Grievance studies celebrates intellectual orthodoxy rather than diversity

I remember sometimes hearing praise for movies and books which evoke a mixture of emotions, and this reminds me of how people often react to the ideas of the new left (or social justice movement or whatever you wish to call it). Typically the relevant adjectives are “hilarious”, “terrifying” and “baffling” (or synonyms). Hilarious because of the absurdity of many of the ideas, terrifying because of what it says about our society and what that thinking might lead to in the future, and baffling as to how seemingly intelligent and caring people could hold such ideas and treat people who disagree with them as they do. There is something exhilarating about this blend of emotions – but at the same time I can feel the stress it generates and I know that can’t be good for me. I am interested in all the questions raised by this triad of reactions, but here I am focused on the question of how we come to be in this situation.

My background is as a technology and business professional, but I have always had a love for academia and returned to university over 10 years ago to study philosophy. I have always liked the idea of teaching and although I may have left my run a little late to achieve this I am gradually inching in that direction. I have views across the political spectrum and that makes me somewhat of a misfit (at least on paper) in the world of 21st century humanities which I find myself in. In addition having a background in business and professional life and still having one foot in the “real” world I think gives me a slightly uncommon perspective among post-grad students and staff in academia. For one thing I see academic staff not just as scholars but also as ordinary people with careers and aspirations, and while the inner workings of academia are still new or mysterious to me, the dynamics of people in a working environment is not.

In my chosen subject of philosophy I have often thought about the challenge of finding new ideas and perspectives in such well-trodden ground. Yet moments later I realize that this is an illusion – the ground is as fertile as ever – not only in topics which have been debated for centuries but also in new areas opening up which may have hardly been touched. However when I think about the grievance studies areas of the academy (see here for background on this), I can’t help feeling that things might be different, and that the difference has important consequences. It is not original to say that there is an orthodoxy in grievance studies, and it is interesting to think about what that might mean for academic professionals in those subjects. How does someone in that position distinguish themselves in a world where uniformity of thought is not only encouraged, but required? I suggest that one obvious way to make your mark in such an environment is to discover and then write about some new form of oppression, and there are other possibilities which come to mind. In general, extending the orthodoxy (along some perceived trajectory) might be the only way to make your mark in such an environment.  This is radically different from philosophy, where any idea is up for debate, where logic and reason are founding principles, where the goal is to seek truth and understanding, and where people typically make their mark by proposing counter-arguments and alternative positions – often the more different the better. So while philosophy and the grievance studies subjects often sit side by side in university humanities departments, they are poles apart intellectually.

So the baffling aspect of it is, I think, not quite so baffling. At the end of the day many of the people driving this ideology are academics and administrators who have made a significant personal and professional investment in these ideas and depend on them for their future income, or aspiring academics who depend on it for their future career path. The longer the situation goes on the more entrenched the orthodoxy becomes and the more those within it are forced to find new ways to expand it or push it forward. You might wonder whether there has to be a point of explosion – like a balloon that cannot keep inflating indefinitely. Surely there is a limit to how absurd things can become before someone notices that the emperor is not wearing any clothes.  Well, I think we have gone far past the point where absurdity was noticeable and it does not seem to have slowed things down. I am sure that if I had a big enough platform I could write an article claiming that the universal use of white lines on roads is a sign of white supremacy and it would create a storm of outage among the new left (possibly even resulting in road marking policy changes).

You might believe that like any social fad, the current panic will at some point tire itself out. Will they run out of forms of oppression to discover? Will the movement eventually “eat itself” as many people suggest? Will some fresh recruit claim that identifying oppression is itself a form of oppression – resulting in the whole edifice collapsing in a puff of smoke? Will it morph into something more moderate and reasonable? I am doubtful that the movement will fade any time soon – the grievance studies subjects continue today (and in fact they continue to mutate into new forms) and those leading the charge seem to be more aggressive and determined than ever.  Many (perhaps most) universities now have such departments continually producing new members for this movement – which not only strengthen its hold on academia but also propagate the ideology out into the world. Few other ideologies – except perhaps for religion – have the same degree of “survival” capability and the same scale of institutional support. That’s where the adjective “terrifying” comes in.

