An impressive Sokal-style hoax came to light this week and, frankly, I could not be more pleased. The same should be true of anyone who values evidenced-based reasoning and thoughtful, honest scholarship. It took aim at the ideological fanaticism, rampant bias, and pseudo-intellectualism poisoning large swaths of the humanities. There’s an excellent and extensive write-up on this in Areo Magazine, so I won’t spend much time on an exhaustive summary. Make no mistake–it’s worth looking into, but I won’t pretend I can provide a better summary than the one provided by the original authors. Suffice it to say that several leading journals in the humanities (ones focused on culture/gender/identity studies) accepted and/or published papers with absurd or evenly deeply unethical conclusions. One even published sections of Hitler’s Mein Kampf reworked with modern feminist jargon.
Here, I’d like to explain why the hoax is a good thing. Surely people immersed in the fields exposed by the hoax as cauldrons of blind and indulgent hucksterism will cook up all manner of wild apologetics to minimize the harm done to their disciplines. Rationalizing faults and failings is a very human thing to do. Some of their criticisms will probably even have merit.
Thing is, the hoax–perpetrated by Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsey, and Peter Boghossian–wasn’t about harming a grossly misguided set of intellectual traditions. It was about exposing the harm those fields are doing to academia in general and society at large. These are the vacuous progeny of schools of thought based primarily in tortured sophistry and intellectual masturbation. They are, by their very nature, incapable of contributing to human knowledge or advancing human progress. Curing diseases, expanding the scope of human rights, improving the prospects of vulnerable or marginalized groups, or even the humbdrum business of finding things out is not what these fields are about.
These fields, of course, are the twisted offspring of postmodernism. For those unfamiliar, postmodernism arose as a breed of art and literary criticism before escaping the paddock and running rampant across vulnerable minds in certain social sciences and branches of the humanities. It is based in a sort of radical skepticism, that, taken to its logical extreme should leave its adherents paralyzed in a stupor of solipsism. Unfortunately, folks who find postmodernism appealing seem to be violently allergic to things like logic.
Puzzlingly, these people somehow move from a thorough rejection of reason and evidence as reliable tools for evaluating the world to a position where they attempt to advance deeply biased, purely ideological claims about reality. That is, they deny the very possibility of intellectual progress and objectivity, then make bold claims about what is and is not true of the world. If this makes little sense to you, congratulations: you have arrived at a comprehensive understanding of postmodern scholarship. The postmodernist says that there are no tools for reliably evaluating the world or building universal knowledge, then carries on under the implicit assumption that their views on the world are somehow more valuable than those advanced by average citizens. How else are we to explain their parasitic acceptance of salaries to advance ideas, that, by their own lights, should be considered no more valuable, no more true or insightful, than the ramblings of a homeless drunk sweating off a week long bender?
In this strange world of enthusiastic incoherence and self-congratulation, everything boils down to narrative. That views gives “scholars” (applying that term to people who take “feminist glaciology” seriously without the scare quotes would constitute a serious insult to real academics) in these fields license to imbue their work with shoddy reasoning and outlandish bias in pursuit of radical social aims.
Lacking an external or universal adjudicator like reason and evidence, these fields are, by their very nature, dangerously radicalizing. Prestige accumulates to the individuals capable of finding the most trivial cause for offense in the most mundane and innocuous behavior or institution. Extra kudos befall the person who can write the longest, most incomprehensible run-on sentence about it. A nasty feedback cycle ensues: people “problematize” some aspect of the world everyone was previously comfortable with, others congradulate them on their tortured pedantry, and then the race is on to problematize something even more trivial.
Indeed, the incentive structure of these disciplines is such that everything they produce boils down to some combination of pride, gleeful ignorance, and self-interest. Naturally, these forces are at work in all human enterprises. But in disciplines that set themselves the task of uncovering objective, universal truths about the world, they are held in check by the widespread recognition of the value of careful, evidence-based reasoning.
The prevailing discourse in cultural studies is the sort of thing you’d expect to happen if you filled a room with people who were very bad at articulating their ideas, dispositionally incapable of admitting when they don’t understand one another, entirely devoid of the expertise necessary to make a pronouncement (positive or negative) on the subject at hand, and thoroughly incapable of admitting as much. The result is a mutual admiration society built from people “educated beyond their capacity for critical thought (bastardizing Peter Medewar).” These are people more interested in seeming knowledgeable than gaining knowledge, more interested in appearing concerned about society’s ills than curing them.
That would all be fine and dandy if these people confined themselves to the local coffee shop. Everyone, including the very smart, is capable of harboring ideas that are very dumb. Large numbers of people in the humanities, however, have somehow tricked society into paying them to not only harbor, but actively spread, very dumb ideas.
The damage this has done is incalculable. Entire careers have been wasted. Who’s? Well, postmodern academics in the humanities and social sciences, for one. Their careers exist as a net cost on society because they contribute nothing to society save confusion. The basic tenants of their intellectual tradition–radical skepticism, hardcore idealism, fierce social constructivism, doctrinaire relativism–concede as much.
But more distressingly, the fruits of these disciplines have come to infect popular discourse. Insofar as they have any, the intellectual justifications for authoritarian leftism (call-out culture, shouting down and silencing ideological opponents, racializing rudeness as microaggressions, stigmatizing cultural exchange as appropriation, identity politics, etc.) flow entirely from the postmodern progeny of gender and cultural studies. And remember, these are disciplines in which the complete abrogation of anything resembling intellectual rigor very often renders a PhD the academic equivalent of a participation trophy. People who, implicitly or explicitly, deny the existence of verifiable facts are playing a significant role in shaping how people cope with reality and the surprising existence of other humans unlike them.
In dealing such a stiff and revealing blow to the world of postmodern pedantry and far-left fanaticism, Pluckrose, Lindsey, and Boghossian have done the world an enormous service. Surely most of the credulous suckers and desperate charlatans enmeshed in the aptly dubbed world of grievance studies will perform the necessary gymnastics to brush aside such a glaring, obvious, and highly public glimpse of their fraudulence. Hopefully the same won’t be true of untainted minds, who should, given the slightest shred of intellectual honesty, recognize this hoax as clear evidence of deep corruption.
A lot of the work done in the humanities and social sciences is enormously valuable. The work done by the radical skeptics and postmodernists within these domains casts that done by their more studious and ethical colleagues in a painfully ugly light. At best, they contribute nothing to the world (save an unfortunate drain on university resources). At worst, they provide succor and justification to hideous, anti-progressive, and disturbingly authoritarian ideological crusades.
Beating the postmodern impulse back into the world of literary criticism, where it belongs, is a virtuous campaign. It’s more than a reaction to wasteful intellectual masturbation. It is a valuable contribution to the business of expanding human knowledge and furthering human progress.