Friday, October 19, 2007

academic freedom doesn't mean very much if it doesn't extend to stuff we don't like

I belong to a perhaps dwindling group of academics who self-identify as liberal but also believe that it is a sad day whenever a fellow academic loses a job for saying something out loud that they genuinely believe. I was proud when UW-Madison went to the mat on behalf of an adjunct professor who believes that the 9/11 attacks were a conspiracy. I was sad when Ward Churchill was fired for plagiarism charges that never would have been pursued had he not made an abhorrent comparison between 9/11 victims and lackeys of the Nazi regime. So, no, I'm not prancing with joy around my office because James Watson has been suspended from his administrative responsibilities at Cold Springs National Laboratory--although that's better than his being suspended from his affiliation there entirely, which was the initial report I read.* (It remains to be seen whether there will be a push to rename the school named after him.)

Part of the media coverage on the Watson episode has included bringing up past statements of his as evidence of some putatively larger pattern of despicable speech. I'm intrigued by the very first example that CNN's stories keep using:
In 1997, Britain's Sunday Telegraph quoted Watson as saying that if a gene for homosexuality were isolated, women who find that their unborn child has the gene should be allowed to have an abortion.
Obviously, I believe that women should not choose to abort a fetus because of some indication that the child was otherwise going to grow up to be gay. But, I thought the whole point of bumper stickers like "Keep Your Laws Off Of My Body" and "If You Don't Like Abortion Don't Have One," is that my belief about what a woman should choose, at least in the first trimester, is irrelevant for whether a woman should be allowed to choose for herself whether to have an abortion or not. It's not exactly the same to say that women should have the right to choose, except for a couple of reasons that we have decided are morally abhorrent, in which case she should be compelled to carry the child.

How exactly would we enforce that, anyway? I take it as obviously infeasible to give women information but prevent them from acting upon it, yet still allow them otherwise to choose to abort their fetus for unspecified other reasons. "It's not because he has the gay gene, honest! I just changed my mind, is all." So presumably what would need to be done is to outlaw the screening test, at least until whatever gestational point women no longer have an unrestricted right to an abortion. Even if the screening test was relatively straightforward and involved genetic information really only relevant to sexual orientation, I'm unsure how I would feel about saying the mother has no right to this information, but given the multiple effects of genetics and how whatever genetic information implication in sexual orientation might also be relevant for other traits, it seems even more suspect to me to endorse withholding this information.

Incidentally, I don't actually think there would be much of a market for aborting fetuses because they have some elevated risk of being gay, or even if there was some combination of genes that for sure would lead a child to be gay (note that the possiblility that genetic configuration X results in a gay adult is not equivalent to saying all gay adults have genetic configuration X). Abortion based on the sex of the child, meanwhile, may be a different matter.

* The idea that academic freedom does not extend to retaining leadership posts is the only way I can feel comfortable with what happened to Larry Summers at Harvard.


Ang said...

Whatever happened to just arguing when someone says something you find offensive, bigoted, boneheaded, ridiculous, etc.? I wonder how much of it is just Universities/The Powers That Be wanting to look like they're taking action.

kristina b said...

Hmm. At the beginning of this semester, I read a very interesting article about academic freedom. It was brought up in response to some of the controversies that have happened in the last year or so. I need to get the article from my office, because I have a terrible memory for names and dates.

What I can tell you is this: the author said that academic freedom does not entitle scholars to say whatever they believe. It entitles scholars to pursue whatever interests that they would like academically. The author of the article took pains to distinguish between opinionated comments made by scholars in an academic setting and (potentially) offensive topics pursued (and commented upon, of course) by academics in a scholarly fashion.

Does that make sense? Let me try again. If a biologist like Watson came across some socially unacceptable data like, say for instance, data that supported the notion that black people aren't as smart as whites, it would be within the purview of "academic freedom" to talk about it. However, if a biologist like Watson throws out a scientifically unsupported but decidedly racist statement, he is not protected. There is likely to be controversy either way, but in the first scenario he has a legitimate appeal.

