University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


»My students can read that their instructor is totalitarian and pseudoscientific«

Elected politicians have accused them of being dishonest, unreliable, and activist as researchers. We let three researchers face up to this criticism – even though they might get more hate mail.

The political offensive against »pseudoscience« and »research disguised as activism« took over the Danish parliamentary chamber recently.

The Liberal Alliance Party’s education and research spokesman Henrik Dahl took aim from the rostrum at entire fields of research like, for example, the humanities studies in gender and migration. And he launched attacks on several named researchers – including a researcher in Islam, Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen.

A large majority that included the Social Democrat government later voted in favour of a resolution that encourages university managements to ensure scientific self-regulation, prevent homogeneity in science, and that politics is not disguised as science in any academic setting.

At the end of the resolution, the politicians emphasize that although they are entitled to express opinions about scientific results, they will not decide on what can be researched, or how. You can read the full statement [in Danish] here.

Hundreds of researchers have subsequently spoken out against the resolution and about the debate in general. This includes 262 researchers from one of the subject areas that has come under attack. They reported in an open letter to the Minister for Higher Education and science Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen (Social Democrat) that they have been hit by harassment, intimidation and self-censorship.

The University Post spoke to three of the researchers who signed the letter. They all work at centres or departments accused of doing pseudoscience.

This is how they experienced the criticism.

Mathias Danbolt

Mathias Danbolt is associate professor at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies (IKK)

We wrote this open letter to the Danish newspaper Politiken because politicians have singled out specific named researchers from the parliamentary rostrum and cast aspersions at entire fields of research. We feel the need to state that we find this trend deeply problematic.

I do not personally want to enter into this debate, but as a research head, a supervisor and a peer, I cannot just look on while this political pressure has such consequences.

I have students who can now read that their instructor is »pseudoscientific« and »totalitarian«, and this cannot avoid affecting the classroom.

You have to prepare yourself for the insults on social media and in your personal inbox.

Mathias Danbolt, Associate Professor at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies (IKK)

I’ve been subjected to this for six or seven years, so I’ve almost gotten used to it. But the attacks mean that I really consider things carefully before agreeing to participate in public debate. It has changed the whole way I think of research communication. It requires a lot of energy. One thing is to talk to a journalist like you. But you also have to prepare yourself for the insults on social media and in your personal inbox.

I have many colleagues who get a huge number of hate e-mails, threats in their inboxes, and who are insulted in different ways. I’ve experienced this myself also.

We can all agree that research is dependent upon criticism and debate. However, when politicians attack and slander researchers and entire fields of research in a vague and unclear manner, and query the research-based structures for quality assurance like in the peer review, then they give legitimacy to a rhetoric that makes it hard to discuss the issues at all.

It is no wonder that many people withdraw from public debate when the premise for any conversation is that you need to validate your very existence. And disconfirm the claim that you are a totalitarian and pseudoscientific researcher. This is an extremely difficult place to start. You have to do a huge cleanup in a debate characterised by exaggerations and generalisations just to reach a place where it is the research and not the prejudice that is the focus.

It is an incredibly frustrating situation that you have to spend so much time speaking about these premises just to be able to discuss research and academic disagreement in the first place. It seems unfair.

You have to do a huge cleanup in a debate characterised by exaggerations and generalisations.

Mathias Danbolt, Associate Professor at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies (IKK)

How and why should I defend, for example, gender research in general? Where to start? It is, of course, legitimate and important to research questions of gender and sexuality. The #metoo debates of recent years have revealed the need for different research approaches to questions about gender, desire and power. Just as there is a need for research into what racism is, or what the effect of colonialism has had on Danish and international art and cultural history.

I fail to recognise the descriptions of a one-track research environment. As for my department, the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, I am the only permanent member of staff who has colonial history as my primary field of research. And we colonial historians work with very different empirical data and various theoretical and methodical perspectives. In the research projects that I head, we are interested in making a space for complexity, asking good questions and searching for the finer points. We have no preconceptions, and we welcome discussions and disagreements in the teaching space and in other research settings.

