An Expansive Sokal-Style Hoax Exposes Academic Tomfoolery

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.

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Thinking Thoughts About Gods and Science in Other Venues

I recently wrote a couple of brief op-ed for the website Atheist Republic, an online community for folks inclined toward secular thinking.

I figured I would link to them below. Follow the links for the full text.

Religious Belief is Hard Work 

Religious belief stands in belligerent indifference to information about what the world is like. It persists in spite of nature, not because of it. The scales started to fall from eyes as I developed a deeper and more expansive understanding of science. In a panicked state of youthful naivety, I tried to justify my religious beliefs despite the fact that they were contradicted by many of the more elegant and substantive truths derived from science. It was an exhausting struggle.

Aspirational Atheism

…an embrace of reason need not stop at recognition of and resistance to the harms of superstitious belief. It can also inform our sense of what we want for ourselves and our fellow humans. Reason leads us to reject religion, but it also leads us to recognize our shared humanity. It leads to the eradication of disease and the recognition of individual human rights. Embracing reason is the groundwork for unleashing human potential and building a world increasingly amenable to the business of human thriving.

Sacrificing Reason on the Alter of Purity: U. Va. Students Protest Use of Jefferson Quotes

University of Virginia students and faculty have signed a letter criticizing University President Teresa Sullivan for invoking the words of Thomas Jefferson. In an email apparently intended to salve the all-to understandable confusion and anxiety stimulated by the election of Donald Trump, Sullivan quoted Jefferson on the importance of U. Va. students, who “are not of ordinary significance only: they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes.” In other words, “don’t let the election of a deranged demagogue lead you into hopelessness: you are the future, so act accordingly.”

The heart of the complaint is unsurprising: Jefferson owned slaves. Slavery was (and is) an ethical abomination. This is indisputable. That Thomas Jefferson – among other American founders – owned human beings as ranchers today own cattle is a telling stain on the American myth. For many, it gives lie the words Jefferson penned – “that all men are created equal.”

But this is a fallacy. All men are created equal. The truth of the idea exists independent of its originator. For centuries, powerful men in the United States have repeatedly failed to make this truth manifest in the lives of all citizens. Some rancorous bastards have even worked against that lofty proposition, exploiting the poor and the dispossessed, brutalizing those unfortunate enough to have been born without white skin, rich parents, and a penis. That places some of these people on an ethical spectrum somewhere between pitiful disappointments and full-bore monsters. For others, it clouds a veneer of heroic righteousness, leaving us to puzzle over what to make of people who have done both good and awful things.

Yet America’s history of racism and oppression says nothing of ideas about the equality of human beings. Either all humans are born with equal intrinsic value or they are not.

The same is true of the votive to intellectual pedantry and banality some of the students and faculty are building at U. Va. Either Jefferson’s statement is true and valuable, or it is not. His personal crimes are immaterial. To think otherwise is to sink into the trap of ad hominem thinking and, doing so, help perpetuate the rancid stew of identity politics currently corroding political discourse in the United States. It suggests not only that human beings should be judged entirely in terms of their worst behavior, but also that ideas cannot rise above the inevitable flaws of the humans who create them.

This is truly bizarre thinking. It’s hard to imagine what ideas and expressions would remain permissible in a climate where they must first be sterilized of any murky or odious associations. If the proscription is that ideas can’t come with any baggage, either in terms of the person who dreamt them up or the context in which they originated, then most ideas automatically become verboten. If readers were to judge my arguments entirely in terms of the worst things I’ve done or said, then my humble attempts at persuasion would be irrevocably impotent to a huge swath of the population.

Insofar as this view seems extreme, it is nonetheless implicit in the complaints of people who would rather not have to suffer under the tyranny of a Thomas Jefferson quote. This is ironic, because U. Va. was founded by Jefferson. If a Thomas Jefferson quote is an ethical provocation beyond anyone’s capacity to bear, what are we to make of a salary or education provided by a school that wouldn’t exist without him?

