The Limits of Academic Freedom

Steven Novella at Neurologica has written a thoughtful essay on where the limits of academic freedom should lie in light of the firing of Ward Churchill based on allegations of plagiarism and research falsification. Of course, many believe that calling 9/11 victims “little Eichmanns” might have had something to do with it as well.

Novella considers the current standards for protection of academic speech and brings up a good point. Academic freedom is not meant to protect professors from the consequences of lying and incompetence.

The purpose of tenure is to protect academics from being fired because of their political views or the nature of their research or other academic pursuits. Originally it was designed to protect them from influences outside the university – namely trustees or donors who would try to use their money or influence to block or fire academics they didn’t like or disagreed with. However, it was never intended to protect professors from discipline from their colleagues within the university. Such discipline is necessary to maintain standards, which every institution has a right, and some even a duty, to do.

At present the guiding principles state that a tenured professor can be removed for, “professional incompetence, neglect of duty, insubordination, conviction of a felony or any offense involving moral turpitude… or sexual harassment or other conduct which falls below minimum standards of professional integrity.”

This is a good point, and one that the denialists and cranks of the world hate, and that is “standards”. Novella makes an excellent case for the ability of universities to deny tenure, or remove professors for the teaching of baloney:

To take an extreme example, a history professor should not be able to make up their own history from scratch and then pass it along to their students as knowledge. I should not teach medical students incompetent and substandard medical practice and then defend such teaching with cries of personal academic freedom.

The gray area here is the distinction between, on the one hand, content that represents an unpopular minority opinion, a politically, socially, or religiously “heretical” view, or a cutting edge claim, and on the other hand nonsense and intellectual rubbish. In making such distinctions it is possible to dismiss the merely unpopular as nonsense, or to defend rubbish as if it were truly innovative or politically inconvenient.

Also, when in doubt, which side should get the benefit? Should maverick academics be considered visionary until proven to be quacks, or charlatans until vindicated? The system we have now seems to favor the former.

Personally, I think we need to take the “innocent until proven guilty” approach, but should not set the standard of proof so high that any nonsense can thrive without check. For example, intelligent design is simply not science, and this has been established to such a degree that we can forbid biology teachers from teaching it as science without violating their academic freedom. The same is true for holocaust denial, and for 9/11 conspiracy theorists?

I think that question mark is a typo, but anyway, he’s dead on. Academic freedom should never mean you can say whatever the hell you want, whatever the proof, whatever your methods.

The perfect example? Medical students and CAM:

The area where I think the system has broken down is with so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Here, ideas that are anti-scientific, disproven, intellectually bankrupt, and sometimes just utter lunacy are making their way into academic medicine under the banner of freedom, multi-culturalism, openness, and political correctness. Because medicine is a profession and a trade (not just an abstract academic pursuit) the standards for quality control are far more important and should be given greater consideration.

As I said above, I should not be allowed to teach medical students incompetent medicine or substandard care – and neither should anyone else, no matter what you call it.

Novella makes a great case. Examples of denying tenure to people promoting nonsense aren’t about maintaining a party line, they’re about maintaining standards. Academics who say that evolution is false, the holocaust didn’t happen, oregano cures cancer etc., aren’t just exercising their free speech, they’re failing their students. This isn’t an issue of rejecting minority views, it’s about the responsibility of academics to adhere to basic principles of honesty and integrity in their intramural pursuits.


  1. Excellent post. This issue’s been weighing heavily on my own mind since the recent case of a college professor who’s also into HIV/AIDS denial came to my attention.

    This prof says that HIV doesn’t exist. AIDS is just an expression of racism and homophobia (of scientists of course). AIDS is caused by antiretrovirals, etc., etc. Basically, an unholy wedding of Duesberg and the Perth group but with a slew of really shocking whoppers thrown in. She gave an interview where she endorsed a statement that using a condom is riskier for one’s health than any consequences of unsafe sex. At the molecular level, she says HIV’s gp120 and gp160 are oligomers of gp41, and gp41 is actin. She says HIV is an enveloped virus because it has a protein shell. She thinks yeast is not a fungus and CMV is not a herpesvirus.

    Her book is packed with this kind of nonsense, and her university affiliation is branded right on the cover, no disclaimer at all. it would be quite a knee-slapper except there are people out there who claim they’ve stopped treatment because of her advice and writings.

