Unidentified Flying Harms and Other Problems: An Interview with Professor Lee Jussim

Jan 3, 2024 | Interviews

Unidentified Flying Harms and Other Problems: An Interview with Professor Lee Jussim

Conducted and edited by Howard Muncy

Professor Lee Jussim is a social psychologist at Rutgers University with over thirty-five years of experience. His research interests and expertise include studies with regards to stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and political radicalization. In 2012 he authored Social Perception and Social Reality: Why Accuracy Dominates Bias and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and in 2022 was an editor for Research Integrity: Best Practices for the Social and Behavioral Sciences, both published by Oxford University Press. Jussim is also a founding member of the AFA. In this recent interview Professor Jussim and I discuss the Academic Freedom Alliance, censorship, George Orwell, among other topics. The conversation captures some of his concerns, a few recent efforts to combat these problems, as well as where he thinks academia is headed. 

Howard Muncy: You were one of the original 217 founding members that belonged to this group when the Academic Freedom Alliance launched back in March of 2021. Now the organization includes over 800 members. What inspired or caused you to join and can you give our readers a little bit of background of why you chose to be a part of the organization?

Lee Jussim: Well, it was the intolerance and outright censorship that had been on the rise within academia. The rest of the world has its own problems, bona fide problems, some of which do involve speech issues, but it was really what I would describe as the surrealistic rise of endorsement and enactment of censorship and punishing people for speech and ideas within academia. When the Academic Freedom Alliance was first organized and they invited me on board, I was like, “I don’t know if this cavalry will be enough to save the day, but I’m really glad the cavalry is here.”

HM: Psychology is among the areas of your expertise. Are there any examples of academic freedom issues that you have spotted or experienced specific to psychology?

LJ: Sure. Where do I start? One, there’s Nature, and this may come from Nature of Human Behavior or Nature of Communications or even the overall Nature Journal system. Anyway, Nature has an editorial stating that they’re going to start using an editorial board and reviewer judgments of the potential for harm that an article may have to evaluate whether to publish it or not. They’ve stated this. Let’s be clear, there are ways in which harm could be present.  For example, if you conduct some unethical study on humans where you inject them with diseases and you don’t tell anybody, including the participants in the study that you’ve done that to, that’s unethical as all hell. You’re inflicting disease on people and yeah, you probably should be drummed out of the profession. Okay, that’s not what this editorial is about. This editorial is about what I only half-jokingly have referred to as “unidentified flying harms.” That is, it’s just their opinion that something is bad and it might hurt somebody. One of the many ironies of that is that sometimes I might even agree that their finding was true, but even if it was true or there was a strong potentiality for it to be true, what you would want to do is weigh whatever your judgment is about the potential for publishing the study or the paper to cause harm, against the harms that you would be doing by virtue of censoring the work. You would want to do some sort of critical evaluation and balancing of those types of harms. And the harms caused by censorship are not on anyone’s radar who are implementing these kinds of policies. That’s just one, I have a long list.

HM: I am interested to hear more and perhaps this next question will allow you to elaborate on another specific problem. A new paper was published in November entitled “Prosocial Motives Underlie Scientific Censorship by Scientists: A Perspective and Research Agenda.” This paper was co-authored by 39 distinguished scholars, several who are AFA members including yourself. Can you tell me a little bit about the paper and how that it has been received in the academic world?

LJ: Our sense was that when people, both in the public and academia, think of censorship, what they think about is government censorship. Whether it’s a state government or the federal government telling people what they can and cannot say. The most recent version of this are the various state laws prohibiting faculty from promoting or expressing support for Critical Race Theory or “divisive concepts.” Historically, there has been an on and off again problem of state censorship. But in academia, in 2022, which is when we started work on this paper, and even in 2023 going forward, we believe that the worst problems of censorship were censorship of science or scholarship by other academics and other scientists. There was an initial core of us who believed this was a problem and far more severe than anything that the state was doing.

Not only was this problem not on anyone’s radar, it was not in their universe of thinking about censorship, to think about scientists censoring other scientists. Our thinking along those lines was the inspiration for the paper. Next, we decided we wanted to build a large interdisciplinary team of people, mostly people who have a record addressing this sort of stuff. For the quality of the paper, you have people from all sorts of academic fields contributing to it, but the number was also to make a statement that this is a lot of concerned people. You could ignore us if you want, but there’s almost 40 people so it is difficult to dismiss the paper.

