Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Academic freedom, academic responsibility.

Let's take a hypothetical case. (Why? In part, because I don't have all the facts about the real case I'm thinking of -- look, I'm not this guy, and unless this blog has way more readers than I think it does, neither are you. Also, I've already blogged about the real case elsewhere.)

Consider an economist named Barry Winters. Barry is giving a talk at a conference about what can be done to attract more women to the study of math and science, and to keep them in the field long enough to become full professors. In his talk, Barry suggests as a possible hypothesis for the relatively low number of women in math and science careers that there may be innate biological factors that make males better at math and science than females. (Barry also relates an anecdote about his daughter naming her toy trucks as if they were dolls, but obviously, he means this anecdote to be illustrative rather than evidentiary.) Barry's talk does not go over well with the rest of the participants in the conference.

Question: Is Barry just exercising academic freedom here?

I don't think the answer here is an obvious yes. Here's an additional fact to consider: Several scientific studies were presented at the conference before Barry's talk. All these studies presented significant evidence against the claim of an innate difference between males and females that could account for the "science gap".

Barry is free to state hypotheses -- even unpopular hypotheses -- that might account for a particular phenomenon. But, as a scientist, he is also responsible to take account of data relevant to his hypotheses. If the data weighs against his preferred hypothesis, intellectual honesty requires that he at least acknowledge this fact. Some would argue that it could even require that he abandon his hypothesis (since, y'know, science is supposed to be evidence-based whenever possible).

Add another fact to the hypothetical case. Let's say one of the conference organizers notes to Barry that there is this large body of evidence that seems to undermine his hypothesis. In reply, Barry says, "Well, I don't believe any of those studies." Is Barry within his rights to not believe these studies? Sure. But, he has a responsibility to explain why he rejects them. As a part of a scientific community, he can't just reject a piece of scientific knowledge out of hand. Doing so comes awfully close to undermining the process of communication that scientific knowledge is based upon. You aren't supposed to reject a study because you have more prestige than the authors of the study (so, you don't have to care what thay say). You can question the experimental design, you can question the data analysis, you can challenge the conclusions drawn, but you have to be able to articulate the precise objection. Surely, rejecting a study just because it doesn't fit with your preferred hypothesis is NOT an intellectually honest move.

So, as Barry has conducted himself here, he hasn't been a responsible scientist. But the problem goes beyond a lack of intellectual honesty within the universe of scientific discourse. Barry will also be responsible for the bad consequences that flow from his remark.

No, it's not what you think I'm going to say. The bad consequence I have in mind here is the mistaken view of science and its workings that Barry's conduct conveys. Especially if Barry falls back on a plain vanilla "academic freedom" defense here, he conveys to the public at large the idea that any hypothesis in science is as good as any other. Scientists who are conscious of the evidence-based nature of their field will see the absurdity of this idea -- some hypotheses are better, others worse, and whenever possible we turn to the evidence to make these discriminations. Barry compounds ignorance of the relevant data with what is essentially a statement that he doesn't care what the data show. Either the public at large will assume he's within his scientific rights to decide which data to care about without giving any justification for this choice (does he not care about these studies because the researchers are women?), or they will infer that data has little bearing on the scientific picture of the world (hell-o Foucault!). And clearly, such a picture of science will undermine the standing of the rest of the bits of knowledge scientists far more intellectually honest than Barry produce.

So, not only does Barry have some responsibilities that seemed to have escaped him, but the rest of the scientists (whether at the conference or elsewhere) have a collective responsibility to put some kind of smackdown on Barry in order to address the mistaken picture of science his conduct conveys to society at large.

Of course, maybe you'd like to offer an alternative analysis?


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