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.
Religious liberals and conservative moderates often recoil in the face of hard atheism. To them, atheism represents a sort callous disdain for an inoffensive source of succor and support. Why, they wonder, are people subjected to such rancorous ridicule for believing in something that brings them comfort?
Doubtless this reaction springs from a place of authenticity. There are plenty of atheists who scorn religion wholesale and excoriate its practitioners as frail imbeciles. And there are plenty of others who take no real offense at private religiosity but opportunistically assail believers with similar barbs. Why not? It’s good fun at the expense of an easy target. A bit of lazy recreation can go a long way. It’s shooting tin cans in the desert.
Because of this confusion, it’s worth making efforts to advance a more nuanced position. Naturally, I can’t speak for the entire population of atheists. The atheist community is diverse. Some, like me, disavow religious belief because it is contrary to a worldview built around reason and evidence. Faith is a childish epistemology. It can’t be reconciled with science and careful reasoning. Others disdain religion for emotional reasons.
PC Police and Conservative Persecution Complex
A lot of conservatives are under the impression that they are a widely maligned, politically persecuted group in the United States. Read this delusional piece by professional fabulist Dennis Prager as a good for instance. If you’re partial to statistics, this might do the trick: Around 73% of Republicans think the FBI and Department of Justice are enacting partisan campaigns to undermine President Donald Trump. Remember, the people in charge of both organizations are Republicans appointed by Donald Trump. Watch any amount of Fox News or listen to any amount of conservative talk radio for similar results.
At the same time, there is a breed of intolerance blossoming on the far left. It has yet to take a shape even vaguely redolent of the sweeping anti-Republican pogrom some conservatives envision. Nevertheless, it is an unmistakable drive to build a sanctuary for a high-octane version of liberal orthodoxy. The clearest, most widely publicized front of this campaign has been college campuses. There, activist students and professors have sought to badger, ostracize, and silence the people they disagree with. But it is also visible online, where so-called social justice warriors* (better characterized as “virtue-signalers”) aim to fight white supremacy by harassing high school girls for their choice of prom dress. It’s not obvious what any of this is accomplishing, but it does lend support to the sense of persecution many conservatives share. This, in fact, might be the most salient consequence of far left social media and campus activism.
The conservative sense of persecution is largely imaginary. However, the political provincialism growing on the far left grants this sense of abuse real-world anchorage. It’s not that obvious instances of harassment and cruelty toward conservatives are particularly widespread or in any way comparable to the kinds insults faced by the truly oppressed. Rather, it’s that these instances – however frequent – represent both a sad betrayal of liberal values and an egregious tactical error. If someone is already prone to hearing voices, it’s probably not a good idea to start whispering in their ear.
A High Priest in the First Church of Anti-Liberalism
Let me tell you about a man named Dennis Prager. An extreme right-wing pundit, Dennis Prager is an idiot cloaked in a thin-veneer of intellect – a white-knuckle blowhard who has troubled telling the difference between loud voices and good arguments. But more to the point, he is also a High Priest in new religious order: The First Church of Anti-Liberalism.
Normally, it’s considered bad form to fill an essay with ad hominem attacks, let alone start with them. And rightly so – that sort of thing rarely gets us out of the woods and into a place where we can begin to understand one another. Yet it would be perverse to ignore a history of shoddy reasoning and wild fanaticism in assessing the value someone’s work.
In that regard, Prager’s partisan hysteria and thoughtlessness is the core issue. This is a man who has made a career out of enthusiastically mistaking his feelings about how the world ought to be for facts about how the world really works. He even runs a “university” dedicated to the practice. Human as that is, it is also very foolish. In a struggling representative democracy aching for serious, reasoned discourse, it is also extremely dangerous.
An aide walks into a Republican Senator’s office. She has just finished a report on climate change and is giving the Senator a brief summary of her findings:
Aide: If we continue to burn fossil fuels, there’s a good chance we’ll cause significant ecological, political, and economic disruption. It could get very bad.
Senator: But it’s not 100%?
A: No. But–
S: Okay. Let’s keep burning fossil fuels. Otherwise, some people won’t make as much money on their investments and others might need to find new jobs.
A: Well, if we keep burning them the changes in our climate could be extremely difficult to cope with. Entire species could go extinct. Storms and droughts and wildfires will worsen and become more frequent. Millions of people could be displaced, in which case tens of thousands will surely die. Likely more. Sea levels could rise and inundate hundreds of billions of dollars in property and infrastructure. Maybe trillions. Conditions will be ripe for civil unrest, even war.
S: But it’s not 100%?
Here’s an old but interesting bit of news. A few months back Cormac McCarthy wrote an article for Nautilus on the nature of human language. It was a largely speculative, rangy piece, enjoyable and thought-provoking in its own way. A few months later he wrote another article addressing some of the criticisms spawned by the original.
McCarthy’s most interesting claim is also his most misguided. He argues that language is an invention of humans, rather than the cold, reductive calculus of biological evolution. This is true, insofar as we are concerned with the specific forms of language and the representational significance of individual words. It seems very unlikely, however, that it is true of the capacity for language itself.