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President's Corner: Controversy and Conversation

What is Science for Peace? A club? A social change action group? A scholarly association? Your answer may reveal your hopes for Science for Peace—especially how much conflict to expect and how to handle disputes. The different models entail different, even incompatible, standards of conduct, which we must somehow balance, since we actually combine all three types of organization. However, our compromises are not always easy. Here I’ll explore the dilemmas that sometimes arise and propose discursive standards that may enable us to surmount these contradictions.

Science for Peace as a Club

Clubs are organizations for interacting enjoyably with compatible others. Some clubs have an over-riding purpose beyond sociability. The Club of Rome, for example, describes itself as “a group of world citizens, sharing a common concern for the future of humanity.” Most clubs, however, exist mainly for the personal pleasure of such interactions, as playing cards or comparing stamp collections.

The point of clubs is to bring people together who like each other and who try to avoid serious conflicts. When the disputes outnumber the agreements, some members will quit, so the attraction of the group depends on the warmth of their friendships. Hence the membership of a private club is usually homogeneous, selective, and sometimes discriminatory. An applicant can be “black-balled” for any number of reasons—from dressing unfashionably to expressing outlandish opinions. Selectivity helps sustain the cohesion of the group, though often at the cost of limiting its members’ worldviews. And freedom of association is a democratic right that legitimizes choosiness about whom to admit to private clubs.

The discourse among a club’s members will always include instrumental matters, but invariably there is also informal talk involving personal matters. Everyone attempts to maintain a friendly tone.

Science for Peace is not just a club. Indeed, most us disdain selective, particularistic relationships. As civic-spirited citizens, we prefer inclusive social groupings that promote the wider public interest.

Nevertheless, we should not regard clubs as a low type of organization solely because they are not open to all strangers. Civil society properly includes intimate relationships in which people are not all treated alike. If I bake a birthday cake for you, I am not (thank heavens!) obliged to do the same for all my Facebook acquaintances.

Civil society empowers people to oppose authoritarian rule. You can spot an aspiring dictator every time by watching him attempt to control private clubs and associations. Moreover, anyone trying to oust a dictator must begin by organizing voluntary groups, such as clubs, which are not controlled from above. But Science for Peace does not face such a problem, since (so far) it remains a free association. We have only to protect that freedom.

We are forming working groups now in Science for Peace, and their new members sometimes ask what they are expected to do. My answer: Do almost anything your group wants to do. Clear your plans with the executive committee before you take a major public action, but if your members just want to play cards together, that is fine. Clubs are the bulwarks of democracy. Enjoy your freedom of association.

But, of course, our members do not just play cards. People join Science for Peace because we care about certain public policies that we want to promote with like-minded colleagues. All of us want to work effectively to influence public opinion and policymakers—hence we can think of our organization in terms of the second model: a social change agent.

Science for Peace as a Social Change Agent

Science for Peace originated as a social change education organization within the Canadian peace movement—one whose members shared strong policies about nuclear disarmament. Although we have widened the range of our issues, we may still imagine that our consensus remains just as solid about all these new topics. That is probably not the case, though it is normal for social change groups to expect—or even demand — that their members be of like minds.

Social psychologists say that cohesive groups almost always develop increasingly similar opinions over time—a tendency that Irving Janis called “groupthink.” And recently, researchers have found that the shared views of such groups also tend to become more extreme as they talk together. As Cass Sunstein has noted, “members of a deliberating group usually end up at a more extreme position in the same general direction as their inclinations before deliberation began. This is the phenomenon known as group polarization.”1

Insofar as Science for Peace is a social change group, it will attract members whose opinions are compatible. As a result, our opinions will not only converge, but will almost certainly shift further toward the same pole toward which we originally leaned. Little dissent will be expressed or even tolerated in our zealous conversations. This is a predictable tendency that can, at times, be beneficial. As Sunstein argues,

“Sometimes extreme movements are good, even great. When people shift from indifference to intense concern with local problems, such as poverty and crime, group polarization is an achievement, not a problem.”2

Still, this tendency worries social scientists about their own associations, so they discourage advocacy and activism in their scholarly communities. Sociologists and political scientists generally make a point of demonstrating their objectivity and capacity for mutual criticism, and this norm is justifiable. Diversity and impartiality are valuable and can be jeopardized by political advocacy.

On the other hand, there can still be intellectual diversity overall if a domain consists of multiple distinct groups, each of which lacks much internal diversity. This is “second-order diversity”— the kind of intellectual pluralism that occurs, not within, but across groups. It can partially compensate for the narrowness of perspective within groups.

Still, political polarization and extremism are increasing around the world today, reducing the possibility of compromise over policies. The result—increasing political gridlock—is reducing cooperation between different parties and factions. This polarization needs to be reduced, which would require an increase in “cross-cutting cleavages.” In other words, members of the polarized groups need to be brought into regular contact with members of opposing groups. People in such situations learn to listen and compromise.

