Features Australia

Unlearning truth

23 September 2017

9:00 AM

23 September 2017

9:00 AM

Nearly ten months on, the University of Sydney appears to be coming to grips with the fact that Donald Trump won last year’s election. Around a month ago, USyd proudly announced the rollout of the Unlearn initiative; a compulsory program that teaches students to ‘challenge the established, and question the accepted.’ According to USyd, that includes unlearning truth itself. One of Unlearn’s key programs, the ‘post-truth initiative’, has set its sights on bringing together political scientists, academics and researchers to examine ‘fake news, lies, bullshit and propaganda’. Quaint.

One wonders whether any of the political scientists tasked with spotting ‘bullshit’ will be drawn from the United States Studies Centre, whose 23 ‘experts’ failed to predict that Trump might win.

But even then, the idea of a sandstone university appointing its own to separate fact from fiction in today’s frenzied media climate reeks of unwitting irony. It is difficult to exaggerate how badly our hallowed halls of higher learning have derogated promoting open-minded inquiry, in favour of teaching ideologically blinkered dogma. Of course, encouraging students to ‘challenge the established, and question the accepted’ would be a fine idea if the exercise were approached free from the usual shibboleths of the university hive-mind. Sadly, a cursory glance at the Post Truth Initiative’s webpage quashes any such hopes. The three most recent articles on the homepage are obsequious paeans to climate change. Not only do all three uncritically endorse the notion that climate change is an existential threat to humanity, they also depict so-called ‘deniers’ (read: anyone who doesn’t endorse a radical overhaul of the developed world) as flat earthers. In the first piece, the author bemoans her realisation that she is living as a closet climate denier because she herself hasn’t foregone the trappings of modern life to return to a subsistence level of living. The second is a treatise on why the political sabotage of the renewables industry by ‘the right’ ought to be treated as a form of industrial treason. The third discusses how ‘conservative ideology’ is responsible for the proliferation of ‘bullshit’ about fossil fuels, and a century of anti-environmental corporate misbehaviour. It then equates the alleged ‘lies propagated by those on the right, including the current and past prime ministers,’ with past denial about the harmful effects of tobacco and lead.

Politicians elected on the platform of not pursuing rapid deindustrialisation as a sensible cure for our climate ills are not the only villains charged with whipping our state of climate denial. There’s plenty of disdain lumped on others in the academy with the audacity to stop short of claiming humanity is hurtling towards carbon-induced doom. Then again, a considered analysis of the pro and cons of various policy mechanisms for reducing carbon might have been too much to ask from a program that proudly wears unlearning truth as its modus operandi.

Far from breaking ranks with an intellectual climate where facts and opinion are increasingly blurred, the so-called Post Truth Initiative is just as Orwellian as its name suggests. Much like Winston Smith spent his days in the Ministry of Truth editing history in line with Big Brother’s party line, USyd’s soothsayers of truth dish up opinions fashioned as proof that sceptics of an imminent climate apocalypse are mentally defective.

In a sense, it is not surprising the inaptly named post-truth initiative does precisely the opposite of what it sets out to achieve. At a time when many have started to resist being force-fed correct opinions from self-regarding experts, USyd’s post-truthers are understandably eager to reassert their relevance. But it is more than a bit rich for Sydney uni to be touting as an authority on fact versus fiction. Indeed, when it comes to substituting facts with post-truth sophistry, universities are among the worst offenders.

Where was the scrutiny from USyd’s post-truth gurus when Tim Anderson took to Twitter to praise Kim Jong-Un? Anderson is also on record accusing America of the sarin gas attack in Syria earlier this year, as well as supporting terrorist groups. Surely a university committed to debunking fake news would at least request some substantiation for a charge that hefty? And where were the fact-checkers when John Howard was branded a ‘racist and war criminal’ in a letter from 112 USyd academics protesting the former PM’s bestowal of an honorary doctorate? One may object to Howard’s decision to involve our troops in the Iraq War, but if fair-mindedness is to mean more than an empty platitude, surely it demands using cool-headed language to express an evidence-based criticism of Howard, not just bile and vitriol?

Nor has there been so much as a murmur about the decision of now four universities, including USyd, to withdraw investments related to the resource and fossil fuel industry. QUT, the latest, has said that divesting university funds from the resource industry is appropriate and ethical. Yet when you consider that one in six jobs in QUT’s own state of Queensland are supported by the resource industry, divestment looks less like a simple case of right and wrong than putting self-satisfaction before financial prudence. Sure, one might conclude like QUT’s Vice-Chancellor that the university sacrificing investment returns and thumbing its nose at thousands of fee-paying earth science and engineering students is worthy of the warm inner glow of being seen to do the right thing. But surely observers looking to strip away ‘alternative facts’ and discover the unvarnished truth would think it worth pointing out that divestment is a scratch more complex than it seems?

The kinds of thorny issues discussed at universities and in public debate are rarely susceptible to right and wrong answers. In approaching climate change, the economy, or any of the world’s major problems, our universities ought to be encouraging the widest breadth of views possible. That means seriously engaging with views that challenge the narrow parameters of today’s conventional wisdom – not smugly dismissing them. Sadly, free speech isn’t a high priority for many universities. As the IPA’s Free Speech on Campus audit revealed, eight in ten universities stifle intellectual debate.

It seems USyd has fallen into the same moral panic that’s led progressives the world over to blame fake news for Trump, Brexit, and myriad grievances about the state of the world. But conflating disagreement with misinformation is hardly sound academic practice. Instead, universities should go back to teaching students how to think, not what to think. On the current state of things, that feat alone might take some unlearning.

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