We must stand up for universities’ right to teach the truth

Attempts to promote ‘alternative facts’ should be resisted, argues Professor James Ladyman

It should surprise nobody that when Chris Heaton-Harris MP wrote to universities asking for details of academic staff discussing European affairs, he was immediately supported by tabloid reports about anti-Brexit bias. This is a familiar tactic imported from the US and we should expect more of it.

The idea that universities propagate liberal ideas because they have a liberal bias seems easy to prove. Liberals tend to believe that on the whole poor people are not less industrious than rich people, that punitive penal systems do not reduce recidivism, that the global climate is warming, that homosexuality is biologically normal, and that Brexit is likely to damage the UK economy. Students studying the relevant subjects at university are indeed very likely to learn these propositions. Therefore, the argument goes, the universities have a liberal bias. Well, yes – but only in the sense that reality has a liberal bias because these propositions are all true, and people in universities are expected to teach the truth in so far as it is known. It would be more accurate to say that universities are biased in favour of reality, and that they are required to be so.

That does not mean that they should teach students what to believe about political issues, including Brexit. Perhaps the damage to the economy will be relatively short term, and perhaps the right place for all judicial and legislative authority is the United Kingdom. I hope that my academic colleagues who teach European affairs encourage students to think hard about these matters, and to study the appropriate literature, and do not foster blind allegiance to any cause.

The empirical evidence is so overwhelming in favour of the propositions above that the way forward for those whose politics demands denying them, is the one many of them have been following, which is to deny that we can have access to reality. The widely-read commentator Katie Hopkins reportedly said that people should ‘read’ the recent severe car accident in Kensington as they saw fit, and she reads it as a terrorist act even if the police say it was not.

Alternative facts are dangerous

The notion of ‘alternative facts’ is disastrous for public discourse because facts are propositions that function as a shared background for all participants in a debate or inquiry. They can be contested of course, and it is important that they are sometimes because sometimes one or more purported facts of the case are not really facts at all. However, no reasoned debate is possible without shared agreement about some facts. Demagogues realise this and so cast any and all facts into doubt in order to avoid any form of reasoned debate.

If political egalitarianism is good it does not follow that so is epistemic egalitarianism. If temporal authorities are generally corrupt and untrustworthy, it does not follow that so too are epistemic authorities, least of all those based in universities.

Universities are now under attack from the enemies of truth. It’s essential that we protect academics’ right to speak up for the truth, and not force them to pretend that opinions that are not based on evidence or reason have just as much validity as those that are.

3 thoughts on “We must stand up for universities’ right to teach the truth

  1. Dear members of the universities and other academic institutions,

    yes, it is time to wake up and be sensitive for challenges of our academic freedom but not only in Britain but all over the world. The attacks actually follow at least four strategies with the aim to constrain scientific freedom and put it under the control of politics: 1. Direct attacks against scientists as individuals as we see it recently in Turkey. 2. Close down free scientific institutions: here is famoust example is the CEU in Budapest which is one of the most prestiguous academic institutions in Hungary but the government aims to close it down. 3. Open up politically controlled institutions: A complementary strategy is to open up new institutions which are politically controlled right from the start and which should function as a substitute for the former free institutions (at least for the general public). 4. Downgrade scientific expertise with ‘fake news': We all know that this is changing the world right now because populists follow Trump’s success in just lying and insisting. We need a new codex of free scientists in the world which we should discuss. Here are some suggestions which follow from the four dangers: Ad 1: Support colleagues who are in danger of getting suppressed or arrested. Ad 2: Try to inform the representatives of the parliaments and the general public about the value of free science for our well-being, for our European way of life which excludes being arrested just because you have the wrong political attitude. Free science in combination with free press is a fortress against dictatorships. Ad 3: Do not support the opening of a scientific institution which has the function to foster policital control of science. Ad 4: We need to fight against fake news by speaking out the truth (of course according to the best explanation available) in our area of expertise. The scientific community consists not only of professors but also of all the students, PhD-students, postdocs, lecturers which form a large community in the world. If everyone uses her/his expertise in her/his area of influence, we may fight the challenge of undermining free science.

    with kind regards and with hopes for success of the initiative Albert Newen

  2. Here are several points about the Heaton-Harris/Brexit furore:-

    1) The way Heaton-Harris went about his enquiry appears to betray a stunning ignorance of universities. Most university teachers in the UK are not professors and are not answerable to professors for what they teach (this may be different in other countries and regimes). A university syllabus or curriculum does not state doctrines that are to be inculcated: hence even if the Vice-Chancellors were to oblige Heaton-Harris with an answer he would be no nearer to knowing whether there really is an anti-Brexit bias in the teaching of European Studies.

    2) Working in a university, as I used to do and as several of my friends and family still do, does expose one to a certain amount of pressure in the direction of political correctness, and this is probably something that has got worse over the past several decades.

    3) So far as social-science subjects are concerned, there was formerly a widespread view that they should be investigated in a value-free manner – and this no doubt helped to encourage the practice of teaching students to think critically, and to try to establish the fact-of-the matter so far as possible. It is now unfashionable to think that even natural science can be value-free, and the consequences of this shift have not necessarily been benign, no matter from which end of the political spectrum one assesses them.

    4) In my own view, students need not (and preferably should not) know what positions their lecturers hold on current political issues, and lecturers should assess students’ work in terms of quality of argument and not on whether they reach a favoured set of conclusions.

    5) Some of the five propositions that James Ladyman advances as examples of liberal beliefs that students are likely to acquire because “reality has a liberal bias” seem to have relatively strong empirical support; others do not really seem to have a “fact of the matter” at all; all of them admit of critical enquiry into their epistemic basis.

    6) Academics must be free to seek for truth, but should never be dogmatic that their current beliefs, hypotheses or models actually embody the final truth on any matter. Failure to recognise the limitations of current knowledge only encourages the extreme skepticism of those whom Ladyman stigmatises as “enemies of truth”.

    Julian Newman

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