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How outrage mobs silence academics — and what we can do to stop them
When the protection of academic freedom is compromised, scholarship and greater society suffer the effects.
- Social media has made it easier than ever to succumb to mob mentality and let our worst instincts and impulses run rampant. Outrage mobs pose a new and unique threat to professors' academic freedom.
- Although expressing moral outrage can feel good, bad actors can use outrage mobs to further their own specific agendas, leaving careers ruined and productive discourse even further out of reach.
- University leaders should stop caving to outrage mobs and start standing up for academic freedom, both for students and professors.
Academic freedom is a protection that's long enabled students and professors to make the most of higher education by facilitating the free exchange of ideas. But today, outrage mobs are chipping away at this freedom by trying to silence what professors can teach, research, and express in their private lives.
Outrage mobs are aggressive groups of people who temporarily band together online – and sometimes in real life – to denounce people whose ideas they disagree with. While outrage mobs can arise in other contexts – celebrities are frequently targeted, for example – given the importance of academics' ability to explore difficult ideas freely, they are particularly problematic in the university context. Without open academic pursuit and scholarship, imagine the extent of society's missed opportunities in regard to scientific discovery and technological innovation.
It usually happens like this: A professor expresses a view or conducts research that someone finds offensive. The offended people — who may or may not be affiliated with the university — express outrage on social media. Others join the mob. The mob then demands that the professor be punished or fired. in some cases the mob harasses the professor online or in person. Far too frequently, particularly if the professor is in a part time role, the administration gives in to these demands.
Angry mobs are nothing new. But social media has made it easier than ever to succumb to mob mentality and let our worst instincts and impulses run rampant. Outrage mobs pose a new and unique threat to professors' academic freedom, which depends on their ability to question conventional wisdom. And the threat isn't only that professors might lose their jobs, but also that academia might become less intellectually dynamic.Outrage can be useful to society. It is, after all, a strong moral emotion that spurs us into action when we witness injustice, and it encourages people to come together to right wrongs in their communities. But not all outrage is created equal. Outrage is often disproportional. Further, the impact of networked outrage can often be far beyond what any outraged individual imagined or desired. This makes it all the more important to be aware of its often-corrosive and unintended effects.
Academic freedom: What it is, what it isn’t and why there’s confusion
Outrage mobs' chilling effect on academic freedom
Rebecca Tuvel, a philosopher and assistant professor at Rhodes college, in 2017 published an article in the peer-reviewed feminist philosophy journal Hypatia. Her paper addressed the question of trans-racialism, a timely topic given the recent news coverage of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who famously claimed a black identity. In the paper Tuvel examined if the arguments used to defend a transgender identity apply in a similar fashion to the question of transracialism. In this she adopted a technique common among philosophers – testing if reasoning used on one issue would apply equally on a different issue that appeared a close parallel.
While the article was not meant to be controversial, it generated a sizable negative response, particularly on social media. This was closely followed by an open letter signed by over five hundred academics to the journal's editors alleging (falsely) many ethical lapses and harms– this resulted in the article being retracted (an unprecedented move).
For Tuvel, a junior scholar who has not been tenured (and for whom publications are crucial) this decision directly impacts her future career. It is worth noting the irony that the ancient female philosopher Hypatia, the journal's namesake, is believed to have been murdered by an angry mob of zealots.
It is true that since then Tuvel also received a sizable amount of support within philosophy, and the event has led to important conversations. Yet, it does show that in this era of online outrage young academics looking to speak on any contested topic of the day risk their career.
While the outrage focused on Tuvel came largely from the left of center and inside the academy, that is not always the case. For example, in 2017, Sarah Bond, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Iowa, published an article describing how modern technology has revealed that many statues from the ancient Western world were painted. Of course, the paint faded over time, and the marble Greco-Roman statues we have today appear in a shade of white.
But art historians had mistakenly believed that ancient Greeks and Romans intended for their statues to be white, and therefore they equated white with beauty. This has long shaped the way we view the antique world, Bond argued.
"The assemblage of neon whiteness serves to create a false idea of homogeneity — everyone was very white! — across the Mediterranean region," she wrote for Hyperallergic. Bond suggested that this misconception has over time indirectly supported racist views, and she noted that white supremacist groups like Identity Europa often "use classical statuary as a symbol of white male superiority."
A handful of right-leaning media outlets picked up the story. Campus Reform, for instance, published a piece with the headline: "Prof: 'white marble' in artwork contributes to white supremacy". Soon enough, Bond became the target of an outrage mob, which threatened her, harassed her with anti-Semitic references, and called for her termination.
