So I got this email from Noam Chomsky today, looking for my opinion…

…as did 20,000 other recipients (making their target sample an interesting n = 20,001):

Dear Colleague:

You have received this survey along with 20,000 other academics globally.

This survey is meant to assess the attitude of the scientific community on the issue of university military research.

Kindly take a moment to answer the 6 questions below by highlighting your choice(s?). Please return your responses within 2 weeks by replying to this email.

Your response will be kept in the strictest confidence. Survey results will be published in a peer-reviewed journal. You will receive a copy of that publication.

Sincerely: Noam Chomsky (Professor, Linguistics MIT), Mr. David Cromwell (Media Lens UK), Saeed Dastgiri (Professor, Epidemiology Tabriz University of Medical Sciences),George Katsiaficas (Professor, Humanities and Social Sciences Wentworth Institute of Technology), Michael Keefer (Professor, College of Arts University of Guelph), Dr. Stuart Parkinson (Executive Director Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR))Mr. David Peterson (Chicago-based writer and researcher), Mozhgan Savabieasfahani (Environmental toxicologist and global health researcher), Susanne Soederberg (Professor and Canada Research Chair, Global Development Studies, Queen’s University), Dr. Charalampos Tsoumpas (Lecturer in Medical Imaging University of Leeds)

So, Noam Chomsky wants my opinion. Now, I’ve always liked the cut of Chomsky’s jib, while not always agreeing with the stuff that he says. Whatever about political issues, I even have reservations about generative linguistics. But I’ve always had time for the way he seeks to critique media and societal discourse, and to deconstruct its intrinsic partiality.

And so this is why I am somewhat disappointed with the Chomsky questionnaire. For a sceptic of oppressive narrative frames, his line of questioning here appears a bit, well, leading

Take Question #1, for example:

[Pick one]:

University military research is not threatening to academic freedom.

University military research is slightly threatening to academic freedom.

University military research is seriously threatening to academic freedom.

University military research annuls academic freedom.

These questions load towards the negative. If I believe that military research annuls academic freedom, then I can say so. But if I believe the opposite — that such research somehow promotes or affirms academic freedom — then the best I can say is that it is “not threatening.” The structure of the question does not allow me to truly disagree with the “annuls” proposition. The question has a coercive direction.

And here’s Question #4:

[Pick one]:

University research on killer drones is needed to help the Pentagon further develop this weapon.

University research on killer drones should continue but be publicly discussed and democratically controlled.

University research on killer drones should be halted.

University research on killer drones, if undertaken at all, should be visible and a regular target for education and protest.

I don’t like drones. Nor do I like killers. But is “killer drone” the best term for what Chomsky has in mind here? The formal name of these things is “unmanned aerial vehicles” or UAVs. If Chomsky was serious about conducting a meritorious survey, then this is the term that should be used. This is because fair surveys should seek to measure opinions rather than to influence them.

Overall the survey questions are less than perfect, with many references to vague notions (the “academic community.” Who they?), double-barrelled propositions (“…research should be publicly discussed and democratically controlled.” Discussed? Yes. Democratically controlled? Not so sure), or incoherent premises (“University military research is unethical and against the core values of academic freedom.” As opposed to being unethical but somehow NOT against the core values of academic freedom?).

In short the questions are, in the main, unanswerable. Unless, of course, all you want is to help create a bit of fuzzy noise that sounds like mass dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Chomsky and his colleagues promise to publish the findings in a peer-reviewed journal, which appears a little presumptuous to me. I would have thought a properly functioning peer-review process would bounce such a submission on the basis of its methodology being flawed. But maybe Noam knows some friendly editors…

Coming from our most outspoken critic of media manipulation and someone who witheringly condemns the use of rhetoric in the pursuit of political ends, this is all very disappointing.



Categories: Academic publishing, Authority appeals, Confirmation bias, Education, Politics, Science, Surveys

2 replies

  1. What is oppressive about this? Who do you think this is oppressing? The Pentagon?

  2. University military research annuls academic freedom, if by freedom you mean the freedom to work in accord with one’s conscience. If by my conscience I believes it is wrong for MIT to earn money from developing and providing technical support for machines that are known to be used to kill people who do not have recourse to justice (and innocent civilians who happen to be in the way) than the only way to occupy a position of integrity in regard to my conscience is to oppose this. If you are willing to take money from and give your time to an institution responsible for this then you are contributing to this situation, and you are not at an ethical level to be able to point the finger at others and say they are wrong for engaging in such activities. Chomsky and other academics benefit from their positions at MIT. The are published by the university and promote themselves through this institution. It is crass and wrong to have your bread buttered by an institution that promotes, invents and provides the military with technology used to commit actions you find reprehensible. Chomsky is lending his good name as a “brand” that brings a false image of integrity to MIT. Although he has done good by speaking and writing. In the long run, it matters what you do — as well as what you say. Therein lies to real example that will provide true leadership and an example of how to move forward to generations after you. Without the ability to really act, words are truly sterile.

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