Friday 11 January 2019

Academics Should Not Be Activists

In a civilised society, academic scientists are granted a special epistemic authority. They deserve to be listened to, their claims believed, and their recommendations considered seriously. This is because what they say about their subject of expertise is more likely to be true than what anyone else has to say about it.

Unfortunately, some academics believe they have a right - or even a duty - to exploit this privileged status as a resource for influencing society to do what they think best. They lead organisations and political movements to campaign systematically for specific laws, policies, and political candidates. They join governments. They tell their students who to vote for and help them organise protest marches. They launch lawsuits and organise boycotts of companies and countries they disapprove of. Here are some high profile academic activists you might have heard of Catharine MacKinnon, Richard Dawkins, Jordan Peterson, Cornell West, Peter Navarro.

My argument is that activism is something different from merely communicating what you know about a pressing topic to the public or even advocating for specific policies that follow from that expertise. Those are right and proper things for academics to do. Activism goes further and crosses a line that separates virtue from vice. It is not only unethical in itself, but is also antithetical to objective empirical research, public trust in academia, and even the functioning of activist organisations. Because academic activism short-circuits the usual quality control systems, even if it succeeds in achieving its aims it is a matter of luck whether or not society benefits. But because of how it works it certainly degrades democracy.  

I. The Democratic Division Of Labour

Before going further into the problems of academic activism, I should explain the contrast I have in mind: how academic engagement with democratic society should ideally go.

Democracy is a way of making collective decisions about rules and rulers that respects everyone’s opinion equally. A problem immediately arises about the quality of democratic decisions since people have an unequal understanding of the underlying facts - partly because facts are hard, and partly because politics confuses what is true with what is convenient. Therefore democracies create specialist institutions, protected from democratic politics, to investigate what the relevant truths are and report back. (I have tried elsewhere to explain this idea of 'truth machines' in more detail.)

What makes academic scientists special is not their personal characteristics, like their intelligence or moral character. It is their membership in good standing of one of the specialized epistemic communities that investigate particular issues or features of how the world works, from the effects of international migration on labour markets to the geo-physics of climate change; an effort that includes continuous refinement of the best methods to investigate that issue. The outcome of this is not that academics are guaranteed to be correct (just look at the history of science). It is that they have access to the best understanding of the topic that those people in the world most dedicated and able to investigate it have yet managed to figure out.

Academics are not moral sages. They merely know better methods and answers than anyone else on specific topics. Hence their narrow but deep epistemic privilege compared to the rest of us. If you reject what relevant academic experts claim about something like GM crop safety then the burden of proof is on you to justify why you think you know better. Epistemology can be thought of as a bet. Imagine placing a $10,000 bet of your own money on whether global warming is real or not. Would you bet with the overwhelming consensus of the thousands of specialized scientists whose work is aggregated into the IPCC reports? Or would you go with the next best alternative: some consultant hired by Exon to talk up this year's snowstorms on Fox News?

So much for why academic experts deserve our trust in the first place. The academic activist does not deserve this trust. They substitute righteousness for genuine expertise, all the while continuing to exploit the credibility that genuine academic experts deserve.

II. Activists Make Bad Academics

The qualities of the effective academic and the effective activist are opposed. Academic activists are likely to be bad academics.

The virtues of academics are the intellectual ones of curiosity, humility, and honesty. Academics are supposed to be committed to following the evidence wherever it goes, to find the truth however inconvenient. This commitment to be on the side of the truth rather than the right is what makes academic expertise trustworthy, in contrast to the mob of special interests and political partisans who also seek to 'inform' society. The activist lacks this commitment. He has finished with the journey and arrived at the final destination. He believes he has discovered all the truth worth knowing on the subject, and has embarked instead on a new political project of action to implement that truth. 

Activists also lack the virtues that go with a commitment to seeking the truth. The virtue of humility, for example, is replaced by concerns for certainty and for loyalty. I have occasionally attended academic conferences that turned out to be activist in character. The experience was strange. In a normal academic conference people are generally grateful when you point out a problem with their ideas and arguments. (I even sometimes think of academia as a gift economy founded on the reciprocal exchange of interesting problems.) Activist academics react with consternation and hurt to the gift of a problem. ‘But aren’t you on our side?’ For them, a conference is a political exercise; held to reinvigorate the unity, organizational structure, and motivation of the movement. 

