Richard Dawkins on truth and “ways of knowing”

December 19, 2020 • 10:45 am

It’s been a while since I’ve seen an article by Dawkins appear in a magazine or newspaper, but now there’s a new one on the nature of truth and knowledge in The Spectator (click on screenshot for free access). Yes, it’s a rather conservative venue, but you’re not going to see The Guardian publishing critiques of theology and postmodern denial of objective truth. And Dawkins does take some pretty strong swings at Donald Trump, e.g. “For him, lying is not a last resort. It never occurs to him to do anything else.”

The article first defines what scientists mean by “truth”, and then attacks two areas that dismiss that definition—or at least offer alternative “ways of knowing”:

What is truth? Richard begins by analogizing scientific truth with the “the kind of truth that a commission of inquiry or a jury trial is designed to establish.” He adds this:

I hold the view that scientific truth is of this commonsense kind, although the methods of science may depart from common sense and its truths may even offend it.

I like that idea—though Massimo Pigliucci will be enraged—because it shows there’s no bright line between scientific truth and the kind of truth that people establish using “common sense”, which I take to mean empirical inquiry whose results people generally agree on. Truth is simply what exists in the universe and can be found by common assent. That’s with the proviso, of course, that there is a reality to be found, and one that’s independent of us. I’ll take that as a given, and don’t want to argue about it. And, of course “common assent” means, in science, the assent of those capable of evaluating data.

Finally, while truth is always “provisional” in science, there are some truths so well established that we can regard them as “not really that provisional”. These are the truths whose reality you’d bet thousands of dollars on. It’s unlikely, as I say in Faith Versus Fact, that normal DNA will some day be shown to be a triple helix, or a water molecule to have two atoms of hydrogen and two of oxygen. This is a point that Richard makes as well, and one we should keep in mind when we debate those who argue that, “Well, science is tentative, and can be wrong—and has been wrong.” To wit:

It is true that Newton’s laws are approximations which need modifying under extreme circumstances such as when objects travel at near the speed of light. Those philosophers of science who fixate on the case of Newton and Einstein love to say that scientific truths are only ever provisional approximations that have so far resisted falsification. But there are many scientific truths — we share an ancestor with baboons is one example — which are just plain true, in the same sense as ‘New Zealand lies south of the equator’ is not a provisional hypothesis, pending possible falsification.

Bad thinkers. Finally, the two groups Richard excoriates for rejecting the notion of scientific truths are the theologians on one hand and the PoMo-soaked philosophers and Critical Theory mavens on the other. First, the theologians, who by now are low-hanging fruit:

Theologians love their ‘mysteries’, such as the ‘mystery of the Trinity’ (how can God be both three and one at the same time?) and the ‘mystery of transubstantiation’ (how can the contents of a chalice be simultaneously wine and blood?). When challenged to defend such stuff, they may retort that scientists too have their mysteries. Quantum theory is mysterious to the point of being downright perverse. What’s the difference? I’ll tell you the difference and it’s a big one. Quantum theory is validated by predictions fulfilled to so many decimal places that it’s been compared to predicting the width of North America to within one hairsbreadth. Theological theories make no predictions at all, let alone testable ones.

Nor has theology ever, by itself, established a single truth about the universe. I keep asking people to give me one, but they either can’t or bring in truths that are empirical and can be verified not by revelation or dogma, but only by observation and testing. Ergo, theology is not a “way of knowing.”

And then the poor PoMos and Critical Theorists get their drubbing (remember, the roots of Critical Theory are in the filthy humus of postmodernism):

A more insidious threat to truth comes from certain schools of academic philosophy. There is no objective truth, they say, no natural reality, only social constructs. Extreme exponents attack logic and reason themselves, as tools of manipulation or ‘patriarchal’ weapons of domination. The philosopher and historian of science Noretta Koertge wrote this in Skeptical Inquirer magazine in 1995, and things haven’t got any better since:

Instead of exhorting young women to prepare for a variety of technical subjects by studying science, logic, and mathematics, Women’s Studies students are now being taught that logic is a tool of domination…the standard norms and methods of scientific inquiry are sexist because they are incompatible with ‘women’s ways of knowing’. The authors of the prize-winning book with this title report that the majority of the women they interviewed fell into the category of ‘subjective knowers’, characterised by a ‘passionate rejection of science and scientists’. These ‘subjectivist’ women see the methods of logic, analysis and abstraction as ‘alien territory belonging to men’ and ‘value intuition as a safer and more fruitful approach to truth’.

That way madness lies. As reported by Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh in The Nation in 1997, the social psychologist Phoebe Ellsworth, at an interdisciplinary seminar, praised the virtues of the experimental method. Audience members protested that the experimental method was ‘the brainchild of white Victorian males’. Ellsworth acknowledged this, but pointed out that the experimental method had led to, for example, the discovery of DNA. This was greeted with disdain: ‘You believe in DNA?’

You can’t not ‘believe in DNA’. DNA is a fact. . . .

While different groups of people have different interests, and that may lead them to work on areas that reveal truths heretofore hidden, that doesn’t mean that there are different ways of knowing. Barbara McClintock, for example, was touted by her biographer Evelyn Fox Keller as having a special female-linked “feeling for the organism” that led to her Nobel-winning studies on mobile genetic elements. I don’t buy that thesis, but there may be some truth to the claim that female evolutionists helped emphasize the important role of female choice in sexual selection.  If so, that means that different aspects of a problem may appeal to different groups, but in the end the truth or falsity of ideas are established the same way by everyone. McClintock did her science the way everyone else did, as do those who study sexual selection. There may be many ways of thinking, but only one way of knowing. 

And that way of knowing is what I call “science construed broadly”: the use of observation, testing of hypotheses, attempts to falsify your theory, experiments, and so on. Science has more refined methods than, say, an electrician trying to find a glitch in house wiring, but in the end they both rely on a similar set of empirical tools.

Richard will of course be faulted for attacking the beloved notion of “other ways of knowing”, but in the end he’s right. And of course there are all those people laying for him, who will claim he’s arrogant in giving science such hegemony over truth. He attacks this head on:

Some of what I have claimed here about scientific truth may come across as arrogant. So might my disparagement of certain schools of philosophy. Science really does know a lot about what is true, and we do have methods in place for finding out a lot more. We should not be reticent about that. But science is also humble. We may know what we know, but we also know what we don’t know. Scientists love not knowing because they can go to work on it. The history of science’s increasing knowledge, especially during the past four centuries, is a spectacular cascade of truths following one on the other. We may choose to call it a cumulative increase in the number of truths that we know. Or we can tip our hat to (a better class of) philosophers and talk of successive approximations towards yet-to-be-falsified provisional truths. Either way, science can properly claim to be the gold standard of truth.

Amen! I’ll finish with a quote I used to begin Chapter 4 in Faith Versus Fact. It’s from Mike Aus, a former preacher who left the pulpit after admitting his atheism on television. Since then he hasn’t fared well, but he did produce one quotation that I think is telling:

When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.

h/t: Eli

Op-ed in science journal Nature disses science and “scientism”, questions Enlightenment values

October 10, 2019 • 10:15 am

Nathaniel Comfort, author of the risible Nature essay at hand (click on screenshot below), is a professor in the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. We’ve met him three times before on this site; he seems to be a postmodernist who dislikes genes, New Atheism, and Richard Dawkins.  Now he’s written about. . . . well, it’s hard to discern. If you read the essay (and I both pity you if you do and challenge you to see its point), you’ll see it’s laced with criticisms of Enlightenment values, white males, scientism, and the oppression of the disabled. Oh, and it lauds postmodernism, especially its “other ways of knowing”.

