Yes, we are seeing more attacks on academic freedom: guest post by historian of science and medicine

Alice Dreger2We’re pleased to introduce readers to Alice Dreger, a historian of science and medicine at the Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program in Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Her new book is “Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science,” out this week from Penguin Press. Read to the end for a chance to win a free copy.

The good news: Policy makers and the public seem to be increasingly taking scientific research seriously. The bad news? People who don’t like researchers’ findings seem to be increasingly coming after researchers and their universities. And some of those people are powerful.

Technically, your university is supposed to protect your academic freedom. In my own university’s faculty handbook, academic freedom is the first topic discussed. But as I’ve learned from my own personal experiences, as well as from eight years studying the experiences of other researchers who have gotten into political hot water, your administration may not always have your back.

Economist Paul Frijters of the University of Queensland in Australia seems to have found this out the hard way. With the help of a graduate student and a team of undergraduates, Fritjers conducted a study on local public buses in which students of different ethnicities posed as patrons who didn’t have the proper fare. The study showed that bus drivers (of all races) are much more likely to let white and east Asian patrons ride for free than patrons who are Indian or black.

Brisbane Transport, which runs those buses, was not so happy with the widely publicized results, and apparently let the university know it. According to the Guardian, facing local political pressure, the public university proceeded to go after Frijters, leveling an ethics charge: He hadn’t asked the bus drivers or Brisbane Transport for their consent to the research. Of course, if he had, he wouldn’t have been able to obtain reliable results, since the drivers would have known their responses were being monitored. Eventually the university dropped its attempts to demote Frijters, but not before he spent $50,000 on his legal defense.

In the course of my research on scientists attacked for their findings, it became clear that trumped up ethics charges are one way critics and university administrations can “legitimately” try to suppress the academic freedom of researchers. Proper ethical behavior is, of course, absolutely critical; academic freedom requires academic responsibility. (In my book, I trace out a 30-year fetal drug experiment that is genuinely ethically problematic.) But in many cases, charges of allegedly improper ethical behavior made against controversial researchers turn out to hold little water.

I found this out after spending a year of research on each of two major controversies. The first involved a controversy over a book about male-to-female transgenderism by Northwestern psychology researcher J. Michael Bailey. Angry that Bailey suggested their transitions from male to female might be as much about erotic interests as gender identity, a group of supposedly-progressive transgender women accused him of all sorts of serious ethics violations. These included conducting human subjects research without approval from an institutional review board (IRB), practicing psychology without a license, and having sex with a research subject. The second occurred when a group of liberal anthropologists charged two major researchers, Napoleon Chagnon and the late James Neel, with engaging in genocide in South America in the 1960s. The group, part of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), was upset by Chagnon’s sociobiological claims about “human nature.” In both cases, the evidence did not support the charges, but Bailey and Chagnon, like Frijters, spent a great deal of resources defending themselves and nearly had their careers permanently ruined.

The political right is certainly not without its own attempts to suppress or muddle research it doesn’t like. As reported recently in the New York Times, the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors voted to dismantle an anti-poverty center run by the distinguished law professor Gene Nichol, who has been critical of local Republican leaders. The Center is widely considered highly productive, but its politics have run afoul of those with the ultimate purse strings. And in my book, I recount the story of Republican Tom DeLay leading a charge to condemn through an Act of Congress (!) a research paper on pedophilia that DeLay didn’t like. (The Democrats, afraid to look like they were supporting pedophilia, went along.)

This trend—of letting outside political forces decide for us the limits of academic freedom—is particularly troubling because it seems to be coming from all directions. The same kinds of approaches have been used by all political stripes: trumped up ethics charges, undermining of funding, and bad publicity campaigns that threaten university’s reputations.

To add to this troubling trend, university administrations are paying millions of dollars to establish and promote their university “brands,” so controversial research is apt to now be seen as too risky and “off brand.” For my part, I’ve been told by one university administrator — I think not in jest — that I am seriously “off brand.”

There are a few university administrations that still seem committed to making academic freedom a leading value, even though it is a distinctly difficult value to monetize (and is indeed one that may be a consistent money-loser). For instance, the University of Chicago recently issued a strong statement on academic freedom. But that effort, headed by University of Chicago law professor and former provost Geoffrey Stone, seems increasingly to be the exception rather than the rule.

