Epistemology and Free Speech


“When we have good reason to think that the position advocated by a potential speaker is wrong, we have an epistemic reason in favour of no-platforming: we can be confident that providing her with a platform will produce evidence in favour of her views that it is very difficult to rebut (and which can’t be rebutted by argument).”

Those are the words of philosopher Neil Levy (Oxford). In a recent essay at Aeon, Levy brings the idea of “higher-order evidence” to bear on the discussion of no-platforming (a name for withdrawing an invitation to participate in a public or quasi-public speaking event, or preventing someone from participating in such an event, on the grounds that their views are highly objectionable).

Levy notes that defenders of free speech emphasize “what we might call first-order evidence: evidence for and against the arguments that the speakers make” when arguing that public debates and speech should proceed unhindered. But higher-order evidence is important, too.

What’s higher-order evidence?

Higher-order evidence is evidence about how beliefs were formed. We often moderate our confidence in our beliefs in the light of higher-order evidence. For instance, you might find the arguments in favour of booking plane tickets to Las Vegas right now compelling, but hesitate in light of the fact that you’re really drunk. The fact that you’re drunk is higher-order evidence: it’s evidence that you might not be processing first-order evidence well… Higher-order evidence is genuine evidence. It is rational to respond to higher-order evidence by moderating our confidence in our beliefs, sometimes even to abandon them altogether.

Higher-order evidence is relevant to discussions over no-platforming, Levy argues:

An invitation to speak at a university campus, a prestigious event or to write an opinion piece for a newspaper provides (prima facie) higher-order evidence. It is evidence that the speaker is credible; that she has an opinion deserving a respectful hearing. It typically certifies expertise, and expertise is higher-order evidence that the person’s opinion should be given particular weight… An invitation to speak confers credibility because it selects someone, from among the large crowd of potential speakers, as the person whom we should hear. The credibility stems both from the fact of selection and from the prestige of the venue they are selected to speak at.

No-platforming may make sense because the higher-order evidence that a university’s invitation to speak confers is difficult to counter:

If my university gives a platform to a climate-change skeptic, it provides higher-order evidence in favour of her view. That higher-order evidence is not rebutted by the university inviting another speaker later to ‘balance’ her, or if she is subject to a devastating response from the floor. We can rebut her claim that global warming isn’t occurring, but we cannot rebut her claim that the invitation certifies my expertise.

So, Levy concludes, while we may not be able to rebut the higher-order evidence, we can refrain from helping to produce it by no-platforming.

It should be noted that Levy is not providing an argument for the conclusion that attempts at no-platforming are always or usually justified. He knows, as he says, that “free speech is genuinely valuable.” His intervention into the debate is more modest: drawing our attention to an epistemic consideration that needs to be taken into account along with the various other reasons relevant to deciding whether to attempt to prevent someone from speaking in a particular context.

It is unclear how strongly this consideration speaks in favor of no-platforming. How much additional credence is afforded to a claim by its being expounded by someone invited to a college campus to speak? That’s one relevant empirical question. Another is: how much additional credence is afforded to a claim by it being packaged as one that “academics are trying to silence”? Does it matter, as well, whose beliefs are likely to be influenced one way or another?

Another question concerns how difficult it is to rebut the higher-order evidence of offering a platform. As I noted in a previous post, we can at least in principle distinguish between four approaches academic institutions might take to the prospects of a potential invitee presenting highly objectionable views:

  • Endorsement: conveys agreement with what the presenter says or honors the presenter
  • Inclusion: provides an opportunity for the presenter to convey ideas and for an audience to discuss them (without endorsement)
  • Acknowledgment: the mention or discussion of ideas by those indifferent to or critical of them (with neither endorsement nor inclusion)
  • Ignoring: neither mentioning or discussing ideas, nor including nor endorsing their proponents, for intellectual, moral, or pragmatic reasons

Levy’s argument bears on the prospects for inclusion without endorsement. Can explicit disavowals of an invited speaker’s claims by faculty and officials at a university go some ways towards cancelling the higher-order evidence of the speaker’s invitation to speak? That, too, is an empirical question.

You can read Levy’s essay here. Discussion welcome. If you know of empirical work on some of the questions discussed here, please share it. Thanks.

Koji Iyama, “Mt Ex” (detail)

Related: “Is There a Defense of Shouting Down a Speaker at a University?“, “How Academia Handles Objectionable Ideas

 

 

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krell_154
krell_154
2 years ago

Great argument in favor of silencing everyone I strongly disagree with. What could possibly go wrong with that?Report

Paul Whitifeld
Paul Whitifeld
Reply to  krell_154
2 years ago

I agree, having only read Justin’s post about Levy’s article, that it could’ve been written without “concluding” that the higher-order/first-order distinction supports no-platforming. Still, drawing the distinction itself seems like a good idea. Pointing out that there’s more to public discourse (and topics like free speech) than just the “evidence for and against the arguments that the speakers make” is useful.Report

Per Lundquist
Per Lundquist
2 years ago

“It should be noted that Levy is not providing an argument that no-platforming is justified.” – Weinberg

“Sometimes, at least, this consideration will be weighty enough to justify refusing to provide speakers with a platform.” – LevyReport

Christian Gibbons
Christian Gibbons
Reply to  Per Lundquist
2 years ago

I think that this is also an instance in which a general argument in favor of no-platforming has to be distinguished from instances where several separate considerations (e.g. of higher-order evidence) might converge in support of no-platforming.

At the very least, this is how I interpreted the statement of Levy’s that you cited.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
2 years ago

Two major problems with the essay:

“An invitation to speak at a university campus, a prestigious event or to write an opinion piece for a newspaper provides (prima facie) higher-order evidence. It is evidence that the speaker is credible; that she has an opinion deserving a respectful hearing. It typically certifies expertise, and expertise is higher-order evidence that the person’s opinion should be given particular weight (consider a case such as the restaurant bill example above, but now the maths involved is difficult, and the dispute pits you against a maths PhD; it’s clear you should think it is much more likely that you have made a mistake than that she has, and you should defer to her).”

This does not follow, and this is somewhat naive of the reality of learning. The value in hearing a speaker is not necessarily in their credibility; in fact, a speaker can be usefully wrong, in the sense that they provide useful categories of errors and show how *not* to think. “How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them” is one of the most illustrative and helpful guides on writing novels for this very reason.

“The credibility stems both from the fact of selection and from the prestige of the venue they are selected to speak at.”

This not only does not follow, it’s outright false. Prestige can be indicators of bias or entrenchment in norms. Students from prestigious universities can normalize misconceptions; stereotype threat doesn’t replicate for example, and is one of the more widely circulated bunk ideas in social psychology, but students at prestigious universities are more likely to circulate this idea. “How The Other Half Lifts” is an essay about misconceptions of exercise science from prestige-oriented people.

More to the issue, if prestige were an indicator of good knowledge, blind evaluation of studies or journal articles would be unnecessary. You could say that it correlates with good knowledge, and that’s probably true, but that doesn’t have any causal relation to the knowledge, and no one should be using that correlation to make inferences about whether knowledge is good coming from it.Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
2 years ago

Posts like this really confuse me. A year ago, Dr. Weinberg was writing that the idea of a conflict between political correctness and free speech on college campuses was “baloney”: http://dailynous.com/2018/03/13/pc-college-students-vs-free-speech-narrative-baloney/. There he wrote: “As I’ve often mentioned, commentators are quick to take a few cases of genuinely egregious anti-free-speech behavior by college students and imagine that there is some huge cultural shift going on regarding free speech.” So in what spirit should we take this post? Is it a (partial) defense of something “genuinely egregious”? A (partial) defense of something that doesn’t actually happen?Report

Mark Alfano
Reply to  Oliver Traldi
2 years ago

Or should we instead construe it as what it actually is? — a tentative and context-sensitive defense of a practice that, if taken too far, would be genuinely egregious but which is possibly justified in certain cases, including even a few actual cases?Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
Reply to  Mark Alfano
2 years ago

Mark, if one reads that out loud, one can see how absurd it is. I’m not saying it’s wrong. It’s just an absurdly circuitous way of both defending progressive backlash and denying that it happens; because ‘it could happen’ ‘if taken too far’ and has happened ‘in a few cases’; so the implication is that we should be conducting inquiry into what could happen but likely wouldn’t happen and doesn’t happen very often, but even if it DID happen (which, remember, it doesn’t because the conservative narrative is baloney), it would likely be justified anyway.

There’s arguing in the alternative, and then there’s whatever that is.Report

Mark Alfano
Reply to  Grad Student4
2 years ago

After my last exchange with the right-wingers on this blog, I figured I’d try nuance. Apparently y’all don’t like that either.Report

E
E
Reply to  Mark Alfano
2 years ago

Is this a reference to our exchange?

If so, I cannot wait to see the shock on your face when I hand you my old, silk-screened ARA patch and black handkerchief at a conference one day, and you finally appreciate that some of the people on this site who find much of your behavior objectionable are more “left-wing” than you’ll ever be.

You’re doing better in this exchange the last one. Keep it up.Report

Mark Alfano
Reply to  Mark Alfano
2 years ago

Yeah, sorry, I don’t keep track of people who are too cowardly to use their real names. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s not. Since anyone can go by a single letter, I have no way of telling.

In any event, I’m not here to brag about how far left I am. I’m here to discuss philosophy and argue for positions that I think are more probably than other salient options.

Why, one wonders, are you here?Report

Fed Up
Fed Up
Reply to  Oliver Traldi
2 years ago

I virtually never comment at Daily Nous anymore. But the Traldi-Grad-Student4 response, here, deserves to be called out.

This blog post is (obviously!) an invitation to think about no platforming in light of the first-order/higher-order evidence distinction. Levy does not wholeheartedly embrace no platforming (b/c free speech is a value); Justin’s studiously neutral narration notes that fact; and Justin closes by explicitly inviting criticism of Levy’s article.

So sure, Justin has views you don’t share. That doesn’t mean he’s running some multi-year sophistical project to promote a ‘progressive’ agenda. He’s engaging in good faith. So can you, like, NOT turn this thread into yet another partisan shit show?Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  Fed Up
2 years ago

I’m sorry to have upset you, but nothing in your post contradicts anything in mine. I’m asking Dr. Weinberg whether the phenomenon he takes Levy to be offering a partial defense of is (a) the phenomenon he says is “genuinely egregious” (which would be fine; who will offer defenses of the egregious if not philosophers?), (b) the phenomenon he says does not exist (which would also be fine; who will offer defenses of the nonexistent if not philosophers?), or (c) some other phenomenon (which would, yet again, be fine). Of course, it is also possible that Dr. Weinberg has changed his mind since a year ago. How will I know without asking?Report

Fed Up
Fed Up
Reply to  Oliver Traldi
2 years ago

Come on, bro. Your “Is it a (partial) defense of something “genuinely egregious”? A (partial) defense of something that doesn’t actually happen?” has obvious rhetorical value. Whether it was calculated to inspire comments like Grad Student 4’s or not, that was always (and again obviously!) the likely outcome.

If you genuinely want to know Justin’s position, be clever enough to ask in a way that doesn’t invite yet another partisan shit show.Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
Reply to  Fed Up
2 years ago

Fed Up,
I didn’t mean to imply that I thought Justin was doing anything, sophistical or not. My response was to Alfano’s, which I stand by.
Pulling out potential paradoxes in another’s views is not always (and certainly, in my case, wasn’t intended as) a mode to expose sophistry or a progressive conspiracy. It is how we engage in reflective equilibrium. And pointing out that one response to the paradox is absurd is also not to accuse anyone of sophistry. I just happen to think the practice of no-platforming happens a lot (a proposition distinct from whether it is justified), and the fact that we feel compelled to subject the practice to moral inquiry is evidence of that fact.Report

Mark Alfano
Reply to  Grad Student4
2 years ago

So let’s just get you on the record here: you think it’s deeply and obviously wrong to suggest that actions that fall into a particular category should usually be regarded as morally or epistemically unacceptable but occasionally qualify as acceptable?Report

Mark Alfano
Reply to  Grad Student4
2 years ago

Grad Student4: Maybe look up “pro tanto reason.” You’ll find it illuminating.Report

C
C
Reply to  Fed Up
2 years ago

“So can you, like, NOT turn this thread into yet another partisan shit show?”

Apparently not. I’m sort of surprised you had to ask.

Also, “nothing in your post contradicts anything in mine” is a weird response to a plea to not turn this into a partisan shit show.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Oliver Traldi
2 years ago

I imagine he would say it was a partial defense of something egregious? (Which, as you say, is a fine thing for a philosopher to write.)

That’s what I would say, anyway. Like Justin W, I don’t see strong evidence that illiberal attitudes or no-platforming behaviors are especially common among today’s college students. Certainly I find talk of a “crisis” premature. What does disappoint me a bit is the evident prevalence of illiberal beliefs among faculty, given the surprising number of faculty-authored thinkpieces defending the rare and egregious behavior of a few students.Report

PSA
PSA
Reply to  Oliver Traldi
2 years ago

Yo man, just dropping in to say that I think you’d come across better if you dropped the whole “Dr. _____” thing. Anyone without a stethoscope around their neck who goes by “Dr.” is intolerable.Report

Sophie Horowitz
Sophie Horowitz
2 years ago

I’m a little unclear what epistemic position we’re supposed to be in at the outset here, where we are considering inviting someone, but we also already know they’re wrong.

