The Interdependence of Activists and Skeptics

by Kevin Currie-Knight

____

It started as a casual conversation between myself and a colleague, but quickly went in a heated and interesting direction. She and I were talking about our teaching, and I mentioned some class readings and discussions my sections were doing on a particular issue that my colleague and I both care about. As is usual for me, I have students do readings on multiple sides of the issue, and I generally try to give voice to all sides, allowing all their due. It doesn’t hurt that on the issue in question, I don’t have terribly firm or settled opinions anyway.

Unlike myself, my colleague does have a favored side on this particular issue, and she either found it hard or didn’t try to hide her dismay at my mention that students were not only reading an endorsement of that position, but detraction from it. To paraphrase her message, she was concerned that, since there is a clearly correct position to take on this issue – and since that position is as just as it is transgressive in the face of obvious injustice – I arguably do a disservice to students by not unmistakably advocating for it and against its opponent. By wanting to “leave students free to make up their own minds,” I am depriving them of adequate guidance and inadvertently perpetuating injustice.

Arguably, there is a big difference in general worldview between my colleague and me. On many issues that we’ve talked about, she has a very clear sense of what is right, what is wrong, what is just, what is unjust, who is good and noble, and who is nefarious and regressive. I, on the other hand, believe that while sometimes these things are clear, in other cases and for a variety of reasons, the world is a much murkier and messier, dynamic, pluralistic, and downright hard-to-read place. If she is an activist, I am a skeptic. [1]

For most of my academic and philosophical career, I have found myself drawing inspiration from philosophers who are skeptics in the face of system-builders, relativists and pluralists in the face of monism, and to use Thomas Sowell’s terminology, devotees of the constrained rather than the unconstrained version(s) of the human condition.

For instance, I have become more skeptical regarding visions that depict a universe where moral truths are universal or are so consistent with each other that they may be attained without deep trade-offs and tragic struggle. I don’t think it likely that we will ever reach a world where we attain the hoped-for consensus on what is good, right, or beautiful. The world is too diverse for that, and I notice that philosophers who do imagine and look forward to such a consensus generally do so by clever tactics, such as limiting the consensus to “reasonable” people, or suggestions that such-and-such is “justified” or “permissible” without attending at all to the pesky “to whom?” question. I prefer Montaigne to Descartes, Nietzsche to Kant, and both Sextus and Protagoras to Plato.

All of this is to say that my skeptical reluctance to take hard stances in my classrooms is as much a philosophical position as a pedagogical one. I believe it is important for my students to hear and consider varying perspectives and that learning to think is more important than learning what the superior positions are. But even if I didn’t believe this, there are too many issues on which I just haven’t made up my mind – or  where I have, on which I have the necessary confidence in my current position – to believe that it trumps the value of further exploration. I just don’t have the temperament required to be an activist.

But let me be fair to activists here. (Wouldn’t that be just like me?) I am quite sure that were my colleague to read this, she’d be horrified. It is, she might say, because of skeptics like you that positive change is so hard to achieve. You, she might say, never do anything or inspire change because you want the discussion to keep going, where in reality, all conversations end somewhere, and talking gets in the way of doing. Doing that is worth doing, she might say, also requires conviction, something you skeptics not only lack but hold little hope of inspiring in others. (I happen to know that my colleague has gotten many glowing teaching evaluations that I think were well-deserved, likely because she has the activists’ ability to inspire a sort of soul-changing passion in people. Skeptics can inspire passion, too, but likely not the type activists can.)

I think these are fair points, and the best conclusion I can reach is that neither activists nor skeptics should win the day or have the last word because the relationship between them is irreducibly symbiotic. Even if both would prefer it to be otherwise, they are reactions to each other that depend on each other.

I feel safe in saying that a world full of activists would be the type of hell that happens when everyone is certain all the time, where the goal of all activity is to impose The Known Right onto all, where pluralism, diversity, and disagreement are nothing more than problems to be solved by the hammer of uniform allegiance to The Creed.

On the other hand, a world of skeptics is the opposite: a world where nothing gets done because conviction is rare, where there are more questions than statements (and hence, no conversation), where no one has the nerve to right wrongs, where we are all so afraid of deciding wrongly that we never decide rightly. And thus, the status quo – no matter how short-sighted, imperfect, or unjust – prevails by default.

In truth, these are caricatures, and neither my colleague or I are completely one or the other. Activists like her do doubt, self-question, and revise, if maybe not to the extent that skeptics do. And we skeptics believe things with conviction, if not to the extent or confidence of our activists counterparts. Moreover, the dialectic between conviction and skepticism isn’t just interpersonal, but can be intrapersonal. Even in the single human mind, belief and doubt are both tendencies we all struggle with, where each of us figures out the most comfortable balance we can strike between these two “forces.”

If the relationship between activists and skeptics is irreducibly symbiotic, I suspect it is also irreducibly antagonistic. The irony is that while each “side” needs the other in order to make sense and curb potential excesses, the two sides most often prefer to see the other with some manner of contempt or incredulity. To the activist, the skeptic might appear at best to be oblivious or directionless, and at worst to be either an unwitting or dishonest agent of whoever already has the cultural power. (We’ve probably all heard the activists’ adage that refusing to choose a side effectively means supporting the already-stronger side.) To the skeptic, the activist looks at best naïve or ignorant in their certitude, and at worst, a cultist or tyrant. To be adversaries, however, doesn’t preclude mutual dependency.

