Bizarre acronym pecksniffery in Scientific American

September 24, 2021 • 1:15 pm

Yes, that’s right: this is a real op-ed from Scientific American, which, if the magazine goes on in this vein, is going to fold—or at least should fold. Click on the screenshot to read. The word “problematic” should be your first clue that this is going to be painful:

I’ll give you the first of five reasons it’s “problematic” in full and then list the other four with an explanatory sentence or two from the piece. Remember, this is not a joke and it’s not April 1. This is intended as a real contribution to social justice.

As we will argue, our justice-oriented projects should approach connections to the Jedi and Star Wars with great caution, and perhaps even avoid the acronym JEDI entirely.Below, we outline five reasons why.

The Jedi are inappropriate mascots for social justice. Although they’re ostensibly heroes within the Star Wars universe, the Jedi are inappropriate symbols for justice work. They are a religious order of intergalactic police-monks, prone to (white) saviorism and toxically masculine approaches to conflict resolution (violent duels with phallic lightsabers, gaslighting by means of “Jedi mind tricks,” etc.). The Jedi are also an exclusionary cult, membership to which is partly predicated on the possession of heightened psychic and physical abilities (or “Force-sensitivity”). Strikingly, Force-wielding talents are narratively explained in Star Wars not merely in spiritual terms but also in ableist and eugenic ones: These supernatural powers are naturalized as biological, hereditary attributes. So it is that Force potential is framed as a dynastic property of noble bloodlines (for example, theSkywalker dynasty), and Force disparities are rendered innate physical properties, measurable via “midi-chlorian” counts (not unlike a “Force genetics” test) and augmentable via human(oid) engineering. The heroic Jedi are thus emblems for a host of dangerously reactionary values and assumptions. Sending the message that justice work is akin to cosplay is bad enough; dressing up our initiatives in the symbolic garb of the Jedi is worse.

This caution about JEDI can be generalized: We must be intentional about how we name our work and mindful of the associations any name may bring up—perhaps particularly when such names double as existing words with complex histories.

If you see lightsabers as “phallic”, you’re trying very hard to be offended.

The others (the explanation is much longer than I’ve excerpted)

2.) Star Wars has a problematic cultural legacy. The space opera franchise has been critiqued for trafficking in injustices such as sexism, racism and ableism.

3.) JEDI connects justice initiatives to corporate capital. JEDI/Jedi is more than just a name: It’s a product. Circulating that product’s name can promote and benefit the corporation that owns it, even if we do not mean to do so. We are, in effect, providing that corporation—Disney—with a form of free advertising, commodifying and cheapening our justice work in the process.

4.) Aligning justice work with Star Wars risks threatening inclusion and sense of belonging. While an overarching goal of JEDI initiatives is to promote inclusion, the term JEDI might make people feel excluded. Star Wars is popular but divisive. Identifying our initiatives with it may nudge them closer to the realm of fandom, manufacturing in-groups and out-groups.

5.) The abbreviation JEDI can distract from justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. When you think about the word JEDI, what comes to mind? Chances are good that for many, the immediate answer isn’t the concept “justice” (or its comrades “equity,” “diversity” and “inclusion”). Instead this acronym likely conjures a pageant of spaceships, lightsabers and blaster-wielding stormtroopers. Even if we set aside the four cautions above, the acronym JEDI still evokes imagery that diverts attention away from the meanings of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.

I really don’t have anything to say about this except that Scientific American keeps pumping out the most ludicrous op-eds, some of which, like the one above, suggests that there are many people who would rather problematize acronyms than actually do anything for social justice. What this has to do with science is beyond me.

This is the first case of acronym-policing that I’m aware of, so it deserves some attention as a new sign of the insanity that is becoming normal in academic circles.

And I had to ensure that the authors are real because this is one of those pieces so close to satire that Titania McGrath (below) could claim credit for its authorship. But yes, the authors are real humans.