Why are they being considered for an invitation in the first place? Perhaps they’re a well-informed person who works in the field they’re speaking about, and they represent some dominant strand of thinking among smart and informed people. That is a good reason to invite someone to campus. But then we should not be so sure they’re wrong (because of the very same higher-order evidence concerns that Levy is discussing).

On the other hand, if we *are* sure they’re wrong, that’s either because (a) we’re irrational; (b) higher-order evidence isn’t really evidence (so we get to rationally dismiss their bad arguments despite the prestigious platform — and so does the audience), or (c) their credentials don’t hold up on independent grounds (i.e. they don’t work in the relevant field, or they’re being invited because they’re some big donor).

If (a) or (b) is right, we don’t have an epistemic argument in favor of no-platforming. If (c), we should not invite them for those independent disqualifying reasons, not because of our prior rejection of the view that they defend.Report

ehz
ehz
Reply to  Sophie Horowitz
2 years ago

I think there’s an ambiguity in ‘we’ here. At one point it refers to those opposed to the speaker, and at another it refers to those considering inviting the speaker (perhaps at another it refers to the future audience of the speaker), and of course those are not necessarily the same people. Once we see that, the puzzlement should disappear: those opposed to the speaker are confident that the speaker is wrong, but they’re not the ones inviting the speaker. Those opposed to the speaker think the speaker shouldn’t be invited, and that whatever institution is inviting the speaker shouldn’t provide higher-order evidence in favor of the speaker’s credibility.Report

Joseph Rachiele
Joseph Rachiele
Reply to  ehz
2 years ago

Woops, did not see your post before I posted mine!Report

Sophie
Sophie
Reply to  ehz
2 years ago

I think my objection still holds against the people who oppose the speaker. I don’t think they are justified in opposing by appeal to higher-order evidence. Ask instead: why is *that group* considering inviting them. I think that if higher-order evidence really has rational effect, then any good reason to oppose the invitation will be independent of the content of the person’s view. And if higher-order evidence doesn’t have rational effect, then we don’t need this argument. (This responds to Joseph R. too… I think?)Report

Sophie
Sophie
Reply to  ehz
2 years ago

Sorry, I should’ve said, my objection to the argument still holds if we focus on the people who oppose the speaker, assuming that they are not the ones who are in charge of inviting.

I’m going to go do some real work now.Report

Joseph Rachiele
Joseph Rachiele
Reply to  Sophie Horowitz
2 years ago

With the caveat that I haven’t read Levy’s piece yet, couldn’t one be in the position of considering de-platforming a speaker invited by some group they aren’t a part of? So one might think the Campus Xs got (c) wrong or perhaps decided to invite the speaker on an improper evaluation of the first-order evidence?Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Sophie Horowitz
2 years ago

I’m confused Sophie. Are there no smart well-informed people you’re confident are wrong? Are you really agnostic about everything? I think it is quite common to be confident that someone with relevant credentials is wrong. I am confident, for instance, that Freeman Dyson is wrong about climate change.

The claim is meant to be common ground. Certainly well-known opponents of no-platforming like Jonathan Haidt have argued that we ought to hear people we know are wrong or even abhorrent.Report

Sophie
Sophie
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

I’m not agnostic about everything, but I’m also not rational about everything. Also, I’m not ready to defend any particular view about no-platforming or anything Haidt says. Only views about higher-order evidence. 🙂

Though, actually, I’ve been thinking more about this and about what you mean by “you know their position is wrong.” I was assuming that this meant that they believed P, and you (antecedently) believed ~P. But then there are also reasons you might have to think that they’re wrong which have nothing to do with the content of their beliefs. Considerations like “they’re funded by big pharma” might fall under this category. Maybe in some cases a well-credentialed person with a minority view in their field could also fall under that category. And maybe this kind of “knowing their position is wrong” is what you meant. So yeah, I agree that maybe in those cases you can antecedently be rationally confident that they’re wrong, and the same considerations that give you reason to think they’re wrong also give you reason not to invite them. I take that to be a different argument from the one you were offering, though maybe I’m missing something.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Sophie
2 years ago

I gave you an example, Sophie: Freeman Dyson. AFAIK, he’s not funded by any nefarious or truth-distorting industry. But I’m confident he’s wrong. He’s a particularly well-credentialed example, but we don’t have to look far. Fox news and the Murdoch press is full of people who I am confident are wrong and I’m not irrational in my confidence.

Plug here for Jeremy Fantl’s recent book on open-mindedness. He has an interesting discussion of these kinds of cases too.Report

Sophie
Sophie
Reply to  Sophie
2 years ago

I think if you think HOE is a real thing, though, you shouldn’t argue that Freeman Dyson is wrong just because he is skeptical about the harmful effects of climate change and you are not. That’s like Kelly 2005 style dogmatism. You should say he’s wrong because (for example) tons of other people (who are also well-credentialed, etc) have looked at the same data and come to the opposite conclusion.

This is what I was getting at with my comment below – that I agree that, in inviting someone with a minority view to campus, one could give the impression that it is not a minority view (and therefore mislead people who don’t know that it is a minority view). If that’s what you were arguing, I agree with you.Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Sophie
2 years ago

”Kelly 2005 style dogmatism”

Oh, this is greatReport

Gradman
Gradman
Reply to  krell_154
2 years ago

AKA the right view.Report

Sophie
Sophie
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

Just adding: one point I take from your piece, Neil, that I agree with, is that inviting someone to campus can give the impression (to others) that their view is representative of their field, when in fact it is not.Report

Zach
Zach
Reply to  Sophie
2 years ago

This is an important point, because it cuts both ways. By giving a huge platform to an obscure view, one could give the impression that the view is more popular than it is. But by giving a teensy platform, or no platform, to a controversial view that some people sincerely hold, one could give the impression that the view is less popular than it is.

So by the article’s own lights, we have epistemic reason to ensure that minority views, even offensive ones, are not being entirely excluded from the conversation. I suspect many critics of no-platforming would be pleased with this result (since excluding certain views from the conversation is kinda… the whole point of no-platforming).Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

Perhaps this is just a semantic quibble, but I don’t take Haidt to be arguing that “we” have any obligation to actually listen to anyone we know is abhorrent. I take him to be saying only that we should permit others to decide whether they would like to listen to someone we know is abhorrent.Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
2 years ago

How is being invited to a university event necessarily higher order evidence? It’s just evidence that the person who invited the speaker confers value on their views. When the speaker is invited by a group which *we already know* confers value on their view, how could their invitation introduce any other evidence? Or if the speaker is invited by someone who we shouldn’t really care about as a matter of epistemic testimony (e.g. a couple college sophomores on the board of some political club), how could that introduce higher order evidence?

My worry is that the writer really is in reality only concerned about the socially performative effects of invitations–how it will *actually* effect credence in views. People will, no doubt, confer value on an invitation from a university group, even if they shouldn’t as a matter of epistemic rationality. But then we get to the very heart of the basic issue. It’s not about some rational notion of higher-order evidence. It’s the fact that we all want everyone else to believe our view, and if an invitation might (even irrationally) promote a view with which we disagree, we want the invitation to be rebuked. This is not about, in my mind, the refutation of any kind of ‘production of evidence.’ No evidence is liable to be produced in most cases. It’s about a desire to shape social thought/opinion in our our own image..Report

Sophie
Sophie
Reply to  Grad Student4
2 years ago

This is a great point. And also explains why in the post, Justin frames this as an empirical issue. The real concern seems to be, “if someone comes to campus, people will [in fact] believe what they say.”Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
Reply to  Grad Student4
2 years ago

We should also keeping in mind that a lot depends on how one sees moral testimony. It may be that even expert speakers or institutions who laud normative ideas of other speakers (about morality, political theory, etc.) carry no evidential weight in forming moral knowledge at all–first order, higher order, whatever.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Grad Student4
2 years ago

My invitation to invite Justin Weinberg to speak on my campus confers *additional* higher-order evidence in his credibility compared to the situation you’re imagining, Gradstudent4. It even confers additional evidence compared to my testifying Justin’s great. After all, slots to speak are relatively scarce, going to a talk takes time and has opportunity costs, and so on. It’s evidence that I think he’s worth your time, relative to other actives and speakers.I may not endorse the content of what he says, but I do provide evidence that it is worth hearing (again, relative to other uses of your time).Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

You assuming a cost (e.g. funding him to come to your campus, investing time, etc.) certainly constitutes evidence as to your state of mind–of what you think. It is a separate question, however, of whether that changes anything about evidence (or higher order evidence) for Justin’s views.

First, there is the question of whether the additional evidence to your state of mind matters. In the case of a militant atheist college club inviting Richard Dawkins, it does seem their invitation constitutes *additional* evidence of their approval of him. So you’re right to correct me on that point. What I should have said is that this additional evidence is sometimes trivial. In the Dawkins case, I already had enough evidence to *know* that they favored Richard Dawkins. So sometimes (I’ve claimed, often) the further evidence as to the inviter’s state of mind is trivial, because we already know what they think. In the case you describe, I had no idea what you thought of Justin Weinberg, so this point doesn’t attach. Though that doesn’t make it less important. I think in the majority of cases, the invitation is totally predictable, and not surprising. Nothing further is learned when these invitations happen, though it cements our knowledge in its justification.

However, a question persists as to whether your endorsement of Weinberg–now, reinforced by your invitation–should count as evidence as to the truth value of anything he says about morality. I don’t think it does, despite your status, station, and respected philosophical publication record. But even if *your testimony as a philosopher* would count (which, again, I don’t think it does because of the nature of moral testimony), most cases are cases where the inviters are not philosophers, or anyone with particular expertise in normativity. If an applied economist invited Justin Weinberg, I don’t know where the additional evidence would come from for his views. If a couple bushy-tailed atheist freshman invite Dawkins, I don’t know where the additional evidence would come from for his views.

Now, you say that it might on the other hand count as evidence as to whether ‘it is worth hearing” relative to other uses of my time. I don’t think it constitutes evidence to the fact that you think it is worth it for ME to attend relative to uses of my other time, namely because you don’t really know what else I could be doing with my time, or what I’ve already done. I may have already attended an identical lecture by the same speaker, or read the speaker’s book, and the speaker’s speech would just be a watered down version of it.

It does seem to say it is worth hearing for some people, positioned in some particular way. But I don’t know what that has to do with with no-platforming. In your piece, you say that this practice “certifies expertise, and expertise is higher-order evidence that the person’s opinion should be given particular weight.” First, does your invitation really augment my rational belief in the expertise of Weinberg, given his education, position, and publication record? Second, when you are not the inviter, is expertise that commonly certified? For example, how is a social scientist, let alone an executive board of undergrads, in a position to certify expertise of a philosopher? When Peter Singer is invited to my campus, and his expertise is certified by the freshmen in my intro to philosophy class who invited him, do I then have higher-order evidence as to the weight of Singer’s views?

And third, does expertise matter at all when it comes to the formation of rational belief in normative issues? I don’t think so.

All in all, at least some, and in my estimation many, actual inviters are not in a position to certify expertise. And when inviters do certify expertise, it’s not clear if their certification would change our prior beliefs in their expertise, given the credentials of those who might be invited. And even when it does, it is not clear we should give them any particular weight at all, adopting a skepticism about the role of moral testimony. And if one wants to moderate that skepticism, it is not clear why we should give them any particular weight at all as compared to those with similar expertise who have different views.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
2 years ago

It seems like being no-platformed could certainly serve as higher-order evidence of the opposite kind to the outgroup (the outgroup being those people who disagree that the “good reason” for thinking the potential speaker is wrong is indeed good reason).Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  Urstoff
2 years ago

Yes, if (as some above commenters seem to think) the concern here is not about justifiedness but about how many people actually exist who believe what the speaker is peddling, then we need only look to the ways in which no-platforming raises the profile of its targets (the Streisand effect: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streisand_effect) to see how misguided the argument is.Report

Marc Champagne
Marc Champagne
2 years ago

When someone has reached conclusions different from your own and the best you can do is ascribe to the holders of that conclusion something akin to drunkenness, THAT”S when you need to start acting like a philosopher and listen to their reasons in a professional setting.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
2 years ago

It’s worth noting that the epistemic reasons raised by Levy are probably not the only reasons relevant to the question of whether no-platforming is justified. It seems to me there are also purely moral reasons having to do with the wrongness of paternalism. Telling a student group they cannot invite a speaker that they would like to bring to campus is exerting a level of control over other people’s choices that is normally only permissible when dealing with small children.

