Alice Dreger: Colleges and students suffer from lack of intellectual humility (and a note on Templeton)

I looked forward to reading a new piece by Alice Dreger at the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Take back the ivory tower” (subtitle: “Democracy depends on having a public capable of thinking”). I really enjoyed her book Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Scienceand gave it a positive mini-review on this site. Dreger is a bioethicist who left Northwestern University (academic home of Laura Kipnis) after the administration censored a piece in a magazine she edited (the story’s in her essay). She also has the great honor of having one of her pieces pulled from Everyday Feminism because of her supposed transphobia (she’s not a transphobe, but her work on gender has raised a lot of hackles).

Sadly, I was disappointed by the Chronicle piece because it seemed disjointed, the writing wasn’t that great (too breezy), and it didn’t say much I didn’t know. However, if you haven’t followed Dreger, you will learn a bit about her; she’s a courageous woman who’s working in an academic area that’s similar to a powder keg with a lit fuse:

have enjoyed meeting and talking with every one of the plainclothes armed guards who have come to my invited lectures to protect me and my audiences in the past few years. They have never looked as handsome as Kevin Costner, but then I don’t sing as well as Whitney Houston. [JAC: This is the kind of sentence that sounds clever but is irksome and distracting.]

Why do my hosts sometimes arrange armed guards? To use Aristotle’s framing — which I realize marks me a tool of the patriarchy — the efficient cause is threats designed to have me disinvited and humiliated for my supposed sins. The formal cause is a climate in which some people, including academics, think I should be silenced because my scholarship is “dangerous.”

What did I do to mark myself? I spent a year documenting the lies of activists about a group of researchers who put forth unpopular ideas about transgenderism. I have also written about transgenderism in other ways that challenge what have been positioned as the “acceptable” narratives. Thus, I stand accused of committing “structural violence” — even being responsible for physical violence against transgender people, about whose rights I care deeply.

My work has, in fact, focused on the history of the abuse of sexual minorities in science, medicine, and society. I have tried to push for the rights of sexual minorities from a consistently feminist perspective. Thus you may be surprised to hear that I have certain “lived experiences” in common with people like Charles Murray. If you have followed mainstream media portrayals of free-speech strife on campuses, you may have reasonably concluded that activists have tried to silence only white men. Only through the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) — a group that has defended my rights — will you hear about the troubles of people like me, women in women-and-gender-studies programs, and people of color in various ethnic-studies programs who have failed to swear allegiance to the latest creed.

This is all old stuff if you’ve followed Dreger, but it does show again the demonization of someone who’s considered ideologically impure—and if there’s any area where ideological impurity is a near certainty, it’s the study of transgender people. But this information isn’t really relevant to Dreger’s thesis, which can be compactly summarized in two of her paragraphs:

So where the hell do we go from here? After our son’s cynical-realist take on the March for Science, and after talking with a lot of thoughtful academics, here’s my proposal: We need to consider marching for intellectual humility. If we must march and chant anything in unison, how about this: We are uncertain! We are uncertain!

Because at the basis, what is supposed to make us different — what makes us most purposeful and useful — is knowing that we don’t know everything, knowing that we could be very incorrect — perhaps as incorrect as some very smart people before us have been. What’s been so wrong with the shout-downs from the left, and the shutdowns from the right, and the whole nightmare of university blanding — uh, I mean, branding — is the narrowing and cementing of what counts as true — the utter lack of intellectual humility. (She said, with certainty.) If we are going to take back the Ivory Tower — something I really think we need to do as much for our fellow persons as for ourselves — we need to remember that the reason we come together in universities, besides the hope of health insurance, is because it’s clear that one person alone can’t figure out anything all that important.

You can get a taste of the discursive writing here. I don’t disagree at all with Dreger’s message; it’s just that her point is buried in a piece about a lot of irrelevant stuff, and the center doesn’t hold.

But there’s one tidbit that did interest me (my emphasis):

I recently declined an offer from FIRE [the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education] to become one of their John Templeton Foundation-funded scholars. If you’re not familiar with the Templeton foundation, it has a history of promoting creationism; although FIRE assured me that I would not be bound by the funding source, I felt I had to say no, as I know how funding subtly influences work. (I only just found out that Templeton is supporting the FIRE faculty conference at which I’ll be giving the keynote; I’ll donate my honorarium to a nonprofit organization.) By the way, I may look so pure and noble, but I am fully aware that I can make all these principled stances because I’m married to a university administrator with a steady gig and because I am good at maintaining a fantasy wherein eventually my integrity pays off big.

