Academics and Open Letters

In his useful post on the Federalist Society, Josh Blackman notes

My general policy is to not sign any statement I do not write–that applies to letters and briefs. When you put your name on something that someone else wrote, you have limited input. You can’t request changes. There may be things you agree with, things you disagree with, and other things about which you are not certain. But putting your signature on a document requires you to accept everything, in toto.

My views on this have evolved a bit over time, but I find myself closer to Josh’s position than I once was.

As a citizen, I represent myself and my one little vote and voice in the American democracy. In collective actions, whether marching in the street, attending a rally, or signing a petition, my contribution as a citizen is to add numbers to a political effort in which numbers matter. If I sign a petition saying the Firefly should not have been cancelled, all I have to contribute is a number.

As an academic, my contribution is different. If I am asked to sign something that emphasizes my institutional affiliation or professional title, presumably the reason is because my expertise is supposed to matter in that context. But if what I’m offering is expertise, then the only thing I have to offer is my own considered opinion based on my own research and expertise. I’m not just backing a sentiment or contributing to numbers. I’m offering a reasoned argument and a conclusion based on reasoned argument.

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