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Academic Freedom Re-examined

This is a ‘reprint’ of a letter-to-the-editor I wrote as a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario and was published in the McMaster Courier, June 20, 1989. I print it here just to share some thoughts and wonder if we were to substitute the notion of a ‘free press’ or ‘journalism’ for ‘academic freedom’ or ‘research’, we might have some ideas about how we might view the contemporary issue of ‘fake news’ vs. ‘real news’…

Academic Freedom Re-examined

I would like to comment on Dr. King’s recent discussion on academic freedom (Courier, May 24). It appears that King’s notion of academic freedom are closely linked to specific beliefs about the scientific method and how research proceeds in the scientific community. Implicit in King’s entire argument is the idea that scientific research is an ‘objective’ enterprise. It would appear that this objectivity can only be maintained by ensuring that external pressures do not interfere with research. These beliefs are displayed in the passage by Gilmour which King uses to argue that, because academics are disinterested and display integrity, they should be granted time, money, and a freedom which allows them to perform research unfettered by social and political pressures.

This whole notion of integrity and disinterest within the scientific community, however, needs to be critically examined. An ‘objectivist’ belief, such as that presented by King, holds that scientific knowledge is improving and growing constantly through a type of piecemeal process which builds upon previous research. Ultimately, the ‘truth’ is approached by an accumulation of data and ignorance is left behind, a remnant of insufficient data. This view of science supports an empirical theory of knowledge which presumes a complete detachment between the scientist and object of research. Researchers are subsequently thought to observe ‘facts’ quite independently of their consciousness. This, in turn, implies that some type of an objective reality exists and that humans can accurately determine what it is through rigorous, non-subjective procedures of science.

More recently, however, some researchers are beginning to realize that science is a socially-embedded activity in which research is pervasively influenced by the sociocultural milieu within which it operates. Various psychological and sociocultural factors serve to guide scientific research in predetermined directions. This belief debases the stereotypical view of science as a purely objective enterprise. In fact, some researchers have taken a more radical stand and argued that truth itself is just what a particular scientific community passes at a particular time; that facts are created and we make them fit into our predetermined categories; and that truth is merely the truth of those in power. Alternatively, it can be argued that the facts are real enough but in the interpretation that necessarily follows empirical observations, hard ‘facts’ are tainted by external pressures. These pressures are believed to influence research and its conclusions, even to the point of ‘cheating’. Because of such pervasive pressures within the scientific community, self-policing by academics is not an adequate solution.

The ideas that ‘hard’ facts exist and that science progresses by a patient collection and sifting of these objective facts are perpetual myths propagated by scientists. Researchers must keep in mind that their ideas and fundamental assumptions have been directed by external forces, both in and out of the scientific community. Pure objectivity, as supported by logical empiricists, does not exist. Humans live in a complex world of intersubjectivity. Since research is a subjective and interpretive enterprise, interpretations will inevitably be pluralistic in nature and there is no monopoly on truth. A diversity of interpretations is, therefore, both inevitable and necessary. However, this should not be construed as academic anarchy. Scholars should attempt to understand their own subjective biases and how their sociocultural milieu influences their work. It is only by doing this that they may become more sensitive to the restrictions that are imposed upon their interpretations. Perhaps this endeavour would result in a useful balance between the outdated view of science as objective and the radical notion of a total lack of truth.

This alternative view of the scientific enterprise has profound implications for academic freedom. King’s argument would appear to be based upon the idea that science is totally objective. But if this is not a valid assumption, as I have tried to argue, then notions of academic freedom must be reassessed. Outdated arguments which insist that science will lose its objectivity and usefulness if external pressures are introduced are no longer compelling. Scientific research has always contained such pressures. It is now time for researchers to confront such influences head on. Hiding behind the concept of academic freedom is not going to aid scientific research or make it any less subjective.

Steve Bull
Department of Anthropology

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