A couple weeks ago RIT philosophy professor Larry Torcello published an essay on the website The Conversation titled Is misinformation about the climate criminally negligent? Perhaps the essay’s argument is now less significant than the reaction by many who refute the scientific consensus regarding anthropogenic global warming. Since the essay—or, more to the point, misrepresentations of its content—went viral, Torcello has been attacked in print, hounded by phone and email, and even threatened. (Google “Torcello global warming” to get a sense of the ugliness.)
One way to see this as yet more proof, as if we needed it, that reasoned discourse has gone the way of the dodo. Rather than engage those we disagree with in debate, we behave like guests on Jerry Springer. And, of course, the Internet is like a strong wind behind a brush fire.
But at the heart of this controversy, and at the core of supportive responses, is the principle of academic freedom. The idea is fairly simple but, I think, widely misunderstood and underappreciated.
The business of universities is the creation and dissemination of knowledge and art, work that benefits everyone, everywhere. For that activity to flourish it must be unfettered. That is, we as a society gain, ultimately, by allowing faculty and students to follow ideas wherever they lead, to take intellectual chances, to challenge the status quo.
Often those ideas raise hackles—they should. Professor Torcello’s essay was bound to make some readers uncomfortable or even angry. Responding with misrepresentations, vitriol, and threats of violence—that does nothing to advance anyone’s argument. Pretty much the opposite.
Everyone has a stake in academic freedom. Apparently there are many who either disagree or don’t understand.