The fact that this sort of control is often exerted by other students organizing in groups does not make it any less paternalistic. Compare: if other students organize a protest to pressure you to end one of your friendships, they have not respected your autonomy in choosing your friends, and you have been wronged in much the same way you would be if a school administrator ordered you to end the friendship.Report

Dale E Miller
2 years ago

Perhaps we as academics need to work on reducing the amount of credibility that is conferred on someone by being asked to speak at universities. Of course, lots of people who might like to speak at universities just aren’t worthy of the opportunity. However, there may be some views of which it’s true both that it’s useful for students to hear them defended by people who actually hold them and that in the end they are not very credible. Perhaps, for instance, there might be some particular series of talks for which a university makes a particular effort to communicate that it’s willing to invite people who it sees as crackpots and that no one should draw any inferences about the seriousness of the speaker from the fact that an invitation was issued. Or perhaps universities might simply work harder to communicate that it does not endorse speakers chosen by student groups.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Dale E Miller
2 years ago

That’s an interesting proposal. Certainly it is sometimes useful to think about mistaken views (think of the discussion of astrology in philosophy of science). Given the scarcity of time and attention, though, and the difficulty of signalling that provision of a platform is not supposed to provide higher-order evidence in favour of the content of a view, I am sceptical that there are sufficiently many sufficiently significant cases like this to make it worthwhile to attempt such an alteration in norms.Report

Clarence
Clarence
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

Reminds me of the “Big Block of Cheese” episodes of West Wing.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
2 years ago

Justin asks for relevant empirical evidence. Though I didn’t talk about in the Aeon piece, I am aware of some evidence that bears on the questions. There is good evidence that people (rationally, I think) regard the existence of a consensus or near consensus on a particular question as strong evidence. But they infer the strength of expert opinion from media coverage. This has been reasonably well studied in the domain of climate change (people dramatically underestimate the consensus, especially in the United States).

* Hahn, U., Harris, A. J. L. & Corner, A. (2016) ‘Public Reception of Climate Science: Coherence, Reliability, and Independence’. Topics in Cognitive Science 8: 180-195.

* Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Feinberg, G., & Rosenthal, S. (2014) ‘Climate change in the American mind: American’s global warming beliefs and attitudes in April 2014’. Yale project on climate change communication. New Haven: Yale University and George Mason University..

Consensus perceptions are a gateway to belief.

* van der Linden, S. L., Leiserowitz, A. A., Feinberg, G. D., & Maibach, E. W. (2015). The scientific consensus on climate change as a gateway belief: Experimental evidence. PloS ONE, 10(2), e0118489.

* van der Linden, S., Leiserowitz, A., & Maibach, E. (2019). The Gateway Belief Model: A Large-Scale Replication. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 62, 49-58.Report

Unconvinced
Unconvinced
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

I’m not convinced this is relevant. We shouldn’t infer causal relationships between campus presentations and belief from causal relationships between media coverage and belief. I even doubt knowledge of the one should influence our credence in the other.Report

Paul Barry
Paul Barry
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

“There is good evidence that people (rationally, I think) regard the existence of a consensus or near consensus on a particular question as strong evidence.”

Right. And no-platforming would almost certainly *undermine* the efficacy of this evidence. People (rationally) regard near consensus among climate scientists as evidence for the existence of climate change because they recognise that rational debate has been allowed to run its course, and the overwhelmingly majority of those engaged in that debate have concluded that climate change is real. If the appearance of consensus is achieved through universities policing what views get expressed publicly, then people will (rationally) be less inclined to take that as evidence.Report

driftinCowboy
driftinCowboy
2 years ago

The solution is to attain a reputation for inviting speakers known to be wrong about everything. That would defeat the higher-order evidence that your speakers are credible and force the audience to think things through for themselves.Report

Dale E Miller
Reply to  driftinCowboy
2 years ago

And I’m on leave in the fall, so I’ll be especially available.Report

ehz
ehz
Reply to  driftinCowboy
2 years ago

But then the track record of wrong speakers will make audiences disagree with speakers on the basis of that evidence alone! So perhaps it would be better to select your speakers at random with regards to the truth of their claims.Report

Louis
Louis
2 years ago

There are so many universities in the world inviting, in one way or another, so many speakers on a daily basis that I doubt most such invitations are higher-order evidence of much of anything, except that some person or group wanted to hear the speaker.

An invitation to deliver a prestigious endowed series of lectures would be, but those are definitely not the majority of invitations.Report

Matt
Reply to  Louis
2 years ago

An invitation to deliver a prestigious endowed series of lectures would be, but those are definitely not the majority of invitations.

I mean, maybe people believe that an invitation to give prestigious lectures is an endorsement of the truth of one’s views, but this is obviously making a mistake. To get a clear idea, look at, say, the people who have given the Tanner Lectures at various places:
https://tannerlectures.utah.edu/lecture-library.php
We can be pretty sure that this isn’t an endorsement of the truth of the various people (even in a narrow time slice) because the views represented are not consistent. Rather, it’s an indication that the people putting the lectures together thought the views were in some ways interesting or important. That’s an endorsement of some sort, but not of the truth of the matters claimed. Surely when people are invited to give talks or lectures at universities, it is _often_ because we think their views are interesting or important, and not necessarily because we think they are true.

(Of course, this is compatible with thinking that certain views are neither interesting nor important, at least intellectually – anti-vaccination views, young earth creationism, arguments for a hard command economy, arguments for the inherent inferiority of certain races and ethnic groups, whether it’s okay to grab unwilling women by the pussy, etc. seem to me to all be neither interesting nor important, and so I’d have no problem with not inviting such people myself. That’s independent of trying to take steps to stop others from doing so, though – that seems to me to be a different question.)Report

Kolja Keller
Kolja Keller
2 years ago

Two comments:

In terms of looking into the empirical evidence, there is another kind of higher order evidence that gets generated by de-platforming: Fuel for conspiracy theories. After all, if the [credibility giving institution] really was conspiring to hide the truth for non-evidence sensitive reasons, then not inviting [person who sincerely disagrees based on damning evidence] to come present their argument would be vital for their successful cover up. In that sense, inviting the mistaken person to come speak to the event can give higher order evidence that the majority view is not ignoring the contrary evidence but has considered and rejected it, whereas de-platforming would have the opposite effect. If this kind of evidence is more weighty for more people, compared to the credibility increase for the mistaken view getting included on the program is, I think, an empirical question based on the particulars of the case.

But secondly, I also wanted to bring out the fact that there might be a different consideration on higher order evidence for people who attend the event and people who do not. It is common practice for speakers to tout their credentials of where they have all spoken on their website in order to give higher order evidence that they are credible on whatever first order questions they speak. But nobody takes the time to find out if any of those invitations have been to panel discussions in which their view was soundly trounced. Hence, going forward for anyone that didn’t hear the argument, this does problematically raise the higher order evidence.

On the other hand, we can ask why we have events in which we invite people to give arguments in the first place. Presumably, we do so because we expect the audience to be able to rationally appreciate the arguments themselves. If we didn’t, we could just have the expert state their views without bothering to explain their reasoning. That means events in which we ask people to present their views are only rationally defensible *at all* if we assume that the audience for the event will be able to rationally consider the arguments. But at that point the higher order evidence of having been invited to the event should be swamped by the lower-order evidence presented by the speakers, at least for the view that is “obviously” false. If the audience ends up going away thinking “well I don’t know, looks like those smart people sure are at a deadlock” when one view is as clearly wrong as we’re imagining, then whoever was presenting the truth failed at their job or the organizers failed at pitching their event to the right audience.

Here is a (thoroughly non-practical) idea for a compromise solution:
Could these thoroughly mistaken speakers be invited with something like a non-disclosure clause? That is, if they come, they have to agree to never advertise or otherwise mention that they were invited. That way, we’re limiting the higher-order evidence effect to the people that also attend the lecture/debate, and since ex hypothesis their first order arguments are hopeless, that should swamp the higher order evidence for those in attendance. The net-benefit of this would be that everyone in attendance can now go away saying “I have heard the very best arguments for view x. Before I thought it was bad because I believed most experts, but now I’ve seen first hand that it’s wrong.” In that sense, it would function as a kind of inoculation from further higher-order evidence for everyone in attendance.
I would compare that to “platforming” false views as readings on a syllabus in order to discuss in what ways the view is wrong. Whatever higher order evidence students would get from seeing someone being listed on the syllabus, that should be swamped by taking apart the arguments in class.

Caveat: All of this only holds if the false view is *at issue* in the discussion. That leads also to the related question of whether to de-platform people that have non-terrible views on different subjects. For example, is there a reason to de-platform Freeman Dyson on a panel on Quantum Mechanics that is unlikely to ever cause anything to be said about climate change? (Assuming he was still working on this)Report

Kolja Keller
Kolja Keller
2 years ago

Sorry, I just saw the first point was brought up by Justin as well. I ended up reading the AEON article more closely and must have overlooked that Justin said something to that extent already.Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
2 years ago

Justin writes:

It should be noted that Levy is not providing an argument for the conclusion that attempts at no-platforming are always or usually justified. He knows, as he says, that “free speech is genuinely valuable.” His intervention into the debate is more modest: drawing our attention to an epistemic consideration that needs to be taken into account along with the various other reasons relevant to deciding whether to attempt to prevent someone from speaking in a particular context.

Well, is his contribution just to say that there are some drawbacks to free speech then? Because that seems obvious enough. Obviously, having a policy of free speech means allowing things to be said that shouldn’t be said. If Levy’s point is supposed to be interesting and substantive, then we have to assume that these “meta” considerations make a practical difference at least some of the time. If Levy thinks these considerations outweigh whatever value free speech has in cases that we’re actually worried about, then he is to that extent against free speech. It’s trivial to say that you strongly value free speech if that value is trumped by the value of preventing people from saying really misguided things in this or that context. Those are the only cases in which free speech matters at all.

Moreover, it’s not at all clear that allowing someone to speak implies that what is being said is within necessary boundaries of decency. That’s one reason to give someone a platform, but there are other reasons. If a really bad view is widespread enough, then it needs to be refuted. And it’s hard to refute someone decisively if the people being criticized are given no chance to respond, or if the audience knows that the views are being filtered through critics.

We might also allow people with very bad views to speak because the commitment to the general policy of free speech is a buffer against tyranny. If the people with the bad views you think should be no-platformed come into power, you want to be able to point to your long record of allowing them to speak. Now it seems they should do the same to you. If the proclaimed policy is something like “Misguided views should be suppressed, but not relatively enlightened ones” then the people who think you are misguided can cite that as a justification for silencing you.

If there really is a concern that people will interpret “giving a platform” as some form of mild endorsement for horrendous ideas, then the platform can come with a strongly-worded disclaimer alerting the audience that this is not the case. (See the case of Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia University for an example).Report

Um
Um
2 years ago

I think an interesting case of the implications of platforming versus non-platforming is Gene Ray and the Time Cube. It is interesting because it involves the platforming of an individual in bad faith (students, by all accounts, wanted to make fun of Ray and his ideas, which seems pretty far from endorsement if I understand correctly), and yet had interesting implications that are debatably of the higher-order evidence Levy discusses. By some accounts (details of the case have been lost to internet changes), Ray appealed to his “platforming” by MIT in much of his subsequent writings and interviews, in an attempt to bolster his view.

This video provides an introduction to the case:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7lWCqbgQnUReport

Liberal Rationalist
Liberal Rationalist
2 years ago

The classical (Lockean) liberal rationalist conception of epistemology actually supports the opposite: since our individual rational capacities are quite limited, since we are so bad at examining and identifying our own biases and prejudices, and since most human beings (including faculty at “prestigious” universities) acquire most of their views not on the basis of a careful examination of empirical evidence but on the basis of “hearsay”, “tradition” (yes even “liberal” and “progressive” tradition) and ultimately on the basis of faith – we all benefit from the presumption in favor of a regime that encourages an unfettered clash of conflicting perspectives.

Deferring to authoritative epistemological “experts” who can act as gate-keepers in the name of “higher-order” evidence is a recipe for depriving others of their right to hear and examine the totality of evidence and the conclusions drawn from it – including the wrong conclusions, confrontation with which is essential for discerning and articulating the foundations of the “correct” conclusions.Report

Liberal Rationalist
Liberal Rationalist
2 years ago

It should also be noted that this conception of “gate-keeping” is also the traditional epistemic basis of religious persecution and compulsion in faith. Evidence of this is easy to discern for anyone who has glanced at the Locke-Proast debate over religious toleration. This should give those of us who are tempted to be gate-keepers or with no platforming serious pause.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Liberal Rationalist
2 years ago

Liberal rationalist, this is an important point to highlight because it nicely brings out a background disagreement between not only you and me, but (I suspect) many commentators here and me. We agree on the empirical claim: “most human beings (including faculty at “prestigious” universities) acquire most of their views not on the basis of a careful examination of empirical evidence but on the basis of “hearsay”, “tradition” (yes even “liberal” and “progressive” tradition)”. But we disagree on whether this is justified. I think it is both inevitable and rational to acquire beliefs on the basis of testimony, and that we can’t even get into the “think for yourself” game except by presupposing a whole mass of things (facts, methods, canons of rationality, and more) which we have to take on (in your word) faith – though I think this is a rational faith. I haven’t argued for that claim here, but I have elsewhere (and it is not wildly controversial).

The fact that epistemic deference is so pervasive and inevitable does indeed leave us vulnerable to bad actors. Rational agents, doing the best they can (read: updating in a Bayesian rational way) go badly astray. That’s our epistemic condition.

If you’re interested, I discuss this kind of question further here.

https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s11229-017-1477-x.pdfReport

Paul Barry
Paul Barry
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

“We agree on the empirical claim: “most human beings (including faculty at “prestigious” universities) acquire most of their views not on the basis of a careful examination of empirical evidence but on the basis of “hearsay”, “tradition” (yes even “liberal” and “progressive” tradition)”. But we disagree on whether this is justified.”
I don’t think that’s where the disagreement lies at all. *Of course* it’s sometimes rational to acquire beliefs on the basis of testimony. I have no training in climate science, and have never really directly assessed the evidence for man-induced climate change. Still, I’m justified in believing that climate change is real because almost every climate scientist insists that it is.
What’s at issue is not whether it might at times be rational to form beliefs on the basis of higher-order evidence, but whether this point might speak in favour of no-platforming a given speaker. One of the reasons that it doesn’t is, I think, that the bad actors may be the ones doing the no-platforming.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Paul Barry
2 years ago

You – if it is you – wrote “Deferring to authoritative epistemological “experts” who can act as gate-keepers in the name of “higher-order” evidence is a recipe for depriving others of their right to hear and examine the totality of evidence and the conclusions drawn from it – including the wrong conclusions, confrontation with which is essential for discerning and articulating the foundations of the “correct” conclusions.”.