Opinions about abortion and women's rights aside, using the model I've just described, Watson is not protected by academic freedom in his statement about abortion. It really is just his opinion, and frankly it sounds like hate speech buffered by the dignity of an aged nobel laureate's social stature to me.

Ken Houghton said...

As I've noted, Watson has been making similar statements since at least 1977-78 (not a typo). Saw him on Tom Snyder's Tomorrow program.

Academic freedom doesn't mean you get to say anything you want (and Summers might have survived if he hadn't already screwed the university during the Shliefer investigation). (blogwhore link)

Watson did himself no favors, but it's a case of having said that and similar for the past thirty years (or so) and, to some extent, having expected no one would challenge him, since few if any had before.

He's not the victim here; that would be the capable Black and gay scholars who wanted to work with him at Cold Spring Harbor and were rejected by him because of his beliefs.

Ken Houghton said...

Short version of what I said: What kristina b Said.

christopher uggen said...

thoughtful post, jeremy. don downes taught me long ago that creeps are the real guardians of civil rights and liberties. mr. near, of near v. minnesota, was a pornographer. mr. gideon and mr. miranda were petty criminals. why should we expect the protectors of academic freedom to be any different? if we buy the principle, we should be able to apply it in tough cases as well as easy ones.

jeremy said...

Kristina: I can see where someone would apply a label like hate speech to the recent remarks about race and intelligence. With his statement about abortion and homosexuality, I have to admit I really don't get it. As far as I can tell, he was talking with a reporter about genetic tests for screening of diseases, and was asked by the reporter about the hypothetical case of a genetic test that could screen for homosexuality, and he took the position that it was the mother's choice. (He could have been impolitic in the way he said it; I looked up a contemporaneous account of it earlier but read it quickly and don't fully remember it.) Obviously, just like sex-specific-abortion, genes-associated-with-homosexuality-abortion is something I would myself regard as deeply immoral. Even so, I think it's hard to reconcile the idea that a woman should be allowed to have an abortion for any reason she chooses with, well, the idea that there are some reasons for which a woman should not be allowed to have an abortion. As I said, I don't even get how that kind of ban would work, other than as a ban on whatever genetic information would be used for the test. Which may indeed be a prohibition that a society decides to enact, but it doesn't seem to me to be hate speech for a person to take the strong right-of-the-mother stance in response to a hypothetical.

kristina b said...

OK, I found the quote in context, finally. I concede that I am influenced by the litany of things he's said in the past that are in every article on this subject. According to the source I found, he might not have said it at all, and if he did it's hard to tell whether it was an anti-gay comment or just a pro-choice comment.

He does seem like quite the demon when you look at the things he's said over time, though (other things). I concede that I am biased by the very effect you mentioned in your post in the first place.

Teune said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Teune said...

NOT defending Watson, but what would you expect from mob rule?

This points to my problem with certain brands of academic blogging, but I'll wait until the first sociologist falls before saying "I told you so."

Corey said...

Chris said: "mr. gideon and mr. miranda were petty criminals."

While Gideon was a petty criminal (accused of breaking into a pool hall and stealing a small amount of money), Ernesto Miranda was a serial rapist who confessed to one of the crimes (albeit after an illegally coercive interrogation). That actually is a testament to the principle of due process in our criminal justice system. That even Ernesto Miranda is entitled to the privilege against self incrimination and the right to counsel.

By the way of historical side note, Miranda was later killed in a knife fight at a bar.

LemmusLemmus said...

If I am not mistaken - and please somebody correct me if I am wrong - all Watson said was the following:

1. Africans have a lower average IQ than "us" (Americans?).

2. This may be (partially) genetic.

The first is a well-known fact. The second is an hypothesis. Anything wrong with academics uttering facts and hypotheses?

kristina b said...

here's that article i mentioned, btw.

lemus: yes, you are mistaken. look further. look for something about working with black people.