Robert George teaches jurisprudence at Princeton and is well known both as a scholar and as a conservative. On Facebook recently he posted a dialogue with a “closeted conservative colleague” who chooses not to go public with his own views out of considerations of career safety. (Rod Dreher reproduces and comments on it.) The colleague feels implicitly judged by Professor George for his not speaking out, and a really interesting conversation ensues. It reminds me of the situation faced by Darwin skeptics in the science world.
Basically, the colleague feels he has good reasons for remaining closeted, while George says he “assumes” the colleague is “following [his] conscience.” Professor George admits that careers have been savaged and ruined when conservatives came out, but he nevertheless advises his own grad students to be fearless and candid.
CCC [closeted conservative colleague]: “You ARE judging those of us who keep our opinions to ourselves, then.”
Me: “For heaven’s sake, I’m just saying that there is a certain moral hazard in not speaking your mind. As scholars, we’ve got a special obligation to truth and a vocation to truth-telling. Of course, everybody has a basic obligation to honor the truth, as best they grasp it, but our obligation is even more central to who we are. So, speaking for myself, I don’t see what the point of being a scholar is if we’re not willing to speak the truth as best we understand it. I mean, there are lots of other fields we could go into. We could be lawyers, or doctors, operate hedge funds. There’s the insurance business. Wendy’s franchises. Anyway, again speaking for myself, if I felt I couldn’t speak the truth out loud, I would abandon academic life and go do something else.”
CCC: “You’re not afraid to say what you think because you’ve been able to get away with it without your academic career being ruined.”
Me: “That’s exactly backwards. I’ve been able to get away with it because I’m not afraid to say what I think. Fear empowers the bullies. They’re far less bold and aggressive when they know you’re not afraid of them.”
CCC: “Well, I am afraid of them.”
All true, yet no doubt there are factors that make some scholars more vulnerable than others — local conditions in your university or department, for example, and above all, the cushioning and protective effects of money. So it really isn’t fair to judge anyone.
It also strikes me that it’s one thing to speculate about whether conservatives in academia can safely “come out,” but another class of scholars — evolution skeptics — are far more constrained and threatened. They have much more reason to be afraid. Here, for example, with permission, is an email I received the other day from a biologist in training:
I’m just finishing up my master’s degree in evolutionary biology and likely starting a PhD in evolutionary genetics next fall. I was at an evolutionary genetics lab for a few weeks earlier this year and the world-renowned geneticist there was mocking other views. Even in the absence of answers to big questions like how life started and how new enzymes arise, evolutionary biologists are closed to answers that don’t come from Darwinism. The scorn towards Darwinian skepticism is quite strong in my experience — not that I’ve personally experienced direct scorn, but I see top scientists discussing skepticism in the populace and contempt is always high. As I write this, I can hear my lab mates in the nearby office mocking religion.
My strategy thus far has been to wait until I’m more established before being a vocal critic, but I also see that there never is a good time to come out. Even if I wait until I’m tenured at an institution, I’ll still get heavy flack that might cost me my job. Hard to say if that’s better than coming out now and possibly never getting the job at all. So right now I just have a few subtle clues in my office, like a bookshelf with everything from Dawkins to Meyer and Axe. When I talk with others I ask them hard questions, like how they think new enzymes arise. When scientists assume you’re a wondering Darwinist then they’ll acknowledge these knowledge gaps in a manner they never would to a skeptic.
As an example, a few months ago I was discussing evolutionary genetics with a discussion group of grad students & profs here on campus. On the topic of the origin of life, I said that the common view (via Richard Dawkins) is that life started from simple molecules that by chance gained the ability to self-replicate (“the replicators”), and then evolution took it from there. I asked if we know of, or can we theoretically imagine, anything self-replicating yet simple enough to arise spontaneously. People offered viruses as something on the simpler side of things, but agreed with me that viruses are only simple relative to other life and still nowhere near simple enough to have any chance of spontaneously arising. No one could offer a plausible scenario or evidence for simple life, but assured me it happened. It was clear their view — that simple life arose and then Darwinism took us from there to RNA/DNA-based life — is not rooted in evidence.
No one ever says they doubt Darwinism, but they do agree there are parts of the narrative that we lack evidence for, such as how new enzyme families arise.
This is telling in several respects. Note the epistemic closure of his colleagues, and the way they will acknowledge difficulties with evolutionary theory if they feel you are onboard with it, which they wouldn’t do if they felt you might be a skeptic.
Beyond that, I observe that for Darwin doubters in science fields it’s not just a closet that keeps them from sharing their views candidly. Especially if you have sympathy for intelligent design, it’s more like an iron curtain. If the overwhelming consideration were career safety, I’d feel far safer as a conservative than as an ID sympathizer.