You also asked about the reception. So far, it’s been mostly positive. We were worried that the entire effort in some, and perhaps many corners of academia, would be denounced as the height of white supremacy, transphobia, patriarchy, and all that nonsense because that is the move. When you don’t like a paper on some politicized topic, the move in academia is to denounce it as white supremacy, fascism, Nazi-ism, all that sort of stuff. In fact, this did happen with a similar crew that partially overlapped on a paper that was a defense of merit in science. The basic premise of that effort was that merits come under attack from far-left identitarian theories and that there are imperfect but viable measures for evaluating merit. That paper absolutely was attacked like what I described. But this one, not so much. You never know what you don’t know, so I might’ve missed it, but I haven’t seen such attacks on this one.

HM: Well, that’s encouraging to hear. Many of the academic freedom issues that the AFA has encountered over the first three years of our existence have come from STEM. That fact often shocks people. When we get requests for help it’s not always some English professor who is teaching a risqué work or a political scientist with a controversial opinion, it’s almost as likely to be a doctor, chemist, or mathematician. That’s been quite a surprise. Is it fair to say that this paper, produced by the experience and wisdom of 39 esteemed scholars, warning that internal censorship is a bigger problem than people think, will help get academia to that crucial first step where it admits there is a problem so that it can be properly addressed?

LJ: My co-authors, more than I, did a really good job of framing it in a way more likely to be palatable to more of our colleagues. The very title is “Pro-Social Motives Underlie Scientific Censorship by Scientists”. Now, I’m a little more skeptical. I will not agree to write something I don’t believe, so I do believe this and I’m not rejecting that framing. The reason the framing is appropriate is that people absolutely believe they are doing some sort of good, that they are protecting vulnerable groups when they use perceptions of harm or predictions of harm as reasons to publish or not publish such a paper. I’m a psychologist and from a psychological, phenomenological standpoint, from how they’re thinking about what they’re doing, they see themselves as working to the betterment of the world. I’m on board with this framing, but I am also fairly cynical about what it means to have pro-social motives inspire anything, because everyone thinks their motives are pro-social. The most brutal, evil mass murderers in history thought they were doing something good. The fact that people believe what they’re doing is good, does nicely capture the psychology of intolerance. But whether it’s pro-social in any objective sense is deeply debatable.

HM: I’ve often wondered about the motivation of some of these censoring actions and if people deeply believe in their cause or if they are just caught up in a moment and/or an age. When you look at our group of over 800 scholars committed to protecting academic freedom from threats, we have a wide representation across many lines. This includes across disciplines, ideologies, geographical distance, male, female, public and private, large and small. But what we do not have is a substantial number of younger scholars. Now, I know some of this is the nature of academia, that it takes a while to get started, to get tenure, to get courage, and that explanation has been given to me and I get it. However, I do worry that there’s a serious generational problem that will manifest 10 to 20 years from now when the principled defense of speech could severely weaken because you won’t have all of the “old guard” who are trying to step in right now and save it. Do you have thoughts on that?

LJ: Yeah, that rings true. I wouldn’t doubt it anyway, but there’s so many other things consistent with it that all sounds exactly about right. You have several things coming together, at least within academia. One, is that there is this abandonment of what I would call liberal democratic norms around speech and academic freedom among younger adults compared to older adults. Now, whether that may change remains to be seen but people don’t change as much as people seem to think. When there are big generational differences, usually it’s not because people change as they get older, it’s because there’s a cohort that flows through and that’s how you get change. That is very pessimistic about the future of speech and academic freedoms, but that’s one problem.

Of course, there are other problems in academia. The last PhD that I advised did a national survey of faculty and grad students. There were about 2,000 of each and these were from over 300 top schools based on some external indicators of prestige and quality. Nearly half of the faculty surveyed self-identified, self-described themselves as either radicals, activists, socialists or Marxists. The comparable number in the wider society is single digits; somewhere around 7 to 9%. So, you have this ongoing radicalization of the faculty. The numbers were staggeringly higher than the society 15 years ago, but not as high as this 40% figure, but the numbers were even higher among current grad students. It was nearly 60%.