Alternatively, if a political advocacy group wants to avoid the dangers of its internal polarization, it can deliberately recruit a diversity of members or regularly invite speakers with whom most members disagree. This latter approach should be easy for Science for Peace, since we are not only social change agents but, crucially, also scientists. For us, openness is a requirement.

Science for Peace as a Scientific Community

Almost uniquely among the organizations that campaign for peace, justice, and the environment, Science for Peace members are mostly employed professionally in the discovery of truth. Scientists and other scholars are expected to add to humankind’s storehouse of knowledge. A portion of that work is the routine investigation and application of known phenomena, as for example engineers do when inventing a new gadget. However, genuine scientific advances involve the elimination of false theories.

Karl Popper was one of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century. I was lucky enough to study with him and absorb some of his understanding of the scientific method.3 He pointed out that scientists are always solving problems and testing theories, and that this often brings us into opposition against other researchers. Science is an arena of conflict.

A scientist gets closer to the truth by eliminating false theories—and this is true not only of the natural sciences but also other learned fields, including history, political science, philosophy, sociology, and economics. Every scientifically useful theory must be falsifiable. (Theology evidently does not belong on the list. It too is an effort to understand how the world works and, although its doctrines may usefully inspire believers, they are not susceptible to disproof.)

A scientist compares all the plausible theories for a given phenomenon. If he or she can disprove some of them, it will strengthen the case for the remaining theories, but it will not prove that even one of them is correct. There remains some possibility that another scientist will later falsify it too. Hence progress is not the process of proving, but of successively disproving theories. At best, we get closer to the truth without reaching it.

A good scientist may spend her life addressing a problem but only manage to reformulate it, thereby improving it for her successors. Excellent, well-shaped problems are rare and wonderful. A genius, said Popper, is someone with a great nose for problems.

Whenever a real advance in scientific discovery seems imminent, several scientists are usually defending their pet theories by trying to disprove the theories of their colleagues. These scientific competitions and debates sometimes become intense, as researchers line up to defend one theory or another with real emotion. Such battles are essential for the progress of science for without testing a theory thoroughly and vigorously, we can never be sure whether or not it was truly disproved.

But to have one’s own pet theory falsified can be painful. Stubborn theorists hate to concede defeat, but keep revising their theories to make them bend instead of break.

Nevertheless, there is one norm that scholars do not violate. Honest academics rigorously observe the obligation to admit all plausible perspectives into the conversation. No competent scholar may be excluded from speaking and bringing his evidence and arguments into the debate. The deliberate suppression of relevant knowledge is as serious an intellectual crime as cheating or lying. One must always allow one’s competent opponent a chance to state her case.

This principle, to which most members of Science for Peace adhere in their professional lives, is incompatible with the groupthink that is normal for a social change group campaigning in a movement. As a result, there are sometimes disputes between members of our organization as to whom to invite to speak in a forum. I am committed to pluralism and will never exclude competent speakers with whom I disagree. An academic forum is not a political rally. It is not always necessary or desirable to present ideas as a debate, but if tenable theories are overlooked in one event or lecture, it is a good idea to present them on another occasion.

The three types of organizations—clubs, social change groups, and scientific communities—have different criteria for membership, but they all have some standards. Clubs want members who are socially compatible and who avoid conflict. Social change agents want members who work together congenially to promote a shared policy regarding a controversial issue. Scholarly associations want members who are competent to judge conflicting evidence and arguments fairly so as to get closer to the truth.

Since Science for Peace combines all three types of organization, we must fulfill all three objectives and we can do so if we bear in mind what they all three have in common. They are all communities of discourse. We talk.

Edifying Discourse

We have neither abolished nuclear weapons nor put an end to the military industrial complex. However, we have kept a conversation going that needs to be shared widely by all of humankind. By reading, writing, and talking, we are contributing. We talk to each other and we talk to our friends, our families, and strangers. And there is ample room for improving the quality of our conversations. As Michael Oakeshott eloquently noted,

“As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.”4

Likewise, Jürgen Habermas offers his “theory of communicative action.” [5] He considers the human mind to be precisely that conversation taking place “both in public and within each of ourselves.” We learn to do it well through participating in what he calls the “public sphere.”

Habermas noted that a reasoning public emerged in Europe during the 18th century in coffee houses, clubs, and salons. Participation was voluntary and fairly independent of the economic and political structures, giving rise to a shared culture and a conception of the common good. This civil society gradually became able to resist unrepresentative government and demand change. However, such contacts have gradually declined, so that today public opinion can be manipulated through the mass media. Habermas’s project is to revive the public sphere and restore widespread public debate. [6] That is our task too, but it is not easy.

The sociologist Robert Putnam has also shown that participation in voluntary associations has diminished during recent decades—in response, he supposed, to the popularity of television.7 We might attribute it today more to the Internet. However, the Internet does let the audience offer ideas, as well as receive them, which was not the case with television or other “broadcast” media. Overall, the Internet benefits public discourse, though individuals can choose only messages that fit their preconceptions. This can sustain ideological narrow-mindedness, unless people discipline themselves never to filter out messages that they dislike.

