La rigueur est de rigueur.
What role should activism play in academia?
Science and other academic fields have provided human societies a way to explain and understand the hard, often complex problems that beguile us, and to eventually come up with effective solutions to those problems.
Some of the problems studied are not clearly tied to moral issues, such as my own previous research on visual perception as processed in the brain. Yet plenty of research focuses on topics with clear moral implications, and so the researcher might be a passionate advocate for the very thing they are researching.
Will this affect the researcher’s intellectual rigor?
And if so, how?
Based on Jonathan Haidt’s psychological model of reasoning outlined in The Righteous Mind, moral intuitions come first –
…then our conscious verbal reasoning comes in to strategically support those intuitions.
Haidt makes clear his position that individual human beings are unreliable due to this fact.
Yet a larger system in which different researchers compete to come up with ideas that best withstand the incisive challenges from their professional opponents – i.e., the competitive enterprise that has been part of scientific research for the past few centuries – this can in fact yield rigor, and can generate real hope to uncover some solutions.
So if an activist researcher is kept in check by peers who pick away at the weak parts of an argument, then this researcher’s activism could in fact be compatible with rigorous academic study – at least as part of a larger dialogue among experts, with broad academic consensus based on the evidence perhaps a ways off.
What if most or all of the researchers in a field share the same values on the topic that they’re studying? The same sense of passion and urgency?
This shared activism seems far less likely to yield intellectual rigor, as no one will be willing to pick apart the weakest aspects of an argument or worldview.
Indeed, Haidt argued in his book that viewpoint diversity is crucial for the integrity of academic systems of knowledge, in order to place checks on motivated reasoning.
And it’s not just viewpoint diversity that can affect an intellectual dynamic, but also a sense of urgency with respect to threat.
Based on the work of Haidt, Karen Stenner, and others, I’ve come to see group problem solving as kind of a spectrum based on levels of perceived threat:
- You see, when threats are thought to be low or remote, individuals in a group work together to better understand problems and find solutions to them.
- When a threat is thought to be imminent, the group stops their debating and bands together to act in unison.
- In other words: we either get information, or we get in formation.
(citation: Knowles, B.)
The thing is, activism is by its nature all about getting in formation, not about getting information.
It’s about taking action as a united force. For an activist, the threat to their moral world is imminent, and the time for hearing different perspectives, or debating details, is over.
I don’t think academic study and activism are mutually exclusive, per se.
But the two do exist in real tension with one another.
The more passionate researchers feel about a moral topic, the more resistant they will be to evidence or arguments that challenge their convictions. Even calls for more nuanced considerations tend to be unwelcome, as they stop or slow down desired actions that need to happen now.
This “get in formation” phenomenon goes into hyperdrive when a community of academics all share the same moral perspective on what they’re researching, and viewpoint diversity can’t keep their weakest ideas in check.
Even more so when the group feels threatened by a different moral tribe, perceived to be an enemy.
Surely these conditions can’t be relevant today…
What are your own thoughts on the matter?
Let the author know that you appreciated their article with a “heart” upvote!