In the end, my conclusion is a relatively Taoist one (and wouldn’t that be just like me?). One must recognize that the (human) world is a balance between different and (at least apparently) opposing forces. Conservatives provide the stasis required for stability where liberals or progressives provide the change that is required to adapt in a dynamic and contingent world. In a similar way, activists provide the conviction and drive to keep the world moving (in directions that could be good, bad, or otherwise, with those verdicts always decided after-the-fact). The skeptics provide the circumspection necessary to change courses and keep the world of possibilities open where activists seek to close them.

I myself have found good success and peace of mind thinking of things this way. When possible, I remind myself that while my headspace and temperament are the only ones I have direct access to, I am always part of systems of people of varying degrees of difference from me. Thus, the imperative is to figure out where my places in those larger systems are, and what strengths and limitations my own approach has within these systems. Thus, while I tend toward the more skeptical approaches to thinking about the world, I must recognize both the value of these approaches and how abjectly awful the world would be if I convinced everyone else to adopt them. But then again, isn’t that exactly what a skeptic should say?

Notes

[1] As chances have it, our interaction occurred several days after I’d read legal scholar Randall Kennedy’s essay outlining his strained relationship with colleague Derrick Bell. Bell is the intellectual father of critical race theory, and while Kennedy has some sympathy with CRT, his skepticism of certain aspects put a strain on his relationship with Bell. As if describing my relationship to my colleague, Kennedy writes of Bell:

Derrick was supremely confident that he knew what policy positions were the correct positions to adopt and thus the ones to urge his students to follow. He was so confident that he became impatient with others who lacked his certitude. He displayed this impatience by routinely portraying opponents as racists, naïfs, or opportunists. I lack his certitude and believe that there is good reason to be open-minded about a variety of hotly contested debates regarding race policy.

69 comments

  1. Activism directed towards students is a straightforward violation of the teacher’s role and authority. It may also be a violation of the academic role more generally, but it undoubtedly is so with regard to teaching.

    1. Doesn’t that depend on the issues and cirumstances?

      What if the teacher finds a sizeable group of students who believe that Trump won the 2020 election or that Kathleen Stock is a transphobe or that Bill Gates invented Covid to sell vaccines? Wouldn’t a teacher then have a duty to take a partisan stance, which many in today’s polarized political climate would interpret as activism? In your country a fairly sizeable percentage of the Republicans believe that Trump really won the 2020 presidential election. And not only in the U.S. are there huge sections of the population with nonsensical beliefs.

      1. No it doesn’t. Unless you think Christian fundamentalist professors should be advocating to their students on behalf of their Pro Life/Anti-Abortion position, which they really, really, really, really think they’re right about.

        My job is to give students the tools by which they may make up their own minds about things.

        Oh, and in a free society, people are allowed to have beliefs that *you* think are nonsensical. That’s the whole point.

        1. I never said that people shouldn’t be allowed to have nonsensical beliefs, merely that in certain situations teachers should argue against them.

          Should Christian fundamentalist professors have a right to advocate for pro-life positions? Yes, I suppose so.

          However, let me very clear that while teachers and professors have a right to express partisan positions, when they grade, they have to be impartial. If they penalize students who disagree with them, they should be castigated.

      2. I would say not only does it not depend on the issues and circumstances, but the greater the controversy the greater the pedagogical opportunities. Take one of the most contentious issues you can do, Holocaust denial. If you find for some reason that many of your students hold that view instead of arguing them out of it, have them have to provide a justification using the tools of modern historical analysis? How would they integrate the lines of evidence opposed like video footage, witness collaboration, lack of denial within Germany, documentation?

        On a lesser level you can do something like that in the case of Trump election denial. Why not challenge those students to come up with a model whereby such a fraud could actually be possible? They would have to explain step-by-step, detail-by-detail, how it is possible in a massive open society like America fraud on that level is even possible.

  2. I can’t help but observe that you put yourself in the most favorable light vis a vis your activist peer. As a fellow sceptic, I don’t see how you could do otherwise. And so, isn’t that what I would say?

    You would think most people would be open to nuance and be suspect of certainty. At least they would claim to be so, as it would represent the more intelligent, enlightened, as you would have it, approach, that people would claim shows them to be open minded and rational adjudicators. I can’t say that I’ve experienced much of this from personal observation but even so, once these minds are made up, they often cannot be budged, no matter the quality of the countervailing evidence.

    This is clearly apparent in the political and cultural spheres where everything is too often posed as either black or white. Republicans bad, Democrats good and vice versa. A completely reassigned trans woman should be allowed to wear a dress and lipstick and not be fired from work but should be forced to stand backwards at a urinal or thrown into a male prison for a crime. (To draw example from the last podcast).

    Many complex and subtle societal issues are tossed into a box that spits out procrustean edicts that satisfy the activist’s propensity to distill truth from a world of seemingly endless chaos.

