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.