It is that claim that I took issue with. We have no choice but to defer to authoritative epistemological experts (note absence of inverted commas). Yes, it carries risks. That’s epistemic life.Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

Neil I agree with this as a descriptive diagnosis of current epistemic practices. But I don’t agree with what I hope you’ll forgive me for remarking seems like a kind of lazy cynicism in accepting the status quo, not challenging ourselves to do better and ‘sapere aude’ where we can. One key way in which we can challenge ourselves to do better is taking some time* to listen to views that we prima facie find objectionable and wrong. Guess what – you can learn from people whose views you disagree with. Sometimes more than from those with whom you agree.
*Note that I’m not saying ‘all the time’, I’m merely saying ‘some time’ – just not ‘no time’, to which there is enormous institutional drag in this hypercompetitive era in which we all find ourselves re. constantly producing our own research ‘outputs’.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Cathy Legg
2 years ago

I prefer taking into account all the evidence, Cathy, not just some of the evidence.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

That’s a sort of cheap response. But I think the exchange captures what is at the heart of my claim. You say, in effect “engage with the argiuments, don’t be intellectually lazy”. That clearly implicates that no platforming is a way of turning away from arguments and evidence. And that is exactly what I’m denying. I do not provide a formula. For all that I’ve said, it could be that (say) a very strong of principle of erring on the side of hearing the objectionable is best. If it is best, though, it is because the considerations I’m highlighting, and you’re ignoring, are defeated, not because they’re not genuine *evidential* considerations.Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

Why is erring on the side of hearing the objectionable best because the considerations *you’re* highlighting are defeated? I don’t see that you’ve established that at all, Neil.
And if by those considerations you mean the claim that no-platforming should be read as a kind of epistemic (dis)warrant – I’m not ignoring them, I’m disagreeing with you.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
2 years ago

So, then, what about defense lawyers who argue that certain people are innocent when most of us are pretty sure they’re guilty? Those defense lawyers’ arguments are often reported in the mass media, and might convince the unwary. Should we take away their platforms, too?

How about politicians and political parties we don’t like? Should we try to ensure that they don’t get a platform, either? Why is this just restricted to universities, if it’s such a great idea?

Independently: it sure is odd that the virtues of ‘no-platforming’ people just came to the attention of the intelligentsia now. If we had started these tactics only a few decades before, almost none of the political views that characterize those who are such fans of no-platforming would have taken hold at all within the universities, and it would be just the opposite ideas that would be legitimately blocked out by this proposal.

Also, who exactly gets to decide on the no-platforming when the pendulum swings again, as it surely will soon enough? I wonder whether these arguments will seem quite as strong then.Report

Marc Champagne
Marc Champagne
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 years ago

Hear hearReport

LL
LL
2 years ago

My view aligns with Grad Student4’s comment above to a certain extent. While it may be the case that platforming a speaker can indeed influence people’s doxastic states, presumably supported by Prof. Levy’s empirical references, it seems to be that labeling this influence as “evidence” might not be a proper move, because it seems closer to non-epistemic factors that can influence one’s belief, e.g., one’s charisma, psychoactive materials, etc.

I think it can be supported by the presumption that this sort of “influence” is practically irrefutable in some sense, which accords with the author’s view that it “can’t be rebutted by an argument”. Even when a university hypothetically claims that “we just invited this speaker out of whim” and a doxastic agent hears it, it seems to me that the “influence” or “higher-order evidence” Prof. Levy describes should persist; you can’t help thinking that there must be something to it despite rational “rebuttal”. If this is the case, however, this sort of influence now seems closer to what we categorize as “non-epistemic factors” than “first-order evidence”.

For this reason, I submit the hypothesis that “higher-order evidence” described by Dr. Levy counts as evidence as much as a speaker’s charisma, the influence of psychoactive materials, etc..Report

Liberal Rationalist
Liberal Rationalist
2 years ago

Justin Kalef – Your hypothetical line of reasoning (let’s call it the “the offense taker’s veto” against individual rights) has already been extended to lawyers, to defendants, and more broadly to the principle of presumption of innocence – and without fail the same people working to take away platforms from speakers on campuses are also working to undermine the due process rights of individuals (at least of those individuals that they don’t like).Report

Paul
Paul
2 years ago

While I enjoyed the article, I do want to make a point about Neil Levy’s distinction between higher order evidence and first order evidence. Usually, when someone says that when X is higher order, X is usually about the first order; X picks out something that is intrinsic or pertinent to the first order. In this case, if there is higher order evidence, it should pick out something that is intrinsic or pertinent to the first order evidence. But Neil Levy’s characterization of higher order evidence would mean that higher order evidence is really about the process of belief formation about first order evidence than it is about character of first order evidence or anything pertinent to it. Furthermore, In this SEP article which talks about higher order evidence, it explicitly states that:

“Intuitively, first-order evidence E is evidence that bears directly on some target proposition or hypothesis H. Higher-order evidence is evidence about the character of E itself, or about subjects’ capacities and dispositions for responding rationally to E. ”

Notice that there is a discrepancy between Levy’s characterization of higher order evidence and SEP article’s characterization. The SEP article explicitly states that its about the character of first order evidence OR the subject’s capacities and dispositions for responding rationally to E, but Levy seems to emphasize the latter but not mention the former. He writes: “Higher-order evidence is evidence about how beliefs were formed.” This characterization doesn’t mention the character of first order evidence. While Levy’s example of a drunk person being convinced to go to Las Vegas is an example of a subject’s capacity, his main example (e.g. a university inviting a climate change denialist to speak) has nothing to do with any subject’s capacity or disposition, but rather an *institutional act* of inviting someone.

An institutional act of inviting someone has little or nothing to do with the character of first order evidence (which would be data and stats about climate change) OR a subject’s capacity/disposition (in this case, an invitee’s (or inviter’s?) capacity or disposition). It can’t constitute an appropriate higher order evidence about the first order evidence evidence the speaker presents against climate change or the speaker’s disposition/capacity. So it seems that there is a discrepancy between how Neil Levy characterizes higher order evidence and how the SEP article characterizes higher order evidence. This doesn’t necessarily debunk LEvy’s argument, but it points out that one potential vulnerability is that epistemologists could argue that Levy has the wrong understanding of higher order evidence. Levy could argue back that he’s introducing his own account of higher order evidence, but he would need to provide a compelling argument for why this is an appealing account in the first place.Report

Paul
Paul
Reply to  Paul
2 years ago
Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Paul
2 years ago

You’re right, Paul: higher-order evidence is used in the branch of epistemology concerned with disagreement in a weird way. As the SEP article says, the scope of HOE is much wider than what is actually talked about in epistemology. But that’s the standard usage, and it was the one relevant to the piece.Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
2 years ago

It might help a little if there were some agreed-upon definition of “no platforming” at work here. I think I’m sympathetic to Levy’s claims, but a lot of the criticism and objections make me think that by “no-platforming” people have in mind black-masked antifa mobs rushing the platform and burning it to the ground to prevent the speaker from speaking. I think we should all agree that that’s wrong. I strongly suspect that Levy thinks that that would be wrong. It might help to stick by Levy’s actual definition of no-platforming, “No-platforming is when a person is prevented from contributing to a public debate, either through policy or protest, on the grounds that their beliefs are dangerous or unacceptable.” Are people saying they can imagine no possible cases in which using policy or protest to prevent a speaker from speaking at a university would be permissible? Because it seems obvious to me that a history department, say, should have a de facto policy of not inviting holocaust deniers to deny the holocaust at departmental events. I also think students should protest if such an invitation were issued. I feel like I must be completely misunderstanding this debate, in order to make sense of the stridency with which Levy’s position is being rejected.Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  Derek Baker
2 years ago

I think the issue is not History departments not inviting David Irving. It’s someone else’s vetoing the invitation after it’s been tendered, for whatever reason.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Spencer Jay Case
2 years ago

That’s a distinction worth highlight, Spencer. I think a presumption against disinviting is plausible. But the point of no platforming is often to change invitation practices.Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Spencer Jay Case
2 years ago

Right, so as I asked Dave Baker below, what’s wrong with students protesting an invitation to David Irving with the intention of getting the history department to rescind its invitation? Seems fine to me, honestly.Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  Derek Baker
2 years ago

Sure let them protest. As long as they can’t dictate the decision or get some administrator to do that for them.Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Spencer Jay Case
2 years ago

Okay, but that would fall under the definition of “no-platforming” that Levy offers. So I hope you can see my confusion at some of the responses. As I read the argument, Levy is simply saying there is a prima facie reason in favor of no-platforming in certain cases, not that such a reason was always decisive. And most people, I think, would allow that at least low-level forms of no-platforming are permissible in extreme cases: holocaust deniers should not be invited to speak by history departments; medical schools should not invite anti-vaxxers; schools of foreign policy should not host speakers who blame 9/11 on Mossad. So the debate it seems is more about where exactly to draw the line.Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  Derek Baker
2 years ago

I agree that the case I just described wouldn’t constitute no platforming. It also seems unobjectionable.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Derek Baker
2 years ago

I would hope that students would protest in such a case (and in large numbers). But they should protest in a way that doesn’t prevent the speaker from speaking.

I can certainly imagine situations in which it would be OK for a student protest to actually disrupt an event, but to be morally permissible it would have to meet the same high bar of serving the greater good required to justify other paternalism (like interfering in a person’s relationships, cf my post above).

I took “prevented by policy” to require a content-based top-down policy about who is allowed to be invited to speak at an institution. A policy like that at a US public university would literally violate the First Amendment. Of course there is nothing wrong with individuals or groups who have the authority to invite speakers setting de facto policies about who they won’t invite, so if that is all Levy intended I have no objection.Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Sorry, I’m not getting this. If a history department invites David Irving, why shouldn’t students, faculty, other academics, etc., protest this *with the intention of getting him disinvited*? I’m having a hard time imagining how that could even look slightly objectionable. (Top-down decisions may create extra legal complications, as you note.)

I also don’t understand how this has anything to do with paternalism–except maybe a very minor form of paternalism that we routinely expect epistemic authorities to engage in with respect to lay people: i.e., not expecting the laypeople to figure out on their own why cranks are cranks.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

In such a case, I’d say it’s fine to protest with the intention of convincing the historians to disinvite him, but not OK to protest in order to prevent the speech if the historians decide to bring him in anyway.

If they do prevent the event, the victim of the paternalism is the history department. They have the right to hear from the speaker they invited.Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

“I’d say it’s fine to protest with the intention of convincing the historians to disinvite him…”

Okay, but that seems to fall within Levy’s definition of “no-platforming.”

“If they do prevent the event, the victim of the paternalism is the history department.”

But an act is only paternalistic if done for a certain reason: the interferee’s own good. But Levy is proposing a different kind of reason (similar to one I’ve heard non-philosophers invoke). If people protested for the reason Levy laid out, the reason would be because they believed the history department was failing to meet its responsibilities as an institution with epistemic authority. Maybe that’s a bad reason, but I don’t see how it’s paternalistic.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Derek Baker
2 years ago

Yikes, have I been using the term “paternalism” wrong all these years? I was using it to refer to invasive violations of autonomy in service of the greater good rather than just the good of the interferee.

It seems a bit infelicitous to say the event has been “prevented by protesting” in that case. If I convince you in conversation to disinvite a speaker, it sounds odd to say I “prevented the speech by talking to you.”
But semantics aside, if that counts as no platforming I suppose I am sometimes in favor of no platforming!Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Here’s the SEP on paternalism: “Paternalism is the interference of a state or an individual with another person, against their will, and defended or motivated by a claim that the person interfered with will be better off or protected from harm.”

I took it that protesting, even if peaceful and not particularly disruptive, goes beyond simple *convincing* in that it is not simply about rational persuasion but brings to bear some degree of social pressure and perhaps the threat of embarrassment or ostracism to get the target to change their policies. I’m not sure if you would still accept the practice in that case. For the record, I would, at least if we are talking about cases this extreme. If a history department invited a Holocaust denier to argue that the Holocaust never happened, I think it would be totally appropriate for other historians to publicly commit to declining invitations to talk at that department in the future, unless the invitation were rescinded. I take it the reasons would be similar to the reasons the medical community would be within their rights to blacklist or censure a hospital that employed anti-vaxxers or faith healers and allowed them to provide medical advice to patients.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

You’re right, buddy, we do disagree there. I wouldn’t support actions that amounted to de facto punishment for extending the invitation, at least not unless there were more at stake than just the risk of introducing some misleading higher-order evidence in favor of Holocaust denial. To my mind, inviting a speaker to campus is quite analogous to inviting that person to come talk to you personally, and then inviting others on campus to join you in listening to what that person has to say. The stakes have to be fairly significant before this sort of thing becomes someone else’s business in a way that could justify trying to quasi-forcibly control your choice to issue the invitation.