In the sweep of history, the insipid criticisms of a well-intention email will be (or at least should be) a mote of dust. But it is nonetheless illustrative. It tells us that becoming an enemy of reason clearly demands no specific political allegiance. All it takes is that perennially destructive commitment to ideological purity captured under the sprawling umbrella of fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism. Communist fundamentalism. Free-market fundamentalism. Libertarian fundamentalism. And now, liberal fundamentalism: the belief that everyone’s personal experience is a window of unassailable insight and everyone’s opinion – except those with “privilege” and “power” – is infinitely precious. To satisfy this belief, its proponents are willing to wage war against the climate of open and free expression that gave rise to everything from life-saving vaccines to the very notion of individual human rights. There is very little good in this world that isn’t due to people who cherish reason and accept the premise that ideas should flourish or fail on their individual merits.

Perhaps President Sullivan’s email had other flaws. If it normalized Trump, for instance, it would present a prime target for serious criticism and a springboard for worthwhile debate. Maybe the idea that U.Va. students are special is false, in which case it should be refuted. But the idea that the it ought to be censured because it echoes an idea from a man who was, in terms of racial justice and human equality, quite clearly a hypocrite is dubious at best.

Consider an historical anecdote, at once usefully reductive and logically instructive. In the late 19th and early 20th century, agricultural production was limited by the availability of fertilizers. Using the technology available at the time, producing food required more land to feed far fewer people than it does today. A couple of German chemists changed this, developing a method to capture atmospheric nitrogen and turn it into ammonia for use in fertilizers. Billions of people are alive today who would never have existed had those German chemists not made those breakthroughs, inventing what is today known as the Haber-Bosch process.

Thing is, Fritz Haber (the Haber, in the Haber-Bosch process) was a real son of a bitch. Not only did he treat his family terribly, putting his professional ambitions and nationalistic impulses ahead of familial loyalty – thereby likely contributing to the suicides of his first wife and, later, two of his children – he is also considered the father of chemical warfare. He pioneered the weaponization of chlorine and other poisonous gases, directly contributing to the agonizing deaths of tens of thousands of Allied soldiers. Later, scientists working under Haber developed a form of cyanide gas known as Zyklon A – the predecessor to the Zyklon B pesticide used to murder Jews during the Holocaust.

Under the theory of discourse the complainants at U. Va. are implicitly advocating, the Haber-Bosch process – and all descendent technologies – should be immediately abandoned. After all, Fritz Haber was, to put things in disturbingly mild terms, a real dick. Of course, millions – if not billions – of people would starve to death, but the descendants of those who died miserably in the trenches of WWI or in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany wouldn’t have to deal with eating food tainted by Haber’s hideous legacy.

Ideas and opinions should be judged by their qualities, irrespective of the confusion of dastardly or enlightened deeds left in the wake of the people who produce them. The Haber-Bosch process should be weighed in terms of its effects: is it better that billions of people exist today who very likely wouldn’t have otherwise, or does it matter more that the Haber-Bosch process has contributed to overpopulation and all the attendant environmental and social costs that come with it? That’s an interesting question. Whether or not we should do away with the good works and useful ideas of people like Fritz Haber and Thomas Jefferson because the character of those men was blighted by the misery they inflicted on others is not. In fact, it’s not even a question. Those ideas exist. They are worthwhile or dispensable on their own merits. Only a reckless, enthusiastic embrace of authoritarianism could ever get rid of them. And that, I worry, is precisely where the postmodern left – in its urgent pursuit of ideological purity and boundless inclusivity – is headed.

In the world of ideas – that is, in other words, the world of higher education – what matters is not whether they make people feel welcome and offended. It’s whether or not they are true and make sense.