One of Comfort’s main points, at least as I discern it, is that science has somehow deeply changed how humanity has perceived itself. Not so much in the Darwinian way, in which we now see ourselves as part of the branching bush of life, but because of discoveries like our microbiome (seriously, do I think of myself as “Jerry Coyne + bacteria”?), the “blueprint” model of DNA, horizontal gene transfer, epigenetics, CRISPR technology, and so on. This, of course, is not new: many people have flaunted these buzzwords before and claimed they affected our sense of self, even though our sense of self seems to be pretty much what it was half a century ago.

Comfort’s real point, though, appears to be doing down science, or what he misdefines as scientism:

Huxley’s sunny view — of infinite human progress and triumph, brought about by the inexorable march of science — epitomizes a problem with so-called Enlightenment values. The precept that society should be based on reason, facts and universal truths has been a guiding theme of modern times. Which in many ways is a splendid thing (lately I’ve seen enough governance without facts for one lifetime). Yet Occam’s razor is double edged. Enlightenment values have accommodated screechingly discordant beliefs, such as that all men are created equal, that aristocrats should be decapitated and that people can be traded as chattel.

I want to suggest that many of the worst chapters of this history result from scientism: the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems. Where science has often expanded and liberated our sense of self, scientism has constrained it.

I am not sure that this definition of “scientism” matches that of other people; usually the definition is of “science extending its ambit beyond what it should be”. In that latter sense, I’d see “scientism” as the misuse of science to push ideological issues, like saying “science tells us that we should sterilize Italians and Jews”, or “science tells us that races are inherently unequal”. And, indeed, science has been misused in such ways, though these misuses have severely diminished over time and, in the end, it’s not science itself that’s responsible for these attitudes, but bigots and other bad people latching onto science. Still, what’s the point of running through this list once again?

Further, just because people holding Enlightenment beliefs can also hold un-Enlightenment beliefs, like killing aristocrats and having slaves, does not constitute an indictment of the Enlightenment beliefs as commonly understood and adumbrated by Pinker in Enlightenment Now—the tripartite values of reason, science, and humanism. These values do not call for the killing of aristocrats or the enslavement of others.

And Comfort gives no examples of how “scientism”, even as he construes it, has constrained our sense of self. He seems to give one example at the end of his piece (see below), but it’s unconvincing. In fact, one can make a good argument that the solving of social problems is in many cases a deeply empirical issue. Perhaps your ideas don’t come out of science per se, but from your own values and ethics. But then confecting solutions often requires empirical data. One example of the former is the idea that all people should be equal under the law, regardless of race, sex, or gender. But how do you fix things? Those decisions, like using busing or affirmative action or even demonstrating that unequal representation results from discrimination rather than unequal preferences, are empirical matters: does intervention X facilitate solution Y? That, I’d say, is “science construed broadly.”

Even immunology and information theory come in for a hit, since they somehow facilitate the discrimination between “self and nonself”, or make people seem like machines, in a socially inimical way. Look at the postmodernism on show here:

Across the arc of the past 150 years, we can see both science and scientism shaping human identity in many ways. Developmental psychology zeroed in on the intellect, leading to the transformation of IQ (intelligence quotient) from an educational tool into a weapon of social control. Immunology redefined the ‘self’ in terms of ‘non-self’. Information theory provided fresh metaphors that recast identity as residing in a text or a wiring diagram. More recently, cell and molecular studies have relaxed the borders of the self. Reproductive technology, genetic engineering and synthetic biology have made human nature more malleable, epigenetics and microbiology complicate notions of individuality and autonomy, and biotechnology and information technology suggest a world where the self is distributed, dispersed, atomized.

Yes, and so what? Where’s the scientism here? Certainly IQ was once used to keep foreigners out of the US and even sterilize women, but we don’t do that any more. As for the other stuff he mentions, that’s not scientism but science. The last sentence about the “atomized” self is pure nonsense.

And then Comfort calls on postmodernists (who aren’t of course scientists) to demonstrate the “deep entanglement of science and society”:

The immunological Plato was the Australian immunologist Frank MacFarlane Burnet. Burnet’s fashioning of immunology as the science of the self was a direct response to his reading of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Tit for tat, social theorists from Jacques Derrida to Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway have leaned on immunological imagery and concepts in theorizing the self in society. The point is that scientific and social thought are deeply entangled, resonant, co-constructed. You can’t fully understand one without the other.

The last bit isn’t really true. Yes, some scientific problems arise in a social milieu, which is trivial, but the truth or falsity of scientific findings themselves is absolutely independent of society. And, as reader Vampyricon noted when calling this article to my attention, “Comfort also leans on the postmodernist myth of science as being focused on dominating nature, a claim that reminds one of Luce Irigaray’s claim that Newton’s Principia is a rape manual.”

At the end, Comfort disses rationality again, because, after all, those who promulgated Enlightenment values were “university-educated men who were not disabled”, and, as Vampyricon noted, wanted to “dominate nature.” Here Comfort mixes postmodernism with wokeness. If any two things are deeply entangled, it’s not science and society, but wokeness and postmodernism, both afflicted with the idea that truths are not empirical and determined by consensus, but personal and validated by feelings:

Yet there is a fruit fly in the ointment. Most of these Age-of-Reason notions of identity, and the dominant sci-fi scenarios of post-human futures, have been developed by university-educated men who were not disabled, and who hailed from the middle and upper classes of wealthy nations of the global north. Their ideas reflect not only the findings but also the values of those who have for too long commanded the science system: positivist, reductionist and focused on dominating nature. Those who control the means of sequence production get to write the story.

That has begun to change. Although there is far to go, greater attention to equity, inclusion and diversity has already profoundly shaped thinking about disease, health and what it means to be human. . .

So, if scientism is bad for society, and the lucubrations of able-bodied white men who went to college are determining our future, what can we do? What is Comfort’s alternative? He offers none. All he does is give us an example of how artistic “liberation” from science leads to some kind of enlightenment for disabled people:

DNA-based conceptions of ethnicity are far from unproblematic. But the impulse to make the technologies of the self more accessible, more democratic — more about self-determination and less about social control — is, at its basis, liberatory.

Nowhere is this clearer than for people living with disabilities and using assistive technologies. They might gain or regain modes of perception, might be able to communicate and express themselves in new ways, and gain new relationships to the universe of things.

The artist Lisa Park plays with these ideas. She uses biofeedback and sensor technologies derived from neuroscience to create what she calls audiovisual representations of the self. A tree of light blooms and dazzles as viewers hold hands; pools of water resonate harmonically in response to Park’s electroencephalogram waves; an ‘orchestra’ of cyborg musicians wearing heart and brain sensors make eerily beautiful music by reacting and interacting in different ways as Park, the conductor, instructs them to remove blindfolds, gaze at one another, wink, laugh, touch or kiss. Yet even this artistic, subjective and interactive sense of self is tied to an identity bounded by biology.

What is the sweating journalist trying to say here, here in the pages of one of the world’s premier scientific journals? Is this kind of art better for disabled people than the many scientists and technologists working on curing disabilities or making it easier for disabled people? (And yes, many of these benefactors are white men who went to college.) Note that the above is Comfort’s peroration, and it’s almost nuts. Not just nuts, but poorly written and loaded to the gunwales with postmodern jargon.