What are we to do? Well, I believe we as university-based researchers should at least be quite concerned when academics have to worry about being “off-brand.” We should, I think, be pretty agitated when a university professor has to pay $50,000 to defend his academic freedom against his own public university. We should, I’m pretty sure, be disturbed en masse as academic researchers when one political party can essentially directly decide which research centers will be allowed to exist at a state university.

We may not live in an ivory tower. But maybe things are getting bad enough that it is time to start acting like we do. Otherwise, who is going to do the hard and risky research that our society needs?

Alice Dreger’s personal website is, and her new book is out this week. Her publisher is giving away three free copies – to enter, click here to submit your information to Penguin Press. Winners will be randomly chosen after the deadline, March 30.

23 thoughts on “Yes, we are seeing more attacks on academic freedom: guest post by historian of science and medicine”

  1. So, with the Frijters study, he had students pose as persons with insufficient fare. They would then ask the drivers to allow them to ride. Isn’t this a problem for the bus drivers? If they were found out allowing persons to ride without proper fare, could they lose their job? Isn’t that a form of entrapment? The experiment seems ethically dubious. The point is additionally contrived, in many cases.

  2. This isn’t entrapment. Entrapment involves a law enforcement officer encouraging an illegal act to then arrest the person they were encouraging. No laws were broken here, and the students weren’t law enforcement officials.

    1. Entrapment is an official corrupt act which is punished by having charges dismissed against a defendant who would otherwise suffer more. The researchers weren’t attempting to entice anyone to break the law and then hauling them up in front of a magistrate or investigative board. No-one was either identified or punished, although the bus management could have demanded the researcher’s records so they could go back and try to persecute the bus drivers who consented to let their passengers ride free. Now that would have been a scandal.

  3. This seems like a very one-sided view. What about academics who try to shut down critics? See, for example, the recent federal litigation in Boston (the judge did finally rule against the plaintiff professor), or consider the notorious case of Prof. Michael Mann, against which a whole array of 1st amendment defenders starting with the American Civil Liberties Union have protested. If we’re going to look at warts, why not look at them all?

    1. Prof. Michael Mann is in the camp of those who try to suppress freedom of speech? I disagree.

      He claims he has been the target of systemic defamation, and a judge found that the defendants’ persistent attacks met EVERY criteria of libel and defamation.

    2. Mann was investigated by the AG of Virginia for fraud. There was absolutely no evidence or justification for the investigation except politics. There was a statistical methodology in one paper that was not a good approach but it had no practical effect on his conclusions, Numerous other research has come up with the same conclusions and numerous other investigations had cleared him of any wrong doing.
      the lawsuit is about an article in NR that accused him of fraud, and compared the investigations of his work to the Sanduskey whitewash.
      I believe it is all solely politically motivated

  4. Maxdaddy claims the work is one sided and asks “what about academics who try to shut down critics”. Just the opposite is true. For example, the chapter on Chagnon deals with academics and a professional academic organization (American Anthropological Association) who went after Chagnon.

  5. For anyone interested in such topics, FIRE – the foundation for individual rights in education, does a good job of reporting on instances where faculty and student free speech rights are abused by their institutions, and helping them to fight back. Their website is at

  6. While the universities do restrict academic freedom by prescribing desirable research, which in turn affects already employed researchers and new applicants, there is also another dark aspect of the academic freedom. Misconduct of all possible kind is being committed and hidden from the public eye by secret internal “investigations”, all under the guise of academic freedom.
    Therefore, if this is not sanctioned in earnest, the general public may be less and less inclined to support the academic research and its freedom with their taxes.

  7. The most obvious case of course is research into differing IQ of different population groups. Arthur Jensen, arguably the greatest psychometrician of the 20th century, found this out the hard way for giving implicit and later explicit support to Spearman’s hypothesis. His seminal 1969 work:

    questioned the prevailing optimism of the “nurturists” and egalitarians by questioning society’s ability to narrow the white black IQ gap as it was likely at least in part genetic.

    That the ensuing 45 years has proven him to be mostly correct is of course beside the point to those with an axe to grind or who take it as a religious axiom that despite 50k years of different evolution (longer for the Neanderthal portion of our genes) we are all somehow identical genetically.

