Stop Shutting Down Academic Debate!

By George Yancey Published on May 9, 2017

Rachel Dolezal is a white woman who claims to identify as black. In the same way that people born male and identify as female are called transgender, you could describe Rachel Dolezal as transracial. Which might make one wonder: Is it possible that the arguments for the transgender movement could also support Dolezal’s transracial claim?

That seems like the kind of question that would be worth debating among philosophers. At least that’s what Rebecca Tuvel thought when she wrote her peer-reviewed article “In Defense of Transracialism.” She may not have foreseen the firestorm it would create. Hundreds of professors signed an open letter to the journal demanding her work be pulled. They also called for the journal’s peer review process to be brought under review, meaning, “do not publish what we do not want published.”

Philosophy is not my field, so I won’t comment on the soundness of the article. It has been defended by scholars in the field as worth publishing. This does not mean that Tuvel’s analysis is right. But it does mean that she wrote a meaningful paper that deserves scholarly discussion. Instead it became the target of a smear campaign.

Those who restrict academic debate are undeniably on the wrong side of history.

It reminds me of what happened to Mark Regnerus, who did a study that revealed possible negative effects of same-sex couples raising children. The knives quickly came out. There were calls to have his paper pulled from the journal. The peer review process for his article was audited. Influential people demanded an inquiry into Regnerus’s religion and his funding. It was lot of action for a paper that relied on well-accepted social science methods.

The charge against Regnerus was that his work was “flawed,” which of course it was. All social science research is flawed to some degree. Having looked at work done before Regnerus that tended to support same-sex couples’ parenting, I know his paper was a definite upgrade. His basic point has been supported since then in works by other social scientists. Both Regnerus’s and Tuvel’s papers deserved fair critique instead of ugly name-calling.

Pressure That Hinders Science and Understanding

Journals very rarely retract papers unless there are clear signs of gross neglect. By making a stink, however, activists can make the next editor slow to accept papers that buck the ruling social and political norms. This has serious effects on science: it limits inquiry to approved topics with approved results. Science becomes a tool for propaganda, rather than the genuine pursuit of knowledge.

When you and I see that happening, we lose trust in science.

As a result of this controversy, associate editors at the journal that published Tuvel’s paper – Hypatiawrote an apology on Facebook for publishing the paper. Thankfully Hypatia’s head editor and the president of the board of directors are standing behind the paper.

I hope they will hold fast to that position. If they don’t, I will conclude that there’s been no real discussion, no real debate, no real pursuit of the question whether transracial identity is sound — just as I know, due to Regnerus’s treatment, that there is no real discussion, debate or pursuit of the question whether same-sex parenting may be inferior to opposite-sex parenting.

One of the LGBT movement’s slogans is, “Don’t be on the wrong side of history.” That slogan has serious problems, for who knows what tomorrow’s sexual and marriage ethics will actually be? But there’s one thing we can safely predict: science will advance if given the chance to do so — if we don’t ruin it, that is. Which we may be doing by destroying trust in it through limiting what may be discussed.

Those who restrict academic debate are undeniably on the wrong side of history.

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