Academic adventures

The exhilarating marketplace of ideas and free thought, Anno Domini 2004:

  • Renowned sociologist Alan Wolfe included a stupidly tendentious and disingenuous attack on Paul Gottfried in a stupidly tendentious and disingenuous piece about Carl Schmitt and conservatives in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the mag denied Gottfried even a brief reply. (The point of Wolfe’s piece was that if you read that Nazi Carl Schmitt you’ll understand why those conservatives don’t fight fair.)
  • An influential professor attacked a student personally, publicly, and with explicit reference to his future employment prospects for expressing sympathy with the view that orthodox Darwinian theory has metaphysical presuppositions that could reasonably be questioned. I’ve never gotten much into the substantive issues, but on the general evidence of the weblog from which he mounted the attack the man seems more a bigot and crank than a philosopher.

2 thoughts on “Academic adventures”

  1. I have been following
    I have been following Leiter’s weblog since an article in NRO linked there over this specific issue—which was what widely publicized the controversy. (In my opinion, NRO was quite dishonest in identifying the author of the NRO article, Hunter Baker, as “a freelance writer in Texas,” rather than explaining his actual relationship to the issue.)

    Now I certainly can’t say that I agree with Leiter’s positions in general, but his original critique was completely on target. As far as the issue of a professor attacking “a student” goes, the student in question is a law student, which is post-graduate work. Certainly not too early to get heat for shoddy published work.

  2. I thought Leiter talked
    I thought Leiter talked about “factual errors” and “scholarly fraud” in connections that look much more like differences of interpretation. Even if his interpretation is much the better one—I haven’t put the effort into the issue to debate the matter—his reaction and style were so extreme and personal as to make me doubt the solidity of his judgment. For example, in Leiter’s first example VanDyke had said:

    “A perception common to laypeople, peripheral scientists, and scholars alike is that basic evolutionary theory is inherently an empirical scientific claim that does not purport to address metaphysical claims similar to those addressed by classical religions. In large part because of this perception, naturalistic evolution has long enjoyed a pedagogical monopoly in our nation’s public schools.”

    Leiter’s response:

    “Reality check: The common perception is, of course, correct, which is why the creationists must disparage it by innuendo. Fore more than 140 years, ‘the massing evidence from paleontology, genetics, zoology, molecular biology and other fields gradually established evolution’s truth beyond reasonable doubt,’ as Scientific American notes.”

    Leiter’s view, then, seems to be that it’s simply factual reality, questioning which constitutes factual error, incompetence, and scholarly fraud, that the truth of “naturalistic evolution,” which I take to be the view that the development of living forms occurred purely mechanistically, through natural selection of random variations, has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

    That view seems very odd to me. How could something like naturalistic evolution, which after all can’t be observed or described in specific detail and doesn’t involve reproducible events that would make it possible to test it, be so thoroughly verified that its truth becomes simple fact? It seems to me there are metaphysical presuppositions in there somewhere.

    I suppose for me part of the question is what the rest of us owe experts. VanDyke was writing for a law review, and thus in a setting in which I think the ultimate issue should be what policies are sensible from a common-sense point of view. All the legal and technical analysis should really be subordinate to that. Now it seems to me that the rest of us owe a great deal of deference to experts where experience shows they can deliver something specific that we can rely on, but much less deference where what they seem to be doing is repeating the general principles that guide them in their work and telling us that those principles are truths about the world. It’s hard to untangle the two, but so far as I can tell, naturalistic evolution falls more in the latter category. And in any case it’s always open to common sense to express doubt about expert pronouncements that seem to have sweeping consequences for the nature of the world we live in. A response like Leiter’s to such doubts strikes me as out of place.


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