Of course it would be reasonable for other historians (and prospective history majors) to conclude that the members of this hypothetical department were bad historians, and to limit future association with them on those grounds.Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

“To my mind, inviting a speaker to campus is quite analogous to inviting that person to come talk to you personally, and then inviting others on campus to join you in listening to what that person has to say.”

Well, there’s where we disagree. I think that by inviting them to talk on campus you have responsibilities as an academic that you wouldn’t have in you were simply inviting them to talk at your house.

“The stakes have to be fairly significant before this sort of thing becomes someone else’s business in a way that could justify trying to quasi-forcibly control your choice to issue the invitation.”

I think it’s someone else’s business in virtue of being held as an official university event. How would that not make it other people’s business?

Would it be unacceptable for the medical profession to avoid working with the hospital in my hypothetical?Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Derek Baker
2 years ago

Right, what you’re doing is reserving a room on campus, inviting the speaker to talk to you, and inviting others on campus to join you in listening. Making it a public event on campus means you incur responsibilities that wouldn’t exist if you were holding the event in your home (such as not turning away anyone who wants to attend) but I don’t see how you incur some sort of responsibility not to create misleading evidence about the credibility of the speaker’s views. We do a bunch of things that have the random side effect of creating misleading evidence all the time.

Of course the medical profession would be doing the right thing in boycotting the hospital. The hospital could also be prosecuted, I’m sure. First, what happens in a hospital is more analogous to what happens during class than in an off-hours lecture hall on campus. The classroom is not a place where free speech is or should be fully protected, because of the special obligations that exist in that space. Second, to be a bit flip, doctors’ professional obligations are much different from ours. They’re supposed to do no harm. We’re supposed to corrupt the youth.

I mean, I teach William Dembski’s intelligent design work in my science and religion class all the time. Dembski is just as much of a crank as a climate change denier. Of course I don’t hide my opinion that Dembski is a crank, and if I invited him to speak to the class (which I think would be permissible but probably not worth the effort), I would find a polite way to express that opinion. This is analogous to Spencer Case’s example of Bollinger’s introduction when Ahmedinejad spoke at Columbia.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

To expand a bit on the differences in responsibilities between doctors and professors: presenting patients with the best arguments in favor of an outdated medicine-related claim you knew to be false would probably be medical malpractice. Presenting students with the best arguments in favor of Plato’s view of the soul or something similar is good philosophical practice.Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Dave, I’m sorry, but I feel like you are dancing around the main point. You seem to be saying that you have no duty to avoid creating higher-order evidence that a source is credible, but then you also acknowledge that sometimes you do have such a duty. You also try to defend your verdict on my hypothetical by changing it to one when your verdict is more plausible. Yes, maybe inviting an ID person to give a talk and prefacing the talk with a speech on how no one should listen to him is acceptable (though I do wonder, what’s the point?), but that wasn’t the example I asked about. A history department is inviting a holocaust denier to speak as part of their colloquium series. There is no plan to give a disclaimer at the beginning. They will debate with him during the Q&A, but the same way they debate with any other historian they invite. Other historians sign a petition saying they will no longer give talks there unless the invitation is rescinded, they do this with the intention of pressuring the department into rescinding the invitation. What exactly have they done wrong? Your answer was that the historians are not minding their own business. But my point is that if it is an event hosted by something claiming to be a university history department, it is not just the individual department members’ business. You haven’t said anything directly about that, and seem to be implicitly acknowledging that I’m right, or I can’t tell.

A few more points: yes, obviously most of medicine is higher stakes than philosophy, so different norms apply. That’s why I asked about holocaust denial, which is potentially higher stakes than most philosophy. You changed the example to Plato’s theory of the soul. Okay, fine, but what about my example? As an aside, some of philosophy can be high stakes as well. The very first comment on this blog post argues against Levy’s position–on the grounds of the pernicious effects it could have–to lots of applause from people who apparently don’t understand irony.

As for this: “The classroom is not a place where free speech is or should be fully protected…” No, free speech should be fully protected in the classroom, and everywhere. But telling someone they are not invited to give a talk by the history department is not a violation of their free speech rights. Nor is telling a department that inviting a certain speaker violates the professional standards of their academic discipline and that you will not engage with them as members of the profession if they do so.

And no, our job is not to corrupt the youth. That sounds great but it’s false, and you know it.Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

One last point, it’s hard to believe that “it’s no one else’s business” is really your considered opinion, since you earlier wrote that you sincerely hope that students and others would protest the history department inviting David Irving. This is a weird hope if you really think the invitation is not anyone else’s business. Your only objection is to people protesting *when their motives are insufficiently pure*. So I think you need a better explanation of the wrong that’s involved.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Hi, Derek. I’m trying to understand where you’re coming from here. A few questions:

1. Suppose that I’ve been invited to present a paper in a department’s colloquium series. I learn that the department has an interest in hearing many views that are very far from the mainstream, and that they try to engage with them critically. They don’t invite people because they _agree_ with their conclusions, but because they’d like to hear their arguments and assess them for themselves. I’m surprised to hear that the department invited a climate change denier some months back, and that in a previous year they even had a Holocaust denier come and present his arguments. The Holocaust denier had all his arguments soundly defeated during the Q&A.

Are you saying that, in that case, I should flatly refuse to give my talk in that department for moral reasons? What moral reasons are those, exactly? I can see why those who are very nervous of being gossiped about by those who love to smear people as guilty by association (in this case, a twice-removed association) might find it prudent to do so. But that seems more like cowardice than moral virtue, unless there’s something immoral in giving a talk in such a department. But what’s the reasoning here? That I personally will give credibility to white supremacists by giving a talk on an unrelated subject in a department that, while is not made up of white supremacists or in favor of white supremacism, previously invited someone who does believe something that, if true, would add rhetorical force to the proselytizing of white supremacists? That seems very implausible. Why would my giving my talk there have that effect?

Perhaps the idea is that there’s an obligation of the philosophical community as a whole to boycott the department until it changes its ways, and that anyone who crosses the picket line, so to speak, weakens the pressure against that department. But if that’s the motivation, then it seems you’re asking for a widespread consensus among philosophers that we should enforce a universal prohibition on any department allowing for free inquiry in a way that you’re not comfortable of. That really seems extreme to me, and if it is your view, I find it difficult to square with what you seem to say about your valuing free speech.

2. Which views, exactly, do you think we should be doing this for? If we boycott departments that have invited people who intend to argue for Holocaust denial, an autism/vaccination connection, and Young Earth creationism, then what about people who have invited those who would argue against affirmative action or abortion? If departments that have invited speakers who express those views need to be boycotted, then what about departments that have invited speakers who take less spectacularly dissenting views on moral or even non-moral topics? This seems to be a genuine slippery slope, because departments would have so much more to lose by erroneously no-platforming a speaker than by erroneously inviting one and hence being boycotted, and all outsiders have much more to lose by hesitating in joining the boycott than by jumping in with both feet. Do you think this will not be apt to freeze up discussions and encourage orthodoxy very quickly? If not, why not, please?

3. Suppose the speaker in question had an unacceptable view on one topic but was brought in to give a talk on another topic and the unacceptable view never came up. Would you still find it morally praiseworthy to boycott the department?Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Hi Justin,

I have to admit, I’m having an extremely hard time understanding where you are coming from here. You seem to be assuming general stupidity and ill-will on the part of all academics.

“I learn that the department has an interest in hearing many views that are very far from the mainstream, and that they try to engage with them critically. They don’t invite people because they _agree_ with their conclusions, but because they’d like to hear their arguments and assess them for themselves.”

Sorry, so they believe that they are personally competent to assess the arguments of climate deniers, holocaust deniers, etc.? So they either all have expertise in climate science and the history of WWII, or they suffer from serious Dunning-Krueger issues.

“I’m surprised to hear that the department invited a climate change denier some months back, and that in a previous year they even had a Holocaust denier come and present his arguments. The Holocaust denier had all his arguments soundly defeated during the Q&A.”

Yeah, so you’re starting off with an extremely unlikely hypothetical. In what sense did the Holocaust denier have his arguments “soundly defeated”? By a bunch of philosophers? With no professional training in history? Please explain. What does it mean to “soundly defeat” someone in this context. Did the entire audience, some of whom were presumably laypeople, understand that the holocaust denier was soundly defeated, or did they just come away thinking there were two sides to the issue, both of which were reasonable?

“Are you saying that, in that case, I should flatly refuse to give my talk in that department for moral reasons?”

Actually, in the case you’ve presented, I have no idea if there are moral reasons or not for not speaking there. I would advise you not to speak there on purely self-interested grounds. This department seems to be made up of a bunch of morons.

In cases where there are moral reasons to boycott, they are more or less the reasons Levy was talking about in the original article.

“Which views, exactly, do you think we should be doing this for?”

Well definitely for holocaust deniers. And definitely not for most views, even if we disagree with them. And there will be a small number of views that are borderline cases, in which trained experts should exercise their professional expert opinion.

“If departments that have invited speakers who express those views need to be boycotted, then what about departments that have invited speakers who take less spectacularly dissenting views on moral or even non-moral topics?”

Probably not. No.

“Do you think this will not be apt to freeze up discussions and encourage orthodoxy very quickly? If not, why not, please?”

No, I don’t, at least not in an objectionable way. Because I think that this is already standard practice–this is my point–and it has not had this effect. To the extent that it has encouraged orthodoxy, that has been in cases where there should be an orthodoxy: that the holocaust happened, that George Washington was not a space lizard, that ghosts do not exist, that we should not practice slavery, etc.

“Suppose the speaker in question had an unacceptable view on one topic but was brought in to give a talk on another topic and the unacceptable view never came up. Would you still find it morally praiseworthy to boycott the department?”

That depends. If the person is advocating genocide, then no, you probably shouldn’t give him a platform to discuss his reasonable views on computer science, if that’s likely to create more publicity and aura of reasonableness for his pro-genocidal views. In a lot of other cases, I would say, who cares?Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Also, about this:

“…it seems you’re asking for a widespread consensus among philosophers that we should enforce a universal prohibition on any department allowing for free inquiry in a way that you’re not comfortable of.”

No, I’m saying there’s a general pro-tanto moral reason not to use one’s position at a university to give a platform to a crank or charlatan, especially when their views can have really harmful effects. I don’t even understand how you could possibly think I was advocating what you said above. What I personally am “comfortable with” has nothing to do with it.

“That really seems extreme to me, and if it is your view, I find it difficult to square with what you seem to say about your valuing free speech.”

Yeah, that would be very extreme. Good thing literally no one here is advocating that.Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Justin,

Since my more detailed reply to you isn’t showing up for some reason, here’s the short version of how I’d respond to your thought experiments. You seem to be imagining a philosophy department full of people who are not just experts in philosophy but also history and climate science. Such departments do not exist. They cannot. It would take too long to master all of the relevant disciplines. On the other hand, if a department of ordinary philosophers of the sort who do exist regarded themselves as competent to figure out for themselves whether global warming or the Holocaust is real, they would not be worth engaging with. It’s nice to imagine that the department could “soundly defeat” the Holocaust denier in a public debate, but if that means convincing people in the audience that the Holocaust denier is a crank who should not be listened to, that can be very hard for trained historians to accomplish, let alone a bunch of amateurs with oversized egos. Levy’s point is that there is a high risk that audiences will come away instead thinking that Holocaust denial is an unconventional but still reasonable position.

As to whether you should boycott the department in question or not, I have no idea. I would hope, however, that someone would tell them to stop wasting university money on a bizarre and self-indulgent hobby, and to instead start doing their jobs.

This is part of the point of Levy’s whole argument: nobody is capable of critically evaluating all arguments by themselves. It is a mistake for our philosophers to think they can evaluate the arguments of Holocaust deniers or climate change skeptics themselves. They have to be willing to rely on the authority of better placed sources.

As for where the dividing the line between charlatans and people we happen to disagree with is, that needs to be left up to the professional judgment of the relevant experts. And as for your possibility #3, the answer is obviously that it depends.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Thanks, Derek. I think this helps zero in on the sorts of cases we might disagree on.

Here are three that seem fine to me. But if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that we ought to decline invitations from any departments that put on talks like at least some of these.

1) A very small liberal arts college has only one or two professors in every discipline, so the college tends to have general colloquia rather than departmental-specific ones. The professors tend to be generalists and to read broadly because of their wide-ranging teaching duties in their subject areas. The colloquia are well attended by the professors and students, and they often feature speakers who wish to defend controversial theses. The professors and students often have sessions, before the speaker arrives, in which they debate and research the speaker’s claims. One of the speakers they had in the previous years held that the Nazi Holocaust never took place. However, all his lines of evidence were challenged and soundly defeated by the professors and students in attendance, who read some of the speaker’s materials in advance and did research on them.

Are you saying that we should decline invitations to speak there?

2) A philosopher — let’s call him ‘Philip Kitcher’ — has written a book attacking creationism — let’s call it ‘Abusing Science: the Case Against Creationism’. His formal academic training lies in philosophy, history and mathematics, but not in biology or geology. However, his work on the book led him to become very familiar with creationist arguments, and he learned a good deal about the relevant science in his research. After the book’s publication, the department organizes an event in which Kitcher debates two creationists, both of whom have training in empirical science.

