by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 27
April 2021
Seen Elsewhere
07:00

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.

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Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago

Maybe universities should focus first on teaching students “how to think” rather than “what to think”.
If they succeed at that, then exposing students to pretty much anything will be useful (and untraumatic).

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Barton
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

It’s too late for that within the current system.

Dr Stephen Nightingale
Dr Stephen Nightingale
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

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.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Leaving that until university is far to late. Its a process that should start when (if not before) children start school.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago

Finland has an interesting programme that trains primary children in spotting fake news, and has introduced multi-platform information literacy and critical thinking as a component that appears across multiple parts of their national curriculum. In maths you learn how easy it is to lie with statistics, in history you look at past propaganda campaigns, and so on.
So far it seems to be helping.

Last edited 1 year ago by Paul N
Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
1 year ago

How things have changed … back in the 70’s when I worked in the library at the University of Western Australia, the student guild brought interesting, provocative speakers to the campus for lunchtime talks. These always took place on the grass in front of the library.
The speaker stood with his back to the library (and hence the moat that ran around the library) to address the students. You can guess the rest … many speakers who displeased the audience ended up tossed in the moat. Warren Mitchell hardly started on his Alf Garnett opinion of long-haired students before …
The student guild also used to hand out copies of recently banned books. If ‘the establishment’ wanted a topic shut down, the guild made sure to open it up. Heady, mind-expanding days they were.

George Bruce
George Bruce
1 year ago

How things have changed … You can guess the rest … many speakers who displeased the audience ended up tossed in the moat.

Sounds pretty much like now, then actually – just that de-platforming was a bit more literal.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
1 year ago

Speakers espousing the notion the earth is flat could be invited to speak atop a hill.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Perkins

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

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago

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.

Cynthia Neville
Cynthia Neville
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

If only…

Pierre Pendre
Pierre Pendre
1 year ago

The earth is flat. The prototype was flat but vertically. God realised that every time he put someone on it, they fell off. So the second version was flat which is why he was able to safely install Adam and Eve. No one falls over the edge because every time someone gets to close to the edge, the earth automatically expands which is not a problem because there’s so much space in space. Have to stop now. Men in white coats at the door.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago
Reply to  Pierre Pendre

Ha ha. 🙂

Bill Blake
Bill Blake
1 year ago

I don’t think universities should be shy of inviting controversial speakers. Surely exposure to the intellectual rigour of debate is one thing that would expose weaknesses in their arguments, or may be the way in which genuine but unpopular new ideas get examined (cf Copernicus!).
If we don’t allow debate, surely conspiracy theorists and the like will only be driven underground and perhaps never face the scientific rigorous scrutiny such ideas demand, while building up a following amongst others who may feel marginalised for their controversial views.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Bill Blake

Ideally such a debate would take place in a format that allows detailed consideration of the cases being advanced, or a detailed response by a more mainstream view. If that does not happen (and you can’t just depend on having an expert in the audience), you are just giving a platform for cranks to spew misleading nonsense without effective challenge.
As Peter Franklin points out, “Committed cranks develop their arguments to such a level of detail that it takes specialised knowledge to spot the flaws and deceptions.” And it’s not just cranks – sometimes it is committed lobbyists who are professionally engaged to make a particular case (“Tobacco is safe” advocates, or the “smoking addicts must have the right to choose” crowd, for instance).
This implies you need a specialist on hand to provide balance and to refute the nonsense. Without that, the necessary debate won’t happen.

Kathy Bushell
Kathy Bushell
1 year ago

Pleased to say that when my daughter was at Oxford, she attended a talk by a member of university teaching staff about his sincere belief that alien abductions happened fairly frequently with the victims returned to Earth as spys. She enjoyed it tremendously.

