When is wrong, right?

Let’s play a little game. We’re both going to think about our jobs and distill the most essential bit into as few words as possible. Try it – see if you can explain yours in fewer words than mine. Are you ready?

I am professionally wrong.

I’m a scientist in academia, where we spend most of our time trying to figure out the correct way to understand things. When trying to solve problems, we have to explore myriad possible options to find out which is right. That means committing oneself to a line of thought and taking it seriously, and, inevitably, being wrong. Sometimes we get things right first time, but only very very rarely.

That’s fine – it’s the exciting and skilled part of research. Researchers are professionally wrong, and it’s great. But I get very frustrated when people start to think that academia is a kind of shield against criticism, especially when The Guardian starts defending bigots because of their “academic right to be wrong”. So I’m going to explain why being an academic is, in fact, no kind of excuse to be a bigot. I wish I didn’t have to.

I should briefly explain the article I linked, but to avoid the chance that I could misrepresent the editorial you should go and read it – it’s very short. The editorial talks about the bigoted views of a homophobic law professor at Oxford. It discusses how his academic ideas about sexuality are informed by his religion, and that these in turn affect his view on the law. It rightly admits that his views are absurd, but then claims that his presence in academia is a good thing because his presence exposes the absurdity of his homophobic beliefs. The article argues, in fact, that the man has the right to hold those views and that his academic freedom should protect him from being ostracized by his department. They call this the “right to be wrong”. Finally, they claim that the university should protect their reputation by re-inviting him to their seminars. At the start it brands him homophobe, but by the end gives the impression that he should be invited to tea.

Here’s the problem, though – academic rights should be conditional on corresponding responsibilities. Academics should have the right to hold a controversial opinion, yes, but that right should be conditional upon the responsibility to continually force those opinions to be subject to change. The goal of this arrangement is to find the best ideas by honest discussion, and by addressing weak points in our own ideas. If an idea is sufficiently criticized, we must either fix it or abandon it altogether. That is the academic right to be wrong, in a nutshell – not a defense of poor ideas, but a reason to ditch them and adopt better ones without future prejudice.

Of course, anyone may hold any view – that is a human right. But as soon as an academic refuses to give up an opinion regarding their field, they have shirked their responsibility and forfeited their right to be wrong. Prof Finnis, the academic in question, is a “true believer” in his homophobia, apparently, which is the basis of some of his professional opinions. This is precisely what disqualifies the defense of academic freedom, and shames The Guardian’s editorial team. “True believers” who allow their beliefs to support their professional work should hold no place in academia.

A  great person once said that “You don’t use science to prove you’re right, you use science to become right.” The same principles should be applied to all academic disciplines, and we should collectively fight all attempts to protect professional bigots.

About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
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