Dangerous Academia

Picture from bostonglobe.com, taken by Lisa Rathke with AP

Maybe the title appears a bit strong, because really, how in the world could academia be dangerous?

Well, a nola.com story about a Charles Murray lecture at Middlebury College that attracts hate speech protestors can bring this to light.

Murray champions intelligence differences as the reason some people are successful. Ok, no problem there. This shouldn’t be a reason to protest him, right? Only for Murray, difference in intelligence is based on racial, ethnic, and gender differences.

There are various issues with a university that hides behind the free speech cloak to make such an event possible. But that’s for another time. What I’m interested in pointing out is the harm of a modern-day academic promoting 19th century eugenics ideas. This, I believe, is where academia becomes very dangerous.

People such as Charles Murray are respected for their expertise as researchers and thinkers. Society often looks to influential do’ers, thinkers, and researchers to help us understand what we see and experience in the world. When an influential thinker such as Murray upholds outdated 19th century science about essential racial differences, who benefits from his assertion Certainly not the millions of people fighting to eliminate the idea that essential racial differences exist.

The danger lies in these ideas of racial difference and hierarchies (with some groups as being more intelligent than others) continuing to find intellectual support in the public imagination. When scholars uphold outdated, unfounded science as truth, publish papers on it, give lectures, and talk about it on expert panels, they undermine modern society’s attempts to move beyond tired ideas that should disappear from our imagination.

Scholars may not consider this dangerous, citing some nonsense about intellectual pursuits, and such. The truth is, the ivory tower has real impact on society. When so-called experts and talking heads, who are ever-present on traditional and social media channels, latch on to scholars such as Murray, all of society suffers the consequences of anachronistic thought.

Scholars shouldn’t get a pass on this sort of harm. Despite every effort since the 19th century to establish the idea that rigorous social research and scholarship is bias-free, the verdict is out and we have learned that no socially scientific observation is free of bias. When it comes to observing, theorizing, and remarking about human social phenomena, bias is always at play. Unfortunately, the title of PhD affords scholars the benefit of the doubt, and their written and oral testimonies captured in the public imagination often goes by uncontested, especially when it should be.

Let me know what you think by remarking in the comments section below.

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