In that respect, Science for Peace must be more than a club, for clubs avoid controversy, whereas we must court it. We are both a social change group and a scientific community, so we are certain to have more conflicts than would a friendly club. That presents problems, since we think of ourselves as a peace group—which supposedly means that we should not have conflicts.

Nonsense! Peace is not the absence of conflict; it’s the absence of violence and verbal abuse. As scholars and activists, we need to fight effectively but fairly, seeking in our conflicts to illumine instead of obscure the truth. I will leave it to others to teach warmth and kindness; I will be satisfied to promote basic civility between people who disagree fervently.

We are a club, yes, and also an agent of social change and a scientific community. To function in all three ways, we must uphold certain discursive standards. Conflicts are not always fun, but they are our specific responsibility as scientists and peace workers. We just need to fight fairly, so as to enhance our controversial conversations. Fortunately, the basic principles are unambiguous, so let me offer a few peremptory reminders here.

There are legal differences between defamatory statements that are spoken (which may be slanderous) and printed (which may be libelous). There are also differences between the mere expression of opinion and the allegation of facts. For example, I may freely call someone a “clueless, sexually unattractive jerk,” for that is only my personal opinion, but if I call him a liar, a thief, or a terrorist, I had better have strong evidence of his misconduct, for I may be sued for libel.

More leeway is allowed for speculating publicly about the behavior of “public figures” than of ordinary citizens. Nevertheless, when giving a public speech, it may be less persuasive for a scientist to howl vituperative accusations against the prime minister than to offer a reasoned analysis of his bad decisions.

Let’s all improve our verbal skills, if only for the sake of our own souls, for this was the third recommendation that the Buddha prescribed as the “Noble Eightfold Path”—right vision or understanding; right emotion; right speech; right action; right livelihood; right effort; and right mindfulness. I myself have a sharp tongue and more often get into trouble for telling the truth (bluntly) than for lying; maybe I should improve my skill with the white lie for the sake of politeness.

Fortunately, as the editor of Peace Magazine, I am more conscious of the ethics of written discourse. Journalists must pay attention to the rules that determine whether a statement is fit to print, for it is their role to expose wrongdoing to public scrutiny, and that is a risky responsibility. One wrong news report can mislead world leaders and cause a war. Another unverified story can ruin the reputations of innocent persons. Libel laws properly afford redress for some victims, but others, including myself, ignore abuse rather than resort to lawsuits that they could win.

Anyway, legal precedents and professional journalists have elaborated some basic standards, which not only journalists and editors, but everyone who writes for publication or for the Internet, should emulate. Here are a few of the main principles from the long guidelines by the Canadian Association of Journalists.

  1. We are disciplined in our efforts to verify all facts.

  2. We make every effort to verify the identities and backgrounds of our sources.

  3. We seek documentation to support the reliability of those sources and their stories, and we are careful to distinguish between assertions and fact.

  4. When we make a mistake, we correct it promptly and in a transparent manner.

  5. We give people, companies, or organizations that are publicly accused or criticized opportunity to respond before we publish those criticisms or accusations. We make a genuine effort to contact them, and if they decline to comment, we say so.

  6. We independently corroborate facts if we get them from a source we do not name.

  7. We do not allow anonymous sources to take cheap shots at individuals or organizations.

  8. We encourage our organizations to make room for the interests of all minorities and majorities, those with power and those without it, holders of disparate and conflicting views.

  9. We clearly identify news and opinion so that the audience knows which is which.

A Pledge

As academics, most Science for Peace members are already well versed in the norm requiring us to cite sources and evidence for our conclusions. Speaking and writing have consequences, and we understand our responsibilities. We have all submitted articles for publication that have been rejected. We have also critiqued the work of others and (probably even more often) have suffered upon reading a negative review of our own article. That is the life we have chosen. It is a privileged life and, if we are lucky, it enables us to add knowledge and even wisdom to humankind’s storehouse. I thank Karl Popper, Jürgen Habermas, Cass Sunstein, and Robert Putnam for reminding me to be faithful to this high calling. And in turn, I will always remind other scholars that fair, honest, truthful, courageous, serious discourse is the only thing we have to offer in payment for our privileged lives. Whether we aspire to become Buddhas or not, let us all cultivate “Right Speech.”

Metta Spencer is the President of Science for Peace and Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Toronto.

1 Cass R. Sunstein, Going to Extremes: How Like Minds United and Divide. (NY. Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 3,

2 Sunstein, p. 148.

3 Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, (Routledge Classics, Kindle Edition: 2005).

4 Michael Oakeshott, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. (London: Methuen, 1962) pp. 196-98.

5 Jurgen Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, tr. T. Burger and F. Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass:MIT Press, 1989 [1962]).

6 Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, tr. Thomas McCarthy, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984 [1981]).

7 Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein, Better Together: Restoring the American Community. Toronto: Simon and Schuster Canada.

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