"What they want to believe is that there is a liberal professor that is so sensitive to race issues that she will make race issues out of anything," Bond told ArtForum. "They want to make me an example of the hyperliberalization of the academy."
The university defended Bond. John F. Finamore, Bond's department chair, called members of the outrage mob "internet trolls" who "did not understand her argument.""Free exchange and criticism of ideas is central to academic research, and attempts to shut down anyone by threats and bullying are detrimental to free speech," Finamore said. "We in classics support [Bond] and the need for a humane atmosphere of productive exchange of ideas."
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) before the Holy Office in the Vatican. The astronomer was condemned by the Tribunal of the Inquisition for having defended the theories of Copernicus, 1632. Painting by Joseph Nicolas Robert-Fleury (1797-1890), 1847. Louvre Museum, Paris.
Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images
So, what motivates outrage mobs?
Expressing moral outrage can feel good. That's because the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate pleasure, when we punish others for violating a moral norm. Social media can multiply this effect. Outrage mobs are usually motivated by political ideology, and people on both the left and the right engage in them. But recent research has also revealed other motivations, beyond mere political point-scoring.
It also helps to develop a sense of group solidarity and establish our moral identity within a peer group. Sometimes this can go further, with outrage being a means to signal superior moral status. By saying what we are against we define who our friends and enemies are. In the noisy world of social media outrage is a loud and clear signal of where you stand (and get likes and retweets).
This is especially true in an era of political polarization where expression of outrage can be a vent for frustration. But it's important to remember that outrage mobs are emergent phenomena that only exist because individuals choose to participate in them.
After enough individuals jump into the fray, a mob forms that can seem greater (and louder) than the sum of its parts. Worse, bad actors can use outrage mobs to further their own specific agendas, leaving careers ruined and productive discourse even further out of reach.
What can universities, students, and faculty do?
University leaders should stop caving to outrage mobs and start standing up for academic freedom, both for students and professors. When a controversy emerges and an outrage mob forms, leaders should clearly and publicly declare their commitment to academic freedom.
A good example comes from California State University, Dominguez Hills, where Professor Brooke Mascagni was targeted by an outrage mob for expressing political views in her classroom. The university stood by her, issuing a statement that read:
"Part of an education is exposing students to differing positions and opinions on a topic, in an effort to encourage critical thinking. At all times, students at California State University, Dominguez Hills are encouraged to exercise their right to free speech, free inquiry, and freedom of expression."
Students and faculty can protect academic freedom by not succumbing to the mob when a controversy emerges on campus. First ask: Do I know all of the facts behind the story? Is the alleged offense really that bad? What was likely the intent of the professor? Is the best course of action to shut down dialogue and force others to agree with your position?
Outrage mobs lose their power when calmer heads prevail. Besides, who wants to be part of a mob? The value of higher education is not learning what to think, but rather how to think for yourself. And thinking independently requires the freedom not to follow the herd. As the American Association of University Professors wrote in the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure:
"Genuine boldness and thoroughness of inquiry, and freedom of speech, are scarcely reconcilable with the prescribed inculcation of a particular opinion upon a controverted question."
Pandemic rumors and information overload make separating fact from fancy difficult, putting people's health and lives at risk.
The dark side of the information age<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU1NzYwMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNjE3MzY3Nn0.0HveQP16MbMkj9HXE8miohSHXETOak7oFDtBdXtE7lM/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C400%2C0%2C256&height=700" id="60d48" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9085c1a7d5b3f81344c3002acdf1df68" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A South Korean church became a viral hotspot after church officials sprayed a salt water "cure" in congregants mouths, without disinfecting the nozzle between uses.