Research is also about daring to strike out a new path, seeing things from other perspectives, testing hypotheses, and finding that once in a while, you are wrong. In light of the recent debate, I am concerned about what the conditions will now be for thinking new thoughts and taking on difficult discussions.

I can well understand if students and young researchers think they should choose something more ‘safe’ than asking difficult questions about gender, migration and sexuality, when they see how established researchers are exposed to personal attacks. The question is: Is this good for research?

Tore Holst

Tore Holst is an external associate professor at the Centre for Advanced Migration Studies

I work with both migration research as well as cultural encounters, where I use methods from gender and queer research. In this way, both of my specialties are in the firing line, I am a target for both of them.

For me, I had to consider whether this issue was important enough for me to publicly get involved in. But it is. Many of my colleagues have experienced angry reactions in various comment threads. I do not think I am important enough to be the object of this anger. I have certainly been able to stay under the radar.

When a colleague is exposed to a shitstorm, we pat him or her on the back and say we understand that it is tough. This is apparently happening more and more when you deal with the kind of topics that I do.

The problem arises when you claim that there is completely non-ideological research.

Tore Holst is an external associate professor at the Centre for Advanced Migration Studies

We talk a lot about how we can remain researchers and not debaters. When we debate, we communicate our research simply, and then this simple form of communication is criticised. Then we have already lost.

There is this idea that politics and research may not be mixed. But on the other hand, it is often difficult to get funding for projects that are not a part of a political reality.

Research needs to be able to ‘be used for something’. Society needs to get ‘something for its funding’. In the field of migration research, this often means that you have to try to solve the problems that the elected representatives identify in society. If you then criticise how the problems have been formulated to begin with, it is often seen as either useless or political. The debate about ghettos is a good example of this phenomenon.

It is true that social science and humanities research is objective in a different way than the natural sciences. But this does not mean that our results are something that we just think up.

There is a wide, extensive field between on the one extreme just pulling down all our knowledge from the heaven, and on the other extreme setting up fixed formulas for human behaviour. This only becomes a problem when politicians try to use research as the basis for unpopular political initiatives. Then we often get the wrong form of objectivity.

On the other hand, we then usually know where a piece of humanities or social science research can be placed, ideologically speaking. All theory has a kind of ideological foundation, if you go back far enough in its genealogy. And all good research is careful in the way it positions itself within the theory.

This also makes us an easier target, because we are waving a flag and explicitly saying ‘these are our assumptions’ by referring to this field. The whole point is precisely that you have to be able to go back in the text and identify the basic assumptions, so you can disagree with them. The problem arises when you claim that there is completely non-ideological research.

Nina Grønlykke Mollerup

Nine Grønlykke Mollerup is an associate professor at the Centre for Advanced Migration Studies

As a researcher, you rarely feel encouraged to participate in public debates on politically explosive topics. And there are also some topics that I prefer to avoid researching.

You think very carefully about where you want to put your energy. In fact, I think that researchers, to a much higher degree, should share their knowledge with the outside world and get involved in public debates. But you, first of all, are not really recognised in the university system by communicating to a wider audience. And, secondly, you risk being confronted with people who find your research problematic because it does not support their own political attitudes. Then it is difficult to find the motivation.

Research is about creating knowledge. No researchers will claim that they have the ultimate truth. They seek to learn more: To challenge and build on established knowledge. So there are no researchers who are not interested in discussing their research and listening to criticism.

There are some topics that I prefer to avoid researching.

Nine Grønlykke Mollerup is an associate professor at the Centre for Advanced Migration Studies

Politicians should criticize, but it has to be an objective criticism. That’s what we do all the time in, say, peer review. It is problematic however, if the criticism comes about because the research results do not support a particular policy.

In the political world, it is more often about convincing others that you are right. That is why it is extremely difficult to get involved in these debates, because the premise for the two types of conversation are not the same.

No one claims that all research is perfect and infallible, but I cannot recognise their criticism of research as activism.

I can easily see that, say, migration research does not produce results that can be politically exploited by the Danish People’s Party and the Liberal Alliance, but I do not think that you can blame the research for that. It would be terrible if it were the job of research to create results with the sole purpose of furthering certain political interests.