To give another example, among activists as among some religious proselytizers, honesty is valued merely instrumentally, i.e. to the extent that a reputation for truthfulness might be useful for getting people to sign on to their programme. It is replaced by a meta-concern for righteousness, which is rather different. As we can all see over and over again, activists’ sincere commitment to a higher Moral Truth licenses a shameless disinterest in more ordinary truths. Activist organisations produce vast amounts of fact-like information about their chosen cause - whether that be their take on transgender rights or liberal bias in the media. Sometimes these 'fact' dumps are structured as lengthy research reports modeled on academic forms. But the form is deceptive. These are not works of investigation into how things are but devices for pushing a particular view of things into the public's attention and common sense. They are what Harry Frankfurt would call bullshit. 

Activism has a pernicious effect on academic integrity because it stands the normal order of business on its head. The activist begins with the correct conclusion and then works backward to find the evidence that would justify it, while finding excuses to dismiss criticism and counter-evidence. Perhaps there are virtues to such an argument focused approach in democratic politics and law (and perhaps also in philosophy* and parts of the humanities). There the contest is over the right valuational frame to apply to the given facts, and the audience's understanding and judgement may be enhanced by observing a clash of perspectives. Establishing what the facts are requires a more humble and also a more sophisticated attitude to evidence that only impartial experts can provide. Attempting a public contest between motivated reasoners cherrypicking the evidence that best suits their claims does not benefit democratic reasoning. That is how the vaccine, GM, climate change, and flat earther 'debates' got started. 

Because establishing facts is so difficult, it requires communities of experts working together to develop the best methods and to share the results of their diligent application. This requires trust and a commitment to fact-finding rather than Truth proving. The motivated reasoning of the academic activist is toxic to the functioning of these epistemic communities. By abusing the trust placed in them by their colleagues, they may pollute the shared well of scientific knowledge for decades, as the psychologist Cyril Burt did by by making up data and co-authors. Burt successfully exploited his considerable academic weight and fake research to influence the reorganisation of Britain’s postwar education system around his Moral Truth: eugenics. Even worse is when Truth-full activists get together to found their own parodies of academic communities - like Austrian economics, gender studies, development studies, biblical archaeology, and so on. (They often have the word 'studies' in their name and sit in an ambiguously interdisciplinary position between the humanities and social sciences in the university org chart.) Admission is regulated by righteousness rather than the ability to pose each other challenging problems. Circular flow journals are founded in which these activists cite each others' claims as evidence to justify their own prior beliefs, a process of analytical layering that over time creates an immense body of pseudo-facts that the activist is an expert on. 

Marxism provides a classical illustration of collective motivated reasoning in action. It even provoked Karl Popper’s account of how a pseudo-science works: it dresses up in scientific clothes (e.g. predictions), but doesn’t actually work like a science (the predictions are like those in a horoscope: a projection of the reader’s credulity, not specific objectively testable claims). Marx himself is interesting too, both because he was an academic activist whose failures had dreadful consequences for hundreds of millions of people and because of his famous endorsement of activist intellectualism.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

Marx had formed his conclusions about capitalism by 1848 and then spent the rest of his life putting together the argument for it. The key problem - and the reason I call Marx an academic activist even he never held an academic position - is that he claimed the credential of ‘scientific’ for his version of socialism. This was presumably to trump his many leftist competitors, who only had ethical arguments to make against the dreadful capitalism of the day. Unfortunately even Marx’s considerable intellectual abilities and knowledge of political economy did not protect him from the scourge of motivated reasoning, which working collaboratively with non-aligned political economists might have. He insisted on the Truth of his theoretical insights in the face of all counterevidence. The working class were being increasingly immiserated! No matter that, decade after decade, their living and working conditions kept improving. 

I have argued that the qualities required of success at activism conflict with those required for academia, and so an activist is unlikely to be a good academic. Next I will consider the opposite implication of the conflict: that academics don’t even make good activists.

III. Academics Make Bad Activists

As I already noted, academics are just regular people who have specialised in understanding and contributing to the collective investigation of a particular topic. Operating by ourselves we have little to offer. Academics are not particularly impressive as human beings, being neither especially wise nor especially moral. Nor are we especially good at leading organisations and political movements. Those are not the qualities by which we were selected for our positions. You wouldn’t expect an electrician to be able to solve world hunger, or even a world energy shortage. So why would you expect academics to do so? It's like taking a fish out of water and expecting it to dance. 

