Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A nation of haters

In the NY Times today, Benedict Carey describes the case of a Northwestern University psychology professor who has become the subject of an intense academic debate.

When strong opinions clash and a scholar becomes known for controversy, is that a "witch hunt"? Is it only a witch hunt if the scholar is correct? What if he's been a bit of an insensitive jerk, but has views worth listening to? Is it wrong for those who read his book and despise it to campaign against him?

Here are the nutshell paragraphs:

The hostilities began in the spring of 2003, when Dr. [J. Michael] Bailey published a book, “The Man Who Would Be Queen,” intended to explain the biology of sexual orientation and gender to a general audience.

“The next two years,” Dr. Bailey said in an interview, “were the hardest of my life.”

Many sex researchers who have worked with Dr. Bailey say that he is a solid scientist and collaborator, who by his own admission enjoys violating intellectual taboos.

In his book, he argued that some people born male who want to cross genders are driven primarily by an erotic fascination with themselves as women. This idea runs counter to the belief, held by many men who decide to live as women, that they are the victims of a biological mistake — in essence, women trapped in men’s bodies. Dr. Bailey described the alternate theory, which is based on Canadian studies done in the 1980s and 1990s, in part by telling the stories of several transgender women he met through a mutual acquaintance. In the book, he gave them pseudonyms, like “Alma” and “Juanita.”

Much of the rancor in response was directed at the book's content, and not at the author's methods or integrity. Others, including two professors at other schools, condemned him for academic dishonesty:
Dr. Conway and Dr. McCloskey also wrote letters to Northwestern, accusing Dr. Bailey of grossly violating scientific standards “by conducting intimate research observations on human subjects without telling them that they were objects of the study.”
That, of course, is just the sort of ridiculous accusation that screams of ex post facto indignation. It's not unethical to write about unidentified people you talk to or interview without explaining your plans. Even newspapers, which have reputations to protect on top of ethical concerns, don't forbid it; op-ed pages, for example, are filled with this. If Bailey's book agreed with these professors instead, they would not have written their outraged letter.

Bailey was looking for controversy; should we worry that he found it? The accusations of ethical violations are extreme, but they can be judged on their own merits. It looks like Northwestern, after dithering reminiscent of Columbia University's investigation of Middle Eastern studies professors, decided they were unfounded. The article also discusses at length an independent investigation that clears Bailey of wrongdoing. We could see the episode as a simple matter of heated argument, with the truth outing itself for anyone who cares to read up on the details.

But there are consequences to drawing such intense controversy, even if no clear fault is found:

The inquiry, which lasted almost a year, brought research to a near standstill in Dr. Bailey’s laboratory, and clouded his name among some other researchers, according to people who worked with the psychologist.


Others who remained loyal said doing so had a cost: two researchers said they were advised by a government grant officer that they should distance themselves from Dr. Bailey to improve their chances of receiving financing.

Of course, this is not all bad; it may be that academics with controversial ideas will take more care to be balanced and up front with their intentions. While I defended the Columbia Middle East studies professors, I imagine that the drama has made at least one of them, Joseph Massad--whose course, when I took it, suffered from its narrow scope--value more highly the idea of airing dissenting opinions. I haven't read Bailey's book, but perhaps he too has grown by listening to his opponents.

But on balance, it seems damage has been done here, as it was in the Columbia case. Academics with controversial ideas will be more wary now of writing and speaking freely. And yet, no specific crime of stifling speech was committed; rather, the problem is that our intellectual culture leans so readily toward outrage and Schadenfreude, and that there is so little shame in overstating one's case.

Advertisements and reporting tell us that we can leverage a bit of blameless victimhood into windfall lawsuits (and two members of my family have been victims of lawsuits that I, independent of their views, consider not just frivolous but abusively so). Politicians win when polls find they are "strong leaders" and "decisive" and not intelligent or open-minded. And controversy is seldom followed up by sincere attempts at understanding.

We give little encouragement to be considerate, and even less reward. We're a nation of haters, petty gossipers and harpys (of both genders).