Aussie Life

Kiwi life

8 January 2022

9:00 AM

8 January 2022

9:00 AM

Of the making of many books, the Bible says, ‘there is no end’. It’s starting to feel a bit like that with the production of academic open letters.

These ghastly exercises in the ritual humiliation of errant scholars by their apparently blameless colleagues have been with us for rather less time than the wisdom of Solomon, but already they are feeling long in the tooth. And sharper, too, if some of the recent cases — including one in our own neck of the global woods — are anything to go by.

Historians (those who haven’t yet been cancelled at any rate) might date the first scholarly pile-on to 1931. On that occasion, the errant researcher was Albert Einstein and what at the time was deemed to be his dubious theory of special relativity. A group of distinguished academic rivals issued an open letter, One Hundred Authors Against Einstein, heaping scorn on his ideas and what the woke kids today might call white privilege.

‘Why a hundred?’ Einstein famously replied. ‘If they were right, one would have been enough.’

Einstein easily carried the day on the scientific front, but his efforts to put paid to the unedifying spectacle of university eggheads breaking out the pitchforks and giving collective chase to wayward scholars apparently fell on deaf ears.

Today, as ever, they figure high on the teetering list of least lovely aspects of higher education. They are frequently absurd. They are usually pompous. They are almost always cowardly. And they are pseudo-scholarly to a degree because they invariably start out by assuming the worst of all possible motivations on the part of the scholar, or scholars, whose career they are looking to hurt, before going on to declare this must be their only possible motivation.

They are also rather bogus because they suggest a natural corollary between the truth of a proposition and the number of its adherents; the counting of heads rather than what’s going on inside those heads.

In rock and roll terms that’s like saying, by dint of numbers, that the celebrity singalong Do They Know It’s Christmas achieved more for modern music than Bob Dylan’s intensely personal Highway 61 Revisited.

Or rather, as Soren Kierkegaard (who knew a thing or two about open letters in his own Danish setting) put it: ‘When truth conquers with the help of ten thousand yelling men, even supposing that what is victorious is true, a far greater untruth is inculcated by virtue of the manner of their victory.’

According to the young British sociologist Noah Carl, there have been dozens of such missives in the present era targeting fellow scholars. Carl thinks the modern trend goes back to at least to 1971, when there was a petition against the late Richard Herrnstein signed by 37 anthropologists claiming that his theories ‘attack the legitimate aspirations of oppressed people for a decent life’.

Like Einstein, Herrnstein had the niftiest of rejoinders: ‘The truth is not ordinarily decided by petitions,’ he drawled, and in that case, at least, it wasn’t. He went on to co-author The Bell Curve with Charles Murray. Fortuitously, perhaps, he died a few weeks before the later book’s publication and was thus spared from the hell curve of open letters occasioned by that particular work, too.

Carl knows all about this because he, too, had his research activities terminated at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, after hundreds of fellow scholars subjected him to the same treatment.

Carl, who finds himself with a bit more spare time on his hands these days, also offers a number of (satirically) helpful pointers to academic newbies who might be looking to join the lynch mob.

Allege poor scholarship, he counsels, or at any rate the utter failure of peer-review. Claim that a concept can’t be separated from a certain socio-political context. Go big on mentions of racism. Always refer to a ‘community’ or ‘communities’. Use hyperbole and appeals to emotion, rather than any of this silly old-fashioned stuff like refutations and actual argument. And be sure to close the epistle with the loudest of calls for an institution to publicly disavow their shamed educator.

The last point is critical since it puts the ball right back in the parent university’s court, and if they know what’s good for them they will heed the call before the stormtroopers on Twitter swirl in to mop up the opposition.

Among the other recent cases he highlights is that of the fabulously brilliant Steven Pinker, who was the subject of one such effort cobbled together by more than six hundred academics (actually, most of them younger rubes still mid-flight through their doctoral research) calling for the distinguished evolutionary psychologist to be kicked out of the Linguistic Society of America.

Pinker’s offence was that he had been insufficiently attentive to critical race theory at a time ‘when black and brown people are mobilising against systemic racism’. In light of this, the implicit feeling seemed to be that it might be best for everyone if Pinker simply agreed to give up on the research altogether and tactfully disappear from academic ken, perhaps with the assistance of a suitably enlightened college president showing him to the faculty lounge door.

As well as being fabulously brilliant, however, Pinker is fabulously popular — something to which institutions of higher learning are naturally sensitive — and, perhaps more to the legal point, fabulously American. He could sue. Open letters may be popular in the court of media opinion, but the actual courts tend to take a dimmer view of them, at least in the United States where, constitutionally, free speech still matters.

Sometimes it happens that one may agree with every word to which open letter signatories affix their names yet one would still — adapting Voltaire — die to defend your right not to read them saying it. Such was the case in New Zealand with another highly contentious open letter that was published a few months ago in the NZ Listener from seven scholars arguing that there is no such thing as a specifically Maori science operating in parallel with science as it is commonly understood. The letter, which, to be fair, might have clarified its central point a little better,  became the biggest educational news story of 2021 in New Zealand.

Or make that the second-biggest academic news story of the year. Hardly had the printer’s ink dried on the initial open letter when another appeared, this one signed by two thousand local educators ‘categorically’ disassociating themselves from their colleagues’ appeal to a universal standard for scientific inquiry.

‘Colonisation, racism, misogyny, and eugenics,’ the follow-up raved, ‘have each been championed by scientists wielding a self-declared monopoly on universal knowledge.’

For good measure, too, the University of Auckland’s vice chancellor, Dawn Freshwater, issued her own open letter – actually, an open email — sorrowing over the original correspondence for having caused ‘considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni’.

Now the local branch of the Royal Society has also launched its own inquiry into the letter’s ‘outmoded’ views. Perhaps while they are at it, the Royal Society could widen the remit of its investigation to take another look at that fellow who came up with the theory of special relativity. Or even issue a new edition of One Hundred Authors Against Einstein. Of the making of such works, after all, there is no end.

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