    The best reasonably recent meta-analytic study of the IQ gap I believe is Roth, Bevier, Bobko, Switzer, and Tyler (2001).

    Hernstein and Murray (1994) of course famously analyzed the NLSY and AFQT; their speculations regarding the possible cause of the gap led to much controversy but the numbers regarding the existence of the gap is undisputed in mainstream psychometrics:

    To the extent there’s a debate in the science it’s more regarding the reasons behind the gap and the obviously controversial notion that it might be partially genetic in origin, which seems anathema to many despite some evidence suggesting it might be possible.

    The best summation of the evidence on the topic with links to many relevant studies on the matter is:

    A great table of many of the studies from the past 5 decades as well as avg gap differences can be found by scrolling down here:

    (Please excuse the archaic use of the word in the link as it comes from Shuey 1966 in a quote)

    Most of the studies referenced are of reasonable sample size (thousands if not tens of thousands) and from different g-loaded tests, but all coming to roughly the same conclusion. The gap exists and it has proven very persistent.

  8. “your administration may not always have your back.” MAY not? Try definitely won’t. A person who didn’t like how they were treated in an online forum wrote a letter to my school alleging scientific misconduct–based on their experience online. Instantly, I’m having to explain myself to my dean. A letter out of the blue was all it took–never mind my years of service. Expect your admin to CAVE. They may not have learned the first rule for managers–“Don’t jump” (to conclusions).

  9. These are interesting examples of attacks on academic freedom. But I am surprised that the author did not mention the most recent high profile example, in which a US Congressman (Grijalva) wrote aggressive letters to the employers of seven scientists demanding to know full details of their recent funding, implying that they had received funding from disreputable sources and failed to declare it.
    Fortunately, in this case, widely described as a “witch hunt”, the behaviour of the Congressman was criticised from all sides and he himself has acknowledged that it was an ‘overreach’.

  10. Reasonable scholars can raise ethical questions about the Frijters study, particularly the possible harm that might come to experimental subjects as a results of their reactions to the treatment. In the United States there are institutional review boards that would raise those questions. That doesn’t mean that Professor Frijters should have been subjected to the treatment that he received, but I do think that the ethical issues that are downplayed here are not so clear cut.

    Perhaps the best similar example in the United States is Mark Regnerus’ study about same-sex parenting and the intimidating actions to which he was subjected by critics with a political agenda.

  11. I would be curious to hear whether the author believes that universities should also defend the academic freedom of students? Recently some academics have claimed that students should have no free speech rights, and some administrations have kicked students out for speech acts. Furthermore, in discussing the issue of academic freedom, one should mention the reality of the political slant of the faculty, which skews heavily left; the figure is 72% liberal in recent research. I believe that many areas of the academy are not really liberal but more Marxist or Progressive. Even those of us who are not conservative have cause to be worried about the current academic situation. What should we think when a professor tells her student not to express views opposed to gay marriage for fear of offending gay students? What are the obligations of universities when faculty are requiring graduate students to take courses where faculty members politicize their classes in an extremely anti-Israel manner? How about requiring graduate students to take courses heavy on Marxist theory with no corresponding arguments for capitalism? It does not seem that advocating “academic freedom” for professors only is remotely adequate in such an environment.

    1. “Academic freedom” is not the same as free speech. Academic freedom refers to the right to pursue scholarship and research in one’s own field without sanctions, and it is arguable that such academic freedom can only accrue to tenured faculty. Tenure incorporates academic freedom in a way that neither students nor untenured faculty can have without special accommodation. Elizabeth alludes to “a professor [who] tells her student not to express views opposed to gay marriage for fear of offending gay students,” but this is a distortion of the incident I believe that she refers to. That incident was about staying on topic in a classroom discussion, and it was not a “professor” but a graduate student TA. Elizabeth writes “How about requiring graduate students to take courses heavy on Marxist theory with no corresponding arguments for capitalism?” Marxist theory is not about promoting Marxism, but about using materialist perspectives in understanding society and history, including the emergence of capitalism. Most hard-core capitalists buy into Marxist theory, though they reject Marxism.