Faulty thinking about global migration will harm everyone

I grew up reading and watching science fiction and I find very appealing the idea of a utopian society where all humans live in perfect peace and harmony, with a perfect balance of nature and technology. A world without borders where people are freed from drudgery, conflict and suffering and all people can spend their time in the pursuit of personal fulfillment and physical and intellectual improvement. I totally support this as a goal for our planet. I am going to assume that those who support global migration share that goal. However I believe there is some seriously faulty reasoning occurring which could have the opposite of the intended effect.

Let me be clear about what is at stake. This is a matter of the well-being of 7 billion or more individuals plus many billions more yet to be born. My concern is simply this. That dissolving the world’s borders at this stage of the history of our planet will be disastrous. My view is not driven by my desire to preserve Western civilization (although I do have that desire), but rather by thinking of our planet as containing 7 billion individuals who are currently organized in a certain way and considering what will likely happen if we try to get to my utopian future in the wrong way.

Firstly I will quickly spell out why I think the ideas that seem to be most dominant at the highest political levels are very likely to be disastrous for the whole of humanity. It is very simple. The so-called developed countries seem to be barely managing to feed, house, educate and care for their populations. They are in a constant state of tension over how to organize themselves and how to fund social services and maintain infrastructure. Recently two major challenges have been added to that mix – how to deal with climate change and how to adjust to a future where more and more people will likely lose their jobs to technology. In spite of this, and contrary to what social justice advocates seem to believe, I am sure that the vast majority of people in the West deeply feel for the plight of the millions of people in the developing world who are less fortunate.

The next part of my argument is that we must agree that there are better and worse ways for human beings to flourish – as Sam Harris often says, and that the developed countries – in spite of their faults and imperfections – represent a better way for human beings to flourish. This is clearly true – otherwise this entire debate about global migration would not be happening. Social justice advocates should realize and admit to this fact – otherwise we cannot progress the debate.

You might say in response to me that the only reason the West is desirable is because of better climate and natural resources – not because Western society is “better”. Of course it is true that climate plays a role in extreme cases – people are not queuing up to migrate to Antarctica. However while I would agree that climate and natural resources are factors which have played an important role in the history of the developed societies, this is not now what is driving the desire to migrate to them. Imagine that for whatever reason a Western industrial society was located in Africa and that North America was as Africa is now. I claim that if this were the case then we would right now be debating migration from North America to Africa. So what I am saying is that regardless of historical factors it is the state of the currently existing societies (in the broad sense) which matter most in the question of migration of people from one to the other.

So here is another thought experiment. If we were to take all the people currently living in the developing world and instantly distribute them within the developed countries what do we think would happen? My claim is simple. The recipient countries would be overwhelmed. It is not just the case that those societies would lose their identity – it is a practical matter of infrastructure, systems, policies, laws, organizations etc. Simply everything would fail. What would emerge is unclear – but given the number of people involved I think there is a good chance the outcome would more closely resemble the developing world than the developed world. Essentially the developed world – and I believe most of what it offers that is “better” – would be destroyed in the process. Our goal of a utopian future will have utterly failed. We will have utterly failed to help those whose needed the most help.

I think there are some principles involved in good parenting which support my argument. One is that you cannot care for your children if you do not care for yourself. This rule easily translates to the global community. If we accept that developed countries are “better” for people – which I have argued we must do otherwise this debate would not be happening – then those developed countries simple cannot help the developing world unless they take care of themselves. Imagine you are a parent of two children in a certain sized house and that you have a certain income and level of resources. Now imagine you steadily increase the number of children you have. Eventually your resources will be exhausted, then overwhelmed, and then you will utterly fail as a parent – all will suffer.

