‘No TRUE Scotsman …’ Award: Peter McAllister steps onto the podium

Friday’s Oz contained an impressive op-ed by academic Peter McAllister concerning freedom of speech and the contestability of ideas in the Australian academy.

I’ll quote at length, as the argument is sound and it goes to some of the issues that we’ve discussed here recently regarding the totalitarian-fascist mindset, and especially how these problems of tyranny can arise in a democracy such as Australia’s.

The organisers of the open letter demanding Flinders University spurn the government’s proposed $4 million Australian Consensus Centre, run by Bjorn Lomborg, probably see it as a triumph – 7000 signatures surely constitute unanimous rejection? 

Actually, it’s a severe embarrassment. If no Flinders academic other than the vice-chancellor can tolerate rational dissent (as they couldn’t at University of Western Australia) then the Australian academy’s pretensions to free thought are surely fraud. It’s also old hat; Allan Bloom first pinged such intellectually arid conformity, masquerading as righteousness, almost 30 years ago in The Closing of the American Mind.

Does Lomborg’s proposed centre deserve its anathematisation? It’s hard to see how. The proposal is political? Shocking; a democratically elected government has a policy interest in rational research on a vital issue of the day. It lacks credibility? The involvement of several Nobel prizewinners says otherwise. Lomborg’s methodology has even criticised? That’s never happened before in legitimate academic debate, has it? 

The real problem seems to be Lomborg is a noxious, heretical weed in an otherwise happy monoculture. But if that’s true it raises the question: why would universities willingly abandon their mission of defending diversity in critical thought? Why would they happily turn themselves into such intellectual dead zones? 

Bloom, a philosphy professor at Cornell University, thought there were two reasons (in his day, 1960s and 70s America, Lomborg might well have been driven off campus with guns and clubs). The peculiar paradox inherent in democracy: that though it is the freest of political systems it is also surprisingly inhospitable to intellectual dissent. The second, related, reason was universities’ inability to defend their traditional role as havens of that dissent when they transitioned, during the 20th century, from elite to mass teaching institutions.

It was French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville who first identified the surprising monotony of thought in democracies, compared with the raucous intellectual freedom of aristocratic regimes. Travelling through 1830s America he marvelled that the country where everybody (except slaves) was free to express an opinion produced so many people, thinking exactly the same thing. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always, or even usually, the best thing; de Tocqueville noted that democratic America was also gullible to intellectual fads. adopting each in turn with equal fanaticism.

Bloom, building on de Tocqueville’s work, though this intolerance of alternative views arose because majority opinion was the ultimate, and only, source of moral authority in democracies (as opposed to monarchies, where God and/or noble birthright gave thinkers the self-confidence to dare to think contrary thoughts). Democracies thus intimidate and delegitimise dissent because they make it look immoral. Rational dissent, he said, was particularly likely to be seen as moral treason because it made a point of refusing to be swayed by (that is, to serve) democratic society’s passions. Socrates, for example, was executed as a traitor partly because of his stubborn, rational defence of Athens’ military generals, whom the enraged Athenian assembly wanted to, and did, put to death.

In the first decades after democracy’s 19th-century triumph, Western universities had conscientiously protected rational, independent thought from democracy’s moralising, dissent-flattening power. They were intimidated into abandoning that role, however, by the huge influx of new students as higher education opened up in the 20th century (which intensified the pressure on them to submit to democratic society) and by the mass political movements of the same era (which organised that pressure and made it irresistible).

Universities were further crippled, Bloom thought, by the popularity of European anti-rationalist philosophy, which sapped their faith in reason and in the morality of their independence. (Martin Heidegger, for example, had insisted German universities had a moral duty to ditch rationalism and submit to the Nazi Fuhrerprinzip.)

The parallels with the jihad against Lomborg’s consensus centre seem clear. There is the same drive to eliminate even the presence of dissent on campus, the same inability to view it as anything other than moral crime wrought by villains and heretics.

So far, so persuasive (as far as I’m concerned, anyway). However, it’s here that McAllister makes his bid for this year’s ‘No true Scotsman …’ Award:

The justification given (although it wouldn’t really justify Lomborg’s treatment, even if it were true) is that the “science is settled”. That statement, however, is deeply ironic, in fact, oxymoronic. True science is never settled. If it is, it isn’t science any more. 

Oh dear. McAllister then doubles down:

This may seem weird, especially with so many real scientists repeating it …

Two in the hole! OK, entry received, now let’s continue with the otherwise impressive essay:

This may seem weird, especially with so many real scientists repeating it. But that only shows how difficult rigorous scientific thinking is: even professionals get it wrong. They forget Karl Popper’s dictum that proper scientific method … 

Ouch! Three in the hole! Let’s go on.

They forget Karl Popper’s dictum that proper scientific method is about trying to disprove theories, not prove them. Once you stop doing that, Popper says, you’ve abandoned science in favour of belief. Myriad studies on confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret data as supporting your prior beliefs) back him up. 

Thus, however right or wrong, the global warming hypothesis, the claim that its “science is in” is not a reliable argument,. It’s a declaration of one’s determination not to think. 

Again, why would intelligent, trained academics do that? It’s because uncertainty is extremely uncomfortable for the human brain (even for very smart ones). Hundreds of cognitive dissonance studies show the bizarre, counterfactual lengths our minds will go to get rid of it. There’s also an ego issue: despite its wonders, modern science remains a frustratingly inadequate tool for zeroing in on truth. That can be hard to admit. 

But it’s precisely why Flinders should welcome Lomborg’s consensus centre. It badly needs it, and not just for the money (though if you strip away the misplaced moral outrage there’s no reason not to welcome that either). It needs it for proper science, for independence, for John Stuart Mill’s insistence that the presence of alternative thought is the only thing that can save majority opinion from its arrogant, stupid self. It needs it for Bloom’s ceaseless struggle to preserve critical reason against the brain-deadening assault of mass political passion. 

It needs it to reverse the closing of the Australian mind.

Well done, Mr McAllister. And thank you for those insights.

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About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
This entry was posted in 'No True Scotsman' Award, Freedom of speech, Motivated Reasoning. Bookmark the permalink.

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