Without academic freedom, we might never see the truth. Here’s why.

Sometimes, academic expression can make people uncomfortable. But this tension is a feature, not a bug.

NICHOLAS CHRISTAKIS: So when we think about academic freedom, we might ask the question, "Well, what's so special about academia?" Why might we have special rules of communication and openness within academia? I think in approaching this, one might think about other parts of our economy or other activities that we engage in in a society in which we outline special rules of communication. So think about, for example, healthcare. When you go to your doctor, you have a couple of expectations about how it is that you're going to communicate with your doctor. And special rules apply to those kinds of interactions. For example, rules of privacy. Doctors are supposed to keep things secret. When you tell your doctor something, those aren't supposed to be broadly advertised. Similarly, you have a kind of expectation of openness. I mean, one of the principle ideas about how you communicate effectively in a healthcare system is that you're supposed to tell your doctor anything that's bothering you.

How could a doctor diagnose and treat you properly if you lied to your physician? So you're supposed to reveal your secrets. You're supposed to have the expectation that that's the right thing to do. In fact, it's necessary for you to do that and furthermore that the doctor will guard those secrets properly. Or think about, for example, in industry. There are certain industries that are engaged in very competitive markets, let's say, high-tech industries. And in those types of firms there's an expectation that things will be kept secret and private. Here, in fact, there's not supposed to be a lot of communication. Different groups within the firm aren't supposed to talk to each other. They're supposed to work privately on their own as they advance the technology. So in this situation we might have a different kind of expectation about communication. Well, what about academia? What's the mission of a university? The mission of a university is the preservation, production, and communication of knowledge. The whole point of a university is to get smart people talking to each other in the most unfettered ways so that they might stumble on, discover, or co-create new ideas and new concepts.

And furthermore, communicate them liberally to outsiders, to everyone. The whole point of a university is to discover new ideas and to disseminate them. And for that to take place optimally, we need some kinds of rules that foster those activities. And this is, I think, the deepest origin of the principle of academic freedom. We want people working in universities not to feel constrained by any existing ideas. We want them to be open. We want them to talk to each other so that their ideas get checked. If we're really going to discover the truth, we need me, when I say something stupid or foolish, to have someone else say wait a minute, that's not right. Have you thought about this fact, or have you thought about this flaw in your argument. And that person needs to be at liberty to say that to me without fear of losing their job, for example, or other kinds of severe sanctions. We want to foster fluid communication so that we can discover this knowledge, we can discover the truth and then communicate it, model that for the broader society of which a university is a part.

Any human activity -- whether it's in the arts or in the sciences -- is a kind of an activity in which egos get involved, right? And it's the same in universities. People can get very passionate about their ideas, and they can take them personally even if they shouldn't. But this is inevitable, that the fact that a human being is trying to discover new ideas about the cosmos or the fact that a person is arguing for a particular policy with respect to health insurance that they think is going to save lives and maybe that will advantage certain industries and disadvantage other industries and people disagree about that. Or the fact that one artist wants to create a kind of art that they think is very powerful or visually beautiful or provocative in some way that they think is essential, but other people are offended by that and don't agree with that perspective. That kind of tension in the sciences, in the social sciences, in the policy disciplines, in the arts is crucial for any kind of investigation or attempt to arrive at the truth.

And what this means is that sometimes people will be made uncomfortable. They won't like what the other person is saying. They'll strongly disagree with it. They'll think it's a dangerous idea. They'll be offended by it. But this is unavoidable in the pursuit of truth. I mean you just think about what happened to Galileo.

If we had honored that idea of silencing someone with whom we disagree, they would have put him to death, and we never would have found or have benefitted from Galileo's discoveries. So this happens in the sciences. The same thing happened, by the way, with Darwin when Darwin's ideas were initially advanced. Many people immediately saw their wisdom and embraced them. Others were deeply offended by these ideas and thought that those ideas should not be circulated. Once again, that kind of censorship would have prevented us from seeing the truth about the world.

And this continues to happen today. It happens in other places around the world where autocratic regimes try to silence their opponents, and it even happens in the United States, where people sometimes try to silence others in a university campus. And that type of activity plays no role, in my view, if we're really to honor what the purpose of a university is, which is again the preservation, production and dissemination of knowledge.

And actually, there's a corollary to this idea. A corollary to the idea that we have to foster unfettered speech in order to discover the truth at universities. And that corollary is actually that sometimes really to arrive at the optimal understanding of how the world is we need to have a diversity of opinions. That is to say we actually want a kind of creative abrasion. We want ideas in conflict with each other because it's only through this kind of conflict that we actually test the merit of the ideas that are in conflict. So if you only have -- J.S. Mill famously said he who only knows his side of the case knows little of it -- if you only know your side of the argument whether that argument is about a scientific phenomenon or a policy point of view and you don't know or hear the argument that's in opposition to yours, it means that you don't really understand your argument. So to make your argument better, it has to be in conflict with other ideas

  • The way we communicate is dictated in part by the setting that that communication takes place in. You're supposed to tell your doctor everything; on the other hand, you wouldn't tell your business competitor much at all.
  • In academia, communication is supposed to be somewhat provocative. The reaction to a provocative idea can't be to silence the one expressing it, but to approach it from the other side of the argument. One way to think about this is that if you don't understand the other side of an issue, then you can't claim to understand the issue.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.