This interview was conducted in August 2021 and has been edited for brevity and clarity.
About Francesca Minerva
Francesca Minerva is an Italian philosopher and research fellow at the University of Milan. During the past decade, she has worked as a post-doc at the University of Melbourne, the University of Ghent and at Warwick University. She is, together with Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan, the co-founder and co-editor of the Journal of Controversial Ideas. Her research is focused on applied ethics, for example lookism, abortion, cryonics and academic freedom. Minerva is the author of The Ethics of Cryonics: Is it Immoral to be Immortal? (2018).
What is the Journal of Controversial Ideas and what makes it different from other journals?
– I started thinking about this in 2012, when I was involved in some controversy. I had published a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics on after-birth abortion, also called infanticide. The paper argued in favor of infanticide. with the argument that there is no difference between a late stage fetus and an early stage newborn in terms of moral status because they have the same capacities. This view has been discussed by other philosophers for a long time. We just added the conclusion that if the moral status is the same, then infanticide should be permitted in all cases where late term abortion is permissible. We received a lot of angry reactions and even death threats after the publication. The common reaction to controversial ideas at that time was that other academics would respond and comment on the paper, but this was the first time I saw the general public getting involved in the conversation.
– However, I keep saying that we were lucky, because it is much worse nowadays. If you would get into this kind of controversy today, you would have other academics signing petitions to get you fired and expelled. Back then we had some academics disinviting us, and we had a very hard time finding a job because of that paper. But the academic reaction was not even close to how bad it is now. After these experiences, I started talking more seriously about it with Peter Singer and then we asked Jeff McMahan if he wanted to be involved. We got going with the plans, setting up an editorial board, finding a publisher and so on, which took quite some time. The first issue, with ten articles, was published in April 2020 and it is accessible for free online.
“It has become more common to attack the author rather than the argument in a paper”
– What makes the Journal of Controversial Ideas different are two things. First, as the title suggests, it is the first and still only journal with the goal of only publishing controversial ideas. The second thing is that we accept publications with pseudonyms, meaning that we allow authors to submit the paper anonymously. In some cases, we as editors don’t even know who the author is. Not all choose to do that, but some do. Nowadays, people are getting in a lot of trouble for publishing controversial ideas in normal academic journals, which has led to journals being much more careful with what they publish. We realized that due to this, we are missing a lot of potentially valuable knowledge that is not published because authors and editors are scared. We think that these ideas should at least be discussed, even if they are controversial.
– It has become more common to attack the author rather than the argument in a paper, so we thought that if the name of the author was not known, people would have no choice but to focus on the argument. If you disagree with someone, instead of signing a petition to get the person fired, you should write a paper to explain why you disagree and why you think they’re wrong. Of course, we don’t agree with all the ideas expressed in this journal, or even any of them. But the point is that we want these ideas to come out so that people can discuss them. It is crucial that people really understand the difference between having an idea, supporting an idea, writing a paper and publishing a paper. The fun of doing academic work is to discuss ideas, receive feedback and develop better ideas. Unfortunately, I think this is lost.
How do you define controversial and how controversial does a paper have to be?
– Controversial is obviously a concept that changes a lot depending on culture and time. We are hoping to receive a lot of papers from people living outside of Western culture to create a map of controversies. There are things that might be controversial in China, Afghanistan or in South America that are not controversial at all in Western culture and vice versa. We also ask the reviewers to tell us if they think the paper is controversial or not. We can’t use only one parameter to decide the level of controversy, but instead take into account where the author is from, what the background is and put it into context. Some examples of topics from our first issue are physical punishment, the meaning of life, black face, transgender issues, animal rights and genetic differences.
You said that you have a limit in that you don’t want to publish anything dangerous. Wouldn’t your critics claim that some controversial ideas can be dangerous?
– Well, I should say dangerous in the sense that somebody could use it to cause harm, to hurt or even kill someone else. It is extreme what some people are nowadays calling dangerous and harmful. An idea you disagree with is not going to harm you in the same way a biological weapon would harm you. We need to be exposed to ideas that we don’t like and that we disagree with. Otherwise there is no progress! If it’s only the same ideas circulating and there is no opposition, we stop progressing.
“So the fact that left-wing people think that we are some sort of fascists is so strange to me. I think the political left has developed some weird ideas and attitudes that were not there five years ago.”
– If people think that being exposed to somebody who disagrees with them is too much to take, then maybe they should really reconsider if working in academia is really for them. I’m not saying it’s pleasant to be exposed to people who disagree with you. It’s always a bit difficult to be confronted, but that’s how you grow and you get your ideas stronger. If you look at the history of ideas and all the progress we have made as a society, it was always by having people disagreeing with each other and discussing. That’s how we make progress; there is no other way that we know of. We need to rely on that process no matter how painful it might be to some people.
