The challenges and virtues of achieving agreeable disagreement
I won’t be testifying in the Mann vs. Steyn/Simberg trial in Washington, DC trial this week. Perhaps next week, stay tuned — if I do, I will provide a full report here at THB. Rather than commenting on the trial, which I have been avoiding due to my role as a possible witness, today I share a much updated version of the post below (which has some outdated links, sorry), originally from 2018. Bottom line: Engage, respect, listen, and always try to take the high road, as challenging as that might be. —RP
More than a century ago, American pragmatist John Dewey emphasized the importance of “intellectual hospitality.” By this he meant,
“An attitude of mind which actively welcomes suggestions and relevant information from all sides.”
Today, experts face a crisis of intellectual hospitality with implications not just for the art of science communication but also for the broader roles of experts in democracy.
My views on intellectual hospitality have been shaped by my experiences, which are surely not representative, but which also are not unique. Delegitimization of unwelcome ideas and the people who express them is the opposite of intellectual hospitality.
This essay makes a case for why these uncomfortable issues should have a more prominent role in our discussions of science communication.
Over the years, I’ve encountered strong positive and negative responses to my efforts to foster an atmosphere of intellectual hospitality on hotly contested issues.
For example, not long ago I gave a talk on climate science and politics at a major US university in a state that voted for Donald Trump. After the talk, a man raised his hand and exclaimed, “I want to give you a kiss!”
It was not the usual reaction to my lectures.
He said that he was a local, elected Republican official and explained,
“This is the first talk on climate that I have heard where I was not made to feel stupid or evil.”
He did not comment on my vigorous defense of the science of extreme weather reported in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or my longstanding advocacy for an economy-wide carbon tax. His emotional response was instead surely due to my attitude of intellectual hospitality.
My experiences are not unique and reflect more general understandings backed by empirical research. For instance, Susan Fiske and Cydney Dupree surveyed public views of climate scientists and concluded,
“Science communication, like other communication, needs to convey communicator warmth/trustworthiness as well as competence/expertise, to be credible.”
We know well that expertise is most effective when informing policy when it is viewed to be — in one classic formulation: salient, credible, and legitimate. Intellectual hospitality reinforces trust and engagement.
In my younger and more naïve days, I assumed that my efforts to engage respectfully with those who did not share my (and most of my colleagues’) political views would be encouraged by my peers. After all, effective policy making requires more than just a robust evidence base, it also needs support from across the political spectrum.
But I have learned, repeatedly and sometimes brutally, such engagement is often not welcomed — by those on the left or the right. In fact, it is punished. Tribes shall not converse. Aisles shall not be crossed.
Another experience of mine illustrates these dynamics well.
About 6 years ago, I was alerted to the fact that a conservative group much-hated among climate activists, The Heartland Institute, had published a report in which they claimed falsely that I was a co-author and member of a committee that had produced the report. I’ve never had any connection to the Heartland Institute.
It is always a good practice to avoid labeling as a conspiracy that resulting from incompetence. Maybe Heartland confused an attitude of “intellectual hospitality” with political affinity. No doubt they may have found some of the peer-reviewed research I’ve done on disasters and climate change to be politically convenient. They abused my intellectual hospitality for a short-term political gain.
Upon my request, Heartland immediately removed my name from their report. But that wasn’t the end of it.
Heartland was joined in exploiting my intellectual hospitality by an unlikely ally. Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist then at Penn State, used his significant social media presence to promote my false association with Heartland, no doubt seeking to cause me professional harm among our peers. Troublingly, Mann persisted even after I had informed him by email that Heartland had falsely listed me as a contributor to the report.1
Mann, who has been recognized by and celebrated for his science communication efforts, has often used his platform to lie, misrepresent, and mischaracterize me and my views. Of course, I’m not the only one.
Delegitimization is Kryptonite deployed against “intellectual hospitality” and is common in the hyper-politicized environment of contemporary American politics — and that now includes important areas of science.
