Standing Up for Scholars Whose Ideas Are Not Popular

Standing Up for Scholars Whose Ideas Are Not Popular
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

A record 208 entries were considered for the John Maddox Prize in 2019, awarded annually to a member of the scientific community who, in the face of harassment and intimidation, stands up for science.

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Last year’s winner was Bambang Hero Saharjo, an Indonesian scientist who regularly faces death threats and legal action for testifying against companies that have started forest fires in his country. His wife told the Financial Times that she worries he may not live to see their teenage daughters marry. Unfortunately, this story is not unusual. 

According to a new report by Scholars at Risk (SAR), between September 2018 and August 2019, 324 acts of violence were carried out against members of a higher education institution because of their views, research, or actions. SAR examined attacks that occurred on higher education communities in Afghanistan, Ecuador, Sudan, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and Yemen, as well as individuals who were targeted in Brazil, India, and Pakistan.

As polarization increases around the world, so does the threat, and the occurrence, of violence toward individuals who raise their voices. Many of these threats toward international scholars come from intolerant, even authoritarian regimes that want to silence critics. Often these attacks were justified by state actors on legal grounds ostensibly related to national security, sedition, or defamation. China has long been in the practice of clamping down on what authorities there view as dissent, but worrying signs are surfacing in Iran, as well as in such places as Brazil, Turkey, and Hungary.

Academics in the United States are not immune from similar pressures. As political tensions rise and divisiveness fractures discourse, the space for civil conversation and open dialogue — as well as dissent — is diminished.

Consider the experience of University of Iowa’s Sarah Bond. Bond published an article making the case that white nationalist views were indirectly supported by art historians’ mistaken belief that ancient Greeks and Romans intended for their statues to be white when modern technology has recently revealed they were originally painted. She became the target of an outrage mob — harassing her and calling for her to be fired — when a few right-leaning media outlets covered her article with headlines like “Prof: ‘white marble’ in artwork contributes to white supremacy."

Inclination to take offense to contentious research or ideas and respond with outrage and intimidation isn’t limited to any one group. Examples show this trend cuts across ideological lines. 

This poses a significant risk to the academy, an institution defined by intellectual dynamism and the drive to challenge conventional wisdom. While it’s hard to track the questions never asked, polling confirms a risk of self-censorship. A 2017 Knight Foundation/Gallup survey found that 61 percent of college students felt their campus climate chilled free speech. Additionally, 2019 research conducted with our foundation and public opinion firm YouGov found that 50% Americans think higher ed is going in the wrong direction, and a significant reason for this — with 44% of those dissatisfied citing it as a major reason for their view — was the perception that colleges no longer serve as places were ideas can be freely debated. 

The data are concerning. However, when universities are empowered as forums for the open exchange of ideas, students and scholars have the potential to drive transformational progress. Their academic freedom and open expression set an example for thoughtful consideration and civil discourse that can benefit all people.

Scholars must feel safe to seek the truth without fear of intimidation and threats. We cannot afford to silence researchers whose ideas may seem unpopular. Their work, even if it seems disruptive to the status quo, has the potential to help us understand our world. While intimidated scholars may bear the immediate cost of efforts to shut down their work, it’s our society that stands to lose out on the progress that results from rigorous, open inquiry.

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