John Cameron: Challenging authority is essential for progress

Students should not be shielded from provocative ideas
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My favourite physics teacher, Cal Tech’s Richard Feynman, insisted that “dissent” – actively challenging a dominant idea – was central to the function and reputation of science.

His great friend and colleague Freeman Dyson agreed: “Subversive science’s long history stretches back to at least Galileo and if it ceases to rebel against authority, it is finished.”

The right to dissent is a basic American freedom yet calls for the prosecution of scientists who question the dogma of global warming come from former Vice-President Al Gore. And last year the attorney generals of California and New York joined forces in what was an attempt to censor and restrict debate on this most contentious of scientific theories.

Sadly in recent years dissent has come under sustained attack in all the groves of academe on both sides of the Atlantic in a manner which stifles creative thinking. Yet civilisation’s great heroes took on the consensus and made the case against conventional wisdom because it is only when authority is challenged that progress is secured.

A recent Adam Smith Institute report warns that overrepresentation of leftist views has led to a pervasive groupthink which undermines the necessary ideological diversity of academia. It has created a dysfunctional atmosphere “where key assumptions go unquestioned, dissenting opinions are neutralised, and favoured beliefs are held as sacrosanct”.

And the present climate has produced a generation of infantilised college students demanding “safe spaces” where any speech that could hurt their feelings is forbidden. Yet safe spaces defeat the whole point of college because students are there to learn, to listen, to read widely, to think critically, to cooperate and to resolve conflicts through reason.

These are essential skills in the world of work and colleges used to equip students for professional life by exposing them to challenging and uncomfortable ideas. Today’s safe spaces create the impression the young can be insulated from anyone who holds a different view but outside the bubble graduates won’t be able to avoid confrontations.

In fact the tendency of some universities to bow to adolescent pressure and shield students from provocative ideas is a serious mistake. It should be binned with all the other coddling nonsense because in any democratic society, to say nothing of a global economy, an open mind is the most valuable asset one can possess.

Of course some in the real world – and old enough to know better – have set a bad example such as the Speaker of the House of Commons pledging to “no-platform” the US president. But prestigious institutions open themselves to ridicule when they provide students with colouring books and Play-Doh in “safe-spaces”.

When I was battling the clunky and temperamental computers in the early 1960s it never occurred to me that these would lead to our complex information economy. Who knows what’s coming down the pike but being open to new ideas will be essential and I hope today’s students prove tougher than the name “Generation Snowflake” might suggest.

Rev Dr John Cameron lives in St Andrews. He is a retired minister, with doctorates in both science and theology.

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