Latin American academics trained in the social sciences research, keep abreast of advances in knowledge, and teach. Some are also public intellectuals who participate in debates in the public space. And this is an important function.
Many know how to put the day's events in context and distinguish short-term and long-term trends in society. Several have ideas about how to improve society. Some have the courage to criticize abuses of power. The men and women in Latin American academia have much to contribute to the public debate.
This is why it is worrying that, sometimes, the interventions of academics in public discussions add to the confusion and hinder a dialogue on political issues.
A recent example arose from comments by President Lula da Silva at a summit in Brazil. Lula said the characterization of Venezuela's political regime under Maduro as authoritarian is a "narrative that was built against Venezuela." President Boric of Chile retorted that this qualification is not "a narrative construction" but is "reality."
President Lacalle Pou of Uruguay spoke in the same vein as Boric. And quickly some intellectuals, with well-known academic careers, came out to reproach Boric and Lacalle Pou, being especially Boric. In criticizing the Maduro government, Boric had aligned himself with the Northern empire, reactionary forces and the right.
Boric's defense of democratic principles and human rights in the case of Venezuela was a betrayal of his status as a leftist president.
This recrimination of Boric, applauded by many, is dangerous. The words of some academic are just words. But they have troubling consequences for academia.
This type of intervention contributes to misinformation, a key problem today that deserves to be treated with care. There is no such thing as absolute truth and, as democracy theorist Robert Dahl insisted, it is not healthy to blindly believe what so-called experts say.
It is also true that we are all prone to making mistakes; That's why it's good to hesitate. But an essential task of the academic is to distinguish between what we know and what we do not know – remembering also that there are things we do not know that we do not know. And it's not arrogant to say we know certain things.
With respect to Maduro, we know that he is a dictator who has violated human rights. What is happening in Venezuela is documented in detail in multiple reports by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
This assessment is consistent with the research of other international organizations and NGOs working on democracy and human rights issues. Even academics who defend Maduro know that the negative things said about him are true. It is therefore grossly irresponsible for an academic to criticise President Boric's remarks.
This kind of intervention also targets the democratic consensus that has been one of the most important political assets in Latin America. It throws overboard the learning about the nature and value of democracy that the Latin American left made as a result of the experience with military dictatorships in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
And it makes it easier for sectors of the right to also relativize democracy, a trend already visible in Brazil, where Bolsonaro vindicated the country's military regime and the use of torture, and in Chile, where the extreme right is trying to make believe that Pinochet was a statesman and not a dictator.
Moreover, this anti-democratic stance is counterproductive. The academy suffers under dictatorships. The Social Sciences in particular need a society where fundamental freedoms are guaranteed. And not even short-term opportunism justifies an academic giving more weight to his ideological preferences than to the defense of democracy.
It is understandable, then, that in the face of incidents such as criticism of Boric, one response is that academics should dedicate themselves exclusively to research and teaching work. The reasoning would go something like this. Activities in the public space inevitably lead to the politicization of academia, the rejection of the distinction between knowledge and ideology, and the conversion of the academic into an ideologue.
Therefore, it is preferable to have universities similar to those of the United States, real ivory towers quite immune to politicization. In fact, there professors write papers for highly technical journals with the main purpose of advancing their careers. Students are focused on getting the credentials and connections they need to enter the job market. And very few talk about politics and raise their voices on issues of national interest.
But there is another option. It is better to do work in academia on the central problems of society, trying to combine relevance and rigor, than to let technical considerations prevail. And it is extremely important and certainly feasible to participate from the academy in public debates without abandoning the scientific vocation, that is, basing interventions on academic knowledge and not on ideological positions.
That is, instead of emulating the model of the United States, it would be advisable to encourage the training of more teachers (they do not have to be all) who assume their full responsibility as members of the academy, their responsibility to generate scientific knowledge on social problems and to contribute to public debates based on that knowledge.
Gerardo Munck is a political scientist. Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Southern California (USC).