The Word Salad Spinner

When my daughter* was in college, she showed me a paper she wrote for a required course about the auras surrounding people she knew and what they meant. It was, in my humble fatherly view, the best thing she’d ever written. We laughed and laughed about it, because it was brilliant and complete, utter bullshit. She knew it, but fed back to her prof the nonsense the prof wanted to hear.

The online magazine Quillete, derided as the intellectual dark web’s favorite heresy broker, broke a story about a scam perpetrated by some disaffected scholars who decided to validate the experiment first performed by NYU physics prof Alan Sokal.

Twenty years ago, Alan Sokal called postmodernism “fashionable nonsense.” Today, postmodernism isn’t a fashion—it’s our culture. A large proportion of the students at elite universities are now inducted into this cult of hate, ignorance, and pseudo-philosophy. Postmodernism is the unquestioned dogma of the literary intellectual class and the art establishment. It has taken over most of the humanities and some of the social sciences, and is even making inroads in STEM fields. It threatens to melt all of our intellectual traditions into the same oozing mush of political slogans and empty verbiage.

Did Sokal pull off a one-time scam, get one over on the pseudo-intellgentsia?

For the past year scholars James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian have sent fake papers to various academic journals which they describe as specialising in activism or “grievance studies.” Their stated mission has been to expose how easy it is to get “absurdities and morally fashionable political ideas published as legitimate academic research.” 

To date, their project has been successful: seven papers have passed through peer review and have been published, including a 3000 word excerpt of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, rewritten in the language of Intersectionality theory and published in the Gender Studies journal Affilia.

Some of us have tried desperately to read, perhaps even understand, the strings of jargon that almost appear to say something, but to no avail. Is there any idea there, behind these sophisticated words, these tainted adjectives and adverbs, that we’re missing? Perhaps it’s do deep, so profound, that we merely lack the intellectual capacity to wrap our heads around these concepts? Worse yet, is our bias blinding us to a hidden truth?

Nope.

The flagship feminist philosophy journal, Hypatia, accepted a paper (not yet published online) arguing that social justice advocates should be allowed to make fun of others, but no one should be permitted to make fun of them. The same journal invited resubmission of a paper arguing that “privileged students shouldn’t be allowed to speak in class at all and should just listen and learn in silence,” and that they would benefit from “experiential reparations” that include “sitting on the floor, wearing chains, or intentionally being spoken over.” The reviewers complained that this hoax paper took an overly compassionate stance toward the “privileged” students who would be subjected to this humiliation, and recommended that they be subjected to harsher treatment.

You know how you thought it was all bullshit, ideas ranging from banal to venal to rationalize why we should hate the “privileged” and love the “marginalized,” served up in a dish of word salad? You were right.

They call this “scholarship” grievance studies, for obvious reasons. And if one believes that all problems facing society are grounded in racism and sexism, then there is no grievance too outlandish for publication. But then, there is no real problem that can be solved by denying facts in favor of pets.

Some of the most insidious dogmas many faculty in these fields defend include the idea that evolutionary biology can explain animal behavior but isn’t relevant to people; that differences in personality and intelligence can only be explained by education and parenting (not genes); that IQ tests don’t predict anything useful; that differences in outcomes for different groups can only be explained by oppression or systemic racism/sexism; and that five decades of behavioral genetics research can be safely ignored when it threatens environmental explanations. These are the dangers of our time. It is worth reminding those who subsidize this circus that we’re not in Las Vegas.

The further one strays from reality, the denser the word salad. It’s not that they’re on to something profound, but they’re on to nothing and need bigger, more meaningless, jargon to make it feel as if it’s not complete gibberish.

But this isn’t merely a harmless substitution of salad for bacon, let the critical theory profs enjoy their circle jerk. There is a far more insidious problem, that any thought, any experiment, that serves to undermine their fantasy must be rejected as the tool of the privileged devil.**

*People have suggested that I’ve mentioned my son more than my daughter, reflecting my patriarchal sexism. That’s because people are biased and ignorant. My son doesn’t care if I mention him here. My daughter has asked me not to mention her, and I’ve honored her request. This is a rare exception, with her approval. Keep your bias to yourself.

**Coincidentally, a twit of a footnote in the new book, The Coddling of the American Mind, by Haidt and Lukianoff appeared in my menchies, addressing the author’s anticipated reaction.

35 thoughts on “The Word Salad Spinner

  1. GreenTriumph

    I teach at a large university and don’t see how they can be saved as intellectual institutions. But don’t institutions represent the broader society? Aren’t modern universities in America exactly what, although not everyone, the woke, the media/ tech company celebrities, and the New York Times want? I have taught students to value reason, prudence, and humility in their views but my voice is being drowned out, as by the progressive e-scooter that nearly ran me over yesterday and will be coming to the sidewalk near you soon.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      Do institutions lead or follow? Without delving into the cause and effect issues, what percentage of our “future leaders” will emerge capable of heterodox thought? What are the chances that they will figure out that there’s no such thing as unicorns before the damage is so pervasive that it will take a generation or two to fix?

