Why Scholars’ Motives Should be Irrelevant to Our Evaluation of their Scholarship

At an American Association of Law Schools panel that I took part in at this year’s annual conference, we briefly discussed the question of whether scholars’ motives for writing an article should be relevant to our evaluation of its quality. Often, people make claims such as the following: “Professor X only wrote that article to rationalize his left-wing [or right-wing] views. He knew the answers he wanted to get ahead of time, and just reasoned backwards from them.” Or, alternatively: “Professor Y wrote that article in order to ingratiate himself with the administration of President _________ so that he can increase his chances of getting a job in government or a judicial appointment.” The implication of such remarks is that the presence of disreputable motives on the part of the author somehow discredits the article or at least diminishes its scholarly value.

In my view, the implication is false. In evaluating scholarship, the only thing that should matter is whether it uses sound logic and evidence, and whether it makes an original contribution to the relevant scholarly literature. If the article is original and well-reasoned, it should make no difference that the author wrote it to promote his ideology or to get a judicial appointment, or for any other reason. The article’s contribution to scholarship in its field is independent of the author’s motives. If we can definitively prove that John Stuart Mill wrote On Liberty in order to justify his ideology (which was indeed probably part of his motive), that in no way diminishes the book’s intellectual value. Indeed, its value would not be diminished even if we can prove that Mill secretly believed that the book’s argument was wrong, but pretended otherwise out of some ulterior motive. Similarly, a flawed article should not be evaluated more favorably if the author’s sole object in writing it was disinterested truth-seeking.

In the real world, few works of scholarship are written purely for truth-seeking purposes. At the very least, the writer usually also has the additional motive of advancing his career. No one holds it against a scholar if one of his motives for writing an article was to cater to the interests of other scholars in the field in order to increase his chances of getting tenure. We should take the same approach with scholars who have other non-truthseeking motives. Most writers usually have multiple reasons for producing an article or book. Even if they consciously believe that their sole objective is disinterested truth-seeking, that doesn’t mean that their evaluation of their motives is correct. Few people ever fully understand the reasons why they do what they do.

The above analysis applies to the evaluation of scholarship by academics assessing works in their own field. As experts on the subject, they should be able to evaluate scholarship on the merits without resorting to consideration of motives. Matters are more complicated when nonexperts try to form opinions about the validity of scholarship and its implications for various public policy issues. Nonexperts often don’t have the knowledge needed to evaluate scholarship directly, and therefore must rely on “social validation“. In many instances, they have to take the experts at their word merely because they are experts. For example, I don’t really understand modern physics. So I accept the view that Einstein’s theories are closer to the truth than Isaac Newton’s because that’s what the overwhelming majority of physicists believe.

In situations where a layperson has deferred to expert opinion because of the experts’ superior knowledge, it is rational to show less deference if there is strong evidence the many of the experts in question have non-truthseeking motives for reaching their conclusions, or have manufactured an “expert consensus” by suppressing opposing views within academia. I explained why in more detail here. Even in such a scenario, however, it would be a mistake to discount the experts’ views completely. Truth-seeking may still be part of their motivation, even if it was not the sole motive. Moreover, expert analyses produced for non-truthseeking purposes may still contain valuable insights that laypeople should not simply ignore.

Whatever the difficulties facing laypersons, it is almost never defensible for we academics to evaluate scholarship in our field based on the authors’ real or imagined motives. As experts ourselves, we should be knowledgeable enough to judge the work of fellow experts on the merits, without resorting to speculation about their motives.