The March for Science Is Also a March for Academic Freedom

BY ERNST BENJAMIN  

Ernst Benjamin served the AAUP as general secretary (1984-1994) and in several other roles. A former Wayne State University faculty member, he is the author of numerous articles on academic freedom and other higher education issues and has edited three books, most recently Academic Collective Bargaining (with Michael Mauer).

Discussions of threats to academic freedom often focus primarily on the humanities and social sciences. In view of the recent political efforts to discredit climate science, not to mention evolution, it may be useful to remind ourselves as we head into the Science March this Saturday, April 22, that the scientific disputes inherent in exploring and testing new scientific understandings have long been used as a cover for politically motivated, unscientific efforts to discredit otherwise sound science.

One illustration of this sad history is provided by the same book, The Red Network  (Elizabeth Dilling, 1934), that a blog post by Joerg Tiede recently cited for its denunciation of the AAUP and the three AAUP leaders who led our committee on free speech at that time.

To provide not only a reminder, but an illustration, of the technique of such attacks, here’s what the book had to say about another AAUP member, whose name I will initially withhold but which you will quickly guess.

“One of the best press-agented men in the world is [XX], who dares to tell smart professors that his . . . theory is so far beyond their intelligence that they cannot understand it—and gets away with it! They know, sure enough, they cannot understand it but evidently figure that the best thing they can do is to keep quiet and leave him undisturbed on his scientific throne, lest perchance his theory might be found to have some basis some day in which case they would be classed as ignoramuses for having doubted it in the first place.” Note how the attack on the scientist becomes an attack on professors generally. And: “Fellow workers in the Red movement are glad, of course, to magnify [his] importance in order to point out with pride that the greatest most ununderstandable scientist in the world is one of their number.” Note the implication that the scientist and the science, not the critic, are politically tainted.

“But no publicity for some reason is given to those sober courageous scientific authorities who with proof deride [his] theories. Dr. Nikola Tesla takes sharp issue with [X] saying: ‘The [X] theory in many respects is erroneous.’  Charles Lane Poor, Ph. D., professor of celestial mechanics at Columbia University, states: ‘The supposed astronomical proofs of the theory as cited and claimed by [X] do not exist.’  Prof. Thomas Jefferson See, a distinguished scientific authority, says: [X] ‘is neither an astronomer, mathematician nor physicist. He is a confusionist. The [X] theory is a fallacy. The theory that ether does not exist and that gravity is not a force but a property of space can only be described as a crazy vagary, a disgrace to our age.’” Dilling then continues with cites to another half dozen scientists of the day including “Henri Poincare, perhaps the most celebrated of his race since Cauchy.”

The authors listed above were of sufficient repute that you may check them out in Wikipedia even now, though their reputations are now also saddled with their misconceptions.  Non-scientific readers might be excused for not noticing that Dilling’s rebuttals are based on “appeals to authority” (like current cites to climate science dissenters), not on scientific evidence. The general public’s need to rely on authority rather than evidence it can understand and test is part of what puts science especially at risk and makes it difficult to resolve such controversy in the public arena rather than through scientific observation and the appropriate scientifically refereed publication.

Dilling continues: “Personally I shall never forget the merry evening my husband and I spent at a University round table lecture devoted to the [X] theory.  As our instructor diagrammed space-time as a circle and visioned us meeting ourselves meeting ourselves as infants again . . .  and demonstrated the speed of a locomotive . . . in accordance with relativity and in contradiction to all accepted mathematical rules, we all, including the instructor who admitted he could not understand it himself, howled with glee. We felt as though we had spent the evening in a mental madhouse.”  Unfortunately, as current events also remind us, complex and difficult ideas are the more easily ridiculed.

By now, you have probably guessed that the [X] responsible for the theories pilloried by Dilling was none other than Albert Einstein (an AAUP member from 1935 until his death in 1955). But Dilling is not content merely to discredit the scientific theory. She needs also to discredit the man and her wider enemies.

“While I am unable to understand the scientific value of the Relativity theory, I can understand the ‘relativity’ of Einstein to his daughter who married a Russian and lived in Russia following her marriage. I can also see the ‘relativity’ of  the atheist book he endorses and of the “Down with War, Up with Revolution “ pacifism of the War Resisters International, of which he is a leader, to the Communist Congress at Moscow, which he attended . . .” Dilling writes.  A detailed account of Einstein’s anti-war and allegedly communistic activities include two further notations of particular interest here:  “’It is reported from Berlin that the entire seized property of Professor Einstein and his wife has been confiscated under the law regulating the seizure of property of Communists.” The author then adds “”When Hitler started his campaign against Communists and Einstein’s Jewish relatives, Einstein demonstrated his “relativity” theory in a perfectly understandable way by reversing his “pacifist” position and urging Belgian war resisters to go to war against Germany.”

In yet another anticipation of current events, Dilling then proceeds to support a call to enforce immigration law: “When the Woman Patriot Society tried in 1932 to bar Einstein from entering the United States, the whole company of Red intellectuals rose up in wrath. Jane Addams’ W.I.L.P.F. [Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom] sent a message criticizing the American consul for even questioning the idol, Einstein. Yet, legally, Einstein’s membership in only one of these communist organizations was sufficient to exclude him from admission to the United State.” Further, under the then-law Dillon cites: “Nor is it necessary to prove that he “had knowledge of the contents of the programs . . . or any one of them. It is sufficient if the evidence showed that he was a member of, or affiliated with such an organization as contemplated by statute.’” She concludes by reciting Einstein’s involvement in the War Resister’s International.

It is also fitting that Dilling’s very next entry for Red threats is for Jane Addams herself, whom Dilling met at a Chicago hearing. Dilling relates that Addams was at the hearing: “to testify against the Baker Bills, which aimed only at penalizing the seditious communistic teaching of overthrow of this government in Illinois colleges. One would not have believed any person wishing to appear decently law abiding could have objected to these bills which had easily passed the [state] senate; but the vehement fight which college presidents [including Robert Maynard Hutchins] put up against them at the first hearing in Springfield was in itself a revelation.”

Dilling’s endorsement of legislative constraints on academic freedom foreshadows the repressive fifties, when I attended college, but also enables me conclude on a more optimistic note.  In 1956, when as a junior I earned 75 cents an hour hearing book reports from first year students, one of my assigned books was Out of My Later Years by Albert Einstein. I first met my now-wife of more than 55 years when she presented to me her report on the fine collection of essays that academic freedom allowed the faculty to assign and students to read and discuss.


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