      Reply
      1. GreenTriumph

        I have no answers. As you’ve said, thinking is hard, especially when it is unpopular. But I am hopeful that there will always be some students who rise above the emotions around them. I am a STEM person, but the older I get I see the value of a classical liberal education in terms of logic, literature, writing, history, learning to frame arguments, and possibly knowledge of culture with a capitol C.

        Reply
    2. Keith

      GreenTriumph,

      Swear allegiance to the flag
      Whatever flag they offer
      Never hint at what you really feel
      Teach the children quietly
      For some day sons and daughters
      Will rise up and fight while we stand still

      Reply
  2. PseudonymousKid

    Dear Papa,

    The article you linked annoyingly left out how many total papers the faux-authors submitted. It turns out they submitted twenty total. Why is seven out of twenty “successful?”

    Rigid standards are great and all, but there’s bucks to be made. Ain’t nobody got the time to wade through the streams of crap people submit to be published. Shame on the publishers, or maybe we should call them marketers instead. It’s what the great Musk wants. People warmed up to believe any silly sounding overly-simplistic jargon-filled solution that will absolutely be “world changing.” Dirt bricks!

    Best,
    PK

    Reply
      1. Hunting Guy

        Here’s what they should really be concerned about. This is spread all through our modern environment.
        ……..
        Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) is a colorless and odorless chemical compound, also referred to by some as Dihydrogen Oxide, Hydrogen Hydroxide, Hydronium Hydroxide, or simply Hydric acid. Its basis is the highly reactive hydroxyl radical, a species shown to mutate DNA, denature proteins, disrupt cell membranes, and chemically alter critical neurotransmitters. The atomic components of DHMO are found in a number of caustic, explosive and poisonous compounds such as Sulfuric Acid, Nitroglycerine and Ethyl Alcohol.

        Reply
    1. delurking

      Hypatia’s acceptance rate for open submissions is 12-15%. They have an acceptance and a revise-and-resubmit, so they are performing significantly better than practitioners in the field.

      Reply
  3. Rxc

    It is a cancer which has metastasized throughout our culture, turning people in the arts, humanities, education, and communication into parasitic hosts who spread the disease far and wide.

    Reply
  4. Keith

    There’s a beautiful irony in the fact the academia elite complain their “effort would be better spent looking at more-substantive problems like the replication crisis in psychology”, as they replicate the Sokal study.

    Reply
    1. DaveL

      Another irony is that, however you’d like to define “privilege”, if you get to spew unintelligible nonsense for a living – and get recognized as a leading intellectual for it to boot – then you’ve got it, in spades. There are no fables about the stable boy’s new clothes.

      Reply
  5. Frank

    It’s the “making inroads in STEM fields” that really concerns me. We’ve already seen what happens when a bridge is designed by an engineering firm that considers calculus a tool of the patriarchy.

    Reply
      1. B. McLeod

        Well, I only read the newer posts, in keeping with post-modernism. (I think this discussion has helped me to understand the expression, “dumber than a post”).

        Reply
  6. albeed

    “The further one strays from reality, the denser the word salad. It’s not that they’re on to something profound, but they’re on to nothing and need bigger, more meaningless, jargon to make it feel as if it’s not complete gibberish.”

    This describes many Supreme Court decisions to a “T”.

    Reply
  7. Fubar

    When my daughter* was in college, she showed me a paper she wrote for a required course about the auras surrounding people she knew and what they meant. It was, in my humble fatherly view, the best thing she’d ever written. We laughed and laughed about it, because it was brilliant and complete, utter bullshit.

    But, did toxic privileged males steal it, set it to music and make literally dozens of dollars?

    Reply
  8. SlimTim

    In fairness, this has been done in journals for the technical fields too. There is a Computer Science paper generator, SCIgen, which generates nonsense CS papers and a few have been published to journals which are supposedly peer-reviewed.

    Reply
  9. Rendall

    “People have suggested that I’ve mentioned my son more than my daughter, reflecting my patriarchal sexism.”

    If you had mentioned your daughter more than your son, these same people would have taken that as evidence of patriarchical sexism.

    Reply
  10. Aaron G

    The paraphrased Main Kampf references should have set off alarm bells with any reputable journal. Not because of quoting Hitler but because Mein Kampf is public domain and any system looking for plagiarism would’ve raised a yellow flag over it.

    Or is copying work near-verbatim also okay in the name of being woke?

    Reply
  11. Jake

    Oh, was somebody able to scam the editorial board over at ‘Hypatia?!?’ They must have fooled literally tens of readers. Meanwhile, millions of Jeffersonian ideals voters lapped up rancid rumor and misinformation on Fox News and Alex Jones in the time it took me to write this comment.

    Reply
      1. OtherJay

        The dog rape study is incredible. no links per rulez

        Reviewer 1 is very concerned about ethics of inspecting dog genitals without dog’s consent, and the inequality that represents relative to human “participants”

        Reviewer 3 seems to raise important points regarding absence of due process in dog rape accusations

        etc

        Reply
    1. OtherJay

      When the boys are wearing stiletto’s, anything is possible Jake. Did you read the wrong study in your quest to get woke?

      Another published paper, “Going In Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria, Transhysteria, and Transphobia Through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use,” appeared in Sexuality and Culture. It recommends that men anally self-penetrate “to become less transphobic, more feminist, and more concerned about the horrors of rape culture.”

      Reply

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