Why don’t more academics engage in public debate?

Last week, Matthew Sears, a professor of classic at the University of New Brunswick, wrote a great article in MacLean’s about how academics should participate more often in public scholarship and debate.  For example, if you’re a historian and you think Steven Pinker gets the Enlightenment wrong, speak up and challenge. If you’re a developmental psychologist and you think Jean Twenge gets things wrong about kids and digital devices, speak up. And if you’re a humanities scholar or biological psychologist and you think Jordan Peterson gets archetypes, myth, or lobsters wrong, speak up and challenge! In particular, if some public scholar is writing “out of their lane” and is getting things wrong in your lane, you owe it to your field to set the record straight. (Sears didn’t say it that way, that’s my interpretation).

Sears’s article was a hit. I agreed with his thesis. And there was some great, lively discussion on Twitter, of course. Some academics pointed out that the we do engage in public debate and discourse….on Twitter. But the question remains, why don’t more academics seek out opportunities to engage in public debate? In my opinion, we do, up to a point. And there are a few reasons why we don’t. Many of these were mentioned in response to Sears’s article.

Personal Risks

One clear hurdle is that scholars who speak out, especially against very popular public figures with large online followers, may risk on-line harassment. This could be time consuming at best and life threatening at worst.

In some cases, it may be worth the risk, but in many other cases, it may not be worth risking on-line harassment to challenge a public figure. In order for the risk to be worthwhile, the public figure would need to be making very dangerous or damaging claims, and thankfully that rarely happens among public intellectuals.

Lack of Professional Support

Another hurdle that many scholars face when seeking out public debate and outreach is a lack of professional support. For example, some commenters on Sears’s article pointed out that junior scholars and people from racial minority groups, indigenous groups, and LGBTQ communities face greater public outcry than people in safer circumstances.

Another academic pointed out that universities do encourage some public engagement but there is little institutional incentive and our job performance is usually tied to teaching and research, not public debate. Unlike public speakers and public figures, whose primary job is to be public speakers, academics are teaching and doing research.

These are important challenges, but clearly these don’t apply to everyone. Tenured professors can (and should) speak out and participating in public debate when appropriate. So why don’t more academics look to be publicly engaged?

A Tradeoff

I mentioned that it’s not easy, even if we wanted to. It has to do with the tradeoff between public work and university responsibility. A full time academic might not have much time left for public debate (and vice versa, a public scholar does not have as much time left for academic work).

Some of the most outspoken public intellectuals are not or are no longer traditional “40/40/20” academics. This formula refers to the nominal workload for professors at many large research universities. We’re expected to devote 40% of our job to teaching, another 40% to our research and scholarship, and 20% to service like committee work and editorial duties. If I were to jump into a public debate with a well-known public intellectual, it might take time away from my regular work. Now maybe that’s worth it from time to time but for many of us, this is extra time or a personal project.

The decision to become (or debate with) a well-known public intellectual means a tradeoff with one’s academic work. For that reason, most of us engage with the public in ways that hew closely to our own discipline.

Steven Pinker as an Example

Steven Pinker is a full professor at Harvard, with an incredibly long bibliography of books, chapters, articles, and journal papers. He has a full CV posted so you can see what he’s up to. Mostly, he writes books. Many of them have been best sellers. I thought his “How the Mind Works” was a fantastic book, an inspirational account of the importance of cognitive science. He appears at lectures and on talk shows.

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology

Steven Pinker,  Rose Lincoln / Harvard University


But he does not seem to teach very much and it’s impossible to know if he does any departmental service work. It’s Harvard. I imagine that there’s less tedious admin work for full professors at Harvard than full professors at Western (my institution). And Pinker occupies an endowed, named position (the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology) He would not be expected to teach or do administrative work. It would not be a rational use of his time. My point is that he’s not rank and file. Pinker, agree or disagree with his work, is an elite, public intellectual by any definition. And he’s been great in this role as a public academic cognitive scientist.

But as he strayed from cognitive science and linguistics, however, people in other fields began to complain about his work. He’s too optimistic in “Angels of our Better Nature”, some have said. He misunderstands the enlightenment in “Enlightenment Now”, others have complained. These are still important books, but they are outside his primary field. Scholars, even ones who stray into the public forum, like to stay in their lanes and don’t like it when scholars from another field encroach.

