The title addresses scholarship in general, but I will direct my remarks specifically toward philosophy, as that is the scholarship I am most familiar with.
Certainly it is the case that being a public person is a kind of exposure that is often uncomfortable for everyone. But the issue here is not what makes you cozy, but what fulfills your responsibilities.
In a recent essay in The Guardian, James Mulholland offers what I find to be a deeply flawed argument against the idea of academics taking serious steps to make their work accessible to the broader public. Within my general academic area, this is known as “Public Philosophy.” Mulholland insists that, “It is time for us to reassess what we mean by public scholarship. We must recognise the value of the esoteric knowledge, technical vocabulary and expert histories that academics produce.” This is in the context of a world where, Mulholland tells us, “Academics are constantly encouraged to engage with the public more often,” advice which he rejects because, he insists, “this advice ignores the way that specialised knowledge already affects civic life. Specialisation has social importance, but often only after decades of work.”
Hearkening back to a quip by Heinlein, I might also add that, “Specialization is for insects.”
Mulholland is setting up a pure “straw man” claim, at best, and arguably no more than a “hollow man” argument. A straw man fallacy is where a person misrepresents the claims of another, and then “refutes” that misrepresentation, never genuinely dealing with the claims which the other actually made. The “hollow man” fallacy has yet to make it into the lists of fallacies taught in Critical Thinking classes, and is due to John Casey, over at The Nonsequitur. This involves, “completely inventing an opponent and an opponent’s argument, and then attacking that and claiming victory.” As Mulholland provides no citations about who these “others” are that are making the claims he says they are making, it is unclear which kind of fallacy Mulholland is making. But it is clear he is making at least one.
Thus, Mulholland goes on to tell us that, “This attitude (held anonymously by unnamed and uncited persons) towards public engagement presents it as an intrinsic virtue, while perpetuating the idea that professors are brainy introverts unable or afraid to talk to people outside their sphere of expertise. In fact, the opposite is true. The work of an academic is to talk about ideas – in lectures, class discussions, academic conferences and student meetings.” (My emphasis.) The last sentence is evidently intended to refute the assumptions in the first part, but clearly nothing of the kind is achieved. Perhaps the backdoor out of the fallacy which Mulholland has given himself is in the the italicized phrase, where he mentions talking TO rather than speaking WITH people. Most of the examples Mulholland offers are, indeed, of talking TO people, and not WITH them. The one exception is when the academic is at a professional conference in which the other people there are engaged as peers with a common, well established, and high level of shared scholarship. So none of what Mulholland offers here undermines the impression of academics as, “ brainy introverts unable or afraid to talk (with) people outside their sphere of expertise.” That said, it should be added that this entire presentation of the matter is itself highly dubious, since no evidence is actually offered to establish the credibility of the initial hypothesis. So Mulholland fails to refute an assumption of persons who are never identified, and which we’ve no reason to believe in the first place.
Citing as an example of scholarship which served the public by being sequestered from the public, Mulholland talks about sex studies and how, “Queer theory emerged in the 1980s with the goal of overturning the 1986 US supreme court decision in Bowers v Hardwick, which upheld the criminalisation of sodomy.” Mulholland goes on to point out how these studies ultimately contributed to the 2003 reversal of the earlier Supreme court decision, and tells us that, “It would have been difficult to know in 1986 what effect publicity would have on academic debates about the “homo-hetero binary” or the gay subcultures of early-20th-century New York.”
Mulholland offers us no reason to believe that this “difficulty” was in any way a real one. In point of fact, we have seen that it is the making public of alternative sexual choices and gender identifications which has made these matters not only subjects of public discussion, but issues with which an increasing number of people are perfectly comfortable with! The question Mulholland ought to be asking is, “How many years did keeping these studies safely hidden from public view did it cost LGBTQ equality?” Even if there is no more basis for answering this question than the question which Mulholland elected to pose, the second question clearly has as much standing as Mulholland’s. It is, perhaps, a clue, that the conservative forces who would continue to enforce their vicious bigotries, often do so under the heading that LGBTQ persons should variously “stay in the closet.” Keeping the studies private and exclusively “professional,” is one way to ensure such enduring closeting.
All of this is to defend a thesis which Mulholland never bothers to make explicit, but is clearly the driving concern of his argument: that there is as strict and exclusive dichotomy between public (and therefore “superficial”) scholarship, and private (and therefore “substantial”) scholarship. One would be hard-pressed to find a more blatant example of the “either/or” or “false dilemma” fallacy. Mulholland declines to say as much in so many words, but he clearly takes it for granted that one cannot do serious scholarship AND communicate that scholarship to the public. One phrase that comes to mind here is, “stuff and nonsense.” Other phrases also come to mind, but they are rather less charitable.