    Her university actually has a policy about this. It’s written right in its code. When you speak outside of the peer-review system, mention that you’re not speaking for the university. Well, she didn’t do that.

    But when a dozen famous HIV researchers wrote her university to ask that this policy be enforced, the university refused. To the university, the denialist’s opinions and the proven scientific “opinions” are of equal value. No one asked for her to be fired or even censured, just reminded to include a disclaimer. But even that was too much for the misplaced “tolerance” of the university.

    It didn’t even matter that the professor had used some very sloppy scholarship in her work. Redrawing a figure from a journal without citing it. Some quotes without quotation marks. Use of ideas without attribution. None of this was important.

    Given this amazing lack of standards, it surprises me that Ward Churchill was punished at all.

  2. I agree with everything you’re saying, but I would add one thing: None of this should be construed in a way to censor an academic’s opinions expressed on his own time, outside the classroom.

    As much as I despise Michael Behe’s ideas, so long as he doesn’t infect his lessons with them I don’t think he should be fired from Lehigh just for saying them. And, to my knowledge, Lehigh University feels basically the same way. If Behe started incorporating disproven bullshit into his lessons and teaching it as if it were fact, that would be a different story.

    I can’t stand Ward Churchill, but I don’t think his “little Eichmanns” comment was enough to get him fired. That would be a violation of his freedom of speech. Plagiarism, however, is more than enough. If he really plagiarized other people’s works (and the evidence seems to say, “Yes, he did”) then firing him was the right thing to do.

  3. I agree Wes which is why I specified “intramural” activities as opposed to extramural crankery.

    One has to be careful about extramural crankery too a little bit, because it’s somewhat unlikely that someone can completely compartmentalize their broken ideas from their work and academic pursuits. In this case, the additional scrutiny from Churchill’s extramural idiocy came back and bit him on the ass as it sounds like he wasn’t on the level.

  4. Chris Noble

    I agree with everything you’re saying, but I would add one thing: None of this should be construed in a way to censor an academic’s opinions expressed on his own time, outside the classroom.

    I think the importnat point is that it should be made absolutely clear that the opinions are those of the individual alone and not do not necessarily reflect those of the institution.

    The academic that Tiqs mentions presents herself as a HIV researcher and prominently gives her University affiliation. She is using her credentials and affiliation in an attempt to give her opinions far more authority than they deserve. From my observations the tactic seems to work with her lay-audience.

    I also share Mark’s reservations about the ability of some of these cranks to compartmentalize their crankery. When the crankery in question involves scientific illiteracy, willful ignorance, logical fallacies, cherry picking quotes and misrepresenting studies then I find it hard to believe that they can really be relied upon to teach students science or mathematics.

  5. Melissa G

    Can we have the name of this professor, please, and her University?

  6. I suspect they’re talking about Rebecca Culshaw who wrote “Science Sold Out: Does HIV really cause AIDS”. Aidstruth has a full rebuttal.

  7. It is almost certainly Culshaw, whose book lists her affiliation with UT-Tyler on the back cover.
    The Aidstruth review is here.
    Those interested in conducting a mainstream science-denialist cage match can go back and forth between the Aidstruth article (use the summary) and the Culshaw book, since the book is searchable on Amazon. The references I checked mostly went to Aidstruth, though a sympathetic reader might give the occasional point to Culshaw.

    Dr. Culshaw appears to be a smart young mathematical biologist with little knowledge of virology or epidemiology who (for reasons she best knows herself) fell in love with HIV denialism a couple of years ago, and has been embraced in turn by the denialist community (Harvey Bialy gets equal billing on Amazon). She will be defined by this for the rest of her career, which may or may not be a sad thing.

  8. gerald spezio

    If Ward Churchill has been canned for committing the specific offenses of “plagiarism and research falsification,” we should be apprised of the evidence for these specific acts. I cannot find any significant discussion of these acts (above or at Novella’s web), never mind the evidence for them.

    When I was an undergrad, a somewhat famous political scientist was discovered to have plagiarized an entire well known syllabus that was core to the American Institutions curriculum. American Institutions, for clarification, was a patriot’s poly-sci in the days of the commies are coming any day now. His punishment was defrocking as department chairman.

    Sadly, here come the lawyers – getting their due with due process.

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