You might argue that my parent-child analogy is wrong because it assumes each new arrival in the house is a helpless child – rather than a productive adult. I would agree that each new arrival should not be viewed as a helpless child, but neither can they be viewed as fully productive adults. But regardless of whether you agree with me on that point, here is the more important point. Even if they are fully productive adults it takes time to develop an infrastructure to accommodate an increasing population. Try to increase the population too fast and the only outcome will be disaster. It would be difficult to argue that the outcome would be anything other than conflict, hardship and suffering – not just for the existing population but for the new arrivals also. The entire project to help people will have utterly failed.

As politically incorrect as it may be – we cannot have an honest debate about this issue if we do not face up to the fact that there are better and worse places to live in the world, and that if we attempt to move too many people too fast from the worse places to live to the better places, then the better places will simply become like the worse places. Furthermore the worse places will remain bad places to live.

Someone who truly wishes for the utopia I described at the beginning of my essay should be instead thinking how we can help those worse places to live to become better places to live. I believe those people who are motivated by social justice should spend their energy on that problem. If every place on this planet becomes a place where humans can live in peace and prosperity then we will no longer want or need borders. However until that happens, if social justice advocates simple try to force open the doors of Western civilization, not only will they fail to help those less fortunate in the world but they will destroy those countries which are currently in the best position to help others. Those people they purport to want to help will not be helped. I may be wrong – but if we cannot have genuinely unrestricted debates about migration without fear of being attacked for our views – and if we don’t start thinking logically rather than emotionally about the problem – then the result could be disaster for everyone.

Grievance studies scholarship is driving social change which is harming everyone

If you have not yet heard about the so called “grievance studies hoax” — which went public in the last couple of months — then you probably soon will. This has dramatically put the spotlight on a particular area of academia which some believe has had and continues to have a profound adverse effect on modern society. Briefly stated, it provides evidence that the body of scholarship produced by that part of academia may be deeply flawed. Much of the scholarship in question is instrumental in motivating and informing contemporary social justice activism, which some see as misguided, divisive, and a threat to freedom and individual liberty.

The grievance studies hoax explained

To briefly explain the hoax — academics James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian spent a year submitting fictitious and intentionally nonsensical academic papers to respected journals in a group of subjects which the hoaxers collectively refer to as “grievance studies”. Not only were many of the hoax papers accepted for publication (or on track for publication) by well regarded journals within these fields, many were even praised for their notable contribution to scholarship. The term “grievance studies” — coined by the hoaxers — refers to a group of variously named subjects which all have a social orientation, such as gender studies, whiteness studies, fat studies, critical race theory, postcolonial studies, and queer theory, to name a few (Lindsay et al. “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship”).

The papers the hoaxers submitted covered a variety of topics. For example one was a part of Hitler’s Mein Kampf rewritten using feminist terminology, another claimed that dog parks are “rape-condoning spaces and a place of rampant canine rape culture”, and another proposed that white students should be invited to wear chains for the duration of a course as a form of “experiential reparation”. As amusing as the hoax may be, what it demonstrates is severely disturbing. The entire academic world relies on the process of peer review which is a vitally important part of the process of ensuring the integrity of published work — which the hoaxers refer to as the “gold standard” for human knowledge. What the hoax showed — to put it simply — is that the experts who participate in the peer review process in these subjects not only accepted but also praised work which was nonsense according to those who created it. And the work the hoaxers created wasn’t just nonsense – it also included ideas and suggestions which should be deeply troubling to any reasonable person.

Past hoaxes and criticism of grievance studies

This is not the first such hoax — there have been a number in the past, and although this latest hoax is particularly illuminating it reinforces what many have believed for decades. The grievance studies scholarship has been frequently criticized for its rejection of the proven principles of evidence, reasoning, critical thinking and clarity — instead embracing fashionable but heavily criticized ideologies such as postmodernism and Marxism and employing a writing style which resists understanding. The hoaxers themselves reiterate the past concerns: “After having spent a year immersed and becoming recognized experts within these fields, in addition to witnessing the divisive and destructive effects when activists and social media mobs put it to use, we can now state with confidence that it is neither essentially good nor sound”. They go on to say:

“these fields of study do not continue the important and noble liberal work of the civil rights movements; they corrupt it while trading upon their good names to keep pushing a kind of social snake oil onto a public that keeps getting sicker. For us to know anything about injustice in society and be able to show it to those who are unaware or in denial of it, scholarship into it must be rigorous. Currently, it is not, and this enables it, and social justice issues with it, to be dismissed. This is a serious problem of considerable concern, and we must address it.”