What Do You Know for Certain? If You’re Trying to be Rational, Absolutely Nothing

People often greatly overestimate the ease and accessibility of rational decision making. Most choices – from where to eat for dinner to what to buy with disposable income, from who to vote for in presidential elections to what ideas to accept as good explanations for natural phenomena – are not based on a logical assessment of the available facts. On a proximate level, most people do not have enough information to reliably anchor a process of rational analysis. But more fundamentally, most people lack the combination of intellectual fortitude, integrity, and humility to admit that they are wrong, and – on a more rudimentary level – unsure. Uncertainty is the cornerstone of rational decision making. Those unwilling to shoulder the burden of perpetual doubt are forever hobbled in their ability to coolly and reasonably evaluate the relationships between claims and evidence.

Of course, even those willing to accept the reality of ubiquitous uncertainty are not immune from the pitfalls of emotional reasoning, limited information, and practical time constraints. Emotional preferences are a critical ingredient in any process of decision making. This fact is inescapable. What we “feel” about things often matters as much as what we “think” about them. It is also true that people rarely have access to a table set with all relevant information, nor is it reasonable to expect anyone to have the cognitive capacity to fully encompass it all even if they did. Viewed properly, perfectly rational analysis is a mirage – a fiction of Platonic form.

Nevertheless, those willing to nurture a sense of doubt can, at the very least, aspire to rationality. For the doctrinaire and dogmatic, rationality is a hopeless dream. Those who claim to know, absent any and all provisionality, that a certain perspective is best – that their religion is true, that their favorite “-ism” (capitalism, socialism, feminism etc.) represents the best way to view and structure the world – are signally incapable of intelligently assessing whether or not their ideas are actually useful reflections of anything that exists in the world.

Which is not to say one can’t be more or less confident about this or that idea. One can – and must – deploy an unequal distribution of confidence regarding different claims about the nature of the world. But only – as Descartes argued centuries ago – if one is willing to start from a place where all claims have been reduced (at least in principle) to targets of open and honest inquiry. This much is obvious. The more important point relates to how one treats his or her beliefs going forward. No one should hold a view in such high regard, imbued with such a high level of confidence, that they are unwilling to drop it in the face of newer, more reliable information.

All of this begs an important question. Perhaps you’ve already guessed it: how realistic is it to expect people to behave this way, to display this kind of zen detachment toward cherished ideas? The answer, in most cases, is not very. Yet there is value in the striving. The very attempt to apply this kind of balanced skepticism and uncertainty elevates one’s ability to fruitfully evaluate information well above that of anyone mired in a false sense of certitude. The very essence of absolute certainty is irrevocable irrationality, rooted in crass braggadocio or grasping emotionalism. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is not only an expression of humility, it is an accurate reflection of the kinds of knowledge we can realistically hope to attain, giving us the best possible angle from which to test ideas against evidence.

Doubt is the quintessence of rationality.

Don’t Look Now, But There’s a Militant Atheist Under Your Bed!


Neal Larson, public intellectual and social philosopher. Slayer of dragons and defender of liberty.

In a recent editorial, Idaho Falls conservative talk show host and thinker of sophisticated thoughts Neal Larson took a moment to stand up to oppression. No, he didn’t argue against exploitative labor practices or in favor of fair wages. No, he didn’t take a stand against police brutality or speak up for marriage equality. Nor did he bother to mention the fact that the United States has become a functional oligarchy. Instead, he targeted something far more insidious: people who don’t share his religious beliefs and dare to express their contrarian opinions in public. Recently, militant atheism has become a blight upon society, as a minority of iron-fisted tyrants have taken it upon themselves to uphold the basic civil liberties expressed in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and publicly express thoughtful opinions concerning the value and veracity of religious belief.

For a number of reasons, I hesitate to draw attention to this sort of whiny, myopic drivel. For one thing, it’s far too easy a target. There’s no challenge in lambasting a blubbering fool for putting his flaccid intellect on public display. It’s like a steroid riddled professional football team trouncing the weakest members of a small-town pee-wee league. It also has the unsavory consequence of giving these types of showboating snake-oil salesmen exactly what they’re after: attention. But at the same time, the ridiculous fantasy that is “militant” atheism seems to be gaining traction among folks whose primary hobby seems to revolve around the invention of repressive bogeymen.

