A. J. Carlson and "Alternative Facts"

BY HANS-JOERG TIEDE

Anton Julius Carlson served as AAUP president from 1936 to 1938. He was once described by another former AAUP president as the Association’s “war horse” of that period of time, serving on Committee B on Freedom of Speech and on a total of four investigative committees between 1930 and 1941. Carlson chaired the famous University of Missouri sex questionnaire investigation. He was a Swedish immigrant, who had spent time as a preacher in Montana before becoming a physiologist, and taught for most of his career at the University of Chicago.

An oft-told story about Carlson (and a personal favorite) concerns efforts by University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins to weaken tenure at the institution in the early 1930s. Upon the stated rationale by Hutchins that he wished to keep the faculty on their toes, Carlson replied that Hutchins had gotten his anatomical facts wrong: he meant to keep them on their knees.

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A sign at the Women’s March on Washington, January 21, 2017. Photo by JD Disalvatore.

But perhaps more relevant, given today’s discussion of “alternative facts,” is Carlson’s deep commitment to the teaching of critical thinking. Carlson’s mantra as a teacher and researcher was the question “what is the evidence?”, a question sometimes rendered to mimic his heavy Swedish accent as “vat is de effidence?” As one obituary observed, “Dr. Carlson inspired his students more than most teachers to know the truth by the keenness with which he separated fact from fancy and the vigor with which he sought ‘de effidence.'” Carlson wrote in 1953: “The student, the teacher in every field of education should ask for the evidence, should examine the evidence. We cannot defeat ideas with guns or bombs or mere say so. Bad ideas can be defeated with better ideas based on better evidence.”

Another obituary noted about Carlson that: “Whenever and wherever human freedom was threatened by legislative action or prejudice, Carlson was always in the forefront as the courageous, clear-thinking, vigorous speaking champion of those whose rights were threatened.” Carlson’s service to the cause of academic freedom was surely motivated both by his dedication to human freedom and by his deep commitment to the scientific method.

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