Words Matter: Academia, Terrorism and National Security

February 21, 2010     
3 people like this post.

Does academic literature have an effect on national security and the lives of individuals? Should academics consider the possible impact that their writings may have if they are writing on matters of terrorism, intelligence or national security?

The answer is yes. Words matter. Recent proceedings in Federal Court have drawn attention to this issue.

Academic literature, especially that from peer reviewed journals or from well known university professors, is assumed to be honest, well researched and reliable. If personal biases or institutional positions are involved, then the lack of impartiality should be readily identifiable at the outset of the article or book. It is also believed that academic articles should contain the relevant information that both supports and takes away from the argument of the academic writing the paper. This must be done in order to provide insight and balance into the arguments at stake. These are important assumptions, because academic work frequently finds itself quoted in fields of inquiry where words matter and have consequences.

An intersection exists between the academic world and the worlds of justice, law and intelligence. It can occur in many different areas such as criminal trials, civil trials in Federal Court, Commissions of Inquiry, government hearings at the House and Senate level, intelligence reports and in the press.

Governments must maintain high standards of information during public proceedings such as criminal and civil trials or in formal hearings. The integrity of the justice system is at stake as well as the general credibility of the government. Frequently, governments depend on the written works of academics to provide basic information or to add credibility to their arguments or positions.

This acceptance by the government – and by extension the public – puts a large amount of faith and trust in academia.

The impact of the academic information presented can be significant. In the Federal Court of Canada, where various cases related to terrorism and national security are heard, individuals can be deported or spend years in jail awaiting proceedings. Millions of dollars are spent on court costs. The reputation of the government and its justice and intelligence agencies as credible institutions are continuously under scrutiny. Time and energy may also be spent on cases which have misleading information when this effort could have been spent on other cases where actual threats exist.

The fields of terrorism and national security studies are often viewed with suspicion. Primary source information can be difficult to obtain, secrecy is an obsession in some governments, and ideological factors can cloud judgements. The sudden explosion of interest in terrorism studies after 9/11 has also caused a sudden influx of those studying or examining the issues. As well, terrorism studies have no disciplinary home. Among others, the field of enquiry into terrorism can include politics, history, international relations, military studies, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, economics, anthropology, religion and the hard sciences.

Due to the inherent problems in the field of study, academics need to be especially cautious in this area of study. If anything, academics and journals publishing in the field of terrorism and national security should be subjecting their articles to a more stringent level of review than many other fields.

A series of academic weaknesses, however, have been recently exposed as a result of hearings in the Federal Court of Canada concerning National Security Certificate cases. The examples involved information presented by the Government of Canada which has been derived from peer reviewed journal articles and books by academics. Other concerns have been raised about articles written by academics quoted from “thinks tanks” which maintain online websites and e-journals.

A pattern appears to be emerging as to the nature of the information provided which is of less-than-academic quality. The emerging patterns are:

1. A disconnect between the statement in the body of the article and the sources in the footnotes which do not back up the statement being made,
2. Strong statements which are made, but which are built on weak foundations or on assumptions which cannot be shown to be valid,
3. Information from two different situations is overlapped or mixed together, leaving the reader with a false impression about the nature of a particular problem or situation,
4. In a limited number of cases, information provided in articles is simply false.

No particular locus for these problems has emerged. The problems can come from lesser known universities or from “Ivy League” institutions. Those involved can be relatively junior or senior and they can be also be “star academics” or relative unknowns. Geography appears to play no role as the examples come from many different regions and countries.

The position of academics in today’s society may be somewhat diminished, but many are still granted authority and influence in the world of justice, law and intelligence. In order to sustain this position in the face of various pressures, academics must be able to show that they are worthy of the trust placed in them and in their institutions as a whole. Standards, as they say, must be maintained in order to preserve the credibility of the pursuit of knowledge. Unfortunately, individual weaknesses in some publications appear to be compounded by a lack of institutional oversight. While it is not clear that the problems are systemic, more discussion needs to occur on the issues of rigorous methods, honesty and good craft.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.

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8 Responses to “Words Matter: Academia, Terrorism and National Security”

  1. Sunny Peter on February 22nd, 2010 9:02 am

    Hi Tom,

    What about public opinion. Do you really feel that academic research and literature actually impacts public opinion when it comes to global affairs.

    Kind regards


  2. Tom Quiggin on March 6th, 2010 11:34 am


    I would say that academics do have an impact on public opinion - and in the courts. Academics are often called upon to be “talking heads” for media interviews. As such, they do tend to have some impact. As well, academics do have an effect on students. I can think back over my own experiences with academics as professors and remember both the really good impact some of them had. As well, there were some who may have had some not-so-good inputs.


  3. Tom Quiggin on March 7th, 2010 11:38 am

    Response to Question on Idealism

    (The original comment was accidently deleted and could not be recovered. The commenter is requested to resubmit the comment and it will be added with a further response if necessary.)

    A comment was made as to the question of academic standards and whether a belief in such standards was idealism. Who makes these standards and are they common?

    The answer would appear to be that there is no “common standard” that would be applied to all academics at all times. Nor does there seem to be a common set of standards for peer reviewed journals (as has been seen in the recent climate debate). There are some standards, however, which appear to be common to most debates about academic standards. These are the use of a rigorous methodology, honesty and good trade craft. Previously, there would have been the inclusion of the word “unbiased.” Academic work in the past was assumed to be (ideally) unbiased. Currently, some still expect that if the academic involved has a bias, then this should be identified by some method in the work.

