Scholarship Suppression: Theoretical Perspectives and Emerging Trends
“Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them…”-John Stuart Mill (1859)
2. Sources of Scholarship Suppression in Academia
2.1. Three Forms of Suppression
2.2. Internal Suppression Is the Most Severe Form
3. Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom
3.1. Freedom of Expression and the Law
3.2. Freedom of Inquiry and Belief, and Their Limitations
3.3. Much of Modern Scholarship Suppression in the Academy Does not Involve Legal Issues
3.4. Freedom of Speech as a Moral Principle
“We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still. First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse hearing an opinion, because they are sure it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility”.
3.5. Suppression Versus Rejection
4. Academic Outrage Mobs: A Theoretical Perspective on Scholarship Suppression
4.1. Academia Is a Social Reputational System
- Admissions to graduate school? Letters of recommendation are required and important.
- Peer review? The evaluation of your work by peers.
- Grants? Usually obtained by peer review.
- First job? Peer reviewed publications and letters of recommendation, preferably from famous faculty.
- Tenure? Peer reviewed publications, grants, and letters of support from prominent faculty.
- Further promotions? Peer reviewed publications, grants, and letters of support from prominent faculty.
4.2. Freedom of Expression Versus Freedom of Inquiry
“A group or crowd of people whose goal is to sanction or punish the individual, individuals, or organization they consider responsible for something that offends, insults, or affronts their beliefs, values, or feelings. This group or crowd demonstrates a flagrant disinterest in any further explanation from the target or targets and attempts to carry out punishment often by enlisting authorities with the power to level sanctions on the target or targets”.
4.3. Witch Hunts and the Politics of Heresy
4.4. Moral Panics and the Construction of Deviance
- There is a need for women-only spaces because of past violence against women by natural born males;
- The need to collect robust data on sex-based participation in a variety of professional domains so that discrimination on the basis of sex can be identified and hopefully remedied and;
- Since the notion that someone could “feel feminine” may reinforce conservative gender stereotypes about femininity by overlooking that what is defined as “feminine” or “masculine” has changed over time.
4.5. Scholarship Suppression vs. Other Reasons for Punishment
5. Emerging Trends in Scholarship Suppression
- Defending one’s self from such attacks is potentially time-consuming, emotionally exhausting, and, in some cases, may be quite expensive if lawyers get involved 
- The time and effort spent defending one’s self from such attacks is time not spent engaging in scholarly activities; therefore, the productivity and ability to influence discourses and canons in the field in which the target works are reduced.
- The targeted scholar, even after successfully fending off the attack, may decide that whatever constituted the basis for the attack, and anything like it, is just not worth the grief that comes with pursuing it.
- Others, especially younger scholars seeking jobs or tenure witnessing the event may reach a conclusion along the lines of “the guild of professionals to which I aspire to join has declared certain types of work worthy of sanction, so maybe I should just work on something else”.
- The attack may successfully sully the target’s reputation, even if the target is not otherwise punished. Given that academia is a social reputational system, this can be quite enough to create formidable obstacles to getting ideas platformed, published, or funded.
“What if I felt that overemphasis on oppression is a terrible idea, hurts alleged victims of oppression, and is bad for everyone? What if I was outspoken about this? I suspect I would face a lot more opposition. Even though not much could happen to my job security, I’d have a lot of people screaming at me, making my life uncomfortable. And, truly, I wouldn’t do it, because I’d be scared. I wouldn’t do it because I’m a coward”.
5.2. Suppression by Others: Modern Examples of Academics Targeted for Punishment for Their Scholarship
5.2.1. Firings, Non-Renewals, and Forced Resignations
- Alessandro Strumia, physicist working for CERN, fired (technically, not renewed, in 2018–2019), after presenting a data-based talk arguing that women were not discriminated against in physics. Although multiple issues may have contributed to his non-renewal, he was denounced primarily for his ideas.
