The Grievance Studies Scandal: Five Academics Respond

By Quillette Magazine

Editor’s note: For the past year scholars James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian have sent fake papers to various academic journals which they describe as specialising in activism or “grievance studies.” Their stated mission has been to expose how easy it is to get “absurdities and morally fashionable political ideas published as legitimate academic research.” 

To date, their project has been successful: seven papers have passed through peer review and have been published, including a 3000 word excerpt of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, rewritten in the language of Intersectionality theory and published in the Gender Studies journal Affilia.

Below is a response to the scandal from five academics who are currently researching, publishing and teaching in the fields of Philosophy, English Studies, Behavioral Genetics and Economics.

Nathan Cofnas is reading for a DPhil in philosophy at the University of Oxford. His work focuses on the philosophy of biology, broadly construed. He has published on such topics as
innateness, the ethical implications of individual differences in intelligence, and Jewish cultural evolution. You can follow him on Twitter @nathancofnas

Twenty years ago, Alan Sokal called postmodernism “fashionable nonsense.” Today, postmodernism isn’t a fashion—it’s our culture. A large proportion of the students at elite universities are now inducted into this cult of hate, ignorance, and pseudo-philosophy. Postmodernism is the unquestioned dogma of the literary intellectual class and the art establishment. It has taken over most of the humanities and some of the social sciences, and is even making inroads in STEM fields. It threatens to melt all of our intellectual traditions into the same oozing mush of political slogans and empty verbiage.

Postmodernists pretend to be experts in what they call “theory.” They claim that, although their scholarship may seem incomprehensible, this is because they are like mathematicians or physicists: they express profound truths in a way that cannot be understood without training. Lindsay, Boghossian, and Pluckrose expose this for the lie that it is. “Theory” is not real. Postmodernists have no expertise and no profound understanding.

Critics of Sokal point out that his paper was never subjected to peer review, and they say it was unfair to expect the editors of Social Text to spot errors concerning math and science. This time there are no excuses. LBP’s papers were fully peer reviewed by leading journals. The postmodernist experts showed that they had no ability to distinguish scholarship grounded in “theory” from deliberate nonsense and faulty reasoning mixed in with hate directed at the disfavored race (white) and sex (“cis” male).

King Solomon said of the fool: “His talk begins as foolishness and ends as evil madness” (Ecclesiastes 10:13). Can a disregard for evidence, logic, and open inquiry combined with a burning hatred for large classes of people perceived as political opponents (“racists,” “sexists,” “homophobes,” “transphobes,” etc.) possibly lead to a good result? The editors and peer reviewers who handled LBP’s papers have revealed their true, vicious attitudes.

The flagship feminist philosophy journal, Hypatia, accepted a paper (not yet published online) arguing that social justice advocates should be allowed to make fun of others, but no one should be permitted to make fun of them. The same journal invited resubmission of a paper arguing that “privileged students shouldn’t be allowed to speak in class at all and should just listen and learn in silence,” and that they would benefit from “experiential reparations” that include “sitting on the floor, wearing chains, or intentionally being spoken over.” The reviewers complained that this hoax paper took an overly compassionate stance toward the “privileged” students who would be subjected to this humiliation, and recommended that they be subjected to harsher treatment. Is asking people of a certain race to sit on the floor in chains better than asking them to wear a yellow star? What exactly is this leading to?

Neema Parvini is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Surrey, and is a proud member of the Heterodox Academy as well as The Evolution Institute. He has has written five books, the latest of which is Shakespeare’s Moral Compass. He is currently working on a new book for Palgrave Macmillan called The Defenders of Liberty: Human Nature, Individualism, and Property Rights, a study of 500 years of thinking about freedom in the West, from Machiavelli to Milton Friedman. Follow him on Twitter @neemaparvini1

The news that these journals are nakedly ideological will not surprise many of those who work within the disciplines of the humanities in the modern academy. Now the ticking off of buzzwords seems to stand in for checking the quality of scholarship or the coherence of arguments. The battle was lost around 1991. Around that time the great historian of the Tudor period, G.R. Elton, had been fighting rear-guard action for the discipline he loved. He saw history in the tradition of Leopold von Ranke: a meticulous examination of the primary evidence and a refusal to allow present-day concerns or attitudes to colour the subject matter. But traditional history, like all other disciplines, came under attack. Elton fumed that the younger generation was on “the intellectual equivalent of crack”, addicted to the “cancerous radiation that comes from the foreheads of Derrida and Foucault”.1 But Elton lost the day to Hayden White who “deconstructed” history by complaining that:

Many historians continue to treat their “facts” as though they were “given” and refuse to recognize, unlike most scientists, that they are not so much “found” as “constructed” by the kinds of questions which the investigator asks of the phenomena before him.2

White’s point is that there can be no such thing as “objectivity” in history, it is merely a form of storytelling driven by the subjective interests of the scholar. Accordingly, historians now sought to rebuild their discipline “on assumptions that directly challenge the empiricist paradigm.”3

In literary studies, the radical feminist Hélène Cixous argued that the ideology of patriarchy was all around us: “a kind of vast membrane enveloping everything”, a “skin” that “encloses us like a net or like closed eyelids”.4How could anyone lay claim to “objectivity” in such conditions? By 1991, such thinking had become de rigueur. In an essay called “The Myth of Neutrality, Again?” the feminist critic Gayle Greene wrote bluntly:

Feminists and Marxists, who hold opinions that are not generally accepted, get called “ideological” (and “political”, “partisan”, “polemical”, and lots of other things) whereas those approaches which are more traditional, closer to what is familiar … get to pass as “neutral” and “objective”. … A fundamental premise of feminist scholarship is that the perspective assumed to be “universal” that has dominated knowledge, shaping its paradigms and methods, has actually been male and culture-bound. I find it astonishing this needs repeating.5

Where some of us might see Niccolò Machiavelli, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, or David Hume palpably struggling with the deepest questions of political philosophy or epistemology, Cixious or Greene see only dead white men. What they say matters less to them than who was saying it. Thus, the competing systems of knowledge that came out of the Enlightenment – rationalism and empiricism – are both always-already tainted as “products of the patriarchy.” It has been the explicit goal of post-modernity to reject reason and evidence: they want a “new paradigm” of knowledge. Should it come as any surprise to us, then, that their journals will publish explicit nonsense such as the papers authored by Lindsay, Pluckrose and Boghossian?

References

1 G. R. Elton, Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study (1991; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 10, 12-3.
2 Hayden White, ‘The Burden of History’, History and Theory 5:2 (1966), p. 127.
3 Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History, 2nd edn (1997; New York and London: Routledge, 2006), p. 34.
4 Catherine Clément and Hélène Cixous, The Newly Born Woman (London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 1975), p. 145.
5 Gayle Greene, “The Myth of Neutrality, Again?”, in Shakespeare, Left and Right, ed Ivo Kamps (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 23-4.

Barking in Academia — Rosalind Arden (Behavioral Genetics)

Rosalind Arden is a Research Associate at the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics. Her PhD in Behavioral Genetics focused on intelligence. Being brighter is associated with health benefits in humans. It may also be true in dogs; she is currently probing the feasibility and utility of the dog as model of ageing and dementia. Follow her on Twitter @Rosalind_Arden_

Does it matter that tax-payer funded scholars spread suppurating sores on the body academic? Twenty-two years ago Alan Sokal thought it did. Stepping lightly away, for the moment, from an apparently absorbing interest in zero-free regions for multivariate Tutte polynomials (alias Potts-model partition functions) of graphs and matroids, Sokal naughtily submitted to the journal Social Text a lampoon manuscript that married post-structuralist gobbledegook with physics catchphrases. They published it; it has garnered 1526 citations. Sokal’s spoof took aim at obscure language and epistemic relativism. But his quarry escaped.

Now, three academics have submitted twenty spoof manuscripts to journals chosen for respectability in their various disciplines. Seven papers were accepted before the experiment stopped; more are surviving peer review. This new raid on screamingly barmy pseudo-scholarship is the Alan Sokal Opening, weaponised. Like dedicated traceurs in a Parkour-fest, the trio scrambled over the terrain of what they call Grievance Studies. And they dropped fire-crackers. One published paper proposed that dog parks are “rape-condoning spaces.” Another, entitled “Our Struggle is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism” reworked, and substantially altered, part of Mein Kampf. The most shocking, (not published, its status is “revise and resubmit”) is a “Feminist Approach to Pedagogy.” It proposes “experiential reparations” as a corrective for privileged students. These include sitting on the floor, wearing chains, or being purposely spoken over. Reviewers have commented that the authors risk exploiting underprivileged students by burdening them with an expectation to teach about privilege.

These psychoactive hoax papers, some penned in just a few hours, are taken seriously because they fit with social science sub fields in which reason has been exchanged for ideology. How did we get here? Did it begin with scholars wanting to right social wrongs? A wish to emphasise, within academic writing, the value of treating one another fairly, of reducing, or eliminating, discrimination on grounds of ancestry, disability, sex, or sexual orientation? Perhaps such scholars were fed up with an implicit hierarchical model of academic discourse in which (like the wrong-headed March of Progress apes-to-man illustration) poetry sits meekly at the left of the line, while biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics strut proudly, at the far right, triumphal, end? If scholars wanted to reduce bias and barriers, the wrong fights have been picked. Here are just three problems with parts of academia that this new manuscript hoax has exposed.