Like lots of people, academics have views on social problems and political affairs. What makes our views receive more attention is not the quality of those views, but the prestige that we happen to have as a result of our academic positions. Academics are granted a special epistemic authority because of our expertise and the value it can provide to a democratic society. However, it is generally left up to us to ensure that this privilege of credibility is not extended beyond our real area of expertise - like the embarrassing sight of retired trade economist Paul Krugman waving his Nobel Prize around as he inveighed against Eurozone government austerity policies that he appeared only to have read about in the American press.

Academics do not sufficiently recognise the responsibilities that come with this special power. Like everyone else, we have more faith in our opinions than those of others. When talking with peers in our epistemic community we must accept their challenges and scrutiny - that our word is not the last word. But, like high school teachers with a captive audience who come to believe that their jokes are actually funny, academics are especially vulnerable to intellectual arrogance when talking to the general public. What we are saying must be important since everyone else is so willing to let us speak.

Academic activists are self-selected for their confidence in the correctness of their own opinions, and the strength of their desire to see them realised. But not for their actual correctness. Their success in gaining attention is due to the prestige of their academic positions. Again, not because of the quality of their opinions. As a result they may actually cause harm to activist organisations or the causes they represent.

Academic activists can lend their prestige to an activist organisation or movement, raising its profile or credibility, as Andrew Wakefield raised the profile of the anti-vaccination movement (while also influencing its development). But given that academics are so unqualified for their activist role, there are significant disadvantages to such an association. For one thing, academics often demand or simply take leadership roles in keeping with their sense of their own importance. That displaces more qualified people (more informed about the issue; better at organisation building or leadership) and the real concerns and interests of grass roots members. For example, the sustained interventions of academic activists with a background in science, like Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger, heavily influenced the development and shape of the ‘New Atheism’ movement. Their ignorance of and disinterest in the philosophical questions raised by religion have made this atheism wave far more scientistic than previous movements (Pigliucci), and also rather sectarian (as I have argued previously).

Activist academics believe they have an urgent moral duty to try to change society, and that this requires more than informing society of the objective facts of the matter or recommending particular actions so that we can make a democratic decision in the usual way. They are distinguished from regular academics by a passion to be political actors rather than mere investigators and reporters. Unfortunately, the possession of a passion for action does not mean you will be any good at it or good for it. What it does do is give you an illusion of your own centrality. It is rather like those well intentioned gap year students from rich countries who volunteer to build houses or teach in poor countries - under the delusion that they have real skills to contribute merely because of where they come from.

IV. Academic Activists Are Bad For Society

Opportunity does not indicate capability. The mere fact that academics have more opportunity than regular people to influence society does not mean they have more capability to use that power well, or for good. In this they resemble other kinds of people with special power to influence society. The very rich and celebrities have far more resources to have their opinion heard and to influence political outcomes than regular people. And some of them do exert that power to try to reorder the world according to their views. In both cases the mistake is the same: estimating the value of your opinions by the power you have to bring them about multiplied by your confidence in them.

Some of the political causes championed by activists are no doubt good ones. But many of them will turn out to be worthless or even destructive. We certainly can’t trust the academic activist’s own judgement. He has selected himself for this job on the basis of his confidence in and passion for his cause, and sustains this against any countervailing evidence by motivated reasoning. From society’s perspective, whether or not a cause advocated by an academic activist as True turns out to be good is a matter of luck.

So what, you may well ask. A democratic society is subjected to all sorts of proposals from the wise to the self-interested to just plain silly. Ultimately, it is our responsibility to choose which ideas should rule. The academic activist is doing nothing especially unusual or immoral by bringing their cause to our attention so we can make our own decision. If anything they should be thanked for increasing our options. 

If we let celebrities tell us what or who to believe, that is surely our own fault. If the rich have too much influence on democratic deliberations, they should be restrained (previously). But academic activists pose a particular problem because they confuse democracy with Truth and facts with values. 

Academic experts have a special epistemic authority to tell us of inconvenient but significant truths (such as climate change). That is a valuable informational service that can extend to advocating certain policy solutions. But it is the society as a whole that gets to determine the value of any particular piece of advice. That is the division of labour in a democracy. We need specialists with appropriate training and resources to investigate complex, often non-intuitive matters of fact and to explain them to us. We don’t need those specialists to decide for us what we should do with those facts. That is a conversation and a decision we can all be a part of. If we can't be bothered to save a habitable planet for our grandchildren then that's our decision - more shame to us - and a democrat should respect it. In a democracy the people are in charge; not Truth.

