At a now-infamous TA meeting at Wilfred Laurier University, an assistant professor of communications asserted that that Nicolas Matte’s comment “…it is not correct that there is such a thing as biological sex” is not something that’s up for debate, in that Matte’s statement is unequivocally true. The other professor in the meeting echoed this sentiment, claiming that one side of the TVO debate in question (Jordan Peterson’s side) had zero academic credibility. But how is it possible that there is zero academic credibility in something as simple as “there’s biological differences between males and females in animals and human beings”? The answer lies in certain subsections of academic journals in the humanities, which have been at odds with reality for a long time.
A Brief Introduction to Academic Publishing Scandals
In 1996, a physics and math professor named Alan Sokal published an article in Social Text, an academic journal of cultural studies. His goal was to see if they would “…publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”. The answer was yes. The paper itself was complete nonsense, arguing that quantum gravity is a “social and linguistic construct” using all the right buzzwords and all the wrong logic. After the article was published, Sokal revealed the article to have been a hoax. Sokal’s follow-up commentary includes the following quote:
“In the second paragraph I declare without the slightest evidence or argument, that “physical ‘reality’ (note the scare quotes) […] is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.” Not our theories of physical reality, mind you, but the reality itself. Fair enough. Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. I live on the twenty-first floor.”
Sokal later co-authored a book, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, expanding on his criticism of the humanities’ misuse of scientific terms and concepts.
The question is though, is his article in Social Text a blight on the entire discipline of cultural studies, or simply another publishing hoax? This is not the first time that hoax articles have been accepted by academic journals, nor will it be the last. But first, it’s important to understand the various avenues through which blatantly bad academic research is published.
Publishing scandals happen in all academic disciplines and they generally fall into two categories. The first includes open access ‘pay-to-publish’ journals. They work on a relatively new model, one which authors pay and the subscribers don’t. What this essentially means is that the authors are the customers, and rejecting articles hurts the bottom line. Authors generally have no problem paying higher fees to publish studies that would be rejected anywhere else, as publications are the lifeblood of academic researchers. In a sting operation for Science, John Bohannon submitted a paper “…with such grave errors that a competent peer reviewer should easily identify it as flawed and unpublishable” to 304 open-access journals, to have it accepted by 157. What this identifies is a problem with the business model: researchers want to publish unfinished work to boost their credentials, and the journals are happy to publish it and take their money. The type of situation also occurs when conferences find themselves lagging on submissions. Because presenters pay conference fees and fill a spot on the schedule, they are incentivized to lower their standards. This results in situations like the 2016 International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics accepting an abstract written exclusively through iPhone’s autocomplete, or the 2005 World Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics accepting a paper consisting of technical-sounding nonsense generated by a computer program.
Situations like these happen occasionally, but the consequences aren’t very dire. A loss of credibility for those exposed, a bit more money for those who aren’t. The second category of publishing scandal occurs when researchers falsify data. In the physical sciences, researchers attempt to replicate promising results in order to build on them. When they inevitably conclude that the original data is shaky, careers are ended. In the social sciences, where data tends to be statistics based, it’s a lot harder to determine whether a falsification actually occurred. If a result can’t be replicated, it’s a lot harder to distinguish bad sampling or data handling from blatant manipulation. This is the reason it’s typical to hear things like ‘a new study suggest coffee prevents cancer’ on one radio station and ‘a new study suggests coffee causes cancer’ on another. However, the scientific method eventually corrects itself (even on coffee). Ultimately, bad results are either discredited or never cited. This is a consistent issue that the industry deals with, but it’s far from a system that’s entirely rotten.
In Some Cases, Bad Research Constitutes an Entire Field
In fields such as the humanities, academic papers don’t contain data. This doesn’t make them any less important, but it does mean that the credibility of these papers is entirely argument driven. In other words, there is no way to manipulate results in order to sneak something past peer-review. The merit of one paper is completely contained within its own arguments and those from which it cites. Hoax articles in the humanities should therefore only ever appear in the aforementioned ‘pay-to-publish’ journals. Unfortunately, hoaxes (and articles that look a lot like hoaxes) are frequently published in reputable journals in the humanities. Take for example the hoax article “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct”, published in Cogent Social Sciences, which is owned by publishing giant Taylor & Francis. The article itself is worth a read, but the following paragraph from the gives a good sense of its tone:
“Toxic hypermasculinity derives its significance directly from the conceptual penis and applies itself to supporting neocapitalist materialism, which is a fundamental driver of climate change, especially in the rampant use of carbon-emitting fossil fuel technologies and careless domination of virgin natural environments. We need not delve deeply into criticisms of dialectic objectivism, or their relationships with masculine tropes like the conceptual penis to make effective criticism of (exclusionary) dialectic objectivism. All perspectives matter.”
