Friday, September 16, 2011

Ron Smith: Scholarship and Truth

The World Extra section of a recent edition of the Waikato Times (September 3) leads with an article taken from The Times of London concerning the situation of academic staff at some American universities (religious foundations) who have lost their jobs because they have challenged the literal truth of certain articles of faith. Specifically, some faculty staff were having difficulty in maintaining their support for the creation story, in general, and, specifically, for the notion that humanity is descended from a single couple, namely Adam and Eve; this in the light of the enormous amount of knowledge, now available, about the evolution of the planet and of life on it.

Behind the Times discussion was the widely-shared assumption, that university scholars should be free to challenge knowledge claims, in whatever domain, and that it is dubious scholarship to attempt to maintain these kinds of myth in the face of overwhelming evidence that they cannot be literally true.

What are we to make, then, of the claim from a New Zealand academic (and published in a New Zealand peer-reviewed journal) that Maori, or, at least, some Maori, are descended from Maui and living on land that he fished-up (i.e. they did not arrive here from elsewhere). This (the writer of the article in question claims) is not myth but ‘rather … a viable account of the country’s origins’. Elsewhere (in a second New Zealand Journal of History article) the same author specifically repudiates the traditional concept of History that it is about ‘evidence’, objectively evaluated (citing Michael King for this erroneous view!) Of course, much of this discussion is dressed up in the almost impenetrable language of post-modernism in which ‘narratives are constructed’ and in which the concept of ‘truth’ is inevitably relative to the interests of the speaker. Still we might ask, does this really free academic authors from an obligation to the truth?

I take it that a paper offered to an earth-science journal, based on the Genesis timetable, would not be accepted for publication. Indeed, the chief virtue of the peer-review process in such a case, is precisely to attest that the investigation reported, conformed to best practice in the discipline and revealed an appropriate level of knowledge of the existing paradigm. So why is it apparently different for New Zealand history? And what does this episode tell us about the utility of the present assessment processes for academic outputs (Performance Based Research Funding –PBRF)?

Of course, when important interests are at play, parties are invariably tempted to emphasise some ‘facts’ and minimise or ignore others. Nonetheless, there is still a crucial distinction to be made (and especially in the academic domain) between facts that are well-attested (like the evolution of homo-sapiens) and those for which the evidence is incomplete, or otherwise defective. And, even in this latter case, there is a good faith obligation on academic persons to evaluate such evidence, without prejudice or preconception (no matter how difficult that might be to do).

An interesting example of this sort of ‘difficulty’ comes from work at the European Centre for High-Energy Physics in Geneva (CERN). Here a series of experiments was recently performed to test the thesis that a factor in determining global climate variation down through the millennia is the effect of variations in cosmic radiation on cloud formation (more clouds, lower atmospheric temperatures): the so-called ‘CLOUD experiment’. The tests have now been performed and the results reported in the journal Nature (25 August) but without an explicit conclusion on the crucial question. The Director-General of CERN, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, explains why, “I have asked my colleagues to present the results clearly but not to interpret them. That would go immediately into the highly-political arena of the climate change debate”. What kind of science is this that is afraid to draw conclusions?

Well, it is the kind of science you get when the funding is interests-based and the conclusions of a particular piece of research look as if they might be uncongenial to the paymasters. CERN depends upon three-quarters of a billion euros per year from governments who are desperately trying to hold the line on global warming.

What the two cases have in common is that both are the consequence of allowing the academic enterprise to be controlled by special interests. Of course, the temptation will always be there but it is crucially important that we do not tolerate practices that institutionalise it.


Anonymous said...
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You would have to be living on another planet if you believed that any conclusion of a particular scientific group was not influnced by their paymasters. For example, climate change skeptics are up against a multitude of opposition to the "science of global warming" because money vastly influences the findings.

Fatima said...
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Nice article. I don't believe in global warming, As every winter it snows heavily and in summers the plenty of rain might wash the air and filter the atmosphere.

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