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Academic Freedom Is Academic Justice

By Garrett M. Lam

In a recent column, Sandra Y.L. Korn ’14 called for the suppression of research that opposes our deepest values. She compared the American Studies Association’s boycott to boycotts of scientific research: We boycott Israeli academic institutions, she argues, because they (oppressively) restrict the freedom of Palestinian students; so too should we boycott scientific research (for example, research examining whether genetic differences in IQ exist between races) with results “justifying oppression.”

I think the column draws a misaligned analogy between boycotts like those of Israel and boycotts of scientific research. The former ones target institutions that directly counter Korn’s values (by treating racial groups unequally) and would also include research conducted with unethical methods (perhaps experiments that involve animal torture). The latter ones target research that opposes Korn’s values not by methods, but by potential results, which she believes will promote injustice.

I’d like to suggest that there is a fundamental difference here. Experimental results, unlike institutional practices, cannot run counter to our values since they are neither moral nor immoral but amoral. I’ll start by addressing Korn’s central question: If we oppose social injustice, “why should we put up with research that counters our goals?”

We shouldn’t. But the analogy carries an implicit premise; it only works if scientific truths do in fact imply moral values—if intelligence being genetic would justify oppression.

And science can do many things, but it can’t justify oppression. After all, science tells us the way things are. It tells us what is natural. But just because things are a certain way does not mean they ought to be that way. And just because something is natural does not mean that it is good or right or just. If we believe people should be treated equally, an institution that treats them unequally opposes our values. But even if it were true that people are born with unequal capacities, this would not imply that we should treat them unequally.

But the history! Didn’t Darwin’s theories validate social Darwinist episodes of racism, imperialism, and Nazism? No, not really. These same evolutionary concepts were used by T.H. Huxley to justify a very opposite notion of humanitarianism. Just because someone uses a scientific fact to justify a morally charged behavior doesn’t mean that the scientific fact does justify that morally charged behavior. Anyone telling you that science alone provides the basis for human ethics is making a fallacious appeal to nature, and should be ignored.

When we talk of egalitarianism, we tend to idealize a world that is fair, a world in which we’re all born with the same capacities and opportunities and, through our choices and hard work, rise or fall to where we deserve to be. But this is not the case—we don’t choose our parents, whose socioeconomic status and values and, perhaps, genetics, have a great impact on our opportunities. And, more importantly, it doesn’t need to be the case. People don’t need equal biological capacities (height, eye color, and potentially intelligence) to be of equal worth. We are looking in the wrong direction if we turn toward science to discover moral truths; we create our own values.

Yet my biggest concern with academic justice is the precedent it sets for future research. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran once noted that the greatest scientific revolutions—the Copernican, Darwinian, and Freudian—all kicked our notion of what it means to be human off of an artificially elevated pedestal. Copernicus said we aren’t the center of the universe. Darwin noted that we share the same ancestor as monkeys. Freud told us we have no control over many of our actions.

How would academic justice deal with these visionaries? It would strip them of their funding or suppress their results. And why? Because their truths challenged the status quo and threatened long-cherished beliefs. And who would decide whether research countered values? I don’t know and I don’t want to find out—the idea reeks of subjectivity and hidden agendas.

Yes, facts can be perverted or misinterpreted. Truths can be uncomfortable. But the potential for human hiccups and disillusionment does not change the fact that we’re better off for having learned these uncomfortable truths (which allowed us to reach the moon, develop more effective antibiotics, and better help those suffering from mental illnesses).

Consider the case of affirmative action. It was undeniably uncomfortable to ask and discover that certain races and socioeconomic groups are more successful than others. But this uncomfortable truth—initially suggesting inequality—is being harnessed for egalitarian change; colleges can analyze disadvantaged applicants’ achievements in light of their limited opportunities and consider that inequity when evaluating their potential.

Scientific truths don’t control us morally any more than we control scientific truths. Rather than closing our eyes and plugging our ears (which, by the way, wouldn’t make these truths cease to exist), we’re better off confronting them in the long run. After all, we choose how to apply knowledge, and can leverage it to effect the change we want in the world. But we can’t start making the world what it ought to be before we know what it is. And we know what it is through research.

When exercised with ethical awareness and understanding of research’s implications, academic freedom is academic justice. So let the experiments continue.

Garrett M. Lam ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a neurobiology concentrator in Lowell House.

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