52 thoughts on “Bizarre acronym pecksniffery in Scientific American

  1. I foresee Colbert, Kimmel and other comedians’ writing crews having some great fun with all that material…if(since) nothing else helpful results.

  2. As the kids say, FFS! This could be the nadir for SciAm, although it’s long been circling the drain. I stopped reading after they outed themselves as corporate shills with their cheerleading for industrial agriculture a few years ago but this is so juvenile and trivial it boggles the mind…

    1. Is no-one going to describe Scientific American as a wretched hive of scum and villainy? Is it down to me?
      Uncle Owen! Aunt Beru!

  3. But… but their whole thesis is wrong, I tell you! Whatabout the whole story arc where an interracial group of Rebel scum, living in abject poverty on Tatooine, Alderaan, Hoth, Bespin, and Yavin, united in common cause to defeat the Nazi-like, overwhelmingly white male dominated Evil Empire? I don’t have time to educate these mis-guided authors, but the fact remains that Star Wars is an inspiring model for Social Justice!

    1. I’m sure even the Very Academic Greatly Inclusive National Almanac would be found to be equally oppressive. However, I see a bright future should anyone decide to launch a publication called General International Reports of Latest Dynamic Intersex Community Knowledge, on the other hand…

  4. I saw this yesterday. It’s truly making me nauseous to be pummeled by all-things woke so often. I feel like my brain is atrophying. God. Maybe that’s the point. If they distract us so often and dumb us down, then less gets done. That’s one way of achieving equality of outcomes!

    I suppose my only real option is to focus as hard as I can on the science I’m doing. It’s just such a sad state of affairs to be inundated with stupidity masquerading as scicomm.

  5. What makes the Jedi’s values and assumptions “reactionary”? I suspect this article was the work of the Sith, possibly the Emperor himself! “This is how freedom dies…with thunderous [stupidity].”

  6. From its start with a campy, fun little movie back in 1977, Star Wars has spun wildly out of control in so many ways. Culture is strange.

    1. Bizarrely, I saw Star Wars 27 times when it was first released in the UK – although I was working in the local cinema, so I saw it in a very disjointed fashion in between my various duties.

      My first ever paid employment was to dress up as Darth Vader for promotional photos in the local shopping centre/mall. The costume was trashed, having been worn many times before reaching my provincial town. The cellophane eyes rapidly steamed up so I could hardly see a thing and I nearly passed out from lack of oxygen.

      The bright points were ,1) being heckled by someone who I knew from school, but who had no clue who I was inside the helmet- he shut up satisfyingly quickly when I threatened him with my feeble fake lightsaber! 2) The fee for the session was paid at double the usual hourly rate for the entirety of the time that I worked for the cinema, despite me pointing out the error for the first couple of months, after which I gave up.

  7. Speaking of acronyms, I invented a euphonious one in a newspaper op-ed in October of 2001, It began as follows: “Progressive, virtuous, well-intentioned people will surely want to join my latest organization, the “People’s International Mobilization for Peace, Love and Sensitive Language” (PIMPLSL). While we at PIMPLSL recognize that incinerating thousands of Americans in their workplaces might be viewed as naughty, we nonetheless warn against the use of judgmental language like “terrorist.” We think it more sensitive to describe the young men who hijacked the airplanes as overenthusiastic demonstrators against globalization.”

    The letter went on to apologize on behalf of the US for “placing large office buildings directly in the path of airplanes hijacked by overenthusiastic young demonstrators.” It concluded: “We insist that the U.S.A. must not respond to the incineration of its citizens with any actions that are violent, militaristic or insensitive. We advise instead, as always, that the U.S.A. rely on patient diplomacy, counseling, apologies and aromatherapy.” PIMPLSL was, in short, counterpart to the better-known Stop the War
    Coalition (STWC) formed elsewhere at about the same time.