    You have presented an excellent exploration of appreciating the Yin and Yang of mutualism. BTW, Glenn Loury’s latest podcast features Professor Ranall Kennedy.

  3. I loved this essay for many reasons, most of all for your measured and graceful way of writing about some of the most contentious issues in or out of the academy. I have a similar view of the inevitability of compromises and hard even tragic choices but I get it from Isiah Berlin in particular but I do keep that conviction separate from my admittedly far Lett politics which brook no sympathy for conservatism in any form.

  4. Kevin,
    in keeping with your values you gave the subject a nice, even handed treatment, in your usually clear way. But so much depends on what you are teaching and what the contentious questions were. Can you give us an idea of what they were? I don’t wish to debate the issues; I am just looking for clarity.

  5. The problem with today’s skepticism is that it has been weaponized by political operatives. It’s no longer an epistemic position, it is a political tactic for spreading doubt. The result is widespread distrust in the political system, and in academic authority. Instead people become their own “authority” by doing “research” on the internet, turbo-charged by social media algorithms. This distrust leads to serious psychological and socio-political consequences. An increase in conspiracy theories and adherents, a visceral disgust with the present political system and a growing receptivity to violence and authoritarianism. Liberal democracies do not function without citizen participation, and this phenomenon of internet fueled distrust is eroding that participation and replacing it with blind hatred.

    1. Do you have any basis for this characterization of skepticism or is this just your intuition? Because, I don’t see anything of the sort. And if you are talking about right wing nutters, they tend to be religious fundamentalists which is about as far away from being a skeptic that one can get.

      Perhaps you are talking about so-called, self-styling “progressives” who never met a person with a different opinion whom they wouldn’t like to deprive of their livelihood. But they don’t really fit the “skeptic” label either.

      Your take just seems really confused.

    2. Isn’t this article about activism and skepticism with respect to teaching? What you say seems to have little (if anything) to do with teaching.

  6. I see activism more positively. It is there to raise awareness about issues people find important, like Global Warming. Although it can lead to excess when it is used to intimidate people trying to do their jobs, at least activists are more obvious about what it is they want changed. The kind of weaponized skepticism I’m talking about is far more serious a problem because it is very successfully eroding people’s trust in our political systems and the scientific establishment. When people lose trust in politics, they fall easy prey to demagogues. And when they lose trust in science they fall easy prey to quacks. Activism is a kind of mobilization of concerned citizens. The civil rights movement led to desegregation and legal reform. And sometimes activism has the potential to get out of hand and seem over-the-top. However the “manufactured doubt” is the much bigger problem because it’s being done by sleight of hand, and it directly undermines democracy.

    1. I still don’t know whom you are talking about. And however you may “see” activism, it is a basic violation of a teacher’s obligations and authority if brought into the classroom. At our own university, an activist professor who couldn’t keep it out of the classroom got us sued, and we lost. And rightly so.

  7. I’m talking about how people have become skeptical of the Pandemic eg. “Plandemic” etc., of Vaccines, of democratic elections, and of the value of government – and how this has been amplified by social media. This is marketed as healthy skepticism but it is really a series of campaigns to discredit institutions in our society. People who feel this way feel empowered to find out their own truths, by glomming on to their favorite youtube influencers – conspiracy theory videos, Qdrops. Who benefits? Political operatives and would be autocrats. Skepticism has become a contagion, not because it is bad in itself, but because it is being used to undermine our faith in democratic institutions. Activism, on the other hand, challenges institutional authority, but, in the end it upholds our faith in our institutions.

  8. The University is not a microcosm of the greater society. It’s a hothouse environment. You need to step outside of that world to see the greater danger.

    1. Again, you seem confused. The essay on which I am commenting is *about* activism in the classroom.

      And I’ve “stepped outside” plenty, thanks.

  9. The problem of activism in the classroom is seen as a sign of what’s going on in society at large, otherwise it wouldn’t seem so significant. The wokeness thing is being used as a political football to colour liberals as oppressive. Wokeness as well as CRT is mostly limited to Universities. It certainly isn’t prominent in most of the rest of the nation. But this skepticism about government, the 2020 elections, and Covid and the Vaccine is widespread, it’s everywhere – urban and rural. Like global warmingdenial, the erosion of trust in society is being implemented through the multiplication and amplification of conspiracy theories on the internet, a technique perfected by the Russians, and taken over by the Trumpists. Wokeness is an intellectual fad that will wax and wane over time. The spread of doubt and disinformation is a contagion that threatens democracy to the core.

    1. Responsibility for the erosion of trust you are talking about lies squarely on the shoulders of the public authorities, whose mixed and confused messaging, combined with flat out lies and obviously cynical positions — “Don’t congregate in large crowds, due to Covid …. unless it’s for a Black Lives Matter rally!” — destroyed the public’s trust in their pronouncements in less than two years. To blame it on the people whose trust has been lost is just bizarre.

