Laura Hollis / August 18, 2022

Academic Theories Should Not Be the Basis for Public Policy

Academic theorists are proven wrong all the time; that’s no big deal. But when politicians and multinational corporations get involved, it’s much more insidious.

Last week, Time magazine published an article that described the pushback against teaching phonics in Oakland, California, public schools. Despite remarkable progress in reading skills among the district’s most disadvantaged students, teachers rebelled against teaching phonics. It was too old-fashioned; it wasn’t in keeping with the latest theories; it wasn’t “progressive” enough and didn’t focus on “social justice.”

This is a perfect example of why public policy should not be based upon academic theories.

One major problem is the “publish or perish” hamster wheel of tenure in academia that incentivizes young faculty to crank out articles, regardless of their substantive merit. There have been many embarrassing examples of how even peer-reviewed publication does not prove — or sometimes even evaluate — the merits of espoused theories. What’s more, there’s a penchant for novelty and controversy. (In other words, there’s little incentive for an academic in education to write an article that says, “Guess what? Phonics still works…”) Theories that garner attention generate responses; citations in later articles written by other academics are then used as proof of intellectual heft. But this, too, is often a shell game. Peter Boghossian, author and former professor at Portland State University, has written extensively about how the publication process actually “launders” cockamamie ideas, creating a false impression of intellectual seriousness.

The situation becomes exponentially worse when these academic musings get picked up and pushed as policy. At that point, we’re told — by people who know nothing about how academia works — that the policies are solid because there is “research” behind them.

That’s nonsense on stilts. It’s a perversion of academic pursuits to grab the latest “theory” and then throw the machinery of public policymaking behind it, and there are plenty of reasons why.

First, politicians think only in terms of the next election; academic theories often take years to prove, and those that seem iron-clad can be debunked later. In legitimate academic inquiry, researchers take a position, and their peers in the discipline will conduct their own tests and try to replicate the results. Later research may produce different conclusions. Whether a new teaching method helps children read, or synthetic fertilizers produce better crops, or isolation tank therapy benefits those suffering from psychological trauma are matters requiring long-term testing that cannot be squeezed into a two- or four-year election cycle.

Second, in the social sciences, the most popular theories can be excitingly inflammatory but unprovable (“Babies are racists!”) or even demonstrably false. (The “1619 Project” claims that the American Revolutionary War was fought to preserve the institution of slavery.) And there is an odd affinity for the disproven. A great many intellectuals continue to be enamored with socialism and communism, for example, despite the horrific human loss associated with the implementation of the “theories” behind those political and economic systems.

Third, policymakers often don’t understand the science behind whatever it is that they’re legislating. When ignorance drives public policy, the results are ineffective at best, catastrophic at worst.

Fourth, politics, unfortunately, is an “us or them” game of absolutes and extremes. I’m the Savior of the Free World; my opponent is the One Who Will Destroy Civilization As We Know It. This is not the way academic theorizing works. A lot of scientific conclusions are contextual or conditional. (“Under X conditions, Y happened. We don’t know if we’d get the same results under different circumstances or with a different control group.”) They don’t lend themselves to all-or-nothing political conclusions.

Fifth, once something is a proven fact, it’s not the subject of political argument. (Is the existence of gravity a matter for debate between the Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or Green parties?) But in the absence of actual facts, speculation marketed as “scientific consensus” has become a plank in party platforms. That’s a political battle against truth. When we don’t know whether something is true, we should be waiting to find out, not reflexively taking a position based on which political party is espousing it.

And here’s where politicizing academic inquiry becomes the most dangerous. Politicians sell themselves and their preferred policies to the public on the basis of their “goodness.” Claiming an unproven or flawed academic theory as part of their politics creates the impression that challenging that theory is somehow immoral or less “good” in some way.

That’s bunk; those challenges, properly conducted, are the proving grounds for innovation and societal improvement. But it’s worse than just stifling human progress; once elected, policymakers and their megadonors tie themselves to a particular theory. They have every reason to ensure that their pet thesis never gets disproven, regardless of the human toll associated with being wrong.

Academic theorists are proven wrong all the time; that’s no big deal. But when politicians and multinational corporations get involved, it’s much more insidious. Now, there is great power and huge sums of money at stake. These power-seekers enlist print, broadcast and social media to shut down inquiry, investigation, discussion, competing research (and/or the results therefrom) and calls for transparency and accountability. They enlist armies of millions of deliberately deceived ordinary citizens to silence and shame anyone who dares to ask questions or point out inconsistencies. They label as “disinformation” or “misinformation” facts that they do not want the public to know — until it’s too late to do anything about it.

None of these tactics are proper procedures in science or academic inquiry. If you are part of them or defending them, you are not “following the science”; you’re playing your small role in thwarting it as part of the Social Media Shock Troops for Censorship.

The best way for those outside of academia to contribute to science and progress is to stand up for inquiry and transparency, defend those engaged in it and refuse to be taken in by pundits or politicians who are exploiting it for personal gain.

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