More than a century ago, American pragmatist John Dewey emphasized the importance of “intellectual hospitality.” By this he meant “An attitude of mind which actively welcomes suggestions and relevant information from all sides.” Today academics and other experts face a crisis of intellectual hospitality, with implications not just for the art of science communication but also for the broader roles of experts in democracy.
My views on intellectual hospitality have been shaped by my experiences, which are surely not representative, but which also are not unique. Delegitimization of unwelcome ideas and the people who express them sits somewhere near the polar opposite of intellectual hospitality. Despite its growing presence in science communication, delegitimization is easy to ignore or rationalize. That is, until it happens to you. This essay discusses some of my experiences with intellectual hospitality and delegitimization and makes a case for why these issues should matter in our discussions of science communication.
I’ve encountered strong responses to my efforts to foster an atmosphere of intellectual hospitality. For example, about a year ago I gave a talk on climate science and politics at a major US university in a state that voted for Donald Trump. After the talk a gentleman raised his hand an exclaimed, “I want to give you a kiss!” It’s not the usual reaction to my lectures.
He announced that he was a local Republican official and explained his reaction, “This is the first talk on climate that I have heard where I was not made to feel stupid or evil.” He did not comment on my vigorous defense of the science reported in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or advocacy for an economy-wide carbon tax. His emotional response was to the hospitality that I offered.
My experiences are not unique and reflect more general understandings backed by empirical research. For instance, Susan Fiske and Cydney Dupree surveyed public views of climate scientists and concluded that, “Science communication, like other communication, needs to convey communicator warmth/trustworthiness as well as competence/expertise, to be credible.” We know well that evidence in policy and politics is most effective when expertise is viewed to be, in one classic formulation: salient, credible and legitimate. Intellectual hospitality reinforces trust and engagement.
In my younger and more naïve days I had assumed that my efforts to engage respectfully those who did not share my (and most of my colleagues) political views would be encouraged by my peers. After all, effective policies on issues related to scientific expertise need more than just a robust evidence base, they also need support from across the political spectrum. But I have learned, repeatedly and brutally, that such engagement is often not welcomed by either side of the political aisle.
Another recent experience of mine illustrates these dynamics well.
A few weeks ago I was alerted to the fact that a conservative group much-hated among climate activists, The Heartland Institute, had published a report in which they claimed that I was a co-author and member of a committee that had produced the report. Both claims were false. I’ve never had any connection to the Heartland Institute. This is not the first time that they claimed falsely that I was associated with them.
It is always a good practice to avoid labeling as a conspiracy that which is due to incompetence, but the motivation for Heartland to claim me as a fellow traveler is obvious. They may have confused an attitude of “intellectual hospitality” with political affinity. No doubt they find the peer-reviewed research I’ve done on disasters and climate change to be politically convenient. They abused my intellectual hospitality for short-term political gain Heartland immediately removed my name from the report after I raised a stink.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Heartland was joined in exploiting my intellectual hospitality for political gain by an unlikely ally. Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist at Penn State, used his significant social media presence to spread the false information of my false association with Heartland even after being informed that Heartland had falsely listed me as a contributor to the report.
Mann, who recently won a prestigious award from AAAS for his science communication efforts, no doubt had a motivation to misrepresent my views as obvious as that of Heartland. Mann confused “intellectual hospitality” with political affinity, perhaps willfully, and in this case, his frequent efforts to delegitimize my scholarship that does not support his political activism.
Delegitimization is the Kryptonite deployed against “intellectual hospitality” and is increasingly and effectively deployed in the hyper-politicized environment of contemporary American politics.
For instance, Alice Dreger is a champion of intellectual openness who wrote an excellent book about delegitimized academics. She has apparently spent so much time with such shady figures that she has become a target herself. She recently described encountering a large group of students protesting a university talk she gave based on the students’ impressions of a fictional, online version of Dreger. A student protester read a statement (falsely) attributed to Dreger that he had found online. Dreger explains that it was “so comically bigoted, it was hard to take seriously. . . there are fake social media accounts in my name, including fake blogs, with my photo and my name. A student asked why I ‘let that happen.’ I answered that I can’t spend my life chasing them down and trying to stop them.”
Another US academic, Kevin Folta saw his efforts to engage with industry on the subject of agricultural biotechnology (and in particular GMOs) rewarded with a front page article on the New York Times that suggested, falsely, that Folta was taking money to support industry positiions. Folta has sued the Times claiming that the article, “left a permanent and enduring scar on Dr. Folta’s online identity and in online searches—the first thing that people do in order to learn about a scientist.” Regardless of how the lawsuit turns out, Folta’s career and reputation have been tarnished indelibly.
We academics who face efforts to delegitimize our work frequently confront fictional versions of ourselves. These fictional mischaracterizations are promoted by our peers and journalists. Despite the increasing practice of delegitimization, no leading academics or scientific organizations that I am aware of have offered public support for either Dreger or Folta or, more generally, offered guidance to scientists about the practice more generally. Delegitimization is thus seemingly condoned and is not being countered with effective leadership from within the scientific community.
More broadly, delegitimization efforts are not just unethical but also fundamentally contrary to the understandings that have been developed in academic studies of science communication and science in politics. We know that trust in expertise is reinforced when we are intellectually hospitable, and not ruthless political partisans.
Yet, we experts, like elected officials and pundits, have a powerful platform from which to politicize scientific issues and attack those whom we might disagree with. The seductive siren song of politicization is strong in an era of Donald Trump and Brexit, and is no doubt reinforced by the echo-chamber effects of a lack of political diversity within our own ranks.
The techniques of delegitimization include various strategies of character assassination, such as misrepresenting online another’s research or politics or promoting out-of-context representations of a scholar’s writings. In some cases, academics and other experts engage in “no platforming” of the sort employed on university campuses against offensive speakers, in an effort to have individuals removed from writing or speaking roles where they might advance politically unwelcome perspectives.
I used to think tenure was an archaic feature of academia. No longer.
A counter argument is that in an era where politics might matter more than ever, why should experts engage with their opponents? Maybe the stakes nowadays are just too high for the high-minded luxury of intellectual hospitality. In fact, perhaps we should actively be opposing delegitimized academics, the GMO industry, climate skeptics and even Republicans, lest we help their causes. I hear this argument a lot, as do others who seek to cross political lines in scientific engagement and communication.
Despite my experiences, I persist in believing that not just science but also democracy is well served by intellectual hospitality.
Experts reinforce democracy and work against authoritarianism when we adopt a stance of intellectual hospitality. A half century ago, American political scientist E. E. Schattschneider made a powerful case for the importance to democracy of a willingness to engage different points of view: “Democracy is based on a profound insight into human nature, the realization that all men are sinful, all are imperfect, all are prejudiced, and no one knows the whole truth.”
To paraphrase Walter Lippmann, democracy is not about getting everyone to think alike, but about getting people who think differently to act alike. Intellectual hospitality will not lead to uniform thinking, but it may facilitate collective action.
As experts we face important choices in how we deploy the authority that we have gained in society. We can use that power to delegitimize those we disagree with, to seek to dominate the intellectual arena. Alternatively, we can allow some in our ranks to try to serve as a corrective to the hyper-partisan politics of our era, to seek to facilitate democratic discourse. The choice is profound, not just for the politics of specific issues like climate change and GMOs, but for the practice of democracy itself.