03/25/2014 11:14 am ET Updated May 25, 2014

'What Is Truth?'

I used to have edit rights to Wikipedia. I obtained them to correct inaccuracies in the "C.G. Jung" entry, but after a while I gave up. Why? Because anyone who registers can go in and say pretty much whatever they like -- unless it's true.

For example, the entry on "Ecopsychology," which is my field, refers to Theodore Roszak as one of its founders. This is false, as Roszak himself acknowledged. He popularized the field effectively through writings and interviews, but he never worked in it. And yet if I corrected this misinformation by citing a conversation I had with Roszak before he died, nameless, unaccountable editors would remove the correction because Wikipedia does not allow primary sources. Amazing, isn't it? Authors have actually been denied the right to correct misinformation and even outright lies about their own writings.

Salon just ran an article on how the journal Frontiers of Psychology withdrew a research paper confirming that climate change deniers tend to be conspiracy theorists as well. The retraction notice made vague reference to an abstract legal issue, but the real problem was clear: The journal editors lacked the courage to speak the truth. They let themselves be intimidated by bullies fighting against having entrenched beliefs challenged.

Such struggles are not confined to the conservative side of the cultural aisle. Van Jones was asked to leave his position at the Obama White House not only because of political infighting, but because he spoke unpopular truths that punctured the infamous Beltway Bubble.

Again and again we hear of academic institutions knuckling under to irrational opposition and plain fabrication. Why have so many scholars lost their nerve? Perhaps because they failed to realize that truth must be defended. UC Berkeley even has a Wikipedian-in-Residence. This is a bit like appointing a lifeguard to the position of Preserver of Sand Castle Architecture. How can the public receive accurate information when anyone at all can alter it, anonymously and with impunity? When its editors and overseers are known only by screen names that come out of comic books?

The word "academy" derives from the school in which Plato taught his students to respect the truth. The fact that "truth" is many-sided, as Pontius Pilate cynically noted according to legend: "What is truth?" -- does not diminish our responsibility to stand up for what is demonstrably and immediately true. "We have a right to think that truth with a capital letter is relative," Albert Camus stated in a letter. "But facts are facts. And whoever says that the sky is blue when it is gray is prostituting words and preparing the way for tyranny."

As academics we must stand up for access to facts even when they contradict our cherished but wrong beliefs. Truth is not whatever misinformed zealots think it is or want it to be, and to the degree we succumb to their bullying we become their accomplices.