Jonathan Rauch's article ("The Truth Hurts," Apr.) is wonderful and much needed in this P.C.-fogged climate. Maybe the following summary of it should be printed on banners to be hung on every university's front gate and in every science classroom: "ALL QUESTIONS ARE VALID, ALL ANSWERS ARE TENTATIVE."
Jonathan Rauch's article rests on a single thesis: that scientific inquiry cannot be carried on without the use of hurtful language, which must therefore be allowed without constraint. Suppose that it were true that hurtful words in the context of science are, like tornadoes and taxes, unavoidable hazards of life that must be endured. I would then agree with him: For the sake of truth, we would be obliged to tolerate the most unbridled verbal abuse. Certainly I agree that for the sake of free speech, every sort of language short of the classical shout of "fire" in a crowded theater must have legal protection. But Rauch's thesis is false.
It is simply not true that scientific inquiry requires hurtful speech. There are always linguistic resources available for expressing truths—even unpleasant truths—without causing any pain other than that which is inevitably associated with knowing that one has made an error, a pain that is entirely independent of the truth itself. The use of hurtful speech is not some tool of science; it is laziness and incompetence. It is a demonstration that the speaker isn't willing to take the trouble to construct a non-hurtful utterance or is too unskilled linguistically to do so.
All verbal abusers rely on the old "sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you" myth; it's much easier to indulge their habit if they can claim that their victims have no right to plead injury. Rauch has carried this much farther, however, seeking as he does to establish that "the notion that hurtful words are a form of violence" is "a dreadful error." He would like to dress the old myth up in the clothing of intellectual respectability.
I would suggest that he take a long and careful look at current research in psychoneuroimmunology, which has proved beyond all question that the primary sources of both morbidity and mortality for all diseases and injuries in our society, across the board, are hostility and loneliness, both of which are created primarily by language. Rauch says "a very dangerous principle is now being established as a social right: 'Thou shalt not hurt others with words.'" The problem is that once it has been proved that the damage hurtful words do is as real as the damage done by weapons and speeding trucks—and that has been proved—this "dangerous principle" is just as valid as "Thou shall not hurt others by shooting at them and running them over."
You cannot forbid physical violence and permit verbal violence. Both rest on the single principle that one individual has the right to cause another individual pain. If we tell our children that when others are hurt by their words, it's because something is wrong with their victims, that is a license to do harm. We should not then be surprised when they conclude that those they harm physically are equally without rights.
We are suffering today in the United States from the effects of an epidemic of violence; there is no greater threat to our society than this epidemic. We profess amazement when youngsters who have maimed or raped or killed show no remorse. If we are going to insist that causing others pain is one of the privileges of life, it is both hypocritical and absurd to expect them to feel remorse.
No doubt Rauch would protest that I have taken a thesis he intended to have applied to the context of scientific inquiry and have extended it to thugs on the street and batterers in the home. Indeed I have. There is no way to set up a license to do harm and restrict it to the scientific elite—not when the mechanism of harm is language, which is freely available to every human being at every level of society.
Certainly the obligation to take responsibility for the consequences of one's language behavior, instead of dumping it on one's listeners, is an inconvenience. It requires one to think before one speaks, for example. But such inconveniences are part of life in a democracy, and the obligation must be assumed.
Finally, I would like to ask Rauch to consider the potential effects of his statements when they are—as they inevitably will be—taken out of context and trumpeted by the media and by the ideologues. He has a gift for the pithy aphorism and the apt "sound bite." When his clever sentences are not surrounded by the thickets of verbiage that profess his good intentions, they are the precise equivalent of shouting "fire" in a crowded theater.
Suzette Haden Elgin
I enjoyed Jonathan Rauch's excellent article about the various politically correct attacks on free inquiry. I found his arguments persuasive, and I agree with most of his conclusions.
But Mr. Rauch ignores some important points about the controversy regarding the Louisiana law that the Supreme Court overturned in Edwards v. Aguillard. In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia held that the state of Louisiana had the constitutional right to require that equal time be given to scientific creationism if evolution was taught. Scalia reasoned that the state of Louisiana could choose to further academic freedom by presenting both sides of this controversial issue.
Scalia felt that the Court's majority position, by not allowing Louisiana to present both theories, was repressive. Mr. Rauch counters that if states may pass laws requiring equal time for scientific creationism, then, by the same reasoning, they should pass laws requiring equal time for astrology and other sincerely held minority beliefs.
