heterodox: the blog
How the Academic Establishment Won the Debate by Ignoring the Challenge
A newspaper editorial in Finland sparked a national debate about ideological bias and pseudoscience in academic scholarship. The debate ended with a viral social media campaign that drowned out the critics without addressing their concerns, argues Savolainen. The academic establishment may have won the battle, but they risk losing the war.
Finland stands out in international comparisons as a relatively calm and reasonable society where the level of trust in public institutions, including scientific ones, is among the highest in the world. It was therefore remarkable to observe a heated national debate about the integrity of academic research taking place in my native country last year. The debate ended with an incredibly successful social media campaign that managed to drown out the critics by speaking past their concerns. In the end, the episode laid bare the unwillingness of the academic establishment to confront challenges to its legitimacy as an arbiter of truth.
It all started from the following sentence published in an editorial in Helsingin Sanomat (HS), the nation’s largest newspaper: “The further we move away from the core of science towards social science, humanities, and arts, the less salient are empirical facts, as opposed to ideology, for determining academic success.” This statement was immediately rejected by academics from women’s studies, sociology, and the other implicated fields of inquiry. The newspaper published an op-ed article critical of the editorial, followed by a full-length article in which several professors explained what, in their view, was wrong with the contested claim. In the end, the editor of HS apologized for the paper’s “thoughtless choice of wording.”
As it turns out, it was not that easy to put the genie back in the bottle. Several media personalities of more populist persuasion bemoaned the newspaper’s decision to walk away from what they considered an accurate assessment of reality. As a sociologist from Finland, I decided to join the conversation by writing an essay that recognized political bias as a genuine problem in my field of inquiry. Originally published in an erudite magazine, it was later disseminated electronically by the nation’s largest current affairs weekly.
My essay caught the attention of Ivan Puopolo, an influential media personality with a penchant for provocation. Using my essay as a springboard, he reignited the conversation about ideological bias and began to question the wisdom of using public funds to support seemingly bizarre research projects. Susanne Päivärinta, a columnist for the nation’s leading tabloid, joined in, defending the right of journalists and ordinary citizens to criticize government decisions to fund studies that strike them as frivolous. Soon, social media was flooded with examples of research projects characterized as either absurd or politically biased.
The timing of this populist uprising could not have been worse for the academic establishment. The Finnish government was in the process of making massive cuts to its funding for the Academy of Finland, the nation’s equivalent of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health combined. With their backs against the wall, the leaders of the academia responded. The official Twitter account of Universities Finland, the national council of university presidents, posted a message disapproving of the mockery of individual scholars and their research topics. The Academy of Finland retweeted the UNIFI message and called for a more civil tone: “Let’s not stigmatize individual persons in these debates.” Several major universities followed suit: “We also condemn the harassment of scholars,” the University of Helsinki posted.
The polarized discourse took a constructive turn after a geologist at the University of Helsinki posted a Twitter thread in which he suggested that academics could do a better job communicating about their research to the general public. Inspired by this perspective, the provost of the University of Eastern Finland encouraged scholars to go on Twitter and describe their research contributions in plain language. Building on this idea, an officer with the Federation of Finnish Learned Societies (a rough equivalent to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine) proposed the hashtag #minätutkin (“I research”) for scholars to use in their tweets.
The rest is history. With the encouragement of their employers and sponsors, thousands of academic scholars and other scientists started tweeting about their work. The hashtag was the number one trending topic in Finland for several weeks. This utterly positive campaign changed the tenor of the debate. Members of the public, myself included, were impressed with the variety of interesting and important work done by scientists in Finland. The campaign even caught the attention of international media. In the end, the Finnish government canceled the cuts and reinstated full funding to the Academy of Finland.
Failure to Engage
If this strikes you as a feel-good story, you may have been sidetracked by the academic establishment. Although the controversy ended on a high note, there was zero engagement with the issue that had sparked the debate — the question of ideological bias within specific fields of academic scholarship. In essence, various leaders of the Finnish academia acted in concert to launch a social media campaign that, although very positive in spirit, had the effect of drowning out the concerns voiced by contrarian journalists and members of the general public. They accomplished this by encouraging their subordinates (academic scholars) to flood social media with examples of mostly excellent research, the value of which was never in question.
The debate, sparked by the editorial, was never about support for academic research per se. Instead, the critics were concerned about the use of public funds to sponsor what they regarded as pseudoscientific gobbledygook. None of the projects ridiculed in social media involved a STEM discipline. And although each of the targeted projects belonged in either the social sciences or humanities, there were none from philosophy, demography, psychology, or economics, for example. Most of the projects that caught the ire of the general public were preoccupied with politically controversial themes, such as gender identity, whiteness, and activism. The proposal summaries featured terms like “epistemic violence,” “the multimodal structuration of whiteness,” and “political subjectivities of queer immigrants.” One of the controversial studies described its methodology as follows: “Using the photography of empowerment, this project seeks answers to the question: Can we regard an asylum-seeker’s body as having political potential in ways that remain unnoticed in communities that can trust their institutions and history?” I think it is reasonable for taxpayers to ask if the funds awarded to exploring this question could have been used to support a more sensible research project.
