Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk
Editor’s Note: Beginning in 2012, I asked Steve Fuller to provide a Christmas greeting—or, end-of-year reflection of sorts (see 2012 and 2013). As you will read below, Steve again challenges us to examine our intellectual commitments and resulting actions. We take stock, then, of the meaning and enactment of intellectual courage. We hope the opportunity arises for you to share your intellectual convictions with the SERRC in the coming days and years. We realize the future together.
Image credit: Jim Collier
The Need for Intellectual Courage
Just out of curiosity, I googled the phrase ‘intellectual courage’ and found a mere 65,000 hits. But I wasn’t surprised. To those steeped in classical accounts of virtue, ‘intellectual courage’ sounds like an oxymoron. Virtue theory generally treats the intellect as a place for the dispassionate contemplation of options, whereas courage presumes the mobilization of attention and action toward some threatening object. Thus, it is rare that intellectuals are presented as courageous unless their interventions land them in trouble. But even in those cases, the intellectuals tend to be presented as having acted impulsively, as if to diminish the ‘intellectual’ aspect of what they did. Thus, François-Marie Arouet never thought that his pen name ‘Voltaire’ (a neologism that connotes a volatile nature) might serve to cause long-term reputational damage. Or maybe he half-knew that it would. After all, Voltaire was also the man who wished God to protect him from his ‘friends’ rather than his enemies—and for good reason: How many self-declared fans of Voltaire would characterize his career as ‘philosophical’?
In any case, it seems very hard to do equal justice to ‘intellectual’ and ‘courage’ in the idea of ‘intellectual courage’. Nevertheless, we must. What makes intellectual courage ‘intellectual’ is that one operates with a plan for managing the short- and long-term expectations of one’s actions. In other words, you figure out how to take the flack before you’re ultimately vindicated. Now much of this reckoning involves auditing your own resources: Am I secure in what I believe—both emotionally and institutionally? Can I afford to be wrong? Such an audit also involves judgements about how the world is now and likely to be in the foreseeable future. This in turn requires taking an adequate measure of the opponent and, in most cases, having some account of how the status quo will be overturned. Of course, all of this will be tested by future events, in which you hope to play a significant role. Now, if your actions are predicated on all these things, then you are properly ‘intellectually courageous’, regardless of how history judges you.
I am motivated to say these things at the end of 2014 because, without precedent, some members of the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S), the main association for STS scholars, are in the process of petitioning the entire membership to have the society officially condemn the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in science classes. You can find the petition here. As the only 4S member to my knowledge who has publicly defended said movements, I suppose it is a back-handed compliment that the petitioners believe that people often only know about STS through my intervention in the controversy. However, STS is a field that has been in existence for at least forty years, with very many insights to its credit. From that standpoint, its members should feel humiliated by the petition’s premise.
4S is an organization that has always been very open to people with diverse perspectives on the role of science and technology in society. However, it has studiously avoided becoming a ‘professional society’ in the proper sense of circumscribing codes of conduct and defending members against local obstacles to such conduct. When I served on the 4S Council in the mid-late 1990s, at the peak of the ‘Science Wars’, I actually recommended that we adopt just such a measure of professionalism, but there was little appetite for that prospect. (Instead, 4S has produced various ‘vision statements’ over the years, which may—or not—be of interest to future historians.) To be sure, there are many reasons why 4S has never been ‘professional’, which are epitomized in the positive response that newcomers always have to the ‘safe haven’ atmosphere of 4S conferences. Nevertheless, tolerance is not the only virtue (or even the most important one), and in any case should never be confused with courage.
One need not question the sincerity of the petition’s proposers to appreciate the absurdity of what they’re requesting of their fellow 4S members. They are asking a fundamentally uncourageous organization to prop up a situation in which the petitioners’ own courage seems to be in question. Or, maybe it’s the ‘intellectual’ side of ‘intellectual courage’ that they are lacking. While I don’t think creationism or intelligent design poses anything like the general ‘threat’ that the petitioners claim, that’s not the point here. If these STS scholars find themselves so outflanked by creationists and intelligent design theorists, then maybe they don’t fully understand the dynamic of their situation, including the sophistication of their putative opponents. One natural reading of this petition is that its proposers have found themselves out of their depth in ways they had never expected. But to my mind, this is a competence issue. The proposers may simply need to learn more for themselves—and leave the rest of us alone.
I still believe that it would be to the long-term benefit of 4S to become a professional body in the manner I originally advocated. And maybe this petition could provide an opportunity to trigger such a discussion. But as of now, 4S has no professional codes of conduct, and so everyone is allowed take the field’s principles, findings and insights in whatever direction they wish. Thus, there is no case to answer in the petition, I’m afraid. Welcome to an intellectual courage-free zone!