Why it’s a Mistake to Ask Academics For Advice on How to Manage the Pandemic

31 August 2021

by Dr. Sinead Murphy

On August 26th, Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at University of Edinburgh and Covid advisor to the Scottish Government, tweeted this:

Sridhar has been a high-profile contributor of allegedly scientific expertise throughout the Covid months; recently, she has featured in the Telegraph in support of the roll-out of the Covid vaccination programme to children of 12 years and above, as well as on the BBC’s Newsround, when she assured her school-aged audience of the ‘100%’ safety of the Covid injections when administered to children.

Notwithstanding her tweet that her interventions in the Covid debate have been nothing more than simple explanations of what’s happening, many of Sridhar’s claims during the past year-and-a-half have been contestable at best, plain false at worst. The BBC quietly retracted Sridhar’s ‘100%’ safety statement, although not before it was broadcast in thousands of schools across the U.K., complete with that air of implicit authority that the BBC continues to confer on its content and contributors.

In response to this, and possibly other ‘bumps’, Sridhar is now running for cover. But it is a curious kind of cover, worthy of our consideration. “I’m just an academic,” she is pleading, as if that condition comes with a great exemption, with indemnity for all fallout from inaccurate forecasts and implausible explanations.

One of the more stunning aspects of the Covid era has been the almost total absence of debate about the official Covid narrative among teaching and research staff at universities. Except for a small few – and very few of those have been sceptical – our supposedly most advanced thinkers in the humanities and the sciences have remained silent in the face of Government measures of the most dubious scientific justifiability and horrific humanitarian implications.

It has been demoralising – this terrible silence in our universities. So contrary to what we might have expected from our dens of latest research and deepest thought. But is it surprising, really? Or is there such profound affinity between academic achievement and worldly inefficacy that silent acquiesce is baked into our great institutions of knowledge and expertise?

The dictionary definition of ‘academic’ is twofold: “A scholar in an institution of higher education” and “not of practical relevance”. Odd bedfellows – scholarship and irrelevance. Yet bedfellows they are, grafted onto one another by the advance of critical thinking (see below), which has reduced scholarship to an irresponsible parlour game and set our universities apart from the real world.

Little wonder that Professor Devi Sridhar retreats to academia after a bumpy week; in academia, anything goes and nothing sticks and nobody is ever to blame.

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Greatest of all assumptions about the special merit of so-called ‘higher’ education is the assumption that it, and it alone, teaches us how to question that which we are told to believe or forced to accept or assumed to know – how to debate, how to argue, how to think for ourselves.

This assumption about universities reflects their position at the centre of the project of enlightenment. “Dare to know!” Immanuel Kant urged readers of the Berlinischer Monatschrift in 1784, in an essay on the question: “What is Enlightenment?” “Have the courage to use your own reason!” he exhorted, so that you attain the ‘maturity’ of which only humankind is capable.

In so framing the mission of enlightenment, Kant opened the way for the ultimate degradation of human ‘maturity’ as delivered by institutions of ‘higher’ education, insofar as he installed at the centre of intellectual endeavour a fundamentally irresponsible daring, defined by the extent to which it sets at nought existing practices, rituals, traditions, and values, in favour of never-ending intellectual reset.

Two centuries after Kant submitted his article – in none other year than 1984 – Michel Foucault published a set of reflections on it, among which is the claim that enlightenment is defined and guaranteed as “permanent critique”. “In what is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory,” Foucault wrote, “what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent?”

Foucault’s update of Kant’s original challenge confirmed enlightenment as the relentless production of sentences beginning with “but”, before which nothing is immune from question, revision, suspension and rejection: “But isn’t Shakespeare just another dead white male? But isn’t marriage just another institution of patriarchal oppression? But isn’t freedom just a bourgeois fantasy?”

Insofar as permanent critique has come to dominate our institutions of ‘higher’ education – and it has – we may cease to wonder at the increasing irrelevance of those institutions, at their merely academic significance. Under their tuition, anything of practical and moral worth must be ready to give way before the endless march of “but”, which empties every canon and topples every statue.

