Contrarians at the Gates

On responsible scholarship and engagement with heterodox ideas

Professor Newman has posted his own response to the “article” in which Stepan Wood, Meinhard Doelle, and Dayna Scott attempt to besmirch his well-earned reputation as one of Canada’s leading constitutional law scholars. As he says, “it is a serious threat to responsible academic discourse to make mistake-riddled arguments in ways that paint academic interlocutors as personally irresponsible and lacking integrity”, which, as he shows, is what Professors Wood, Doelle, and Scott have done. As he also explains, while his critics purport to be concerned about “responsible scholarship”, their argument is so focused on just one article that he wrote that one cannot but “ask what the goal really was”. I will venture some speculation about the answer to this question.

To be blunt, I think that the goal is to constrain the scope of what may be said by academics writing on politically salient issues, how it can be said, and where. Now, Professors Wood, Doelle, and Scott deny this. They write:

Vigorous debate and disagreement are the lifeblood of academic discourse and the engine for advancement of knowledge. To insist on rigour and fairness in such debate is not to impose “political correctness” on scholars who espouse unpopular views. Nor is it a manifestation of the fragility of a liberal academic establishment unable to handle controversial perspectives. (13)

Of course this is true, as a general proposition. But we need not take on faith the claims of those who would have us believe that they do no more than dispassionately insist on rigour and fairness. We can look at the specifics of their argument, and at the way in which it is framed. Professor Newman has mostly done the former. I shall mostly do the latter.

One striking thing about the Wood, Doelle, and Scott article is that it is not just about “responsible scholarship” as a timeless value, as Professor Newman’s response is. It’s about “responsible scholarship in a crisis” (emphasis mine). This framing is not just a flourish. The entire opening section of the article argues that debates about climate policy are occurring “in the context of an unprecedented crisis”, (2) and that scholarly commentary ― and hence the norms of responsible scholarship ― are especially salient at such times because “[a]ctors in government, civil society and business often appeal to academic expertise to diagnose and resolve crises”. (3)

The norms to which Professors Wood, Doelle, and Scott appeal are not crisis-specific, to be sure (though, as Professor Newman shows, their relevance to their argument is questionable), but this framing is not innocent. It reinforces the dynamic which my colleague Allan Beever decries in his article on “Engagement, Criticism, and the Academic Lawyer”, (2017) 27 New Zealand Universities Law Review 1111. Professor Beever suggests that

academic lawyers, given their subordinate position in the legal system, are all too desperate to believe that they really matter, believing that if they matter that must be in something like the way that judges matter, thereby coming to believe that “dangerous” ideas have to be battled against in the way that they would be were they, say, influencing the decisions of the Supreme Court. (1125)

Of course, if the dangerous ideas are likely to influence the decision of a Supreme Court in a crisis, they are all the more dangerous and must be battled against all the stronger. This is why I say that Professors Wood, Doelle, and Scott are seeking to limit what can be said about politically salient issues: it is the topical nature and valence of Professor Newman’s ideas that trigger their attack. And they make no bones about the fact that they indeed worried about Professor Newman’s ideas influencing the Supreme Court of Canada’s consideration of the constitutionality of the federal carbon tax legislation.

I suspect, moreover, that this “crisis” framing helps explain why Professors Wood, Doelle, and Scott escalate the battle further and attack not only Professor Newman’s “dangerous” ideas but his integrity. His work, they say, “crosses a line that separates distortion and disparagement from constructive scholarly debate” (12) and “does not uphold standards of scrupulous fairness in scholarly research”. (13) It cannot be trusted and should be summarily disregarded. This makes actual scholarly debate unnecessary and indeed impossible ― there’s no point or even meaning in debating a dishonest person.

Yet this is facile and self-serving. Instead of doing the hard work of refuting the arguments they disagree with, Professors Wood, Doelle, and Scott attempt to discredit the person advancing them. This is also, of course, a myopic tactic that can and is bound to be used against scholars who agree with the substantive positions that Professors Wood Doelle, and Scott would defend. Indeed I’m pretty sure that ad hominem attacks on academics have long been more of a “thing” on the political right than on the left, not necessarily because the right is somehow even more immoral than the left, but simply because the academy has always tilted leftwards, making it easier for the right to find targets there. The tilt is growing ever stronger, and as it does so the cost to the political right of attacking not only individual scholars but also entire disciplines and the academy as a whole falls ― there is less and less of a risk of making victims with friendly fire. “Progressive” scholars who make personal discreditation an acceptable way of conducting academic disputes are only helping sharpen the weapons that will be directed at them.

But regardless of political implications, what is certain is that personal discreditation destroys the possibility of genuine scholarly debate bringing truth to light. Such debate requires mutual criticism, but is incompatible with enmity. As Professor Beever writes, “it is important … to distinguish between criticism and hostility. Criticism can be extremely robust, but it always takes its object seriously.” (1125) Professors Wood, Doelle, and Scott don’t want their readers to take the work they attack seriously, and so prove Professor Beever’s point that “[i]n law … hostility all too frequently prevents genuine criticism from occurring”. (1125)

Let me turn now briefly to my claim that Professors Wood, Doelle, and Scott want to limit the manner in which scholarly debate can happen. They chide Professor Newman both for criticizing the work of particular scholars, for example making a point of noting that one of them is “his junior untenured colleague”. (Ironically, especially given Professors Wood, Doelle, and Scott’s concern with distortions, the person in question is no longer Professor Newman’s colleague.) But then they also accuse Professor Newman of “casual generalizations [that] are examples of sloppy research”, (10) because he does not name other scholars who represent the trends against which he inveighs.

You’re damned if you do name specific scholars to criticize ― especially if they are junior colleagues ― and equally damned if you don’t. Now, one might debate how much a scholar should name the names of those he or she criticizes. Professor Beever suggests that this should be done sparingly, and widely held positions should be attacked without singling out individual representatives. I’m not sure I quite agree. But in any case it’s one or the other. Either generalizing is bad, and one should focus on individuals ― but then, it really shouldn’t matter who they are ― or one should be allowed to generalize. (I’ll note that, as a still relatively junior academic, I rather resent the suggestion that I should be treated with kid gloves by my elders and betters, at my institution or anywhere else.)

Besides, there is also something perverse about Professors Wood, Doelle, and Scott attacking the tone of Professor Newman’s article and its alleged lack of fairness to the targets of its criticism in an article that is anything but charitable, and indeed quite unfair, to Professor Newman, as he eloquently shows. Yet this is hardly surprising. There is a consistent asymmetry to tone-policing in the Canadian legal community. Scholars who criticize the received wisdom and its upholders are expected to be on their best behaviour. Those who uphold it are held to no such standard.

Finally, I turn to the question of where scholarly debate can take place. Professors Wood, Doelle, and Scott write that “[a] rigorous peer review process would normally catch most problems like the ones we have identified”, (13) and add, in a footnote, that “[t]he Saskatchewan Law Review failed to reply to inquiries … whether Professor Newman’s article was peer reviewed”. (13) Some of the subsequent Twitter discussion also focused on this issue. Yet to the extent that the implication here is that “responsible scholarship” is peer-reviewed scholarship, this is beside the point.

One issue is that, just like the invocation of crisis and the call for respectful tone, the appeal to the authority of peer review is less innocent than it might seem. As I wrote here, “the peer review process is a bit of a crapshoot” for heterodox ideas. Even when they are well argued, “some reviewers will bristle and see their role as that of gatekeepers preserving scholarship from heresy”. To be sure, as I further pointed out, heterodox scholarship can make it through peer review. But the issue of excessive gate-keeping, often applying double standards, is real enough. To insist that only scholarship that has made it through peer review matters is to load the scales in favour of conformist ideas, which have an easier time overcoming this hurdle.

But the real problem is more fundamental. Peer review simply does not guarantee quality; plenty of rubbish makes it through peer review and gets published, while good ideas get rejected. When Joshua Gans and George Shepherd asked

140 leading economists, including all living winners of the Nobel Prize and John Bates Clark Medal, to describe instances in which journals rejected their papers [they] hit a nerve. More than 60 percent responded, many with several blistering pages. (165)

It would be interesting to see a similar study in law, but I rather doubt that peer review in our discipline does much better.

Conversely, the fact that an idea did not go through peer review ― for example because it was published in an American journal, or even on a blog ― does not mean that it is bad. Readers can decide for themselves. A lawyer, or at least an expert in a given field, let alone a judge assisted by a platoon of clerks, can always check for him- or herself whether an argument holds up ― whether the sources it cites support it, whether it is missing something. If one wants to criticize the defects of an argument, one should identify them, instead of lazily musing about whether the argument has been peer reviewed.

This, ultimately, is a big part of what the matter comes down to: faced with deep and seemingly consequential disagreements, are we willing to do the hard work of explaining why our opponents are misguided and mistaken? Or are we content to discredit or tone-police them, or say that they didn’t published their ideas in the right format or in the right venue, so as to avoid substantive engagement?

But the issue is not limited to the avoidance of hard work. In a crisis it is tempting to take shortcuts. The lure of sophistry is too powerful to resist. If ad hominem attacks, tone policing, and arguments from authority can help defeat the danger that wrong ideas, or wrong people, will influence decision-makers, why not resort to them? The contrarians are at the gates ― this is no time for old-fashioned notions of probity.

Yet probity, as well as curiosity about ideas one disagrees with, and friendliness to those who expound them, are the perennial values that no crisis can put to rest. Responsible scholars, tear down these walls! Open these gates!

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law and legal philosophy at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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