Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Nelson on Intellectual Freedom

Paul Nelson recently posted this brief essay over at ID the Future. He writes:

This episode came back to me last week as I was lecturing again in Helsinki, not far from the Russian border. Last September, under intense pressure from members of the science faculty (and, I suspect, from opponents of design here in the States), the rector of the University of Helsinki cancelled a seminar on biological complexity and design, a few weeks before it was scheduled to occur.

The seminar had been in preparation for well over a year, and was listed on the University of Helsinki academic calendar, at their Palmenia Centre. Anto Leikola and Petter Portin (two Finnish biology professors skeptical of ID), Rick Sternberg, and I were scheduled to speak, but the seminar was shut down without explanation. Rick and I made the trip anyway, and spoke at the Helsinki University of Technology, in a hastily organized substitute event.

Reflect on these circumstances for a minute. The program was scheduled and advertised on the Palmenia Centre webpage, and brochures and posters had been printed and circulated; indeed, tickets were already being sold by the University of Helsinki. Rick Sternberg and I had purchased our flights. I’m digging my passport out of a desk drawer, and then – no seminar. No explanation.

Now, imagine that you’re the speaker in question, not me. The seminar topic doesn’t matter for the sake of the thought experiment. What would your perception be? Intellectual freedom? Open inquiry?

See the original for links.

I don't know any of the circumstances surrounding this particular seminar, and even Nelson admits he doesn't know why his seminar was cancelled. So I will make this essay hypothetical.

On the one hand, academic freedom is meant to ensure that scholars have the freedom to explore whatever offbeat ideas they think are justified by the evidence at hand.

On the other hand, I'm sure even Nelson would admit that there are some ideas so ridiculous or offensive that a professional soceity would be quite right to distance themselves from them.

For example, imagine that you are organizing a large history conference and receive a proposal for a session entitled “The Historiography of the Holocaust.” Sounds reasonable enough, so you approve the session. Now suppose that after doing so you find out that actually you have just provided a platform for holocaust deniers. Wouldn't you be justified in cancelling the session at that point? Wouldn't you say that since the historical assertions of holocaust deniers have been refuted over and over again, that since the session organizers deliberately tried to conceal their true intentions in describing their session, and that since holocaust denial is shot through with anti-semitism, it's perfectly reasonable for a scholarly society to refuse to provide a platform for such ideas?

Or let's try a more mundane example. Editors of mathematics journals routinely receive submissions claiming to square the circle, trisect a general angle, or find a flaw in Cantor's diagonalization argument for the uncountability of the real numbers. All of them are from cranks. Now suppose a group of them got together and wanted to organize a session devoted to, say, refuting Cantor's argument, at the next American Mathematical Society (AMS) conference. Would the AMS be stomping on academic freedom to refuse to host such a session? If the session organizers started complaining about a “cult of Cantor” that simply refuses to accept that Cantor could have been wrong about anything, would you have any sympathy at all for those people?

Now suppose that a pro-ID group tried to organize a session at a conference. (Let me point out that I am still being hypothetical here. I am not saying that what follows actually happened in the case Nelson describes). Further suppose that the session organizers concealed their true intentions by using an innocuous sounding title like “Explaining Biological Complexity.” Would it really be unjustified for the conference organizers to cancel the session? The main arguments of ID proponents have been refuted again and again, to the point where they hold little interest for experts in the relevant subject areas. On top of that, the conference organizers would surely be aware that ID's leading proponents are far more active in right-wing politics than they are in scientific research. They would know that any fair-minded attempt to give ID proponents yet another chance to make their case would immediately be turned into a major propaganda victory for them. Surely those would be legitimate reasons for cancelling the session.

ID's leading proponents have disgraced themselves time and again by (1) Making elementary errors in the branches of science they discuss, (2) Misrepresenting the views of other scientists, (3) Making arguments that are obviously bad to knowledgable people, (4) By grossly exaggerating their own accomplishments in public forums and (5) By showing far more interest in getting their ideas presented in high school science classes than to audiences of professionals. That is why the scientific community so distrusts ID.

In their writings ID proponents routinely accuse evolutionists of suppressing and distorting evidence. They are likened to the Gestapo, the Mafia, or (in Nelson's case) to the Soviet Union. They are accused of making the most elementary oversights in their areas of expertise. They are accused of being part of a grand atheistic plot and of hating religion.

But when scientists respond to this by choosing not to have anything to do with ID folks, people like Nelson turn around and whine about academic freedom.

If, back in the early nineties when ID was first coming to the fore, Nelson's cohorts had decided to conduct themselves like scientists instead of like political hacks, they would today find it easier to get speaking slots at conferences. As it is, their own actions have squandered any good will between them and mainstream science.