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Interviews The Sophist

An Interview with Francesca Minerva, Co-Founder of The Journal of Controversial Ideas

Francesca Minerva is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences at the University of Ghent in Belgium. Her research focuses on applied philosophy, including lookism, conscientious objection, abortion, academic freedom, and cryonics. She is the author of The Ethics of Cryonics: Is It Moral to be Immortal? (2018), over thirty academic papers, and two lectures for The Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. Now, she is co-founding The Journal of Controversial Ideas, an interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed journal which promotes academic freedom, alongside renowned philosophers Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan. The idea originated after Ms. Minerva published “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” in the Journal of Medical Ethics, experiencing death threats and obstacles to employment soon thereafter. The journal is expected to launch in 2019 and has received press coverage in Vox, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and numerous other publications.

The Yale Politic: Could you give a brief overview on The Journal of Controversial Ideas and what it’s trying to accomplish?

Francesca Minerva: The point of the journal is making sure that ideas that are interesting and potentially very useful or important can still be explored even if they happen to be controversial– and this can be controversial. Here’s one example that is relevant to help you understand the goals. I’ve spoken to a lot of people in the past who were working on climate change. This was a few years ago, and they said that working on climate change could be, in a sense, dangerous. At least at the time, there were a lot of people who were keen on denying climate change, so researchers would get loads of death threats, insults, and hostility from the public. Eventually, we now all agree, or most of us agree, that there is a problem of climate change, that it’s caused by humans, and that we should do something about it.

But, maybe things would have been different if research on climate change had not met so much hostility. The question is, are there other issues that can be as relevant as climate change? There is a lot of academic research that is not getting much attention because people are scared about working on certain topics, so maybe we’re missing something important because that are quite a few threats in academic fields. People working on climate change mostly get attacks from the public, but there are also an increasing number of threats from within academia, like hostility to some areas or research or some kinds of arguments.

So, there can be two different forces that can have a chilling effect on academic freedom, one from within academia, and one external to academia. We think that academic freedom has an instrumental value in order to get closer to the truth, or to do good research, so we thought that we should offer this opportunity of a platform for ideas that are very good, or very important, but also controversial. We also thought that in order to help people who are concerned about their career, their life, or their security, we should offer the option of submitting articles with a pseudonym if they so wish.

The example of climate change is really interesting. What are the 3-5 topics that you think are untouchable in academic research right now– topics that you think might be prominent in your journal?

Honestly, I don’t really have an answer to this because the journal aims at being really open to submissions from different areas. Of course, there are issues in philosophy that are particularly hot at this moment and that people are disagreeing about, but I’m not totally sure which issues would attract the most submissions. We’re open to a variety of submissions from different disciplines, so the nature of this journal being an interdisciplinary journal makes this kind of prediction difficult to do. And, in a sense, I really hope I will find out about controversial issues I’m not aware of because I’m obviously curious to learn.

Are there any topics that are particularly controversial within bioethics, whether you’ve yourself written about them or otherwise?

Yes, definitely. The reason why I was sort of thinking about this journal is that actually the three of us worked on the moral status of fetuses and infants– what I call ‘after-birth abortion’ and what Peter and Jeff call ‘infanticide.’ We discussed the moral status of the newborn and the comparison between the fetus of the newborn and the moral status of the fetus. That proved to be a very controversial topic, so I know for sure that that’s something that’s controversial and dangerous to work on. Apparently, this was a well-known fact in academia, but I didn’t know. Nobody told me of course. Otherwise, perhaps I would have made different choices. So, these issues related to abortion and infanticide are controversial, and it was quite a distressful experience to publish on the topic. 

That’s really interesting to me, especially the way you just said that knowing otherwise, you “perhaps would have made different choices.” What do you think are the pressures in the status quo for researchers? What are maybe the precautions researchers take with their articles, the ways they need to frame them, that they ideally shouldn’t have to do? What are the peer pressures?

 It’s a continuously evolving and changing framework in which we work, so there are topics that were way more controversial twenty years ago that are way less controversial now. For instance, I remember that about eighteen years ago, I was suggesting that gay couples should have the right to adopt children. I argued that it would make sense to have gay marriage and then give gay people the possibility to adopt children, but people were really outraged at the time. That was like eighteen years ago. Now, that’s not really considered a very controversial claim.

