The Marketplace of Ideas

In publications, writers inevitably express opinions that offend some readers. Occasionally we receive angry letters responding to one aspect or another of an article, or urging us to clarify a point so as not to mislead the readership. We take these letters very seriously. Although it is laudable to treat corespondents with deference, in truth, our focus in such matters is not on the authors, but on the ideas expressed by them. The importance we place on the letters has nothing to do with an individual’s right to express an opinion—the magazine is free to publish (or not publish) what it sees fit—but concerns our interest in giving ideas the full measure of attention they deserve. This ensures that the principles ultimately formulated will have had the broadest debate.

Some doubt the necessity of such a policy. After all, freedom of the press only extends to those who own presses. But there is a greater principle at work here.

We are dead, as a profession, when conflicting ideas and opinions are silenced. Although it may be temporarily gratifying to hush opposing views, such victories are hollow for they are not triumphs at all—they are merely vanity. Beyond that, the opposing view may be correct. Alan Barth wrote, "Majorities, of course, are often mistaken. This is why the silencing of minorities is necessarily dangerous. Criticism and dissent are the indispensable antidote to major delusions."

Prelude to Future Conduct

The soundest principles are those that have been tested in the crucible of open debate and found meritorious. Is debate an end in itself? The ancient Greeks seemed to think so; the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake enjoyed the ultimate dignity in that culture. American sensibilities tend toward the Roman view, which treated knowledge as a means to effect practical good. Debate in an American context, therefore, would seem to be a prelude to future conduct, as well as future thought. It is thus an essential ingredient of a dynamic profession.

Do all arguments have merit? Of course not. Some are based on flawed propositions, and others indicate a lack of experience with the subject matter. We must not hesitate to point out errors in the ideas presented. The failure to do so at various times in the past can be blamed for some of the ills now facing us. But it would be worse still if the incorrect ideas had been silenced from the start.

In his famous essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote, "The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race: posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error." Thus, not only are contrary opinions to be tolerated, they are indispensable in the quest for sound decision-making.

There are many issues confronting the surveying profession that deserve widespread, informed debate: the challenge of determining whether to require 4-year surveying degrees prior to licensure, and if so, what those degrees should look like; of whether to expand our sphere of influence beyond the traditional offerings of the surveyor and, if deemed appropriate, what directions that expansion should take; whether the licensing process is adequate to ensure that incompetent people are denied the right to practice; and so forth. These topics all demand careful consideration because serious issues are at stake, and missteps could be irreparable. Decisions with respect to policy issues cannot safely be made solely on the basis of debate by a cloistered few, for no small group has the breadth of experience necessary to fully evaluate the alternatives. Yet all too often this happens—with predictable results. Once implemented, the shortcomings of the analysis process leading up to the decision become apparent.

Debate Is Essential

At the same time, surveyors are confronted daily by other matters that need discussion. With ever-changing technology and evolving standards of care, it is essential to debate our day-to-day procedures because only by doing so can we assure ourselves that our methods remain consistent with one another. Beyond that, doctrinal debates nearly always result in the edification of those participating (or watching).

So, one can conclude that a vigorous, national discussion on surveying subjects would benefit all interested parties—individual surveyors, the profession and the public as a whole. We intend, therefore, to encourage such discussions by running thought-provoking articles and by encouraging responses from the profession. Informed debate is an essential component in the decisions ahead of us.

We will not shirk from our responsibility to ensure that dialogue remains constructive and that the topics are relevant. Nor will we refrain from censuring personal attacks. But we would do an enormous disservice to the profession and to the public if we squandered the ability to provide a national debate on the issues confronting our practice. Ultimately, history is not changed by people, but by ideas. Viewed in that context, the highest calling for this journal is that of a marketplace of ideas—a place where dissenting views are solicited, exposed to the scrutiny of a wide audience and accepted or rejected as appropriate. We intend to do our part in this regard. We trust that you will do your part by considering the arguments carefully and responding as you see fit.

Copyright © 1998 By Joel M. Leininger, LS