The first is a battle with language. Readers are ill-served by opaque writing. Text can be hard-going because of its specialised content (such as string theory), or hard to decode because it has been written to sexily seduce the reader into slowly undressing the meaning (such as poetry, take, for example, the metaphysicals). But the shamed hoaxed journals too often host unintelligible waffle. Clear writing is not a matter of style; it’s a matter of clear thinking. The dog-park hoax paper, honoured by the journal as exemplary scholarship, contains gems like this: “Dog parks are microcosms where hegemonic masculinist norms governing queering behavior and compulsory heterosexuality can be observed in a cross-species environment.” It looks like a case of reviewers asleep at the wheel.

James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian successfully published an academic paper on the rape culture of dog parks

Secondly, for academia to be worth anything, it is crucial that reviewers and editors understand what any particular experimental design can deliver. This holds for quantitative, qualitative, and post-qualitative (whatever that is) research. Reviewers and editors must object when results or interpretation over-reach the methods. If a hypothesis is unfalsifiable, it doesn’t hurt to say so. The function of empirical work is to steer us closer to the truth about the world. It is therefore crucial to distinguish between what can constitute evidence and what cannot.

Lastly, and most importantly, there is evidence from this experiment, and from the literature in which it is embedded, of a great change in perceptions about what constitutes vice. When I grew up something like the following order of badness prevailed: murder (the worst), followed by serious physical violence, cheating and lying, nasty shouting, nasty speaking and at the milder end, nasty thinking. This has changed. There is evidence that many scholars favour punitive thought-reform. Orwell had a word for this.

It is emblematic of that huge change that I feel queasy here, at risk of being misquoted, when I say that a sexist, racist, or foolish thought or comment is likely to be punished with what was formerly reserved for someone who throws a punch at the Dean’s snout. This, while actual scientific waffle—and worse—is published without criticism. Another sign is the widespread use of that dead metric, the Implicit Association Test, which should long ago have been put out of its misery with a shot of pentobarbital.

Where the hell is Orwell when we need him? We’ve sleep-walked into a Cultural Revolution in our own backyard and I fear we have not seen the worst yet. What to do? Make the academic literature freely available to the public; tear down the paywalls. At least, then, people could see what we are up to. That would be a start.

Philosophy’s Carefully Guarded Secret — Neven Sesardic (Philosophy)

Neven Sesardic is a Croatian philosopher who has taught philosophy at universities in Croatia, the United States, Japan, England, and Hong Kong. His recent books include When Reason Goes on Holiday: Philosophers in Politics (Encounter Books, 2016) and Making Sense of Heritability (Cambridge University Press, 2005). He has also published a number of articles in leading philosophy journals. Follow him on Twitter @NSesardic

One cannot properly judge this new (multiple) version of the Sokal affair before studying the fake articles that were part of the project conducted by Lindsay, Boghossian, and Pluckrose.

Among all these submitted papers mixing “absurdities and morally fashionable political ideas” the project collaborators single out the article that was accepted by the journal Hypatia (A Journal of Feminist Philosophy) as their most important success. Indeed, kudos to them. Yet the reader should know that it is a carefully guarded secret in philosophy that feminist philosophy is often not characterized by intellectual rigor and high academic standards. (The secret is so well-guarded, though, that many philosophers do not dare to admit even to themselves to know it, let alone express it publicly.) So Hypatia was a logical and easy choice for the attempt to place a fake paper in one of the well-known philosophy journals.

Occasionally, however, unintentional absurdities of feminist thinking have crept into much better philosophical journals than Hypatia. A good example is an article from the Australasian Journal of Philosophy in which a feminist describes a “phallic drama” involving two statements, p and ~p (the negation of p):

There is really only one actor, p, and ~p is merely its receptacle. In the representation of the Venn diagram, p penetrates a passive, undifferentiated universal other which is specified as a lack, which offers no resistance, and whose behavior it controls completely.

Note that this is no longer a Sokal-type hoax but an instance of authentic feminist philosophy. Sometimes it is impossible to tell the difference. For more information about how caving in to feminism damages philosophy as a discipline see the 2014 article co-authored by Rafael De Clercq and me.

