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Despite academics’ claims, ideas are not ‘bound’ by their funding sources

Journal should not declare itself ‘complicit’ in the sins of its founders’ families

In an article for The New England Journal of Medicine, four academics misleadingly argued the publication’s research is “bound to slavery” because of how its founders inherited wealth.

The authors detailed the NEJM’s allegedly morally compromised origin alongside legitimate grievances, including the republishing of some racist papers and instances of dehumanizing language.

“This history must be remembered and must motivate action: there is much work to be done,” according to the authors, historian and medical doctor David Jones of Harvard University, medical doctor and Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine Scott Podolsky at Harvard Medical School, archivist Meghan Kerr at Harvard Medical School, and Harvard former dean and historian of science Evelynn Hammonds.

However, ideas advanced in The New England Journal of Medicine or in any other publication should be analyzed based on merit and quality, not on the sources of their funding.

According to its introduction, the authors’ Dec. 7 paper “is part of an invited series by independent historians, focused on biases and injustice that the Journal has historically helped to perpetuate.”

The authors work out one of these alleged biases by describing how Boston physicians John Collins Warren and James Jackson, who began the Journal in 1812, were descended from people who had owned slaves or traded with plantation owners.

“Even though these men did not own enslaved people or participate directly in the trade…they benefited from slavery in inheriting wealth from their fathers and fathers-in-law,” according to the authors. “The Journal, like the New England economy, was thus bound to slavery.”

The authors’ stark language of binding suggest physical restraints and chattel slavery. They also invoked “biases and injustice” that the Journal “helped to perpetuate.” Even more, the article is titled, “Slavery and the Journal — Reckoning with History and Complicity.”

These cues imply the Journal is “bound to slavery” in some essential way. Somehow, the  Journal’s research or very existence has dehumanized human beings.

This view that ideas or research needs to be morally bound to their remote funding sources denies the possibility of intellectual independence, which students and faculty should hold dear.

The view is also a version of the ad hominem logical fallacy, which attacks some aspect of a person or institution holding an argument rather than the idea itself. The Texas State University philosophy department cites an example of someone dismissing Sigmund Freud’s theories because Freud used cocaine. The same could be said of someone who denies the NEJM‘s credibility because some of its founders’ family members profited from slavery.

Even more, the connection to slavery is too remote to have much bearing on the journal’s current existence.

Some student activists make claims like this when they protest their university’s investments in Israeli companies or other sources deemed immoral.

Activists at Arizona State University, for example, demanded in November that ASU boycott Israeli institutions, shouting “F**k ASU,” and “Long live the Intifada,” The College Fix reported.

However, their accusations lead to an uncomfortable conclusion.

If ASU’s work is compromised because it draws income from Israeli companies, the work of the scholarship students and activists funded by ASU would be compromised, too.

Thankfully for the students and the rest of us, we still take their claims at face value, even when we argue they are wrong.

The New England Journal of Medicine authors are right to set the record straight on racist or eugenicist ideas it has published in the past.

However, academics mislead readers when they imply that immoral financial sources make ideas suspicious.

MORE: Dozens of academics sign ‘letter of concern’ over journal editor’s ousting

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