    2. From my New Year’s Musings for 2020.

      “[3] The most dangerous development in the last year has been the ideological and political compromising of essential institutions, especially public health and medical authorities and print and television news outlets. Probably the most egregious example of this was back in June, at a time when Covid-19 was spiking and racially fueled rioting and looting was flaring up in cities across the US, some thousand plus public health officials presented an open letter in which they told the nation that racism was a public health threat as big as the virus and that mass protests inspired by the George Floyd killing should continue, despite the pandemic. An excerpt from this reckless and cynical open letter:

      “[W]e wanted to present a narrative that prioritizes opposition to racism as vital to the public health, including the epidemic response. We believe that the way forward is not to suppress protests in the name of public health but to respond to protesters demands in the name of public health.†”

      The year also saw virtually every legacy journalistic outlet, from the New York Times to CNN, adopt the partisan modus operandi of Fox News, only from the opposite side, the consequence being that there no longer are substantial, professional sources of information that enjoy the public’s trust.

      An advanced, science- and technology-driven society can only survive and flourish if its citizens (a) generally can trust experts, and (b) have commonly accepted sources of information. While death and destruction may be the most terrible things about the past year, this complete abdication of responsibility on the part of those public authorities whose job it is to inform us and to keep us alive will likely be the most damaging long-term legacy of 2020.

        1. Using her, while pretending to genuflect and bow and scrape before her. All while she is yelling and finger pointing and displaying her many and profound problems. It’s so disgusting, I get sick thinking about it.

    3. Agreed, Charles. Unfortunately it just sounds like Dan has sympathies with this mindset. Further down, he even voices a discredited global warming denial talking point, so I don’t see you drawing him in with that.

      https://www.factcheck.org/2009/12/climategate/

      But yes, we can blame people for exercising poor judgment. They’re adults and have the responsibility to assess expert opinion in a thoughtful manner that eschews catastrophizing denialism. Someone who never wears a mask because Fauci, before we knew the extent of asymptomatic spread, dissuaded people from buying up masks so frontline workers could be properly supplied, you’re deeply irresponsible. If you host large family gatherings with immunocompromised people and the unvaccinated present in close proximity because last year public health officials said they supported the George Floyd protests, you’re deeply irresponsible. Reactionary global skepticism is a cancer.

  10. Kevin Currie-Knight,
    You appear to be on the right side of Hare which is not a bad place to be:

    You can tell what are the aims of a teacher, and whether they are indoctrinatory or not, by studying his methods. Suppose that he carefully arranges for there not to be any free and open discussion of questions of morality until he is absolutely certain that his pupils have, by non-rational methods, been got into a state where they are bound all to give the ‘right’ answers. Or suppose that he takes enormous care that, though his pupils are encouraged to read books, the books are all ones which say the same thing. Then we shall know what his object is; it is to prevent them asking the questions that might cause them in the end to come to a different moral attitude from himself.

    (from ‘Adolescents into Adults’ essay in ‘Applications of Moral Philosophy’ by R.M. Hare.)

  11. The essay is about two different academic approaches that Currie-Knight calls activism and skepticism. Are the rules of Analytic philosophy that you can only examine the significance of concepts in one particular setting at a time, and you mustn’t broaden the focus to society at large? I’m saying that activism and skepticism can be seen as two opposing political approaches, and I believe that the article is pointing in that direction too. I’m saying that skepticism is being cynically used to further certain political ends that are sabotaging democracy, but of course that’s outside of the subject matter of this essay which only concerns what goes on in the classroom and has no relevance outside of it.

    1. I’m saying that skepticism is being cynically used to further certain political ends that are sabotaging democracy, …

      What you call “skepticism” in that sentence is what I would call denialism. And I don’t think denialism is the same kind of thing as skepticism.

  12. I didn’t interpret Kevin’s article to be restricted to the classroom at all. Quite the contrary, the classroom was simply his launching pad into the larger phenomenon of the two archetypical personality types that interpret and act upon the greater world. Kevin’s thesis isn’t limited to pedagogical technique and why everyone seems to dwell on this subsection of his more expansive observation and concern puzzles me. Perchance, I’m the one out of step here?

    That skepticism is solely responsible for dismantling democracy makes as much sense as claiming activism furthers unquestioned authoritarianism. The only vocal skeptics of Communism were buried in the ground or gulags.

    Kevin eloquently and convincingly comes to the practical “truth” about the symbiotic and critical nature of a well rounded individual or society that needs a healthy and dynamic balance between certainty and doubt. This should be self evident and either extreme, to the exclusion of the other, to be understood as pathological.

  13. Hi Kevin,
    I agree with the spirit of your essay but think you have framed the issue wrongly, as skeptic vs. activist. The word skeptic has other connotations that do not fit what you are saying. That is a consequence of the problem you describe being a subset of a larger problem. You come closest to describing this problem in your rather good, earlier, May 20, essay about Julia Galef’s book, The Scout Mindset.

    Each one of us today is at a point that is the sum of all our earlier choices and decisions. Life is decision making and is defined by our decisions. Through childhood, adolescence and early adulthood we are acquiring the skills to make the right choices and then implement them.

    We do this quite instinctively by surveying the landscape of choices, evaluating them, choosing one and then implementing it. The quality and outcomes in our lives depend on how well we do this. As children we are confronted by a world of large unknowns. We bring unbounded curiosity, enthusiasm and a desire to explore to this. Our education imparts the skills and knowledge needed to continue this process.

