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 They also called for the journal’s peer review process to be brought under review, meaning, “do not publish what we do not want published.”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.

Print Friendly
Comments ()
The Stream encourages comments, whether in agreement with the article or not. However, comments that violate our commenting rules or terms of use will be removed. Any commenter who repeatedly violates these rules and terms of use will be blocked from commenting. Comments on The Stream are hosted by Disqus, with logins available through Disqus, Facebook, Twitter or G+ accounts. You must log in to comment. Please flag any comments you see breaking the rules. More detail is available here.
  • Timothy Horton

    The Regnerus paper you bring up was hopelessly biased and flawed. It was rightly rejected by the scientific community for its flawed methodology and cherry-picking of data by Regnerus to support his previously articulated anti-gay position. The more recent papers you cite such as the one by Sullins (2016) are just more of the same. The Sullins paper is also being widely panned for the same flawed methodology and deliberate cherry-picking of data that Regnerus attempted.

    Fruitful academic debate can only occur when the researchers are arguing and presenting their data in an honest and comprehensive manner. Neither Regnerus nor Sullins did this which is why their efforts have been so widely rejected.

    • Charles Burge

      Wow, your hypocrisy is in full view now. For weeks, you’ve been saying “if someone has something to say, write it up and present it in a journal”. Regnerus did just that. If his paper was “hopelessly biased and flawed” as you claim, then what does that say about the peer-review process itself? Looks like you’re trying to have it both ways.

      • Timothy Horton

        Regnerus wrote it up in a journal. The work was shredded by everyone else in the profession for its shoddy methodology and cherry-picking of data to support Regnerus’ pre-determined conclusion.

        The fact his shoddy work made it through peer-review resulted in an audit of the review processes of the publishing journal Social Science Research which identified numerous faults with SSR’s processes.

        As reported by The Chronicle Of Higher Education:

        Controversial Gay-Parenting Study Is Severely Flawed, Journal’s Audit Finds

        The peer-review process failed to identify significant, disqualifying problems with a controversial and widely publicized study that seemed to raise doubts about the parenting abilities of gay couples, according to an internal audit scheduled to appear in the November issue of the journal, Social Science Research, that published the study.

        The highly critical audit, a draft of which was provided to The Chronicle by the journal’s editor, also cites conflicts of interest among the reviewers, and states that “scholars who should have known better failed to recuse themselves from the review process.”


        • Charles Burge

          OK, so now we learn that the peer-review process, which you have touted as an iron-clad methodology for the dissemination of science, isn’t always so trustworthy. Can we be sure that this was a one-time error, or is there legitimate reason to believe that the peer-review process itself has systematic flaws?

          • Timothy Horton

            An investigation is started when there is outside evidence as in this case the process of a particular journal has failed. If you have any evidence of systematic failure of peer-review across all scientific journals please present it.

            the peer-review process, which you have touted as an iron-clad methodology for the dissemination of science,

            You can’t make a post without lying, can you? I never said peer-review was a 100% perfect process. I said it’s the best mechanism we have for assuring scientific integrity and is a heck of a lot better than no review, which it is.

          • Charles Burge

            I wasn’t making a claim of systematic failure; I was merely asking a question. If something has failed, even once, then you need to find out why it has failed. The possibility of a systematic flaw is one of many, and shouldn’t be discounted. I admit this is out of my area of expertise, but a quick google search shows that criticism of the process itself is not uncommon. I won’t argue with your statement that it’s the best system available, but I’ll point out that several scientists who went on to win Nobel prizes initially had their work rejected by peer-reviewed journals.

            I’d like to get back to the point that George Yancey has made (you know, the article we’re supposedly commenting on). If someone presents an idea that you don’t like, and does so in a peer reviewed journal, what is the best approach for criticizing the idea? 1. Engage in scholarly debate – 2. Shoot the messenger.

            I think the actual paper raises a very legitimate point. If Bruce Jenner can put on a wig and a dress and then call himself a woman, why can’t Rachel Dolezal put some rap music on her iPod and call herself black?

          • Timothy Horton

            If someone presents an idea that you don’t like, and does so in a peer reviewed journal, what is the best approach for criticizing the idea? 1. Engage in scholarly debate – 2. Shoot the messenger.

            That depends entirely on the circumstances. If the researcher presents the work in good faith, follows acceptable scientific practices in presenting all the data both for and against, then by all means engage in scholarly debate. If the researcher isn’t presenting work in good faith but is caught deliberately cherry-picking / fudging results for political motives as was the cases of Regnerus and Sullins then the liars deserve all the fire they take.

          • Charles Burge

            OK, but I’m talking about Rebecca Tuvel, the subject of the article above. All indications are that she did indeed present her work in good faith. Do you think the reaction against her is justified? Do you share Mr. Yancey’s concerns that an atmosphere has been created which might stifle further scientific inquiry?

          • Timothy Horton

            I don’t know enough about the Tuvel case to comment. My responses were to the OP author’s trying to compare this case to the proven dishonesty of anti-gay advocates Regnerus and Sullins.