It’s hypothetically possible to be far-left and a strong defender of liberal-democratic norms. Freddie deBoer is an education reformer with a substack and self-defines as a socialist. I think he’s a social democrat style socialist. He’s pretty far left, but he is also a staunch defender of speech and academic freedom. It’s absolutely possible for that to happen, but in general, what you have is a correlation or co-occurrence between either extreme, on either extreme side, and a readiness to disregard the liberal-democratic speech norms and protections for speech you oppose. Society wide, you have this younger generation that is less supportive of what I would call these liberal-democratic norms around speech. You have an influx of far-left people throughout the academy, and you look at the history of the far-left, if you know about any communist or socialist regime that’s ever come to power, not counting social democrats, the first thing that goes are speech and academic freedom. And then often that’s a harbinger of worse things to come.

HM: It’s interesting you mentioned historical examples and developments that must be avoided. As someone with a background in history, I always appreciate those willing to use it.  Many others also bring up literary examples such as the warnings from George Orwell’s work.  Do you have any influences that help you think through these problems, whether they’re historical, literary, or even academic?

LJ: I love Orwell. And I love Orwell because he was actually on the left. He was British, some sort of Labour, social democrat type lefty. My personal politics are left of center. They’re not way left, but they’re left of center. So, Orwell is actually, for me, an inspiration for how to maintain your political beliefs and values while at the same time vigorously contesting the intolerance on your side of the spectrum. He’s a model of how to do that or at least a model that it can be done and there are some advantages. If you are on one side and you are nonetheless committed to liberal democratic values around whatever; speech, association, due process, the whole panoply of things, as an insider, you can see where the bodies are being buried and the skeletons are being hidden.

And Orwell did that, especially in his 1984. And it’s not a coincidence that the party in power was INGSOC, which was some version of socialism. There he is on the left writing this book about the horrors of authoritarian socialism because he saw it firsthand. I believe first in the Spanish Civil War, where he fought on the side of the government against the fascist revolutionaries, literally fought in the war. Probably rhetorically fought also, but he fought in the Spanish Civil War and saw the authoritarian and dogmatic nature of his far-left allies. 

HM: Is there anything else you would like to say about the threats to academic freedom and where do you believe all this is headed.

LJ: I have a fairly recent essay with Heterodox STEM that discusses this. Dorian Abbot runs Heterodox STEM and he asked several of us, including me, if we would write an essay predicting the state of science 1, 3, 10, and 30 years out. Mine is called, “It Will Get Worse Before it Gets Worse, But Freedom Wins the Day”. My argument is that academia is a wreck, and it does not look like it’s going to get better anytime soon. I could be wrong about that, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better. All the momentum is in the wrong direction, but unless the society really collapses in some way, and one of the earlier essays in this Dorian Abbot series was predicting that, and it was not a completely irrational essay, but if the society collapses then all bets are off. We could descend into Balkanized civil war, global warming could be so terrible that it wreaks devastation throughout the world and civilization collapses. There’s lots of these really doomsday scenarios. But assuming nothing like that happens, America has enough freedom built into its norms and institutions that even if academia completely descends into La La Land, outside of academia, people will continue to advance science. 

I have two examples in this essay. Outside of academia, all sorts of good science is being done. The COVID vaccine was developed in a year. That’s an amazing accomplishment. That wasn’t done via peer-reviewed publications or academic biomed. Maybe some of them have academic appointments, but the vaccine was developed by pharmaceutical companies, not by the medical department at Stanford. That was one example. And the other is SpaceX. Musk does these weird Tweets and he says stupid things periodically, but between Tesla and SpaceX, what he’s accomplished is incredibly unbelievable. Who knew that a private company would be regularly launching rockets and satellites into space? That’s a completely unbelievable accomplishment for a private company. They didn’t need academics for it. They did it because they did it. Those to me are examples that I highlighted in this essay of how even if academia completely collapses, and I’m not sure I’m going that far, but even if it did, as long as the country’s institutions remain fundamentally intact, science will find a way.

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