About 70 university professors from all over Germany founded the Scientific Freedom Network at the beginning of February – because they see freedom of research and education as being threatened by ideological motives. Christian Ellis was also attacked when he invited a guest speaking who disliked some of his theses.
BSZ Professor Ellis, You see the network you co-founded Freedom of science is under threat.Is that In a democracy like Germany Nothing overrated?
Christian Ellis It is essential for any science to develop freely and seek truth without prohibiting thinking or asking questions. This is often suppressed in dictatorships, but also in democracies there are frequent attempts to employ science or to direct it politically. Sometimes this is stronger, sometimes it is weaker. It is currently increasing significantly in Germany.
BSZ How does that happen?
Illies For example, through student activities that prevent events, through anticipation of what and what not to be searched for, which is reflected, for example, through targeted allocation or non-allocation of research funds to politically desired topics. It appears when you no longer invite or even empty private speakers for lectures. At the University of Hamburg, for example, Christian Lindner, the head of the FDP, who had been invited by the liberal university group, was barred from appearing, while SPD vice-president Kevin Konert or Sahara Wagenkecht, the parliamentary leader of the Left Party at the time, was barred. It was allowed to appear.
BSZ For what justification?
Illies It was said by the university administration that Mr. Lindner would express himself politically – and the university should not provide a platform for that – while a scholarly lecture was with Mrs. Wagenknecht and Mr. Konert in the first place. But this is not convincing, of course, both Mrs. Wagenknecht and Mr. Konert made political statements. But they enjoy more approval for their opinions and theses in the academic environment.
BSZ And who wanted to prevent Lindner from appearing?
Illies It was the university administration that prevented the show. Science Senator Katharina Fjbank (Greens) supported him. But this is just a particularly clear case of overlap. Usually this is not an outright ban, but a softer method of pressure like social sanctions. Just one example: I personally called the former judge of the Federal Constitutional Court, Paul Kirchhoff, some time ago. He made a very smart call that parents of minor children get extra votes for them in the election. You can, of course, argue about the content. Then, instead of arguments, I received only the general blame that you shouldn’t invite someone like Kirchhoff with their views on the family at all. And there were many warnings from anxious colleagues that I should be more careful with my prayers in the future.
BSZ Meet owlIt is the guest speakers only Out of politics Or professors too?
Illies Professors too. Paul Kirchhoff is a university professor. Or do you think of the University of Frankfurt am Main, where Islamic scholar Susan Schröter organized a conference on the question of whether the hijab is a sign of persecution of Muslim women. On the other hand, she was subjected to massive protest and pressure from students – on the grounds that she had not invited enough supporters of the veil and that the question was indeed showing a racist stance. However, it was not a matter of Mrs. Schrötter’s position on the topic at all, rather it should not be talked about by scholars at all. Fortunately, the university administration took its place behind Ms. Schröter, so that the conference could be held with police protection.
BSZ Could the wrong guest or the wrong lecture topic cost a world?
Illies Professor civil servant is definitely not the job. But now there is a hidden atmosphere of intimidation in universities. The Allensbach Institute for Opinion Research determined that about a third of the more than 1,000 scientists surveyed consider the climate of opinion intolerant and feel increasingly restricted. As a result, young colleagues in particular think very carefully about what they do and with whom they work so that they are not politically offensive and not endanger their careers. However, this persisted for a long time. During my time as an assistant, a bona fide colleague advised me to leave certain publications on applications as this may reduce my chances of obtaining a professorship.
BSZ What was that about?
Illies At the time I was looking for questions about the philosophy of religion, such as the question of whether it was possible to think of uniting suffering in the world with a good God. I once went through a similar situation in morals, where, for example, the requirements for the protection of already strong embryos are a situation that greatly reduces the possibilities of appointment.
BSZ What are young scientists afraid of?
Illies Science lives on from criticism and from the fact that we take dissenting opinions and take them seriously. But nowadays, in public life and at university, the separation between person and opinion is becoming less and less clear. Just as we experiment in politics that rejects attitudes about content that also discredits or discredits the people they represent, so this now also happens in scholarly discourses. They are becoming more and more polar, there are only good and bad situations. This makes them more aggressive and is related to the rejection of the researcher who has a different point of view. Young scientists see this and fear that they will not find a job with dissenting opinions or research questions.
BSZ exist In universities a Culture abolition?
Illies Yes sure. Some researchers are no longer invited or ostracized because of their topics and positions. At the Helmut Schmidt University of the German Armed Forces, there should be a lecture by the American scientist Murray Salby in 2018, who does not consider human participation in the increase of carbon dioxide crucial. It had to be abolished because this position was considered unacceptable. Now I also believe in the man-made increase in carbon dioxide; It seems to me that the evidence is indisputable. But it is unscientific if he can no longer be criticized at all, if a position like Salby can no longer be represented in universities.
BSZ when Started This developmentYou complain?
Illies Evident manifestations have become evident over the past decade – especially initially in the United States. Hans-Ulrich Gombrecht does speak of a “regime of opinion terror”. But for a few years now in Germany, too. At this severity, it’s a very recent phenomenon for us – it’s been for two or three years. I read that Murray Salpay was still able to give a lecture at Bondswear University in 2013, but not back in 2018. The culture of cancellation in the form of turbulent college lectures is only the visible part. Even more dangerous is the creeping uncertainty and creeping conformity of scholars who adapt to this mood and zeitgeist into preconceived obedience and, for example, no longer invite controversial people in order not to get into trouble. Or he no longer dares to think in an unconventional way against the current in science.
BSZ I have come from the previous-DDR: Do I feel paranoid if I remember what I said?
Illies Since I’ve never lived in the German Democratic Republic, I can’t really judge that. But it is interesting that my colleagues from East Germany in particular are reacting sensitively here because they are aware of opinion-restraining mechanisms. However: in the GDR there was a clear control of opinion through bans and explicit restrictions on freedom. We are still far from that.
BSZ let’s move we Towards her?
Illies I do not wish. But at least there are statistics that show the value assigned to freedom is decreasing with us. Safety and comfort in life is becoming more and more important to people as well in the academic world. This scares me because it probably means that there are fewer advocates for freedom when it is threatened.
BSZ Who steckt Behind the culture of abolition?
Illies There are clearly political groups that are totally open to this culture of abolition – especially, if not only, on the left spectrum. There is an explicit welcome that universities are increasingly influencing science in a political way. But the influences also come from other parties who want to assert their interests in this way. And if you think that science is not about truth and knowledge anyway, but rather about the power of interpretation, then it makes sense to play it yourself as a power game.
BSZ What do you hope for from it new was establishedEn network?
Illies It is important to talk about this creeping problem. Many university professors and staff as well as students recognize it as such. There are marked restrictions on freedom of expression at universities, Allensbach’s studies show. But all too often in a spiral of silence it is not talked about. We need to show this limitation in public and break the silence. So I hope the network will stimulate critical self-reflection in universities. It must also be clear to the public what science means, what it needs in order to develop it – and what politics must do to preserve this space of free development and reject attempts to exert influence from outside and within. Because if science loses its freedom, we lose knowledge.
(Interview: Andre Ball)
Text Image (BSZ): Christian Elise (57) has been a professor at the University of Bamberg since 2008.