Virtually all the projects that generated negative public attention belong in the general family of “grievance studies” — a designation that emerged in the context of the 2018 hoax suggesting that it is easy to publish (in certain literatures) fabricated nonsense as long as the text affirms a sufficiently radical worldview using terminology from intersectional feminism, critical race theory, or other “social justice” centered frameworks. The grievance studies affair was a direct descendant of Alan Sokal’s original hoax in 1996, aimed at demonstrating that anything goes in postmodern cultural studies. Both of these incidents received considerable attention in Finland. In 1997 Sokal even visited the country to give an invited talk about his hoax at Helsinki University. I suspect the Finnish people are drawn to these kinds of embarrassing revelations due to the enduring prominence of “fashionable nonsense” in Finnish academia. There appears to be a critical mass of educated people in Finland who have a genuine grievance with “grievance studies.”
The social media campaign promoted by the academic establishment ignored the actual target of this controversy. Most of the tweets using the hashtag described mainstream areas of scientific inquiry, such as research on cancer cells or the environmental effects of the shipping industry. I was not able to find a single tweet under #minätutkin representing the kind of research that had been singled out as questionable.
These observations suggest a massive disconnect between the issues raised by the general public and how the academic establishment responded to those concerns. In essence, the popular outrage over pseudoscience was reframed as a mean-spirited attack against academic freedom. Was this purposeful? Probably not, but it speaks to the reluctance of the establishment to defend its support for scholarship perceived as illegitimate by members of the general public. Showcasing 1,000 examples of solid research in other fields is not an acceptable response to questions about 10 specific projects that fail to pass the smell test.
As an academic who values critical thinking and rigorous debate, I was not impressed with how this campaign unfolded. The lack of engagement by scholars from implicated fields of inquiry was particularly disappointing. Nobody likes negative attention, at least not in Finland, but one could argue that as long as one accepts public funding, they have some responsibility to participate in public dialogue about their research. But instead of defending their own agenda, the scholars under scrutiny passed the metaphorical microphone to mainstream scientists who were more than happy to use the viral hashtag as a platform for disseminating their contributions to the general public.
As a citizen who was raised to “question authority” and “speak truth to power,” I was disappointed by the refusal of the academic establishment to even recognize the substance of the arguments. Contrary to their framing of the debate, I did not see any evidence of harassment of individual scholars. All the material circulated in the social media was published without identifying information, containing only the titles and summaries of the research projects. These observations do not, of course, rule out the very realistic possibility that some individuals were harassed in private. That sort of treatment is obviously unacceptable, and should be condemned and punished.
However, if you think there is a problem with government-funded pseudoscience, it is entirely legitimate to provide examples of such projects. In fact, it would be impossible to have a meaningful debate about such concerns without concrete examples. Given the reputation of certain disciplines to tolerate contributions that have been repeatedly exposed as nonsense, the general public has every right to ask questions. Resorting to ridiculing ideas (not people) can be an acceptable form of protest, especially among the powerless masses. The unwillingness by academic gatekeepers to engage in this debate suggests their primary concern was to protect the status quo.
Thanks to the successful social media campaign, they won that battle, but may end up losing the war. Based on public reactions to the Academy of Finland’s most recent funding decisions, the issues are not going away. On May 9, 2022, Kamal Jafi — a young, progressive politician with an immigrant background — expressed his dismay with the decision to award a competitive three-year postdoctoral stipend to “Shit Made Public,” a project that “focuses on excrement that is either made public or made in public, and the political and ethical questions about equality and justice that it raises.” In the same vein, an emeritus professor of economics decried decisions to fund “the production of woke liturgy.”
One does not need to look further than Denmark to see evidence of a movement toward purging “grievance studies” and the like from academic teaching and research. In 2021 the Danish parliament passed a resolution condemning “excessive political activism in certain research environments.” The initiative was introduced to the legislature by two academically sophisticated politicians who had previously written about the “destruction of the humanities and social sciences” at the hands of “social justice theory.” In the United States, Governor DeSantis of Florida has already signed legislation that aims to monitor the content of teaching and research at the state’s institutions of higher education.
These regrettable examples of government interference with academic freedom are predictable consequences of the failure of the academic community to uphold its standards. With great freedom comes great responsibility to enforce distinctions between truth-seeking, political activism, and pseudoscience. It is my hope that the academic communities in Finland, my rational homeland, will confront this existential challenge honestly, openly, and with full embracement of the scientific ethos.
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