David Purchase
David Purchase
1 year ago

When I was actively involved in the Cambridge University Astronomical Society (formed in 1942 – explain that !) as Treasurer and then Chairman in the early 1960s, each year one of our 15 or so lectures would be by a crank. Yes, we had a flat earther, and also someone who had been to Venus several times, and a clergyman who thought that the surface of the Sun was at a similar temperature to the earth (and so we could live there). These cranks knew that an audience of CUAS members were unlikely to be persuaded, but they were still happy to come and talk to us.
One interesting observation was that, whatever the particular nonsense our current crank was spouting, he (then it was always he) always thought cranks with other views were indeed cranks.
These lectures were not ‘University’ lectures, they were ‘Faculty Society’ lectures. As such, they gave students occasion to think, as well as, perhaps, a bit of entertainment. I don’t think that CUAS currently includes such lectures, but I would be very concerned if universities felt obliged to ban them.
I rather agree with Graeme Laws, but I hope he would accept that the same applies to Cambridge.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  David Purchase

“whatever the particular nonsense our current crank was spouting, he… always thought cranks with other views were indeed cranks”

Interestingly, this may no longer be the case. There are now mutually reinforcing clusters of crankdom, and someone who doesn’t believe that Coronavirus is real is also likely to believe that the US Presidential Election was “stolen” or that there are microchips in vaccines.

Conny lPdM
Conny lPdM
1 year ago

Love Unherd. I breathe a sigh of relief at so many of your articles, this one included.

aaron david
aaron david
1 year ago

When I was a child growing up in a small California community, the local junior college hosted a debate, between one of the instructors and the local KKK head. Now, this was the seventies, so a college could and often did do things like this. It was instructive, showed the weakness of the Klan leader’s arguments, and most importantly, showed what a rational debate looked like, teaching the students critical thinking.
A flat earther debate should be a first-year event, required for intellectual growth. And every student should get a turn being on the losing end of the questions, as that is how you learn.

Andrea X
Andrea X
1 year ago

I wish the author of this article would tell me more. He managed to summarise a 20 page article (the other one) in 7 micro paragraphs (13 sentences in total).

Hilary LW
Hilary LW
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrea X

That was my impression too – a hastily cobbled-together summary, with nothing at all challenging, interesting or unusual to say on what is in fact an important topic.

I am becoming increasingly disappointed with UnHerd. The quality of its journalism seems to be waning, and most of the views expressed over the past few weeks have been anything but controversial or marginalised – in fact seem pretty mainstream. Looking through today’s edition most of these articles would not be out of place in the Times or the Guardian. What’s happened? Has Freddie been got at?

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
1 year ago
Reply to  Hilary LW

Disagree. These Post contributions are short notes, not articles. This one alerts us to a new online journal and gives a flavour of its content.
I scan a lot of journals and websites and Unherd is setting the standard. I know I’ll learn something from Aris Roussinos, and Mary Harrington, I know I’ll laugh reading Ed West, and Freddie’s videos are great. I threw out my TV years ago and haven’t missed it – all those ‘gotcha’ interviews, the sole purpose of which was to make a headline the next day – tedious! Unherd is a very information rich offering, beautifully written (or spoken) – the Best of British!

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

I am disappointed with the BTL though. Given some freedom to come out of our box here, I had hoped more conspiracy loons would be in comments preaching their positions, But I seem to be the only one.
(Bezos is a lizard who sold his soul to the devil, Gates just a lizard, Biden is a wax puppet, MMT is like giving monkeys machine guns.)

Katy Randle
Katy Randle
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Thanks for the laugh 🙂

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I think these “entertaining fellows” now get screened out.
Its a shame, as engaging interesting characters is one of the things I miss.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

I agree, particularly about the Post articles. Unherd has established itself as a quality publication in little more than a year. I think it’s casting around a bit to figure out its future direction, hence we see a rather eclectic mix of articles some of which are not particularly ‘controversial.’ Unherd can’t forever dedicate itself to lockdown skepticism.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

And I agree with you JBryant – Unherd has been dealing with worthy topics, but time to broaden a bit – maybe which forms of taxation are best? which voting systems are best?

