Nick Phillips is a research associate with Heterodox Academy, pursuing his J.D. at New York University. He is the president of NYU School of Law Federalist Society. His work has appeared in the Washington Examiner, The American Conservative and Quillette.
There is a specter haunting viewpoint diversity: the question of its limits.
Viewpoint diversity can feel like an unqualified good. Almost everyone understands, on at least some level, that we need multiple perspectives to solve difficult problems. If everyone thinks the same way, biases go unchallenged and creativity stalls. It’s easy to draw an inference that the more perspectives in the room, the better.
But Heterodox Academy’s own statement of “The Problem” acknowledges that this idea has limits. “For simple problems or fully resolved technical matters there is little need for viewpoint diversity,” we note. “But for ‘wicked problems’ – those that can be framed in multiple ways and that may trigger passions or partisan motivations – viewpoint diversity is essential.”
This division between fully resolved technical matters and wicked problems demarcates viewpoint diversity’s “zone of helpfulness.” It wouldn’t help astronomy to advocate for the inclusion of the flat-earth “viewpoint.” Heliocentrism is a fully resolved technical matter, and flat-earthers are excluded from the academy with good reason. But ratchet the certainty level of a problem’s full resolution down a notch or two. Consider climate change. The vast majority of climate scientists believe that the human role in our warming climate is a fully resolved technical matter, and the viewpoint of those who doubt this fact holds no value. But there are a few scientists who aren’t as sure, and they will clearly feel differently about the benefits of viewpoint diversity on the issue.
Once we start moving down the certainty ladder, the division between fully resolved technical matters and wicked problems starts to break down. Especially vexing is that we don’t even have reliable heuristics to determine resolution. Academic consensus is a tempting candidate for evidence of resolution – but there was a mathematically-grounded consensus that the sun revolved around the earth that lasted for millennia.
Things get thornier again when we move into political and social questions, where the line between fully resolved issues and wicked problems is sometimes impossible to discern. There are indeed fully resolved issues: for instance, the immorality of slavery or genocide. Virtually no one believes that Nazis are unfairly excluded from the academy. For other issues, like the best way to design an anti-poverty program, the converse is true: many acknowledge the issue’s complexity and the value of viewpoint diversity enjoys broad support within the academy.
However, there is another category of issue: those that one side believes are fully resolved, but another side believes are wicked problems for which viewpoint diversity is essential. This kind of disagreement produces explosive conflict. When James Damore was fired for authoring a memo that argued gender disparities in STEM fields are partially explained by biological sex differences, it was evidence of just such a disagreement. The National Labor Relations Board took one side in this disagreement when it ruled that Damore’s memo was “discriminatory and constituted sexual harassment, notwithstanding effort to cloak comments with ‘scientific’ references and analysis.” The NLRB was not merely saying that Damore’s viewpoint was wrong – it was saying that a question Damore thought was open was in fact closed. His viewpoint could provide no more value to Google than could a flat-earther to an astronomy department. Yet many prominent experts who study biology, psychology and cognition seem to have a different opinion on how “settled” the matter is.
And so we arrive at the fundamental problem: there is no obvious way to decide when an issue is resolved, such that viewpoint diversity is no longer beneficial, and when an issue is open, such that viewpoint diversity is essential. Geocentrism looked like a resolved issue, but the consensus was wrong, and institutional taboos around questioning that resolution delayed the emergence of the right answer. Viewpoint diversity turned out to be absolutely necessary, despite every indicator that we were dealing with a resolved question. Yet we would never allow for a re-evaluation of Nazism in the name of “viewpoint diversity.” That issue is permanently closed, and the taboos around attempting to re-open it are near-universally felt to be justified. The problem emerges: is it possible to reliably distinguish the questions that are more like geocentrism from the questions that are more like Nazism?
This challenge is significant for the mission of Heterodox Academy. It lies at the core of the skepticism we encounter. Critics of Heterodox Academy ask if we think there should be Nazis in the academy – would we welcome Richard Spencer as supplying needed viewpoint diversity? Or are we merely pushing affirmative action for conservatives? Both kinds of critique boil down to the same accusation: you are trying to make a place for people that we know are wrong. The universe of “wicked problems” is smaller than HxA supporters seem to think – and the organization’s efforts amount to injecting muddying uncertainty into what should be a pristine lake of fully resolved truth. Indeed, the distinguishing feature of today’s ideological, orthodox thinking is that most truths about the world are known, and those who refuse it are not interlocutors with a different perspective – they are enemies.
HxA is confident that viewpoint diversity is necessary in the first place to determine if an issue is fully resolved – by itself, consensus is insufficient evidence of resolution, especially if only a select few have been allowed to speak on the question and if inquiry is freighted by moral taboo. But when does the switch get flipped? When does a wicked problem become a settled issue? After a long and quite bloody world-historical dispute, communists are generally the only ones who still believe that communism is up for debate – but there are rather more of them than you’d expect. Is it a resolved question or an open one? How do we tell?
This is a question we at Heterodox Academy wonder about and discuss. Implicit in the value of heterodoxy is the belief that the truth is not easily known, and people who are sympathetic to our mission will gravitate toward a worldview based on this fundamental uncertainty. But we are certain about some things – see slavery and genocide. Understanding where this certainty should stop is crucial to understanding the value of viewpoint diversity.
We are hoping to make progress on this question by sparking an open conversation featuring a multitude of different viewpoints. Please leave a comment with your own thoughts or a link to an article or piece of research that contributes to the debate. How can we tell an open question that needs viewpoint diversity from a closed question that doesn’t? What are some examples that to you feel are “fully resolved,” and what are some examples that others think are “fully resolved” but you feel should still be open? Rather than hide the questions that vex us and present a façade of unanimity, we think the “HxA way” is to acknowledge them in the open and bring as many perspectives as possible to bear. Let us know in the comments what you think – resolving the matter may be impossible, but through contestation and debate, we can at least move a little closer to the truth.
Opinions expressed are those of the author(s). Publication does not imply endorsement by Heterodox Academy or any of its members. We welcome your comments below. Feel free to challenge and disagree, but please try to model the sort of respectful and constructive criticism that makes viewpoint diversity most valuable. Comments that include obscenity or that sound like a tirade or screed are likely to be deleted.