So, during my relatively short life, I’ve noticed that it’s very hard to really understand what is controversial because it changes quickly. I think this anecdote shows an interesting point: If we make the effort of discussing ideas that, at that moment, seem controversial, then we can make progress. A few years ago, it was also quite controversial to talk about IVF and surrogated motherhood. So, it’s kind of difficult to tell what kind of peer pressure is there.

We had a couple of examples recently. Rebecca Tuvel published an article about transgender people, comparing them to people who want to change their ethnic origin. She was comparing people who change gender to people who want to change their ethnicity. That paper actually has ended up attracting a lot of hostility from the academic community– not much from the outside, as it happened instead when I published my article on ‘after-birth abortion.’ That seems to be a topic that attracts more controversy than I would have expected.

Same goes for an article published on colonialism, where someone was claim there were some positive aspects of colonialism. That paper also ended up stirring a very big and heated controversy among academics. It’s quite unpredictable, so now I know that these two topics are considered quite controversial. I definitely now know about infanticide too. That being said, I kind of struggle to know what’s controversial. At this point, it’s honestly a bit difficult because it changes so frequently. 

With the journal, what would you call the target audience? Do you care about putting articles out to the general public for people to read? Is it just for academia and the search of truth? It is it for policy-makers?

It’s mostly aimed at academics, so it’s going to be a peer-reviewed journal– a very selective journal. We aim at publishing one issue per year, so we’re probably not going to publish many papers. The peer review is going to be particularly strict because I think the quality is really relevant for this kind of project. The papers have to be accessible to people who have knowledge of different disciplines, so they cannot be very highly specialized. This journal for academics is probably accessible to a wider audience than the specific academic journals that we usually read– at least hopefully.

Let’s say the platform launches, you have your one edition per year, and that edition comes out. What would you call a “successful” article or edition? 

I hope that, especially with the first issue, the people who were quite suspicious and not really seeing the value of this initiative will change their mind and see for themselves that there are very interesting issues that happen to be controversial, or that they haven’t really seen approached a certain way, and that they will enjoy it. Reading on Twitter and Facebook, I saw that tons of other people expected to see racist or sexist articles. That’s not what we have in mind, so I really hope that they will see that’s not the intention. I expect that, for each person, either on the Right or the Left, Conservatives or Liberal, there will be some papers they will agree with and some papers they will disagree with. Everyone should read the journal until there’s something that’s made them angry, in a sense, there’s something they’ve agreed with, and there’s something they’ve found unexpected.

I think the main goal is to show that there are interesting ideas that we haven’t had access to, and that it’s good that this journal is allowing people to do so. In the long run, I hope that the journal won’t be necessary anymore. Hopefully, by being exposed to controversial ideas, by appreciating the value of the ideas that maybe make you angry on the spot, we’ll make progress on a certain topic. I think that people will ultimately go back to publishing controversial ideas in specialized journals. There’s a short-term goal and a long-term goal, but we all agree on the long-term goal that this journal won’t be needed for very long. 

Who decides what’s a ‘controversial’ viewpoint? Does that mean a ‘contrarian’ viewpoint, or does that mean a viewpoint on a topic that is controversial?

 We will definitely avoid publishing papers that are just contrarian or just aimed at stirring controversy for the sake of it. We are interested in papers that are high value and very interesting– papers that just happen to be considered controversial. I think that people working in different fields, or people working in different countries, have a better understanding of what is ‘controversial’ in different countries or in different fields, and they would be able to assess whether a certain paper is controversial and why they would prefer to publish in this journal. Of course, I have only worked in Australia and Belgium. I don’t have a full understanding of what is ‘controversial’ in different countries and in different disciplines. Of course, there are some shared parameters of what counts as controversial, so if something seems to be really uncontroversial, we will suggest they submit it to a different journal. But, apart from that, each paper will be discussed, and we will try to understand in which context it is controversial and whether it fits this journal. 

This is a thought-experiment to hopefully clear things up. Dr. Charles Murray is a renowned social scientist– maybe one of the most controversial in recent memory. He wrote The Bell Curve, in which chapters 13 and 14 infamously talk about race and IQ. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a page describing him as a White Nationalist. What do you think would have happened in the alternative world where he had instead published in The Journal of Controversial Ideas? Would anything be different?

