by UnHerd
Wednesday, 14
April 2021

Superforecaster: Academic intolerance will be a ‘blip’

Philip Tetlock is sanguine about the future of higher education
by UnHerd


As each week passes by, the state of academic freedom in the West looks increasingly precarious. As of this month, 162 scholars have been ‘cancelled’; no-platforming has skyrocketed; and support for political intolerance has grown among faculty members and post-graduates to record levels. ‘Viewpoint diversity’, the one form of diversity that has always been conspicuously absent from SJW manuals, is suffering as a result.

So much was confirmed at a recent talk about intellectual diversity in academia last weekend. Hosted by the University of Michigan, Less Jussim, a psychology professor at Rutgers University, meticulously details all the ways in which academic freedom has been constricted over the last 10 years and beyond.

The talk is worth watching in full: Jussim paints a disturbing picture of just how censorious the climate is at universities, but arguably the most surprising moment came at the very end. One of the discussants, Philip Tetlock, a leading superforecaster whose book, Superforecasting, was recommended by Dominic Cummings to his former colleagues while he was in No10, was surprisingly bullish about the future of academic freedom (clip below):

If we had a time series that captured a pure measure of academic intolerance and authoritarianism, I think we would see a blip between 2015 and 2020. My expectation would be some form of mean reversion over the next five to 10 years just purely on statistical grounds… I think that support for extreme censoriousness is thin and it gets old fast. I’m going to expect some fatigue.
- Philip Tetlock

Though Tetlock conceded that this was not a falsifiable forecast, it was refreshing (and heartening) to hear someone as highly credentialed as the professor offer such a sanguine prognostication. We can only hope that he ends up being proven right.

Join the discussion

  • The medieval universities evolved to supply educated men to furnish ordinands for the church, the Catholic Church originally and then the reformed churches. It’s not surprising then that a certain level of orthodoxy might be expected and required. Of course, as the main protectors and conduits of literacy and knowledge, they did become centres of enquiry and experiment. I don’t think ‘academic freedom’ would have been a concept most of those era would have recognised ; ‘ heresy ‘ was a more prevalent concern.
    Perhaps we are seeing a return to this format?

  • Reversion to mean theory often applies, so it is no surprise that a superforecaster uses it. An example of reversion to mean is Leicester City FC – perennially mid to bottom of the premiership, wins one year to everyone’s surprise and is back where it normally is the following season.
    Academia often comes up with bad ideas, which catch hold for a while, then fizzle out because they are bad ideas. However these bad ideas don’t often escape academia in the way this one has. When a bad idea escapes into the corporate, political and media world the way this one has, it can be decades before we see a return to mean (sanity). An example, which took mass murder before the global realisation that it was a bad idea dawned, was eugenics. In my view Global Warming / Climate Change theory is an example of a bad idea that has yet to reach its apogee in terms of acceptance and is still way off reaching its apogee in terms of the unintended harm it will do to millions – particularly the poorest, who see their potential for development curtailed and all the problems that it already bringing for us all. At the moment, I don’t see what the catalyst will be that leads to the lancing of the Global Warming / Climate Change theory boil. However I am slightly more hopeful about the woke / Social Justice Theory boil, as at least some politicians see lancing it as a vote winner.

  • Begs the question doesn’t it? Where will the brightest and the best go when every doorway to a fulfilling career is guarded by the trigger-happy legions of Woke.
    In case you haven’t noticed the cultural revolution that started in academia has spread to the wider world – with very little resistance it seems to me.

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