The Pathology of Ideas

Those interested in the pathology of ideas owe a great debt to Mr. Raymond W. Alden, III, the Executive Vice President and Provost of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His “Letter of Instruction” of February 9, 2005 to Professor Hans-Herman (sic) Hoppe offers a most instructive specimen for analysis.

The situation that gave rise to the letter will be well known to many readers, and I shall confine myself to a brief summary. In a lecture to his Money and Banking class in March 2004, Professor Hoppe discussed the concept of time preference. He mentioned several examples of groups with high time preference, including homosexuals. (Readers of Hoppe’s outstanding Democracy: The God that Failed will recall that differences in time preference form a crucial part of his theory of politics.)

A student found the remark about homosexuals offensive and filed an informal complaint about it. In a later session of the class, Hoppe mentioned that a complaint had been filed and said that he had meant no offense by his comment. At the time, Hoppe did not know who had filed the complaint. The student, far from being mollified by Hoppe’s remarks, was shocked. It is not clear why; as best as I can make out, he thought that Hoppe took the incident lightly. No doubt Hoppe should instead have burst into sobs, begging forgiveness from his class for his insensitivity. The student then decamped to the Affirmative Action Thought Police and filed a formal complaint. (Alden’s letter says that the formal complaint was filed on March 5, 2004, over remarks made by Hoppe on March 4 and 11; does the complainant have precognitive powers?) Several hearings were held, and the process culminated in the letter from Provost Alden we have now to examine.

The Provost makes a surprising claim. He affirms the finding of the grievance panel that Hoppe’s statements “had the effect of being discriminatory and creating a hostile learning environment because they were not qualified as opinions, theories without experimental/statistical support, topics open to debate, or otherwise limited.”

I find this statement baffling. Suppose, contrary to fact, that Hoppe had announced to the class that he hated homosexuals or claimed that they were guilty of disreputable behavior. It is easy to understand that someone might have been offended. It is even possible, though I find it hard to believe, that the statement that homosexuals have high time preference offended someone. As Lloyd R. Cohen has aptly noted, the statement is a straightforward factual claim. The statement does not imply that people with high time preference are in some way deficient. Perhaps, though, the student wrongly took Hoppe’s remark to be a criticism of homosexuals and was affronted.

What I cannot grasp at all is why the fact that Hoppe did not present to the class citations from peer-reviewed literature when he made his assertion about time preference created a “hostile learning environment.” If Hoppe’s statement offended the student, how would the presentation of supporting studies have eased matters for him? Would he have felt better had Hoppe advanced the claim as a conjecture? If, more plausibly, Hoppe’s statement was not in itself offensive, why would the failure to adduce empirical support transform his remark into a sexually discriminatory comment? Are we to suppose that the student was an empiricist, shocked by Hoppe’s failure to observe what he considered the proper methodological canons? Did he say to himself, “Doesn’t Hoppe know the difference between a well-confirmed hypothesis and a conjecture? Is he some troglodyte for whom commonsense intuitions count as evidence?” That, surely, is not a case of sexual discrimination, unless the Provost and grievance panel regard views about evidential support as issues of “sexual orientation.” Nevertheless, we are told that Hoppe’s statement “had the effect of being discriminatory” because he did not qualify his remarks as opinions.

I hasten to add that I think Hoppe would have been perfectly within his rights to make statements that members of the class found offensive. But this issue does not even arise here, since the sole complaint directed against him in the letter is one about evidence. Nothing at all is said about the whether the claim about time preference is offensive

Let us take the Provost’s letter on its own terms: was Hoppe guilty of epistemological sin? The Provost holds that Hoppe has mistaken opinion for fact. He offered a comment unsupported by peer-reviewed research as if it had been a fact not open to debate. Here a question arises: is the accusation that Hoppe did not himself support his statement by citing research that substantiated it, or is the charge rather that the statement is in fact not supported by research? If the former, why was Hoppe obliged to present a discussion of the evidence at all? He is a teacher, entitled to present his views to his class. A student who found his comments implausible was free to ask him for their basis, and it would then have been up to Hoppe to respond as he thought best. No one did ask him for evidence; why then should he have said more than he did?

I gather that the Provost would answer that the class might have taken his statement to be one of generally acknowledged fact. To preclude such misapprehension, he ought to have made clear that he was stating only his own opinion. But this answer assumes the second construal of the letter’s assertion that Hoppe’s claim was unsupported: Not only did Hoppe fail to adduce peer-reviewed research to substantiate what he said, but there is none to be had. How does the Provost know this? Has he conducted a literature search? Are he and the grievance committee qualified to evaluate research about time preference?

It transpires that substantial empirical evidence does support Hoppe’s claim. The most complete discussion of the matter of which I am aware is by Professor Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy site for February 6, 2005. I shall not discuss the data here, though, because a deeper issue is at stake.

Why is Hoppe obliged to accept the judgment of the Provost and grievance committee about the standard required to assert a claim as factual? Perhaps he thinks the matter an obvious truth that does not require “experimental/statistical support.” Certainly there is a distinction to be drawn between fact and opinion; but if the criterion for drawing that distinction is imposed on a scholar by a body of outsiders, his academic freedom is totally at an end. What is next? Will the Provost rule Austrian economics out of court altogether, because it is insufficiently experimental to satisfy him and the assortment of busybodies on the grievance panel?