If this all sounds too abstract, what it boils down to is this. Some of the scholarship which is most influential in driving change in our culture is based on poorly defined concepts, faulty reasoning, bad statistics, and rejection of science. For example the idea that there is a significant gender pay gap in Western societies — which is a mainstay of the social justice playbook and is taken for granted by mainstream media and possibly most of the population — has been largely debunked by economists and other academics outside of the grievance studies community (Christina Hoff Sommers “The gender pay gap uses bogus statistics”).

Why did this problem happen?

You may find this unbelievable — and wonder how it all happened. The prevailing theory is that these particular academic disciplines have for the past four to five decades been dominated by academics who embrace the above mentioned ideologies, and who out of good intentions are strongly motivated to change the social order. They have passed on their way of looking at the world to students year after year, and have gradually achieved positions of power from which to influence wider academia and society in general.  The hoaxers explain the core mind-set:

“This problem is most easily summarized as an overarching (almost or fully sacralized) belief that many common features of experience and society are socially constructed. These constructions are seen as being nearly entirely dependent upon power dynamics between groups of people, often dictated by sex, race, or sexual or gender identification. All kinds of things accepted as having a basis in reality due to evidence are instead believed to have been created by the intentional and unintentional machinations of powerful groups in order to maintain power over marginalized ones. This worldview produces a moral imperative to dismantle these constructions.”

Over the decades a large body of academic work (and the journals responsible for publishing the work) has been generated within these disciplines — largely isolated from  mainstream academic fields such as the so-called “hard” sciences. In effect this has created an echo-chamber. Papers are written, reviewed and published by people who tend to share the same social ideology and desire to change the world. According to hoaxer James Lindsay, hypotheses seem to be treated as accepted conclusions without first going through the rigorous scientific process of experimentation and proof, and these unsubstantiated conclusions then become “knowledge” via peer review and publication. Evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein has referred to this process of converting ideas into knowledge as “idea laundering”.

Students quickly learn that they can receive high marks and praise simply by pointing out a new form of oppression, and they embrace catchy but highly questionable slogans such as “language constructs reality”.  Statistics are re-interpreted and inconvenient scientific findings are ignored or down-played. Students in these subjects are encouraged to cite sources within the field, they are rewarded for alignment with the ideology and actively discouraged from deviating from it or referring to external sources (Janice Fiamengo “Womens Studies Must Die” — TFF Episode 31″). Students who succumb to this indoctrination carry the ideology out into the world and those who resist are shunned or opt out. When those who leave the grievance community speak out, it is reminiscent in some ways of the stories from those who have left cults.

Reaction to this latest hoax

Reaction from the academic world to this latest hoax has been mixed. Many have expressed their support of the project either privately or publicly. But some others have pushed back — accusing the hoaxers of deception or wasting the time of peer reviewers. We can expect more from inside the field to push back — particularly those who have built lengthy careers in these disciplines. For them the magnitude of their personal and professional investment in these fields will likely render them unable or unwilling to agree that there is a problem. We should not be surprised if many people “double-down”; deny there is a problem, insist that in spite of the hoax the body of work is correct and the problems they point out are real, or focus on accusing the hoaxers of wrong-doing. In another essay I discuss a number of these criticisms and argue that they do not stack up. The hoax provides evidence that there is a problem with at least some of the work in the upper echelons of the fields concerned — and this should be taken very seriously given the amount of influence this area of academia has on modern society.

Why this matters so much now

The situation is not news to many in academia — it is an “in joke” among many and there is even a web site which will generate meaningless parodies of postmodern writing such as this:

“If one examines capitalist theory, one is faced with a choice: either reject
posttextual nihilism or conclude that the collective is capable of truth. It
could be said that the main theme of the works of Gibson is the role of the
writer as artist. Foucault’s model of capitalist neoconceptualist theory states
that narrativity is meaningless. ” (Communications From Elsewhere)

It could be argued that those who produce work of this kind have failed in their duty to uphold academic principles, have misused the money and betrayed the trust given to them by students, parents and society at large. So you might ask — if many knew about this — why has nothing been done?