The Supreme Court's task in this case, of course, was to say whether Louisiana's law was constitutional. I am unable to find anything in the Constitution that would prevent the state of Louisiana from instructing public schools to teach that the earth is flat. As far as I can tell, scientific creationism and the flat-earth theory have about the same scientific status, and if I lived in Louisiana I would be disinclined to vote for the moron who came up with a law requiring that either be taught in the public schools. I would not, however, welcome a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court overruling him, since he is, after all, a duly elected moron, and Louisiana deserves him until the next election.
Moreover, Mr. Rauch fails to consider the special status of the public-school system. The vast bulk of the funds available for education in the United States are confiscated by government, both local and national, to support the public-school system. For most people of modest means the public schools are the only economically viable school option. The public schools are creatures of the government, and the curriculum they offer is politically dictated.
To appeal to academic freedom, saying the curriculum must be left to individual teachers or schools, is naive and often disingenuous. States pass countless laws specifying what must be taught: Spanish in first grade, algebra in middle school, sex education, music, you name it. What's more, the public-school curriculum should be dictated by the government. The state has, after all, taken people's money to pay for those schools, and it is responsible for what goes on in them.
Liberal inquiry requires that crackpots be tolerated. They need not be listened to; they need not be afforded equal status or admitted to the club of academic respectability. They can safely be ridiculed; in fact, they ought to be ridiculed. This is how liberal inquiry sorts out ideas. But they must be allowed to exist. Some of them will someday be admitted to the club, and somebody else will be thrown out. This is simply necessary for any progress to be made. Most new ideas start out as crackpot ideas.
But the coercive centralization of education represented by the public schools is a deliberate attempt to prevent crackpots from propagating their kind. Mr. Rauch might say that any attempt to correct this will make the public schools a political football, but I would counter that it is simply inevitable that the public schools will be the center of political squabbling. If we are to retain the public schools as we currently understand them (and it is not clear that we should), then we must apply political tools to these political problems.
This brings us back to the problem Justice Scalia faced. The only way that the citizens of Louisiana could control what their children were taught was to elect representatives who would dictate the desired curriculum. The fact that the state legislature went to the trouble of passing a law requiring the teaching of creationism suggests that, in Louisiana at least, creationism was a respectable part of the general consensus.
The price the public-education establishment must pay for its virtual monopoly on education is to lose control of the curriculum to the democratic process. This is not as good as true academic freedom, but it is the best that can be accomplished within the framework of the public schools. Justice Scalia was right.
Allen Lee Haslup
Jonathan Rauch is to be commended for pointing out that science is a messy and sometimes very personal activity. While people who "do science" are stereotypically described as aloof and unemotional, it was clearly the height of emotional attachment to an idea that drove the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann to suicide.
The history of science is strewn with examples of competing orthodoxies maneuvering to get the upper hand and, most importantly, the money. Historically, scientists are no more defenders of free inquiry than businessmen are of free trade. They are real people and, as Boltzmann's example reminds us, are as frail and callous and self-interested as any of us.
The rules of free inquiry have not been upheld by the scientific community so much as by the intellectual community (they are not the same). Much as economists have in the past, by and large, defended free trade, intellectuals, including the various justices of the Supreme Court, have had to defend open debate in the sciences. Scientists will usually only do battle when their personal work is at stake. In other words, they're people too.
I have one small complaint though. Statements like "I am opposed to every statement of positive truth and every man who states it" is a positive statement about the world. "No final say" is, in fact, the last word. It is a statement about the world and a claim of knowledge. Even the statement that nothing is knowable is a positive statement.
I share the same fear Rauch has regarding the opponents of free inquiry. But if Rauch wants to argue that we can't make positive claims about knowledge, he will not be able to effectively confront the barbarians, who have no difficulty claiming cultural superiority. We Westerners know words are not bullets. We have to stand our ground with certainty. As P. J. O'Rourke likes to say, the Romans didn't run multicultural orientation sessions for handling the Huns.
Of course, everything is up for some questioning, but there are some truths, even scientific ones, that in my mind the issue is closed on. The most important one: Freedom is necessary for science to be done well. That is not arguable, and we had better start standing up and saying it with conviction, or we'll all start to sound like George Bush.
Jonathan Rauch holds out a philosophical ideal of liberal inquiry and then proceeds to criticize others on the assumption that the ideal holds in practice and that they must therefore be acting based on a contrary ideal. We need to understand how the scientific establishment actually operates before we accept its conclusions.
