When academics disagree with each other there’s only one way to settle who is right. As TV comedian Harry Hill would say: “Fight! Fight!”
Shouting around the playground that battle is underway, with fisticuffs and blood in prospect, has always been an exciting scenario for kids. And it’s really not much different among the profs. Try as they might to affect an air of gentlemanly courtesy and “collegiate” spirit, there is sometimes no disguising the ferocity and malevolence that pervades the world of academic disputes. Unlike the kids’ world, where aggression is often spontaneous and quickly resolved, in the seemingly calm groves of academe disputes can fester for months and years with antagonists trying hard to sound calm and rational. All this achieves is a build-up of pressure in the emotional volcano, so that when it finally blows it does so with one hell of an explosion and devastating fallout.
Sexnet is like that. (See A rather special forum called Sexnet, 25 November). Thanks to being battle-hardened after taking decades of abuse as a paedophile activist, the quarrels on Sexnet are all pretty much water off a duck’s back to me, even when (which is not often, so no complaints) I am targeted for snide put-downs – or ad hominem attack , as they say in the business. I have noticed that others, though, are extraordinarily thin-skinned, including some of the big beasts of the academic jungle, star research scientists of world renown: the tiniest criticism sees them throw a hissy fit; you can all but hear their fragile egos cracking like eggs.
A classic example was on display when in March this year I took issue with James Cantor’s theory that paedophilia is caused by “crossed-wiring” in the brain. Using MRI scanning on paedophiles, he had identified differences in the “white matter” of their brains compared to those of others. I asked him, in a post to Sexnet, whether the observed differences were caused by the experience of being a paedophile, rather than, as he claimed, caused by paedophilia. Instead of simply answering my question, which would have been the sane and sensible thing to do, he ranted and raved about those who ask “politically motivated” questions, saying there was no point in talking to “flat earthers” and the like.
The problem with that “line of argument”, though his emotional outburst scarcely deserves such a description, is that I had put a fair bit of work into framing the question, which was quite technical in nature and I felt sure that anyone who knew anything about the growing science of epigenetics, in particular, would feel it was a sensible thing to ask.
As I say, this was back in March, but now there has been a further development. This week, on BBC radio, the psychoanalyst Susie Orbach (yes, the famous one who once had Princess Diana as a client) posed a very similar question about his work, expressing just the same scepticism as mine about the “direction of causation”. So far as Cantor is concerned, Orbach and myself are both just ignorant nobodies rather than neuroscientists like himself.
Much harder to brush aside, though, is the opinion of a fellow neuroscientist who I now find is in total agreement with Orbach and myself. There is quite a lot to be said about this, so it might be a good idea to leave a cliffhanger, and finish off the story in my next post. So, watch this space!