In his last paragraph, Comfort—surprise?—plumps for “other ways of knowing”:

Since the Enlightenment, we have tended to define human identity and worth in terms of the values of science itself, as if it alone could tell us who we are. That is an odd and blinkered notion. In the face of colonialism, slavery, opioid epidemics, environmental degradation and climate change, the idea that Western science and technology are the only reliable sources of self-knowledge is no longer tenable. This isn’t to lay all human misery at science’s feet — far from it. The problem is scientism. Defining the self only in biological terms tends to obscure other forms of identity, such as one’s labour or social role. Maybe the answer to Huxley’s ‘question of questions’ isn’t a number, after all.

Umm. . . Western science and technology—if you construe empirical observation, affirmation, and testing as “science”—are the only reliable sources of public knowledge. “Self-knowledge” is emotion and feeling, but becomes scientific if you want to demonstrate to others stuff like “I am a caring person who helps others.”

But none of this has anything to do with “defining the self only in biological terms.” Such a definition is Comfort’s conceit, and one of the hard-to-discern themes of his piece. But his conceit is misguided and wrong. Even biologists don’t think of their “self” in purely biological terms.

What is also wrong is that the scientific journal Nature published this tripe. What were they thinking?

h/t: Vampyricon

Postmodernism explained—and criticized

September 21, 2019 • 12:30 pm

The title of this 2017 article in Areo by Helen Pluckrose (also editor of the site) pulls no punches, and the piece is well worth reading—unlike the tedious and impenetrable lucubrations of the postmodernists themselves. Pluckrose not only explained postmodernism clearly—well, as clearly as one can—but also outlined the dangers it poses to academic education in sciences and humanities, to society at large, and then suggested a way to combat it. Click the screenshot to read:

I’ll give just three quotes (indented) from Helen on the topics above, but I recommend you read the whole thing. The headers are mine, and any comments of mine are flush left.

What is the gist of postmodernism?

Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida are just three of the “founding fathers” of postmodernism but their ideas share common themes with other influential “theorists” and were taken up by later postmodernists who applied them to an increasingly diverse range of disciplines within the social sciences and humanities. We’ve seen that this includes an intense sensitivity to language on the level of the word and a feeling that what the speaker means is less important than how it is received, no matter how radical the interpretation. Shared humanity and individuality are essentially illusions and people are propagators or victims of discourses depending on their social position; a position which is dependent on identity far more than their individual engagement with society. Morality is culturally relative, as is reality itself. Empirical evidence is suspect and so are any culturally dominant ideas including science, reason, and universal liberalism. These are Enlightenment values which are naïve, totalizing and oppressive, and there is a moral necessity to smash them. Far more important is the lived experience, narratives and beliefs of “marginalized” groups all of which are equally “true” but must now be privileged over Enlightenment values to reverse an oppressive, unjust and entirely arbitrary social construction of reality, morality and knowledge.

What are the dangers of postmodernism to science education? (Helen says, correctly, that science will go on, practiced in the future as it has been in the past, but how it is seen by people will be severely corroded by postmodernism.)

How much of a threat is postmodernism to science? There are certainly some external attacks. In the recent protests against a talk given by Charles Murray at Middlebury, the protesters chanted, as one,

“Science has always been used to legitimize racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, ableism, and homophobia, all veiled as rational and fact, and supported by the government and state. In this world today, there is little that is true ‘fact.’”[9]

When the organizers of the March for Science tweeted:

“colonization, racism, immigration, native rights, sexism, ableism, queer-, trans-, intersex-phobia, & econ justice are scientific issues,”[10]

many scientists immediately criticized this politicization of science and derailment of the focus on preservation of science to intersectional ideology. In South Africa, the #ScienceMustFall and #DecolonizeScience progressive student movement announced that science was only one way of knowing that people had been taught to accept. They suggested witchcraft as one alternative. [11]

I remember the first quote, which made me cringe, and is one of the reasons I was not a big fan of the March for Science, which appears, by the way, to have accomplished nothing.  The issues mentioned are political and moral issues, not scientific ones in the sense that they cannot be decided by empirical observation. That doesn’t mean they’re not important issues—just not scientific issues, though they can be informed by empirical study. As for “other ways of knowing”, I discuss that at length in Chapter 4 of Faith Versus Fact, and conclude that there are no valid ways of knowing other than the empirical approach that I call “science construed broadly.” Certainly witchcraft, revelation, religion, art, and “feelings” are not ways of knowing.

What are the dangers of postmodernism to the humanities? 

The social sciences and humanities, however, are in danger of changing out of all recognition. Some disciplines within the social sciences already have. Cultural anthropology, sociology, cultural studies and gender studies, for example, have succumbed almost entirely not only to moral relativism but epistemic relativism. English (literature) too, in my experience, is teaching a thoroughly postmodern orthodoxy. Philosophy, as we have seen, is divided. So is history.

Empirical historians are often criticized by the postmodernists among us for claiming to know what really happened in the past. Christopher Butler recalls Diane Purkiss’ accusation that Keith Thomas was enabling a myth that grounded men’s historical identity in “the powerlessness and speechlessness of women” when he provided evidence that accused witches were usually powerless beggar women. Presumably, he should have claimed, against the evidence, that they were wealthy women or better still, men. As Butler says,

“It seems as though Thomas’s empirical claims here have simply run foul of Purkiss’s rival organizing principle for historical narrative – that it should be used to support contemporary notions of female empowerment” (p36)

I encountered the same problem when trying to write about race and gender at the turn of the seventeenth century. I’d argued that Shakespeare’s audience’s would not have found Desdemona’s attraction to Black Othello, who was Christian and a soldier for Venice, so difficult to understand because prejudice against skin color did not become prevalent until a little later in the seventeenth century when the Atlantic Slave Trade gained steam, and that religious and national differences were far more profound before that. I was told this was problematic by an eminent professor and asked how Black communities in contemporary America would feel about my claim. If today’s African Americans felt badly about it, it was implied, it either could not have been true in the seventeenth century or it is morally wrong to mention it.

What are the dangers of postmodernism to society? Pluckrose floats the idea that if there is no such thing as “objective fact”, a view originated by Leftist philosophers, it can be (and has been) adopted by the Right as well.

The dangers of postmodernism are not limited to pockets of society which center around academia and Social Justice, however. Relativist ideas, sensitivity to language and focus on identity over humanity or individuality have gained dominance in wider society. It is much easier to say what you feel than rigorously examine the evidence. The freedom to “interpret” reality according to one’s own values feeds into the very human tendency towards confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.

It has become commonplace to note that the far-Right is now using identity politics and epistemic relativism in a very similar way to the postmodern-Left. Of course, elements of the far-Right have always been divisive on the grounds of race, gender and sexuality and prone to irrational and anti-science views but postmodernism has produced a culture more widely receptive to this. Kenan Malik describes this shift,

“When I suggested earlier that the idea of ‘alternative facts’ draws upon ‘a set of concepts that in recent decades have been used by radicals’, I was not suggesting that Kellyanne Conway, or Steve Bannon, still less Donald Trump, have been reading up on Foucault or Baudrillard… It is rather that sections of academia and of the left have in recent decades helped create a culture in which relativized views of facts and knowledge seem untroubling, and hence made it easier for the reactionary right not just to re-appropriate but also to promote reactionary ideas.”[12]

What is to be done?

