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Researchers: Political offensive against »pseudoresearch« is prejudiced and dangerous

Culture wars — Morten Messerschmidt wants the Minister of Higher Education and Science to stop one-sided, activist research in, say, gender studies and post-colonial studies. Several researchers see this as a »frightening« violation of the arm's length principle.

Deputy Chairman of the Danish People’s Party Morten Messerschmidt directed a burst of questions at the Minister for Higher Education and Science Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen recently.

They were all about the same thing: research into whiteness, post-colonial studies and a number of other humanities fields and theories. Fields and theories that have faced criticism from several centre-right politicians and pundits in media like the University Post, Kristeligt Dagblad and Berlingske.

»How will the minister prevent non-scientific and partisan university studies, such as the study of whiteness and post-colonial theories etc., displacing ordinary, worthwhile, academic fields of research?« was one of Messerschmidt’s questions.

He wasn’t asking out of curiosity. He asked because he wants the minister to intervene against research communities that he believes are so permeated by identity-political activism disguised as science, that other perspectives are being excluded.

He says this to the University Post.

»This is pure pseudo-research. You are, of course, allowed to have loony political viewpoints – this is a free country – but you should not be able to call it research on government expense,« says Morten Messerschmidt.

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To start off, he proposes that universities incorporate the so-called Chicago principles in the Danish University Act to safeguard free thought and debate at the universities. But he does not, offhand, reject the closing down of certain research environments, just like the commenter Rune Selsing suggested in a column on the Jyllands-Posten news site:

»Sure you could do that. It has been done before. Back in the 1980s, sociology was closed down, simply because it had been infiltrated by communists,« says Morten Messerschmidt.

»And it is clear that if you are in a similar situation in regards to gender studies or post-colonial studies, or whatever they call it, then you might consider doing something similar.«

Shooting a sawn-off shotgun

According to several scientists, Morten Messerschmidt is going too far.

Professor emeritus Heine Andersen, who has worked with freedom of research for several decades, published a book on the subject in 2017. He finds Messerschmidt’s attack to be dangerous:

This is pure pseudo-research.

Morten Messerschmidt, Deputy Chairman, Danish People’s Party

»It’s actually a bit scary, because he makes out that we should have political control of what good or bad science is,« says Heine Andersen.

»Of course, there may be research that goes too far and goes off the mark, and this should be criticised. But politicians should not decide what is scientifically correct. It would be absolutely ludicrous if Messerschmidt and the Minister of Higher Education and Science were to be the judge of the scientific quality of research projects in the Danish parliament.«

He is backed up by Thomas Brudholm, an associate professor at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, where he works with minorities research theories.

There is a need for criticism of all research fields – including the ones that Messerschmidt aims at – but:

»He is shooting with a sawn-off shotgun and, in this way, becomes a crazy reflection of the trends that he ostensibly criticises. It’s incredible how many normative premises he can pack into one sentence. And how unscientific, vague, and generalising, a way it is that he can express himself,« he writes in an email to the University Post.

Christoph Ellersgaard, who is a sociologist and researcher into power elites at Copenhagen Business School, says that researchers – and especially social scientists – generally have to accept criticism, also from people outside academia.

But he, in turn, criticises the politicians and debaters who encourage the government to close down certain research environments.

»I see this as problematic. In reality, this means firing the people who are in these research environments today. I don’t find that very dialogue-oriented,« he says.

Consequences of closures

Christoph Ellersgaard experienced himself how the closure of one field of research traumatised a research community.

In 1986, the Department of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen was closed by the former Minister for Education Bertel Haarder for a period of time. This was after accusations of it being an incubator for Marxists that were more involved in activism than science. This was the shutdown that Morten Messerschmidt refers to when he argues for political intervention against certain research fields today. In the eight years following the shutdown, no new students were admitted to sociology programmes in Denmark.

Christoph Ellersgaard studied sociology himself at the University of Copenhagen from 2003 to 2010, and was employed at the Department of Sociology from 2009 to 2015, where he completed his PhD. He says that the political closure of the study programme could still be felt at researchers’ offices when he spent his days at the department.

It’s incredible how unscientific, vague and generalising it is when Morten Messerschmidt expresses himself

Thomas Brudholm, Associate Professor, Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies

»There is no doubt that it had an affect on what was being researched. I would also venture to say that this has meant that there are some subjects – especially those that have been associated with a broader critique of society’s power structures – that have not been worked on for a number of years,« he says.

This is the risk when politicians intervene in specific fields of research, according to Christoph Ellersgaard: That researchers organise their careers in a way that avoids alienating politicians and all public debate.

The result? No more freedom of research, according to Christoph Ellersgaard.

»Scientists are not, of course, stupid and they can easily not say things that people don’t like, if that means they would lose their jobs.«

»If you want dull research that says exactly what is liked by the powers-that-be, you just close down everything that does not reach the right conclusions. It is easy.«

Left-wing criticism

The accusations by Morten Messerschmidt, Henrik Dahl, Rune Selsing and others’ against certain academics of being left-wing and activist are part of a trend, especially to the right of the political spectrum. But there are also examples of left-wing criticism of academia with calls for changes to teaching methods and research.

The economics programme at the University of Copenhagen has, for example, been under attack for schooling students into one-sided, mainstream research. Christian Poll, then the finance spokesman for the Alternative Party, summoned the former Minister for Higher Education and Science Tommy Ahlers (Liberal Party) for consultation in 2019 over plans for the study programme in economics which, according to Poll, focused too much on »spreadsheets in a neoliberal model«.

