Thursday, January 12, 2017

Science and freedom: challenging the "Professor watchlist".

The stated mission of Professor Watchlist is to "expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom." The website helpfully includes a tab where you are invited to "submit a tip".

One person listed is Prof Nancy Scheper-Hughes, whose work I have long admired, eg her article, from 1991 called "Social indifference to child health" (Lancet 337: 1144-7) which I cited in a paper I published in 2000 called "Inequality, global change and the sustainability of civilisation".

It is already over 2 years since my own entry to the US was blocked, due to my protest over coal exports (my entry to the US still is blocked as far as I know), and I don't suppose I will ever go to the US again. Even if Senator Elizabeth Warren is elected as President, the US is ruled by its military industrial complex (the deep state), and I don't see that changing.

Were I younger, I would be intimidated by the existence of this professor's list, and might want to keep off it, though it has not yet reached Australia,  as far as I know. I think anyone with a mortgage etc, and who hopes to get a grant should be careful

Two motivations to work in science, despite the risk of conservative backlash

On the other hand, my interest in science and scholarship has had two main motivations. The first is to try to protect and improve the well-being of people and planet; not just (say) the business interests of Rex Tillerson or Exxon, nor of people of any particular religion, caste or ethnicity.

The second is to search for the truth. Admittedly truth can be hard to pin down, but let's say, if I didn't think there was good evidence for climate change or limits to growth then I certainly wouldn't write about those issues. I write about them because there is good evidence, and because greater awareness of them may help protect people and planet, including in the future.

Probably this professor watch list will not become a Joe McCarthy like witch hunt. It will probably fall far short of that. But nor should we be complacent. Incoming President Trump's disdain for free speech is evident; less appreciated is how quickly and easily people can be manipulated, motivated by self-interest to join the herd even if that means endangering the safety and freedom of whoever is out of favour, including fellow journalists.

Though freedoms continue to decline in our ecologically-constrained planet, whether in Rwanda, Turkey, China, the US and many other settings, it is important to keep going - including by publishing in the peer-reviewed literature, preferably in high impact journals and without completely selling out to conservative reviewers and editors! There are powerful institutional antidotes to these emerging constraints, and, if we keep our nerve, we may yet survive as a civilisation worthy of the name.