Denunciation 101: Who Is Qualified to Address a Topic?
Was the NAS Fixing Science Conference justifiably denounced?
Posted Feb 10, 2020
I just returned from The National Association of Scholars (hence NatSc) conference titled “Fixing Science.”
This interesting conference has been denounced, and this campaign successfully got two speakers to actually withdraw. You can find some of the denunciations here, here, and here, and my preliminary response here: "Against Academic Cancel Culture."
Why Was This Conference Denounced?
I have seen two articulated reasons for the denunciations:
1. Some speakers have no track record of prior work on science reform and therefore are unqualified to weigh in on the topic. This provides fodder for reason #2.
2. NatSc is alleged to have a nefarious agenda of climate denialism and to be in bed with corrupt corporate interests promoting bad science to “gut the EPA.” This helps explain #1; if speakers are not serious scientists, their presence can be a red flag that the conference is not “really” (whatever that means) about fixing science. This is probably the core argument, and I plan to address it in a followup blog.
I propose a third, unarticulated, reason:
3. Even though NatSc proclaims itself to be nonpartisan, it has become a de facto home to the few conservatives remaining in academia. Few academics will say “I denounce them because they are conservative”; they would look like political bigots. And yet, people often despise their ideological opponents.
In nearly all fields, academia skews massively left. By massively, I mean that:
- In my home field of social psychology, faculty voted 75:1 for Obama over Romney.
- Across the social sciences and humanities, there are literally about ten times as many self-described radicals, activists, and Marxists as there are conservatives (those data are about 15 years old, so the skew is probably more extreme now).
In the U.S., academics are far more likely to interact with a Marxist than a thoughtful Trump supporter; in the UK, far more likely than to interact with a thoughtful Brexit supporter. For many academics, nonleftists are an alien intellectual-political species. Partisans generally caricaturize their opponent's beliefs, and there are no reasons to think academics are immune to such psychological processes.
In fairness, I think only a minority of my academic colleagues would dismiss an academic simply for being Republican, libertarian, or Conservative. However, far more, in my view, would do so if the person actually acted like a Republican, libertarian or Conservative – say, by supporting Trump or Brexit, expressing skepticism about climate science, opposing mandatory diversity statements, etc. So, they have … reasons.
In the rest of this essay, I will be interrogating reason # 1: Some of the speakers attending the NatSc conference on Fixing Science have no track record of prior work on science reform and therefore are unqualified to weigh in on the topic.
What Qualifies Someone to Speak on a Topic at a Conference?
Nothing. Literally, there are no rules nor strong norms that determine who should speak at a conference. Conferences routinely have celebrities, popular book authors, scientists, graduate students, and a variety of public intellectuals speak, as well as many members of the organization putting the conference on. The real answer is: the organizers think the speakers will have something interesting to say.
Sometimes this works well, sometimes it doesn’t. I’d have to say that I found about 80% of the talks by people qualified to speak at a conference boring, incoherent, or a total waste of my time for other reasons, so, personally, I just do not put that much stock in “credentials.” How much worse can it be if someone really is unqualified?
A Brief Tour of Contributions to Science by Outsiders
Science is peppered with outsiders making important contributions. The Big Bang Theory was developed by a Belgian priest (albeit one with a Phd in Mathematics). Plate tectonics was originated by a meteorologist. Darwin’s background was highly scientifically eclectic. This Freakonomics episode is on three scientific outsiders, two of whom received Nobel Prizes.
The idea that one must have established credentials to make important contributions to science is not justified. But this is the wrong standard anyway. “Speaking at a conference” is not on the same order of magnitude as “invention of the theory of evolution.” It's more like, “might this person have a good idea or two that others might be interested in?” Yes, I think lots of people, including people with literally no training in science might, sometimes, have something important to contribute to these discussions.
Would it be Ridiculous for Psychonomics to Hold a Conference on Fixing Politics?
In denouncing the conference, prominent science reformer Dorothy Bishop made this argument:
“The problem I have with the meeting is not that the organisers are right-wing, but rather that their organisation's goals are linked to issues around higher education, and they have no credentials in science, yet they fervently advocate minority views about such topics as climate change. Consider how bizarre it would be if, for instance, the Psychonomics Society declared that it planned to hold a meeting on 'Fixing Politics.' The NatAsScholars just doesn't have credibility in the area of scientific practices. Alas, what they do have instead are links with funders whose vast wealth is used to attack science that threatens their vested interests. In this respect, I think the argument that 'the left-wingers are just as bad' breaks down.”
Note that you have all three forms of the argument here:
- In bed with corrupt corporate interests.
- It's not just that they are right-wing (“'left-wingers are just as bad' breaks down”).
I think the answer to this section’s question (Should Psychonomics…) is instructive.
Why It Would be Completely Appropriate for Psychonomics to Hold a Conference on "Fixing Politics"
Not only would there be nothing “bizarre” about it, I would love to attend such a conference. Psychonomics is a leading organization for cognitive psychologists. Here is a short list of content areas listed on the Psychonomics website:
- Applied Cognition
- Decision making
- Emotion and cognition
- Reward and Motivation
- Scientific Practice
Politics is infused with all of these topics. Thus, one of the primary examples used to convey just how terrible it would be if someone supposedly unqualified to speak on a topic was permitted to do so, actually undercuts the argument in a very interesting way. It is not that it refutes the “don’t allow an unqualified person to speak” argument (though I reject that argument too).
It undercuts the argument by revealing a failing, not on the speaker’s or organizers’ part, but on that of the denouncer. Your inability to recognize the relevance of a contribution does not constitute a justification for me believing a speaker will be “bizarre” or their ideas not worth listening to.
I do wish to acknowledge this: Dorothy Bishop specifically, and many of the science reformers who have denounced this conference more generally, have done much good in their attempts to upgrade the quality of psychological science. I encourage you to read her denunciation linked earlier in this essay. I just believe that, as Forgas put it at the 2019 Sydney Symposium on Social Psychology, that, too often, “ideology functions as a collective delusion.”
Why is this important? I think it reveals several things:
- Arguments for excluding people in discussions about science, politics, or anything else are often very poor arguments. They often, as here, constitute appeals to authority rather than to the quality of the argument and evidence.
- Such bad arguments can reveal political ax-grinding. Unless they are wielded against one’s ideological allies who engage in similar behaviors, they are a strong red flag for bias.
- This is not restricted to those who make the arguments; it includes those who accept and laud such arguments.
In fact, there is a name for this condition:
Alliesheimers disease: A memory loss condition whereby one conveniently forgets one’s widely espoused principles of equity and inclusion when providing “allyship” to those on your side by attempting to stigmatize, punish, or ostracize those on the other side.
Having attended the entire NatSch conference, I can confidently declare that none of the speakers were unqualified to address the topic of problems in science. I would estimate that about one-third of the speakers self-identify as Republicans or conservatives (several explicitly revealed those identifications). If so, this means there were probably about 10 times as many such speakers at this conference than at most others. I saw no “climate science deniers” in the sense that literally none argued against the idea that the world has gotten warmer or that humans have contributed to it (though several did criticize some of the science).
I leave it to you, gentle reader, to decide whether you think that is a good or a bad thing.
Although I do not subscribe to the “you must have credentials and established record to weigh in,” obviously, some of my colleagues think that is a good argument. Inasmuch as I have published a slew of articles on political psychology and political biases in psychology, unless they also have, by their own standards (not by mine) they are precluded from contesting my view here. After all, they lack the expertise.