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Daniel Orenstein
Daniel Orenstein

Academic Freedom or a Theater for the Absurd?

An anti-science lecture

I had been anticipating the lecture “Climate crisis – Is It Really?” for a couple of weeks. The lecture was being offered in one of the Technion’s engineering departments. The university logo on the announcement offered an air of authority that was belied by the accompanying sloppily written and tendentious abstract, foreshadowing what would be an equally tendentious lecture. After hearing the lecture, my question was not for the speaker, but rather for my own colleagues in academia. That question was, “Where is the line between academic freedom and propagating disinformation?”

The speaker is a process control consultant to the chemical and fossil fuel industry and a Technion alumnus. I could not find any relevant peer-reviewed publications in Google Scholar and no discernable expertise in the science of climate change. The abstract betrayed several fundamental norms of academic discourse, claiming for example, if people really understood the science, they would “draw the right conclusions”.

The lecture was no better than the abstract. Other than reviewing some of the basic principles of climate science, including the greenhouse effect, Milankovitch cycles, and an [incomplete] overview of the temperature record, the speaker had no new science to present. He broadly disparaged the idea of attributing current climate change to human actions while criticizing alternative energies, the media, and apparently “crazy” behavior resulting from climate “hype.” He used multiple rehashed denial tropes common on the internet and explicitly drawn from two non-academic polemics, reflecting claims common to Republican politicians in the United States, the transnational fossil fuel industry, and their professional spokespeople at the U.S.-based Heartland Institute (self-described as “one of the world’s leading free-market think tanks” and which has been actively promoting climate science denial since the early 2000s). The speaker’s slideshow featured unattributed graphs and statistics. Disturbingly for a lecture in this setting, instead of citing verifiable sources, the speaker often resorted to empty attributions like “I found this on the internet” and “somebody did this analysis and drew up this data….”

The presentation included a rich mix of conjecture, open questions to sow doubt, and some factual statements, which, taken out of context and recited with no depth of understanding, cast suspicion on broadly accepted climate science. Most importantly, the speaker had no alternative theories or testable hypotheses to explain 20th and 21st century warming, and no real response to the actual research that has been conducted that overwhelmingly supports the theory that greenhouse gasses from human sources are the cause of observed warming (a theory that the speaker attributed to the media and not to scientists).

From Wikipedia Commons (data sources cited in key)

It is exhausting, but necessary, to reiterate that the scientific foundations for understanding anthropogenic climate change have been in development for almost 200 years, passing through the rigors of scientific debate between competing theories, before virtual consensus was achieved in the past two decades regarding the central human role in contemporary climate change. This included defining the role of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in regulating earth’s temperature, the addition of greenhouse gasses by humans into the atmosphere, reconstruction of global historic temperatures and greenhouse gas concentrations, and testing and disproving alternative explanations regarding current global warming. Nonetheless, due to the wide-ranging implications of policy solutions, many of which will demand fundamental changes in the way we live, denialist voices spreading misinformation are organized, amplified, powerful, and unremitting. These voices (not unlike agents of disinformation on the health effects of smoking or those during the Coronavirus pandemic) have been an impediment for making clear and effective policy changes that are needed to avoid the worst predicted global crises expected to accompany continued warming.

How does a university juggle academic freedom and misinformation?

The most important questions I draw from this speaking event are not for the lecturer, but for the university – mine and others. They include: What are the criteria for faculties to invite speakers to present ideas at the university and with the university’s sponsorship?  Does the university’s commitment to academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas extend to invited speakers who ignore the existing foundational knowledge in a field or underlying a public debate, or to speakers with no technical or research qualifications to speak about an issue? Does the denial of the anthropogenic drivers of climate change deserve a stage in department seminars? Should the debunked connection between vaccines and autism be presented to students as a legitimate scientific theory? Should conspiracy theories about the moon landing or the attack on the World Trade Center being given a university stage? Where are the boundaries between the university’s obligations regarding open, intellectual exchange of ideas and its commitment to teaching grounded scientific hypotheses, theories, and laws?

The problem of climate change is urgent and a misled society cannot be expected to implement the transformative policies and technologies that are needed to address the challenge. Yet simultaneously, academic freedom is of paramount importance. The university must safeguard a pluralistic environment where it is safe to challenge ideas – even those that are thoroughly well established. Students should be exposed to the vast range of scientific opinions, but students and faculty alike also need the tools to contextualize the information they are being given: Do the claims have factual support? Are they challenging ideas that are thoroughly well established in the scientific community? Are they ideologically motivated?

To balance the conflicting values of academic freedom and preventing the dissemination of misinformation, I suggest a few guidelines for any type of academic presentation – guidelines that were not apparent in the above example:

  • Speakers on scientific topics should adhere to the norms of scientific discourse, explicitly presenting a hypothesis, data, and certainties and uncertainties in their analysis. When the speaker is presenting a hypothesis that challenges the known science, or if the subject is particularly controversial, the speaker should be honest about the state of knowledge around the subject.
  • Academics and others who stray from their area of expertise must be explicit that they are speaking beyond their area of expertise or that they are sharing an opinion. Non-academic speakers brought to share their opinions and/or experiences should be presented as such.
  • The speaker’s credentials should be viewed with a discerning eye prior to issuing an invitation. Experts who adhere to the standards of scientific research and publish in the field are welcome, even if their hypotheses contradict accepted theories.
  • All speaker engagements, regardless of the speaker’s perspective, must include adequate time for audience members to respond to and question the speaker’s claims. When the claims contravene established science, even more time must be allocated for response.

During the past two years, global society has been flush with misinformation about the global pandemic. Universities emerged as reliable sources of authoritative information due to a careful balance of facilitating a free exchange of ideas, while discerning between science and disinformation. Universities can remain among society’s most trusted, reliable, and innovative institutions if they can continue to maintain this balance.

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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