- Noah Carl, social scientist, had accepted a postdoctoral position at St. Edmunds College (United Kingdom), which was ultimately rescinded in response to a petition denouncing him on these grounds: “A careful consideration of Carl’s published work and public stance on various issues, particularly on the claimed relationship between ‘race’, ‘criminality’ and ‘genetic intelligence’, leads us to conclude that his work is ethically suspect and methodologically flawed”. We note that the petition did not actually identify any methodological flaws and that the commission of inquiry tasked with evaluating his scholarship reached this conclusion: “Dr. Carl was … an extremely strong candidate indeed having performed with conspicuous success at every academic stage … [and] was the unanimous choice. No-one else impressed to anything like the same degree”.
- Allan Josephson, Professor of Psychiatry at University of Louisville was demoted then fired after being denounced for making this comment at a conference: “When treating children with gender dysphoria, medical professionals should first seek to understand and treat the psychological issues that often cause this confusion before pursuing more radical, aggressive treatment”.
- Susan Crockford, University of Victoria. She had an unpaid affiliation with the University for 15 years, which was not renewed in 2019, after she published a book arguing that, contrary to popular environmental narratives at the time, there was no ongoing devastation of polar bears, leading to her denunciation as a “climate denialist”. It is interesting to note that polar bear population estimates have gone from 20,000–25,000 in 2012  to 22,000–31,000 in 2019 .
5.2.2. Punishment Other than Termination
- Bruce Gilley, Political Science, Portland State University, 2017. His paper, The Case for Colonialism, was retracted after academics initiated a petition calling to retract, signed by thousands, and then both Gilley and the journal editor received what they considered to be credible death threats.
- The National Association of Scholars, perhaps the last right-leaning academic organization in all of U.S. academia, held a conference in 2020 titled “Fixing Science”. It was denounced as a shill for conservative and corporate interests promoting climate change denialism. There were also social media and email campaigns that pressured invited speakers not to attend. Although most did attend, two early career scholars withdrew. Whether this was because they earnestly believed in the validity of the denunciations, or were simply intimidated and feared for their careers, or some mix of both, remains unclear.
- Stephen Gliske, a neuroscientist at University of Michigan, published a paper presenting a new theory of the development of gender dysphoria. It offended trans activists and their academic allies, who launched a retraction petition that was ultimately successful.
- Ted Hill, Math professor, Georgia Tech, wrote a paper offering an evolutionary explanation for the male variability hypothesis (the idea that human males are more variable than human females on many attributes). It was accepted for publication at a journal; this evoked protests and outrage, which had the effect of pressuring the accepting journal to “unaccept” the article. He then had it accepted at another journal, which evoked more outrage (the manifest substance of which involved the process by which the paper was accepted), and it was again unaccepted . The paper remains unpublished as far as we know.
- Kathleen Lowry, a feminist professor of anthropology, lost her position as the undergraduate associate chair in 2020 for claiming that biological sex exists and is important, on the grounds that “it was not in the best interests of the students” for her to continue in the position.
5.2.3. The Importance of Authorities in Resisting Outrage Mob Calls for Punishment
- An academic outrage mob petitioned (July 2020) to have Professor Steven Pinker, Psychology, Harvard, removed from the Linguistic Society of America’s list of distinguished academic fellows and their list of media experts. There were a variety of vague allegations. This petition failed. It was so obviously filled with falsehoods and misrepresentations that numerous sources were able to debunk its charges.
- Philosopher Rebecca Tuvel  published a paper in Hypatia, a leading feminist philosophy journal, titled “In Defense of Transracialism”, in which she argued that people could choose to identify as whatever race they preferred. She drew on common postmodernist ideas suggesting that race is not an essentialist or biologically determined category and that it is socially constructed. Just as people can, according to this view, identify as any gender, she argued that the same perspectives would mean they could also do so for race. The paper was denounced by hundreds of academics who signed an open letter calling for retraction, including the claim that Tuvel caused “harm and violence”. Hypatia’s board of directors stood firm and refused to retract the article.
