Beliefs Aren't Facts

Academics who hold that it is sacrilege to question their ideas are putting free inquiry in danger, argue the president of Northwestern and one of his colleagues.

By Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro

Taking stock of our public sphere today is a sobering exercise. Righteous indignation abounds. Everyone shouts; no one listens. The sides share one trait: the conviction that they are absolutely right and their enemies are stupid, misguided, or evil. Perhaps worst of all, their certainty makes facts irrelevant: No evidence could possibly persuade them that they are mistaken.

We understand why so many are so upset. A year in lockdown doesn’t exactly bring out one’s humanity. Having witnessed a decades-long rise in wealth inequality, dramatic changes in climate, and a new reckoning with racial and gender injustices, it’s no wonder so many have reached the breaking point.

But if we discount the practice of learning through meaningful exchange, we not only default on our obligations as citizens, we place democracy itself in peril. Democracy demands we recognize our beliefs as opinions, and opinions sometimes prove false. If we could be certain they wouldn’t, there would be no reason to embrace democracy over a dictatorship of the virtuous.

Where does that leave our nation’s campuses, the birthplace of the culture wars?

First of all, if freedom of speech and diversity of opinion aren’t protected at institutions of higher learning, where would they be? 

American constitutional law protects all kinds of speech, with just a handful of exceptions such as libel, copyright, and incitement to violence. That is as it should be. Does such a standard mean that some members of the community will feel targeted, or under attack? It does. And that will be true of many people from different camps. 

Speech codes that seek to enforce ideological uniformity and force members of the community to monitor their opinions and to self-censor run counter to our nation’s basic principles. They undermine the interchange of ideas that invigorates higher education and undergirds all serious research.

Academic freedom means subjecting ideas to fearless criticism; only then can mere assertion be distinguished from tested knowledge. Without such criticism, the very reason for research—finding more truthful ideas—is lost, and education becomes the inculcation of dogma rather than the quest for understanding.

To some critics, such views sound simply naïve. Can there really be a free exchange of ideas when so many faculty, students, and staff are on one side of the political divide? We admit to being a bit taken aback by the results of a survey of Harvard faculty that found that 38% described themselves as very liberal, 41% as liberal, 19% as moderate, and only 1% as either conservative or very conservative. Of the 260 respondents, a grand total of three said they supported President Trump in the most recent presidential election. If you’re a left-of-center reader, such ratios may not discomfit you, but it’s worth pondering whether you would be quite so accepting if the situation were reversed.

The prevalence of liberals in academic settings is a constant refrain in conservative media, which paints a picture of leftist professors busy brainwashing a generation of the young. Decades of teaching have taught us better: We know that even if you wanted to, brainwashing undergraduates is close to impossible. Students might feel compelled to give you back what you ask for in order to get good grades, but experience shows us most revel in their independence, and are anything but gullible. When they smell proselytization, they run the other way. This doesn’t mean that they’ve internalized the process of testing ideas and distinguishing dogma from free inquiry, of course. If only!

So far as we can tell, the majority of faculty avoid imposing their own political views on students and strive for impartiality. Of course, some fields are better at that than others. While the fact that almost everyone votes the same way does not indicate a culture of deliberate brainwashing, it means that students do not always hear both sides of arguments from people who believe in them. As John Stuart Mill famously said, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”

And let’s not forget that many professors have a broader mission than just teaching. Through their publications and media appearances, they play an outsized role in influencing cultural norms. With influence comes responsibility. Those who acquiesce to violence and intimidation because it is invoked in the name of justice in fact invite it. Actions inconceivable one year become fringe the next, and soon they’re mainstream. Once the intelligentsia condones such excesses, the slide begins. The cancellers are soon canceled.  There is no limit to how far that process can go.

We have a theory that interconnected forces in several disciplines have led to a rise in styles of thought that, in our view, are fundamentalist. A fundamentalist, as we use the term, is absolutely certain that his system of thought gives him access to unvarnished truth, and therefore doesn’t waste time examining contrary evidence or engaging in dialogue with nonbelievers. The fundamentalist is unshakable in his belief that his viewpoint is perfectly clear and so cannot be misinterpreted. He reasons down from initial premises to what he takes to be unchallengeable conclusions. Such rigid ideological thinking has spread across economics and literary studies, as well as religion and politics. It occurs on both sides of the political spectrum—and at places in between. But it need not be that way. 

We suggest that a good starting point involves reexamining our own assumptions, and recognizing our penchant for fundamentalist views. Everyone has some. It could be that markets allocate scarce resources better than any other conceivable system, or that great literature can be identified and appreciated regardless of the mores of the day. When we recognize beliefs of this sort, we should acknowledge that they are professions of faith rather than products of rational inquiry. For the most part, our thinking should remain open to persuasion. Living in echo chambers where our views are only ever reinforced by friends and the media does a disservice to us all. Ideological segregation, like any other kind, promotes the demonization of the excluded.

On campuses, that means bringing in guest speakers who present the strongest case for a given position, rather than polemicists who do nothing but stoke conflict. A vibrant intellectual community results when we invite the most skillful exponents of the other side’s views, not the most provocative. That means putting in the work to wrestle with what people we disagree with actually say they believe, rather than with the strawmen that our side has convinced itself they believe. In the process, we might just find that some of our most deeply held views could use some nuance, that our preferred policies may not always be the best way to reach our goals, and that opponents deserve to be treated with the respect due to all. 

Most of all, we need to remind our students and ourselves that intellectual humility isn’t a sin, it is a virtue.

Real dialogue requires a willingness to acknowledge that you might be wrong. So does democracy.

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University, where Morton Schapiro is president and a professor of economics. Their latest book is Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us.