The cure for bad information is good<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="e0tfZ3YB" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="601aa46855087a4dfcf02a67a160e0c4"> <div id="botr_e0tfZ3YB_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/e0tfZ3YB-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/e0tfZ3YB-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/e0tfZ3YB-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p><strong></strong><strong></strong>That doesn't mean we are defenseless. The best cure for rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories is good, evidence-based information. We just have to know how to recognize it when we find it. Unfortunately, that's difficult in the center of the infodemic vortex.</p><p>"Information overload is incredibly anxiety-provoking—which is true even when the information is accurate," Jaimie Meyer, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist, <a href="https://www.yalemedicine.org/stories/covid-19-infodemic/" target="_blank">told <em>Yale Medicine</em></a>. "But here, if people get the wrong information from unreliable sources, we may have more trouble slowing the spread of the virus. And we can't afford to get this wrong."</p><p>In their study, the researchers concluded that governments and health agencies should study the patterns of pandemic rumors, track the misinformation, and develop communication strategies to circumvent these messages. </p><p>In the <em>Yale Medicine </em>article, Meyer provides advice for helping individuals deal with information overload. She recommends looking at data and graphs carefully, considering how individual studies connect with established facts, and considering the whole story (not just the eye-catching headline). </p><p>When it comes to garnering information from social media, proceed with caution.</p><p>"Everything looks the same on Twitter," Meyer said. "When you have a tweet from Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Association of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, next to a tweet that says the opposite thing from a celebrity or some random person—and they all appear similar, you have to weigh the credibility of your sources." </p><p>She recommends following health agencies like <a href="https://twitter.com/who?lang=en" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">the WHO</a>, <a href="https://twitter.com/CDCgov?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention</a>, and your local and state health agencies. When you come across a pandemic rumor or something that seems suspect, you can double-check it against these authoritative sources, such as the WHO's <a href="https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">COVID-19 mythbusters page</a>. And if you find yourself stressing out over the news and your social media feed, <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/mental-health-activities-coronavirus-lockdown" target="_self" rel="dofollow">take a mental break</a>.</p><p>We all would like a return to some form of normalcy, but that return will not emanate from a miracle cure. It will be a slow, steady course of handwashing, social distancing, and learning to navigate the infodemic.</p>
Carbon locked in soils can be emitted by bacteria.Turning up the heat on them releases more carbon.
- A new study shows that an increase in temperature can increase the amount of carbon released by the soil.
- This is in line with previous studies, though this one demonstrates a larger increase than the older experiments.
- The risk is that increasing temperatures cause a positive feedback loop.
The dirty details of an aggravated carbon cycle<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="CabkeAzx" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="169377c88f392a86f6c42180b74820a5"> <div id="botr_CabkeAzx_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/CabkeAzx-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/CabkeAzx-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/CabkeAzx-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>There is a lot of carbon in the dirt. The world's soil contains more carbon than the atmosphere, all the plants, or all the animals<a href="https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/02/21/can-soil-help-combat-climate-change/" target="_blank"></a>. A third of this trove of carbon resides in the soils of the <a href="https://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/26866/20200813/tropical-soils-highly-sensitive-climate-change.htm" target="_blank">tropics</a>. Under normal circumstances, this works as a carbon <a href="https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/CarbonCycle" target="_blank">sink</a>, keeping carbon in storage and out of the atmosphere. Some of this carbon is used by bacteria in the soil to provide the building blocks of new microbes. They expel surplus carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. </p><p>Many of these microbes are known to be more active when exposed to higher temperatures. To determine what this could mean for carbon emissions, a team from The University of Edenborough and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute turned up the heat in tropical soils to see what would happen. </p><p>The researchers went to an undisturbed plot of forest on Barro Colorado Panama, the home of the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute. They placed heating rods just over a meter into the soil and turned up the heat, warming the earth by four degrees centigrade. They then measured the carbon emissions from the heated ground and another nearby patch left at ambient temperature. These measurements covered two years.</p><p>Their findings, published in <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2566-4" target="_blank">Nature</a>, show that the heated soil emitted 55% more carbon than the control plot<a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/08/200812144102.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow"></a>. <br> <br> Study lead author Andrew Nottingham commented on these findings to the <a href="https://phys.org/news/2020-08-global-tropical-soils-leak-carbon.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">AFP</a>. "Carbon held in tropical soils is more sensitive to warming than previously recognized. Even a small increase in respiration from tropical forest soils could have a large effect on atmospheric CO<sub>2</sub> concentrations, with consequences for global climate."</p><p>You can probably also spot the potential feedback loop here: If the global temperature increases too much, more carbon will be released from tropical soils, which then increase the greenhouse effect, which causes global temperatures to rise. </p>