Do you believe that some ideas are more valuable because of the fact that they are controversial? Is there an inherent value in the controversy of an idea?
– No, I don’t think they’re more valuable because they are controversial. But I also don’t think they are less valuable. I think an idea should be evaluated according to its internal strength and its arguments, how correct it is and how it resists counter arguments. There is nothing inherently valuable about being controversial, but the opposite is not true either. We shouldn’t disregard something just because it’s controversial and not discuss it. Just look back in history, if Galileo had just given up when people disagreed with him, he wouldn’t have discovered what he did. Ideas shouldn’t be discarded because they are controversial, but only because they are bad ideas that cannot sustain opposition. If that’s not the case, we should discuss them.
What have the reactions been since the announcement of this new journal?
– There was a lot of attention before we even published the first issue. There were many different expectations. Some expected it to be a fascist journal and they had all these ideas about what was going to be published in it. They were probably a bit disappointed when we published the first issue. I think we published some very good papers and they speak for themselves. It is also funny that Peter, Jeff and I are all left-wing and we always have been. So the fact that left-wing people think that we are some sort of fascists is so strange to me. I think the political left has developed some weird ideas and attitudes that were not there five years ago. But I wouldn’t consider myself less left-wing because other left-wing people have picked up these questionable ideas.
– The phenomenon of cancel culture is quite wide-spread now. It started in the universities and most people thought it was not going to reach the whole society. But it did, and it spreads quickly. Now you see people get offended by all sorts of things that they shouldn’t really be offended by. If you said you like peaches, you can be sure that someone will find it terrible that you do not like apricots. That is the level of the conversation people have. Whenever we express a preference for something, people directly conclude that you’re expressing a dislike of something else.
– The reaction to something stupid being said is no longer “he said a stupid thing, whatever.” Now it’s “he said a stupid thing, let’s destroy him, his life and the life of his family.” I feel sorry for young people today, because we all did stupid things when we were 15-20 years old. But there were no smartphones or internet back then, so we got away with it. But being a kid right now must be terrifying, because nothing will ever be forgotten or forgiven. We really need to get out of this culture in which people are trying ruin other people’s lives, because they think they’re on a mission to make the world better.
Do you think there should be legal limits to free speech?
– I think that if somebody says something that put someone in danger, meaning being physically injured or killed, then yes, obviously there is a limit there. But there shouldn’t be any limit to express for example how much you dislike someone. If somebody wants to write on Twitter that Francesca is a terrible, disgusting and horrible person, I think they should be free to do that. I don’t want anybody not to feel free to insult me publicly. I’ve had a lot of those insults recently and even if I don’t like it, it’s fine. It’s their their rights.
To have papers published is usually one of the most important parts of a researcher’s career. What is the incentive for them to publish anonymously, when they don’t get any credit for the work?
– That’s a good question. Most people actually use their real name when they publish. I think it was only three out of ten who used a pseudonym in the first issue. We also offer the opportunity to claim the authorship at a later time. It could for example be that the author doesn’t have a permanent job right now and cannot afford to be involved in any controversy, but in five years the situation might be different. We then have a system to identify the author at that point, even if we don’t know who they are. But you are right, in the immediate it doesn’t help their career if they publish anonymously. But I think a lot of people are feeling just as frustrated as we do, by the lack of free speech and of academic freedom. This is a way for them to contribute to the debate and show that there is something to say. Maybe both academia and in the end themselves will benefit from it in the future.
You have decided to make your journal open-access. There are also others who voice the case for knowledge to be free. They raise awareness around the issue that those who fund the research, like universities and the state, have to pay the journals to read the results of the research. What are your thoughts on this question, both as a researcher and a journal founder?
– To us, open-access was a priority for these reasons as well. We believe knowledge should be free for everyone. People pay taxes to pay researchers’ salaries, so they should also have access to what we write. There is of course a lot of work for us and we have costs to cover, for example the publishing platform we use and out-sourcing the proof-reading. However, I believe we are doing this at lower costs than other standard journals. They might look nicer and fancier, with more complex systems and more people getting paid, but we believe the content is what’s most important. We rely on small donations via our website and hopefully we’ll keep receiving donations, because that’s how we pay these bills that we need to pay in order to keep the journal open-access.
What book would you like to recommend?
– A book I really like on this topic is Academic Freedom by Conrad Russell, who was the son of Bertrand Russel. He was a great historian and the book is a good introduction to the topic.
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