- Is it acceptable to ask whether there really was an historical Jesus?
- Is it acceptable to ask whether cold fusion will ever be a possibility?
- Is it acceptable to ask whether Ashkenazim Jews are, on average, smarter than Sephardic or Ethiopian Jews?
- Is it acceptable to ask whether blacks are, on average, better athletes than whites?
- Is it acceptable to ask whether socialism does a better job than capitalism at looking after the poor?
- Is it acceptable to ask just how many people were killed by Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Turkey, the Hutu, the English, Americans or Canadians conquering First Nations people, the Japanese in their conquests of Korea and China?
- Is it acceptable to ask whether members of different racial groups are more susceptible than others to some diseases?
- Is it acceptable to ask whether fiscal policy is ineffective as an economic stimulus?
- Is it acceptable to ask whether, on average, roughly speaking people of one race tend to be smarter or cleverer or have better memories than do people of other races?
You get my drift, I'm sure. ... if you do, please kept reading. Are there some questions it is just wrong to ask in the first place, never mind the answers? How do you decide which questions are acceptable and which ones aren't? And more to the point, how should a university (or any other institution or group, for that matter) set guidelines as to which are the acceptable and which are the unacceptable questions to ask? Is it good policy for universities to say, "We'll wait until we see the answers"?
What prompts me to ask these questions? This column in a recent London Free Press.
It says, in part,
This week, Western’s psychology department finally called [the late Phillipe] Rushton’s research for what it is. Racist...
“Academic freedom and freedom of expression are critical to free scientific inquiry,” the statement said, “However, the notion of academic freedom is disrespected and abused when it is used to promote the dissemination of racist and discriminatory concepts.
“Scientists have an obligation to society to speak loudly and actively in opposition of such abuse.”
Would it have been acceptable to the university and to the psychology department if Rushton had asked the questions he asked but had come up with the answer, "There was no statistically significant difference"?
If so, then it must be that what people objected to was his answer, and not his asking the question. If they didn't and don't like his answer, they should have blown him out of the water, academically. However, contrary to the implications of this column, most open minded people who were openly hoping David Suzuki would demolish Rushton in a debate sponsored by the university back then, reluctantly realized that's not what happened. Suzuki's only point was basically, "How dare you assert such things?" He presented zero evidence to show that Rushton was wrong. I note, too, that the linked column provides no references to what I would hope is abundant literature dispute Rushton's claims. I know there's a wealth of literature arguing that he was wrong; but I also know that there is a wealth of literature arguing that he was right.
I will not defend Phillipe Rushton's findings. I didn't like them. I will say, however, that he was always calm and mild-mannered, as the column says, and it was very difficult for someone not up on the literature to argue with him.
More to the point though, is that the recent denunciations and apologies by the Psychology Department at The University of Western Ontario should send a strong shiver down the spines of all academics still teaching there. It says, in essence, "Yes, we believe in academic freedom... so long as we like your results."
It should not be a matter of liking or not liking results. It should be a matter of furthering academic inquiry. If it's okay to ask certain questions only if we like the answers you get, I fear for the future of academic and intellectual curiosity and questioning.