Once is happenstance, twice is a coincidence, thrice is evidence of a pattern.<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="8PLWDgcM" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="378380d273bf4a1c9606370acea15e58"> <div id="botr_8PLWDgcM_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/8PLWDgcM-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/8PLWDgcM-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/8PLWDgcM-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>Previous studies on this topic point in the same direction. Those studies and the models they inspired suggested that increased temperatures could increase soil-based carbon emissions, but they all underestimated how much carbon would be involved.</p><p>A 2016 study focusing on temperate soils also concluded that increasing soil temperatures would increase their carbon <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature20150" target="_blank">emissions</a>. They predicted that, if left unchecked, these emissions would equal the amount produced by a country similar to the United States over the next few <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/each-countrys-share-co2-emissions" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">decades</a>. Another experiment in Colorado found similar <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6332/1420" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">results</a>. Both of these studies found lower increases in carbon emissions by percentage than the study on Barro Colorado. </p><p>However, these studies did not take place in the tropics, and the differences in the soils between temperate and tropical zones could explain the differences between the studies. Moreover, the dirt on Barro Colorado Island differs from the dirt in the Amazon and may be more inclined to produce more emissions when the heat is turned up. The same can be said of tropical soils <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/12/climate/tropical-soils-climate-change.html?searchResultPosition=3&utm_campaign=Hot%20News&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=93170710&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-8McWKRhE8U9ChcWW2qkqNyp2Qndzr1aJmGlrMUwK_h1bM8RDQukWcM8r2OcBKW2Y0bWlRr9o4WUixKDzIo4HzKkVv19g&utm_content=93170710&utm_source=hs_email" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">elsewhere</a>. </p><p>Another <a href="https://www.forestwarming.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">experiment</a>, very similar to the one in Panama, is currently underway in Puerto Rico. However, this experiment is taking the extra step of also heating the plants near the heated soil to see what the effect of warmer temperatures is on their ability to absorb carbon.</p><p>The current study also did not heat the soil past the one-meter mark and cannot provide us with predictions of what more comprehensive heating of the soil would do to emissions. It was also comparatively short, and the effect may be reduced in the long run as the nutrients in the soil are depleted by the increased activity of the microbes, which are using the carbon and other resources to <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02266-9" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">reproduce</a>. </p><p>The team behind the most recent study will continue their experiment to try and understand how tropical ecosystems respond to increased <a href="https://www.earth.com/news/billions-of-tons-of-co2-could-be-released-from-tropical-soils/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">temperatures</a> over more extended periods of time. </p><p>As we increase our understanding of the planet and its various environmental systems, the potential consequences of climate change become clearer and more horrifying. This new study supports previous findings that suggest disrupting soils can increase carbon emissions. While it may be too soon to tell if the eye-popping increases found by this study are typical or an outlier, they do re-enforce the notion that a breakdown in the systems that keep the climate stable is possible if nothing changes. </p>
A study published Friday tested how well 14 commonly available face masks blocked the emission of respiratory droplets as people were speaking.
- The study tested the efficacy of popular types of face masks, including N95 respirators, bandanas, cotton-polypropylene masks, gaiters and others.
- The results showed that N95 respirators were most effective, while wearing a neck fleece (aka gaiter) actually produced more respiratory droplets than wearing no mask at all.
- Certain types of homemade masks seem to be effective at blocking the spread of COVID-19.
Fischer et al.<p>A smartphone camera recorded video of the participants, and a computer algorithm counted the number of droplets they emitted. To establish a control trial, the participants spoke into the box both with and without a mask. And to make sure that the droplets weren't in fact dust from the masks, the team conducted more tests by "repeatedly puffing air from a bulb through the masks."</p>
Fischer et al.<p>The results, published Friday in <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/08/07/sciadv.abd3083" target="_blank">Science Advances</a>, showed that some masks are pretty much useless. In particular, neck fleeces (also called gaiters) actually produced more respiratory droplets compared to the control trial — likely because the fabric breaks down big droplets into smaller ones.</p><p>The top three most effective masks were N95 respirators, surgical masks and polypropylene-cotton masks. Bandanas performed the worst, but were slightly better than wearing no mask at all.</p>
Fischer et al.<p>Research on mask efficacy is still emerging. But the new results seem to generally align with <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">prior tests</a>. For example, a study from June published in <a href="https://aip.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/5.0016018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Physics of Fluid</a> found that bandanas (followed by folded handkerchiefs) were least effective at blocking respiratory droplets. That same study also found, as <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">others have</a>, that masks made from multiple layers of quilter's fabric were especially effective at blocking droplets.</p><p>The researchers hope other institutions will conduct similar experiments so the public can see how well different masks can block the spread of COVID-19.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This is a very powerful visual tool to raise awareness that a very simple masks, like these homemade cotton masks, do really well to stop the majority of these respiratory droplets," Fischer told CNN. "Companies and manufacturers can set this up and test their mask designs before producing them, which would also be very useful."</p>
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