July 22, 2024

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Opinion |  Activist academics contribute to the erosion of trust in science

Opinion | Activist academics contribute to the erosion of trust in science

Controversy has plagued universities since the brutal attacks by Hamas on Israel on October 7 and the start of the subsequent war. There are even explicit expressions of anti-Semitism on some American universities.

Like my colleague Pippin Brandon at the end of April Norwegian Refugee Council He wrote that university administrators have difficulty dealing with its consequences. Brandon was right when he wrote that universities are hypocritical because in some cases they encourage academic activity, and in others they do not. I think the difference between me and him has to do with the issue of academic activity itself. This form of activism elevates political or ideological goals above the pursuit of complexity and understanding, and thus undermines what a university should be.

At first glance, academic activity seems attractive – that’s why universities encourage it. Under the guise of terms like “social sharing” We scientists have been brought out of our ivory towers to deal with “real” problems. We are called to change the world for the better. “Participation” is now the academy’s motto. Especially for humanities scholars, like myself, it is somewhat shameful not to engage with “real world” challenges.

Pretending to be neutral

Scientific activism is often rooted in Marxist ideologies that view knowledge as inherently a form of power. Activist researchers generally link their work to issues of race, class, and identity, positioning themselves as bridge builders between academia and the underserved communities they seek to serve. They argue that it is futile, even undesirable, to pretend to be neutral. After all, no one is truly neutral: all academic research is inevitably influenced by the experiences, concerns, interests and biases of the people who conduct it.

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Universities are staring into a moral abyss of their own making

In recent years, not only have more activist scientists emerged; Their tone also became more extreme. Some call for all academic work to be used as a political tool. See for example Interpretation In a report by the Dutch Scholars for Palestine organization, in mid-October last year, “the first priority for university staff, students and others is to take action for the sake of the Palestinians.” The statement did not mention anywhere the atrocities committed by Hamas.

A section of activist academics argues that we need to include politics in our job descriptions so that our work has meaning and consequences beyond our lecture halls. that’s wrong. Such attitudes contribute to the erosion of trust in academia and can lead scientists to downplay or ignore ideas that do not fit their preconceived conclusions.

Nowhere are the dangers of scientific activity more evident than in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There, a complex political battle – one that has frustrated diplomats, divided well-intentioned people and caused decades of suffering on both sides – is transformed into a simple morality play, with Israel playing the villain. Activist academics have played a leading role in creating this caricature, often refusing to acknowledge any evidence that does not support the desired outcome.

It was clear long before October 7 that activist scholars did not want to see the full context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At my university, for example, a shockingly one-sided course description stated that Israel was an “apartheid state.”

The same is true of many petitions circulating on campuses in which the entire conflict is interpreted through the lens of “Settler colonialism“, a colonization in which the indigenous population must disappear. This view makes it impossible to view Israelis and Jews as anything other than white racist settlers. Within the paradigm thereof Settler colonialism He is the oppressor or the oppressed, the colonizer or the colonized. People are divided into good and bad.

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The victim

Those who consistently portray Israelis as white oppressors willfully ignore the indigenous identity of Israeli Jews, their racial heterogeneity, their history of victimization and migration, and the rejection of peace by generations of Palestinian leaders — and they also ignore that Israel is a racist and ethnocentric state with a long history. A religiously diverse society that includes many Arabs and people of diverse origins and backgrounds as full citizens.

There are legitimate questions about the definitions of apartheid and genocide. Just as the state’s right to defend itself and divide the land between Israel and Palestine extends. It is no coincidence that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most morally challenging in the modern world. However, you will not get this impression if you listen to the current discourse of my fellow scientific activists.

The chaotic protests at the University of Amsterdam show that universities are now staring into a moral abyss of their own making. This is what happens when academic activists treat complex problems as simple ones – as a question of victim versus villain. Such descriptions contribute to the polarization that will make peace – both on campuses and in the rest of the world – increasingly elusive.

The confusion between advocacy and research shows that universities need to clarify their purpose. To save us from this abyss, there is a need for a renewed commitment to the university’s main purpose: discovering and sharing knowledge. In short: the world’s mission.

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