Does it follow that Kitcher and his colleagues are “morons”? Must I decline invitations to speak in that department? If you don’t think they’re morons, as you did in the case you were referring to, could you please say when you think it does follow that “the department seems to be made up of a bunch of morons”?

3) It’s the early 1970s, and a young philosopher proposes to present a talk with the bizarre conclusion that members of the middle class in the USA have a moral obligation to donate much of their spare money to impoverished people in faraway countries. Not only is this a prima facie implausible view, but the talk itself relies on empirical matters on which neither the speaker nor the audience has formal training. A couple of department members protest that philosophy is by definition non-empirical, and that it would be a mistake to bring in someone working on ‘applied ethics’. But the majority wins, and the speaker gives the talk, with the predictable result that much of the Q&A is devotetd to empirical discussions on subjects that nobody present has formally studied.

Should invitations from that department be declined the following year?Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Sorry, I didn’t mean to be oblique here. I thought I was clear that in the original case you described of the history department, punitive actions against the faculty were unjustified because the history faculty have the moral right to invite speakers to campus even if their decisions about who to invite are obviously wrong and problematic. This means there is a fairly strong sense in which it’s no one else’s business who they invite, in the sense that no one else has the standing to try to force them to revoke the invitation, although others on campus do have the standing to try to convince them to change their minds.

Anyway, I only brought up the other cases to show some ways in which my view is less extreme than it might seem at first glance.

I don’t think the difference between the hospital and the university is entirely or mainly about the higher stakes of medical care. It’s about the different duties incurred by the professionals in these domains; doctors are saving the life and health of patients, professors are educating students, and these roles go along with different rights and responsibilities vis a vis exposing the patients/students to ideas. I think the stakes of what happens at a university are often very high. Replace Plato’s theory of the soul with Plato’s critique of democracy, or his arguments against poetry, which I happen to think are pretty morally disgusting and dangerous, and I would say the same thing about the example.

Of course you’re right that our role isn’t literally to corrupt the youth. But I do think our role is in part to “corrupt the youth” in a figurative sense, that is, to present them with a bunch of evidence bearing on certain interesting questions and let them come to their own conclusions, even if that ends up sending them down the wrong path in certain ways.

“No, free speech should be fully protected in the classroom, and everywhere. But telling someone they are not invited to give a talk by the history department is not a violation of their free speech rights. Nor is telling a department that inviting a certain speaker violates the professional standards of their academic discipline and that you will not engage with them as members of the profession if they do so.”

Clearly we disagree about what counts as a violation of someone’s moral (not legal) right to free expression, and more important to me, what counts as a violation of someone’s moral rights as a listener who wants to hear someone else’s speech.

I think it’s pretty clear that there is a sense in which free speech rights are less robust in a classroom than they are in, say, a public square. Just like those rights are less robust when you’re on someone else’s private property, since they can ask you to leave. In a typical classroom there is one person who has the standing to set certain boundaries on which topics others are allowed to speak about. Maybe you’re just referring to the fact that this is nothing more than a “time and place” restriction, in which case we don’t disagree.

“One last point, it’s hard to believe that “it’s no one else’s business” is really your considered opinion, since you earlier wrote that you sincerely hope that students and others would protest the history department inviting David Irving.”

Right, what I would have said if I were being more precise is that something can be “someone else’s business” to a greater or lesser degree. That is, there are some ways in which others have the moral standing to intervene and other ways in which they don’t.

By analogy, if I knew you were feeding your kids an unhealthy amount of high-fructose corn syrup, I would have the standing to talk with you about this and try to change your mind. Since we’re friends, I would probably have the standing to make my case a little more stridently that a mere acquaintance, but less stridently than your brother could. But I would not have the moral right to convince your colleagues not to accept speaking invitations from you in the hopes of pressuring you to feed your kids a healthier diet. (On the other hand, if I knew you were literally poisoning your kids I would have the right to do that and more.)Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

I have to add that I think your position is sort of an odd one for a “grandchild of the 60s” like you or me to take. Think about all the bizarre speakers people were bringing to universities back then. Timothy Leary, Eldridge Cleaver… would you say these guys should have been kept from campus?

I’m a boring neoliberal technocrat, so in a certain sense I don’t love the idea of students getting radicalized, but I think they deserve the opportunity to hear from real radicals, the Cleavers and Learys of our time. Hopefully in combination with a healthy dose of the more moderate voices I consider to be more reasonable.Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Dave,

I don’t know what “moral right” you think the history department has to invite Holocaust deniers. Yes, departments have a right to invite speakers. No, they do not have a right to invite whomever they want. The person needs to be contributing to the mission of the department. Normally that would be at the department’s discretion, but in this case they are engaged in fairly obvious professional malpractice.

This doesn’t interfere with the right of the Holocaust denier to speak. Nor anyone’s right to listen to them. You are on the internet right now. You can easily hear all the arguments from Holocaust deniers that you want. Have at. The question is whether academic departments should be hosting them.

And sorry, you’re argument is, if people accepted arguments like these Timothy Leary and Eldridge Cleaver would never have been able to lecture at universities?Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Dave:

“But I would not have the moral right to convince your colleagues not to accept speaking invitations from you in the hopes of pressuring you to feed your kids a healthier diet.”

Right. But that’s at least in part because what you feed your kids is not relevant to your role as a professional. Whereas whom you invite to speak at the department is.Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Justin,

Here’s my verdict on your examples:

1. The example is under-described. I need to know, did these generalist thinkers also devise an experiment to test the truth of string theory, translate the Mahabharata, solve the liar paradox, and cure cancer while they were at it? Did they give their students some materials to read beforehand so their students could help?

2. The example is under-described. Are we talking about the actual Philip Kitcher or a fictional character named Philip Kitcher who doesn’t know any science?

3. Nope. I wouldn’t boycott that talk. The speaker is probably wrong, but isn’t obviously arguing for falsehoods. Unlike the Holocaust denier.Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Justin,

A final thing: I don’t know how much clearer about this I can be, but what I have said is that no-platforming is justified in very extreme cases. This is why I am working with a case that is very extreme and obviously so. And I’ve said the reason it is justified is the potentially negative consequences. So if you stipulate the bad consequences away, as you do in 1, I’m going to say “maybe not wrong, though now we get into issues of risk, so it’s complicated.” If you bring up cases that are non-obvious, like 2, I’m going to say I don’t know. I would hope other scientists and philosophers of science familiar with the issue would weigh in before I made a decision. If you bring up a case that is not extreme, like 3, I’m going to say no, no-platforming seems like a bad idea.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

“Normally that would be at the department’s discretion, but in this case they are engaged in fairly obvious professional malpractice.”

I don’t agree that it’s malpractice. To recycle my point from before, if I reserve a room in my department and invite Irving to present his ramblings to me one-on-one, I’ve probably done something uncool, but it seems clear to me that I haven’t violated my professional obligations. The same goes if I invite a colleague to join us. I don’t see why issuing an open invitation to anyone else on campus who would also like to listen suddenly turns this into a case of professional misconduct.

“This doesn’t interfere with the right of the Holocaust denier to speak. Nor anyone’s right to listen to them. You are on the internet right now. You can easily hear all the arguments from Holocaust deniers that you want.”

Here you seem to be assuming that the ability to say what you like on the internet automatically means your free speech rights can’t be infringed by preventing you from speaking elsewhere. But that’s obviously not correct; consider what would follow if we applied that same logic to justify prohibiting protests on campus or something similar.

“And sorry, you’re argument is, if people accepted arguments like these Timothy Leary and Eldridge Cleaver would never have been able to lecture at universities?”

That is one of several arguments I’ve made, yes.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

I want to highlight one point where we might agree, Derek, if I understand your reasoning correctly. For you, the permissibility of no-platforming in the sort of case you raise depends crucially on the professional obligations of the faculty doing the inviting. So would you agree that student organizations (the members of which have no professional obligations) are not justly subject to having their invited speakers no-platformed on the basis of content?

(I should add that of course I agree that no-platforming is justified in severe cases. But my definition of a severe case is something like a case in which significant imminent harm is at stake, like if there were a realistic possibility of the speaker rallying supporters to violence.)Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Hi Dave (and also Justin),

I feel like we’re not getting anywhere, so I’m just going to try to clarify my position (and what I take Levy’s position to be as well) one last time and then I’m calling it a day. I took Levy’s position to be extremely weak: when universities select someone to give a talk, that generally communicates to the audience that this person has some reasonably high degree of epistemic authority. Maybe they’re wrong, but they are at least worth taking seriously. But this creates a pro tanto moral reason against inviting certain kinds of cranks and charlatans–because it misleads the public. Arguing against such people does no good when it comes to preventing people from being misled: because academics argue all the time with people who they do respect and regard as experts, and everyone knows this. My students would never get the impression that I regard someone as a crank simply because I argued with them during the Q&A of a talk. There’s the additional problem that to laypeople, it is often not clear when someone has been soundly refuted. This is why some professional historians have made a point of avoiding debate with Holocaust deniers. Unless you already know a lot of history and proper methodology of history, it won’t be clear to you how disingenuous a professional Holocaust denier is being. We can imagine fantasy scenarios in which truth wins out and a bunch of scrappy, non-dogmatic philosophers outsmart David Irving in the Q&A and everyone comes away enlightened about the truth, but that’s not actually how things work.

Now, this is a pro tanto reason for no-platforming. Being pro tanto, it can potentially be defeated by other considerations. So when you present a bunch of other cases that are more complicated, I’m going to say, “yeah, that’s more complicated.” I don’t know what else to tell you. No, I don’t think that academics should no-platform everyone they disagree with, obviously. Levy has made clear he doesn’t think that either. So who should you no-platform? Cranks and charlatans? How do you know who is a crank or a charlatan? Well I picked a case where it’s obvious. What about less obvious cases? Yeah, you have to use good judgment. Does this mean some people make mistakes. Yes, it does. Sorry, life is messy. But, as Spencer Case noted above, free speech sometimes has bad consequences. And whatever you might think, the right to protest speakers, to shun, censure, and to refuse to interact with others are all aspects of free speech. A robust culture of debate means we will not only debate our opinions, but debate which opinions get to get debated. And sometimes you’ll think other people are wrong to exclude an opinion, and you’ll be really mad at them. But that’s life.

Anyway, I don’t think I’m going to convince either of you that this is correct, but maybe you can take into account that this is how some people are thinking. I’ve seen non-philosophers make similar points to Levy’s, though not with an explicit reference to higher-order evidence of course. So this kind of idea is motivating some people. If you want to convince them that no-platforming is mistaken in general, I don’t know that you’d have much luck. But you might be able to convince them that particular cases of no-platforming are wrong, if you are willing to take their concerns into account. Saying, “oh, but what about this case, but what about that case” is not addressing their concerns. But presenting evidence that the speaker in question is not a charlatan might.

And yes, Dave, preventing a protest may interfere with people’s freedom of speech. But the reason for that is not that it prevents other people from hearing their ideas, which are easily accessible. And no one’s freedom of speech is violated by denying them an invitation to be a speaker at an academic conference.

I agree that there is less reason to no-platform speakers invited by student groups. That seems to follow from Levy’s general argument, too: an invitation from a student group is weaker higher-order evidence.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Right, I’ve enjoyed the discussion but I think it’s pretty played out at this point.

To sum up my own position:

I agree that Levy has identified a pro tanto reason to no-platform some speakers, at least in cases where the higher-order evidence provided by a speaker invitation will be more likely to sway bystanders than the lure of “forbidden knowledge the universities want to hide from you.” My guess is that the latter effect will often be more significant, and certainly it will be very difficult to know in practice which effect will prevail in realistic cases.

At any rate, it’s possible to have pro tanto reasons to do something you have no right to do, and I’ve argued that this is such a case (because it’s so closely analogous to cases where there’s clearly no right to interfere).

I have zero problem with debating which ideas should be debated, but I have a huge problem with punishing others for debating ideas. And as you know from our past discussions of related topics, I don’t think anyone’s right to free expression or association extends to permit de facto punishing other people for exercising *their* rights. There will be cases where it’s vague or ambiguous whether that’s really what’s happening, but protesting to silence a speaker is a clear case.

If I cut professional ties with someone because they had an abortion, in every way that matters I’ve violated their right to sovereignty over their body. If I cut ties with them to sanction them for inviting a toxic speaker to campus, I’ve violated their right to free inquiry in the same way. It isn’t the most heinous rights violation in the history of the world or anything, but it is wrong.Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
2 years ago

““When we have good reason to think that the position advocated by a potential speaker is wrong…”
The issue I have here is who gets to decide what’s a ‘good reason’ that someone is wrong? Are we arrogating to ourselves as professionally trained philosophers this prerogative? If so, it’s difficult to describe what a bad idea I think this is.
Looked at another way – I thought the reason we might invite controversial speakers to campuses is in order to hear and debate their points of view – so that we might be able to make an informed decision whether we believe that they’re wrong (and if so, why), rather than prejudging the matter.
“”The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.”–Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Dawn, 1881.”Report

Prab
Prab
Reply to  Cathy Legg
2 years ago

“Looked at another way – I thought the reason we might invite controversial speakers to campuses is in order to hear and debate their points of view – so that we might be able to make an informed decision whether we believe that they’re wrong (and if so, why), rather than prejudging the matter.”

