts or laypeople) on these issues seems premature.

But the abandonment of free speech in favor of expert knowledge becomes even more fraught when it comes to the soft sciences and the humanities. The authors seem to recognize they have a problem when it comes to the humanities but they don’t let it stop them.

The humanities and the more-humanistic social sciences, perhaps because they frequently make claims about matters also hotly debated in the public sphere, and perhaps because their practitioners often argue for the reconsideration of texts, events, and social processes, have particularly struggled to resist being cast, even by college administrators, as simply a speaker’s corner in which every perspective should somehow be accommodated. Here, one is told, colleges should seek a diversity of opinion, and every opinion deserves to be heard. Accepting this role for the humanities and social sciences, however, means that their faculties risk losing the ability to judge any ideas (or proposed curricula or public programming) unworthy of sponsorship. Offering up the humanities and social sciences as the realm of free speech deprives those faculty of academic freedom and deprives the public of the faculty’s expertise.

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It’s well know that fields like psychology and sociology have a “replication crisis,” a name for the fact that many of the findings published in journals cannot be replicated by other credentialed academics. In some cases that may even be the result of fraud. So the idea that we all should treat each peer reviewed paper in these fields as definitive is pretty laughable. The truth isn’t revealed because someone with a degree got a claim into print. And the problem is even more severe when it comes to the humanities. Here the authors argue the lack of respect for humanities professors is the result of a right-wing plot.

At the moment, a lot of knowledge, particularly (though not exclusively) in the humanities, while the product of rigorous and reliable disciplines, isn’t publicly perceived as authoritative. In many cases, experts enjoy no special public esteem.

No doubt much of this is deliberate, the result of political efforts to delegitimize certain disciplines, as is evident in the study of race and gender. But well-meaning administrators contribute to the problem when they portray the college — or the part of the college that includes the humanities — as a public sphere, speaker’s corner, or marketplace of ideas. To insist that the college function as a public sphere is to collapse the distinction between expert knowledge and mere opinion. Democracy, ironically, is ill-served by the democratizing of all opinion. Far from safeguarding academic freedom, calls for greater freedom of expression in academe work to relativize the disciplined conclusions of scholars. This is why we call on administrators to take a more critical approach to the rhetoric of free speech. Essential though it is, free speech is only one ingredient for democracy.

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Are the conclusions of college humanities departments the product of “rigorous and reliable disciplines?” In at least some cases the answer is definitely no. As Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian proved back in 2018, in some cases all it takes to get a paper published by progressive journals is a bogus claim that reaches the proper (meaning far left) conclusion. The idea that students and the rest of us should defer to these “experts” is repulsive.

So we’ll just have to keep arguing about everything in a framework where everyone gets a say and the value of opinions isn’t decided by credentials or even by having the loudest megaphone. We have to allow for the possibility that sometimes the experts are wrong and sometimes lay people’s intuition is right. The opinions of both groups may change over time through a process of persuasion and presentation of evidence. More fundamentally, it’s not democracy that is ill-served by too many opinions. On the contrary, the nations where opinions, especially social and political opinions, are heavily restricted are in fact the ones where democracy doesn’t exist.

Update: I meant to add this snarky response which is how I first came across this essay.

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