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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Climate Change: A Dialogue

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%?

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Tradition and Progress

Some have attributed the resurgence of right-wing populism as a reaction to the abrogation of traditional values. It’s easy to see the truth of this. However, it is not immediately obvious that it is distinctly right-wing phenomenon. Modern conservatism traces its intellectual roots to thinkers like Edmund Burke, who assigned traditional values and norms an important role in the maintenance of social order. Around the same time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was laying down the groundwork for the myth of the noble-savage, romanticizing tribal societies as somehow purer and more natural than those in the intensely hierarchical, increasingly market-oriented West.

In both cases, we see a peculiar reverence for traditional order, just differently construed. For Burke, inter-generational change is worthy of resistance. But for Rousseau, it is Western civilization’s centuries long fall from grace that we ought to eye with suspicion. On the right, you can see these views reflected in elderly men and women who hearken back the idealized simplicity of their childhood or a romanticized picture of the world inhabited by their recent forebears as a model for what society ought to be like. Meanwhile, staunch lefties esteem fantasies about the dietary wisdom and delicate conservationism of indigenous and preindustrial societies. What both views have in common is a fallacious tendency to equate antiquity with efficacy.

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Unintelligent Design at the Local Library

I once worked part time at a small local library. My first temptation would have been to describe myself as an “accidental” librarian, but that’s a bit misleading. I didn’t get the job by accident. A better description might have been “reluctant” librarian. I got the job on purpose, to float me through the final year of my graduate studies after I was unexpectedly left adrift without a research assistantship.

 My duties at the library included the management of books catalogued and shelved among the 500s – “pure science”, according to the Dewey system. My professional and educational background is in science (not pure science, per se, but the peculiar nexus of science and humanities occupied by archaeology) so I approached this assignment with more than a little enthusiasm. It was a good excuse to indulge in a bit of healthy intellectual promiscuity, diving into topics outside the parochial confines of my native discipline.

 It is with this background in mind that I ask you to consider my surprise (and chagrin) when, shelf-reading the 570s, I noticed a book by the name of Darwin’s Doubt. For the unfamiliar, Darwin’s Doubt is a 2013 book by a fellow named Stephen Meyer, advocating the position that certain features of the biological world are inexplicable absent the intervention of some kind of intelligent designer. In particular, Meyer argues that the Cambrian Explosion – a massive flourishing of multicellular life that witnessed the emergence of the majority of currently recognized animal phyla – doesn’t make sense when viewed through the lens of modern evolutionary theory. A better explanation, in Meyer’s view, is that the Cambrian Explosion is the work of some unspecified and generally invisible cosmic engineer.

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The Universe According to Carroll: The Sneaky Idealism of Poetic Naturalism

There are a lot of ways to define science. The broadest might characterize it as a systematic process for uncovering facts or explanations about the way the world works. From there, individual scientists sometimes differ over the exact features that distinguish science from other enterprises, but they all tend to accept the basic proposition that it is an empirical enterprise. The degree of agreement between theory and observation is what ultimately decides whether a scientific idea offers a good or bad explanation of natural phenomena.

This is why science is often depicted as a naturalistic enterprise. Which is true, but there are different strains of naturalism. It’s worth taking a moment to distinguish them. First, there is metaphysical or ontological naturalism. This is the view that the universe is entirely of matter or other measurable stuff, governed exclusively by natural forces. This stands in contrast to methodological naturalism. Advocates of methodological naturalism grant that the universe may be filled with or influenced by supernatural or immaterial forces, but stipulate that those are irrelevant to science.

Both ideas have their weaknesses. In The Big Picture, Sean Carroll introduces the concept of poetic naturalism as a way of getting around them. Poetic naturalism (PE) grants breathing room for concepts that don’t necessarily relate to the steely, unforgiving rudiments of physical reality. It is traditional naturalism’s less conservative, more ecumenical progeny.  PE grants room for higher order concepts like consciousness and protons in a world populated by more fundamental stuff. It even allows room for the “supernatural”, so long as it produces some measurable effect and offers some explanatory merit.

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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.