This paragraph, which is actually generated by a computer, is used to defend an earlier claim that penises are responsible for climate change. In the retraction, the journal writes “On investigation, although the two reviewers had relevant research interests, their expertise did not fully align with this subject matter”. It seems absurd to suggest that identifying this article as ridiculous requires any expertise whatsoever. Another recent example, which has caused some controversy in the media already, is a paper titled “Glaciers, gender, and science”, published in Progress in Human Geography (impact factor 5.8, a reputable journal). The article reads exactly like a hoax, including lines such as:
“Most existing glaciological research – and hence discourse and discussions about cryospheric change – stems from information produced by men, about men, with manly characteristics, and within masculinist discourses”.
The claim that the field of glaciology is male-dominated isn’t supported, but even if it’s true, how does data about glaciers have anything to do with men? And who said that data was somehow masculine? Upon intense criticism and media attention, both the journal and the author continue to insist the article is not a hoax. Incredibly, the author doubled down in an interview with Science:
“Professional research is published in journals for specialists in a given field. When removed from that context and described to nonspecialists, the research can be misunderstood and potentially misrepresented”.
The ability to use this argument is the primary reason that so many of these papers are written in such a technical-sounding way. However, the underlying arguments are typically very simple. The “you don’t understand” defence falls apart when scrutinizing lines that aren’t shrouded by jargon. The last line in the abstract says, “…thereby leading to more just and equitable science and human-ice interactions”. It’s not clear what kind of ‘expertise’ someone would require to understand what constitutes “an equitable human-ice interaction”.
There isn’t one point in time when unfiltered nonsense became academic literature, but a good early example is feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray’s 1977 (translated in 1985) book, The Sex Which Is Not One, which has been cited 6301 times. A 1992 article by Katherine Hayles summarizes a part of Irigaray’s book as follows:
“The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids… From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.”
In other words, nobody has solved the Navier–Stokes existence and smoothness problem (and picked up $1,000,000 for doing so) because scientists and mathematicians are sexist. The twitter account @realpeerreview documents a never-ending stream of academic garbage from the humanities. The real question is, how does any of this pass peer-review? The answer lies in the magic of writing through a lens.
An Introduction To Postmodernism
The source of all of this drivel is a school of philosophy typically referred to as ‘postmodernism’. In a nutshell, postmodernists argue that knowledge, truth and reality are not absolute, but are social and linguistic constructs. That is, reality is ultimately unknowable. Most postmodernists don’t take this to mean that every individual has their own subjective ‘truth’, but that each individual’s worldview is shaped by their culture (or subculture, group, etc.). In other words, each culture’s story of the world is equally valid, and ‘truth’ is recognized as such inside one particular cultural framework. A postmodernist therefore sees no contradiction between two opposing creation myths, as the followers of each believe them to be true in the sense that they account for what is interpreted as physical reality. In the same vein, the idea of cultural progression isn’t actually progression, it’s pragmatism. Consider the cultural practices of monogamy and polygamy. Neither is actually correct or incorrect, but a given culture will practice one of them if it emerges as the better working option. Because different choices can be the ‘best working option’ for different cultures, there can’t be a single correct answer, or ‘truth’. Postmodernism in this sense is related to the idea of cultural relativism, where the moral and ethical systems of every culture are equally valid. This is the basis for the far-left’s reluctance to criticize Islamic practices that would not fly in the West.
However, this type of thinking breaks down when applied to practices that confront physical reality. Sometimes, the dominant ‘truth’ within a culture can be explicitly wrong, with serious consequences. In 1856, in what is now South Africa, a 15 year old Xhosa ‘prophetess’ named Nongqawuse told her uncle that the Xhosa people should destroy their crops and kill their cattle to fulfil a prophecy that would result in the restocking of the crops and cattle with the added bonus that British settlers would be “swept into the sea”. Nongqawuse’s uncle managed to convince most of their clan (and many Xhosa outside of their clan) that the prophecy was true, which resulted in a famine that killed three quarters of the Xhosa population in the area. Interestingly enough, postmodernist-types actually attempt to defend the Xhosa’s actions. Because a truth within a culture is as valid as any other, one can’t actually claim that belief in spiritual practices such as witchcraft are ridiculous. South African History Online seems to actually entertain the prophecy, writing, “we do not know if she was truly a prophet…”. Another website, Siyabona Africa, starts by saying “modern historians must ignore colonial theories of ‘superstition’ and ‘delusion’” without any supporting evidence why a delusion based on superstition should not be referred to as such. Later, the same article implies that the Xhosa never actually expected the prophecy to come true, concluding that “…the Xhosa Cattle-Killing can be seen as an assertion of black identity”. These bizarrely forced arguments are simply used to avoid criticizing the beliefs that caused the whole situation in the first place. The assertion that reality is up for interpretation works just fine until an interpretation is actually confronted by reality.