Would you say that Medical Departments that have not platformed anti-vaxxers have in some sense prejudged the matter? I mean, I think I have good reason to think anti-vaxxers are wrong, but should I be skeptical of those reasons? Would the only way for me to make a more informed decision on what to believe about vaccines be to invite a speaker to a university campus? Why think debating different points of views is the only way to place oneself in a position to make an informed decision on what to believe on any given controversial topic? Thank you for your thought provoking comment.Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
Reply to  Prab
2 years ago

Thank you for your thought-provoking reply.
The vaccine-autism hypothesis is a tough case as the probability that it’s true at this point seems close to zero. Nevertheless there is always so much more to be learnt about how the human body works, and great surprises have happened in the history of every science. So what if a medical department invited an anti-vaxxer to come and give a talk, then all sat around and with the greatest respect rebutted every point the speaker put forward. I could see this being a never-forgotten teaching moment for the grad students of that program. If the department would then put a recording of the event online, that could also be rather useful. Would an anti-vaxxer even volunteer to be part of such a forum? Somehow I doubt it.
The cases where no-platforming seems more of a live option to me are cases such as Milo Y, where the claims are more political (thus less ‘verifiable’), and deliberately designed to troll. But although I might agree with efforts to no-platform him, it would be for reasons importantly different to Neil’s claims about ‘higher-order’ epistemic warrant.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
2 years ago

Right, Cathy.

Also: professional academics are employed to sort through the competing arguments on various issues, and we get paid to do that because we’ve managed to convince everyone that it’s in the public interest for us to. If we then turn around and say, “Oh yeah, we’ve just decided that our job only involves considering arguments we think are reasonable, and we’re going to make it more difficult for our colleagues who don’t share the dominant political slant of our discipline or who want to look at what’s outside the echo chamber to even hear the other side of the story”, then one can imagine that the public might wonder whether this is really helping them get something good for their sponsorship or whether we’ve just decided to do something else (i.e. shut down important conversations, indoctrinate others, and make life more comfortable for ourselves). Actually, I’d join them in wondering that!Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 years ago

Worth highlighting here that almost all of us already think it would be outrageous to invite some people. We’re talking about where to draw the line, not whether some people should not be given a platform.

Of course professional philosophers don’t get to decide. We don’t have special expertise here. Equally obviously, we (for some hard to pin down value of ‘we’) are in a position to know that some views are wrong. Here’s a short list.

Black people are deserving of all the same rights and opportunities as white people, but they are currently denied some of these rights and opportunities in the United States.
Vaccines do not cause autism.
The Holocaust really happened.
Anthropogenic climate change is real and a very serious problem.
Obama was not born in Kenya.

I could extend the list. These are all things that some people deny. I know these things not on the basis of my careful consideration of the pros and cons (I am not qualified to make these judgments) but on the basis of properly filtered testimony.

Equally obviously, there are many things that I believe that are up for debate. For example, I believe that Brexit is likely to be a disaster for the United Kingdom, but a consensus on this is not yet mature enough or broad enough to place it in the category of things that shouldn’t be debated.Report

William Peden
William Peden
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

“Worth highlighting here that almost all of us already think it would be outrageous to invite some people. We’re talking about where to draw the line, not whether some people should not be given a platform.”

Those are two very different claims. I wouldn’t invite a Holocaust Denier to my academic society, but I also wouldn’t try to prevent another academic society from doing so. “No platforming” is presumably more than just “Don’t invite people whom you don’t think should be invited”.

By analogy, there are books that I wouldn’t let my children read, but that doesn’t mean that I would use no platforming strategies against parents who do.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  William Peden
2 years ago

Here’s the way Levy is using the term ‘no-platforming’, from the original essay:

No-platforming is when a person is prevented from contributing to a public debate, either through policy or protest, on the grounds that their beliefs are dangerous or unacceptable.

I’d be curious to hear more about what the people who support no-platforming have in mind on the policy side. Should there be an institutional mechanism whereby, for instance, the anthropology department can lodge a formal complaint to deplatform a speaker that the economics department has already invited?Report

William Peden
William Peden
Reply to  Preston Stovall
2 years ago

Thanks. Outside of criminal law exceptions (e.g. fraudulent speech or speech that causes a national security issue) there’s hardly a consensus in favour of instances of that.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  William Peden
2 years ago

All the more reason to wonder what sorts of policies Neil thinks ought to be implemented!Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
Reply to  Preston Stovall
2 years ago

Great questions, Preston. As a pragmatist philosopher, I think that professional philosophers should ask a lot more often than we do, “How might this idea be put into practice, and what would the resulting situation look like, specifically?”.
‘How to make our ideas clear’.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Cathy Legg
2 years ago

Indeed Cathy! It would be good of those who are advancing the kinds of positions Neil argues for to do a bit more work in spelling them out. In the absence of doing so, the arguments just aren’t very convincing for anyone not already inclined toward no-platforming one’s perceived political opponents.Report

William Peden
William Peden
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

Incidentally, I’m not sure if moral nihilists have a place in academic philosophy (or academia in general) on your view, given your first example. Do you think that we should give academic tenure to people who deny that there are any first-order moral facts?Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

Neil Levy: so if there were a speaker who had peer-reviewed publications casting doubt on the extent to which climate change is caused by human beings, or doubting the seriousness of it’s likely consequences, you think that person should not be allowed to share his views on campuses, even if invited? That’s what I took you to imply in your last comment.

Also, why couldn’t someone else declare that a pro-Brexit position is beyond the pale? What would be necessary to show that is the case? A study showing that 97 percent of economists agree it’s bad? What degree of agreement among experts is needed to declare someone anathema?Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

Neil I’m just studying your list of ‘some views that are wrong’, which you provide after having assured me that professional philosophers don’t get to decide such things.
Why do you think #1 is wrong? And why do you think #4 is wrong? I’m baffled.
I agree with Spencer Case that #4 is actually really important to debate right now. With all such significant and contested issues, it’s not a simple binary matter of is it true or is it false? But to what degree is it true, in what respects? Which amongst the many possible responses to it would it be best for our society to choose? If trained intellectuals don’t engage with all of this nuance, who will?Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Cathy Legg
2 years ago

“Trained intellectuals” does not equal philosophers. How we know most things is through testimony, properly filtered.Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 years ago

Justin – I couldn’t agree more! Well-put.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
2 years ago

If someone is likely to speak in favour of a view we know to be false, we have grounds to no-platform them, because we know that providing them with a platform by itself provides higher-order evidence in favour of that view.

I do not see good reason to accept the explanatory connection imputed in this sentence; namely, between the claim that platforming provides higher-order evidence that a view is plausible, and the conditional claim that we therefore have grounds to no-platform someone when we know what they say will be false.

Leave aside whatever trouble there surely is in sorting out the difference between the firm conviction that a view is false and the state of knowing it to be false. Acceptance of the explanation on offer turns on the ability to rule out considerations that, when put in the balance, weigh more in favor of a policy of letting groups of people talk about whatever they like (subject to the usual restrictions on incitement to violence, state secrets, etc.). From what I can see, Mill’s defense of free speech (that there are specific epistemic and social goods to be had from listening to and conversing with those who disagree with us) offers decisive considerations in favor of that policy, however. And I cannot see that anything has been said to question that defense. Perhaps Prof. Levy (or Neil, if I may) can say something to the issue?Report

Chandra Sripada
Chandra Sripada
2 years ago

Can Neil or someone else provide examples of recent cases where a university (or student group associated with a university) invited someone to speak where the speaker is known to espouse *obviously* false views, along the lines of “vaccines cause autism”, which in turn was the basis for no-platforming?

Actual targets of no platforming seem to be people like Heather Mac Donald, Charles Murray, Condoleeza Rice, Germaine Greer, and the like… Some of these people no doubt stir strong reactions. But as far as I can tell, these are people whose positions are solidly within the sphere of ideas that can be debated (and, of course, potentially refuted).

If I understand Neil’s argument correctly, it really applies to invitations to people beyond the pale. If the actual people being targeted with no-platforming are all, or nearly all, in this second category, it is not clear Neil’s argument makes much contact with what is actually happening at universities.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Chandra Sripada
2 years ago

Chandra, I’m deliberately using uncontroversial cases because that’s where the debate above has focused. That is, people have been arguing that we shouldn’t no platform at all because ….(who decides? Free speech should always be countered with more speech, or whatever).. When we get to the kind of cases you’re talking about, matters are more difficult. What I’ve done is not to show that Germaine Greer – for instance – should be no platformed. Rather, I’ve provided an argument to show that those who want to no platform her can reasonably claim that they are doing so for good epistemic reasons, not (only) because they think there are things that matter more than the balance of reasons. Whether they’d be right is a different question. Contrary to some people above, I’m not appointing myself Truth Czar.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

Rather, I’ve provided an argument to show that those who want to no platform [Germaine Greer] can reasonably claim that they are doing so for good epistemic reasons, not (only) because they think there are things that matter more than the balance of reasons.

I don’t think you’ve shown that Neil, and for the argument I gave above. For your inference to go through you’d have to rule out Millian considerations, but it doesn’t look like your essay was written with those considerations in mind.Report

Philosopherofthefuture
Philosopherofthefuture
2 years ago

If there is a person who has been invited to speak who clearly is in direct contradiction to values an establishment wishes to uphold (and not endorse), such as Steven Bannon, then I do not think it’s unreasonable for that person to be given an introduction by the university explicitly disavowing the values espoused, but explaining why it is important to engage with that speaker for academic or historical purposes. This explanation could be included in a program for the event as well. They could also be heavily critically questioned by a moderator. Does that bias the audience against the speaker’s views? Yes, of course, but I do not think that is uncalled for if the speaker is espousing views that the institution wishes to hear for academic purposes, but does not wish to promote or endorse.Report

William Peden
William Peden
Reply to  Philosopherofthefuture
2 years ago

Apparently, the Federalist Society has a rather similarity similar policy, except directed against speakers sharing their OWN values! They invite conservative speakers (they’re a conservative law society) but they always have a commentator or respondent who offers an opposing view. (Of course, they don’t include the part of your suggestion disavowing the ideas of the speaker.)

I’m also reminded of the Catholic Church, which (as far as I know) has a policy of inviting a sceptical opposition when trying to determine if someone was a saint, e.g. I think that Christopher Hitchens was invited to make the case against the sainthood of Mother Therersa during her canonization process.Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
2 years ago

Curious to learn more about the distinct work “higher order” evidence is playing in this account. Specifically, is the idea that it justifies over and above the first order considerations, namely our direct evaluation of research or likely learning outcomes (ie is there a case where you are justified in deplatforming because of negative second order reasons over and above having positive first order reasons)? Or is a negative second order reason just a typical consequence of a negative first order reason, in which case you really don’t need to consult the second order at all for the justification, you could just use the first order things, that you think a research program is super wrong or bad for learning etc?Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Wesley Buckwalter
2 years ago

The first. In the restaurant case, the fact you disagree with me is a reason for me to rethink. It gives me evidence that I don’t get from the prices on the menu plus my arithmetic. Of course, I already knew I was fallible. But the fact you disagree with me is evidence that raises the probability that I have made a mistake on this occasion. To see this, imagine we are a party of 10, and each of us calculates what we owe. Everyone except me gets $45. I get $49. My confidence in my answer should fall dramatically.Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

Thank you that is helpful. But I was having trouble connecting the restaurant example to the present issue about platforming. Are there some examples where you think a speaker is justifiably deplatformed because of the reputational concerns in spite of our positive evaluations of the first order scholarly or teaching reasons?Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Wesley Buckwalter
2 years ago

I don’t intend to provide reasons for de-platforming someone in spite of the first-order reasons that speak in their favor (though of course cases in which first-order and second-order pull part can arise. Tony Blair is a sensible voice on Brexit – IMHO – but the fact that the voice is his provides us with a reason for wishing he’d shut up). Rather, the context in which higher-order considerations is arise in relation to d- platforming is (mainly) the following:

Free speech advocate: Let’s hear from [controversial figure].
No plaformer: CF’s claims are dangerous and false!
Advocate: Well….perhaps you’re right. Indeed, I think you may be. But let’s not irrationally close our ears to the evidence. Let’s actually hear from CF and see what he has to say.

Now if only first-order evidence was relevant (and having in mind epistemic considerations alone) Advocate would have an extremely strong point. We’d have good reason to hear from CF and judge the first-order evidence for ourselves. But – no platformed can maintain – first-order evidence is not the only evidence that is relevant. In providing CF with a platform, we *generate* higher-order evidence in favor of the respectability of their view. If at the first-order it is indeed bad or misleading, that’s something we have reason to avoid doing.

Again, not necessarily decisive reason. But a reason, and perhaps a strong one.Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

Thank you I am begining to see how this is meant to play out. The part I am still having trouble with is that Advocate would have a strong point on the first order evidence alone in that example. That is tantamount to saying basically no first order evidence justifies not inviting someone. But if they strongly believe it is false or harmful for learning at their university why is that not enough to justify not inviting someone without second order reasons?

