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Bryan Griffin: The Death Of The Pursuit Of Truth

“I cited their study, so they disavowed it,” writes Heather Mac Donald. Ms. Mac Donald is a political commentator and fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

On June 2nd, 2020, she wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal that had the following thesis: “Hold officers accountable who use excessive force. But there’s no evidence of widespread racial bias.” Plainly, she did not deny that racism has been exhibited by police against African-Americans in certain cases. However, she contends, these actions do not define the industry.

Her article cited statistics from a journal article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, based upon the research from two psychologists at the University of Maryland.

After this article was published, the backlash was so great that the two psychologists retracted their paper. The University was forced to issue an apology. And the department chair that approved funding for the research was stripped of his position.

The psychologists never contested the facts or substance of their findings as written in the paper; instead, they lamented upon the way in which it was used in their retraction.

It’s a good and noble pursuit to study, with scientific rigor, problematic practices in American police forces. Instances of abuse or racism – bad cops – should be held accountable and of course dismissed. But an incredibly troubling thing happened in this instance. Politics overshadowed facts. A narrative, instead of adjusting to fit the truth, was powerful enough to adjust what was considered truth.

The implications of this are enormously troubling. For everyone.

In recent months, toppling antiquated effigies of Confederate generals quickly – almost seamlessly – bled into pulling down statues of America’s founding fathers, Lincoln the Emancipator, and even abolitionists.

How did this devolve so quickly from a healthy desire to better law enforcement to a campaign against the United States and her founding fathers? Are America’s flaws a product of a truly rotten core, or was the jump from one pursuit to the other encouraged by a radical political agenda seeking legitimacy?

There’s no longer debate about such matters. Instead, there is simply an “in-group” and an “out-group.”

Here’s the thing about ideas: they need to be attacked. Vigorously. Good ideas stand up to attack. Bad ideas die in discourse and public opinion.

The university used to be the place where ideas were tested. Academia was the laboratory for ideologies.

“Today’s intelligentsia cannot think,” claims George Will, because higher education “gave them three things: a smattering of historical information just sufficient enough to make the past seem depraved; a vocabulary of indignation about the failure of all previous historic actors, from Washington to Lincoln to Churchill… and the belief that America’s grossest injustice is sufficient obeisance according to this intelligencia.” In short, our campuses are rife with unexamined leftist bias.

Too true that is. And yet as sure as the faculty and students are of these ideologies, they are keen to ensure they are not vulnerable to any sort of examination or contrast to other ideologies.

In June, Penn State’s liberal arts department composed a Tweet reassuring students that they were welcome on campus, whether a student was Black, Latino, female, gay or lesbian, Muslim, Jewish, or conservative. Take a guess as to which term caused such a backlash that they were forced to delete their Tweet.

I remember my time at Columbia University, fondly. Yet in a class of nearly 500, I knew of only seven conservatives. We had friends but were certainly outliers among a crowd of like-minded peers. If anything, our ideas and ideology were thoroughly tested in the crucible. I am grateful for that. I wonder, did my liberal peers get the same benefit among the faculty and back patting and general groupthink in which they studied?

A 2018 study from the National Association of Scholars places the ratio of liberal to conservative professors in American universities at 13 to 1.

John Ellis, professor of German literature at UC Santa Cruz, finds the trend existential to academia. “Especially in the humanities and social sciences,” he says, “a solid phalanx of closed-minded political activists [exist]—not merely unscholarly, but antischolarly.”

Earlier this month, a theoretical physicist wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “an ideological encroachment corrupts scientific institutions.”

“Many academics are afraid,” he claims.

The same thing happened with climate science. Though most agree that the environment is undergoing change and even damage, the scientific community disagrees on the extent of the damage, as does the evidence. Yet the agenda firmly takes root, and the disagreement tribalizes into the righteous left and the “deniers.”

Michael Shellenberger, a lifelong environmentalist, does not believe the scale of climate alarmism matches the threat as evidenced by the data. He writes of friends who were destroyed from saying such things publicly and admits he “[is] scared. I remained quiet… because I was afraid of losing friends and funding. The few times I summoned the courage to defend climate science from those who misrepresent it I suffered harsh consequences.”

When it is too difficult or too unpopular to pick apart the politics from the course content on campus, it becomes impossible to do so in the real world. And the product is a political narrative that rolls like an avalanche through the collective psyche of the country. As it moves, it grows. It can’t be stopped or altered, whatever the latest facts or findings may be. Those who stand against it, even with good intentions, are destroyed.

A crowd moving in any direction is hard to stop. And a problem characterized solely by popular opinion then justifies any means to a solution. People become scared. People want action, quickly, and political opportunists seize the moment to usher in unstoppable, pervasive government that is bad for everyone.

Racial issues are real. Our environment needs our defense. Yet these problems must be defined and assessed with data, not emotion. Data-driven assessments allow for data-driven solutions. Emotional reactions are the breeding ground for political disasters. 

Bryan Griffin of the London Center for Policy Research is a lawyer and author who specializes in American policy in the Middle East.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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