    Unfortunately, much academic work, much like journalistic work, now carries an inherent bias which is not identified. Furthermore, there are both journalists and academics who now argue that you must take a particular position on contentious issues or events. I suppose this can be done, but then the entire profession is degraded and subject to justifiable attacks on its credibility.

    The issues that I have come across the most, however, would fall under the headings of honesty and good craft. I was startled to find that a strong claim would be made in a paper which would be supported by a footnote. When I checked the footnotes, I would then find that the footnote did not really support the claims that were being made. This is questionable in terms of good craft and honestly. Most surprising to me was that there were patterns to this, not just a couple of “one off” examples of such situations.

  4. Grim on March 7th, 2010 8:04 pm


    I believe it was my comment on ‘idealism’ that was lost. However, though my somewhat deficient memory won’t allow me the luxury of accurate reconstruction, you have captured the essence.

    I can’t disgree that ‘honesty and good craft’ are what are required, but I would simply ask again: who has defined what ‘honesty and good craft’ means ? Who enforces these standards, and what penalties are incurred for their breach ?

    Because, as we all know only too well: “self-regulation is no regulation”. (Look up the well-known phenomena of ‘goal drift’ for example).

    As to ‘bias’, well, since we do not have systematic access to all the contents of our minds and memories, how are we as individuals to know whether our ‘bias’ is destructive of ‘honesty and good craft’ or not ? As our immediately previous Prime Minister has conclusively shown, an ‘untruth’ is not a lie unless you know it’s an untruth and yet propagate it as ‘truth’ regardless.

    As a further observation, isn’t it at least a part of the ‘regulatory process’ that the institutions from which academics graduate and receive their certification should not award graduation/certification unless the person concerned has shown his/her clear understanding of, and personal dedication to, ‘honesty and good craft’ ? Or is just passing a few exams and submitting a few papers considered sufficient proof of high ethics ?

    Or is it perhaps that our wannabe academics are taught and examined by people who themselves have no developed idea of ‘honesty and good craft’ and are thus unable to detect its absence in their students ?

  5. Kenneth on March 7th, 2010 8:51 pm

    This effect is compounded because of the redaction process. Since ‘facts’ and sources are normally blacked-out of documents released by governments it ends up that tone and vocabulary become more important. When tone is all we can talk about we give it a kind of credibility by default. This becomes the mood of the field.

  6. D.J. Dillon on March 11th, 2010 10:18 pm

    Hi Tom,

    A small criticism: I think that this critique you’re making about the state of “security scholarship” manages to be both strong and timid at once. Its strong in the sense that you make some pretty damning claims about the integrity of recent scholarship, yet weak in that you do not provide any concrete examples to demonstrate your argument. As you’ve mentioned, peer-review and critiques are fundamental to a knowledge system that is largely based on the adversarial model. Consequently, if you think that some work or academic’s thinking is flawed, the best response is to publicly call them on it. To complain about something in a vague way without any concrete examples doesn’t really advance the cause of knowledge in any way. (By the way, I generally agree with you about the shoddy work of some “security scholars,” but I just want to point out that this might not be evident to most lay-readers.)



  7. Tom Quiggin on March 12th, 2010 5:45 am


    You are quite right on the lack of examples. This short article was written as a reaction to my rather long involvement in two recent court cases. The article was also a “trial balloon” to test reaction. Interestingly, I have received a total of about 16 comments (most of them not on this website) on this article and all of them suggest that the article is correct in its assumptions. I had thought that there would be many negative reactions, but there were none. Based on your comments, and those of many others, I will be writing a much larger article later this year that will highlight the cases in court, the material being used that was derived from academic sources, the impact of that material and who wrote it.


  8. D.J. Dillon on March 12th, 2010 4:07 pm

    Hello again Tom,

    I’m glad you didn’t find my criticism too stinging. In that spirit, I just wish to add one more criticism. I think in some ways you’re asking too much from academics in terms of them being at the public’s disposal. Scholars (particularly those in the realm of social sciences and humanities) like to pride themselves on being independent, free-thinkers whose sole responsibility is to pursue knowledge as they see fit. This independence allows for radical innovation and advancement in knowledge. Sometimes the consequence of this is that scholars do things that are out of step with societal demands/requirements. Indeed, this tradition goes back to Socrates and is unlikely to change anytime soon. This is further compounded by the fact that many scholars in humanities/social sciences (because of recent advances in epistemology) have given up on “objectivity” in favor of “perspective” and “transformation.”

    So, in this sense, I’m wondering if the academics (yes, even the intellectually limited, flaky ones) are truly to blame. Or if it is the fault of the system and its operators for not putting in more stringent safeguards in what it what it deems “expert opinion.” From my limited experiences with the justice system and the intelligence world, I’m often astounded by what judges and decision-makers accept in terms of expertise.

    In sum, it might be pointless going after the academics. Rather, the appropriate targets (and the most amendable to change) would be the mechanisms and processes (not to say decision makers) that decide to accept sloppy intellectual banter as truth in the first place.

    Just my two cents.


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