Academic Freedom, Feminism and the Probabilistic Conception of Evidence

Philosophy Study 12 (6):22-28 (2022)
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There is a current debate about the extent to which Academic Freedom should be permitted in our universities. On the one hand, we have traditionalists who maintain that Academic Freedom should be unrestricted: people who have the appropriate qualifications and accomplishments should be allowed to develop theories about how the world is, or ought to be, as they see fit. On the other hand, we have post-traditional philosophers who argue against this degree of Academic Freedom. I consider a conservative version of post-traditional philosophy that permits restrictions on Academic Freedom only if the following conditions are met, Condition 1: The dissemination of the results of a given research project R must cause significant harm to some people, especially to people from oppressed groups. Condition 2: Condition 1 must possess strong empirical support, and which accepts the following assumptions: (1) there is a world of objective facts that is, in principle, discoverable, (2) rational means are the means of discovering it and, (3) rational means requires strong empirical support. I define strong empirical support for an hypothesis h on evidence e in probabilistic terms, as a ratio of posterior to prior probabilities substantially exceeding 1. I now argue in favour of a research policy that accepts unrestricted Academic Freedom. My argument is that there is a formal and general quandary that arises within the standard theory of probability when we apply this account of empirical support to a set of possible causal hypotheses framed in such a way that the “reverse probabilities”, pr(e/h) are 1. I consider various possible ways to escape this quandary, none of which are without difficulties, concluding that a research policy allowing for unrestricted Academic Freedom is probably the best that we can hope for.

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Tom Vinci
Dalhousie University


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