Accusations of bias in academe have become increasingly common. In Congress, on December 5, conservatives raised concerns to three college presidents: “This is so sadfully and shamefully revealing that there’s no diversity and inclusion of intellectual thought,” said Rep. Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, “and the result of that is antisemitism.” In Florida, new laws prohibiting the teaching of seemingly left-leaning perspectives have caused academics to flee the state and decimated disciplines like sociology.

Another flank in these bias wars are the waves of media coverage concerned with scholarly self-censorship driven, purportedly, by academic liberalism. “In the era of trigger warnings, a tenured professor stays silent,” argues a Washington Post headline. “I Came to College Eager to Debate. I Found Self-Censorship Instead.” runs a New York Times opinion headline. A recent opinion essay in The Chronicle Review warns that journals’ compliance with pressure to retract and avoid publication of potentially harmful findings risks hindering scientific progress.

Another Chronicle Review essay dubbed the mood in the social sciences an “Academic Auto-da-Fé” and detailed the case of the sociologist Mark Regnerus, whose 2012 study on same-sex parenting sparked fierce criticism from peers and activists. Regnerus’s research argued that children with same-sex parents faced worse outcomes, and hundreds of scholars responded by questioning the paper’s “scholarly merit.” (Regnerus was later cleared of scientific misconduct.)

Similar charges have been brought against scholars like Rebecca Tuvel and Kathleen Stock. While concern over the potentially harmful effects of research is understandable, these critiques have escalated into public shamings, demands for retribution, and policies aimed at preventing certain types of future research. Do such tactics shut down legitimate scholarship for failing to align with progressive views? 

Consider the case of Kathryn Paige Harden. A behavioral geneticist, Harden produced research suggesting that genes impact educational attainment — and was then criticized for potentially promoting harmful ideas about inequality (despite her efforts to reconcile genetic science with commitments to social justice). For critics like Sam Harris, Harden’s case is proof that campus culture chills discourse that doesn’t conform to progressive orthodoxies. Academic self-censorship isn’t just limited to these anecdotes: According to a recent FIRE survey, “One-third of faculty reported that they self-censor on campus ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ often.”

These are real concerns, but the evidence is frequently blown out of proportion, and we tend to ignore evidence on the other side of the register. In fact, the narrative of widespread self-censorship obscures the fact that many academics regularly engage with controversial topics and navigate these complex terrains with reasoned debate and resilience in the face of critique. We don’t pay attention to instances in which scholars reasonably challenge progressive tenets or dominant-normative assumptions in their field and get promoted, not ostracized. If we allow the perception of academics as paralyzed with fear to fester, we risk undermining and underselling the rigorous culture of disputation the academy has cultivated over decades.

As rumblings about academic self-censorship have gotten louder, a variety of new platforms have billed themselves as vital correctives. The Heterodox Academy‘s tagline basically sums it up: “Great Minds Don’t Always Think Alike.” The organization seeks to promote open inquiry and diverse viewpoints to challenge current campus culture. Its blog features essays tackling sensitive campuswide issues, like “Diversity and Merit Are Not Contradictory Goals in Faculty Hiring,” which advocates a historical view of current hiring debates and concludes that “the juxtaposition of ‘diversity’ against ‘merit’ has never made much sense.” These ideas are present, if often unspoken, in debates within campus departments. While impassioned, much of the discourse hosted by the Heterodox Academy offers constructive ways of confronting them explicitly.

A less appealing example is the Journal of Controversial Ideas. Led by academic moral philosophers, the journal intends to promote free inquiry on controversial topics and allows publication under pseudonyms. Its editors argue that without facing critique, even mainstream views risk becoming “dead dogmas.” Fittingly, its recent issues challenge deeply entrenched societal norms and taboos. One paper, for instance, attempts to explain racism in dating in evolutionary terms. Another argues for the decriminalization and social acceptance of zoophilia as part of broader efforts for sexual liberation.

The problem is that the Journal of Controversial Ideas emphasizes noncomformity above other goals. It sidesteps the necessary process of engaging with and responding to ethical critiques and deprioritizes the downstream effects of its publications on the populations they study. By delighting in counterintuitiveness and mere controversy, the journal places shock value over rigorous research, and undermines the thoughtful exploration of complexity. 

