Fear of knowledge

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You might have heard about a recent hoax that a trio of libertarian scholars, Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian, pulled on a handful of journals in what they call “grievance studies” disciplines. I mean, hopefully you haven’t heard about it. There’s been a lot going on this past week. The imminent installation of a likely sexual assailant and a demonstrable belligerent liar on the Supreme Court, the revelation of Trump’s elaborate tax crimes, hell, even the baseball playoffs — almost anything would be a better use of brain space. But it’s in the New York Times now, so. What can you do.

The gist is this. Over a period of about a year the three pranksters wrote twenty (maybe twenty-one?) articles that they characterized as obviously flawed: made-up data, ridiculous premises and conclusions, even an extensive paraphrase of Mein Kampf. Then they submitted them to a bunch of different academic journals — overwhelmingly, as Dan Engber emphasizes at Slate, small publications focused on feminist studies. (That hasn’t stopped Pluckrose from claiming that the hoax reveals a rot pervasive “among many disciplines, including women’s and gender studies, feminist studies, race studies, sexuality studies, fat studies, queer studies, cultural studies and sociology.”) Seven of the twenty articles were accepted. The trio triumphantly proclaimed they had exposed a political orthodoxy suffocating free thought throughout the humanities and social sciences. Inevitable comparisons were made to Alan Sokal’s 1996 hoax targeting postmodern science studies. QED.

People have already made plenty of valid criticisms of the “study.” Academic hoaxes are probably unethical. Especially since they targeted small, out-of-the-spotlight journals, the hoax exploited the uncompensated labor of young scholars whose attempts to keep an open mind and be helpful were taken up as proof debunking their entire discipline. The “methodology” was sloppy. There was no control group. There’s no rigorous way to make sense of a 7/20 “success” ratio. There’s no justification for assuming that the targeted journals comprised a representative sample of the entire “cultural studies” field. For all they excoriate “grievance studies” scholars for their political motivation and their perennial arrival at predetermined conclusions, it’s hard to interpret “Sokal squared” as anything other than a politically motivated journey to a predetermined conclusion.

But I want to focus on a deeper irony. The complaint about “grievance studies” is that leftist scholars deny objective truth, are committed to radical relativism, have a political vendetta against “Western culture,” which they see as irredeemably oppressive, and won’t tolerate “opinions” that deny the existence of racism, patriarchy, and so on. The problem is that these accusations can’t all be true simultaneously. If leftist academics were really committed to the position that no belief is better than any other, we’d expect them to be, at least rhetorically, hyper-tolerant, not hyper-intolerant. They wouldn’t be willing to defend positive beliefs in the existence of oppressive social structures with any tenacity. We’d expect them to focus on “procedural” complaints of exclusion and dogmatism, not “substantive” complaints of, for instance, racism and sexism. We might even predict a discipline skeptical of attempts to step outside the culture that surrounds us and interrogate it — dare we say — objectively.

In other words, we’d expect something a lot like the worldview of Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian. If you have the patience to watch their video, or read the responses celebrating them at Quillette, it becomes clear that the thing that irks the critics the most about “grievance studies” scholars isn’t actually anything methodological or philosophical per se. It’s the bare fact of those scholars’ unapologetic belief in “male privilege,” “whiteness,” and other concepts that the critics treat with undisguised scorn. In other words, the real grievance with “grievance studies” is that academics are making specific, well-substantiated claims about the social world, and defending those claims against critics. Of course any legitimate research program can be extended in directions that don’t hold up under scrutiny. But probing those limits is precisely why academics publish claims — even provocative and outlandish claims — in public forums, where other scholars can discuss, examine, and if need be, refute them.

The “grievance studies scandal” has, in fact, demonstrated a tension between the “relativist” suspicion of the possibility of positive knowledge and the commitments of scholars to a sophisticated, intellectually powerful theory of the structures that reinforce inequality and exploitation in contemporary society. As I argued with Naomi Oreskes last year, the origins of the former belief do lie, historically, with conservative thinkers who were terrified about the relationship they perceived between intellectual confidence and social reform. My suggestion now is that the same fear still animates the thinking of contemporary right-wingers — self-christened, ludicrously, the “intellectual dark web” — who like to position themselves as defenders of reason, truth, and objectivity. In fact, it is that — merely rhetorical — positioning that has tempted so many leftist academics into — equally rhetorical — scorn for those concepts.

But they can and should hold their ground here. Scholars who write about white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, and so on have a well-reasoned case to make, seven out of twenty published hoax articles aside. They are telling the truth. As the intellectual historian Thomas Haskell once wrote: Objectivity Is Not Neutrality.

 

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