OPINION | Academic freedom argument is red herring for racist, unethical, weak research

The University of Cape Town.
The University of Cape Town.
Jacques Stander, Gallo Images

The issue of academic freedom and free speech is only being raised as a red herring to divert our attention away from what is arguably an unethical, racist, and scientifically weak piece of research, writes Phila Msimang.

A short two page commentary by Nicoli Nattrass, a professor in the School of Economics and a Director of the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild) at UCT, has been the subject of controversy for the last two weeks.

This commentary was published by the South African Journal of Science at the end of May and is the latest academic research output in South Africa to gain notoriety due to widespread condemnation and accusations of racism. 

This commentary titled "Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?" explores an important research question asking us to consider why we have the student demographics we do in the biological sciences, particularly disciplines in conservation biology.

Weak study design

The commentary aims at exploring some of the possible reasons for the disparities in representation in the biological sciences, particularly conservation biology.

The commentary was not meant to be a comprehensive study. Rather, it was an "exploratory study" looking at why black South Africans are less likely than their peers to study biological sciences at UCT.

The commentary was aimed at informing transformation policy at UCT. 

Why this commentary has become controversial is because of its weak study design and unsubstantiated claims about black students.

This led to the Black Academic Caucus (BAC) at UCT releasing a statement detailing the scientific failings of the study and how the commentary relies on damaging stereotypes and tropes about black students.

The UCT Executive then released a statement distancing themselves from Natrrass’s commentary and stated that they would be investigating the matter. Subsequent statements have been released by the BAC. 

In response, Nattrass released a series of statements where she argues that she is only receiving this criticism because she is white and because what she has published does "not comply with BAC’s narrow ideological and paradigmatic approach".

She argues that the criticism she is receiving is political and that it "impedes reasoned and evidence-based debate about transformation". She decries the university’s decision to distance itself from her research as the result of pressure from the BAC and student activists.

Following her lead, some other commentaries have also taken the angle of presenting this debacle as one centring on academic freedom and her suggestion that she is being victimised because she is white.

This is despite the focus of the BAC statements to the Nattrass commentary being its scientific failings.

It is from this kind of perspective that the Democratic Alliance (DA) released a statement penned by their Shadow Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Belinda Bozzoli.

Bozzoli accuses UCT of censoring its own academic, and are framing this incident as one about academic freedom and free speech.

But their statement, just like Nattrass’s own statements of defence for her commentary, does not address the scientific criticisms levelled against the commentary.

Instead, the conversation is directed towards her as a victim of a political witch hunt led by ideologically motivated activists.

What is insidious about this kind of response is that it relies on the fact that academic freedom and free speech are always serious issues about which we must always remain vigilant.

Under the cloak of such concerns, the flaws of the poorly thought out study that resulted in the commentary by Nattrass is meant to escape our scrutiny.

Scrutiny of the commentary from this position – to "have [its] methodology questioned and [its] research questions examined", as the DA put it – becomes an attack on academic freedom and free speech.

This framing flips the case on its head: the scrutiny the commentary is receiving becomes the problem, not the scientific dubiousness that the criticism is bringing to our attention. This betrays the very nature of science which is to subject ideas to critique and evaluation whilst testing any hypotheses proffered. 

Let us not fall for this gambit by Nattrass and the DA. Challenges to research are not attacks to academic freedom and free speech.

Criticisms of the Nattrass commentary test whether it can stand up to scientific scrutiny.

Scrutinizing claims is standard scientific practice that actually promotes academic freedom and free speech. 

Judgement and scrutiny by academic peers also promotes quality control. Her commentary is not immune from being assessed, interrogated, and denounced or rejected if it is found wanting.

And it has been found wanting.

Academic responsibility 

The fact that the statements in support of her do not offer any arguments for the quality of her research and do not deal with the content of the scientific criticisms that have been levelled against the commentary is telling: the issue of academic freedom and free speech is only being raised as a red herring to divert our attention away from what is arguably an unethical, racist, and scientifically weak piece of research.

But academic freedom and the right to free speech is no excuse for unethical, racist, or weak research.

Academic freedoms are not divorced from our academic responsibilities, and we should take our academic responsibilities as seriously as we take academic freedoms.

Part of our academic responsibility is not to produce unsubstantiated and harmful—basically, unethical—research.

What makes her research unethical is not only how it undermines basic social-scientific standards but because it gives a scientific veneer to already existing stereotypes about black people. That these are damaging and unsubstantiated stereotypes is the reason this research is racist.

The racism of the commentary and its scientific failings are intertwined in its research design as seen in the survey questions and discussion she published.

The survey questions and commentary in the research betray unquestioned prejudices that the inappropriate statistical analyses and academic framing was an attempt to give scientific respectability to.

But thanks to the vigilance of the readers of the South African Journal of Science, this commentary is receiving appropriate critique.

- Phila Msimang is a lecturer of philosophy at Stellenbosch University, an editor of the interdisciplinary social science journal Transformation, and is the Secretary of the Azanian Philosophical Society. He writes in his personal capacity.


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