At the beginning of the text in which the three collaborators explain their project, they write: “Because of the politicized nature of these disciplines, it bears mentioning that all three of us would be best classified as left-leaning liberals.” Sokal himself also found it important to stress, while explaining his hoax, that he was a man of the Left. I am puzzled by this. If you are criticizing a trend that clearly belongs to the political Left, why should you feel it necessary, or useful, to say that you are yourself leftist? Isn’t it enough that you offered arguments in support of your criticism, which presumably should speak for themselves? What’s the point of making that additional step and showing your political colors? Hoping to placate those you criticize by signaling that you are actually one of “them”? Or making clear that you should not be associated with the “right wing,” to which you (honest!) do not belong anyway?

I was in a similar situation in 1981 when I wrote my first article in a series of criticisms of Marxism in what was then Yugoslavia. A friend of mine, slightly worried about me and possible consequences of publishing that article, advised me to add one sentence and say that despite attacking Marxism I at least supported socialism. I refused to do that, not only because I was not a socialist, but primarily because I thought that the question whether I was a socialist or not was entirely irrelevant for my article.

Besides, even if I had been a socialist I would still have been against publicly subscribing to socialism on such occasions. For, although in this way it might have been somewhat easier for me to attack Marxism, the widespread practice of declaring one’s political views might have made the discussion more difficult for those who were not socialists and who had political opinions that were widely and more strongly condemned.

The same applies to the current situation of the dominance of the Left in Western universities. Leftists criticizing the Left should not hurry to identify themselves as leftists while making that criticism. First, because this information is irrelevant. And second, because this could put pressure on conservatives to come out of the closet, which for obvious reasons many of them might be reluctant to do. Or, alternatively, under the circumstances their conservatism could be inferred from their silence about their politics.

The Grievance University — Jonathan Anomaly (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics)

Jonathan Anomaly is a faculty fellow at the Institute for Practical Ethics at UCSD, a founding faculty member of the Philosophy, Politics, & Economics program at USD, and will be a visiting scholar at Oxford University in Winter 2019.  His current research focuses on the moral and legal dimensions of synthetic biology, including gene editing, and the use of synthetic phage viruses to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  More generally, he writes about the relative role of social norms and legal institutions in solving different kinds of collective action problems. Anomaly is co-author of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (Oxford University Press, 2015), his publications can be found here, and he can be contacted at anomaly@ucsd.edu

The authors have pulled off a modern Sokal hoax. The sequel is rarely as good as the original, but in this case it was more comprehensive and more fun than Sokal’s mockery of postmodernist scholarship (a computer-generated version of which can be found here). The project exposes some of the cultish ideas shared by faculty who have created fake subjects and staffed their departments with political activists. Many faculty in these departments seem alarmingly eager to hijack for their own ends the emotional circuitry of teenagers who arrive on campus in search of a tribe to join and a dragon to slay.

If this were the extent of the problem, we could laugh it off as a strange new sport that occurs on college quads rather than in football stadiums. But it is much worse than this. The main problem is not the rise of trendy disciplines with names that end with the word “studies,” or the opportunity cost of spending taxpayer money on bogus scholarship and bad education rather than medical research and space exploration. The problem is that many students are required to take these classes as part of a “diversity” requirement at universities, and that when students graduate, these ideas influence leaders of corporations like Google, which can manipulate its search engine to alter elections and change our epistemic environment in subtle ways.

To take an example, many students in universities and employees at Google take bias training courses that tell them “white privilege” and “systemic racism” explain disparities in outcomes between groups, despite the fact that—to take one example—Asian Americans from China and India (‘people of color’) make more money and are incarcerated at lower rates than whites. According to the conspiratorial worldview of many faculty in grievance studies departments, citing statistics and making arguments that go against the privilege narrative proves that you have an unconscious bias against minorities, and that you’re probably a white supremacist.

Boghossian, Lindsay, and Pluckrose did not publish their articles in the top journals of core fields like economics or psychology, so some skeptics might dismiss the project as a waste of time. But their articles did pass peer review in journals from fields whose basic assumptions are shared by mainstream subjects like literature, sociology, and (increasingly) philosophy.

Some of the most insidious dogmas many faculty in these fields defend include the idea that evolutionary biology can explain animal behavior but isn’t relevant to people; that differences in personality and intelligence can only be explained by education and parenting (not genes); that IQ tests don’t predict anything useful; that differences in outcomes for different groups can only be explained by oppression or systemic racism/sexism; and that five decades of behavioral genetics research can be safely ignored when it threatens environmental explanations. These are the dangers of our time. It is worth reminding those who subsidize this circus that we’re not in Las Vegas.

What happens on campus doesn’t stay on campus.