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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.flasher

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.