To be a university professor is a tremendous privilege in this day and age. Few jobs have the level of security, independence and creativity as a professor. Having taught for 10 years in an American University and now also experiencing the academic culture in Australia as a research director, I have benefited enormously from the academy. Yet there are signs that many academics are now abusing the credibility and the egalitarian culture of universities in ways that undermine the goals of a creative, deliberative academic experience. Rather than criticising the science or the argument at hand, academics have taken to using their pedestal to launch ad hominem attacks on one another under the pretext of "speaking truth to power."
Within environmental science, the issue has been partly illuminated by the controversies over climate change. Take the example of Professor Richard Lindzen, an endowed professor of earth and atmospheric science at MIT who has been critical of some aspects of climate science. Yet instead of focusing on his research and critiquing that in detail, critics chose the path of labelling him as a sell-out to the oil industry and launching personal attacks on him. Lindzen noted this “Climate of Fear” within environmental science in an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2006 (An open source version of the article is available here). Although, I disagree with Lindzen’s interpretation of data, I would not question his sincerity of purposes and feel that no matter how acute the criticism, it should not be personal in nature.
Part of the reasoning given by critics to follow the path of personal attacks is that such an approach is much faster at gaining traction with the public. Hence when there is fear of policy paralysis due to indecision around scientific evidence, it is more expedient to follow the path of personal defamation of a researcher to quash what may be deemed unreasonable dissent. Yet, such expediency has a price in the long-run. Ruined academic relations, eroded credibility of the scientific process and a less critically informed public are not worth the price of such ostensible expediency and an assemblage of acolytes who cheer you along as a brave crusader. Indeed such a strategy has little to do with courage and more to do with self-indulgence and usually generates more heat than light.
These problems are not exclusive to the natural sciences where the cognitive leap between expert and layperson may appear greater. Indeed, in the social sciences and humanities such defamatory approaches to quash dissent have become more rampant and empowered by the social media. Take for example the recent altercation I encountered quite publicly on Twitter with Georgetown Professor Christine Fair regarding her scathing criticism of the Pakistani government. Professor Fair has acquired quite a following on the internet for vituperative dismissal of dissent regarding drone attacks. She shares her daily professional interactions with the public through a vibrant assemblage of Facebook and twitter postings. In one such posting on Facebook, she noted how a lobbyist for the Pakistani government had called her and how she had retorted back at him with a cavalcade of abuse for supporting a “jihadi” state.
In response to this I made a very simple comment questioning whether such a dismissal of a Pakistani lobbyist as working for a "jihadi state" was appropriate since the ambassador who employed him had herself survived a suicide attack and deserved at least some benefit of any doubt.
In response to this simple statement, I got a hurl of abuse on twitter from Dr. Fair; and most consequentially accusing me of “condescension and sexism.” Such show of obscure outrage regarding perceived condescension is particularly alarming from a scholar who finds no problem with calling people she disagrees with "terds, spiders, oinkers, etc." This is not the first time Dr. Fair has followed this strategy. She showed the same outrage last year when I tried to critique her coauthored article on methodological grounds and suggested that qualitative methods were more appropriate to the kind of research she was carrying out rather than quantitative research. Rather than address this methodological critique with a concomitant rebuttal, she pounced on this matter by suggesting that I thought she was not capable of doing quantitative research because of a gender bias. In my communication I had also suggested out of sympathy for pre-tenure faculty, that they should not feel under pressure in America to publish quantitative research which is often the case now in the social sciences. This too was twisted with a sense of outrage under similar contentions. Such accusation of gender-based critique was specially absurd because the paper in question was only coauthored by her, and the primary author was in fact a man (and also pre-tenure)! My email in this regard is also provided online and linked here.
All manner of abuse and name-calling is fine and protected by freedom of speech which I fully respect, but the accusation of sexism or racism is a serious reputational matter which can very easily be used to muzzle dissent. Indeed, I too could have gone a similar path and made accusations of racism against Dr. Fair for stereotyping of an Asian male as sexist and hurling abuse at him (in ways which would never be tolerated by a man towards a woman within American academe without charges of harassment being issued). Yet such a path would have been detrimental to any constructive confrontation of arguments and only nourished egos. Furthermore it would have been an abuse of the process to highlight genuine cases of demonstrated racism which I have encountered myself and also observed as an erstwhile member of the presidential commission on diversity and inclusion at the University of Vermont.
In attempts to resolve the matter amicably and seek an apology for defaming me without any due cause, I tried to contact Dr. Fair but she refused to engage in any conversation and in fact dismissed me even further. At this point I had no choice but to contact Georgetown University and report the matter to protect my reputation and to also draw a broader lesson regarding faculty conduct. My intention in this regard was not to be vindictive towards Dr. Fair, who is indeed a promising scholar, despite my academic disagreements with her. Rather my aim is to make sure that such conduct is noted as a precedent for future reference and the pedestal of the academy, which the public respects, is not polluted and abused by frivolous innuendo that can be personally damaging but more importantly can stifle free debate. The legal system has also now caught up with defamation on Twitter and Facebook and much of the same laws apply to libel in social media as to publications.
Freedom of speech must be protected at all costs; and it is important to note that allowing for harassment and bullying through innuendo and reputational epithets under the guise of freedom is libelous but furthermore muzzles clear and coherent conversations and debate. I have experienced attacks on freedom of expression in the context of criticizing religious practices myself in Pakistan and am thus very sensitive to protecting free speech. However, qualitative freedom to criticize ideas and arguments is different from expression which actually stifles meaningful conversations (See my article in Foreign Policy's Afpak channel on an episode where I had to encounter censorship and abuse for criticizing religious ritual).
As a firm supporter of protecting women from harassment and discrimination I have been an ardent supporter of university policies and safeguards to prevent abuse and gendered conduct. However, the misuse of such accusations in a public sphere that can damage reputations of faculty (male or female), and also muzzle academic debate, must be taken far more seriously by the academy. The internet has become a particularly appealing venting arena. Ironically those who vent most vociferously are often the ones who also become most sensitive and easily offended – this is the classic bullying trap: Provoke an argument, stifle dissent to that argument by name-calling and then entrap the antagonist in misapplied norms of indignation.
Academics have particular responsibilities to use the internet as well as the broader space of professional conduct wisely. We must all be willing to be introspective and try our best to also respect each other and approach arguments with a modicum of humility; giving each other some benefit of the doubt regarding intentions of criticism. A decorum and depersonalization around arguments and disagreements must be practiced not just to spare grief and reputational risk to the career of an individual academic but also to ensure that academia remain a space for creative and constructive dissent.