I was at an academic conference recently, dedicated to the proposition that black is white. I had been invited to present the alternative viewpoint that black is really black, or at least dark gray and I did so. This made people uncomfortable, and some heated discussion ensued.
One of the interesting features of the discussion was that a couple of scholars at the conference more or less admitted that black wasn’t white, but argued that all sorts of good social results would flow from claiming it was. In other words, they advocated telling what the philosopher Plato characterized famously as a “noble lie.”
Despite my legal training, this kind of thing never fails to shock me. I’m not so naive that I don’t understand politicians, lawyers, and the like are often professionally obligated to at least shade the truth, in the pursuit of worthwhile goals. But scholars and scientists, I believe, should hold themselves to a higher standard.
Unfortunately, it’s clear that many don’t. I know a very distinguished scientist who recently published some controversial work on a high-profile public policy issue. He was taken aback by criticisms claiming not that his analysis was wrong, but that it was “unhelpful.”
“One consequence of this kind of anti-intellectualism,” he told me, “is that many, many people talk about our work as though it was simply some kind of advocacy effort, because, I think, that’s how they themselves proceed. It seems impossible for people to grasp that we set out to make estimates and that we would have published whatever estimates we came up with. We get criticized, a lot, for ‘sending the wrong message,’ as though the only point of science was to send a message.”
Another thing that plays a powerful role in squashing uncomfortable truths is the universal desire to be liked and admired within one’s social circles. In the end, I suspect this desire does even more damage to the cause of truth than simple greed, or professional ambition, or the willingness to lie in the pursuit of noble goals.
Consider two examples from very different worlds. Last Saturday, LSU beat Florida in a college football game in large part because at the end of the game, Les Miles, the LSU coach, tried to score a touchdown rather than attempting a field goal. Now the situation in which Miles did this had two characteristics: first, a straightforward probabilistic analysis reveals that he clearly made the right decision, and second, it was the sort of situation in which, until recently, almost all coaches made the wrong decision.
The reason coaches would always attempt the field goal in this situation is because it was the conventional wisdom that one should do so, and, if they deviated from that wisdom and lost, they would be criticized mercilessly by sportswriters and the like. In other words, until a few rebels started deviating from the norm, coaches followed a significantly suboptimal strategy because their goal was, more than anything else, to avoid criticism.
The second example comes from the collected works of David Broder, the long-time Washington Post columnist and so-called Dean of the Washington press corps. Broder publishes, with slight variations, the same basic column about three times a month. Its theme is always the same: the American people hate partisan bickering, and long for bipartisan compromise.
I’ve come to suspect that what Broder and other inside the Beltway types really long for is a more comfortable atmosphere at Washington cocktail parties. After all, disagreement about fundamental questions of political morality can be very unpleasant. Thus “bipartisan compromise,” as opposed to standing up for what’s right, is much more conducive to stress-free cocktail hours.
And isn’t that the most important thing?
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)