    Then, as the world becomes more familiar we reduce the abundance of choices to a small subset of routine paths. We do this because it eases our cognitive processing load, the familiar is more comforting and is confirmed by past experience. We move naturally from an exploration mindset(what Julia Galef calls the scout mindset) to a fixation mindset(what Galef calls the soldier mindset). This is motivated reasoning where we become more concerned with defending earlier choices than exploring new ones. We become fixated on familiar choices that that are reflected and confirmed in our chosen environment.

    Thus I think the correct framing of the problem is exploration versus fixation. We quite naturally move from exploration to fixation as we age. I don’t think that is a good thing but it largely seems inevitable as we take comfort in familiarity and reduced cognitive load. However we should delay this process as much as possible since it can have bad outcomes. And we certainly should not be encouraging fixation in our students. A large function of education must be to develop a capacity for exploration and skill in exploration. Exploration, by its very nature, means uncovering the landscape of choices and evaluating them. Imparting this skill is the most valuable gift that the teacher can impart to his students.

    Thus I agree with you but suggest a different way of framing the problem.

  14. This is a wonderful essay — genuinely helpful in very hard times.
    I agree that a teacher is in a position of power and authority, and that power and authority are too easily abused. Rather than advocate for a position on an issue, it is always possible to state the reasons in support of that position, prefaced by “Here are the reasons for thinking that ….” That informs the students of the relevant reasons, while also respecting their right to think for themselves.
    A lot of people now lament the recent surge of skepticism about established experts and political institutions. But the public’s loss of faith in experts and institutions is at least partially the result of failure by those same experts and institutions over the last few decades. Foreign policy experts said that we could impose western style democracies in the Middle East with military force. Hundreds of thousands of deaths and trillions of dollars later, we know that they were wrong. Working class parents watched their kids come home in boxes as a result. Economists said that everything was fine right up to the 2008 recession. Then people lost their homes, their jobs, and their life savings. And even Paul Krugman now admits that he and his fellow economists made some big mistakes about globalization. So the self-appointed experts in our society share a healthy portion of the blame for the recent loss of trust in their expertise. And that will only get worse if the public perceives that the experts have become activists who abuse their position of power and authority to impose their own values in the name of “expertise”.

  15. Charles Justice:
    The sceptic superspreader event was COP 26 with Biden’s 20 car cavalcade, (previously 85 in Rome) with 120 other leaders and their entourages, 30,000 delegates, a super liner in the Clyde to accommodate them burning diesel constantly, more than 100,000 demonstators presided over by Greta the doom goblin. I’d been wondering what the word ‘performative’ meant; I think I’ve got it now. Did I forget 118 private jets.

    But we will get wind turbines with 16 years to break even and a total life span of 20/30. And cycle lanes.

    1. The embarrassing Greta Thunberg phenomenon was just an early drip in what became a systemic abdication and betrayal of authority on the part of public science/health experts. The scandal involving the deliberately faked global warming numbers came even earlier. But it really took off with Covid/BLM protests, when the naked cynicism of these public actors and institutions became impossible to ignore.

      1. “sceptic superspreader COP26” “deliberately faked global warming numbers” – the kind of stupid remarks that give skepticism a bad name. When I saw superspreader I first thought it must refer to “vaccine scepticism”, but no, it was old fashioned “atmospheric physics scepticism”.

        1. David Duffy:
          If the powers that be who have all the experts in thrall and assiduously follow the science are flagrantly ignoring prudence and their own urging of what George Monbiot (environmentalist who writes for the Guardian) calls MCB (micro consumer bollocks) ; what are the chances that the public will become sceptical. ‘How serious could this be’ is a rational assessment.

      2. I’d like to quote Tevye, when, at a certain point in Fiddler on the Roof, he says, “There is no “other hand” ” Greta Thunberg is absolutely right: There is no other hand when it comes to global warming and the loss of bio diversity. All the doubt about these things is not real scientific or philosophic skepticism – it’s manufactured by people who stand to benefit from inaction. There is no other hand. We won’t survive long if we don’t take action. Greta is an inspiration. She has the guts to say it out loud and embarrass the entire world. Good for her! Meanwhile, fossil fuel CEO’s spend tens of millions on spreading doubt and fake skepticism in order to keep their shareholders happy. There is no other hand! Money can’t buy a healthy eco system, and we die without one.

        1. Tevye’s remark is really the playright’s way of saying The survival of the Jews is not negotiable. But this case goes far deeper, because it touches all of humanity. To be alive is to commit to survival. There is no other hand to committing to our future survival. It is never going to be O.K. to do anything that threatens our future, and yet our actions that are contributing to global warming and biodiversity decline are doing just that. And arguments against this are not legitimate science or philosophy, they are attempts to manufacture doubt, to obfuscate and conceal the threat to our survival. There are lots of things we can debate, but whether or not we should act in a way that threatens our survival should not be one of them.

          1. Hear, hear! As serious as Global Warming may be and as much as I think we are rolling the dice with priorities of present needs versus future contingencies, it is not quite the imperative that a bolide hurtling on a direct path to Earth would engender.

            The Earth will warm, the seas will rise and acidify, Brazil will burn trees in favor of cow farts, populations will be impacted and we will adapt as best we can. Life itself will not be in the balance. But, the impetus to do away with fossil fuels and sequester greenhouse gases is a significant awakening and step going forward. Better late than never.