I expect there are multiple reasons, but one is likely to be a belief that the problem was not serious, even though there are some in academia who have for years been trying to warn us of the dangers of some of these ideas.  The grievance studies scholarship to a large extent informs and motivates the contemporary social justice movement, and an increasing number of people are now coming to believe that the social justice movement may be doing more harm than good. Many people now accuse most of the mainstream media throughout the Western world of having a bias which follows the social justice narrative and suppresses or distorts the views of those who are critical of it, unsurprising given the procession of young journalists graduating from university courses heavily influenced by the grievance studies subjects. The story is the same in popular entertainment, education and public policy, and the corporate world is scrambling to embrace social justice ideology at every level from board room to shop floor. Major social media companies have been implicated in attempts to influence elections and public perceptions along ideological lines, and some now monitor and regularly ban critics of orthodoxy or cut off their sources of income — based on subjective judgements, using vague and often incoherent conceptualizations of words like “hate”, “phobia”, “harm” and “offense”. Likewise countries are beginning to pass laws to limit speech, compel speech (preferred gender pronouns), and monitor, detain or imprison people for “hate” and “phobia”. Public debate is being stifled as topic after topic is being declared “extreme”, taboo, or even illegal. Blasphemy laws are making a come-back. These changes reflect the oppression and victim narrative coming from the grievance studies ideologies and have all the hall-marks of a new religion.

The effects are not just broadly social, economic and political — the cost to individuals is mounting up day by day. Well respected, highly accomplished, and kind hearted academics “who want nothing but the best for their students” suddenly find themselves attacked by a hysterical mob, lose their jobs (cast adrift by their cowered and diversity obsessed university administrators), and have their hard earned careers destroyed (speech by Heather Mac Donald at Hillsdale College). Corporate employee James Damore was promptly fired for suggesting that a workplace gender bias might be explained by psychology studies on preferences and interests (James Damore at Portland State (2/17/18)). Students who resist indoctrination find themselves disciplined by their professors and the university diversity and equity administrators, and attacked or exiled by their fellow students (Lindsay Shepherd — Free Speech Battle with Laurier University).  There are many more stories like these and for some of these the harm done is even greater.

The grievance studies community accuses critics of seeking to protect their “privilege” (or of being apologists for those who do). But some who are critical of the grievance studies ideology believe it is hurting those it purports to help. Affirmative action placement and hiring policies arguably disadvantage and patronize the minority groups they were intended to help while openly discriminating against others. Misinformation about the treatment of women within certain fields may put young women off pursuing a career in those fields — thus having the opposite of the intended effect (Christina Hoff Sommers “Is academic philosophy a “safe space” for women?”).

In a few short years we have seen the rise of a vicious witch-hunt mentality  — both in cyberspace and on the streets — which cannot be placated or reasoned with. Identity politics, tribalism, and the victim narrative are dis-empowering people in their education, their relationships, and their working lives. Feelings are more important than facts. “Innocent until proven guilty” was first replaced by “guilty until proven innocent” and now by “guilty — will never be innocent”. Trial by jury has been replaced with trial by social media, peers, and colleagues behind closed doors. People in all walks of life are now walking on egg shells and self-censoring, eyes to the ground, for fear of becoming the next target for the mob. The word “Orwellian” has enjoyed a resurgence as many fear — with some justification — that we are sliding towards the bleak and absurd world George Orwell predicted in his book 1984.

If you think the problem in academia is only in the “social” subjects — it will not stop there. Science and other STEM fields are already under attack, as the hoaxers explain:

“… for grievance studies scholars, science itself and the scientific method are deeply problematic, if not outright racist and sexist, and need to be remade to forward grievance-based identitarian politics over the impartial pursuit of truth. These same issues are also extended to the “Western” philosophical tradition which they find problematic because it favors reason to emotion, rigor to solipsism, and logic to revelation.”