The academic activist is defined by their rejection of this democratic division of labour and indeed democracy in general. They believe the Truth should rule, and it should rule because it is the Truth, not because a majority of people find it agreeable. They seek to influence society, not merely to inform or persuade; and they measure success by whether they can get their beliefs implemented, not how well they contribute to the democratic process.

Of course a democracy has lots of activist groups that are full of themselves in this way. What makes the academic activist particularly dangerous is their misuse of their epistemic authority to present their values claims (which should be challenged) as if they were facts (which should be trusted). For example, Jordan Peterson does this when he converts empirical facts about how men and women tend to behave differently into oughts - something even well-prepared interviewers seem incapable of challenging him for.

When academics attempt to lead rather than merely inform the wider society they don’t merely contradict the ideal of valuational equality at the heart of democracy. They also bring politics back into academia. It was a hard, and continuing struggle to carve out a space free from politics where people could pursue the truth even if it were inconvenient to the powerful or to the masses. When activists reach out to intervene anti-democratically in political matters, they put the whole project of impartial truth seeking in jeopardy.

Academia becomes seen as nothing more than an extension of politics, of people demanding attention for their opinions, rather than an independent truth machine that serves democratic deliberation. Now when academics make a claim that is even mildly counter-intuitive or controversial, anyone who doesn't want to believe it has an excuse to refuse to accept its epistemic authority. (As I have seen more than one Jordan Peterson interviewer do when they didn’t like the statistical facts about male and female behaviour he was citing.) Since everything is political, all truths are merely biased perspectives. Science is the product of the politico-moral ideology of researchers rather than the objective evaluation of evidence. That is, as bullshit at best and propaganda at worst.

V. The Need For A Professional Academic Ethics

I have argued that academic activism is a bad thing for academia, activism, and democracy that can also have terrible consequences for society (as in the case of Marx’s ‘scientific’ socialism or Francis Galton’s promotion of ‘scientific’ racism and eugenics policies). So what should be done about it? Considering the significance I have claimed for the problem my proposed solution may seem disappointingly mild: Academia should cultivate a professional ethics that better equips us to think about what we are doing.

The first part of the argument for this approach is negative: the failure of the more obvious solution of banning academics from activism. Such a ban would be anti-democratic, impractical, and pose its own dangers to academic integrity.

It would be anti-democratic because it disrespects the rights of academic-citizens. Academics are not only members of epistemic communities engaged in trying to understand some aspect of the world as it truly is. They are also citizens, with all the rights to freedom of opinion and speech of any other citizen. The problem posed by academic activists is their excessive power to influence other citizens. Reducing all academics to having less voice than other citizens would introduce a new injustice.

Moreover, many forms of activism by academics are perfectly acceptable since they do not exploit their privileged epistemic authority. The academic who helps out at a soup kitchen at weekends, for example, or the academic who takes a day off work to volunteer to bus voters to polling stations. Even academics who do launch sustained political crusades do not necessarily exploit their position in a misleading way. Noam Chomsky, for example, is both an activist about global justice and a researcher who has made significant contributions to the field of linguistics. But surely no one listening to a speech by Chomsky about how terribly America oppresses other countries thinks they should believe him because he is a professor of linguistics. 

Besides a civic right to activism, I have already argued that academics also have a civic duty to inform and advocate to society. Bans are a crude device and it is hard to see how one could be designed well enough to prevent the bad kinds of behaviour by academics while permitting the beneficial kinds. Moreover, the statutory agency tasked with making such decisions would be granted a great deal of power about which kinds of facts could enter public debate. For example, a government committed to denying climate change for its own political purposes could not only redirect government funding away from the topic (as already happens); it could also silence independent scientists who seek to inform the public of the results of such research by identifying them as activists (at least those living within its jurisdiction). The result would be to politicise the academy: since only politically convenient truths would be heard, people would stop trusting what academics have to say.

