If You Don’t Have “Scientific Creds,” “STFU”

One refrain I saw in some of the comments on the Harvard e-mail matter (and heard in a personal conversation) is that we shouldn’t much worry about the reaction to the e-mail’s author, because she wasn’t really a scientist. If scientists, or others with real scientific knowledge, were deterred from expressing their views, the argument seems to go, that would be bad. But if laypeople who aren’t really knowledgeable are deterred, no big deal. Here’s one such comment:

[Quoting my original post: -EV] And whenever our society labels as taboo an openness to scientific possibilities, even possibilities that are undoubtedly fraught with possible bad consequences — whenever important institutions in our society publicly condemn people for their openness to such possibilities, against a background of possible career retaliation — our society makes itself less free, and makes its science less reliable.

I would be more sympathetic to this if this person had any connection whatsoever to the scientific community, was engaged in scientific research, was pursuing a degree in science, anything science-related. She wasn’t. She’s a 3L, going to be a clerk for a federal judge. That’s it. This isn’t about openness to scientific possibilities, and to suggest that it is is extremely disingenuous. Rip off 4 long, hand-wringing posts when actual science is being foreclosed.

[Another commenter had written: -EV] Thank you for putting what so many of us here at HLS are afraid to say into print. This whole incident (especially the dean’s public crucifixion after a disingenuous reading of the original email) makes me sick. The pursuit of truth shouldn’t be subverted because it would make some things easier to believe. That goes for religious dogma. That also goes for PC dogma.

Protip: Harvard Law students are not in the “pursuit of truth.” They’re not scientists. They’re not researchers. They’re law students and legal academics. I presume that everyone there is manifestly unqualified to evaluate the scientific evidence one way or the other. It’s rebuttable. If they show me their scientific creds, I’ll listen. Until then, STFU.

Here’s another comment which expresses similar views: “Has anyone ever considered how much strife would be avoided if people did not feel the need to form and express opinions about technical and sometimes sensitive matters they aren’t equipped to have meaningful opinions on?” (Incidentally, I’m pretty sure that the commenter is recommending that people not express opinions on sensitive matters if those opinions are on the side that might produce strife. I take it that few people would similarly fault someone for expressing, in a personal e-mail, the opinion that there are no genetic racial differences in intelligence, even if the e-mail author similarly lacks deep scientific expertise on the subject.)

Now if these comments just complained about people who write definitive-sounding op-eds or blog posts about subjects they know nothing about, I wouldn’t be responding to it here. But of course the author of the e-mail wasn’t writing an op-ed aimed at persuading the public. She was continuing a conversation with a friend. The recommendation is that non-scientists who don’t know much about the subject shouldn’t even discuss it.

Has it really come to this, that in America, and in American universities, this has become the standard? Intellectual voracity is said to be good (and rightly so). Branching out beyond your narrow discipline is said to be good. But if it’s a “technical and [a] sometimes sensitive matter[],” then forget about all that — just avoid strife, don’t feel “the need to form [an] opinion,” and, shifting comments, “STFU.”

Of course, an out is offered: If you become a scientist or a researcher, or even an amateur scientist — if you educate yourself enough on a subject — then you no longer need to “STFU,” and should now feel allowed to talk with friends about this.

But what a narrow, stultifying notion of education that is. Read quietly, on your own, with no discussion with others who are interested in the subject, until you become knowledgeable enough. Only then should you feel authorized to discuss it. Only then will we be “sympathetic” should you be publicly pilloried for your e-mail to a friend that raises the question — because only then could we say that “actual science is being foreclosed” by the condemnation of you.

The way most people actually educate themselves effectively, it seems to me, is very different. They get interested in a subject. They talk to friends about it. They read some more. They talk some more about their readings, perhaps especially with people who are also learning about the matter. Their friends might help correct their errors. Enlightenment might emerge in a conversation when it didn’t emerge in mere reading.

That’s supposed to be one of the joys of intellectual life. It’s supposed to be one of the advantages of life in a university, where you can find classmates who — like you — have intellectual interests beyond your narrow field of study.

Some of the people who learn about the subject may end up working on it professionally. People with Ph.D.s in physiology and membrane biophysics might write prominent books on anthropology and geography. Computer programmers who get interested in law, and who spend years talking to their friends about policy questions unrelated to their formal educations, might become lawyers. Lawyers might become psychologists. Or lawyers might use their knowledge from an outside field in their primary field: Lawyers might find their study of human intelligence useful in legal academic scholarship.

Moreover, as I mentioned in another post, repression of ideas is not easily cabined. Even trained scientists might be reluctant to engage in certain kinds of research if they see people in another university department being publicly excoriated for even accepting the possibility of the outcome that those scientists suspect might be worth testing for. They may not get much comfort from statements that “I would be more sympathetic to this if this person had any connection whatsoever to the scientific community, was engaged in scientific research, was pursuing a degree in science, anything science-related,” and “Rip off 4 long, hand-wringing posts when actual science is being foreclosed.” They might infer that what happened to an amateur might happen to a professional, too.

STFU, including in personal conversations, in intellectual discussions among interested human beings, is a lousy motto for a university and for a society. And that’s true even when one tries to somehow limit it to “non-scientists, STFU,” or “non-experts, avoid strife, by not feeling the need to talk about — not just write about or lecture about, but even talk about — technical and sometimes sensitive matters.”