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?
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.