For instance, Alice Dreger — a champion of intellectual hospitality— wrote an excellent book about delegitimized academics. She apparently spent so much time with such shady figures that she became a target herself.
Prof. Dreger described encountering a large group of students protesting one of her university lectures based on the students’ impressions of a fictional, online version of Dreger created by one of her critics. A student protester read a statement falsely attributed to Dreger that he had found online.
Dreger explains that it was,
“so comically bigoted, it was hard to take seriously. . . there are fake social media accounts in my name, including fake blogs, with my photo and my name. A student asked why I ‘let that happen.’ I answered that I can’t spend my life chasing them down and trying to stop them.”
Another US academic, Kevin Folta, saw his efforts to engage with industry on the subject of agricultural biotechnology (and in particular GMOs) rewarded with a front-page article in the New York Times that suggested — falsely he claimed — that he was taking money to support industry positions. The article sure looked like a hit job.
Folta sued the Times, claiming that the article,
“left a permanent and enduring scar on Dr. Folta’s online identity and in online searches—the first thing that people do in order to learn about a scientist.”
I do not know how the lawsuit turned out, but I do know that Folta’s career and reputation were negatively impacted by the reporting. Perhaps that was the point.
We academics who face efforts to delegitimize our work frequently confront fictional online versions of ourselves, created by campaigning peers and journalists who sometimes stretch ethical bounds to the point of breaking.
Despite the increasing practice of delegitimization, no leading academics or scientific organizations that I am aware of offered public support for either Dreger or Folta. In the absence of institutional support, Dreger left academia and Folta has stepped back from public engagement. I completely understand.
Delegitimization such as this is seemingly condoned and has not been countered with effective leadership from within the scientific community.
In climate science, Michael Mann has been perhaps the most vicious and active delegitimizer of peers with whom he disagrees, and his destructive behavior has been met with rewards, promotions, fame, and fortune. In some contexts, it seems that intellectual inhospitality is a career booster.
Despite the apparent professional benefits, efforts to delegitimize are not just unethical but also fundamentally contrary to the understandings that have been developed in academic studies of science communication and science in politics. We know that trust in expertise is reinforced when we are intellectually hospitable, and not ruthless political partisans or career assassins.
We experts with prominent platforms can certainly politicize scientific issues and attack those with whom we might disagree. The seductive siren song of politicization is strong in an era of Donald Trump and Brexit, and is no doubt reinforced by the echo-chamber effects of a lack of political diversity within our ranks.
A counterargument to calls for intellectual hospitality might be that in an era when politics matter more than ever, why should we experts engage with our opponents? We should instead seek to defeat or destroy them.
Maybe the stakes nowadays are just too high for the high-minded luxury of intellectual hospitality. Perhaps we should all be delegitimizing the wrong kind of experts, lest we help their causes. I hear this argument a lot, as do others who seek to cross political lines in scientific engagement and communication.
Despite my experiences, I persist in believing that science and democracy are both well served by intellectual hospitality among us public-facing experts.
A half-century ago, American political scientist E. E. Schattschneider made a powerful case for the importance to democracy of a willingness to engage different points of view:
To paraphrase Walter Lippmann from more than a century ago — democracy is not about getting everyone to think alike, but about getting people who think differently to act alike. Intellectual hospitality will not lead to uniform thinking, but it may facilitate collective action in pursuit of common interests.
As experts, we face important choices in how we deploy the considerable authority that we have earned in society.
We might try to use that authority to seek to dominate intellectual and political arenas. Alternatively, we can work to serve as a corrective to the hyper-partisan politics of our era —to facilitate democratic discourse.
The choice is profound, not just for the politics of specific issues like climate change and GMOs, but for the practice of democracy and the sustainability of the authority of science in an era of deep political conflict.
I welcome your comments and critique. Intellectual hospitality is how we roll at THB. Do not say mean things about Mann or anyone else — any such comments will be deleted with no warning. Take the high road. THB is reader supported and depends upon you. Have a great weekend!
Stay tuned, more to come from behind the curtain on this in 2024.