Thursday 1 February 2024

Wilful Blindness

I am always interested in - and sometimes incensed by - many organisations' preference to avoid asking questions for fear that they may not like the answers. I think this is related to the phenomenon of Wilful Blindness, explored by Margaret Heffernan in her excellent book of that title, and in various Youtube talks (here, for example).

I think it is particularly problematic in Universities, and have come across a few examples recently. 

One is library opening hours. A number of institutions offer 24/7 access to their libraries, in response to student demand.  I asked one about the research on this, in relation to student mental well-being and was told 'In terms of research, there may be a gap in terms of projects purely looking into mental health & 24hr uni libraries.'

Whether 24/7 opening is problematic is an open question, I suggest. I could see arguments both ways. So this is precisely the kind of topic that would benefit from some serious research - yet none is undertaken, and the Universities press ahead, because of student demand. And the cynic in me wonders if it is because Universities don't want to know, because if it is proven to be deleterious they would have to face the choice between an unpopular decision and one that is bad for students.

We find the same on the trans issue, of course. This is highly complex, not least because Stonewall et al have created a trans umbrella that groups together an extraordinary array of different types of people under the label trans. 

Given the problems at the Tavistock, the Cass Report, and the tangles that Universities have been getting themselves into over people who are gender critical, one might think that this merits some research and exploration. 

But what we find is that Universities have taken an ideological, not an evidence-based, approach to this issue, both in terms of their DEI policies and (in the case of some 40-odd with Medical Schools) by signing the GLADD Charter on Conversion Therapy.  This includes the statement: The diversity of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are natural variations of the human experience and do not require a cure. 

As I say, that is clearly an ideological, rather than an evidence-based, statement. But it is one that avoids engaging with the rather difficult reality that would arise, should research discover that some of those who identify as trans do not meet (for example) the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria.

One very senior individual at a prestigious institution told me that he thinks it highly likely that the huge increase in teenage girls identifying as trans is a result of social contagion.  He may be wrong, of course: my point is that the issue should be being researched. But as James Caspian discovered, there are some questions that Universities do not want to be researched.

So why are Universities keen not to know some things? My hypothesis, as I suspect has been clear throughout, is that they are too concerned about student reactions. A small number of angry students can do a great deal of damage to a University, not least through the NSS. So any issues where student feelings may run high are potential minefields. 

Nonetheless, I believe that if Universities end up preferring wilful blindness to confronting challenging realities, they will do themselves - and the wider culture of the country - much greater harm.

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