Questions about the physical world aside, postmodernism really starts to go off the rails on the subject of cultural advancement. Because truths within all cultures are equally valid, progress (i.e. the abandonment of one practice for another) is actually an illusion. Achievement is a socially constructed concept, and the advancement of one individual within a society is completely accomplished by the society itself. Postmodernism at this point aligns with Marxism, in that it is wrong for Western society (postmodernists tend to focus on the evils of the West) to allow the unequal distribution of wealth based on achievement. The argument for this is as follows: every culture’s truths are equally valid, which means that no culture is above another, which means that cultural progression isn’t actually real, which means that individuals who are perceived to have contributed to that progression didn’t actually do so, which means that they shouldn’t be rewarded. While postmodernism and Marxism are directly at odds with their respective premises (e.g. Marxism explicitly rejects religion), the conclusion that wealth/resources should be equalized is nonetheless shared.
It should be noted that postmodernism unconditionally declares reality to be unknowable and does away with logic and reason. Given that it denies all abstract truths, it can’t exactly be used to make arguments. What these academics are really doing is using the postmodernist premise of ‘reality is unknowable’ and abandoning the rest. From this point on, what is referred to as ‘postmodernism’ is more like a bastardization of postmodernism, cultural relativism, and identity politics.
All of the bad academic papers mentioned above aren’t actually about postmodernism, they simply use a postmodernist lens to make fallacious arguments. Ultimately, the postmodernist lens allows academics to make far-left arguments without actually having to defend them. In normal discourse, one has to actually support bizarre claims such as glaciological research being about men. A postmodernist lens is a convenient way to circumvent this issue, because all one has to do is claim that a group feels a certain way (and that makes it a valid claim). In the postmodernist world, an argument is not about how to interpret information about the physical world, it is just one equally valid narrative against another. The conclusions drawn from this type of research are the basis of so-called ‘pc culture’, which spins media narratives about how ‘cultural appropriation’ is a weapon, conservative speakers on campus cause emotional and physical trauma, and that a Beerfest themed party is racist.
The Consequences of Postmodernist Influence on Academia
While the nonsense angle of postmodernism has been written about extensively, the primary issue taken by the authors is that it goes against the nature of academia. That is, nonsense masquerading as academic discourse is a travesty in and of itself. Outside of this moral objection, though, it’s hard to see what damage can be done by subsections of academics speaking to each other in obfuscated postmodernist nonsense. One could argue that meaningless ‘studies’ are a waste of taxpayer dollars, but this is only one example of many avenues of frivolous government spending. In this regard, it’s a lot easier for one to write off the whole field as useless and move on.
It turns out that postmodernist academic publishing is actually being used to support a lot of the bogus claims by the far-left. This is what the professors in the Laurier meeting were referring to when they asserted that Peterson’s claims have zero academic credibility. Whether it’s a university policy or a Canadian law, the basis for far-left arguments tend to come from these postmodernist academic journals, which, as academic journals, are taken to be irrefutable. In what many would have previously considered to be farfetched, postmodernist humanities types have actually overridden real scientists on the subject of gender dysphoria and gender reassignment surgery. Medical researchers and policy makers are interested in questions such as, at what age is it appropriate to start hormone treatments? To what degree does gender reassignment surgery improve quality of life? Are other disorders linked to gender dysphoria, and can they be treated? What sort of standards should a patient meet before being prescribed hormone blockers? The postmodernist view is that gender varies independently from biological sex, so someone at any age experiencing gender dysphoria must innately be that gender. There should be no requirement (beyond a patient’s claim) for a gender dysphoria diagnosis, hormone replacement therapy must be allowed to start at any age, and studying the outcomes of gender reassignment surgery is transphobia. For some reason, the postmodernists are actually being given credence. The CBC was recently forced to cancel the airing of a BBC documentary about transgender children, and studies about gender reassignment outcomes are being cancelled. While the feel-good narrative of ‘zero barriers to sex reassignment’ is being pushed, it can legitimately lead to worse outcomes for patients. The irony is that the far-left have always maintained that the right hates science, when in reality it’s the fringes of both sides who reject science in favour of their own narrative.