Larson writes:

I have a confession: I’m guilty of discrimination against militant, activist atheists. I simply don’t like them. If there were an epithet to describe them, I’d probably use it regularly. I would refuse to vote for a proud and vocal atheist for high office, regardless of any offsetting credentials.

I’m not talking about those who struggle with faith, or have simply resigned themselves to not knowing, or those who cannot reconcile the horrors and miseries that life offers at times, with the existence of a loving God. Those are examples of unintrusive atheism. I have good friends who are agnostic, and I enjoy their friendship. I do have a problem, however, with those who proselytize and demand that the rest of us cater to their unbelief, as though that unbelief is itself a virtue worthy of our nurture and respect.

Apparently Larson is sympathetic to the view that it is only okay to disagree with the religious majority if you keep quiet about it. This, of course, is both absurd and directly indicative of real intolerance (rather than the imaginary kind he’s so bravely combating in his editorial). For Larson – and countless others like him – doubt is only permissible if you don’t tell anyone about it. Virtuous, on the other hand, are boisterous expressions of credulous faith.

Query: why is it okay for the religious to travel about the world, trumpeting their beliefs door to door, but not okay for an atheist to do likewise?  Proselytizing is a praiseworthy endeavor for the religious, but should an unbeliever even raise concerns that said beliefs – under any basic criteria of rationality or empirical evaluation – are a bit on the dubious side, they are labelled “militant”. Such a dichotomy is patently absurd.

No less so is the very use of the word “militant” to describe a group of people who are nothing of the sort. To quote the esteemed philosopher Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” To characterize a person who raises valid concerns over potential violations of the Establishment Cause of the U.S. Constitution as “militant” is to rob militancy of its basic meaning. That a publicly voiced perspective makes people uncomfortable does not make said perspective militant. By contrast, I might point to the minority of Islamic believers justifiably grouped under the moniker “militant Islam”. There are many contrasts one might draw between the purportedly militant atheist and the objectively militant Islamist, but I’ll stick to the most salient: the militant Islamist has a nasty predilection toward killing people who disagree with him. Where is the consistency in grouping atheists, whose crimes might include objecting to the use of public prayer in certain civic arenas, or wishing someone (hold onto your seats here) “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas”, under the same label as people who saw people’s heads off and fly airplanes into buildings packed with civilians?

Among Larson’s exceptionally facile examples of religious persecution on behalf of so-called “militant” atheists, he lists the following:

A professor at the College of Coastal Georgia banned students from using the phrase “bless you” in class, threatening to dock points from an offending student’s final grade.

Let us all recall the quiet, glass-eyed anguish of Mr. Kurtz as we collectively gasp: “The horror! The horror!” Never mind the months of counseling it will take that professor’s students to recover from the trauma they experienced under his brutal tutelage. We’ll also, for convenience sake, ignore the fact that Larson’s telling misrepresents the facts of the story so severely that it’s hard to believe he’s not being deliberately disingenuous (not very Christ-like, Mr. Larson). Let’s instead take Larson’s distorted reporting as a hypothetical example and focus on the fact that, far from being militant, such a professor would have made him something much more nefarious: an asshole. This is a soubriquet that should be familiar to professional alarmists like Larson. When the dark clouds roll in and the Day of Judgment finally arrives, I like to think Jesus will separate not only the sheep from the goats, but the petty, thin-skinned weasels and charlatans (read: manipulative assholes) like Larson from the rest of the pack. There was nothing even vaguely militant about what the hypothetical professor was up to. Tactless and pedantic sure, but to cast such behavior as militant, and said militancy as somehow characteristic of entire demographic, is both crude and inane.

