Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Ivory towers and parliaments 

An interesting article by Gargi Bhattacharyya in the Guardian offers a different look at academic freedom. She seems quite concerned over the boundary between science and state, and how its blurring may have played a role in the death of David Kelly. Academic freedom, she says, is something that seems antiquated to most outsiders.
I know, I know: academic freedom is one of those most esoteric of debates. Who cares, or even knows, what it means? Occasionally university staff appear in public, protesting about the erosion of this freedom. Most of the time we end up looking like remnants from another age, shabbily genteel and completely removed from the realities and pressures of contemporary life. How presumptuous to believe that anyone cares what we think. We are so far from the nexus of power that we can think whatever the hell we like.
But she goes from there to something interesting: People are judging academic research based on the researcher's politics. We all take positions are argue over truth, and evidence should matter. But sometimes it doesn't.
The idea is that we all learn more from the discussion between positions, and that counts as knowledge for us.

Arguing that somebody's academic research has no value because of their politics, especially if you publish this view in a government document that is difficult to challenge, is a strategy that threatens to cut away the place of knowledge in public life. If you disagree with somebody's research outcomes, you need to provide some alternative evidence. Bad-mouthing them because of their own beliefs abandons the idea of evidence altogether. ...

The public benefits from the insights of unpopular research findings because researchers really believe that the pursuit of better knowledge places them above the petty concerns of short-term gain and makes them invulnerable to the whims of the powerful.

I would have thought that it was in everyone's interests that we continue to bask in such delusions.

I'll come back to this subject later.