Consider the importance of having a correct foundation of knowledge for engineering, chemistry, electronics, medicine, agriculture, etc. The consequences of allowing that knowledge to become corrupted are unthinkable. Some of the biggest  problems we face as a species, such as how to feed more than 7 billion people, how to ensure a sustainable environment, and how we can all benefit from emerging technologies (e.g. AI, gene editing) while avoiding the risks, can only be solved with reason and evidence — which we reject at our extreme peril.

Can this be fixed?

It is not clear how this can be fixed, or even whether it can be fixed. There is a deep connection between grievance studies scholarship and what many see as a problematic social justice movement and it is not clear how widely this problem is recognized, or whether there is the will to solve the problem. The mainstream media seem unwilling to challenge the prevailing social justice narrative. Mimicking the social media community,  journalists have morphed from inquirers into interrogators — they celebrate compliance with orthodoxy and attack those who question the social justice agenda — classifying anyone who so much as questions those ideas as extremists, far-right, alt-right or worse.

Even if there is a growing recognition by some, action is difficult. It is a genuine case of the “emperors new clothes”; there is a high cost to individuals who challenge the orthodoxy, while the moderate majority remain scared and silent, and the vocal minority have free rein to exert a disproportionate influence on society and public policy, as pointed out by Claire Lehman, the founder of Quillette (What Is Marx’s ‘Conflict Theory’ Doing to Our Politics?). One of the difficulties is that the ideologies concerned are clothed in respectability and good intentions. Who can publicly object to initiatives that seem to promote diversity, inclusion, equality and fairness? Anyone who deviates from the prescribed narrative — even to seek clarification, let alone point out inconsistencies and other problems — is  branded as racist, sexist, or phobic. The hoaxers express the hope that their latest project might be the tipping point — if enough sane-minded academics step forward then the boat will right itself. Whether that happens remains to be seen.

There is an important principle in philosophy — the ad hominem fallacy — which every first year student of classical philosophy learns. Essentially this says that the argument is what matters — not the person making it. For example the argument “Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal” is a good argument — whether the person putting forward the argument is Mother Theresa or Hitler. The broader principle to be applied here is to separate the content of ideas being discussed from the identity of the person, their position, or their presumed intention. Dismissing or refuting someone’s opinion because of their gender or race is to commit the ad hominem fallacy (in addition to being an act of sexism or racism) . Equally wrong is attributing someone with a whole set of beliefs and intentions simply because of some particular thing they say, or simply accusing them of being racist, sexist, phobic, far-right or alt-right without considering the content of their argument. These and other basic failures in critical thinking are happening to an alarming degree in the current social climate — egged on by the grievance studies community which seems intent on rejecting traditional principles of reasoning and evidence (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Feminist History of Philosophy).

The volume of academic material which has been generated by the grievance studies community is large, and it is not just sitting conveniently in one place. It goes back years, is widely distributed, highly interconnected, and deeply rooted in multiple academic subjects and in multiple universities and related institutions around the world. The process of working out what material is worthwhile and what is not would be a monumental task — if it was even possible, and those that guard the gates to this sacred body of knowledge will not lightly allow others to criticism it much less call for its removal or revision. Those who have invested their entire careers as champions of these ideologies are unlikely to back down — much less help to correct what they do not even see as a problem. Even if there were to be cooperation from within those fields it is not easy to see how this problem can be solved — much less whether the damage already caused can be repaired. Meanwhile, the university classes in these subjects continue.

But the battle to save the great legacy of the European enlightenment may already be lost. Universities seem to be losing sight of their central mission  — there are indications some already rank pastoral care of students, social justice and activism as having equal or higher importance than the pursuit of learning and knowledge. Some may argue that all institutions evolve over time and that these changes merely reflect a universal trend toward greater social responsibility, but those driving this change from the inside do not see this as an evolution but as a revolution — the overthrow of a patriarchy whose methods (reasoning and science) are fundamentally flawed and motivated by a desire to hold on to power and deny the existence of others. These views are deeply misguided in a multitude of ways, and what those driving this change fail to realize is that those very things they care about are inextricably linked to the academic principles which they seek to discard or dismantle. It is the careful and thorough debates in philosophy and ethics and the methods of science which have contributed to the greatest improvements in human well-being and freedoms, not the ill-considered assertions of modern grievance warriors.

