UCT’s fight for the control of knowledge – who has the upper hand?


Does truth exist? And if so, are Vice Chancellor Max Price and his UCT co-leaders, whom their colleague and Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe, believes are capitulating to the campus ’Fallists’, indulging in their deeply misguided interpretations of it? In this thought-provoking piece, Crowe shifts the battlefield to academic, intellectual terrain, challenging those ‘Fallists’ and like-minded colleagues, (who are presumably students of thought or they wouldn’t be at UCT), to take him on.

He’s a formidable adversary and vocal spokesman for what he believes is a silent academic majority that prefers to lie low, hoping the storm clouds will blow over rather than expose themselves to a fast and possibly debilitatingly long period of intemperate politics. Crowe, while seeming to understand (but not condone) this modus operandi, adheres to the tenet that, ‘evil flourishes when good men do nothing’, and stands back for nobody in what many know is a battle for the heart and soul of academia country-wide. – Chris Bateman.

By Tim Crowe*

Knowledge is simply organized information, the reasoned study of which is known as epistemology. The fundamental ‘real’ (epistemological) differences between intelligent Fallists and me plus the most of the “silent majority” at UCT relate to how that ‘organization’ is done and how to interpret the results. I am a scientist specializing in evolutionary and conservation biology who has a spent half-century absorbing information, testing current ideas/hypotheses and, where necessary, generating new knowledge.  I have approached this in two ways.

First and foremost, I have conducted my research within the context of theory that has withstood the test of time via theoretical and empirical/experimental testing.

Second, I have structured my information gathering to provide enough data to test and, if necessary, refute theory experimentally or statistically. Having said this, I honestly believe that my research was never based on the premise: "I never would have seen it if I hadn’t believed it." I can back this up with publications that clearly reject theory I had previously defended.

My knowledge journey has been characterised by three fundamental approaches.

1. Learn/discover a lot about one thing. In my case, this has been the broad biology of terrestrial game birds: Galliformes. As a biologist, my first reaction to research that is data-limited, nebulously formulated, theoretically miles wide and empirically millimetres thin is to distrust it. I fully appreciate the effects of historical contingency (phylogenetic evolutionary inertia) and the importance of “context”, especially in my ecological research (i.e. there are more or fewer game birds on a property because it rained at the right time of the year; it didn’t rain; there was or was not a veld fire, etc.). But, in the end, no matter how elusive it is, there is truth out there to be discovered.

2. I have assiduously followed the practice of subjecting my research finds to review by epistemic peers in respected scientific publications, and at national and international scientific meetings and in one-on-one debate with leading scientific adversaries. None of these adversaries ever became a personal enemy. Indeed, many became good friends.

3. I have translated (without ‘dumbing down’) my and others’ research findings to make them understandable to the general public.

  • Education is simply passing on knowledge to the benefit of recipients. Although an arrogant elitist and passionate ideological advocate by nature, I have tried to ensure that my recipients were never ‘baffled’ or ‘bullied’ and always challenged. I saw my students as developing potential colleagues (which many of them have become), with the primary goal being to allow them to have successful, independent careers. I saw colleagues as both allies and adversaries to share a beer with after debates. Although I promoted my own ideas and research ethos, I never consciously avoided or overtly denigrated ideas/people with which/whom I disagreed. Proof of these claims is the fact that none of my many students can be described as an Austin Powersian “mini-me”.
  • At UCT, in the ‘bad old days’, many scientists viewed the south side of the upper campus as the “soft side”, characterized by lots of empty parking bays in the afternoon. Research conducted by colleagues in the Faculty of Humanities was often parodied as Postmodern, reflecting my adversary/friend philosopher Daniel Dennett’s view that it stems from: “a school of ‘thought’ that proclaims ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’ and has largely played itself out in absurdity, because it is based on a distrust of the very idea of truth and disrespect for evidence, settling for ‘conversations’ in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.”

    Some (many?) left-leaning academics and the few (?) knowledgeable Fallists, primarily from the social sciences, view scientists as ‘nomotheists’ who relentlessly force reality to conform to universal theories often based on quantitative studies of populations. They self-identify as ‘idiographers’ who favour qualitative study of contingent, unique, and often cultural or subjective phenomena based on individuals’ “lived experiences”.  Truth, from their perspective is entirely contextually dependent. Following Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, they insist that academics should be “organic” intellectuals who do not simply view life in accordance with scientific rules, but instead “articulate” it through the culture, feelings and experiences of the masses who subject themselves to a hegemony based on “consented” coercion.

    A Trumpian “nasty” nomotheist would describe ideographic research as “Mrs Brown’s Tuesday’s truth”.  A retorting idiographer would describe nomothetic research as: “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it”.

    Before I came to Africa, I was probably a nomotheist product of what I had read and been taught.  That is, I was a student. Within a decade of publishing my Ph.D. research results, as a consequence of trying to understand the evolution, ecology and conservation of African game birds and other wildlife, I was infected with idiography.

    In the end, I think that real research runs the gamut of discovering universal truth (Mathematics?) through to interpreting unique events (History). I guess the Greek mathematicians Pythagoras and Hypatia and Indian Baudhayana were consummate nomotheists. They might grade into ‘applied’ nomotheists like Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Emmy Noether. Within the biological/geographical sciences there is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel which interprets the development of civilizations from a nomothetic perspective. Prominent African idiographers are Archie Mafeje and Mahmood Mamdani.

    I believe that UCT MUST make room for BOTH nomotheism and idiography in its curriculum and that supporters of these different views of life should debate and then have a beer at the UCT Club (which I helped to build).

    What do the Fallists and their supporters think?

    • Professor Tim Crowe is a descendant of oppressed Irish freedom-fighters from the United States working class.  He is a first generation university graduate, non-settler immigrant alumnus, Elected Fellow and emeritus (40 years’ service) professor at the University of Cape Town. He is a Ph.D.-educated expert on evolutionary biology (covering everything from ‘race’ to deeply rooted evolutionary trees) and conservation biology (especially regarding sustainable and economically viable use of wildlife). He has published nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers/books and is regarded as the world’s leading authority on game birds (chickens, turkeys, guinea fowls, etc.). About 70 of his graduated students have published their research and established themselves in their own right, including four professors.

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