Perhaps you’re an evolutionary biologist who thinks evolutionary psychology is too panadaptationist. Or you’re a creationist who thinks evolutionary biology is the devil’s handiwork. Maybe you think Freud is fraud. Or you think climate science is fake news produced by lizards. Perhaps you find postmodern theory to be a bunch of anti-scientific babble. Or perhaps you have a bee in your bonnet about how gender studies believes in “cisnormativity” in “the workplace”.
No matter your target, whether your crusade is honorable, foolish, or malevolent, discrediting an entire academic field is a tall order. After all, an academic field is the work of many very educated people, and you barely have enough time to read even a few pages. You have difficulty understanding what Gibberish Studies is even talking about (which is of course one of your critiques!), and you have a life outside of attacking academics, and also your writing deadline is tomorrow. What to do?
If discrediting an entire academic field is too ambitious, then perhaps it is also too ambitious for me to write a comprehensive guide telling you how to do it. This might fit into the demarcation problem in philosophy, but it’s an unsolved problem–anyway, who has time to read all that philosophy? I give you something more low-brow, simply a list of practical tips.
1. Get a degree
I know, I know, your deadline is tomorrow, you don’t have time. Maybe you could ask a friend who already has a degree? A PhD or equivalent is preferred. You need someone who has experience producing peer-reviewed academic articles, or at least reading a lot of them.
The thing is, if you’re reading an academic article without any prior experience, you can easily mistake what is unusual or wrong about it. For instance, some people are bothered when they see conclusions stated before the evidence (that’s just proper format). Sometimes people are struck by how narrow the paper’s topic is (common in every field, especially the mature ones). Many people don’t understand that disagreements, shoddy arguments, and overreaching conclusions–while not necessarily good things, are common elements in every academic field. And that’s just the obvious stuff, there are many more subtle aspects that you can only learn through experience.
So, don’t be a fool… go to school?
2. Be narrow and precise in scope
Beware of choosing an overly broad target. “Philosophy” will never be a good target of criticism–you must realize that philosophy is composed of many very different subfields. Beware of using meaningless terms to describe your target. “Postmodernism” is not the name of an actual academic field, perhaps the term you were looking for is “critical theory”. “Grievance studies” and “Darwinism” are terms that are more effective in conveying your biases than communicating what you’re talking about.
Have you considered… not trying to discredit an entire field at once? Maybe it’s enough to discredit just one paper, or just one idea, and then you can say it makes you suspicious of the rest of the field. If you feel dissatisfied by the end, select another paper or idea to discredit, rinse and repeat. One step at a time: that’s how you make it to the finish line.
3. Disentangle journals and journalists
If it wasn’t already obvious, you need to read academic articles in the field that you’re criticizing.* Why is that so important? Because if you only hear about academic research through the media, it’s possible that the research itself is reasonable, and that journalists are simply getting it wrong. The other day, I saw a news article claiming that video games cause violence, according to some psychology study. Readers were criticizing the study for confusing correlation and causation, but I glanced at the study and found that it never claimed causation in the first place. That was clearly the journalists’ fault and not the researchers’.
*Not necessarily from top to bottom. If you have experience reading academic papers, you know that top to bottom is not a typical way of reading them.
Another possibility is that you’re looking at a normal academic field, which occasionally produces bad papers, and it’s journalists’ fault for routinely picking out the worst ones. It is necessary to do more than just check that the journalist is describing the paper correctly. You should also check that the paper has been published in a highly ranked journal, and that the paper has an above-average number of citations. Show us that you’re not cherry-picking.
4. Hoaxes bad
Some people have submitted “hoax” papers to journals in fields they dislike, as a way of discrediting those fields. Hoaxes certainly attract media attention, and sometimes they can be used to expose predatory journals, but I am not convinced that they ever provide good evidence discrediting a field.
Hoaxes are kind of like cherry picking, but you planted the cherries yourself. Remember: even good fields contain bad papers, and so what? Also, peer review is not designed to weed out bad-faith submissions, and should not be designed to weed out bad-faith submissions, since we would rather peer reviewers focus on catching other more common problems. Familiarize yourself with the peer review process, and note the common issues with it.
From the mere fact of publication of my parody I think that not much can be deduced. It doesn’t prove that the whole field of cultural studies, or cultural studies of science — much less sociology of science — is nonsense. Nor does it prove that the intellectual standards in these fields are generally lax.
Sokal goes on to say that the real evidence comes from reading the content of his parody article. Some of the most absurd claims in his article were not his own, but taken from respected literature. In other words, Sokal didn’t just produce a hoax, he actually went through the literature that he was trying to criticize, and highlighted errors. Sokal made substantive arguments, and the hoax was only the method of delivery.
5. Eat your word salad
Sometimes you want to criticize a field, but all the writing in the field is so dense that you just can’t. This is a really difficult problem, because technical language is a necessary aspect of many fields, but it can also be used to obscure an inner emptiness. Sometimes you just have to give up. Maybe you just don’t care enough about critiquing psychoanalysis that you’re willing to read one more paragraph about “polymorphous perversity” or “sinthomatics”. Maybe you can find another paper that’s easier to read. If not, there’s a whole internet out there, maybe someone else will put in the effort.
Of course, the lack of clear writing can itself be a critique. Although it may not seem like it, clarity is a positive value in academic writing. Technical language is not intended to make things less clear, it’s intended to make things more clear to experts. Excessive obscurantism doesn’t necessarily discredit an entire academic field, but it can be a real problem. This is especially true of fields that arguably want to be read by the general public, and not just read by other experts (e.g. gender studies).
6. Know your target audience
Who are you trying to convince? If you’re trying to convince trumpsters, you can safely ignore everything I’ve said; just lie and call everyone else fake news, as is common practice. If you’re trying to impress academics (perhaps in the field that you’re targetting, or in adjacent fields), you might need to put in a bit more effort. You need clear evidence and arguments, and a cautious conclusion.
In other words, do a good job. You might even need to ask for an extension of your deadline. Good luck!