Yeah. So, I think one thing people are really worried about is that if people choose to publish anonymously, there won’t be somebody accountable for the publications, and then, for some reason, this is going to have a negative impact. I don’t believe that knowing who wrote something is really necessary in order to discuss their work and to be able to discuss what is right or wrong about such idea. Also, I think it’s quite dangerous not to discuss ideas like this because if they don’t get a platform, if we don’t find ways to prove that they are wrong, they keep getting credit in the context where they are discussed. And in these contexts, hidden from the public scrutiny, they are more likely to remain unchallenged. If ideas don’t get challenged, they can go underground, reach wider audiences, and become dangerous. So, I think it’s quite important to have a platform to discuss proposals. I think with this kind of research, there’s a lot of work to do in trying to understand how the research was conducted, what are the premises, and so on and so forth.

I haven’t really followed the discussion. I don’t know what the debate ended up being there, or what parts of Dr. Murray’s research have been considered valid, based on false premises, so on and so forth. But, I think it’s very useful to have this kind of conversation and not let things go underground in conversation. It’s okay to have a wrong intuition, or a bad idea, or a bad article, but then people should be able to discuss it. I don’t think that not having the name or the picture of the person available makes it difficult or impossible to discuss the idea. I think there is quite a wide separation between the thoughts and the thinker. Many things can happen, but we’re still here discussing what Plato was arguing 2500 years ago, so we don’t need to have a real person alive at the moment to discuss their ideas. That’s why I don’t really think this idea of having pseudonymous publication is really going to have a much of a negative impact on the discussion of the ideas put forward.

From my understanding, there will be some people publishing transparently under their name, like Professor Singer, and some people publishing pseudonymously. But those people publishing pseudonymously can choose to remove their pseudonym at some point?

Suppose somebody says, “I want to publish this article now, but I’m not tenured yet, or I don’t want to deal with the possible consequences that will raise after the publication of this article, so I will choose to keep my name secret for a certain amount of time and then release it afterwards.” We will make it possible for people to claim the authorship of the paper or to reveal it only to job committees, or put it on their CVs. We will give them the possibility of claiming the authorship of the paper whenever they want to.

In everyday journalism, your name is attached your piece. If you write a bad piece, your reputation is hurt. If you write a good piece, your reputation is helped. There’s a kind of a checks and balances system.

In the context of your journal, on the one hand, it seems like there’s very low risk because you can choose to keep your publications pseudonymous forever. On the other hand, there seems to be really, really high potential value if one of your articles succeeds and then you can remove your pseudonym. Is it really as low risk, high reward as I’m saying? Are you worried about a potential lack of checks and balances?

One thing is that most people won’t really send a series of papers to this journal because in academia, you really need to be able to prove your authorship. So, your value as an academic depends a lot on the number of papers you publish every year. It’s very unlikely that someone would want to invest a lot of time publishing papers that they might never be able to put on their CV as publications, so I think automatically the journal will select papers that people really want to put out there because they think it’s a really important idea, and knowing that they might never claim the authorship, will invest most of their time in writing papers that they can have a benefit immediately from writing them. We have very limited time, very limited energy, and it seems like most of us – especially people who don’t have a permanent job – really want to be able to claim the authorship of as many papers as possible. It’s not likely that somebody would build their career on this sort of reward that could come five years later or ten years later. So, I think that, automatically, this kind of risk is not very high because of the pressure to publish a lot that we have in academia.

I’ll wrap up on this last question: Obviously there’s so much controversy about this journal online. Is there anything that you wish people were asking you about the journal, or anything you want to say that you haven’t had the chance to say?

At this point, I’ve done quite a few interviews, so I think I’ve said most everything. But, the journal is not really motivated by a desire to make money as it was suggested. This journal will be open access. We’re not really making any money out of it. This is just our free time that we are spending on this project because we really believe it’s something important due to the instrumental value of academic freedom. So, this is not something aimed at making us richer or anything like that. It is really motivated by genuine interest in giving a platform to interesting ideas because of the dangers that are involved in not giving a platform to these ideas. We are not trying to promote controversial ideas per se, but I really want to stress that this is about promoting ideas that accidentally happen to be controversial at this time and in certain geographic areas, so I really hope that people will have a more charitable, or open, perspective on this journal without thinking that we have some obscure goal. This is the only thing I would really like to stress.