Well, I was startled to see FIRE—an organization whose efforts I support because they fight against campus censorship and speech codes—getting big dosh from the Templeton Foundation—and it is big:

Talk about cognitive dissonance! Well, I suppose FIRE needs the dosh, but, like Dreger, philosopher Dan Dennett, and physicist Sean Caroll, I stay away from anything funded by Templeton, on the grounds that their ultimate mission is to blur the boundaries between science and religion. Dreger, however, may not be aware that Templeton no longer funds creationism or Intelligent Design, though they still try to sneak God into biology and physics, as well as to cast doubt whenever they can on modern evolutionary theory.

Despite this article, and her seeming ignorance of what Templeton does, I am still a big admirer of Dreger. After all, who else would do this?:


  1. Mark R.
    Posted October 7, 2017 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    It’s people like Dreger who tempt my vow never to open a twitter account. Her non-partisan news activism is fantastic.

  2. Randy schenck
    Posted October 7, 2017 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I like this Alice Dreger already. She has style.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 8, 2017 at 4:36 am | Permalink


  3. Craw
    Posted October 7, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    I never thought I’d say it but, good on Templeton. Even religious speech should be free.

  4. Craw
    Posted October 7, 2017 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Actually, from the few examples I have seen Carlson is quite good about letting regressives enough rope to hang themselves.

  5. dd
    Posted October 7, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    I am glad Templeton funded FIRE. Would Ford Foundation? Soros? etc.

    Also, I know several people of left, some, people of very significant means who support left-causes handsomely. They are in total and absolute denial about what is happening on campuses, and if not, refuse to discuss it.

    So are others of far less means, also on the left.

    I read that they are pundits who believe that Trump was elected, not to govern well (surprise!) or at all, but to break the left and Republicans.

  6. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 7, 2017 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    As I understand it, Templeton wants to change the underlying paradigm of what the motivating mechanism of evolution is.
    They’re not happy with it just being mutation and selection. Something has to be guided.

    One of their most grievous transgressions IMO is have given an award to Mel Gibson’s egregious Jesus movie.

    However, I am inclined to think I would rather take money from Templeton than appear on FOX news.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 7, 2017 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    You can get a taste of the discursive writing here.

    The discursive essay goes back to Montaigne. Hitchens was a great practitioner, too. He’d often slide off into another subject mid-essay (in what a fighter’s corner man might call “lateral movement”) only to circle back round to slip a dagger between his victim’s ribs.

    Not saying Dreger’s in their league, just that discursion has its own noble legacy.

  8. BJ
    Posted October 7, 2017 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see anything wrong with FIRE taking money from Templeton. If Templeton wants to give FIRE money, it’s only a problem if we see FIRE start to support religious positions promoted by Templeton. Considering that FIRE has not, at any point, shown itself to be anything but an ethical organization promoting the rights of free speech and academic freedom on campus, I have no reason to assume that they’re suddenly taking money from Templeton because they secretly agreed to promote creationism or something.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted October 8, 2017 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      I think any association with Templeton by a respectable organisation is good for Templeton and bad for said organisation. “That would look good on your CV, less so on mine” as the quote goes.
      And I’m in favour of denying Templeton the imprimatur of respectabililty that FIRE provides them with. After all, that’s why Templeton does this stuff. It’s the equivalent of Tony Blair inviting rock stars to number 10 in the late nineties.

  9. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    I think if you’ve been studying in an environment moulded and shaped by postmodernist attitudes to truth, in which expertise is an illusion and all that’s needed to understand a subject is to do twenty minutes ‘deconstructing’ it, then you’re not going to end up with much intellectual humility.

    The fathers of the modern academic left were people whose attitude to any difficult or politically inconvenient subject was to make no effort whatsoever to understand it, and instead to demonstrate to the herd of independent minds who hung on their every word that there was really no point taking anything in said subject seriously, because it was all a big piss-take or power-grab by a bunch of con-artists and bluffers(this is what they call ‘projection’ I think).

    So theoretical physics wasn’t difficult, and it didn’t speak badly of them that they couldn’t understand it – it was just a con; and evolutionary biology wasn’t politically inconvenient, and it didn’t speak ill of their beliefs that it contradicted them – it was also just a con(this kind of sceptical analysis was never extended to their own subjects of course).

    They effectively laid the groundwork for the kind of lunatic arrogance we see on campus today – students and faculty dismissing the idea of objective truth and the ability to come closer to it through effort and intelligence, people who see no worth at all in other people’s ideas, don’t even acknowledge the existence of such a thing as expertise.

    It’s the perfect intellectual climate for lazy, entitled minds, and it was the staggering, comical arrogance of the postmodernists that helped bring it about. Intellectual arrogance is the throughline that connects them. You’re more likely to find humility in a Donald Trump tweet.

    • Craw
      Posted October 8, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      Well said.

  10. Craw
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Related. A college president seems to have justified assault

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