Periodically, professors drop their commitment to objective truth to pursue political agendas. When this occurs, they become prisoners of their own ideologies. In a publication by Professors Ole Wæver and Barry Buzan, the authors reveal that some scholars within critical studies deliberately mislead readers by utilizing deepfake methodology.

Wæver and Buzan refer to this deceptive practice as a technique employed to produce meaning disconnected from an author’s intent or original texts. They refer to the following example: Some critical theorists deliberately sidestepped relevant evidence, used quotations out of context, and forwarded fallacious arguments to bolster their claim that Western social science is racist. The authors warn that the debasing of academic values will steer any discipline of study into a “post-truth direction antithetical to its epistemological integrity and social purpose.” According to the authors, those who subscribe to such shoddy practices are guilty of “serious academic misconduct.”

Scholars who engage in deepfake methodology may believe that academic freedom gives them the right to champion a noble cause at all costs, even at the expense of ethics and convention. They could not be more wrong.

This raises the question: Is academic freedom absolute? In a word, no. As author John Semley notes in The Walrus, professors cannot hide behind “some reductive notion of freedom as an unchecked intellectual id.” Put simply, scholars cannot disregard verifiable proof in favor of their own personal biases. Semley maintains that academic arguments are “subject to strict standards of inquiry.” Although not exhaustive, these include credible theoretical analyses, calculations of usefulness, and accepted authorities. Thus, academic freedom begins with an individual responsibility to respect these standards.

The second component of academic freedom involves social responsibility. Shannon Dea, Dean of Arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina, reminds us that those who are entitled to academic freedom also have “corresponding duties.” Besides exploring their own individual interests, professors must also “pursue the truth and advance knowledge for the good of society.” Research has the potential to shape culture, as well as to frame public policy and law, so the onus is on the professor to get it right. Perfectionism, in the sense of expanding truth, knowledge, and understanding to the fullest degree possible, is the burden professors must bear. Dea insists it is “the price of academic freedom.”

That said, educators act unprofessionally whenever they disseminate discredited theories and then hide behind academic freedom as a shield to protect themselves from consequences. Holocaust denial is the most extreme example, but others exist that are, in fact, prejudicial in nature. Linking intelligence to race is irresponsible. Advocating for conversion therapy of homosexuals qualifies as gross incompetence. And blaming all of society’s ills on one identifiable group—Muslims or Jews, blacks or whites, men or women—is an exercise in ideological, not critical, thinking.

Academic freedom always balances independence with obligation. Certainly, faculty can explore various avenues of research and discuss any contentious topics they wish. But, once findings are made public, they must be subject to judgement. Verified as accurate and trustworthy, new insights can lead to a more enlightened citizenry and improve the common good.

What does this imply for the rogue professor who publishes an unsubstantiated thesis? All that is required of the university is to provide a forum for an open, adversarial review of competing truth claims. Once criticism is leveled, core assertions will not be dismissed because they are shocking; they will be rejected because evidentiary standards are poor or non-existent.

Academic freedom is a privilege because it assumes that faculty have performed their due diligence in presenting relevant facts and interpretations. Yet, if faculty members adopt rigid ideological positions or argue in bad faith, they risk being exposed as dishonest deliberators—the kind who employ deepfake methodology to reinforce either a prejudice or a preferred worldview.

Scholars undermine the nature of academic freedom whenever their assumptions are found wanting. Worse still, using a university platform to promote discrimination, enmity, or dogma—and then citing academic freedom as a defense—is the stuff of charlatans, not professors.

Stuart Chambers, PhD, teaches in the School of Sociological and Anthropological studies at the University of Ottawa. He can be found on Twitter @StuartChambers9.