The Coming Controversy in Academia

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Let’s say you have a controversial idea and want to publish it. Maybe you wish to argue that colonialism was beneficial for the colonies, or that there are intrinsic and significant cognitive differences between the sexes. Both these arguments appeared in refereed academic journals — and then were removed from the online versions of these same journals. Yet, no matter how offensive you might find those claims, I suspect a reasonable percentage of the American public would agree with them or at least entertain them. It doesn’t seem right to simply censor the discussion of such topics.

You might start by sending your controversial research to the top journals in your field. But there may be bias against your perspective. The deeper problem is that most top journals encourage highly specific claims about very particular topics. Most controversialists are promoting some kind of “Big Think,” and that is out of favor in academia.

If your article is titled, “Are Men Treated as Fairly as Women?” it probably doesn’t stand a chance, no matter how politically correct your conclusion. You might, however, try to publish a paper arguing that female bus and train operators are paid as much as their male counterparts, at least once we adjust for women desiring more flexible hours. Still, that conclusion isn’t raucous enough to lead a revolution, and furthermore the paper probably does better if it has a female author or co-author.

Now enter a newly announced project, called the Journal of Controversial Ideas. It will publish one issue per year, devoted to ideas that otherwise may not receive a fair hearing, and it will allow for anonymous or pseudonymous publication. Princeton philosopher Peter Singer is one of the names associated with the journal, which does not yet have an agreement with a publisher.

I am skeptical though not hostile toward this enterprise. It is sad that such a journal is seen as necessary. But I would suggest instead putting forth your ideas on a blog, on Twitter or on YouTube. Many politically incorrect figures have done just that. A Jordan Peterson YouTube lecture might range from the Bible to Jung to a critique of contemporary feminism, none of it refereed, but he has attracted millions of viewers. At the end of it all you get the Jordan Peterson worldview, which I suspect has more resonance than any particular empirical claim Peterson might make along the way.

In an internet-centered intellectual world, what persuades people is reading or hearing a charismatic personality, year in year out, promoting a particular view of the world. A lot of controversial ideas will have to ride that roller coaster, for better or worse.

The Journal of Controversial Ideas is intended to be open access, though without a publishing contract we can’t know if it will have an open online comments section. It would be odd if not (would we have to create a companion Journal of Controversial Comments?), but with open comments you have to wonder whether a prestige publisher will take on the associated libel and reputational risks, and how high status the journal actually will be. It would not be practical to referee the comments, but that may mean the truly open internet, with its free-for-all atmosphere, will remain the dominant source for controversial ideas. “Controversial for me but not for thee” hardly seems like a winning slogan for such a revisionist enterprise.

You might think that refereeing will sanctify the quality of the articles in the Journal of Controversial Ideas. But the whole premise of the journal is that referees and standard editorial processes are not to be trusted, and for deeply structural reasons, namely that institutionalized academic power ends up conformist and conservative. Furthermore, most journals, especially outside the very top tier, aren’t really certifying the quality of the articles or the authors. Rather, the authors are certifying the quality of the journal, as indeed Peter Singer’s participation is boosting the reputation of the Journal of Controversial Ideas.

Most of all, I think of the journal — and its in-your-face title — as a beneficial marketing ploy to draw attention to the very real pressures for excess conformity in academia. But the journal itself is unlikely to elevate the status or persuasiveness of controversial ideas, and to some extent it may ghettoize them.

To make a controversial idea stick through the academic process, maybe you do have conquer the biases and beat the odds against you, as Harvey MansfieldRobert P. George and Oded Galor have done (to name just three). You also might pursue a “Straussian” approach, embedding subversive messages in your paper and covering them up with flowery rhetoric, hoping that some but not too many people notice what you are really saying.

When all is said and done, this new attempt to institutionalize the controversial is not likely to get very far.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”

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