  8. Frankly, as a long time Trekkie, I find the JEDI acronym highly offensive. I just don’t feel represented there.

  9. In the woke version of Star Wars, the Jedi eschew their phallocentric light-sabers and instead solve problems by means of non-violent conflict resolution. Luke, Obi Wan, and Yoga have a private chat with Darth Vader about his problematic behavior. Vader breaks down in tears and reveals that his homicidal aggression was caused by childhood trauma and body image dysmorphia. He then goes on to Twitter to apologize for persecuting the rebels and ask for forgiveness. Next, Vader enrolls in sensitivity training where he learns to overcome his toxic masculinity and develop beneficial strategies to cope with interpersonal conflict. In the movie’s climatic scene, Vader appears on the the Oprah Show and promises to be a better man and a better ally. Everyone is happy, and the credits roll as the Ewoks dance in celebration.


  10. Y’know? This doesn’t bother me much. I saw a pretty convincing article on the racism of Star Wars, back when there was only one ‘Star Wars’ movie. The series, as it extended itself in prequels and sequels, has backpedaled pretty hard but superficially on its misogyny and racism, but not on elitism, or ableism or eugenics. Jawas (who stand in for the anti-semite’s stereotype of Jews) seem to have been ditched altogether, forgotten because their depiction wasn’t redeemable. Same thing with Jar-Jar’s people (a world of Stepin Fetchits). I could go on and on.
    The late-introduced woman-warriors don’t seem to me to have any especially female characteristics, either positive or negative. Rey and Rogue one, seem to me to be boys in lipstick, nothing more.

    The adoption of ‘JEDI’ for ‘Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’ seems like something that would pop up at a brainstorming session: it should have been met with groans and raspberries, because it’s marketing, pandering to an indifferent and thoughtless target audience. No serious organization would adopt it.

    1. “I saw a pretty convincing article on the racism of …..”
      Well, that is how grievance studies work. They produce a somewhat convincing article that something has racist origins, but are not concerned with the actual history of the thing they are denouncing. All that matters is whether a convincing argument can be fabricated.
      I have yet to see any real evidence that George Lucas is an antisemite, nor are Gloria Katz or Willard Huyck, who worked to create the final screenplay and script.
      If Lucas was antisemitic, I expect Stephen Spielberg would have noticed over their decades long partnership.

  11. There’s an argument that nowadays people go to university and don’t learn about their subject (programming, journalism, economics, history etc.). They learn strange ivory tower academic versions of their subject, full of the buzzwords, strong on political themes, and light on critical thinking.

    And then the graduates encounter the real world and are obliged to adapt, or try to bend the world to fit their indoctrination.

    1. In Plato’s “trivium” paradigm of the classical education, the student should progress from a knowledge of “grammar”” (the study of syntactic forms and meanings in one’s language), to “logic” (the mechanics of thought and analysis; generally speaking how to produce ideas that have merit), and finally to “rhetoric”- how to instruct and persuade others. In modern education “logic” seems to have fallen by the wayside, and even basic “grammar” has largely disappeared- hence much of modern social media. All that’s left is rhetoric- people saying things without the knowledge and discipline to ensure they have something worthwhile to say. People are now more focused on their “lived experiences” and “personal truths”, and the myths they can concoct when opining about deep topics such as “social justice” in the absence of any intellectual discipline, or even a grasp of what truth is — something that comes under the heading of “logic”. Yet PhDs are still handed out pretty much like candy to anyone with a spell checker and and knack for saying all the right things in squishy topics like diversity (aka grievance) studies.

      From the point of view alone of how much a college education costs and how little students are getting in return for theirs and their parents’ investments, the situation is very sad, and ominous for the future of this country.