            I agree with you that there should be a difference between liberal academia and re-education camps. The student should be given facts and taught how to think, not what to think.

          2. People can disagree all they like. My point is global warming denial and anti-environmentalism have no standing, they are arguments made in bad faith, in order to further political and economic goals. By themselves, the facts about eco-system decline and global warming do not compel us to do anything. But it becomes a moral issue because the truth of these facts directly affect our future survival. Should we give equal weight to 9/11 truthers when discussing an attack on the United States?

  16. The embarrassing Greta Thunberg phenomenon

    We are moving inexorably into the era of Instagrammed celebrity politics where youth, good looks and catchy sound bites rule the day. We will vote on Twitter(Elon Musk?), while campaigning on Instagram and Facebook. The people who run these machines will become intoxicated by their power and appoint cabinet ministers by fiat while aboard their luxury yachts. Sounds better than Trump, heh?

    1. In this case, it was youth, plus a pretty serious cocktail of psychological and developmental disabilities, which the adults took advantage of and marketed in a really vile fashion. One of the most obscene public episodes I’ve seen in quite a long time.

      1. Yes, this was gross dereliction of duty by the parents. They should be indicted.

  17. It now seems to me that there is a very real tension between being an academic and being an activist. If you try to be both, then you run the risk of facing serious conflicts of interest. What do you do if evidence turns up that does not support your cause? Advancing the cause requires ignoring the evidence, or misrepresenting it, while academic honesty requires acknowledging it. Even your choice of terms can pose such a conflict. “In describing my research on gun violence, should I use the term ‘homicide’ to include all suicides, even though that is not common usage? In describing poverty in Europe, should I use the term ‘poverty’ to mean a certain distance from the mean in that country, even though that is also not common usage?” Advancing my cause might require one choice, while honesty might require another.

    1. Those who claim to know what’s best for others, think it necessary to advance their claims dishonestly. As Jack Nicholson famously intoned – “You can’t handle the truth…”

    2. I don’t think there needs to be a tension between the two as long as the activist recognizes that being an academic also puts them on the front line of the information battle. It is compulsory on them to marshal their facts and arguments and present the best case for their side head on. It is only when they decide that the activist mindset wins out and they decide they must win the day at any cost that they tend to recede into advocacy for censorship and stifling if free speech that the problems arise.

  18. while academic honesty requires acknowledging it. Even your choice of terms can pose such a conflict.

    Honesty should always trump the goals of activism. It is called intellectual virtue and an academic that does not hew to intellectual virtue is not worthy of being called an academic.

  19. While I really like the points made in this essay, I’d just like to point out a one-sidedness in this debate that I’ve encountered with colleagues as well. If you’re a professor, like the author and me, who likes to present multiple points of view on complex topics, by definition your lack of conviction is an affront to activism. Yet, activism is not necessarily an affront to skepticism in that skeptics will typically WANT activist views to be heard.

    To put it another way, the activist view DEMANDS that the activist confront and even try to shut down opposition on certain topics (as we have seen with Kathleen Stock and others), whereas as the skeptics view DEMANDS that we listen to and give the time of day to other views.

    As the author suggests, the very points he makes in this essay could be seen as an affront to his activist colleague – as reasonable and fair as he attempts to be. It’s for these reasons that I’m siding more and more with McWhorter on the idea that some proportion of the academic left in particular is simply beyond reasoning.

  20. The way I see it, any academic is employed to transmit the state of debate on any given topic. The debate always has complexity. The teacher’s own views have a place in that debate, but no privileged status. The student should be evaluated solely on their grasp of that debate.

    In the public domain it is very different. Each of us can participate freely as partisans. That’s how public debate works.

    Alan

  21. Funny, the first non-survey philosophy course I ever took was a junior college class called Moral Issues. It was just what it sounds like, hot-button controversies of the day like abortion, terrorism, death penalty, animal rights, were examined from both points of view, and as our main project we chose one of those topics and argued one of the positions on it. One of the sparks that may have ignited my love of philosophy was winning an award for writing a paper with temerity to disagree with Peter Singer and Tom Regan on animal rights: I don’t know if I won that award simply because the professor agreed with that position because she never gave her position on that or any other issue which did then and still does strike me as wholly correct.

    I’d like to say that was a sign of the times, but after transferring to a somewhat notoriously liberal institution I soon learned there were teachers entirely comfortable with not teaching the controversy and presenting one side.

    I am going to assume that I am on firm ground in assuming that the topic Professor Currie-Knight and his colleague were talking about is one related to ethical or political philosophy. That would beg the question of if his colleague has similar feelings on issues within say epistemology or the philosophy of mind, and would she reach those issues from similar perspectives? If ancient philosophy is the subject is it ok to only teach the cool logic or Aristotle, and not that fanatical mystic Plato? In an intro to Mind class is it acceptable to teach that the only acceptable view to teach is Ryle’s view that the whole problem is a category mistake?

    I would think in general the answer would still be no so I would ask his colleague if she honestly feels answers to questions in political or ethical philosophy are easier to come by, or if it is simply the pragmatic consequences that might come about from giving different answers to these issues are so dangerous as to render open debate on them irresponsible?

