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"You can trust that academics know the truth because they have tenure and are free to think for themselves."

Question: What percentage actually have tenure?

Does having tenure mean you're right about everything?

Does having tenure mean you're more right than someone outside academia?

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Can you tell us a little more about the context and motivations behind the question? –  Joseph Weissman Dec 23 '12 at 15:12
    
I'm reminded of Clarke's first law: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong". –  coleopterist Dec 23 '12 at 20:33
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1 Answer 1

"You can trust that academics know the truth because they have tenure and are free to think for themselves."

I presume that statement was preceded by a certain claim made by an academic, which was then said to be credible simply because an academic said so. If this is the case, it is an appeal to authority. It generally goes as follows:

  • A is an expert in domain D
  • A claims C
  • C is a question within domain D
  • Therefore, C is true

Now, of course, it can be assumed that it is more likely that an expert (within his domain of expertise) is right than a random person. It just does not logically follow that this is the case. You have to evaluate the actual argument, not who made the claim.

Question: What percentage actually have tenure?

Quote from wikipedia: The period since 1972 has seen a steady decline in the percentage of college and university teaching positions in the US that are either tenured or tenure-track. United States Department of Education statistics put the combined tenured/tenure-track rate at 56% for 1975, 46.8% for 1989, and 31.9% for 2005. That is to say, by the year 2005, 68.1% of US college teachers were neither tenured nor eligible for tenure; a full 48% of teachers that year were part-time employees.

So the claim that anyone in academia has tenure is simply false.

Does having tenure mean you're right about everything?

No, obviously not. There are people with tenure who have conflicting views. Just to give a notorious example: Leonard Susskind and Stephen Hawking (who both have (or did have)) tenure have been in a fierce debate on information in black holes being completely lost or not. They disagree fundamentally, yet they are two of the world's top experts in their domain. And there are tons of examples of similar (yet not as famous) cases.

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I meant tenure in the strict sense of the word; that is having protection of being fired unless there is a just cause. What you said applies to all academics (vs. the non-academics), not just the ones with tenure. I don't think academics with tenure are necessarily that much more knowledgeable than those without, but that those with tenure will be more inclined to tell the truth, even if it is controversial. That being said, I agree with your criticism on that sentence, it was at least poorly structured and confusing and I did therefore remove that part. –  Ben Dec 23 '12 at 19:36
    
Fair enough. Removed my comment also, since it's no longer relevant. –  Rex Kerr Dec 23 '12 at 19:37
    
+1 for a comprehensive answer, and, if I could, I'd add another +1 for bringing up the Susskind-Hawking feud :). –  William Dec 24 '12 at 7:31
    
@ChaosAndOrder: Much of what is being said in this discussion may take on a different tone depending on context. First of all, in certain disciplines there is simply no way to not tell the truth (mathematics, for instance), where tenured or not, one must provide rigorous arguments in favor of a claim, before it is accepted. To a great extend, the same holds in physical and biological sciences. I suppose a much better question is whether a lay person should accept what an academic says as true (lay person lacking sufficient training to verify, or to follow, rigorous arguments). –  William Dec 24 '12 at 7:34
    
I agree, certain fields are much more vulnerable to (a) mistakes and (b) ideology. Mathematics is indeed less vulnerable to a and b, yet it is still often abused (especially statistics), most often not by mathematicians themselves, but by academics of other fields. Whether a lay person should trust individual academics is not really that important; I think that a lay person should look at the consensus (if there is one) rather than individual academics and should distrust media misrepresentation of scientific research much more than individual academics and science in general. –  Ben Dec 25 '12 at 20:29
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