Ironically, given the ever-expanding irrelevance of the scholarship they foster, universities have in recent years seemed to thirst after the efficacy that they simultaneously and necessarily erode. What are called ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ are now the most touted of universities’ stated values, used to assess and reward many aspects of teaching and research. This effort to claw back some vestige of worldly relevance is of course nothing more than a sign of how thoroughly it has been purged from ‘higher’ education, of how academic the academy has now become.

* * *

The spectre that has spurred the project of permanent critique has always been that of childish acceptance, infantile acquiescence, what Kant put before us as “immaturity” in all its forms. If we do not learn to say “but”, it is everywhere implied, then we remain at the mercy of authority in all of its irrational forms.

What a lie this has been. If the silence of academics during the past year-and-a-half has shown us anything, it is that the project of permanent critique offers little or no protection against whatever authority presents itself with force. Academics – often award-winning critical thinkers in their field – have stayed at home in fear of a virus whose infection fatality rate was quickly confirmed as comparable to that of seasonal flu, and have masked and distanced and continue to mask and distance despite the heaps of evidence that have mounted against such measures. 

The great talent for saying “but” may be the preserve of academics, but only, it turns out, if saying “but” is academic, that is, of no practical relevance whatsoever. For all practical purposes, silence reigns and no ‘buts’ at all resound through the halls of ‘higher’ education.

It is not surprising that the likes of Professor Sridhar run for cover to academia when the going gets tough – insofar as our universities have been institutions of enlightenment, they have long been a refuge for irresponsible opinion and wild theories of every kind, which they absolve of all sin by rendering them as purely academic.

What is surprising is that Sridhar and her like were ever allowed out of academia in the first place, that their ‘expert’ models and theories and forecasts and projections were ever accorded the dignity of relevancy.

Our universities – more is the pity – have evolved as little more than soft-play areas for amoral and impractical thought, for ‘but’ projects wielded at any target that presents itself. It is a serious category error to assume that anyone employed in them is qualified to pronounce on anything of material significance.

To give him his due, Kant warned against this grave error. He saw that once we were busy submitting everything to ‘but’ questions we would be far too reckless to determine anything of practical or moral significance. “Argue as much as you like about whatever you like,” he encouraged his readers – “but obey!”

And, to give him his due, Foucault also issued a warning: that permanent critique was not to be allowed a free rein, that it must always be an “experimental” attitude and “put itself to the test of contemporary reality, both to grasp the points where change is possible and desirable, and to determine the precise form this change should take”. Most importantly – and particularly painful now – Foucault urged that enlightenment as permanent critique must “turn away from all projects that claim to be global or radical”.

* * *

Foucault’s colleague, Paul Veyne, has written that Foucault never sought to “justify action with thought”. If that is true, it is a dispiriting summary of a philosophical life. 

We may regret that things should come to this pass, that what counts as ‘thought’ should be so irrelevant as to be unable to propose or justify actions. We may believe that no institution for teaching and research should operate above the fray, and not be accountable for the ideas and objects that it develops and disseminates. We may judge that our universities should have convictions and then the courage of their convictions, and not shrink from instilling wisdom rather than only promoting expertise.

And we may be right to so regret and so believe and so judge. But while we are doing so, we should for now cease to presume that from our universities is to be had anything other than the irresponsibility that ought to be the preserve of children.

If academia has sought to fulfil Kant’s call to maturity, what it has shown is that using ‘your own reason’ is not maturity – not, that is, if it blithely disregards values and practices that ought to be above the wanton ‘buts’ of those with intellectual impunity, that ought, in fact, to be treated with the cautious sobriety appropriate to all matters of moral and practical import.

I wish that Professor Sridhar and her like may stay now in their academic retreat and leave the world to those who accept the heavy responsibility of relevancy on all its fronts.

Dr. Sinead Murphy is an Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University.

Stop Press: Take a look at this clip of Barak Rosenshine debunking the notion that ‘higher order thinking skills’ can be taught (or even exist in the sense of skills that can be transferred from one domain to another once mastered).