  22. I mentioned earlier that the dichotomy is better framed as being either in an exploration mode or in a fixation mode.
    In exploratory mode we explore the options, weigh them up and make a choice. For some this choice ends in a fixation mode. Many, however, dive straight into fixation mode without having carefully explored the cognitive landscape first. Activists tend to be these kinds of people. They need the clear certainty and definite purpose that fixation provides. They don’t have the temperament or patience to listen to someone saying “on the one hand this, on the other hand thus”.

    These kinds of people can be useful when strong, focussed action is needed. And when they are right, the result is powerful because they supply the energy for change. But how often are they right? Their oversimplified view of the world seldom matches reality and so they create opposition that solidifies the obstacles.

    Turning now to exploration mode. This is where I believe we should all start on every issue. This has three dimensions:

    1) The cognitive dimension.
    Here we explore the issue, searching for the facts, the context, the history and the arguments.

    2) The emotional dimension.
    Every issue arouses emotions, both for and against. And these emotions are very powerful. We need to tally the emotions, understand their origins and understand their power over the mind.

    3) The social dimension
    All issues are embedded in a social matrix that shapes perceptions. Knowing the social dimension gives us understanding of how people think and how they might be persuaded.

    I call analyzing the cognitive, emotional and social dimensions multiple perspective taking. The most important thing our schooling system can do is teach us multiple perspective taking. It equips the mind for making wise decisions. Having gone through multiple perspective taking it is allowable to go into fixation mode because it is then well informed. But there is a great danger, and that is because fixation mode becomes a trap that prevents later multiple perspective taking on other issues. Once an activist, always an activist, until the newer generations of young Turks deride the old fogey for his disconnect with the current world. The wheel turns.

    On the other hand, those who continue to practise multiple perspective taking are those with a deep curiosity and a flexible mind. They create the reservoir of wisdom that stabilizes the world against the rash, impetuous and ill considered actions of the fixated.

    Which reminds me, where is my good friend EJ? Come back EJ, we miss your interesting perspectives.

  23. “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. Even those of the intelligent who believe that they have a nostrum are too individualistic to combine with other intelligent men from whom they differ on minor points.”

    Bertrand Russell

  24. Charles,
    People can disagree all they like. My point is global warming denial and anti-environmentalism have no standing, they are arguments made in bad faith, in order to further political and economic goals.

    I asked Kevin to give some examples of the issues he was thinking about. He wisely declined. Reading your comment I can see why. His arguments are not about global warning and he did not want such issues to be raised because they generate enough heat[!] to obscure the important argument he is making. You failed to see this.

    He framed this as a skeptic vs. activist issue. I disagreed with this framing and proposed that it was really a matter of an exploratory mindset vs. a fixation mindset. I think the nature of your comments are a confirmation of my thesis. And that is a pity because we could instead be having a fruitful discussion about what is the best way of framing this matter. But then I suppose a fixation mindset is not interested in such exploratory discussions. However this is a philosophy blog and that is the sort of thing we should be doing here.

    1. Charles knows he’s right and knows his opponents are wrong and will not even consider otherwise. That, of course, is his prerogative, but it makes talking to him uninteresting and ultimately, pointless. If you agree with him, there’s no reason to have the discussion, and if you disagree with him, he’s neither listening nor persuadable. Same thing with Zac.

      Hence, my lack of engagement with them, beyond what is necessary. It’s not as if their views matter in such a way that one *has* to engage with them — they are neither in positions of power or authority — so it’s just a matter of how one wants to spend one’s time, and I prefer to do so in productive and enjoyable endeavors, not pointless and aggravating ones.

      1. I find what Charles Justice and Zac write to be interesting. They generally differ with you (Dan K.) and with the consensus view in this blog. When one goes against the consensus, one tends to appear insistent and dogmatic, while the consensus view generally is seen as moderate and balanced.

        All of us, myself included, can be overly insistent and overly sure of ourselves, at times. To quote Pete’s favorite author, “Why do you pay attention to the speck in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”. Or as Chomsky says, “look in the mirror first”.

        So before singling people out for special criticism, I feel that it’s good idea to pay more attention to our own similar defects.

          1. When I see two people who comment in good faith and with intelligent well-thought out positions singled out for criticism in a blog or elsewhere, I generally will say something in their favor. That’s one of the few principles I really have.

            If you find my comment to be irrelevant, ok.

  25. PC,
    you quoted Bertrand Russell as follows:
    The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.

    Bertrand Russell should know. He was unfailingly cocksure about religion.
    For example
    I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as I am that they are untrue.

    1. Sure seems like there is enough blame and muddled reasoning to go around.
      Religions do do harm and at best only one of the thousands are untrue. Global warming and environmental degradation are a fact
      Being cocksure that James is cocksure is the epitome of cocksuredness.

      There is always a gray zone of nuance that is rarely given its due outside the realms of religion, fanaticism and mental illness.

      The opponents of global warming have been more or less won over but the rub is to what degree they agree as to the potential severity, how best and to what cost to deploy and if any strategy at this late date will have any real benefit to the final outcome.

