We live at a time where academic freedom is under threat from ideologues and activists of all persuasions. The latest threat comes from St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where administrators appear to have capitulated to a mob of activists (students and academics) who mounted a campaign to have a young scholar fired for “problematic” research. The back-story was covered by Quillette last December.
The norms of academia—which have been built up and preserved by institutions such as Cambridge for centuries—demand that academics engage with each other in a scholarly manner. That is, if one academic has a problem with the methods or conclusions of another’s research, he or she should address those concerns within journals, according to established procedures, which other scholars can then read and respond to, including the academic whose research is being challenged.
Today, due to the hyper-specialisation of academic fields, most academics will not be able to judge the quality of scholarship that is published in journals outside their field. That’s why when research is peer-reviewed it is done by experts in the specific field in which the research was carried out, not by a random selection of university professors. Just as a professor of English will not be able to judge a study conducted within chemical engineering, a chemical engineer will not be able to assess a scholarly essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets.
To judge the quality of Dr Noah Carl’s work authoritatively, one would have to be an expert in at least one of the following fields: psychology, intelligence research (a sub-field of psychology), and/or economics. The campaign against him began with an ‘open letter’ that was signed by hundreds of academics, but they did not have expertise in these areas. (For the most part, they had qualifications in fields like anthropology, gender studies and critical race studies). This is a clear departure from the established norms that, until recently, were adhered to in academic debates, a point made in an editorial about this affair by the executive team at the Heterodox Academy:
Communal inquiry and debate are at the heart of the academy. As researchers, we put our ideas into the crucible of open inquiry and rely on debate and discussion to refine understanding and advance solutions to complex problems. The practice of issuing open letters attacking scholars for their contributions undermines this important goal by evicting academics and their ideas from the arena—often on flimsy evidentiary grounds. More constructive responses can and should be employed.
The administrators at St Edmund’s College who determined that Dr Noah Carl should be fired did not have qualifications in these areas, either. The Master of St. Edmunds is a former banker, and the administrator who led the investigation that decided Dr Carl is guilty of “poor scholarship” is a veterinary scientist.