Only in a Society of Litigious Mania: A review of James R. Flynn, A Book Too Risky to Publish: Free Speech and Universities

September 2021

A review of James R. Flynn (2020), A Book Too Risky to Publish: Free Speech and Universities. Academica Press, 280 pages.

A note about the author: I just found out that James Flynn had died in December, 2020. He is famous for the “Flynn effect,” his research showing that IQ scores had risen steadily throughout the 20th Century (although data show that the effect may have diminished or even reversed recently). Flynn’s youth as a US left-liberal activist (which led to self-exile in New Zealand) is visible in his referring to former violent radicals of the Vietnam years, and their supporters, without reminding readers of their history, his failure to acknowledge the realistic grounds for American fears and suspicions of the USSR during the Cold War, and a few swipes at present-day conservatives. In comparison with today’s radicals, his defense of freedom of thought and expression is striking and admirable.

The title, A Book Too Risky to Publish, is based on the rationale of an unidentified British publishing house for choosing not to publish the book. The letter of rejection is reproduced in the Preface; the rejected text is the text of this book, with a slightly revised title. The publishers claimed to be afraid of lawsuits, alleging that the book is “likely” to stir up racial or religious hatred, and that individuals identified by name and institution might object to the description of their participation in controversial events. Flynn does name names, and universities, but it seems that the references are based on publicly available facts. The publisher’s fears, in my opinion, would be realistic only in a society characterized by hypersensitivity, paranoia, self-righteousness, and litigious mania. But then, that’s the one we live in.

Flynn begins with a review of the historical concept of individual freedoms, focused on John Stuart Mill, and then quotes arguments against the freedom of speech and thought, summarizing critical theorists who propose that giving all views a platform is oppressive to some demographically-defined groups. The insistence that disagreement, no matter how polite and reasoned, equals violence and dehumanization is taken as axiomatic and to criticize it is itself evidence of racism, sexism, and other evil isms. Some areas of research, such as the investigation of racial differences, become taboo.

Flynn’s detailed examination of arguments related to demographic differences in IQ is an excellent counterexample. He provides a detailed and fair review of the gene-environment debate, explaining both his own primarily environmental hypothesis and the more genetically-oriented views with which he disagrees.

Flynn then discusses a long list of violations of academic freedom at universities in the Western tradition. He recounts the right-wing pursuit of radicals, and then the reversal of those roles since the Vietnam War era. Many of the recent cases are well-known, but the list can inform the reader as to the many less publicized episodes of outrageous mistreatment of both faculty members and students, as well as to the guilt of many of our historically most respected institutions and their administrators. The establishment of speech codes, with kangaroo courts to enforce them, the erasure of history, the weak-kneed failure to exact penalties on disruptive or rioting students and staff, all contribute to the degradation of academic life. The University of Chicago is rightly identified as the most visible and principled of the universities that have not gone down the road of punishing “wrong” thoughts and expressions.

In the second half of the book, an intriguing subtitle, “What academics do to themselves,” introduces a critical look at the supposedly academic but highly politicized departments and institutes such as Women’s and Black Studies, followed by a discipline-by-discipline assessment of codes of acceptable and repressed values, ideas, methods, and findings in the social sciences, journals and university presses. Among the humanities, only philosophy is included. The inroads of “woke”ism into the STEM disciplines, which are potentially ruinous, are not mentioned at all, probably being too recent for analysis.

Under “What academics do to students,” there is an obviously heart-felt (and devastating) critique of teacher education and of public education in the US. Last come considerations of what universities should do to advance toward producing graduates who are multifaceted, literate in science (including scientific method and philosophy), mathematics, humanities, and social sciences, able to detect logical fallacies, open-minded, and autonomous.

The technical aspects of the book lack the attention of a careful proofreader. Typos and errors of spelling abound, the most frequent and confusing being the use of a long dash when a short hyphen is appropriate. This is disconcerting because the reader expects an independent clause — a digression, parenthetical comment, or clarification, as here — but only a joined word is being indicated.

More importantly, among the notable strengths of the book are Flynn’s efforts to go beyond criticism and offer suggestions as to how the flaws he discusses might be remedied. There are many such suggestions, varying in specificity and feasibility; but they can all stimulate ideas that could improve on them, and lead to beneficial changes in many aspects of academic life and accomplishment.