It must surely be perfectly obvious that no such wall between doing BOTH high-end research AND serious public outreach exists? One example that leaps to my mind is that of Stephen Hawking. While I have the profoundest disputes with both his “scientific” conclusions (his mathematics is impeccable, his “science” is empirically vacuous) and his philosophical fantasizations, it remains the case that his mathematical work remained top-notch long after he began popularizing his “scientific” claims. It is a lesson worth taking to heart, not because Hawking is right (he isn’t) but it shows how the physicists, and their triumphalist gate-keepers, have “seized the high ground” when it comes to public engagement. Regarding his own scholarly projects, Mulholland acknowledges that, “can’t predict which, if any, of these themes will be influential in the coming decades.” This, of course, is true for all of us, not just scholars. A couple decides to have a child; should that decision be withdrawn because they cannot predict how this decision will be influential in the coming decades? Studies in the mathematical theory of chaos have demonstrated that infinitesimal movements, well below any measurable presence, can amplify in a non-linear fashion so as to have dramatic and macroscopic results in surprisingly short time-frames: a butterfly flaps its wings in Peking and as a result there is a thunderstorm in New York a month later. Shall I decline to have that second cup of tea, because I cannot predict the (butterfly) effects it will have a month or a century later?
Mulholland concedes that, “Engaging the public is important, but we should not assume that what will be integral to future society is the same as what can be made popular or immediately understandable now.” That’s true enough, and it might even be interesting if it was in the littlest, little way relevant. Mulholland wants to be relieved of the responsibility of being a public person, because he cannot predict the long, or even short, term consequences of such engagement. As a university professor, Mulholland has voluntarily placed himself as a public person. That is a responsibility, the same as grading your students’ papers. The absence of predictable results cuts both ways, and as such is an argument for neither side – it is, in fact, just another version of the argumentum ad ignorantiam. We don’t know, therefore we must not act?
BULLSHIT! (A formal, philosophical term.)
We don’t know, so the only thing left is to act, and act in a manner that is informed by the best inquiries available to us. The speciously false dilemma between public and private scholarship simply does not exist.
(1) John Dewey. A McDermott-ism, as I remember it: “Dewey uses terminology that can be understood by anyone who can read the NY Times”. His writing is awkward partly because he did not write and re-write, but also because he uses less jargon. Rather than “jargon_x”, he will describe the thing meant by “jargon_x”.
(2) James, Royce (the lectures that became “Phil Loyalty” and “Problem of Christianity”…)
(3) Isaac Asimov, implied in first volume of “Foundation”: if you cannot explain a bit of technology, then it might as well be magic. It has vanished into a magic fog. I used that for more than 30 years in The Industry: I would repeat what I thought someone had meant to say about a business process or a tech component. If the person could not explain it without using the same jargon, then they did not understand.
(4) Long ago (’87?), Russell Jacoby shocked and awed academics in “The Last Intellectuals”. Claimed that “public intellectuals” had declined and that this decline was a bad thing. Jacoby pointed back to the people who wrote for and read Partisan Review, New Republic, The Nation. I was at the Socialist Scholars’ Conference that year and attended the session on Jacoby’s book. The reaction: “Russell, you just said that I’m not an intellectual”. Is Mulholland’s essay a reply to Jacoby? A bit late?
(5) The example of research on LGBT issues seems wacky. It suggests something like the good old Leninist model of social process: (a) an elite writes up “doctrine” which is embodied in the correct line. Then (b) the masses “are won” to the correct line. Why should we think that “value-neutral” specialists developed theory that the Supreme Court upheld? Perhaps the specialists did the research because so many people came out? (Which, I think, is what you say. It just seems crackers to say anything else)
(6) Long ago, I tried to make sense of Marxism as it appeared in the US around 1968. Not just the idiotic stuff from Maoists and Stalinists and dogmatic Trotskyists, but all the nifty varieties that followed from George Lukacs (“History and Class Consciousness”). In the middle of an argument about how to “win the workers to socialism” or “a socialist program” or “class consciousness”…meaning “how to bring Marx to “the workers”…I remembered that the working class of England and France made marx into a Marxist. He’d have been any other follower of Hegel except that people had caused such an uproar that even a German student had to notice. No Chartism -> no Marxism. Does Mulholland have a Leninist idea of how ideas do their work?
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Gary Herstein said:
“(3) Isaac Asimov, implied in first volume of “Foundation”: if you cannot explain a bit of technology, then it might as well be magic.” — I recall that as Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
“(4) … Is Mulholland’s essay a reply to Jacoby? A bit late?” — Well, even *I* am not reckless enough to presume to speak for J.M. (An irony about the Mulholland name that I’ll not go into here, other than to say I feel uncomfortable taking it in vain.) These threads run deep and wide (tedious metaphor). But there was a time when we were public intellectuals first; “academics” did not happen until the advent of the contemporary (not even “modern”) university, maybe 200 years ago in Germany.
“(5) The example of research on LGBT issues seems wacky.” — “Wacky,” like “bullshit,” is a technical, philosophical term. Yeah, I found the example profoundly constrained and artificial.
“(6) … Does Mulholland have a Leninist idea of how ideas do their work?” — Not even the littlest particle of a clue on my part. I wouldn’t even want to ask the question, except directly to M. What I perceived as the poor reasoning in his article suggests to me that he may not have taken the time or trouble to drill that deep or that subtly into his own argument and reasonings. But perhaps I’m simply being narrow minded.
Thanks for your very careful and thoughtful comments. Sorry I’ve nothing more to offer than, “IdunnOH”
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Incidentally, I thought of both Clarke and Asimov. Yep, I meant to hint at Clarke in the reference to Asimov.
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