- Littman  published preliminary evidence for “rapid onset gender dysphoria”, which referred to the idea that, for some adolescents, identifying as a different gender seemed to have been something that emerged suddenly, more or less “out of the blue”, rather than from a longstanding history of identifying differently than the sex one was assigned at birth. The paper was quickly denounced by transgender activists claiming the paper caused “harm” and “denied their identities”. From here, the story took some strange turns. The journal publishing the paper (PLoS One): 1. instituted post-publication review; 2. apologized for their handling of it; 3 persuaded Dr. Littman to revise the paper; and 4. published the revision as a “correction”. The “correction” was particularly odd because there were no errors identified in the original, and no factual changes. Instead, Littman added some context that qualified her claims and conclusions. Although Dr. Littman was fired from an ancillary consulting position, this paper was not retracted. Thus it is included here as an example of an authority (in this case, the editors) resisting an outrage mob’s call to retract, although the incident is plausibly considered an intermediate case, because she was made to jump through extraordinary hoops that, as far as we know, no other author has ever had to jump through at PLoS journals.
- Dr Abigail Thompson  published an editorial criticizing the use of mandatory diversity statements in academic hiring. This triggered an academic outrage mob denouncing her and a petition calling for removal from her position as vice president of the American Mathematics Society (AMS). According to the AMS website (https://www.ams.org/about-us/governance/officers/officers), as of September 2020, she was still listed as vice president. Thus, although we had no inside information, the AMS did not cave to mob outrage. An interesting epilogue is that she has also received a Hero of Intellectual Freedom Award from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni .
6.2. What Should Be Done?
- The most obvious is financial: can these mobs be sued for defamation? We doubt it, at least most of the time. The U.S. Courts, for example, have repeatedly decided that publicly denouncing someone as racist is simply opinion, and, therefore, fully protected speech . On the other hand, at least one defamation suit in Canada was successful in evoking payment of expenses and a public apology after unjustifiably referring to a reporter as a “neo-Nazi” . If enough such suits were successful, the threat of such a suit might become a more effective deterrent. However, as discussed, the mere possibility of having to hire lawyers to fight defamation suits may be sufficient to deter some outrage mobs from even getting started.
- Another possibility is to exploit the academic social reputational system itself—what if the tactics of the outrage mob were turned on the leaders and organizers of such mobs? What if their reputations were impugned and their employers targeted with emails and petitions denouncing them in ways not readily refutable (say, as authoritarian bullies?). If enough “counterattack mobs” succeeded, again, the mere potential to have one’s career damaged by engaging in attempts to suppress others’ work may be sufficient to deter some such attempts.
- Yet a third possibility is to, somehow, pressure the relevant authorities to actually uphold their responsibilities to protect academic freedom. Most colleges and universities at least pay lip service to academic freedom, and many have written documents testifying to such commitments. In the case of academics, the key authorities, then, are usually the administrators (chairs, deans, provosts, presidents, etc.) who have ultimate responsibility for deciding whether or not to sanction faculty accused of some sort of heresy by an outrage mob.
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|Maximum Percentage Believing in||Before 1950||1950–1960||After 1960|
|Theoretical freedom of speech||97%||Not asked||Not asked|
|Freedom of speech with non-specific limitations||68%||70%||61%|
|Freedom of speech for extremists||49%||29%||21%|
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Stevens, S.T.; Jussim, L.; Honeycutt, N. Scholarship Suppression: Theoretical Perspectives and Emerging Trends. Societies 2020, 10, 82. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc10040082
Stevens ST, Jussim L, Honeycutt N. Scholarship Suppression: Theoretical Perspectives and Emerging Trends. Societies. 2020; 10(4):82. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc10040082Chicago/Turabian Style
Stevens, Sean T., Lee Jussim, and Nathan Honeycutt. 2020. "Scholarship Suppression: Theoretical Perspectives and Emerging Trends" Societies 10, no. 4: 82. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc10040082