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Balancing Evidence

Before kicking into a long-delayed closing to this series on evidence, anyone interested in diving deeper into concepts introduced in LogicCheck, who also may be living in or visiting Texas next March, is invited to join me at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) EDU conference, one of the hipper education and EdTech gatherings of the year.

I’ll be appearing on a panel at that event entitled Beyond Fact Checking: How to Teach Media Literacy, alongside fellow “missionaries” trying to get media producers and consumers to consider not just “the facts,” but the arguments into which those facts fit when creating or reading/watching “the news.”

Speaking of facts and arguments, so far this series has looked at how statistical, anecdotal, and visual evidence are used to present part of a story, but rarely the whole story.

While different sorts of evidence can help create a composite that might come closer to truth, the ability of some kinds of evidence to short-circuit versus support reason should make us wary of sources that rely too heavily on one type of evidence to the exclusion of others.

For example, if you frequent popular news sources, such as cable news stations or web sites that cater to partisan audiences, you’ll tend to notice a heavy emphasis on anecdotal evidence, in the form of stories about real people suffering genuine injustices, many of them heartbreaking.

To take a subject I’ve been discussing/debating with loved ones recently, “cancel culture” is a phrase once used to describe campus speakers having their events shut down through petitions and protests, some of them violent. Over the years, this term expanded to include a range of attempts to get discussion of certain subjects, and those who want to bring them up, outlawed – or at least punished through professional sanction and, sometimes, personal harassment.

Stories of particular events of this ilk have been the staple of conservative media for many years, with many of the cancelled becoming cable news celebrities eager to argue that their terrible (and true) tales represent campuses out of control.

Critics of this narrative have argued that the phenomenon is a figment of conservative imagination, that the few attacks on professors and students for professing controversial beliefs were legitimate, or that liberal academics have also faced harassment and sometimes lost their jobs due to political activity outside the classroom. While these are three distinct (and not necessarily compatible) arguments, evidence that progressives face risks of cancellation are also supported largely by anecdotal evidence.

Presuming most of this anecdotal evidence is true, there is still a logical leap that stories of cancellation are asking us to make between a series of troubling events (the premises) and conclusions that the campus is under attack by censors, coming from the Left and/or Right, problems so dire that they may require administrative or government intervention to solve.

While anecdotal evidence can humanize an issue, vivid stories of injustice do not tell us how widespread a problem might be. Which is why we should turn to statistical evidence to answer questions about the scope of a problem (for example, whether cancel culture is widespread, or focused on a few campuses or types of campuses), as well as trends (such as whether the phenomena expanding or receding).

The National Association of Scholars has created a list of 194 academic cancellations in the US and Canada, while the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) maintains a more extensive Scholars Under Fire database that tracks scholars, currently ~500, who have faced professional repercussions for their on-campus and, sometimes, off-campus statements and activities.

One writer has critiqued the FIRE database as too narrow in its focus on cases in which threat of professional sanction get you entered into the database while other sorts of threats (like cuts of government funding to educational institutions where controversial ideas are taught) do not. While arguments that instances of cancellation are undercounted doesn’t square with claims that cancel culture is just a figment of right-wing imagination, it does support the argument that the problem might be widespread, given that attacks – not all of them documented – are coming from multiple sources.

But even if we double the number of cases from ~500 to ~1000 to include the more sources and forms of attacks on professors and students, keep in mind that there are approximately 1.5 million faculty in the US, which means the percent of faculty subject to attack is less than 0.1%.

A familiar criticism of statistical information is that it minimizes the scope of a problem by diluting it into a large denominator, something we saw in debates over police violence last year. This is a fair criticism if you take small percentages as the first and last word on the matter.

But if you look at other statistics, such as majorities of students who claim to self-censor to avoid personal and academic repercussions, not to mention public concern over the controversy, one could synthesize anecdotal and statistical evidence to determine that threats to academic freedom are a genuine and potentially serious threat, even if only a tiny minority of academics have been personally caught up in controversy to date.

While an inflammatory video of a professor or student being harassed can help us understand that real people are suffering, statistical evidence is necessary to determine the scale and trajectory of the problem, which can lead to more synthetic understanding of an issue and, potentially, more thoughtful solutions.

For example, the writers Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff (founder of the aforementioned FIRE organization) describe in their book The Coddling of the American Mind a situation in which college campuses, where progressive politics generally dominate, are where attacks on professors for defying campus orthodoxy predominate, while the world outside of campus (which tends to be more conservative) is the source of political and sometimes personal attacks on individual professors and the academy as a whole that also make life miserable for many scholars.

Both groups of critics are united in the belief that certain principles, be they the fight against racism or the fight against political indoctrination in the classroom, take precedent over other principles, such as academic freedom and freedom to state and debate your beliefs without harassment. The author’s recommendation – which you are free to argue against – involves standing against all attacks on academic freedom and freedom of conscience, even if that leaves some actors free to pursue avenues of inquiry others would find legitimately abhorrent.

When thinking about and debating hot-button topics, there is rarely a piece of evidence or knock-down argument that cinches debate for one side. But if we step back to collect, evaluate, and synthesize different sorts of evidence and not accept demands that a single incident or stat tells the whole story, we stand the chance of being able to solve our problems, rather than create new ones.


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