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Philosophy professor warns: ‘Progressive privilege’ abounds in academia


Scholar: Getting published in academic journals can often depend on whether editors agree with the premise

A philosophy professor’s paper was rejected for publication for reasons he said he believes are mainly ideologically motivated — rather than over the plausibility of his argument. The scholar told The College Fix about his experience in a recent telephone interview.

After examining research by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending offering evolutionary explanations for group differences in cognitive ability, the professor wrote a paper about the moral upshot.

He set out to answer the following question: If there are biological differences between groups, and if some stereotypes based upon these turn out to be true, what are the moral implications for the way in which human beings should treat one another?

“My conclusion was modest,” the philosopher wrote, “if there are biological differences between groups, and if, as [Cochran and Harpending had argued], some stereotypes turn out to be accurate in part because of correct generalizations about biological differences, these facts should not undermine our commitment to treating one another as moral equals, or to increasing opportunity for all, regardless of group membership.”

(Editor’s Note: The scholar’s name has been removed to protect his identity.)

Yet, his reviewers had a different take — they fixated on his paper’s mere suggestion that biological differences between groups may exist.

“He [the reviewer] had a strong reaction,” the scholar told The Fix. “He called the research that suggests biological differences ‘wildly implausible’ despite the fact that this wasn’t the focus of the paper. It’s a strange thing for a reviewer to say.”

One of the referees gave “the most venomous and dismissive feedback” he had ever witnessed.

“I don’t want to cry sour grapes here because papers get rejected for numerous reasons,” the scholar said. “But in this case, it was pretty clear that the section of the review discussing biological differences dominated while my paper only focused a small amount on that topic.”

After talking to numerous other scholars who had their research rejected because of unorthodox [read: not in line with progressive ideology] conclusions, the professor said he believes that the process of getting published in academia is fraught with what he calls “progressive privilege.”

“I wrote a paper years ago arguing that obesity is a private health matter rather than a public health matter that I had a difficult time getting published,” he said. “I argued that whether you believe it should be a public or private health matter depends on who you believe should be paying for healthcare. Since I ultimately concluded that obesity is a private health matter (an opinion not shared by many who work on this topic), that paper was also harshly reviewed and was only published on the condition that it be run next to a rebuttal.”

“To me, this is another example of ‘progressive privilege’ because the person writing the rebuttal was invited to publish a piece they hadn’t yet written, and the editors were basically saying, ‘feel free to attack this other paper,’” he said.

RELATED: Integrity of research is a victim of academic liberal bias

That journal, Public Health Ethics, has published him three other times without the stipulation of a rebuttal attached; a fact he said he believes has to do with the content of his other pieces.

“I wrote another paper for the same journal arguing against factory farming and had no trouble getting that one published because that is an idea with which progressives largely agree,” he said.

The professor said he believes that “progressive privilege” has real consequences for the quality of research emerging from universities.

“If you are an academic who writes in line with standard progressive ideology, and reaches conclusions which progressives widely accept, reviewers, students, colleagues and the general public often won’t notice (or acknowledge) mistakes you make in your reasoning,” he said.

Yet, resources such as Heterodox Academy do exist for academics who want to find more viewpoint diversity in the social sciences. The professor invites those who wish to explore unpopular ideas to consult this website, at which they can find academic work that “exposes bias and celebrates ideological diversity.”

RELATED: Northwestern has been censoring a faculty-produced journal for more than a year

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About the Author
Kate Hardiman -- University of Notre Dame