In Defense of the Journal of Controversial Ideas

Full disclosure: I am a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Controversial Ideas. If that doesn’t adequately parade my true colors, this will: I am also a member of the Heterodox Academy and, as such, vehemently support viewpoint diversity in universities and the right to free speech, even that which might offend. This makes me fairly unpopular in academia at large. Every time I tweet in defense of academic freedom, I lose followers. That’s a sad indictment of the present state of academia and, I think, all the justification needed to defend the very existence of the Journal of Controversial Ideas.

Founded by Jeff McMahan (Oxford), Peter Singer (Princeton), and Francesca Minerva (Milan), the Journal of Controversial Ideas is a new, open access peer reviewed journal that brands itself as an outlet for rigorous, high-quality manuscripts that may cause shock, offense, or upset. Why would anyone want to publish research that is shocking, offensive, or upsetting? Good question. As we all know, in days past, a heliocentric view of the solar system was considered heresy. All the available evidence at the time pointed to the Earth being at the center of the universe. We know how that turned out.

Science should not be driven by ideology, nor by politics. It should be driven by the pursuit of truth, however unpalatable or inconvenient. When science is constrained by the findings we would like to see, it ceases to be science and starts to be a confirmation of our worldview. Much like the Kantian categorical imperative, the most reliable research findings must be those reported by the scientist who vehemently opposes their implications.

“Science should not be driven by ideology, nor by politics. It should be driven by the pursuit of truth, however unpalatable or inconvenient. When science is constrained by the findings we would like to see, it ceases to be science and starts to be a confirmation of our worldview.”

I submit that the following five reasons justify the existence of the Journal of Controversial Ideas.

  1. Controversial research often fails peer review, not because it is methodologically or theoretically unsound, but because it offends the sensibilities and biases of peer reviewers.
  2. Science progresses most efficiently when it can break free from path dependency and reject orthodoxy.
  3. Research should not ever be seen as a popularity contest.
  4. Researchers should not be punished, canceled, or ostracized for asking and answering questions as researchers.
  5. Banning certain ideas gives them strength, regardless of whether they are right or wrong, sound or unsound.

The latter point is worth highlighting to the opponents of the Journal of Controversial Ideas. I suspect that many of you may have good intentions in saying that certain types of questions should never be asked or answered (I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt), but think about it in these terms. If you put a sign on your front lawn that says, “DO NOT STEP ON THE GRASS,” you’re going to find more people stepping on your lawn than had you never put the sign there. Even bad ideas have to be engaged with to show that they remain bad ideas.

If you don’t support the ideas discussed on the Journal of Controversial Ideas, then, rather than condemning the ideas, consider submitting a “Reply to . . .” so that we can dialectically arrive at a better understanding. Please don’t tell us we don’t have a right to discuss those ideas in the first place.

Professor Andrew R. Timming
Editor-in-Chief
http://dire-ed.com

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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