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On "Grievance Studies" and Academic Book Burning

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10/19/2018

In 1768, the Portable Theology, or Brief Dictionary of the Christian Religion was published under the authorship of Abbé Bernier. It claimed that all of the “dogmas of the Christian religion are immutable decrees of God, who cannot change His mind except when the Church does.” Posing as an authority on Church doctrine, the piece was actually satire, and the true author was Baron d’Holbach.

In the twentieth century, following the birth and growth of academic publications, hoax articles showed up from time to time. In 1931, a handful of physicists published a parody article titled “On the quantum theory of the temperature of absolute zero” making fun of the then-fashionable attempts to identify constants in nature through the use of numerology (don’t worry, I don’t get the joke either), and the authors were later compelled to apologize.

Twelve years later, James McAuley and Harold Stewart wrote sixteen deliberately terrible poems by picking words randomly from books and tying them together with poor rhyme schemes. They then submitted them to a prominent literature journal as having been discovered among the papers of a deceased poet named Ern Malley. The journal published the poems before it came out that Ern Malley never existed, subjecting the editors to a great deal of humiliation.

The first famous (or infamous, perhaps) parody article was published in 1996 by Alan Sokal. His article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was meant to expose the lack of academic rigor that Sokal believed was plaguing the academic left at the time, particularly due to the fashionability of post-modernist relativism. The article was written in meaningless academic jargon with the purpose of demonstrating how vacuous, intellectually void articles could be accepted as serious scholarly contributions as long as they appealed to the biases of the day.

Sokal’s hoax gained nationwide attention after the New York Times ran an article about the controversy. Stanley Aronowitz, the editor of the journal who published the hoax reacted to the revelation that Sokal had hoodwinked them by saying, “He says we're epistemic relativists. We're not. He got it wrong. One of the reasons he got it wrong is he's ill-read and half-educated.” The problem, of course, is that if Sokal was so uneducated about the journal’s editorial staff, how did he get an article approved by them to begin with?

While Sokal’s hoax may have exposed how the political views of academics were tarnishing the quality of scholarship, the incident was soon forgotten and the problem was left unsolved.

But in 2017, two academics, Jamie Lindsay and Peter Boyle, picked up Sokal’s mantle by publishing “ The conceptual penis as a social construct ,” in the journal Cogent Social Sciences. They took the absurdities to a new level, arguing, for example, that “manspreading” (a man sitting with his legs apart) “is clearly a dominating occupation of physical space, akin to raping the empty space around him.” If the absurdities contained in the article weren’t indicative enough that the submission was a hoax, the authors gave more hilarious indicators in their author bios, writing that “While neither [author] uses Twitter, both finding the platform overly reductive, they incorporate careful reading of the relevant academic literature with observations made by searching trending hashtags to derive important social truths with high impact.” To any dispassionate reader, the article should have been seen as a sham within the first two sentences.

When “The conceptual penis as a social construct” was published, the authors came out with a popular article acknowledging the hoax and presenting their views on what we can learn from it. They admitted that their opening sentence was “preposterous,” setting the tone for “3,000 words of utter nonsense posing as academic scholarship.” Like Sokal, they were concerned with the way politically fashionable ideas have destroyed the intellectual objectivity for much of the academic left, and they wished to expose it. But they also admitted that the article was published in a “pay-to-play” journal – one in which authors must pay to have their journal published once it is accepted, which can easily indicate lower academic standards and indicts the cutthroat culture of academia in which job security in a saturated market is predicated on publication records. Perhaps it is not the politically biased left that is responsible for the publication of gibberish, but the nature of the publication-centered academic job market.

So Lindsay and Boyle, along with another academic, Helen Pluckrose, resolved to continue testing their theory that certain academic fields – such as gender studies, critical race theory, and sociology – would be willing to publish either nonsensical or morally repugnant articles, so long as the paper appealed to the current political fashions of the leftist intelligentsia. They dubbed their targeted fields as “grievance studies” – being academic fields that exist to air political grievances, rather than to further the pursuit of knowledge.

Recently, Lindsay, Boyle, and Pluckrose have garnered more attention after a writer for the Wall Street Journal became curious about a scholarly article entitled “ Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon ,” published in Gender, Place, and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography. Upon investigation, the journalist found out that this was one of several hoax articles that had been published or was pending publication. The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial on the hoax , revealing that no less than seven hoax papers had been accepted to academic journals, including some well-respected ones (at least, for their field). No longer can the authors blame “pay-to-play” journals for the low academic standards for publication.

In addition to the “conceptual penis” and “rape culture in dog parks” topics, the “grievance studies” pranksters published an article titled “Our Struggle Is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism,” which – as the name almost makes too obvious – is little more than passages of Mein Kampf rewritten in intersectionality jargon.

In response to these hoax papers, many academics refuse to acknowledge the problem. Yascha Mounk, a professor at Harvard, actually condemned the hoaxers saying, “To hoax morally suspect fields like economics . . . is morally righteous. To hoax morally righteous fields like gender studies, on the other hand, is morally suspect.” The level of insanity at play here is staggering. At the point that we are defending academic fields on no other grounds than moral claims, we can at least acknowledge that these disciplines cannot be considered scientific at all.

But all of this is already making plenty of headlines. What should concern people just as much – if not more – is the purging of actual scientific articles, which have met truly rigorous standards, for not appealing to the political sensibilities of the same academic left that is accepting rewrites of Mein Kampf. Mathematics professor Theodore Hill came up with a mathematical argument attempting to explain a long-standing empirical phenomenon known as the “Greater Male Variability Hypothesis.” In sum, this hypothesis asserts that men are overrepresented both among the extremely high- and extremely low-achieving ends of the spectrum.

The hypothesis is controversial for obvious politically correct reasons, but it nonetheless has received genuine scientific attention because no matter how offensive people may find it, the empirical data clearly and consistently demonstrates these variances. Dr. Hill was simply trying to offer a mathematical explanation for the phenomenon “based on biological and evolutionary principles.” His paper was submitted to a respectable journal – the Mathematical Intelligencer – and after going through the peer-review process, it was accepted for publication. Concerned that the paper would be controversial, Dr. Hill sought reassurance from the editor, only to be told, “In principle, I [the editor, Marjorie Wikler Senechal] am happy to stir up controversy and few topics generate more than this one.”

However, once the article was published, some politically correct Penn State professors started a social media campaign to get the article removed. After contacting the editor of the Intelligencer multiple times and stirring up notable social media attention, the Intelligencer actually unpublished a scholarly article. This had never been done before. Even the hoax articles that have come to light can still be read in their respective online publications, even as they are now qualified as “redacted.” But for publishing a non-politically correct, but genuinely scholarly, article, a scientific article was entirely removed after publication. Not only is this unprecedented, but this means that the article can never be published anywhere else, as the Intelligencer now holds the copyright to the article.

Effectively, this is academic book burning.

It should be mentioned that all of the professors who have been trying to expose and combat these poor scholarly practices identify as part of the political left. This is not a left-versus-right battle – this is a battle for open and honest academic practices versus politically biased, intellectually dishonest, and morally disreputable practices. The question is whether these stories are revealing the loss of academic integrity in favor of political agendas, or if academia has always been this way, and we are only just now starting to realize it.

Chris Calton is a 2018 Mises Institute Research Fellow and an economic historian. He is writer and host of the Historical Controversies podcast.

See also his YouTube channel here.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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