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn noted that once ideas become dominant within a scientific community, facts that don't square with them have a way of getting shunted aside or even changed to fit the ideas. After the phlogiston theory fell out of favor, the weight of phlogiston/oxygen that had worked for decades was suddenly found to be "wrong" and changed to fit the new theory. Historically, we find that scientists rarely give up their commitment to a dominant idea. The young become enamored of a new idea, and the old die off. The man credited in the textbooks with the discovery of oxygen, Joseph Priestley, went to his grave believing in phlogiston.
We find the political intruding on the scientific within the community of scientists. The story of finding the weight of the electron is a story of scientists massaging their data so as to not differ too greatly from (what is today thought to be) the wrong answer given by a prominent physicist.
In this light, we may be justified under the liberal ideal in challenging consensus findings. If two groups both calling themselves scientific communities spring up in parallel and reach different conclusions, we have no way of adjudicating the superiority of one group's ideas over the other's. This, by the way, supports the dissent in Edwards v. Aguillard that troubles Rauch.
Khomeini, far from providing "a defining moment," is a straw man in this debate. Many thoughtful people who criticize the scientific establishment appear to me to be operating from the ideal that Rauch espouses. They criticize the establishment because it doesn't live up to the liberal ideal. Rauch has confused the myth our culture teaches about science with the reality of fallible, political people employed as scientists.
Kennard Thompson Wing
Mr. Rauch replies: Yes, words can hurt; we don't need psychoneuroimmunology to tell us that. Words often hurt even when we mean them to help, and certainly when we mean them to criticize. Suzette Haden Elgin is naive if she thinks that politeness can make the search for knowledge painless. There is no way to make people feel good about hearing, "Your work is awful." At best you can make people feel less hurt, which is not necessarily a good idea, since if the work is really awful, then somebody had better say so.
Given that words can hurt, the question is, what do you do about that? Do you, or don't you, establish a social or governmental authority to quash hurtful words and punish their perpetrators? That's the point where Ms. Elgin's argument dismembers itself.
Ms. Elgin wants to have it both ways. She says at first that she supports broad legal protections of words, "for the sake of free speech." But then—astonishingly—she says, "You cannot forbid physical violence and permit verbal violence." Either she favors repression, or she does not believe her own words. For if hurtful words are not fundamentally different from physical violence, then the First Amendment's protection of free speech is morally outrageous, just as if it guaranteed a right to "hurt others by shooting them and running them over." In place of the First Amendment, we would need word police and language prosecutors to rule on which speakers were "hurtful" and to punish them: kindly inquisitors, if you will.
If Ms. Elgin is saying that calling me a faggot is basically the same, from a human-rights point of view, as poking out my eye, she is not only trivializing violence, she is also saying that free speech is morally indefensible. That she nevertheless defends free speech implies that she recoils—thank goodness—from the implications of her own position.
Mr. Haslup may mistake my direction. My article was not about what schools legally may do, but what they should do. Schools should present only properly checked knowledge as respectable theory, even if they have the legal right to present creationism, astrology, or flat-earthism. I take issue not with Scalia's constitutional law but with his sympathy for the argument that preferring science over non-science is illiberal or unfair. Science is special because it is the only liberal system for sorting good ideas from bad. My fear is that the egalitarian fallacy ("everyone's belief deserves respect") is eroding science's special status.
Mr. Salem's letter is touched, I think, by a common confusion. In a liberal intellectual system, positive claims (like Mencken's) are perfectly acceptable—in the context of social rules that force all such claims to be tested under critical fire. Some individuals, like Mr. Salem, will take the two-fisted, "stand our ground with certainty, boys!" approach; others will hedge or mediate. Fine. What must be undogmatic is not the liberal intellectual but the liberal intellectual system. And, I think, even in the face of "barbarians," the system's self-critical nature is a strength, not a weakness.
I agree with Mr. Wing that criticism of science is useful, even if I criticize said criticism when I think it's wrong. Yes, of course, "we may be justified under the liberal ideal in challenging consensus findings." But we must not believe, as creationists and others do, that simply to challenge is to debunk. Evolution, for instance, stands until its opponents convince the scientific community that their own theory is better.
I am annoyed at having to read vulgarities in one of my favorite magazines ("Countdown to Victory," Mar.). Isn't it possible to bleep out these expressions?
Ronald J. Berkhimer
Walnut Creek, CA
The editors reply: We don't gratuitously insert vulgarities, but neither do we remove them from quotations. In this case, the sort of language used by the Bush crowd was part of the picture that the author was trying to paint. Readers can judge for themselves how it reflects on the speakers.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Letters".