In order to regain credibility, the Left needs to recover a strong, coherent and reasonable liberalism. To do this, we need to out-discourse the postmodern-Left. We need to meet their oppositions, divisions and hierarchies with universal principles of freedom, equality and justice. There must be a consistency of liberal principles in opposition to all attempts to evaluate or limit people by race, gender or sexuality. We must address concerns about immigration, globalism and authoritarian identity politics currently empowering the far-Right rather than calling people who express them “racist,” “sexist” or “homophobic” and accusing them of wanting to commit verbal violence. We can do this whilst continuing to oppose authoritarian factions of the Right who genuinely are racist, sexist and homophobic, but can now hide behind a façade of reasonable opposition to the postmodern-Left.

Our current crisis is not one of Left versus Right but of consistency, reason, humility and universal liberalism versus inconsistency, irrationalism, zealous certainty and tribal authoritarianism. The future of freedom, equality and justice looks equally bleak whether the postmodern Left or the post-truth Right wins this current war. Those of us who value liberal democracy and the fruits of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution and modernity itself must provide a better option.

Although Pluckrose’s essay was written 2½ years ago, it sounds as if were written yesterday.

For further reading, I’d recommend these four books (click to get Amazon links), all of them strong critiques of postmodernism and its antiscientific tenor:

and this book by Gross and Levitt: the first shot across the bow of postmodernism:

h/t: Douglas (for the “Pomo Way” photo


More science-dissing: WaPo’s misguided criticism of “scientism”

January 29, 2019 • 10:45 am

There’s never an end to science-dissing these days, and it comes largely from humanities scholars who are distressed by comparing the palpable progress in science with the stagnation and marginalization of their discipline—largely through its adoption of the methods of Postmodernism. (Curiously, the decline in humanities, which I believe coincides with university programs that promote a given ideology rather than encourage independent thought, is in opposition to the PoMo doctrine that there are different “truths” that emanate from different viewpoints.)

At any rate, much of the criticism of science comes in the form of accusations of “scientism”, defined, according to the article below in the Washington Post, as “the untenable extension of scientific authority into realms of knowledge that lie outside what science can justifiably determine.”

We’ve heard these assertions about scientism for years, and yes, there are times when scientists have made unsupported claims with social import. The eugenics movement and racism of early twentieth-century biologists is one, and some of the excesses of evolutionary psychology comprise another. One form of scientism I’ve criticized has been the claim (Sam Harris is one exponent) that science and objective reason can give us moral values; that is, we can determine what is right and wrong by simply using a calculus based on “well being” or a similar currency. I won’t get into why I think that’s wrong, but there are few scientists or philosophers that espouse this moral form of scientism.

But these days, claims of “scientism” are more often used the way dogs urinate on fire hydrants: to mark territories in the humanities. And that, it seems is what Aaron Hanlon, an assistant professor of English at Colby College is doing. In fact, he could have used science to buttress his main claim—that numbers make fake papers more readily accepted in journals—but didn’t. When you do, as I did, his main claim collapses.

The photo of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is there because she said (correctly) that algorithms themselves aren’t pure science, but reflect the intentions and perhaps the prejudices of people who construct them. From that Hanlon goes on to indict science for having a deceptive authority because it relies on numbers. But his example doesn’t have much to do with what Ocasio-Cortez said.

First, though, I note that Hanlon makes one correct point: that moral judgments, while they may rely on science (he uses claims that AI might replace human judges), aren’t scientific judgments that can be adjudicated empirically. I agree. But so do most people.

With few exceptions, most scientists and philosophers think that morality is at bottom based on human preferences. And though we may agree on many of those preferences (e.g., we should do what maximizes “well being”), you can’t show using data that one set of preferences is objectively better than another. (You can show, though, that the empirical consequences of one set of preferences differ from those of another set.) The examples I use involve abortion and animal rights. If you’re religious and see babies as having souls, how can you convince those folks that elective abortion is better than banning abortion? Likewise, how do you weigh human well being versus animal well being? I am a consequentialist who happens to agree with the well-being criterion, but I can’t demonstrate that it’s better than other criteria, like “always prohibit abortion because babies have souls.”

But that’s not Hanlon’s main point. His point rests on the “grievance studies” hoax perpetrated by Peter Boghossian, Helen Pluckrose, and James Lindsay (BP&L), in which they submitted phony papers, some having fabricated data, to different humanities journals. Some got accepted. From this Hanlon draws two false conclusions: that having numbers (faked data) increases the chance of a bad paper being accepted to a humanities journal, that that “we’re far too deferential to the mere idea of science.” Hanlon says this:

In actual fact, “social justice” jargon wasn’t enough — as the hoaxers initially thought — to deceive, but sprinkling in fake data did the trick better than jargon or political pieties ever could. Like Ocasio-Cortez’s critics, who trust too easily in the appearance of scientific objectivity, the hoaxed journals were more likely to buy outrageous claims if they were backed by something that looked like scientific data. It’s not that the hoax was an utter failure, nor that we shouldn’t worry about the vulnerabilities it exposed. It’s that, ironically, scientism and misplaced scientific authority actually contribute to those vulnerabilities and undermine science in the process.

But putting the numbers of accepted vs. rejected papers divided by whether or not they included faked data into a Fisher’s exact test (papers with data: 3 accepted, 2 rejected; papers without data: 4 accepted, 11 rejected), there’s no significant difference (p = 0.2898, far from significance). So using numbers in the “hoax papers” didn’t make a significant difference. Ergo, we have no evidence that using fake data improved a paper’s acceptance. That what science can tell you.

But it hardly matters, as the point of the hoax wasn’t to show that using data helped mislead reviewers. Even if there was a difference, it wouldn’t affect BP&L’s point: that palpably ridiculous papers, with or without numbers, were accepted by humanities journals because they conformed to the journals’ ideology. In fact, if you think about another famous hoax—Alan Sokal’s famous Social Text hoax of 1996—it involved a paper that used verbal arguments rather than data. So it’s not numbers that matter. Nevertheless, Hanlon wants to claim that scientism is still at play:

So what does the latest hoax tell us about the extension of scientism into academic fields that aren’t reducible to purely scientific explanations?

Part of the answer lies in a prior hoax, perpetrated by New York University physicist Alan Sokal in 1996. Sokal got an article laden with nonsensical jargon and specious arguments accepted at Social Text, a leading (though not peer-reviewed) cultural theory journal. The infamous “Sokal Hoax” was instructive, too, because, as Social Text editors Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross explained after Sokal went public about his actions, they didn’t accept his article out of fealty to its politics or its jargon, but rather out of trust in — perhaps even reverence for — an eminent scientist’s engagement with cultural theory.

Remember that the more recent hoaxers didn’t just content themselves with verbal nonsense (as Sokal did); they also faked data, and not in a way that reviewers should necessarily dismiss without a good reason to do so. Columbia University sociologist Musa al-Gharbi found that the hoaxers’ “purported empirical studies (with faked data) were more than twice as likely to be accepted for publication as their nonempirical papers,” which lends support to this possibility. It’s entirely possible that reviewers took these submissions seriously out of respect for scientific conclusions, not out of anti-science bias. This would also align with broader research showing that political ideology is not actually what causes people to distrust science.

So if you use numbers, you’re damned for scientism, and if you don’t use numbers, you’re damned for scientism because you’re a scientist. You can’t win!

But were there any dangers in promulgating false data the way that BP&L did? No, because their papers never entered the literature. The trio of hoaxers promptly informed the journals of the hoax after the papers were accepted, and, as far as I know, none of those papers stand as published contributions.

