Opinion | The debate surrounding David Miller is a symptom of a wider issue: the social sciences are plagued with dogmatism


By Molly Pipe, SU Correspondent and an anonymous Sociology student, with the help of Izzy Posen, Physics and Philosophy MSc

Over the last few weeks, Bristol has been debating the case of David Miller, a Sociology professor who has fallen out of favour for presenting Zionism as a racist ideology.

Figures ranging from Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg to Countdown presenter Rachel Riley condemned the way that Miller taught his personal opinion as fact, presenting a complex issue from only one angle. Few seem to recognise that Miller is not the only social science academic accused of using such an approach.

This is not with regards to his opinions on Zionism. Teaching opinion as fact and omitting key arguments from nuanced debates is practiced on a far wider scale in the university context.

Universities are supposed to be places where societies progress: ideas are brought forward, exposed to criticism, and either rejected or accepted. So why is it that we’ve reached a stage where some ideas are above criticism? Where some ideas are considered so self-evidently correct that they don’t need to be examined, and others are so obviously profane that to raise them is unacceptable?

Consider the experience of one student last year. In a seminar, their class was told by a lecturer that the Conservative Government was ‘killing off’ the working class, intentionally, through the programme of austerity.

The student challenged the lecturer due the lack of evidence supporting this claim, only to be shouted down and accused of being complicit in the death of the working class. Every seminar after the student felt too anxious and embarrassed to contribute.

Many academics fail to adequately cover arguments that go against the departmental norm

Of course, not all academic staff are like this, but this is an example of the kind of ‘group-think’ that systematically afflicts the social sciences today. The two of us writing this article study this area, and both have consistently come across the dominance of a particular set of ideas.

Whether it be penal policy, the free market or feminism, we have both found that many academics fail to adequately cover arguments that go against the departmental norm.

Either they skim over them, fail to mention them, or teach them with a built-in disapproval that signals to students the supposed sketchiness of the theory.

Receiving criticism for a view in a seminar is part and parcel of debate

Those straying from the party line are quickly made to feel like they have done something wrong. Simply raising an unorthodox view can lead to hostility from staff as well as students. It surely is the job of seminar tutors to allay tensions in a debate, but it feels like some of them add to it.

Of course, receiving criticism for a view in a seminar is part and parcel of debate. It’s the manner in which these criticisms are handed out that is increasingly a source of concern - the hostility aimed at people who deviate from a very narrow range of ideas. It often feels like a personal attack, and it is not uncommon for students to have to self-censor at times in order to avoid backlash.

Neither of us are particularly partisan – indeed, we often agree with the ideology that is being espoused. However, it is incredibly damaging to the advancement of societal knowledge if we don’t give these issues their due diligence.

Bristol JSoc urges university to take action after professor calls for ‘end’ to Zionism ‘as a functioning ideology of the world’
Opinion | As a Jewish Sociology student at Bristol Uni, here’s why I don’t want David Miller to teach me

Why is this important? Because if we are to hit upon the best ways forward as a society, we must ensure that the knowledge we have is robust. It must face scrutiny, explore all avenues, and be tested as far as possible.

This is particularly important in the social sciences because sociological ideas can rarely be proven outright. Therefore, the ability to hold the theorist to account from all angles is absolutely necessary if their idea is to hold ground.

Campus group-think means that students miss out on the key critical thinking skills needed for their academic careers. But worst of all, society misses out on free and impartial social analysts. Instead it gets political pawns.

Featured Image: Unsplash / David Holifield

Do you believe that the social sciences are plagued with dogmatism?