The question is: Why did it not set off an equally sharp rebuke of its breach of the arm’s length principle as the call for alleged left-wing research?

»I do actually find it questionable that they actually sat in committee and discussed the content of specific study programmes. Even though they may have a point, this is not something that the Danish parliament should interfere with. This was wrong,« says Heine Andersen.

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But politicians can say: Research is paid for by the public. And when we see that it goes to pseudoscience or towards mainstreaming academia, then it is our duty to bring it up in the Danish Parliament. This is a reasonable point?

»No.«

Why not?

»They are allowed to have an opinion about it, but this is not something that government should interfere with,« says Heine Andersen.

I find it more important that we have free research at the university than that some principle is enforced.

Morten Messerschmidt, Deputy Chairman, Danish People’s Party

»We have university legislation that clearly lays down the jurisdictions of universities relative to government agencies. The university is responsible here for the freedom of research, and there will be no legal basis for the minister laying down directives on, say, what theories and methods the different subjects should contain. Thank goodness for that.«

According to Heine Andersen, a Danish politician has the right to criticise research, so long as this criticism is factual, academic and substantiated by documentation. The problem arises when the politician encourages the minister to use his authority to change the content of the courses.

Thomas Brudholm agrees:

»The criticism should itself live up to the scientific norms and values that are conspicuous in their absence from Messerschmidt’s question: Precision, objectivity, evidence, the ability to not throw the baby out with the bathwater and to not assume what it is you are trying to prove. Messerschmidt can say he is not a scientist. But that is why he should maybe express himself less categorical and prejudiced about research.«

Christoph Ellersgaard says that the critics of mainstream economics did not agitate for the closure of the Department of Economics at the University of Copenhagen. They did want, however, wider research environments and some other perspectives on the debate – which is completely legitimate, he says.

»I find it problematic to call in ministers for consultation about the syllabus for specific study programmes. But I do think that you can ask for other perspectives on a debate and therefore allocate some funding to get some research done specifically for it.«

If politicians want to combat academic uniformity – whether it’s in economics, migration research or whatever – then this needs a wider reckoning with the top-down management of research communities, according to Christoph Ellersgaard.

»It is all about blocking the power that the people who sit at the top of their scientific fields have. And which means that they primarily recruit people who are similar to themselves up through the system.«

Solution is more important than principle

To the news media Kristeligt Dagblad, Morten Messerschmidt has said that the universities need some »cleaning up work«. He does not formulate what this precisely entails. But according to the Deputy Chairman, the key point is that we should not accept research fields where specific political attitudes have become so dominant that they preclude other perspectives.

It is »hard to say« when the cleanup has been a success, according to Messerschmidt.

»If there was one oddball, like back in the 1980s and 90s, you would shrug your shoulders and say, sure, let him or her be. We could live with that,« says Morten Messerschmidt.

»The problem is that this is not just a dominant trend, but also an oppressive trend. And we cannot live with this.«

In the questions he put to the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science, Morten Messerschmidt mentions several different fields of research and theories: »whiteness studies, post-colonial theories, and more«, »other race studies« as well as »identity politics, intersectionality and cosmopolitanism«.

I will discuss the issue with the universities’ managements in the near future

Minister for Higher Education and Science Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen (Social Democrat)

This sounds quite broad. Can you define it further and give some examples?

»If you wanted a broad description, then the problem is the humanities’ programmes’ identity studies. The question is whether you see yourself as an oppressed person because of your race or gender, or whatever, or whether you see yourself or others as an already oppressive person because of race or gender or whatever,« says Morten Messerschmidt.

»The problem arises if you, even before you start your research, have a prefix on it. That you have decided that we are now doing an anti-colonialist study. Or a pro-colonalist study. This is bizarre. And it’s politics.«

And you have the impression that these ideas are the consensus in the research circles that you are talking about?

»Yes, that’s my clear impression. There is this massive uniformity. I don’t think you get to have a long academic career unless you adapt to these thoughts.«

What do you base this on? Testimonies, research reports, anything else?

»A research study of the research communities themselves has not, as far as I know, been carried out. This could be interesting in itself. My experience is based on the things that are presented to me and the people in the world of research that I talk to.«

Several researchers believe that you breach the arm’s length principle by asking these questions in the Danish parliament. There is one person that calls it directly dangerous for freedom of research. What’s your reaction to that?

»It cannot surprise him that we will not accept that the arm’s length principle means that radical political movements take over a whole field of research,« says Morten Messerschmidt. He adds that the arm’s length principle applies to the minister in charge, not to ordinary members of the Danish parliament.

The researchers see your questions as a call on the minister to breach this arm’s length principle. But perhaps this is not how you should interpret them?

»I’m not interested in how the minister solves the problem. But I am concerned that she does solve the problem. But if I were to make a point clear: I find it more important that we have free research at the university than that some principle is enforced.«

Minister to discuss the issue with university managements

After the interview with Messerschmidt took place, the Minister for Higher Education and Science, Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen, offered written responses to a number of his questions. She writes that freedom of research is one of the cornerstones of a modern democracy.

»I do not believe that we as politicians should make ourselves the judge of scientific method in individual research fields,« the minister writes.

In another response, she writes however that it concerns her when she reads about entire fields of research that »apparently have one, single track, theoretical and activist approach to the research«.

»It is the responsibility of universities’ managements to ensure that research at Danish universities is impartial, and that all requirements for good scientific practice have been complied with,« she writes.

»This is a difficult but very important issue, and I am very much aware of it. I will therefore discuss the issue with universities’ managements in the near future.«

The University Post is working on getting an interview with Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen about her response to Morten Messerschmidt.

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