Although there are undoubtedly other factors which may be having an adverse affect on contemporary culture, something has gone badly wrong in one part of our university system which is causing untold harm and may be driving us toward a future world that none of us would like to live in. You might accuse me of catastrophizing — I would be happy to be proven wrong.

Additional reading:

[1] James A. Lindsay, Peter Boghossian and Helen Pluckrose, “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship”, Areo

[2] Editorial “The Grievance Studies Scandal: Five Academics Respond”, Quillette

[3] Andy Ngo, “Writers Behind ‘Grievance Studies Scandal’ Address Criticisms”, Quillette

[4] Neven Sesardic and Rafael De Clercq, “Women in Philosophy: Problems with the discrimination hypothesis”, National Association of Scholars

[5] William Egginton, “What the ‘Grievance Studies’ Hoax Really Shows”, New York Times

[6] Joe Rogan Podcast, Episode 1191 – Interview with James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian

[7] The grievance studies hoax — why the criticisms of the hoax don’t stack up

The grievance studies hoax — why the criticisms of the hoax don’t stack up

Recently academics James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian announced that they had spent the past year submitting fictitious and intentionally nonsensical academic papers to respected journals in a group of subjects which they refer to as “grievance studies”. Not only were many of the hoax papers accepted for publication (or on track for publication) by well regarded journals within these fields, many were even praised for their notable contribution to scholarship. The term “grievance studies” — coined by the hoaxers — refers to a group of variously named subjects which all have a social orientation, such as gender studies, whiteness studies, fat studies, critical race theory, postcolonial studies, and queer theory, to name a few (Lindsay et al. “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship”).

This is not the first such hoax, although it may be the most elaborate one to date. Many people believe that the results of the hoax provide further evidence that there is a serious problem with the scholarship in the grievance studies fields, and that this should be of serious concern due to the amount of influence these fields are having on contemporary society. Reaction to the hoax from the academic world has been mixed. Many have expressed their support of the project either privately or publicly. But some others have pushed back — accusing the hoaxers of deception or wasting the time of peer reviewers, and disputing that the results are evidence of a problem. What follows is my take on a number of the main criticisms which I have seen.

Criticism 1: The problem is not unique to the targeted fields

One criticism aimed at the hoax is that it is inconsistent to target certain fields and not others — such as physics, science and mathematics.  There is an easy response to this. If there is evidence of a problem in other academic fields — and it is not obvious that there currently is a significant problem in these areas — then it would certainly be cause for action. Whether there is or not, the possibility of a problem in other areas of academia does not constitute counter-evidence to the claim that there is a problem in the area targeted by the hoaxers. As the saying goes — “two wrongs do not make a right”.

Criticism 2: Peer review is not designed to detect deception

Critics have also claimed the hoax was unfair, as the peer review process is not designed to detect deliberate deception. Furthermore they claim these subject areas are relatively new and under resourced and therefore particularly vulnerable to such devious practices. But how does the end result of deliberate deception differ from genuine scholarship? The purpose of the peer review process is to detect problems in the work — the deeper motivation of the authors is not part of the evaluation process and nor should it be. To claim that the peer review system is not intended to detect deliberate acts of faulty scholarship is like saying that a corporate financial control system is not designed to detect deliberate acts of dishonesty.

There is one further fact which is very relevant here. The hoax papers did not merely consist of fictitious data points or statistics. If that had been the case then the overworked reviewers could be forgiven for not detecting some of these “errors”. A major point of the hoax papers was to demonstrate faulty ideas and arguments — blatant wrong thinking — and it was that which the reviewers failed to detect, and which is or should be of most concern to observers.