      I believe this type of matter is called a wicked problem. There are always pluses and minuses and unattended consequences that defy both activism and skepticism. Kevin’s conclusion, and I think rightfully so, is , there has to be a healthy symbiotic relationship between the two. But he is ignored by those who aren’t sure if he’s correct and those that know he isn’t. Interesting and amusing.

  26. Dan,
    your two recent video lectures about God are an interesting example of what you said before:

    Activism directed towards students is a straightforward violation of the teacher’s role and authority. It may also be a violation of the academic role more generally, but it undoubtedly is so with regard to teaching.

    Your antipathy to God is well known but that did not jeopardise the professional way in which you discharged your role as teacher. That was well done.
    Hrer is the link, for those interested

    1. It is well established that I will talk with anyone, regardless of views and even will publish them, no matter how much I disagree. I only decline to engage with people who have exhibited that they are dogmatic and unpersuadable.

      1. First of all, I find it a bit weird to discuss your personal traits in a public blog.

        However, I’ll try to answer what you say above. Your openness to publishing comments you disagree with is well established as your williness to argue (in the best sense of the word “argue”) with all and everyone.

        In any case, the willingness to argue with all and everyone is not inconsistent with being unpersuadable about certain issues. I genuinely doubt that an ethical vegan could persuade you and there are good arguments in favor of ethical veganism. By the way, I’m not a vegan, although I am a vegetarian.

        So too with Charles Justice and Zac, the very fact that they frequently appear in this blog and argue at length with you and with others indicates that they are willing to debate ideas they disagree with.

        Thus, I think we should separate the genuine authoritarian personality, that is, people who are so sure of the rightness of their convictions that they, instead of debating them rationally, resort to psychological or even physical violence and those who are willing to debate their positions rationally even though they are not persuadable.

        1. I told you why I wouldn’t post the one comment I rejected. And this isn’t a public street corner. I pay for this out of my own pocket, and I decide what is defensible here and what isn’t.

          You can always publish your own magazine, where you apply *your* standards. But here, you’re in my house.

      2. I appreciate the defense, wallerstein. I’m OK if Dan doesn’t want to engage with me. If he thinks I’m dogmatic and unpersuadable, I’m really not out to bend over backwards to show off my exploratory side. I usually comment on topics I have strong opinions on. Would Dan ever be persuadable to change his mind on me? Doubtful. Before he stopped engaging me, I once made a comment that mentioned Ezra Klein in passing, not even as evidence or an authority. Dan sidestepped the argument to say that Ezra Klein is the most dishonest person he’s ever seen. Which seems rather adamant and blinkered to me. Like, I often disagree pretty strongly with Ross Douthat (closest equivalent I can think of offhand on the Right), but I couldn’t ever imagine myself saying that of him. So the bafflement is mutual. When discussing topics that raise his ire, I think Dan is just quick to find ways to write people or views off. But we’ve all got that tendency somewhere in us.

        This isn’t a clash of activist and skeptic, but of two people who differ strongly on a lot of issues. If we wanted to break it down into types (which bear a little analogy to Kevin’s essay), it’s more like Iris Murdoch’s “Vision and Choice in Morality”. Dan’s the liberal and I’m the naturalist. He’s more adamant to point to the free-floating individual, the most important thing about them being they’ve made a choice, the only constraints on which are those of the classical liberal order. I’m more adamant about the individual’s embeddedness in a world and society they need to work to see clearly.

        If I’m dogmatic to think that climate change is real or that COVID denialists are bad news (the latter of which Dan has been much more vociferous about than me before), then someone else is free to make the case why I shouldn’t be.

  27. Would consensus on the facts of an issue necessarily lead to consensus on an interpretation of an issue? Global warming could be exhibit A. It seems that expert opinion on global warming is starting to acknowledge something I have long questioned, that global warming is the inevitable consequence of having a modern industrial society and we never would have been able to cut emissions sufficiently and still keep a global sustainable economy. It seems to me we were also hesitant to address certain assumptions buried in the standard environmentalist approach: that it required a type of economic imperialism where not only did first world countries need to curb their usage it needed to force limitations on the development of third world countries so they didn’t simply pick up our slack; that we can’t mention it was a horrible mistake to capitulate to anti-nuclear forces and we could be far more along in alternate power sources if we hadn’t; that free-market solutions might have brought innovation that would have precluded the discussions coming down to simply a battle between environmentalists vs. jobs. Simply put, just because we all agree things are getting hotter doesn’t mean we would all agree to how to make things cooler, or even if we could make things cooler.

  28. PC,
    Nevertheless, the quote I posted of his is insightful.

    Yes, Russell’s quote is insightful. It is likely derived from W B Yeat’s poem, The Second Coming

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

  29. Kevin,

    Interesting read. I find it sometimes hard to draw a line between activism and skepticism. It often depends on the topic, and where individuals and more broadly society at large stand on the issues being discussed. Even on the same topic, someone’s ‘good education’ can be someone else’s activism, while someone else’s ‘question or consider all sides’ can be seen as activism against taking position.

    “What role should universities take in teaching about the climate crisis? Concordia University students to vote on whether school should teach climate science and sustainability policy”

    https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/universities-climate-crisis-1.6248677?cmp=rss

Comments are closed.