I was also still having trouble seeing a case regarding the university where they come apart, such that the second order would push against the first and justifies deplatforming of good scholarship and/or teaching. If this does not happen, then I don’t see why it matters whether we consult the second order.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Wesley Buckwalter
2 years ago

I don’t want to get into the specifics of cases. I am confident, though, I’m not arguing against a straw man. People Greg Lukianoff (from FIRE) for instance do say we should hear from those we know to be wrong and abhorrent. For the argument to be dialectically abhorrent, moreover, I don’t think Advocate needs to accept that the first-order evidence is in No Platformer’s favor. Rather, he needs only to accept that there is a non-negligible risk that the first order evidence is in her favor.Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
Reply to  Wesley Buckwalter
2 years ago

Thank you, I’m just wondering if there is a case that demonstrates the principal concern in the context claimed. I do not know Lukianoff’s views, but I suspect the reason for that is because of their first-order evaluation of the learning outcomes. If it was genuinely dogmatic or inappropriate to suppress evidence because of a first-order concern as Advocate claims, it strikes me as unlikely that even more speculative claims about potential second-order effects will render it less dogmatic or inappropriate to do that.Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
2 years ago

It’s an interesting point, but I worry that, for dogmatism-paradoxish reasons, the consensus view becomes unrevisable. And that’s bad, since it isn’t always the case that p, even though there’s a consensus that p.

Since the platforms at issue seem to extend to other public fora (youtube, Aeon, etc.) the overlords of these have the same epistemic reason to no-platform the out-of-consensus view. And even if that view ends up at one of these, I have reason not to bother with reading or viewing the argument, since I have good evidence (a consensus to the contrary) that the view is false. Absent becoming experts themselves (often, a practical impossibility), the lay folk must rely on a change in the consensus in order to be moved off of their position.

But all of this seems to extend to the consensus community as well. They have their platforms – journals, conferences, departmental presentations, grant-funders. And the gatekeepers of these have the same epistemic reason to reject the out-of-consensus views. Most of those in the expert community rely on group consensus – individuals not belng in a position read, evaluate, or to attempt to replicate all the relevant studies, experiments, etc. With so many other interesting views about which there is no consensus, why waste journal space or grant resources on a view we already know to be true (by consensus)? And so the consensus can never be challenged.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
2 years ago

Neil Levy: Thank you for the reply, and for indicating some of the things you apparently think could be worthy of denying a platform to a speaker. Though these cases are fundamental to you, they aren’t very clear to me (and presumably to others), so perhaps it would be helpful to discuss them.

Here are some of the views you say are so clearly true that, as I understand you, it would be appropriatet to prevent anyone who denies them from speaking at a university in any context.

1. “Vaccines do not cause autism” and “Anthropogenic climate change is real and a very serious problem.”

I agree with both those claims. But I only agree with them because I believe that there has been robust, mutually critical, and open discussion by scientists about the research done. Despite the protestations of some (but not all) conservative and libertarian critics, I don’t (presently) think the International Panel on Climate Change was politicized enough to concoct and promote a false narrative and stifle legitimate criticism. I have read and watched some reactions to the promoters of the anthropogenic climate change idea (like the Great Global Warming Swindle), and also the critics of the GGWS. I came to the conclusion that the criticisms I saw were being advanced dishonestly.

But I’d definitely be interested in hearing new research that suggests that vaccines cause autism after all, or that there is no anthropogenic climate change, or that it isn’t a serious problem. I’d especially like to hear what qualified and informed scientists have to say about it. If I were to learn that any legitimate research that might cast some doubts on the current views were being systematically excluded from the conversation, then my trust in anything I heard about these matters would be considerably reduced. It’s precisely _because_ I don’t think that any significant no-platforming took place here that I trust the results.

2. “The Holocaust really happened.”

I’m an ethnic Jew who met most of my ancestors who fled eastern Europe to avoid persecution, and I knew (and was taught by) some beloved members of the Jewish community who personally survived the Holocaust. So that historical event has personal importance to me, and I would very much like to understand it and hope that we can learn enough from it to prevent things like it from happening again. I’ve had conversations with a couple of people who held that the whole thing was a historical fabrication, and I was very keen to hear what reasons they could give for that conclusion. The case was about as weak, it seemed to me, as the case for Young Earth creationism: impressive-sounding if you don’t look up the responses of people in the know about those things, but embarrassingly bad if you could actually see the bogus reasoning and evidence exposed for what it is.

You seem to suggest a moral case for no-platforming such people: if they are given a platform at a university, they can point to that as evidence of their view’s legitimacy. But what’s the alternative? I see the choice as being roughly as follows:

a) Let the Holocaust denier show up (if someone invites him or her) and present a case, and then have experts on hand who can clearly demolish that case. Let the audience see how pathetically weak the case is. Perhaps the speaker will give it up, perhaps not; but the audience will see where the evidence lies.

b) Bar the Holocaust denier from appearing, and weather the ensuing publicity of that refusal by taking pride in one’s moral stand, saying things like “Holocaust deniers are not welcome here.”

In the first case, the risk you point to is that some people who don’t attend the event to see how poor the reasoning is might still be so impressed by the fact that someone actually presented the view (never mind the result) at a university that they start to think it’s a legitimate position, because they don’t understand how universities work. But what about the risks of the second case? In particular, there’s the risk that neo-Nazis can (and do) promote their view by saying that the universities are centers of leftist indoctrination and that they’re afraid to confront the facts — and they can point to the news story about the Holocaust denier being banned from speaking at a university as support for this. Is there really a good reason for thinking that the popularity of neo-Nazism would increase more in the first case than in the second? I don’t yet see it.

Meanwhile, nobody will have the opportunity of learning the refutations of Holocaust-deniers’ standard arguments. It really seems to be a losing proposition to me! I know I’m taking a radical view by saying this, but I haven’t yet seen why this is wrong.

3. “Black people are deserving of all the same rights and opportunities as white people, but they are currently denied some of these rights and opportunities in the United States.”

This one is interesting because the issue (of the second conjunct) is a spectrum. At one extreme, we have the view that black people aren’t really denied any rights or opportunities at all, but that we’ve generally come to believe otherwise because of wrongful historical extrapolations, cherry-picked or biased reporting, etc. At the other extreme, we have the view that, in every important respect, black people in this country are at a significant disadvantage and have every one of their rights systematically denied; and that this puts even a seemingly powerful and prosperous black person at an important disadvantage compared with a seemingly low-status white person. And I have heard both white and black people espouse both those extreme views. However, most people seem to have a more nuanced position than either extreme.

Your phrasing, “they are currently denied _some_ of the rights,” suggests that perhaps you would only hold it appropriate to no-platform those who take the extreme view that black people are not generally denied _any_ of the rights and opportunities in the United States. Is that right? Or do you also think that people whose views are not that extreme could rightly be no-platformed? How far from the extreme end of the spectrum would you go on this one?

Also, do you support no-platforming only that extreme, or also the opposite extreme? I have encountered many academics who have confirmed to me that they hold the opposite extreme, but nobody seems interested in no-platforming them. If you do think there’s an important reason for treating the extremes differently, could you please explain what that is?

4. This one doesn’t have to do with any of the fundamental truths you mention, but I’d be interested to hear what you say about the findings on implicit bias.

Some background: when I first heard about implicit bias research over a decade ago, I took the IAT, then had all my students take it. I incorporated the research on implicit bias into many of my courses on ethics and critical thinking, since I thought it was very important for all of us to come to grips with the ways in which we and others subtly discriminate against and marginalize people.

Later, I began to hear from some social scientists that many problems had been found with the original implicit bias research (using the IAT but also using other metrics), and that the things I accepted and was in fact teaching to my students year after year had been pretty well refuted as junk science. I read a number of critical articles on the implicit bias research (a good overview is here https://www.thecut.com/2017/01/psychologys-racism-measuring-tool-isnt-up-to-the-job.html ), hoping to be able to find a refutation that would preserve my original beliefs, but I checked up on some of the support for the criticism and it seemed solid enough.

I then turned to people I knew who supported the idea of pervasive implicit bias, hoping that someone could show me where the criticisms that troubled me went wrong. But nobody ever provided a reply to them. Some people promised to, but nobody ever did. Because of this, I now think (though perhaps someone here will put me right) that the original research supporting very common beliefs on implicit bias is simply not reliable, and that it’s in fact been refuted.

Now for the question: assuming that nobody presents me with good evidence that that my current view is incorrect, do my epistemic priors now (on your view) make it legitimate for me to try to no-platform those who believe in implicit bias as commonly conceived? I’ve done due diligence on this: I certainly didn’t start out with a preconception against implicit bias (quite the opposite, and my former students can tell you how much I tried to sell them on it); I considered both sides of the issue quite carefully, to the best of my ability, before changing my mind; and I have always tried to solicit a critical response against the view I now hold. In fact, I believe that the view I now hold — which entails that the merits of ‘implicit bias training’, for instance, are probably nonexistent and based on bad science — is the mainstream view among social science researchers who work on the issue.

Thanks in advance for reading.

https://www.thecut.com/2017/01/psychologys-racism-measuring-tool-isnt-up-to-the-job.htmlReport

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 years ago

Justin – apologies in advance for not giving your comment the thorough response it deserves. I hope a brief response is better than none.

It’s important to emphasize that my claims are completely compatible with debate continuing over all sorts of claims, even when we might have good reason to no platform those who might engage in such debates. You have no interest in hearing about a putative link between vaccines and autism. That’s because you’re not remotely qualified to evaluate new evidence (neither, of course, am I). We may rightly no platform Wakefield and his ilk. If they produce new evidence, they should submit it to the appropriate journals, not to give a public lecture. The same goes for climate change, and the Holocaust. Matters are different when the point of discussion is public policy and then things get harder. Still, many of those who (say) advocate doing nothing about climate change build their argument on empirical claims which don’t deserve a public hearing.

Of course, this requires that we have a relatively well functioning specialist community to work. If we don’t, we’re in a bad way. In that case, public debate of climate science won’t help, so I’m not concerned that my proposal makes our bad (counterfactual, I think) worse.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

Hi, Neil. I’m afraid you have that part of my position backward!

Far from having no interest in hearing about a putative link between vaccines and autism, I have a strong interest in hearing about such a link. I have that interest for two reasons: first, it might be that my current view (that there is no such link) is mistaken; and second, if I’m not mistaken, I can find out what some of the most convincing vaccination/autism arguments are and can perhaps find out how to refute them (particularly if some experts on the issue show up and challenge the speaker in a principled manner during the Q&A).

But even if I didn’t personally care about the vaccination/autism thing, I would have a strong interest in having the conversation take place. I think we all do.

What about the fact that, as you say, I’m not remotely qualified to hear new evidence on the matter? I hope you’re not right about this. True, I have no background in medicine. But it seems to me that many reasonably intelligent and sincere people can learn where the evidence lies on an issue by hearing those who are experts debate the matter. I think, for instance, that I have a pretty good grasp on the problems with Young Earth creationists’ arguments, even though I have never done any serious work in geology, biology, etc. I have read works on the subject and watched conversations between experts unfold, and that has told me enough.

If you are right that (as I understand you to be saying) those of us who don’t have a background in the relevant disciplines are in no position to come to decisions on the basis of hearing clear arguments by experts, and yet that we have to put our unquestioning faith in the statements of the experts in that field or else accept skepticism, then skepticism on these issues seems far wiser than trusting the conclusions of people who have acquired what expertise they have in a community that countenances the marginalization of people they don’t agree with. The potential for corruption of the dialectical process in a system in which people are no-platformed _and_ all the non-experts are barred from raising doubts on the matter is just far too great.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 years ago

These are exactly the sorts of considerations that Mill appeals to in his defense of free speech. If Neil’s position is to have any merit he really needs to address them head-on.Report

DAW
DAW
2 years ago

Robert Nozick was, by almost all accounts, a brilliant American philosopher.

At the time he wrote Anarchy, State, and Utopia, he held views that many, perhaps a majority of current day philosophers, would find false, badly argued for, repugnant, and/or dangerous.

Would we have considerable reason for no-platforming Nozick on these topics, if someone brought him back to life?Report

DAW
DAW
2 years ago

“When we have good reason to think that the position advocated by a potential speaker is wrong, we have an epistemic reason in favour of no-platforming: we can be confident that providing her with a platform will produce evidence in favour of her views that it is very difficult to rebut (and which can’t be rebutted by argument). Sometimes, at least, this consideration will be weighty enough to justify refusing to provide speakers with a platform.”

If these claims are correct, it seems to me that this would add weight to refusing Nozick a platform on, say, the existence of a positive right against the state that a person not unwillingly starve to death alone and unaided.Report

Malcolm
Malcolm
2 years ago

It could be that an invitation to speak will tend to suggest that the speaker’s opinion is “deserving” of a “respectful hearing”. But that’s very (very) weak evidence “in favour” of the opinion. If you have no other relevant evidence, the strongest conclusion you could draw would be something like this: the opinion is not utterly obviously insane. But as a philosopher I see no problem in giving a respectful hearing to any opinion as long as the person holding the opinion is making some kind of real effort to present reasons for it, even if it seems to me or most people that the opinion is obviously insane or wrong or immoral. I don’t see that my confidence or anyone else’s entitles me or anyone else to be disrespectful to the person putting forward their reasons, or to prevent other people from hearing the reasons for the opinion (on campus or in some other suitable place). So I don’t see why it would be a problem even if everyone came to think that all opinions (presented with some attempt at reasoning) deserve a respectful hearing. A reasonable person is not going to infer that all opinions are equally reasonable, or that none are seriously unreasonable, or that some opinion supported only by terrible first-order evidence is probably true just because it deserves a respectful hearing. And if the idea here is that we can’t expect students or other people to be reasonable, why not just announce that the point of having a university is to tell everyone what the true and rational opinions are?Report