Many people are intuitively aware of the importance of free markets to a strong, healthy economy. Free markets allow supply and demand to drive the production of goods. In the same way, there is a marketplace of ideas — we call this free speech. When free speech is protected, everyone has a chance to contribute and ideas can be debated and discussed.
But in order to preserve the marketplace of ideas, society must not demonize dissent.
Storm on the Horizon
According to the Wall Street Journal, there is a storm brewing over the National Association of Scholars (NAS) conference, “Fixing Science: Practical Solutions for the Irreproducibility Crisis,” in February. A scientist is trying to get it cancelled, using the tool of Twitter. The president of the NAS, Peter W. Wood, writes:
But one scientist, armed with a keyboard and contempt for contrary opinions, has set out to cancel our conference. Leonid Teytelman has busied himself writing to the speakers at the event to warn them away. And he has found fellow censors who agree the conference is “problematic.” Our critic calls us “clever and dangerous.”
How so? Once a Twitterstorm starts, the reasons multiply. Our list of speakers includes no women. (All declined our invitations.) Our initials share three letters with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, or Nasem, therefore we are “deceptive.” Wikipedia describes us as a “conservative” organization. We are also accused of “climate denialism,” and of having invited some climate-change skeptics to speak.
The truth is that we are a traditionalist group of scholars who hold to a rigorous standard of open-mindedness on controversial issues in the sciences. We welcome critiques from anyone who agrees to play by the rules of rational argument, openness and scrupulous use of evidence. That’s clever, I suppose, but dangerous only to those who balk at giving the “other side” a voice. Our Twittering critic sees our conference as a sneaky way to legitimate views that he regards as akin to blasphemy — ironic for a man accusing us of politicizing science.
So far, the conferees have held fast. Some of the responses are inspiring. One scientist wrote: “The science fields badly need whatever we can accomplish at this conference in the way of understanding and solving the HUGE problem of irreproducibility.” Another batted away the critic by explaining: “If conservatism means antipathy to post-modernism, identity politics, political orthodoxies, and assaults on Enlightenment values and the Rule of Law, then count me in.”
Elsewhere in his article Wood takes issue with the idea that women are an essential part of a well-rounded discussion. I heartily disagree with him on that. It is vital to have women at the table, as we bring a different perspective critical for society. Men and women are not the same, and a discussion populated solely by men is very different from one that includes women (or a discussion composed solely of women, for that matter). It is one thing to defend yourself from criticism after inviting female speakers who end up declining to participate. It’s another to consider the issue of including a group that makes up half the population as mere “identity politics.”
To Create and to Destroy
That having been said, it is much more difficult to create something than to destroy it. Wood here is the creator. Teytelman is the would-be destroyer. He could work with people sympathetic to his view to hold an alternate conference. But right now, he seems set on quashing an important conversation. He’s entitled to resort to Twitter and to write to confirmed speakers, but that’s the easy, and destructive, way. A friend of free debate would do otherwise.
I’ve alluded before to my interest in competitive debate, practiced at the school or college level. In debating policy, a team takes weeks or months to craft an affirmative case ready to present in an eight-minute speech. The negative team in the debate round may have spent a few hours preparing to negate the affirmative case, or they may come up with arguments on the fly. It is much, much more difficult to create and present something positive — be it a debate case or an entire conference — than to denigrate it.
On that note, let the discussion resume — and the NAS conference continue.