          • Charles Burge

            Sorry, but that sounds a little like ducking to me. You don’t need to know anything other than what was presented above. This case is one more in an ongoing pattern of leftists using smear tactics and character assassination to shut down honest debate on important topics. Another example is the thuggish mob behavior, aided and abetted by administrators, that literally chased author Charles Murray from the campus of Middlebury College. Do you have any concern at all that growing toxicity in academia is becoming a problem?

          • Timothy Horton

            You don’t need to know anything other than what was presented above.

            Ha! Steam articles are some of the most politically biased and deliberately misleading on the web. If they’re your primary source of information it’s no wonder your views are as screwed up as they are.

          • Charles Burge

            Nice deflection. Even if that’s true (which I dispute), it doesn’t challenge the legitimacy of my question.

          • Timothy Horton

            What you’re seeing now is young people on college campuses being fed up with the hatred and intolerance that’s been the mainstay of RW religious politics for some time now. I don’t approve of any violence but like a wise man one noted, “what goes around comes around”.

          • Charles Burge

            I guess you and I really do see the world through completely different lenses. What we’re seeing now is young people being fed lies and hatred by intolerant groupthink that’s been the mainstay of Marxism for a century.

          • Shaquille Harvey

            If they are so biased and you are so concerned with the pro homosexual agenda why are you here then ?

          • ImaginaryDomain

            That is a great point!

          • Timothy Horton

            A scientifically ignorant bigot might think so.

      • ImaginaryDomain

        Word to the wise my friend, stop engaging with TH. He’s always here trying to sway people off topic. Don’t swing at pitches in the dirt! Block him and engage in an enlightened discussion without his noise.

        • Timothy Horton

          Ah, the homophobic bigots always start crying when their dishonesty is exposed.

    • I’m curious: what are your social science credentials, Timothy? Game you read these papers yourself, and can you explain from your own knowledge and experience what’s so wrong with them?

      • Timothy Horton

        I already did Tom, with supporting documentation provided below.

        • Again, could you please share from your own knowledge and experience what’s wrong with these papers, beyond linking to others’ opinions? Can you describe your scientific qualifications for doing so? Can you explain how you came to the conclusion that bias is present in Regnerus’s paper but not in the audit that was conducted?

          Thanks. I appreciate it.

          • Timothy Horton

            Read what was already written again. I can’t help with your inability to comprehend the words.

          • Then I don’t need to ask you the question again. I only need to point out to others reading here that you have not, as you were requested,
            (a) Given us any information showing that you have the scientific credentials to evaluate Regnerus’s paper, or
            (b) Demonstrated good reason to believe you are scientifically literate in the relevant fields, beyond your ability to link to an article, or
            (c) Shown us any reason to believe the audit process reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education was less biased than Regnerus’s paper.

            Other readers are invited to draw their own conclusions.

          • Timothy Horton

            It’s a pity you’re so stuck in your position you won’t even bother to read the references provided. Easier to just deny the evidence of Regnerus’ dishonesty that deal with the facts.

            Lying for Jesus also includes knee-jerk defending other Liars For Jesus it seems.

          • I read the references when they were published.

          • Timothy Horton

            Then why are you so ignorant of the facts? Or do you know the facts and just aren’t honest enough to acknowledge them.

          • I think I’ve said all that needs saying. Readers are warmly invited to draw their own conclusions.

  • Paul

    Often easier to discredit than debate

  • Christian Cowboy

    Many people will only consider what supports their viewpoints and beliefs. Any thing which might even vaguely undermine their position is discredited – period! There will be no discussion.

    • Timothy Horton

      Academic discussion is based on honesty. The anti-gay papers cited above all suffer from deliberate dishonesty in cherry-picking data to support the author’s already decided anti-gay position.

      I can see it doesn’t bother you but Lying for Jesus is unacceptable in the scientific realm.

      • Christian Cowboy

        You are so predictable.

        • Timothy Horton

          Yes, I always back honest science over religiously motivated lies. You should try it sometime.

          • Christian Cowboy

            You also cannot comment without attacking the person as ignorant or a bigot – so predictable.

          • Timothy Horton

            But only when the person demonstrates scientific ignorance and/or bigotry.

      • llew jones

        Come on young Timmy stop making a fool of yourself. You are a homosexual and have all the biases of homosexuals which of course disqualifies your commentary on your stated ground of “already (having a) decided pro gay position”. Perhaps, for our edification, you should write a paper on ” Is the homosexual brain suitable for the unbiased investigation of social science”.

        • Timothy Horton

          LOL! It takes a real homophobic bigot to think he’s insulting someone by calling them gay. 😀 Such a credit to his religion. Let me guess – you think NARTH is an unbiased scientific organization too, right?

        • Timothy Horton

          Speaking of making a fool of yourself – are you going to pimp any more Creationist videos like the one you barfed up on the Moonie Wells IDiot thread? That one made you look even more foolish and scientifically ignorant than usual.

‘I Will Love Them Freely’
Charles Spurgeon
More from The Stream
Connect with Us