The Professors and <I>Bush v. Gore</I>

The Professors and Bush v. Gore

Peter Berkowitz & Benjamin Wittes

How the academic legal establishment failed to live up to its public responsibilities in the 2000 election.

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You cannot raise the standard against oppression, or leap into the breach to relieve injustice, and still keep an open mind to every disconcerting fact, or an open ear to the cold voice of doubt," warned the great American jurist Learned Hand (1872-1961). "I am satisfied that a scholar who tries to combine these parts sells his birthright for a mess of pottage; that, when the final count is made, it will be found that the impairment of his powers far outweighs any possible contribution to the causes he has espoused."

One need not share Learned Hand's drastic view to appreciate that political engagement by scholars runs the risk of betraying intellectual integrity. Scholars have a vital role in democratic debate, but to perform it properly they must exercise a certain restraint. Americans today confront a range of complex public-affairs issues--from the economic consequences of law and government policies to the practical effects and moral implications of cloning and stem cell research--that can be understood only with the help of expert knowledge. In trying to come to reasoned and responsible judgments about such matters, citizens depend upon scholars to marshal relevant facts and figures, to identify the more and less likely consequences of law and public policy, and to clarify the moral principles at stake. But deference to expert knowledge depends in part on public confidence that scholars will honor their obligation to separate the pursuit of truth from political advocacy and personal advantage. When scientists wade into the public debate over stem cell research, for example, we expect, above all, that they will give a fair and accurate account of the facts. This is not to say that scholars cannot express opinions. It means rather that their first obligation is to speak the truth. Scholars are paid to not rush to judgment. If one scholar violates this obligation, the authority of the rest is compromised, and the public is invited to view all scholars as no different from the seasoned spinners and polished operators and purveyors of the party line who crowd our public life.

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