Cynthia Neville
Cynthia Neville
1 year ago

Hear, hear. Would that there was a home-grown Canadian version. Like that’s ever going to happen.

Scott Carson
Scott Carson
1 year ago
Reply to  Hilary LW

I agree. My guess is that they have their hands full with pushing the subscriptions.

Graeme Laws
Graeme Laws
1 year ago

Someone, can’t recall who, said that the only benefit of an Oxford education was that it taught you to spot when someone was talking rot. Or words to that effect.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
1 year ago

Yes, indeed. It DOES take specialized knowledge to refute the claims of committed cranks. Fortunately, we have repositories of such knowledge and people thoroughly trained in its use. They’re called “universities”, and the practitioners are called “academics”. In fact, it’s actually what we pay them for.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago

how’s that working out for us? It’s hard to think of a place more committed to the dogma of group think than a university.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Sorry, my point was that it’s NOT working because universities and academics are not doing their job. Which we pay them to do.

vince porter
vince porter
1 year ago

Some donor of note once suggested that giving money to universities meant funding institutions that produced mostly useless stuff, 90% useless stuff. The problem is that we never know from where the significant 10% might emerge. So, woke literature gets funded along with cancer research.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
1 year ago

I’d naively assumed that the frequent references to a flat earth I’ve noticed lately were using it as an example of an obviously discredited idea which almost nobody took seriously nowadays. How wrong of me! From CNN,
A YouGov survey of more than 8,000 American adults suggested last year that as many as one in six Americans are not entirely certain the world is round, while a 2019 Datafolha Institute survey of more than 2,000 Brazilian adults indicated that 7% of people in that country reject that concept, according to local media.”

Derek M
Derek M
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Perkins

To be fair, apparently the earth isn’t actually round but is actually an irregularly shaped ellipsoid

Last edited 1 year ago by Derek M
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago

To be fair, there is a flat earth somewhere in our infinite universe ….

Cynthia Neville
Cynthia Neville
1 year ago

Bravo.

Peter Ian Staker
Peter Ian Staker
1 year ago

Should you no platform people who think the sky is green? The world is full of cranks, spouting ignorant untruths, why give up a lecture slot to these people, unless you want to teach about logical fallacies and sophistry. They fail on grounds of incompetence.

George Bruce
George Bruce
1 year ago

I think you are missing the point. The universities are not obliged to give lecture time to people – they are still expected to decide on what type of content should be taught, but something being offensive to some students is not a sufficient reason for exclusion.
My university did not teach the history of the Incas nor Astronomy nor Medicine. But simply because these would not have fitted in with courses it did teach – not because they were offensive.

Peter Ian Staker
Peter Ian Staker
1 year ago
Reply to  George Bruce

I don’t see how your point is any different from mine. My point is that there will inevitably be a process of selection for speakers and many people (such as flat-earthers) disqualify themselves on grounds of not being able to think rationally or understand data. This is not a debate, if you broke it down for them, I don’t think they would be able to see past their own biases. A university is not there to provide a voice for cranks so that students can laugh and look down at them.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago

But engaging them in a debate format is really useful ..

Weyland Smith
Weyland Smith
1 year ago

What colour is the sky, and why?

Mark H
Mark H
1 year ago

Uni is a great time to discover the smell of cranks. As long as there is a broad spectrum of visiting speakers, the cranks start to stand out because regardless of their particular hobby-horse they all sound the same.
I remember some meeting about whether the students should vote on issue “X”. Group A(NC) said “we shouldn’t have the vote, because the other side will win”; group B(C) said “let’s vote, even if the outcome doesn’t go our way – that’s democracy”.
Now that the rottenness of the ANC is fully exposed, it is worth considering whether those seeds were being planted 35 years ago.

Nick Faulks
Nick Faulks
1 year ago

I presume you would have no platformed Galileo.