There are other wonky statements in Hanlon’s paper as well, but I’ll give just two:

But the question of whether AI judges should replace human judges is a complex civic and moral question, one that is by definition informed but not conclusively answerable by scientific facts. It’s here that observations like Ocasio-Cortez’s become so important: If racist assumptions are baked into our supposedly objective tools, there’s nothing anti-scientific about pointing that out. But scientism threatens to blind us to such realizations — and critics such as Lindsay, Pluckrose and Boghossian suggest that keeping our eyes open is some sort of intellectual failing.

First of all, scientism doesn’t blind us to realizing that bias might occur. Scientists in love with their own theories may tend to hang onto them in the face of countervailing data, but eventually the truth will out. We no longer think that races form a hierarchy of intelligence, with whites on top; we no longer think that the Piltdown man was a forerunner of modern humans, and so on. It is scientists, by and large, who dispel these biases. More important, BP&L did not suggest that keeping our eyes open was “some sort of intellectual failing.” It was in fact the opposite: they suggest that keeping our eyes open makes us see how ridiculous are papers written to conform to an ideology, papers that make crazy assertions that would startle anybody not already in the asylum.

Finally, Hanlon tries to exculpate the hoaxed journals because they are “interdisciplinary”:

Indeed, one of the liabilities of interdisciplinary gender studies journals like those that fell for the hoax is that, as I’ve argued, they’re actually not humanities journals, nor are they strictly social science journals. As such, they conceivably receive submissions that make any combination of interpretive claims, claims of cultural observation, and empirical or data-based claims. For all of their potential benefits, these interdisciplinary efforts — which have analogues in the humanities as well — also run into methodological and epistemological challenges precisely because of their reverence for science and scientific methods, not because of anti-science attitudes.

No, these journals fell for the hoaxes not because of their reverence for “science and scientific methods” (we have no data supporting that claim), but because the papers BP&L submitted were accepted because of reverence for their ideology, which was Authoritarian Leftist “grievance” work, in line with what these journals like.

This attitude—that we should go easier on work that conforms to what we believe, or what we’d like to think—is the real danger here. And there’s a name for it: it’s called confirmation bias. And it’s more of a danger in the humanities than in the sciences, simply because in science you can check somebody else’s work with empirical methods.

Big academic scandal brewing: three researchers deliberately publish seven bogus papers on “grievance studies” to highlight abysmal academic standards in the humanities

October 3, 2018 • 8:15 am

Yesterday three academics, James Lindsay, Peter Boghossian, and Helen Pluckrose, announced that they’d engaged in a year-long project submitting “intentionally absurd papers to leading scholarly journals as part of an investigation to expose extreme bias in fields that study race, gender, sexuality, and other politically charged topics.”

As the media release says (links to all materials, including the project’s methods, goals, and the list of seven accepted papers, are here), “The study was cut short when popular Twitter account New Real Peer Review, a platform dedicated to exposing shoddy scholarship, ridiculed one of their published papers. The attention prompted an investigation by the Wall Street Journal (article here) and the group made the decision to go public.”

Areo Magazine has just published the author’s rational and methodology so you don’t have to go to the Google Drive link above to see this material.

The best introduction to the project is the Wall Street Journal article, “Fake news comes to academia“, as well as  the video prepared with the authors’ cooperation, which is below. Do watch it: it’s only 6½ minutes long and is both informative and fun. One of the quotes from Lindsay in the video:

“Since approximately June of 2017, I along with two other concerned academics, Peter Boghossian and Helen Pluckrose, have been writing intentionally broken academic papers and submitting them to highly respected journals in fields that studied race, gender, sexuality and similar topics. We did this to expose a political corruption that has taken hold in the university.”

The authors call their papers “grievance studies” because they play into the ethos of much of the humanities, which “puts social grievances ahead of objective truth.” We all know that’s true for many papers, as I’ve written posts about some of them in the past several years. Remember the unbearable whiteness of yoga, yogurt, and pumpkins, and the work on feminist glaciology? That’s only a small sample of the ludicrous papers that, by populating some humanities journals, waste trees and neuronal activity. (I emphasize that there are many good studies in the humanities, but that the fields targeted by the authors have become deeply corrupted by requiring scholars to produce papers with politically approved conclusions.) The “authoritarianism” involved here is the fields’ and journals’ insistence that only a few ideological and political attitudes are acceptable in the work and publications.

But on to the video:

Seven papers have been accepted, but more were submitted; the project was cut short when the press sniffed it out. Journals on feminist studies, queer studies, fat studies, race studies, and so on will now be frantically vetting submitted papers to be sure they aren’t hoaxes. (This is best done not by looking at the content, for satire is indistinguishable from “real” scholarship, but checking on the identity of the authors.)

One paper even recast 3600 words from Hitler’s Mein Kampf as feminist theory, and was accepted by the journal Afflilia: Journal of Women and Social Work (it was rejected by Feminist Studies, but have a look at the reviewer comments on the fact sheet). As the project’s fact sheet notes:

In fact, a while back I came upon one of the authors’ satirical papers in Gender, Place & Culture, assumed it was real, and was going to write a post calling attention to the travesty. It turned out that I, like the journal’s editors, couldn’t distinguish “scholarship” in this journal from complete dreck. Here’s the original paper (click on screenshot to go to the site):

The paper has now been retracted, but on the grounds that the author used a disguised identity, not that the content was garbage. As the editors note:

We, the Editors and Publishers of Gender, Place & Culture, have retracted the following article:

Helen Wilson, “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon”, Gender, Place & Culture, DOI:10.1080/0966369X.2018.1475346, published online on May 22nd, 2018.

This is due to a breach of the following Publishing Agreement clause, signed by the author during the publication process:

“You warrant that: i. All persons who have a reasonable claim to authorship are named in the article as co-authors including yourself, and you have not fabricated or misappropriated anyone’s identity, including your own.”

Following an investigation into this paper, triggered by the Publisher and Editor shortly after publication, we have undertaken a number of checks to confirm the author’s identity. These checks have shown this to be a hoax paper, submitted under false pretences, and as such we are retracting it from the scholarly record.

Quillette has already solicited five statements from academics about the Grievance Studies project, all of whom find the Project fascinating and strongly criticize the fields for the pollution and ideology revealed by the satirical papers. You can read their reactions by clicking on the screenshot below:

Here’s what one of the five, Nathan Cofnas, in philosophy, had to say about the standards of one “quality” journal:

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?

Oy gewalt!

We know what will happen now. The journals will retract the papers (but not on grounds of scholarship!), and those defenders of the polluted fields will argue that the journals are not first-rate journals, but predatory ones that will publish anything. That, however, is not the case this time.

Further, those Authoritarian Leftist defenders of the rigor of feminist, queer, fat-studies, and other fields infected by postmodernism will call out Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian for duplicity. But that’s not the point, just as it wasn’t the point in the Sokal Affair. Yes, one needs to be deceptive in a case like this, but it’s deception of the kind that occurs when government officials test TSA screening methods by putting fake bombs and guns in luggage. It’s a necessary, blind-testing way to expose shoddiness and rot. Yes, we’ll hear a lot of screaming from the humanities and Authoritarian Leftists, but it will be at once obfuscatory and humorous. I’m looking forward to it. (Note: One defense of the journals has already appeared; it’s more or less what I expected, but including the charge that we Leftists should spend our time policing the Trump administration and the military-industrial complex than policing academia. It’s a great example of whataboutery.)