      1. 1. Clearly academic freedom is related to free speech. Free speech is a necessary condition to the pursuit of truth in the classroom, in one’s research, and in discussions on campus. The American Founders also conceive of free speech as a natural right related to liberty of conscience.
        2. There is no distortion of the incident regarding a student who was asked not to express anti-gay marriage arguments. If students are not allowed to express dissenting perspectives, there is no true freedom of inquiry in the classroom. The issue was not “staying on topic”: one student expressed pro-gay marriage views, and another was told by the professor not to express opposing views. Furthermore, politics cannot be kept out of all classrooms, for example in political science, history, etc.
        3. Entire fields such as English require graduate students to take not just one but several courses heavily laden with Marxist essays, taught by professors who introduce themselves as “Marxists” and who make their views clear in class. Why should one have to be indoctrinated in what many economists see as a discredited theory to get a Ph.D. in English? Why should people who are not anti-Israel celebrate an academy where some professors are politicizing their courses with Marxist and anti-Israel rhetoric? And can we really say that in fields where 72%+ of faculty are on the left, many on the hard left, that academic freedom exists for all students equally?

        1. Elizabeth:

          1. The classic statement from the AAUP on academic freedom, the 1940 version, is worth reading:

          2. Wrong. See the article in Inside Higher Education.

          The instructor actually cut off discussion of exactly the opposite: “When one student suggested that a ban on gay marriage violated the principle [of equal liberty], Abbate quickly moved on to the next topic, as there were more nuanced examples to discuss before the end of class.” In other words, the in-class discussion that the instructor stopped was a pro-gay marriage argument. It was only after the class was over that she was approached by another student who said that he wished there had been more discussion of gay marriage.
          3. Again, this confuses Marxist theory with Marxist politics. Marxist theory is not about economics; it’s about the primacy of material conditions of life.

        2. David Taylor is correct about Marxist theory. For a nice statement of the difference between Marxist social theory and political Marxism, see the introduction by Ted Trainer:

          where he starts off making the observation:

          “Marx can be thought of as having offered two sets of ideas, the first of which we can accept if we wish to, without accepting the second.

          1. Marx gave us a theory of society, i.e , an explanation of how society works, of how and why history has unfolded, and especially an account of the nature of capitalism. These are of great value for the task of describing what is going on in the world and for understanding the problems and directions of our society today.

          2. But Marx also regarded capitalism as extremely unsatisfactory and he was very concerned with getting rid of it, via violent revolution and the establishment of a communist society. Marxism is therefore also about political goals and action.

          Obviously very few people in western society today accept this second set of ideas; most seem to think capitalism is desirable, most do not want to see it destroyed and most do not like the idea of revolution or communism.

          The following notes are intended to show the value of the first of these sets of ideas. One can accept Marx’s concepts as being very useful for the purpose of understanding our society without accepting his condemnation of capitalism, his political values or his recommendations for political action. In other words, if you do not agree with Marxist social ideals and implications for action, don’t let this interfere with your evaluation of Marxist theory about how our society works.”

  12. I find this whole argument to be redundant and almost non-sensical, although I can clearly understand the perspective of those commenting above. It is the argument that an individual makes who seeks the power of a higher voice or institute to protect his or her freedom. That just doesn’t exist. It is oxymoronic. Freedom, it’s expression and its protection are all individual characters. It is unfortunately the structural cage into which we are inserted, both in society and in science, that makes us believe that we can seek, and find, that security, outside of our own realm of personal responsibility. We are further made to believe this because the legal structures in place serve as the silver lining to this artificial prop that surrounds us. It comes down to this, finally: a scientist can, and should, criticise any other scientist, editor, journal, publisher, university, or government, if their argument is valid. This is their freedom. And they can do it anonymously, too. And the entity being criticised, specifically at the individaul level, has the responsibility of responding publicly, and not running for cover, or running for support to cover something that they wish to cover.

  13. Public universities are supported with tax payer dollars and the tax payers elect office holders to spend those dollars wisely (they hope) and according to the societies needs and values. This leaves them open to political attack, but roghtly so…. They receive money from a political source. And disclaimers on conflict of interest rarely mention the political party in charge of funding at the time. I am much more interested in private institutions being attacked, or public institutions being attacked at tax payer expense.

  14. i appreciate people’s comment but my problem is that rules and regulations of collages and universities it the most abuse of human right and also academic freedom for example choosing of president and other leader will be under supervision of collage mean while it the position of student to learn political issues and when leaders proved by collage even one student vote to him or her is already leader this is abuse of academic freedom.

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