Questionable Views in Academia

“It’s not to control, but to protect the citizens of Singapore. In our society, you can state your views, but they have to be correct.”
Ernie Hai, co-ordinator of the Singapore Government Internet Project

I can highly recommend the Academia version of StackExchange. If you don’t know stackexchange — they have a brilliant system of allowing users to ask and answer questions that practically ensure that good answers are found and end up at the top. Just brilliantly done. There are different versions/topics of StackExchange, so have a look at them too to find out whether there’s one or more that align with your interest(s).

But back to academia.stackexchange.com. On the 3rd of January, already lying in bed (smartphones are a curse! ;-)), I saw a question that peaked my interest. I got out of bed to answer the question and about an hour later I had written an answer (I said I was already in bed, didn’t I?). Unfortunately, when I wanted to put it online, the question was given protected status in the meantime. So I provided answers for two other questions and went to bed. In the morning, the answers were upvoted enough to allow me to answer the protected question (let’s call it beneficial side-effects of an otherwise brilliant system).

I’m going to repost the question here in order to also repost my answer. Reason being, I think the answer is interesting enough to be preserved even outside stackexchange. If you want to read the question in the original context (and see the other answers), you find the page here.

This was the question, which was asked by user11000:

Whether to tell his prospective employer that a new male post doc opposes affirmative action for women in academia?
I personally know a male graduate student who works in a different area (in STEM) than mine and who has a potentially controversial view. He opposes to affirmative actions for women in academia and outreach activities for female teenagers conducted by a university. He’s repeatedly and openly expressed his idea on his public Facebook post, in his (and my) native language, which is not English.
This particular student is soon graduating and has been granted a post as a post-doc at a very prestigious university in the U.S., from (I suppose) this fall on. I don’t think that whoever in charge of hiring him knows his view, since, albeit they are public, his posts are not written in English.
While I don’t know if his beliefs should prevent him from being hired, I do think that this may be a potential concern to his future employers.
Obviously I’m really concerned about his views and feel that, since they are expressed openly, it might be appropriate to make sure his prospective employers know about them. Is there a professional way to do this, or is it the case that no matter how baleful and publicly expressed the views may be, I should play no part in informing his prospective employers?
Corrigendum: I should have been really, really careful as to how to put my question. For one thing, I don’t see his view anti-feminist. The word anti-feminist appears there (with quotation marks) because I couldn’t think of a good adjective. It could have been anything else. Since so many people are distracted by this, I remove the word completely.

and this was my answer:

Let’s look at this question by looking at affirmative action, the university setting, and your role in it:

Affirmative Action

It’s hard to gauge his specific position, but being against affirmative action/outreach programs does not mean that this person is against the group that is supposed to benefit from these programs. It can simply mean that this person sees affirmative action as the wrong solution to an issue that might or might not be an actual problem.

For example, this person can think that the gender of a student should be irrelevant, and they themselves have no preference for, e.g., male or female students. In fact, they do what is ostensibly desired — they treat men and women the same. Interest, persistence, grades, performance, etc. should count, not whether this person is/identifies as male or female. They might even welcome women if they have similar competence (a requirement for the contact hypothesis to work). They might see the differences between the percentages of men and women in certain domains within STEM due to a different distribution of interests, not due to discrimination that requires affirmative action, or think that Academia is not specifically hostile to women but hostile in general (many PhDs, few tenure track positions). There is also the counter-intuitive finding that affirmative action might hurt those it should benefit. At least for race there was an interesting “intelligence squared” debate.

In the following, I’m assuming that this person has thought about his position.

University Setting

Now let’s look at affirmative action in the university setting. Unfortunately, some people think that anything but (at least) 50% women in highly prestigious fields like STEM indicate discrimination (ignoring, e.g., prior interests). And for some, it’s an ideological issue where questions or an open debate with arguments based on theory and evidence are not tolerated. If you are not for positive discrimination, you are seen as acting actively against women — even if you just apply the same standards to men and women.

Even worse, I get the impression that some universities get more and more infected by ideology. They are turning into indoctrination places where having the right (or rather: the left) point of view is all that counts (FIRE is an interesting source here). Personally, I think that universities can and should do better. If you cannot discuss “potentially controversial views” at the university then where can you discuss them? But realistically, in some universities open discussion of controversial ideas can draw a lot of outrage (including from students).

Your Role as ‘potentially concerned person’

Given the explosive nature of the topic for many people, exposing a contrary view of someone could cause damage. Not necessarily because of the issue, but because you make it an issue. Especially if it is done without this person’s knowledge. Or would you tell him in advance that you translated or summarized his postings and gave them to his prospective employers because you were “concerned”?

If you inform his employers/colleagues, I would hope that they have even a shred of integrity and have a look (and a translation) for themselves. Depending on how thought out his views are, they might conclude that he is not the problem but the informant is. They might even regard the informant as a backstabbing snitch who is envious that their new employee was accepted to “a very prestigious university” despite (what the snitch considers) his “potentially controversial views”. Even if it damages his career (which it easily might), I don’t think that the snitch would come out with a good reputation.

If the new post-doc on the other hand is open about these issues, good. I hope so. Issues should be discussed openly. But considering how easily criticism of a publicly widely accepted view can be misunderstood and misconstrued, it’s his decision whether or when and how to talk about it in an Academic context. Personally, I do not think it would belong in a talk with a prospective employer as the topic is too complex and explosive for a superficial conversation and is likely to be misunderstood.

A better solution

If you are “really concerned” about his views, then you can — as others have written — talk to him. Discuss the issue with him on the platform of his choosing (here: Facebook). Of course, the same ideologues for whom affirmative action is “not debatable” might regard any person having a debate about the topic as a problem. At the very least you consider something debatable that for them is a no-brainer! And how would you react if he made a point? But perhaps that’s a bit too much “censor in the head”. 😉

But if affirmative action really is a no-brainer, you should be able to argue for your point of view and try to convince him. Because frankly, no view — even if it is/were “right”/”true”/”correct”/”the best solution there is” — should prevail just because those who have a different position were stabbed in the back when it came to hiring and promotion.

Frankly, I think I wrote a good answer. And while I (privately) assume that the person asking the question was indeed more envious than concerned, I am actually concerned about this kind of attitude.

I mean, sure, he probably is in the US and the US academic system has its own problem, but the underlying motifs? I think they are quite prevalent. Not only the envy, but also the “someone is saying something we don’t, or rather: we probably shouldn’t, like. That’s poison for any enterprise that sees as its mission to contribute to knowledge.

I think Steven Pinker once said something akin to if everyone assumes that everyone does think a certain way, then even if all think differently it will not become public because no-one dares to say first that the emperor has no clothes. And there are too many topics where consent is assumed instead of discussed.

And frankly, I don’t know what the answer is, or rather, what an answer might be. Perhaps it’s possible to start small. Ask others what they think about an issue, then ask specifically for possible problems. Establish the idea that questioning even deeply held (or assumed to be deeply held) believes is not only possible but necessary for the best solutions to prevail.

It might be an important and eye-opening first step.

Categories: Community Aspects, Doing Science, Feedback, Gender, Improving your Creativity, Inspiration, Learning to do Science, People, Realizing Creative Projects, Science, Something to Think About



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