Criticism 3: Peer review isn’t the only quality control

Some have pointed out that peer review isn’t the sole quality control — once published the work must also stand “the test of time” by surviving critique from experts  (blog comment by Maggy Wassilieff). Since the hoax had to stop when it did, the question of whether there would have been significant post-publication critique from experts in the field did not get tested. However we can at least say that there is some evidence of a problem (on the basis of the number of papers that were accepted, or nearly so, and the assumption that the peer reviewers were more or less representative of the field as a whole).

If the critics of the hoax claim that the problem is only with the peer reviews, then we would need reasons to believe that subsequent critiques from within the field would have been significantly more rigorous. Even then a field with a low threshold for publication which relies on weeding out a significant proportion of work later (assuming that ever actually happens) is surely not an ideal situation, not least because it would expose impressionable students to an excessive amount of poorly vetted work.

Criticism 4: The hoax papers are genuine works of scholarship

Some critics have argued that although intended as a hoax, the work submitted by the hoaxers may in fact qualify is genuine scholarship. If the hoaxers did their job well then maybe what they produced was actually good work — even if they did not intend it as such. Maybe there is a rape culture in dog parks. This is a slippery criticism to refute. In effect the hoax project collapses into the same old difference of opinion — those within the grievance studies community consider these ideas legitimate whether they arise from a hoax or genuine work, and the hoaxers consider the ideas faulty whether intended as a hoax or not. If we stop there then the critics may have a point, and of the criticisms I have seen I think this is the strongest.

However what the hoaxers actually attempted to do is to succeed in their deception while at the same time making the faults in their work plainly obvious to observers. Whether this addresses the criticism or not is open for debate, but the hoaxers have made available the full text of the work — so the reader can decide for themselves whether the work has merit.

It should also be noted that academic papers are not always easily accessible so at the very least this hoax provides an opportunity for the wider community to see what passes for scholarship in these fields.

Criticism 5: The hoax project was unethical

There has also been criticism that the hoaxers acted unethically. However the purpose of the hoax was not to frivolously “prank” a certain group of people — it was designed to test whether there is a problem, and deception was a necessary element of the experiment in this case — just as it is in many experimental situations. Accusing the hoaxers of being unethical is analogous to an employee who has been caught stealing accusing the company of being unethical because it has financial controls to prevent theft by employees. The hoaxers paid particular attention to a number of ethical considerations, for example they set a rule that they would go public with the hoax at the first indication of suspicion — and they did so.

Objection 6: The hoax project methodology was flawed

It has also been suggested that the hoaxers are guilty of starting with a conclusion (e.g. that all grievance studies work is faulty) and then setting out to create evidence to support their claim. It is easy to use language to frame the project this way- but one of the main ways that science operates is to start with a hypothesis, make predictions, and then perform an experiment to attempt to confirm (or refute) the hypothesis. The hoaxers also maintain that they were committed to making all of their results public whether the results confirmed their hypothesis or not. It is also important that conclusions do not overreach — the question here is whether the results of this experiment show that there is cause for concern.

Do the criticisms stack up?

You may judge for yourself whether I have defeated these criticisms and whether there are other possible criticisms I have not discussed. However it is also important to consider what the appropriate response should be to this hoax — as pointed out by hoaxer Peter Boghossian in a recent interview. Vigorous criticism is part of science, but so to is a preparedness to change one’s level of belief in accordance with the evidence. I think that even a cautious person must agree that this hoax has produced some evidence that there is a problem within the fields of study in question. Given the amount of influence this area of academia has on modern society this evidence should be taken very seriously.

References and additional reading:

[1] James A. Lindsay, Peter Boghossian and Helen Pluckrose, “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship”, Areo

[2] Editorial “The Grievance Studies Scandal: Five Academics Respond”, Quillette

[3] Andy Ngo, “Writers Behind ‘Grievance Studies Scandal’ Address Criticisms”, Quillette

[4] William Egginton, “What the ‘Grievance Studies’ Hoax Really Shows”, New York Times

[5] Tim Squirrell, “The Hoax that was just a Fraud”

[6] Joe Rogan Podcast, Episode 1191 – Interview with James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian