Why does the public misunderstand the academy?
English biologist and author Richard Dawkins was in hot water recently after saying that, if given the choice, expectant mothers ought to abort their foetus if tests confirm it to have Down’s syndrome. Australian ethicist Peter Singer recently faced similar public backlash for stating a man who committed suicide to avoid prison may have been acting “rationally”.
Should we begin dismantling the ivory tower now or does this merely point to repairable structural faults? In this potential-academic’s appraisal: the fault is in our contexts.
Context was the name of the intellectual game in 1967, or at least one French philosopher thought so. Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstructive criticism – an approach to the study of meaning – set course for context, and yet still managed to have his own words yanked out of it. “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” (there is no outside-text) he wrote in his seminal work, Of Grammatology. It took but a few years for critics to begin insisting he instead meant ‘Il n’y a rien en dehors du text’ (there is nothing outside of the text). Irony couldn’t have been crueler; any full reading of the quote within its context would avoid such embarrassing mistranslations or misinterpretations.
So differing contexts can even confuse discourse between individual ivory towers (the adjoining canopy is dense, no doubt). If even professional philosophers can get lost, it’s no fault of anyone’s that the public can often misinterpret the academy, and vice-versa.
“Evolution is just a theory,” some like to remind us. Religious adherents who believe that a divine being created us, and not that we evolved – along with everything – from common ancestors, often attempt to discredit the scientific theory of evolution by abusing linguistic contexts. In the academic, specifically scientific, context, a theory is something which robustly explains natural phenomena and is developed in response to overwhelming experimental evidence, whereas the common parlance ranks theory only mildly above an unsubstantiated suspicion.
When a scientist uses the phrase significant difference, they mean something quite specific in terms of statistics and probability. When a philosopher says an argument appears valid, they don’t mean its premises are true or that they agree with the conclusion, just that the conclusion logically follows if the premises are true.
Such differences are not limited to the meaning of individual words or phrases, however, often they can be in the very way an idea is articulated. In the academy, one might speak exclusively abstractly, or use a shocking analogy to prove some underlying logic or principle. The analogy might seem obscene, or the abstract argument, if taken literally, absurd, but all of that is superficial – it is the principle at work or the logic at play. Articulating concepts in this way is often necessary if sufficiently complex or counterintuitive, as many important ones are.
These clashes of context are often what drives humour, especially those lame two-liners – Never iron a four-leaf clover. You don’t want to press your luck. However when public and academic contexts collide it can be anything but funny.
Down’s syndrome is a genetic disorder which causes developmental delay and intellectual disability. Of the many resultant medical problems that can arise in the first few years of life, heart and blood diseases are the most serious and life-threatening. The majority of children with the syndrome require early and ongoing educational and medical intervention, and most do not graduate from secondary school. Independence in adulthood is varied, though many report a good quality of life.
Dawkins would rather an expectant mother abort their foetus with Down’s syndrome and attempt another pregnancy. This may seem unduly harsh, but let’s consider some reasons why we might think so.
First, we must agree that abortion – in principle – is morally acceptable. The stronger version of this argument relies on the concept of moral personhood, I think; the foetus is not a person, and lacks the same capacities (therefore status) of a person. A foetus cannot understand itself or its surroundings, for instance. (Incidentally, this sort of reasoning is transferable to the ethics of euthanasia.) Justification based on a woman’s autonomy or reproductive rights is equally common and sufficient for our purposes here, however.
Next we should decide if the future person will have a good life, and (if we are to be the parent of this child) whether or not we can financially, emotionally, and otherwise support the child. Even if we could reasonably predict that the foetus would eventually become a happy adult, we might still have reason to think abortion is preferable in order to avoid medical risks and problems, especially in early childhood. That we prevent the future potential person from ever being cannot be put as a mark against us, just like the couple who chooses to abstain from reproduction entirely does nothing wrong by preventing future potential persons to come into existence.
When Singer stated that some suicides could be rational, he also took likely future events or experiences into account. A key difference in this case, however, was that these experiences were inevitable due to the current existence of a person.
None of this is new territory for Dawkins or Singer. Most recently, in July, Dawkins weathered a similar barrage of criticism stemming from him saying act X is worse than act Y, and others mistakenly thinking this implies that one need also be saying act Y is acceptable at the same time. Not so. If I were to say that “two murders are worse than one,” does it follow that I find one murder acceptable? No, I have only said what is worse than one. The problem for Dawkins in this instance was that he (necessarily, per his chosen point) used examples of rape – hardly a non-emotive issue.
This is another common contextual hurdle for academics. They are trained in objectivity, and approach sensitive issues from a rational standpoint. Comparatively, moral knee-jerks are an in-built and natural human response; our emotions all too easily pervade our reason.
Reconciliation of these contexts won’t come easily or quickly or with anything less than the more public exposure of academic discourse. Our ultimate aim should be the altogether falsification of the dichotomy by way of education and more rigorous public debate. If that’s to happen, controversies like these won’t fade away, they’ll become more common. Academics and the public should therefore brace for impact.
Author’s note: For help or information on depression, or if you are experiencing mental distress, contact your local medical or mental health service.