      1. Onion headline, to borrow a phrase from Bill Maher. Unfortunately this has been the rabbit hole the once respectable magazine has been going down in for some time now.
        This is from 7 months ago: NASA should rename the James Webb sapce telescope Harriet Taubman. Now, James Webb was no saint, and I have nothing against Harriet Taubman, but even if we are going to cancel James Webb because he did not respect our 21st century sensibilities, shouldn’t the greatest gem of astronomy to date be named after someone having left a legacy in the field of-astronomy? The only reason the article gives for picking Taubman is that she might have looked at the Northern Star some night. Seriously.
        No Copernicus, no al-Tusi, no Aristarchus. Presumably none of them deserve to be remembered on account of being able bodied, cis privileged men.
        According to the article, the renaming it recommends could “serve as a reminder that the night sky is a shared heritage that belongs to all of us”. Or, paradoxically, it belongs only to the few with allegiance to woke orthodoxy.

  12. Three of the best twitter responses to Titania’s tweet about this:


    “The term ‘Scientific American’ is, like, soooooo uninclusive to people who are not scientific or American, shame on you.”

    “Bullshit this is.”

  13. This is SO FUNNY! As I read through it I was thinking this would be a perfect setup for Titania McGrath, and then at the end! Gobsmacked. A perfect example of unintended and unreflective self parody.

  14. “…Scientific American keeps pumping out the most ludicrous op-eds, some of which, like the one above, suggests that there are many people who would rather problematize acronyms than actually do anything for social justice.”

    The modern “social justice” movement is completely uninformed by the millennia of academic study and debate in the philosophy of justice and ethics that preceded it. Think authors like John Stewart Mills, John Rawls, Peter Singer and Joel Feinberg; think of works like Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil that sought to throw light on the horrific evils of the past century. Rejecting traditions they have no understanding of, claiming to “see through” things they have never seen as the product of the minds of “dead white Europeans”, they proceed to follow well-worn traditions of post-modern pseudo-intellectualism and thereby bring the whole concept of social justice, arguably the most important concept one can speak of (what would “important” even mean without some kind of moral theory?), into widespread disrepute. How is it even possible to talk about justice now without bringing nonsense from the likes of Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo into the mix?

    It makes me think (given my religious upbringing) of words from the Bible (KJV): “Woe to you lawyers, (read ‘self-anointed leaders of an intellectually empty social movement’), for you have taken away the key of knowledge: you entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in you hindered.”

  15. My thoughts are:

    1. This totally reads like a piss-take. I would not be at all surprised if it really was written by Titania, or other like minded satirists. I think Sci-Am has been hoaxed.

    2. The premise is daft. The Jedi, at least by the time the prequels were made were not a bunch of white men. They weren’t even all human and, in Star Wars generally, some of the best characters aren’t even biological.

    3. The acronym “JEDI” is problematic, but only because it trivialises the concept by connecting it to a popular fantasy franchise. I think point 5 listed above is al legitimate criticism.

    4. Even so, such an article doesn’t belong in a magazine that’s supposed to focus on science.

  16. I assumed it was an attempt at satire, but the authors check out. I looked at some of their other output, and was not surprised at what I found.
    They are all people who specialize in instructing others how to teach in accordance with extreme woke principles. Other than that, they have no useful skills. I hate to even phrase it as a useful skill, because their input tends to reduce the quality of education in any subject.

    The first rule of Dunning-Kruger club is that you don’t know you are a member, and I think these folks are members in good standing.

    Plus, the recent SW films have themselves prioritized checking off woke boxes ahead of series continuity or storytelling concerns.

  17. I think they are right in principle. It sounds silly that they have to spell it out, and their overreach to “problematise” the films is as typical as it is dumb, but it’s indeed a mistake to see Jedi as some sort heroes to name some initiative.

    Star Wars is many things, but among them is that it does a Seven Samurai—Magnificent Seven blending of cinematic tropes, with a few more ingredients on a Flash Gordon blueprint. Star Wars was deliberately designed to be nostalgic for the previous era of serial adventure and Golden Age of Hollywood films . It should be treated more like an old-fashioned costume film franchise. You destroy it by “updating” it with current year politics. On the flipside, it’s a very bad idea to idealise the social norms of the Old West or the age of Samurei in earnest. It seems a lot of people are outright illiterate; or the internet-algorithms just promotes them more for clicks and attention.

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