Monday, April 27, 2009

Social Scientists Behaving Badly

I sure am glad I joined the "Social Science-IL" mailing list. A fascinating and hypocrisy-ridden debate is raging there between university professors from the left and right accusing each other of stifling freedom of speech, McCarthyism, and the destruction of Israeli higher education.

It all started when Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal, a psychologist from Tel-Aviv University, published a reasonable call to fight "Campus Watch"-type organizations and not to allow letters using unacceptable language against ideological opponents to be sent to the mailing list. What followed was a debate where about half the e-mails wouldn't have been published had Bar-Tal's suggestion been implemented.

Dov Shinar, a Mass Media professor, accused right wing professors of not even knowing Hebrew. David Levi-Faur, a political scientist from Hebrew University and the moderator of the list, implied that Steven Plaut was responsible for the attack against left-wing professor Zeev Sternhall a few months ago. Prof. Gerald Steinberg accused leftist professors of furthering their anti-Israel agenda instead of conducting real academic research.

Both sides are right on some points and wrong on others. On the one hand, right-wing "Israeli Academia Watch" and its sister "monitors" are disgusting organizations dedicated to smearing anyone who doesn't agree with them, often crossing the line into libel. It is entirely plausible that someone who reads these websites will be motivated to take violent action.

On the other hand, many left-wing lecturers abuse their positions to preach instead of teach. Academic freedom doesn't mean you're free to stuff your ideology down your students' throats. Also, while university hiring is officially politically neutral, candidates who are either leftists or whose views are not widely known have an easier time getting hired than right-wingers.

I would have cut and pasted the whole debate (or at least the interesting parts) if I had the time. Alas, you will miss this quite unintellectual discussion between distinguished social scientists.

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