One of the reasons that postmodernist humanities have moved outside of the academic world is that those papers are the basis for many undergraduate courses in the humanities. This was the driving force behind Jordan Peterson’s proposed website, which appears to have been put on hold due to an incredible amount of backlash. The basic idea is that the website would be a user-submitted database of humanities courses and the professors who teach them. Similar to ‘rate my professors’, but with emphasis on what the professor teaches, not how they teach it. Courses like chemistry, political science, psychology, etc. are pretty standard across any university. In most disciplines, this type of website is mostly pointless. More importantly, it would be uncontroversial. Would a professor of physics claim that they feel ‘targeted’ by a website that publishes what they actually teach in the course?
What’s less transparent to prospective students, especially because introductory versions of these courses aren’t taught in high school (at least as of a few years ago), are faculties like women and gender studies, where the description of the intro course is, “An integrated and historical approach to social relations of gender, race, class, sexuality and disability, particularly as they relate to women’s lives and struggles across different locales, including Canada”. That description is not very illuminating, which makes it confusing as to why it would be such a terrible thing for a user-driven website to offer a more detailed description of what is being taught. There have been controversies within these faculties which do beg the question of whether they’re teaching a curriculum or an ideology. If a course on world religion was teaching students to actually follow one of them and dismissing the rest as blasphemy, it would be equally ridiculous. It should also be noted that since women comprise 59% of undergraduate enrolment across Canada, women and gender studies departments are no longer sticking up for the minority.
If this seems overly alarmist, civics departments across the US are already being replaced in favour of a curriculum espousing a far-left ideology. Termed ‘new civics’, these courses have replaced the sometimes-required volunteering component to full blown social justice activism as a course requirement. In 2017, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) released a 525 page report outlining exactly what ‘new civics’ is and where it’s being taught.
New civics is rapidly expanding. CU-Boulder already offers between 60 and 132 courses in new civics, compared to 11 in traditional civics (page 171). The activism requirement is also increasing. Campus compact (a group of 1100 colleges and universities in the US) reported that in 1990, about 16% of students were involved in ‘service’ (mostly volunteering), but in 2010 that number had jumped to 35% and includes ‘civic engagement activities’ (page 116). The worst part about new civics is not simply that it exists, but that it is replacing traditional civics. Not only are these universities promoting activism against the ‘system’, they aren’t even bothering to teach students how the system even works. Given the rapid rise of new civics, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to question other faculties about teaching with a political slant.
The core contradictions of the far-left ideology are worth repeating. For a multicultural society to be successful, the identity of an individual must be separated from the identity of whichever cultural or ethnic group to which they belong. In other words, nobody should be judged based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, or whichever else. The far-left practice of chastising white people for sins of the past and present is not only inconsistent with progressivism, it’s directly opposed to the notion that an individual should not be judged by their group identity. It also has the added consequence of losing the support of white people who may otherwise support liberal progressivism. The notion of success being purely a product of privilege also implies that anyone who is privileged but not monetarily successful is a loser. The insistence that ‘white privilege’ is so important is therefore a direct insult to anyone who is poor and white. It’s indisputable that money, good parenting, and a solid sense of community are instrumental to an individual’s chances of being successful, but that individual still has to have the ability and put in the work required to be successful. The far-left has some sort of notion that privilege needs to be destroyed, but aside from communism, there’s no clear way for this to be achieved. Exactly how the quality of parenting is supposed to be equalized is something that remains a mystery.
Does Any of This Have A Goal?
It’s one thing to consider what this ridiculous ideology is and how it became so widespread on campus is one thing, but it doesn’t address why. On its outer surface, Marxism is a compassionate ideology. Arguing that everyone should have equal resources is in some sense virtuous, as is standing up for those who are oppressed. It is also true that there are corrupt elements and explicitly unfair laws in Western governments, which are important to sort out. These reasons may be the draw for academics, but they don’t seem strong enough to encourage the masses to subscribe. The real draw is that the ideology provides an excuse for an individual’s perceived failure. Instead of confronting the internal reasons for which one hasn’t lived up to their own expectations, a person is able to simply blame an external factor. This is a shared tactic of the alt-right and the far-left. Whereas the cringe-inducing cretins of the alt-right claim that their circumstances are the result of vague plots by non-whites, the far-left tends to blame white people or abstract mental health disorders (and the lack of available treatment) for their problems. Ultimately, both groups are of the opinion that they would benefit if the current system was dismantled.
While there are attractive features that may draw someone to a far-left ideology, the ideology itself is nonsense. In addition to its numerous contradictions, there don’t actually seem to be any proposed ideas beyond an imprecise sense of ‘revolution’. It’s perfectly acceptable for a nonsensical movement to exist as its own entity, but it’s another for a movement to be taught as part of an undergraduate degree at a university while its tenets pass for academic research. The humanities should consider reflecting on why they’re being ‘targeted’ instead of writing off their critics as being part of the alt-right. Maybe Peterson’s proposed website isn’t such a bad idea.