As Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives in the US, there is much ado about whether he should be allowed to visit "Ground Zero" (Julian Ku over at Opinio Juris has an excellent post about whether Ahmadinejad can be legally barred from visiting) and whether he should be invited to speak at Columbia University. It's the latter question that I want to address.
I'm not a fan of banning political discourse, no matter how distasteful it may be. I was, for example, opposed to the political outcry that emerged over Iran's Holocaust-denying cartoon contest and I disagree with European bans on Holocaust denial. There is no better antidote to conspiracy-theories and close-mindedness than the light of debate, and preventing such debate merely feeds the belief that the claims are being suppressed by the political establishment. So, I don't really have any problem with Ahmadinejad speaking in public, even in the US.
But I do have a problem with him speaking at Columbia. Well, not Columbia in particular, but at a university. It is true that universities are bastions of free speech and intellectual openness is essential to the existence of universities and to the project of education in general. But universities are also devoted to intellectual honesty and truth. Yes, truth.
Truth is not determined by the content of an argument, but rather by the structure and form of an argument. As I blogged about a few days ago, methodology is critical. The reason Holocaust denial, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, and their ilk are so dangerous is not that they spout idiocy, but rather that they lack any scientific method, so rebutting the argument becomes proof of their point. This is not scientific, it is not academic, it is not intellectual. It is opinion and nothing more.
Of course, there is a place for opinion, even on a university's campus. Student groups, lecture series, and other such fora exist to allow people to speak their minds. But a university should not recognize, invite, and honor people who deny the truth, be they Holocaust-deniers, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, anti-Copernicans, or anyone else who simply spouts opinion that flies in the face of fact. A university must be willing to defend moder Galileos, who rely on science and method in the face of dogmatic opinion. And the university must be willing to denounce that very same dogmatic opinion.
Ahmadinejad should not be allowed to speak at Columbia. Not because his regime might be involved in the deaths of US soldiers in Iraq and not because he rejects the right of Israel to exist. Rather, he should not be invited to speak at Columbia because he stands in defiance of the very principle of academic openness and honesty.