In the end, I don’t think the fields infiltrated by these papers will change much. The students want these kinds of studies, the classes are money-makers for universities, the papers are money-maker for the journals, and, in fact, I suspect that many professors already know that they churn out a lot of junk, but they don’t care. After all, it’s the way to get a secure job and get ahead in academia. But at least the rest of us will know how our tax money is being used, how our students are being propagandized, and how what could be respectable fields of scholarship are being eaten away by the twin termites of postmodern nonsense and the Authoritarian Left.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, there will likely be severe repercussions to all three researchers:

Mr. Boghossian doesn’t have tenure and expects the university will fire or otherwise punish him. Ms. Pluckrose predicts she’ll have a hard time getting accepted to a doctoral program. Mr. Lindsay said he expects to become “an academic pariah,” barred from professorships or publications.

Yet Mr. Lindsay says the project is worth it: “For us, the risk of letting biased research continue to influence education, media, policy and culture is far greater than anything that will happen to us for having done this.”

Kudos to them; they’ve done a good thing. Most of us know how bad the scholarship can be in these fields, but they have cast a big spotlight on it.

Left to right: Lindsay, Pluckrose, Boghossian

h/t: Michael

Psychology professor and her two cats write po-mo article on “multispecies inquiry”

July 18, 2018 • 2:00 pm

This is just for grins: I don’t know whether the journal Qualitative Inquiry, where this travesty was published, is taken seriously (it is, however, a SAGE journal); but I am pretty sure this article is NOT a joke or a hoax. The article is free, and may not even require the legal unpaywall app; click on screenshot below to see itL:

Susan Naomi Nordstrom is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, and Amelie and Nordstrom are her cats; or rather Amelie, whose illness and euthanasia dominates the article, was her cat. It’s not clear why the cats are coauthors given that they didn’t actually write the article.

The article is simply the story of how Amelie got sick and, after some extensive medical interventions, Dr. Nordstrom decided to have the cat euthanized, which was of course devastating. That is all there is to the story, but it’s couched in postmodern gibberish, supposedly embedding the story in “the theories of Haraway and Rautio”, which actually add nothing to the narrative. Here’s the abstract, which gives you a flavor of a publication for which the author got professional credit:

All the wordplay doesn’t obscure the fact that is is simply what many of us have gone through: bonding with a beloved pet and being devastated when it becomes terminally ill and has to be “put down”.

You can read the article for yourself; here are just a few ways that Dr. Nordstrom tricked out her personal story with postmodern academic-y trappings that, in the end, fail to transform her drayhorse into a Thoroughbred:

When Amelie, Susan’s cat companion of 15 years, recently died, a friend asked her, “Can you imagine the past 15 years of your life without her?” Susan quickly responded, “No. I cannot think my life without her” as she petted her other cat companion, Coonan. The following Haraway (2008) quote resonated in their mourning bodies: “I am who I become with companion species, who and which make a mess out of categories in the making of kin and kind. Queer messmates in mortal play indeed” (p. 19). Our mortal play of subtle tunings and tendings—tuning toward and tending to affective dimensions between species (Rautio, 2017)—dominates our multispecies life together, or kin-making. A narrative of our multispecies living together moves beyond the confines of the narrative inquiry literature that is centered on humans, those “storytelling organisms who, individually and socially lead storied lives” (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990, p. 2)

Had enough? Wait! There’s more! (emphases are mine):

Coonan (a much younger cat) frequently tried to play with Amelie (a more mature cat). Amelie loudly hissed and growled when Coonan tried to play with her without her consent. Susan reprimanded Coonan by saying “Consensual Play, Coonan. Consensual Play.” Coonan meowed apologies after such incidents. Gazes, sleep-dreaming together, time spent relaxing on the couch together, and so on created different affects within the system and created a sense of equilibrium in our communication system. We moved to Nebraska together and then later to Tennessee with each place shifting our system. New homes, different climates, different human schedules, and other humans shifted our system. These shifts provided ways of knowing our multispecies equilibrium.

Consensual play! Apologies! But wait! There’s still more:

We tune and tend each other in our rhythmic practices of living–dying together. We have come to realize that we are never fully cat or fully human. We are both cat and human moving between constructs in assemblages together. We move through tunings and tendings. No singular being is centered in our multispecies life. We are multiple.

What is the sweating professor trying to say? Or does she just like alliteration? Does the meaning go beyond “I have two cats whom I love”? If so, I don’t know what it is. Later Dr., Nordstrom says she didn’t intend to write the story of the death of her cat, and of her life with both cats, but was urged to do so by her friends and colleagues. They should have known better! And so she justifies her stories with the thinnest of rationales:

Why do we take the risk of authoring our life together? Why does Susan not take sole authorship as she should in a neoliberal human-centered academy? Why do we write evocatively rather than argumentatively? Why do we refuse domestication? We write our kin story to infect narrative inquiry. Our kin story, our becoming with, suggests that “companion species infect each other all time” Haraway 2016, (p. 115). We are concerned that human-centered narratives forget the response-abilities we have to each other, humans and nonhumans alike. We worry what that does for our living and dying together. In a world in which we must stay with the trouble, where we must live and die together better, stories matter a lot and how we tell those stories matters. Haraway wrote,

It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories. (p. 12)

We must write our living–dying together, our becoming with, to create different ties that may very well create a better and just world for both humans and nonhumans. For as Haraway wrote, “We become-with each other or not at all” (p. 4). It is for this reason that a human and two cats author together—our becoming with happens together and, consequently, so does the writing of our life together.

Now I don’t want to be churlish here: I, too, have lived with and loved cats, and held a beloved cat in my arms as the vet put him to sleep. It was so devastating that, for only the second time in my life, I fainted. (The other is when I dropped a 500-pound oak desk on my big toe, completely severing the bone.) But I don’t gussy up that that story with academic theory and cringe-making wordplay and try to publish it, pretending that it has some significance larger than the already significant lesson that we can love our animals so hard that their deaths are as devastating as the loss of a friend or family member.  I don’t try to “infect narrative inqury,” whatever that means.

Journals like Qualitative Inquiry, which are willing to publish stuff like this as a serious contribution to intellectual discourse, are seriously damaging the humanities, if they haven’t aren’t already irreparably damaged by this kind of lunacy.

And I still want to know why the two cats are authors.


Paper of the month: Postmodernists on “doggy bio-politics” as exemplified by Obama’s Water Dog Bo

April 13, 2018 • 2:15 pm

You know what? I don’t care if the paper below was published is a predatory journal, or an obscure journal or whatever: it still gives scholars the opportunity go cite a publication on their curriculum vitae, thereby advancing their careers.

I have no idea how Organization rates among scholars, but Wikipedia does suggest that it doesn’t rate badly, having a decent impact factor:

The journal is abstracted and indexed in Scopus, and the Social Sciences Citation Index. According to the Journal Citation Reports, its 2013 impact factor is 2.354, ranking it 36th out of 172 journals in the category “Management”.

Click on the screenshot to go to the pdf. The subject is what can be trawled, via postmodernist jouer, from Obama’s pet water dog Bo. The abstract gives you a taste of the rest:

I struggled hard with excerpts of this paper, trying to find something in it worth saying or hearing, but what i got was this (an excerpt; my emphasis):

The direct interventions on Bo, rather than on the individual citizen, exemplifies how the rules of the game for self-crafting are reconfigured with both normative framings and an opening up of a less confined space, wherein individuals are activated to engage in dog-infused ethical decision making to be channelled anew (cf. Weiskopf and Willmott, 2013). Much akin to how Skinner (2013) describes the self-ethical process of becoming a ‘good farmer’ via the construction of the ‘organic’ within a community, but in our case without as direct enterprising bents. That is, Bo is not mainly offering us to become better at economic cost benefit analyses on how to ‘invest’ in certain practices to optimise ourselves as human capital (du Gay, 1996; Weiskopf and Munro, 2012), neither is Bo teamed up with instrumental self-quantification measures to regulate our intentions to enhance biospheric vitality (Chandler in Chandler and Reid, 2016: 27–49). Rather, Bo’s presence in the White House, in the media and in political debates extends the biopolitical self-regulative agenda to what we conceptualise as ‘doggy-biopolitics’, a power exercised in relation to the optimisation of dogs en masse.