In the interest of illustration, let’s turn this cherry-picking game of cavalier generalizations on its head. One might (in a very generous estimation) waste a day listing the people who have done physical harm in the name of atheism. On the other hand, enumerating all the violence and misery that has been wrought in the name of just one religion – let’s say Christianity – would consume a lifetime. Which worldview is the more savage, the more militant? To the rational and fair-minded, the answer is clear.

Of course, not being a slobbering knuckle-dragger possessed of a worldview informed primarily by the fictional works of Ayn Rand and the mystical hokum produced by the inhabitants of the Iron & Bronze Age Levant, I’m reluctant to characterize an entire belief system in this way. Religion has, without a doubt, been the direct cause of absolutely gigantic amounts of human suffering. This point is beyond argument. Atheism, on the other hand, has not (no, the regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot were not motivated by atheism). Millions of lives have been sacrificed in the name of piety. Few, if any, have been sacrificed in the name of unbelief. Nevertheless, it would still be unfair for me to paint all of Christianity as militant.

Let’s be clear: religious belief is absolutely untenable for anyone who accepts the proposition that justifiable knowledge is rooted exclusively in the rational analysis of empirical evidence. Faith and reason are mutually exclusive worldviews. One can have one and employ the other (cognitive dissonance, after all, is not a rare phenomenon), but the standards of reason are not commensurable with the standards of faith. The application of one stimulates social, technological, and intellectual progress, the other virtually ensures stagnation. Am I being militant is expressing this opinion? Absolutely not. If you disagree, might I humbly suggest that you take a few days (weeks, months – however long it takes) and grow a fucking backbone.

It shouldn’t escape notice how vastly undemocratic and hypocritical Larson’s ideas of discrimination and persecution are. Larson argues that atheists have “created out of thin air a right to not be offended. If everyone asserts this manufactured right, we have created hell on earth.” This is utter nonsense. His very argument explicitly expresses the notion that religious belief deserves a privileged station in the arena of social discourse. By expressing his offense in the face of atheist criticism, he is implicitly endorsing the position that the religious have their own special right not to be offended, not the other way around. Criticism and debate are hallmarks of a healthy, democratic society. The idea that any belief is sacred is anathema in a free society. By arguing that people who disagree with him are somehow usurping his rights, Larson and like minded individuals beckon ridicule, both of themselves and the beliefs they purport to defend. This, however, is unsurprising. The conservative definition of liberty has always been perilously circumscribed: that everyone, everywhere, has an inalienable right to think and behave in manner corresponding to whatever wobbly and inconsistent interpretation of the teachings of the Bible, Atlas Shrugged, and – to a lesser extent – An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nation is in vogue at the time.

The fundamental point is that no belief system should be sheltered from the scrutiny – however harsh – of competing perspectives. In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson said “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Larson is wrong on nearly every point he makes, and comes off as petty and ignorant in the process. But he has a right to express his stupid opinions, just as much as I have a right to eviscerate them. John Stuart Mills’ metaphor of the “marketplace of ideas” is widely held as a core principle in judging the success or failure of the American Experiment. When organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation issue a challenge, it is in service of protecting – not subverting – that ideal. Prayer and religious doctrine have no place at a public high school football game or in the classroom of public schools, not because they bother atheists, but because they serve to silence inquiry and debate and implicitly reference the sort of exclusionary worldview many conservatives champion. A Christian Nation for a Christian People. Atheists have a right to challenge Christianity’s political hegemony in the United States. Exercising that right isn’t any more militant than the behavior of a Christian evangelist who tells people that disagreeing with their beliefs will buy you a one way ticket to eternal suffering. Both behaviors are defined and protected as rights in the United States. This is a point I can’t stress enough. Those who feel offended when someone takes them to task on the absurdity of their beliefs might do well to find less absurd beliefs. Barring that, they might take the time to cultivate a less childish perspective on civil discourse in the marketplace of ideas.