An introduction to Academic Freedom

Why should academic speech be more free than normal speech?  That is the essential, defining question of academic freedom.

The simple answer is that academia only makes true progress by being provocative, outrageous, and able to be wrong.  Academic freedom is about the ability to say something wrong not simply for the sake of being wrong, but because proposing wrong ideas is the only way to narrow the range of ideas under which the truth resides.

I come from a physics type background, so let me start with an example from that area.  There are two mechanisms invoked to explain the observed dynamics of heavenly bodies, particularly galaxy rotation curves and the movement of galaxies within galaxy clusters: the existence of matter which we cannot directly observe (dark matter) or a modification of Newton’s law of gravity on large scales (Modified Newtonian Dynamics or MOND for short).  Dark matter was the first theory produced to explain galactic dynamics and it has remained the overwhelmingly popular explanation.  Every prediction made by assuming massive amounts of matter in the universe that we cannot observe directly has been vindicated.  On the other hand, MOND was also able to explain some of the first discovered phenomena explained by dark matter.  However, MOND has repeatedly been subject to major revisions by the fact that observations that can discriminate between MOND and dark matter have continually come in on the side of dark matter.

Nonetheless, MOND remains an important theory because the more difficult it becomes for an alternate theory to explain a phenomenon the more certain the original theory becomes.

One can never “prove” a theory in the sciences, one can only disprove as many alternatives as possible.  Therefore, most theories over time will become invalidated to one degree or another as subsequent observations narrow the range of theories that can explain a given phenomenon.

It is thus necessary that academics, and especially scientists, need to be able to speak their mind without fear of retribution if they are wrong or if their research provides results that upset the status quo.  And that is why Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s Civil Investigative Demand on the University of Virginia must be opposed.  Cuccinelli has accused climatologist Michael Mann of fraudulently using Virginia funds in the course of his research.  The sole reason Mr. Cuccinelli has cited for filing his subpoena is the fact that he believes Dr. Mann’s research to be inaccurate or incorrect.

Fraud in research is a very rare occurrence.  Research that uses a poorly chosen method is not fraud.  So long as the methods used are well documented, research cannot be fraudulent.  The only two ways to get fraud in research are making up data and plagiarism.  Anything other than that, no matter how poorly chosen the method, is simply research.  Fraud can also be committed by not doing the research promised in a grant application, but this type of fraud is even rarer than the other two.

Politicians can choose to fund or not fund research at their leisure, but politicians should never be involved in regulating the outcome of the research and especially should not be using criminal investigations as a tool of intimidation against scientists that they disagree with.  Academic freedom is the freedom to be boldly wrong without fear of persecution.

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