by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 27
April 2021
Seen Elsewhere

Should universities no platform flat-earthers?

A paper in the new Journal of Controversial Ideas offers an interesting answer
by Peter Franklin
Flat-earth theory isn’t hate speech — but should it be platformed?

Of all the initiatives taken in response to the free speech crisis in academia, one of the most interesting is The Journal of Controversial Ideas.

This is how it describes itself:

The journal is neutral with respect to moral, political, philosophical, religious, and social views. Papers defending ideas commonly considered controversial by liberals or progressives, and those defending ideas considered controversial by conservatives or libertarians, are equally welcome.
- Journal of Controversial Ideas

Its editors and editorial board include Peter Singer, Nigel Biggar, Susan Blackmore and Christina Hoff Sommers — a wide spread of viewpoints. 

The first issue has just been published, but seekers after sensation will be disappointed. Certainly those looking for things to be offended by will be wasting their time here — unless, that is, they’re outraged by the very idea of academics discussing and debating ideas deemed controversial instead of condemning or censoring them. 

One of the most interesting articles in the first issue is by Michael Veber and it’s about the practice of ‘no platforming’ in universities. There are many reasons given for stopping someone from speaking at a university. The most infamous cases involve allegations of hate speech or that students are being made to feel ‘unsafe’.

However, Veber looks at a very different set of excuses for silencing certain ideas on campus. To use an example he uses throughout his article, the idea that the Earth is flat is unlikely to be regarded by anyone these days as hateful or frightening. On the other hand, it’s nonsense — so there an epistemic justification for no platforming a Flat-Earther?

Veber goes through the various arguments for doing so — and knocks them down one by one. For instance, trying to protect students from obvious rubbish is paternalistic — infantilising even. That doesn’t mean that universities should start appointing professors of Flat Earth Geography, but equally it isn’t the function of a campus to serve as an epistemically pure refuge from which all forms of wrongness are banished. After all, that’s a rather dangerous thread for them to pull on —  especially in the humanities and social sciences.

But isn’t it a little naive to expect students — however well taught — to recognise and refute every wrong-headed argument? Committed cranks develop their arguments to such a level of detail that it takes specialised knowledge to spot the flaws and deceptions. 

So how do university protect their charges from these pseudo-intellectual snares? Not by censorship, says Veber, but by teaching young minds not to be freaked out by disconcerting arguments that they can’t immediately deal with. 

Life — whether that of the mind or the everyday variety — is full of complications and inconsistencies. That doesn’t mean we have to spend our days in doubt and confusion; rather we have to choose a path and stick to it despite the stumbling blocks.

Therefore to protect students from every wrong idea isn’t just infantilising, it is enfeebling.

Join the discussion

  • So how do university protect their charges from these pseudo-intellectual snares?
    Stop hiring people who preach idiocy like critical race theory and the religion of wokeism? Better yet, understand that their job is neither to protect students nor indoctrinate them.

  • Because from up on the hill you can see the flatness spreading off to the horizons in every direction.

  • The Flat Earth theory was ‘correct’ before Eratosthenes told us that the Earth had a circumference, and, crucially used a method to demonstrate it. Should we not allow anyone to espouse Newton because it turns out he was wrong? No, because his method was correct for the parameters of the problem at the time.

    Anybody advancing a Flat Earth hypothesis will be knocked down by observations arranged in an Eratosthenian, Newtonian, or Einsteinian framework. Held as a debate, it will be instructive. Held as a Religion, it will probably not add much value.

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