We’re all familiar with this classic humorous example of a false syllogism:
- Something must be done.
- X is something.
- X must be done.
The logical error underlying this syllogism is obvious: since something can refer to just about anything, the fact that something must be done doesn’t mean that any particular something is, in fact, a specific thing that must be done.
Over the years, I’ve been interested to notice that this exact faulty syllogism underlies the advocacy for myriad current initiatives around open access and open science. (For simplicity, I’ll refer to any example of such initiatives generically as Project X.) In my roles as a collection-development officer and administrator at various academic libraries over the past 25 years, I’ve been approached regularly by advocates for one Project X or another, and the logic they present when arguing that my institution needs to get on board generally follows this structure:
- Your library wants (or should want) to promote the public good.
- Project X promotes the public good.
- You should provide material support to Project X.
Why Don’t We Get on Board?
While the libraries I’ve worked for have sometimes provided support to these initiatives, sometimes we haven’t. And I’ve found that when we decline to provide material support for Project X, the response from Project X’s advocates usually arises from one (or both) of the following two assumptions:
Assumption 1: You Obviously Don’t Care about the Public Good
This critique of non-participation is baked into the syllogistic argument outlined above, which assumes that if the library in question really were interested in promoting the public good, it would naturally support Project X, because Project X promotes the public good.
There are two problems with this assumption, though. The first is that it should be obvious to anyone that the number of projects promoting the public good vastly outstrips the resources of any individual institution, which inevitably means that every institution is constantly engaged in the difficult process of trying to decide which of those projects will receive the institution’s material support and which ones won’t. Since resources are limited, the decision to support any one of them entails, unavoidably, a decision not to support another – probably equally worthy – project. (And unfortunately, decrying “scarcity mindsets” and “zero-sum thinking” won’t change the stubborn reality of resource limitations.) Furthermore, the decision to provide material support to an external project that supports the public good will inevitably mean redirecting local resources away from internal projects that not only support local priorities, but may also advance the public good in other ways. This means that rather than reflecting a lack of will to support the public good, it’s entirely likely that the organization’s decision not to provide material support to Project X actually reflects its desire to advance the public good by supporting different initiatives.
The second problem is that beyond the institutional challenge of having too many worthy projects to support and too few resources to support all of them, it’s also true that not all projects are equally worthy. Sometimes when an institution says “no” it means “we think this project is great, but we’re already supporting all the great projects we can” – but sometimes it means “we don’t agree that your project is worthy of our material support.” In this case, the institution’s response is rooted not in a lack of interest in promoting the public good, but in principled disagreement as to what initiatives or programs will best promote it. And this is the institutional response that often elicits a reaction based on a second assumption:
Assumption 2: You Clearly Don’t Fully Understand Project X
Sometimes, when an institution declines to support Project X, the project’s advocates will assume (and sometimes actively assert) that the institution’s lack of support for it must reflect a lack of understanding of Project X – because surely, if the project were truly understood, material support would be forthcoming. In this case, the answer “no” is typically met with an offer to provide additional education or training, or a request to meet with someone higher up in the organizational hierarchy.
The problem with this assumption should be obvious: fully-informed, reasonable people of good will may disagree on the worthiness of any project. Those who deem the project unsuitable might agree with its goals, but feel that the project, as constituted, is poorly suited to achieving those goals. Or they might agree with the goals in principle, but not feel that they’re important enough to justify the resources being requested. Or they might even fundamentally disagree with its goals. Any of these positions could, theoretically, arise from a lack of understanding of the project – but it shouldn’t be assumed that they necessarily come from a lack of understanding. They may reflect a perfectly adequate understanding, coupled with genuine, principled disagreement. (In rare cases – hear me out, now – they could even reflect understanding that is superior to that of the project’s advocates.)
Why These Reactions Are Counterproductive
Advocates for Project X need to understand that responding along either of these lines – You don’t care about the public good or You don’t understand the project – is almost always going to be counterproductive and will undermine their advocacy efforts. This is true for at least three reasons, each of which represents what I’ll characterize as a Reality Problem, a Politics Problem, or both:
First, these reactions are irrational. This is a Reality Problem: both of these reactions proceed from premises that are likely to be false and that lead to invalid or at least unreliable conclusions.
Second, these reactions are condescending. This is a Politics Problem. No matter how right you may be in fact, if you convey to your potential supporter the message that you see them as either morally deficient or fundamentally uninformed, you undermine the effort to enlist them in your cause.
Third, these reactions are ignorant. This is both a Reality Problem and a Politics Problem – a failure to grasp the real fact that no matter how publicly-minded an institution may be, the demands of public welfare will always outstrip its resources and will therefore force difficult choices between various public-minded priorities, and/or the fact that lack of support does not necessarily reflect a lack of understanding.
All of this leaves unexamined a deeper question for any academic library: that of alignment with its host institution. When the library is funded by (and in fact operates as an organ of) a larger academic institution, it seems reasonable for its funding body to have some say in how the library’s money is spent – which suggests that when the library is considering allocating the institution’s resources to the support of a project designed not to further institutional mission directly, but rather to achieve a social or political or economic goal outside of the institution, the library would be wise to ensure that the goal in question is shared by the institution.
But that’s probably a topic for another post.