Bo is an especially powerful instrument of doggy-biopolitics as he can fulfil the role of a humanlike person with a close personal relationship with the members of the First Family, whereas he can also be biologised when characteristics traditionally associated with dogs are needed: liveliness, loyalty and honesty. In contrast to previous First Dogs, Bo is not merely invoked as a rhetorical resource used to meet arguments in a conflict, but is construed as a person with a voice and feelings of his own, invoked by alternative voices to shape and scrutinise presidential subjectivity. As dogs are generally thought to be honest by nature, Bo can be said to be the perfect litmus test for truth.

All I can glean from this is that Bo alternated between the roles of “dog” and “anthropomorphized pet”, and that’s about it. The rest of the paper, which goes along similar lines, is at your disposal—and I suggest that literally.

When I read this, the thought came to mind, “Why, this obscurantist nonsense is just like religion!” And then I realized that that was indeed true: postmodernism is a sort of religion. It has its gods (Foucault, Derrida) whose behavior and scriptures are sacred;it cares not a whit for what is true, but rather is concerned with a twisted form of tribal bonding; it takes up space and wastes people’s time; it makes decent careers for people who are unsuited to do anything meaningful (viz., theologians), and it engages in arrant obscurantism, using a special and tortuous jargon to confound regular people. Indeed, its purpose is not to be understood by us regular Joes and Jills, but to speak to others in the faith, and, by saying the right things, join the tribe and “construct” a career.

Those of you who have the stomach to read the whole paper, and find its nugget of truth—if there is one—by all means weigh in below. But my quick reading convinces me that this is just like Feminist Glaciologyor racist white Pilates.

Well, at least the paper’s figures have pictures of Bo, so you can see a dog if you like canids. Here’s Figure 5:

h/t: Maarten, who wrote of the journal: “My dog could get published in there, and I don’t even have one!”

He added, in his cover email:

So when Bo Obama was fetching a football, the canine was in fact complicit in an evil plot to entrench the Foucauldian hegemony of the neo-liberal order. Or something to that effect.
Have fun!

Postmodern Poo: A Harvard course on scatalogical literature (“the canon is a chamber pot”)

January 19, 2018 • 11:00 am

An anonymous reader sent me this announcement for a course at Harvard, and at first I thought it was an enormous joke. Now I’ve learned it’s for real. For one thing, there is indeed a professor at Harvard called Annabel Kim: she’s an Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures. And her c.v., here, lists a related book in progress:

Unbecoming Language: Anti-Identitarian French Feminist Fictions (forthcoming from the Ohio State University Press)

Cacaphonies: Toward an Excremental Poetics (in progress)

But the ultimate proof is that Harvard lists the course in its catalogue, reproducing the text beneath the poster’s pile of friendly poo. The course description (the same as on the poster) is below, and I’ve bolded a few part. But hell—the whole thing should be bolded!

French literature, from the Middle Ages to today, has been consistently and remarkably scatological. Fecal matter is omnipresent in works and authors that we consider canonical (e.g. the fabliaux, Rabelais, de Sade, Beckett, Celine) and yet its presence has been remarkably submerged or passed over in readerly and critical reception of modern and contemporary French literature. This course proposes to take this fecal presence seriously and to attend to the things it has to tell us (hence the plurality of cacaphonies) by starting with the following premise: If literature is excrement, then the canon is a chamber pot. We will focus on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and read a diverse range of scatological texts in order to use the scatological as a means to: 1) Theorize an excremental poetics where excretion provides a model for the process of writing. The task of excretion, which translates into concrete form our experience of the world (we excrete what we take in, processing and giving it new form), is also the task of literature; 2) Allow for a new interrogation and critique of the canon and the ways in which it serves to conceal, contain, sanitize, and compel culture; 3) Provide another angle from which to approach the question of gender and writing, as gender organizes both literature (e.g. the paucity of canonical women writers) and defecation (e.g. the gendering of constipation as a feminine condition); 4) Offer an alternative theory of the significance of fecal matter to the dominant one provided by psychoanalysis (i.e. feces as gift, gold, a la Freud). The goal of the course is to begin to articulate and realize an original approach to literature that, rather than take feces as a site of disgust, takes it as a site of creation.

All I can say is this: the course is a damn travesty, larded with postmodernism. I pity the students who take it, and I pity the professor, who is not only going to have to deal with this for the rest of her professional life, but may be endangering her tenure. For surely even Harvard can’t think that this is worthy teaching or scholarship!

Now I’m not sure if Dr. Kim made this poster to advertise the course, or someone made it as a joke. But given that the whole course is an unwitting joke, it hardly matters.

An academic explores the performative social construction of masculinity among South Texas Hispanics by analyzing the size of their barbecues and spiciness of their condiments

January 13, 2018 • 8:47 am

If you looked at Heather Heying’s tw**t in this morning’s Hili dialogue, you’ll see this:

The “salsa accused of constructing masculinity” reference intrigued me, as it looked like one of those obscurantist po-mo pieces that keep academics and journals (predatory or not) busy without contributing anything to society. So I looked the article up, and, indeed, here it is (reference below, free access, pdf here; click on screenshot to see full article):

Molina is an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, specializing in “Social Demography, Critical Race Theory, Latina/a Issues, Immigration”.

I can summarize the paper in a space shorter than even the paper’s own abstract; here’s my summary:

Mexican-American men in Texas demonstrate their masculinity by barbecuing meat, having bigger grills, and eating spicier pico de gallo.

(Pico de gallo, meaning “beak of the rooster” in Spanish, is a Mexican condiment made of chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapeno peppers and cilantro. It’s used on foods like tacos or fajitas.)

That’s it, and it may well be true, but does it merit a paper? We all know that home barbecuing is one form of cooking largely monopolized by men, though I’m increasingly seeing women do it. But do Hispanic men pride themselves on having bigger grills, or on eating a pico de gallo with more hot peppers? That’s what Hilario Molina, writing in Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, concludes.

But how does he arrive at this conclusion? Does he take a survey or do a poll? No, he does what he calls “autoethnography,” which appears to be a fancy word for “anecdotal observation”. In Molina’s case, he (his students verify his sex and also have some pungent words about his teaching) went to 30 cookouts involving Mexican-Americans in South Texas. From these “field observations,” he simply chooses a number of observations and anecdotes to support his thesis, fleshing them out with tedious and obscure language that simply points to my conclusions above. That’s it—seriously.

I’ll present a few passages to show what this species of sociologist is up to. Note especially the pompous and bad writing meant to give an air of profundity to otherwise trite observations:

Although the physical environment sets the social space, the stage for manly performance, the pico de gallo  and the grill are direct identifiers of masculinity. This is not to say that men do not venture into the kitchen; however, they do so under an umbrella of gendered space immunity. The entry into feminine space is to comply with a gender role which takes precedence over gender environment boundaries, such as needing the means to make the pico de gallo . As a result, negative social sanctions are non-existent because the trespass into feminised space is a requirement for the journey of macho or male  socialisation, as demonstrated in the passage below that took place at a participant s house:

A middle-aged man chops onions, cilantro, tomatoes, and jalapenos; then, placing these ingredients in a glass bowl, he squeezes lemon juice over it. Vieja (Spanish slang for wife) come and try the pico de gallo, he yells at the wall in front of him. A woman comes from another room. It is too hot! I do not think we will be able to have any, she protests after tasting it. I will make two; one for us and one for you all, he stated in a firm tone.