Jordan Peterson is a Special Case

Looming over this, of course, is Jordan Peterson. Peterson is not in my field, but we’re in similar cohorts: middle-aged white male, tenured, full professors of Psychology, at large, Canadian research universities (Peterson is at University of Toronto; I’m at the University of Western Ontario). Prior to becoming “The Jordan Peterson” his research impact at U of T was very good but not incredible.  (Note: you can save yourself the trouble of pointing out that my h-index is lower than Peterson’s. Like every academic, I know my score. It’s moderate. I’m cool with that).  He was known to be an excellent lecturer. By all accounts he’s always been hard working.


Jordan Peterson sitting at the exact same angle as Steven Pinker (cred. G. Skidmore)

By that’s not why he’s famous.

He’s mostly famous now for being opposed to Canadian bill C-16, for his YouTube videos, for being on Joe Rogan, touring with Sam Harris, for his “12 rules” book, and for being the subject of hundreds of think pieces. While he may have been a good teacher, scholar, and departmental citizen at U of T, that’s just not what he does. Not any more. There’s been a tradeoff.  Unlike Pinker, whose fame is primarily within his field as a cognitive psychologist, much of Peterson’s fame is broader and touches on other disciplines. He’s really popular.

His work as a public intellectual is no longer closely connected to his work at U of T as a personality psychologist, or his work as a clinical psychologist, or his work as a teacher. He’s no longer a 40/40/20 academic. What’s more, although he’s still affiliated with the University of Toronto, he’s been on leave. He may not return. And really, why would he? Agree or disagree with his ideas and the cult of personality that has developed around him, he can reach more people as a public speaker than as a tenured professors. And that’s what many of us, as academics, desire: we want to reach people, to teach, to inspire. Far from being “de-platformed” he’s been re-platformed. He’s exchanged the lecture hall for the O2 Arena.

It would be difficult for most academics to compete with those resources and to challenge someone like Jordan Peterson. Some academics have done so in print, though the linked article was written by Ira Wells, who teaches literature and cultural criticism at the University of Toronto. The humanities and cultural criticism are his field.  But most of us don’t regard him as an academic or a researcher but someone in a different category all together. I offer this not as a criticism but as an observation.

I wouldn’t really care too much about Petersons’s work normally, because (unlike Pinker) it’s not in my field. I did not follow his work before he became famous. I do care that some of his videos and writings have been used (by others) to marginalize trans people, including people I know and respect. I can and will stand up for those people, but unless Peterson is going to mischaracterize prototype theory, any criticism by me would be personal and not scholarly. In which case, I’m not speaking as an expert. I might as well be criticizing Dr. Oz or Alan Alda. It’s possible, it’s my prerogative, but I’m not really doing it as an academic. I’m just doing it. And so I don’t.

I’d be out of my element and would end up costing me time. A protracted debate with a public intellectual who is a full time speaker and public figure would eventually affect my teaching, my scholarship, my research. Unless it’s in my own field, it’s difficult to justify.

Most of us do public work within our field

There are lots of successful public intellectuals who are working in their fields. Sara Goldrick-Rab for example is a world leader on the cost of education. Susan Dynarski is well known for her economics work and also for the use of laptops in the classroom. My colleague Adrian Owen was recently awarded the OBE for his work on consciousness and vegetative state has written a terrific popular book on the topic. Daniel Levitin writes on cognition and music. The list is long.

The criticism seems start when academics fail to “stay in their lane”. The public did not object to Jordan Peterson’s work on personality and creativity, or Noam Chomsky’s work on linguistics, or even Steven Hawking’s work on black holes. When these people wrote and worked on other topics, their limitations began to show.

In the end, I think most of us as academics are happy and enthusiastic to engage in public debate, we just tend to do it in our own fields. We tend to self-promote and educate and not debate on topics we’re not experts in. As for me? I think I do my best work in the classroom. I like the outreach I can do in the formal setting. I’m working on bringing that to my next book but don’t expect me to be to far outside my element.

Not yet…we’ll see.


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