Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Legitimizing the Anti-Vax Movement

The New York University law school recently hosted an event featuring promiennt anti-vaccination activist Robert Kennedy Jr.. Many folks are upset that this position would be given a platform at an august institution like NYU. And I'm inclined to agree, but this also lets me reiterate the point I made in my Academic Freedom versus Academic Legitimacy mini-article.

The objection to Kennedy speaking is not an "academic freedom" problem, so long as everyone agrees that whichever member of the NYU community that invited Kennedy has the right to extend such an invitation. The objection is that believing like the anti-vaccination movement is within the bounds of legitimate academic discourse is suggestive of a severe academic or intellectual failing. Academic freedom is a constraint on how we can remedy such a failing -- we cannot cancel the speech or discipline the organizer. But it is perfectly fair game to argue that treating the anti-vaccination like even a credible (much less correct) participant in public debate is nonetheless wrongful, and that NYU's intellectual community malfunctioned in an important way when it thought otherwise.

And that, after all, is the real objection isn't it? We don't hear flat-earthers on college campuses not because they're banned, and neither (just) because they're "disagreeable" in some sense, but because there is widespread intersubjective in the academic community that such views are not worthy of scholarly attention, and a professor who did think that such a view was even thought-provoking would seem to be making an obvious misstep (even if he had the "academic freedom" to do just that). And so it should be for this. It's not that anyone thinks NYU endorses Kennedy's opinion. It may well think he is seriously mistaken. But hosting him suggests that his position is "in bounds", the sort of thing that scholars debate over. And it shouldn't be -- any more than "scientific" creationism or Holocaust denial should be.

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