Academic Orthodoxy Is A Bigger Threat Than Climate Change

  • Date: 10/08/16
  • Jamie Whyte, CapX

The new authoritarians seek to protect particular scientific theories that are currently orthodox by undermining the free competition between ideas that explains the extraordinary success of science over the last 500 years.

Jarod Gilbert is a sociology lecturer at the University of Canterbury here in New Zealand. According to the byline of an article he published in a national newspaper last week, he “specialises in research with practical applications”.

His latest practical suggestion can be found in the title of his article: “Why climate denial should be a criminal offense”. According to Dr Gilbert,

“the scientific consensus [for catastrophic manmade climate change] is so overwhelming that to argue against it is to perpetuate a dangerous fraud”.

In 1915, you would have been hard pressed to find a physicist who believed that time slows down under gravitational force. Yet this is entailed by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, first published that year. It was lucky for Einstein, and for the progress of science, that Dr Gilbert’s proposed prohibition on scientific dissent was not then in force.

If Dr Gilbert were a maverick academic authoritarian, we might simply chuckle. Alas, his proposal is characteristic of a rising culture of intellectual intolerance. Even at universities, many people seek victory for their opinions not by force of argument and evidence but by brute force – by laws like the one suggested by Dr Gilbert, by banning dissenters from speaking on campus, by campaigning for the dismissal of heretical lecturers or by shouting them down.

These new authoritarians usually declare a commitment to science. They merely wish to silence those who go against it. But this desire reveals a profound confusion about science – or, at least, about the element of science that should be protected. They seek to protect the particular theories that are currently orthodox by undermining the free competition between ideas that explains the extraordinary success of science over the last 500 years.

In this way, the new intellectual protectionists are like economic protectionists who recommend tariffs or subsidies to protect current businesses from competition. They aim to promote their favoured businesses in a way that undermines the competitive and entrepreneurial process that explains the extraordinary economic progress of the last 250 years.

What is going on? Why are universities becoming bastions of intellectual protectionism?

The analogy with business protectionism provides part of the answer. Competition between suppliers is good for consumers, be they consumers of ideas or of goods and services. But it isn’t much fun for the suppliers. Like businessmen, academics invest in their endeavours, often betting their careers on a theory, and they stand to lose much if competing ideas prevail. Using force to hinder competitors will always be a temptation.

But that is why self-interest can be only part of the answer. Self-interest is timeless but intellectual protectionism is on the rise. We need a change to explain it. What’s new that might explain the waning of patience with debate and dissent?

It is the increasing sense of moral superiority among self-described progressives, who make up the vast majority of academics and university students. That’s my hypothesis. If you think you have attained a morally perfect world view, you can only regret debate. People with weaker minds than yours may be led astray by dissenters. Why risk it?

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