So a ban would be a terrible idea. A more promising alternative is to treat academic activism as an ethical problem, requiring an ethical rather than political response. Academia is oddly bereft of a professional ethics, except around the particular hotspots of research ethics and plagiarism. More reflection on the true purposes of academia and the responsibilities that follow from that would be good for us even aside from addressing the activism problem. The idea is to develop relevant principles for academics - and their critics - to think with when contemplating public interventions. I leave it to others to take such a project further. But I think that some of the key principles and conflicts I have identified would be part of it: an appreciation of the privilege of academics’ epistemic authority, its responsibilities, and its limits; the distinction between advocating and influencing; and so on. 

Such a professional ethics would be flexible in the right way. Unlike an externally enforced ban it would be a source of reasons that could contribute to an open discussion rather than an unaccountable power to suppress certain views. Unlike a rigid ‘code of conduct’ it could be adapted to the demands of circumstances. For example, in the face of a government that systematically seeks to mislead the public about climate change, the civic duty to inform the public may require more aggressive efforts simply to support the democratic right of the people to make their own decisions about the issue. 

Many academic activists believe they are acting morally. Many academics who eschew any public role believe the same. There seems a lot of confusion about the duties academics have to the wider society and how they should be executed. A professional ethics would play a positive role in promoting the right kind of public engagement as well as a negative role in constraining the wrong kind. It would identify the wrongs and the harms of crossing the line between providing the public with what they need to think better about something and influencing them to come to the right conclusion. And it would advise academics on how to avoid confusing their political interventions with their academic expertise, in their own minds or those of their audience. But it would also make clear that public engagement is a professional responsibility of academics working on issues important to society, and something that they and their institutions should set aside time to do properly. 

A professional ethics would also provide critics with a politically neutral vocabulary to criticise unprofessional conduct, so that such challenges do not descend into partisan name-calling as they often do now. For example, the problem with Professor Peter Navarro advising the president on economic policy is not the content of his views on trade per se. It is the fact that despite his title and PhD he does not represent any kind of academic expertise because he disagrees dramatically with the consensus among academic experts. (So dramatically that he appears to be the only person with an economics PhD to think trade works like this.) Despite his academic credentials Navarro represents only his own ideas. By advising Trump’s administration he is not providing a public service of factual expertise to counter the passions of politics, but lending a veneer of academic respectability to the view of the world this president prefers to believe in. 

There is yet another benefit of adding a structured sense of responsibility to the professional powers of academics. It would allow us to identify and resist various other disturbing practises I haven't had space to discuss. For example, the common practise of taking an academic dispute out of the academy and presenting it to the public to decide. The reason heterodox schools of economics like the Marxians and Austrians are so popular outside the academy while so marginalised within it is that they routinely offer their empirically deficient arguments to a general public unequipped to critically evaluate them. We may feel flattered to be consulted, but we can at best analyse the plausibility of such arguments in terms of our understanding of how the world works (e.g. Peter Navarro's zero-sum view of trade). We cannot assess their probability in terms of the complicated empirical evidence for and against them. For another example, it is at present absurdly easy for nakedly ideological organisations (companies, thinktanks and foundations) to commission academic research that will come to findings that they can use to advance their agenda. Christian foundations offering grants to investigate the truth of intelligent design, for instance, can connect with those scientists most willing to promise to find helpful results. Such grant proposals often include detailed plans on how the results of the research will be used to influence society via media appearances, op eds and school textbooks.


As members of specialist truth machines, academics have a privileged view of how at least a part of the world really works, and thus a privileged ability to make pronouncements with high epistemic authority. Yet this also makes their pronouncements hard for the general public to scrutinise. Academic activists take advantage of this by illegitimately conflating their private moral beliefs with their special status, so that their opinions may have a greater influence on politics. Unfortunately this behaviour corrupts the very epistemic authority of academia which made it so attractive for activists in the first place. If academics want to engage in politics, that is their right, but they should clearly distinguish between the promotion of their personal opinions and their role as academic researchers, in their own minds and in those of their audience. Otherwise academia will become as politicised and unreliable as the billionaire funded think-tanks that churn out politically convenient truths day in and day out.


*Philosophy is an argumentative discipline not an empirical one. This essay is not a declamation of facts that you need to take on trust but a philosophical argument that requires no special knowledge to understand or to disagree about. You can direct comments to me below, or take up a conversation about it on reddit or elsewhere. It is also an example of advocacy rather than activism: I invite readers (particularly my fellow academics) to think about the issues I raise, but if you don't want to, that's up to you. 

A previous version of this essay was published on 3 Quarks Daily