What a sexist pig!

Here’s another bit of “field work”:

Thus, grilling links man to both a present gender identity and one which has a historical and trans-generational recognition of dominance and mastery of the environment whereby nature has become the cognitive embodiment of the social and cultural factors of symbolic conquests. Within this stratum, grilling game (meat) is indicative of manliness and participant attempts to let those around him know his level of manliness, as shown in this passage, an interaction which directly drew my attention in this cookout:

A mature, aged man, surrounded by a myriad of young males, standing near a grill and holding a beer, said, The smell of this mesquite burning reminds me of a time when I was about your age, and I was living in the campo (rural area). He then added, Your father and I had to walk for miles to get to school. Today, you all sure have it easy.

The grill is both a prerequisite for a boy seeking to form a gender identity and a signifier of economic stability and ability as a provider important qualities of a macho . Thus, a public display unfolds in which a man shows himself enduring, surviving and eventually succeeding against nature’ – representative of life s challenges. By grilling for those within the subculture, he is publically [sic] committing to the group s norms and values as his self becomes part of the structure.

Well, the statement is nothing more than the common claim that “we had it worse than you when we were kids”, something that’s hardly unique to Mexican-Americans—or to men. Remember the Four Yorkshiremen of Monty Python? There’s nothing in the statement above about constructing a gender identity, demonstrating that the author is simply using anything to reinforce his preordained conclusion.  This is not objective investigation but confirmation bias.

And here Molina explains the significance of his work:

This article contributes to the studies of gender roles and Latino issues by incorporating masculinity theory to present a sociological perspective on working-class Mexican American machos  in the RGV. As such, the purpose of this article is to explain how the behaviour of manliness comes from a traditional and ritualistic association to the natural world. Mexican American masculinity is measured against the gender formation of men s and women s roles in the RGV. Without the social construction of feminine space (indoors) and masculine space (outdoors), mild salsa for the women and children versus a spicy salsa for the men and the significance of the grill s size, the cultural meaning of masculinity (machismo) as representing the apex would not exist.

Within this perception of reality, masculine space serves to define his’ group position but also serves as a stage for gender role performances. Whereas the pico de gallo  and the barbeque grill are symbolic indicators of masculine discourse and social interaction, they rely on its gender opposite (marianismo) to clearly construct the macho  hierarchy. Therefore, we see how working-class Mexican American males pursue this apex status and also how they transmit these subcultural values of masculinity to the next generation of machitos (little men).

The significance of this project is twofold: (1) it explains gender formation of working-class Mexican Americans living in the RGV area; and (2) this group is, according to demographic scholars, such as Rodriguez and his colleagues (2008 ), the fastest and largest growing ethnic group in the United States. Within the Latinos/as community, Mexican and Mexican Americans account for more than 60% of this ethnic category; as a result, it is essential that studies begin to address structural issues of inequality endemic within this community. In addition, studies must also be conducted on other subcultures where subordinate groups encounter structural and cultural challenges.

This smacks of desperation and a search for tenure. The conclusions may be correct, but they are based on anecdotal observations, not any kind of systematic study. Plus they’re overblown by couching them in po-mo jargon like “gender role performances” and “construct the macho hierarchy.”  Finally, yes, the Hispanic community may be growing rapidly, but seriously, do studies of grill size and pico de gallo help us to either understand or interpret that phenomenon? Inequality of grill performance and the spiciness of pico de gallo is hardly the kind of “inequality” that American liberals need to address!

Now I’m not saying anything here about the quality of this journal, or of sociological work as a whole (yes, there’s good work in the field). What I’m saying is that when serious academics engage in this kind of work, something is wrong with the academic standards of the field. Increasingly, I see trivial and PREORDAINED conclusions tricked out in fancy-schmancy language designed to make them look profound. Further, we see anecdotes often used instead of systematic analysis. I think I could find exactly these conclusions if I went to a bunch of cookouts by white people: men would dominate the cooking and I would probably find—at least occasionally—some guy boasting about how hot he likes his hot sauce. So the conclusions, based as they are on anecdotes, aren’t even unique to Mexican-Americans. Or, if they are, it hasn’t been demonstrated here.

One thing Molina fails to note is the equation of grill size with penis size. Imagine what could be made of this:


Molina II, H. (2014) The construction of South Texas masculinity: masculine space, the pico de gallo and the barbeque grill. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. 21: 233-248, DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2013.868352

Postmodernism and its effect on politics and prose

October 20, 2017 • 3:30 pm

Jasbir Puar, an associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, has managed to both be an LGBT activist and queer studies professor and at the same time demonize Israel at the expense of Palestine. She does this, of course, by claiming that gay rights in Israel (there are none in Palestine) is an example of Israeli “pinkwashing” or “golden handcuffs“. This is a classic example of how the anti-Israel faction of the Left is adept at turning virtues into vices, for Puar ignores the abrogation of gay rights by Palestine–so violent is her hatred of Israel.

She’s also claimed, falsely, that Israelis systematically poison the Palestinian populace with chemicals and radiation, do medical experiments on Palestinian children, and harvest the organs of dead Palestinians. This woman has a dicey relationship with the truth.

I spent an unpleasant hour after a nap reading, or rather straining to read, Puar’s prose, and suddenly realized that her writing, and in all likelihood her politics, are heavily influenced by postmodernism. The first, politics, by a blatant disregard of truth in favor of “privileging” one’s hatred and ideology, and the second, her writing, by its tedious and almost unbearable opacity.  Working my way through an interview with Puar, which I strongly suspect was a written and not live one, I came across this three-sentence paragraph, which rivals Judith Butler’s famous sentence that won the Bad Writing Contest in 1998. (It has not escaped my notice that Butler also does gender studies and queer theory, and that Puar got her Ph.D. in those same fields where Butler teaches: at Berkeley.)

Here, my friends, is a single paragraph showing the wages of postmodernism in both thought and expression. I did not enact the emotional labor to untangle its meaning, but if you read what she’s written, it’s pretty much all like this. If you wish, you can tell me what it means.

 In Terrorist Assemblages I propose a rapproachment of Foucauldian biopolitics and Achille Mbembe’s critique of it through what I call a ‘bio-necro collaboration’, one that conceptually acknowledges biopower’s direct activity to death, while remaining bound to the optimalization of life, and necropolitics’ nonchalance towards death even as it seeks out killing as a primary aim. I allege that it is precisely within the interstices of life and death that we find the differences between queer subjects who are being folded (back) into life and the racialized queernesses that emerge through the naming of populations, thus fueling the oscillation between the disciplining of subjects and control of populations. The result of the successes of queer incorporation into the domains of consumer markets and social recognition in the post-civil rights, late twentieth-century era, these various entries by queers into the biopolitics optimalization of life mark a shift, as homosexual bodies have been historically understood as endlessly cathected to death, from being figures of death (i.e., the AIDS pandemic) to becoming tied to ideas of life and productivity (i.e., gay marriage and reproductive kinship).

I don’t care what you say: there is NO EXCUSE for writing this badly, and yet this is considered good writing by postmodernists, for whom clarity is a vice.