Academic Freedom

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Academic freedom is freedom from any influence (e.g. direction, coercion), so that academic work is only informed by reality. It is thus not a "perk", it is a fundamental necessary prerequisite.

Metaphorically, academic freedom is like the freedom of a compass needle to freely revolve around its pivot. As the needle's position should be informed only by the earth's magnetic field, academic work should only be informed by the object of inquiry. A compass needle that is stuck, and thus not free, can be made to show any direction as "north", but does not provide any information about the true north. Likewise, academic work that is led (or manipulated or otherwise informed) by factors that do not originate from the object of study does not provide information about the object of study, and thus does not further human understanding of reality.


On Free speech within reason (Times Higher Education, 21 Jan 2010)

The article appears to confound two concepts (or aspects) of "free speech", namely (1) free speech as a right to express views regardless of whether the audience likes them (e.g. saying things that others consider wrong or offensive) and (2) free speech as a right to express views regardless of whether the situation is suitable for communication (e.g. giving views during a theatre performance). It seems to me that the AFAF use concept (1) of free speech whereas Constantine Sandis uses concept (2). At the risk of stating the obvious, let me point out that the objective of free speech is communication, i.e. conveying information to recipients that previously did not have that information. If I claim that the Crusades took place in 1986 and a historian gets offended at that, communication has was successful: The historian has understood my statement and their reaction depends on that. If I then go on to abuse the historian, that does not constitute any communication relevant to the subject matter: If I think they are daft (or worse), that makes no difference to establishing when the Crusades took place. In summary, freedom of speech is a freedom to communicate, not freedom to disrupt communication. Regarding academic freedom of speech and inquiry it is also important to notice that any academic work has an object of study, and academic freedom is important to ensure that results are informed by that object only, without interference by anyone who has less (or no) information about the object. Of course, scientists are humans and make mistakes, and thus generate wrong results and misinformation. It is, however, fallacious to think that this problem can somehow be alleviated by curbing academic freedom and free speech. How would those restricting academic freedom know what to allow and what to rule out, without freely investigating the object themselves? This is a typical "who watches the watchmen" case. All knowledge that we have derives from free inquiry, including knowledge when the Crusades really took place. This knowledge is sufficiently common that most readers will recognise the idea they took place in 1986 as ludicrous and that they will agree a lecturer teaching that idea should be curbed. For a more realistsic scenario, consider: Should a lecturer be curbed if they teach that life has evolved for a few billion years on earth? Should they be curbed if they teach that life was created a few thousand years ago? And who should use which information to decide who is to be curbed?

On 'Freedom to say anything to anyone' is not what we need (Times Higher Eductation, 6 May 2010)

Academic freedom is essential to ensure that the result of academic study is informed only by the object of study. An academic without freedom is useless, just as a compass needle without freedom to swivel on its pivot is useless. That's a fundamental difference between an academic institution and a shop.

I find it misleading to portray academic freedom as "unfettered freedom to say anything about anything to anybody". Depicting academic freedom in this way in order to argue against it amounts to arguing for fixing a problem that doesn't exist. True, academic freedom as proposed by the AFAF or the UCU prevents management from sacking an academic for saying critical or nonsensical things. But there never has been any case of systemic or widespread misuse of academic freedom to do any such thing.

Any anticipation that such a problem could develop in the future implies mistrust in academics and their ability and willingness to be as critical with themselves as they are with others. If Prof Birtwistle, management, parliament or "our society" think there's reason for such mistrust, that's entirely fair but should be discussed openly.

My computer allows me to type any sequence of characters into any web form. I wouldn't want it any other way, and I'd like to think that based on my common sense I can be entrusted with such freedom. The same principle should be applied for regulating academic freedom.

Tweet, 3 Feb 2010

#loveHE because it feeds information from objective reality into the world of constructions and artifacts we surround ourselves with.