In doing so, the journal further marginalizes controversial viewpoints by reducing them to a form of scholarly political gamesmanship that rewards conservative scholars for “owning the Libs.” With ideas demarcated as belonging in this journal’s terrain rather than in, say, that of animal ethics, philosophy, or sociology, the ideas themselves are less likely to be taken seriously. The Journal of Controversial Ideas sets out to advance knowledge, but instead it merely turns reasonable questions into outrageous positions and attempts to demonstrate rhetorical prowess.

Arguing that academe is paralyzed by a culture of political correctness overlooks those who tackle sensitive topics thoughtfully.

There are better ways to engage with controversial ideas. In our recent book, Moral Minefields: How Sociologists Debate Good Science, we argue that assertions of widespread self-censorship in academe are overstated. Many academics engage with contentious topics productively. Responsible scholars engage deeply with existing bodies of knowledge, including ethical critiques of various research assumptions and methodologies. While some self-censorship exists, many academics approach controversial topics with thoughtfulness. To give just one example: discussions about race in the social sciences.

In the civil rights era, the Moynihan Report attributed Black-community poverty to cultural factors and sparked a fervent controversy that led many scholars to steer clear from the field. Yet, rather than completely avoid the topic, scholars like Orlando Patterson and William Julius Wilson revitalized discussions about race, poverty, and culture, by challenging simplistic assumptions and arguing for a nuanced exploration of the role of culture in poverty that takes into account historical and structural factors. Despite the skepticism their research initially faced, they helped advocate for a more sophisticated engagement with complex issues and have helped spur new discussions of culture and poverty.

An academic descendant of that lineage is the Dignity + Debt Network, directed by the sociologist Frederick Wherry, which examines poverty by looking at “how consumers think about what’s fair when confronting fees, fines, and debt collectors, as well as how and why they interpret their encounters with banks and other financial service providers as respectful, disrespectful, affirming, or degrading.” The research in this area is now highly conscious of damaging claims about underserved communities’ culture and demonstrates that academics can navigate controversial topics with care and integrity, not just fear of censure. 

Or consider the recent emergence of sociogenomics, which has reignited debate across the social sciences about the implications of genetic data for our understanding of race. Genetics have a contentious history in the social sciences, having been often used to support eugenicist and racist claims. The wake of Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994) looms large. Some defenders of his book have argued that this controversy was due to academe’s liberal conformism and a taboo around genetics in the social sciences — that Murray had discovered “forbidden knowledge.”

But this controversial area has not been off-limits to dedicated scholars. The sociologist Ann Morning has written about how genetic concepts interact with existing ideas about race to create new forms of discrimination. Hannah Landecker and Aaron Panofsky have argued that the genetic point of view could reveal aspects of social life that were previously poorly understood. While some scholars may shy away from this controversial topic, others run toward it. In the Annual Review of Sociology, Melinda Mills and Felix Tropf urge sociologists “to be active and equal participants in this field” of sociogenomics, “codeveloping new theories, methods, data, and findings, or choose to stand by and watch as other disciplines study their core topics, often lacking the insight of decades of sociological research.”

Mistakes are made in research on controversial topics, just as mistakes are made by scholars in all fields. Consider this claim in a retracted article by the New York University public policy scholar Lawrence Mead:

The West has evolved a more ambitious lifestyle than the non-West, and it did so long before it became rich. Indeed, it became rich largely because of this confident, enterprising way of life.

In making such an argument, Mead’s short article “Poverty and Culture” quickly dismissed decades of research about the structures that contribute to social inequality. His failure to grapple seriously with the existing body of scholarship on his topic stood out. 

Other scholarly sins continue as well. In genetics research, some scholars have uncritically adopted self-identified racial categories as genetic data, bypassing the epistemic discussions surrounding its use in social research. These retracted and criticized studies are not instances of “forbidden knowledge” or “cancel culture” run amok — they are simply scholarly communities holding their members accountable to shared research standards.

Engaging thoughtfully with controversial issues can be challenging, and the margin for missteps can be small, but it is important to acknowledge scholars who do so responsibly — scholars like Pamela Herd, who is using genetic data to estimate gender inequality in educational attainment, or Robbee Wedow, who is using genetic data to think about sexuality and its social construction.

Arguing that academe is paralyzed by a culture of political correctness overlooks those who tackle sensitive topics thoughtfully, consider multiple ethical perspectives, and strengthen their work’s moral grounding based on feedback. Open scholarly discussion that acknowledges its limitations and aims to minimize harm allows for meaningful progress in research, even on contentious topics. Self-censorship is not a foundational problem in higher education, and we should do better to celebrate the responsible engagements with controversial ideas that our colleagues demonstrate day-in day-out.