… and Ophelia Benson

That small thing? I saw a referer pop up from Butterflies and Wheels, when one of Ophelia Benson’s commenters linked to me as an example of outrageous behaviour. Whenever that happens, I refer back to the rule I established three years ago.

For my part, I wrote myself into a corner with that last post. “Ophelia Benson is transphobic” became a “dog bites man” story, there wasn’t anything new or notable about it. The best evidence was on the table, people had entrenched in their opinions, and there seemed little point in flogging that horse further. So I hate-read Benson for a few weeks or so, then got bored and stopped caring. Maybe twice in that time she’s been mentioned in my circles, I checked back in, asked myself and others “does this qualify as noteworthy?,” then after some deliberation decided it wasn’t.

This time, it was. So I did my homework, typed up the first of a two-part post, and promptly got distracted. I promised to return to it during Trans Awareness Week, then broke that promise as academics and life caught up to me. PZ’s post landed just as I was clawing back towards a more stable spot, so I dusted off those old drafts.

[Read more…]

And Then There Were Four

Now a fourth woman has told BuzzFeed News her experience of sexual harassment from Tyson. In January 2010, she recalled, she joined her then-boyfriend at a holiday party for employees of the American Museum of Natural History. Tyson, its most famous employee, drunkenly approached her, she said, making sexual jokes and propositioning her to join him alone in his office. In a 2014 email shared with BuzzFeed News, she described the incident to her own employer in order to shoot down a proposed collaboration with Tyson.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Our culture does its best to silence the victims of sexual assault and harassment, while protecting those who engage in it, so victims rarely come forward. When someone is willing to stick their neck out, however, other victims realize the strength in numbers and join them with their own tales. Sometimes, this leads to a measure of justice; sometimes, not. Whatever the case, the culture of silence makes this avalanche look like a conspiracy or panic; how can so many people be victims, and why are they coming forward now?

For years, Amet had been trying to make the world listen to her account of a powerful man who had once assaulted her and derailed her life. Mainstream publications, including BuzzFeed News, were unable to adequately corroborate the events from so long ago, and did not publish her allegations. And internet commenters assailed her character and New Age lifestyle. Her claims may have stayed buried forever, if not for the women who saw in Amet’s story a shadow of their own.

“I saw that her credibility was being questioned in a way that honestly had a lot of racist and sexist and anti-religious undertones,” [another accuser] said. “I kinda figured if I had any credibility to lend to that so that she’s taken more seriously, I should do that.”

When you look at the science behind sexual assault and harassment, and rationally weigh it, neither question is a mystery. It is exactly what you’d predict would happen if “rape culture” existed.

And it suggests there may soon be five.

A Quick Note on Neil deGrasse Tyson

Sorry for going silent, I’m neck-deep in a paper at the moment. But the reports and news about Neil deGrasse Tyson have kicked up a discussion of sexual assault in my social circles. I’ve been here before; I spent months researching the literature on sexual assault, and delivered a lecture on the topic. I went gonzo with my citations, as I figured most people would be critical of my take. Between that and “A Statistical Analysis of a Sexual Assault Case,” there isn’t much else I can add. You wondering why allegations of sexual misconduct have anything to do with allegations of sexual assault, for instance? I touched on that in EvFem2.

A third reason may be that the cognitive tools used to justify one form of bigotry are similar to those used to justify others. A meta-analysis by Suarez and Gadalla found a strong correlation between belief in rape myths and belief in myths about age, class, race, and religion.[148]

[148] Suarez, E., and T. M. Gadalla. “Stop Blaming the Victim: A Meta-Analysis on Rape Myths.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 25, no. 11 (November 1, 2010): 2010–35. doi:10.1177/0886260509354503.

Bigotry is intersectional, and it’s great to see more people recognizing that. This also predicts that endorsement of benevolent sexism and sexual assault would be correlated, and sure enough it is.

Consistent with previous research, men were more accepting of rape myths against both male and female victims. Past literature on female rape myths has argued that men are more accepting of female rape myths because of adversarial, antiwoman attitudes (e.g., Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1995). If hostility toward women is the only contributing ideology, we would expect that men would endorse female rape myths to a greater extent than they endorse male rape myths. However, men’s acceptance of rape myths did not significantly differ based on the gender of the victim. Women’s acceptance of rape myths also did not vary based on the gender of the victim. This supports Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson’s (1992) conclusion that men are more accepting of rape myths in general, not just against female victims.

In exploring the ideologies associated with each of the rape myths, we find that benevolent sexism toward men is associated with male rape myths. This is consistent with the research that benevolent sexism toward women is associated with blaming female victims of acquaintance rape (Abrams et al., 2003; Chapleau et al., 2007; Viki et al., 2004). Viki et al. (2004) concluded that benevolent sexism is associated with victim blaming to protect one’s belief in a just world.

Chapleau, Kristine M., Debra L. Oswald, and Brenda L. Russell. “Male Rape Myths: The Role of Gender, Violence, and Sexism.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 23, no. 5 (May 2008): 600–615. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260507313529.

If we have evidence someone is acting creepy towards women, then, that raises the odds of them having committed sexual assault. Combine this with the rape apologetics a lot of men engage in …

… a study by Edwards, Bradshaw, and Hinsz found two different groups of people at risk to rape.[147] One sixth of the men in their sample had a genuine hatred of women, and openly admitted they would rape if they thought they could get away with it. But another sixth of their sample said they’d never rape a woman, though they’d consider forcing someone to have sex against their will. This group employed all sorts of apologetics to convince themselves that this wasn’t rape, and some went further to actually justify I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-rape as a good thing, an achievement to be unlocked and celebrated.

[147] Edwards, Sarah R., Kathryn A. Bradshaw, and Verlin B. Hinsz. “Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse: Exploring Differences Among Responders.” Violence and Gender 1, no. 4 (2014): 188–93.

… plus add in Tyson’s background as an athlete, when we’ve got evidence that athletes are more prone to commit sexual assault than the general public, and I considered it more likely than not that Tyson committed sexual assault even when I could count the number of accusers on one finger.

Hemant Metha has a different take.

This is an awkward thing for me to even mention because 1) I don’t want to believe it (not that my feelings matters), 2) my colleague on Patheos and this very site, David McAfee, is the person who’s been reporting this story from the very beginning and all of the articles coming out now stem from his posts, and 3) I’ve been reading his posts about the topic and still haven’t figured out what to make of it all.

My hesitation mostly stems from the fact that it’s a fellow blogger doing the investigation, rather than some media outlet with experienced editors overseeing the journalism, a track record for covering these topics, and reporters who know how to corroborate all the information.

Consider the priors, Metha, don’t ignore them because of your feelings or who is investigating the situation. That’s not being a good skeptic.


HJH 2018-12-02: PZ Myers seems to have been swayed by Tyson’s statement. I had to pop by with a comment, which is worth reproducing here with a minor edit.

Nah, I gotta disagree with you PZ. Tyson just admitted to having poor respect for people’s boundaries, and his account of the 1980’s incident is a lot like a lot of the deflection I’ve seen from people who would never dare rape someone but would be open to forcing someone to have sex with them against their will. He also twice tries to poison the well [three times], by going after the credibility of the accuser…

For me, what was most significant, was that in this new life, long after dropping out of astrophysics graduate school, she was posting videos of colored tuning forks endowed with vibrational therapeutic energy that she channels from the orbiting planets. As a scientist, I found this odd.

… implies it was a false memory, when we know traumatic memories don’t work that way, and tries to shoot the messenger:

I note that this allegation was used as a kind of solicitation-bait by at least one journalist to bring out of the woodwork anybody who had any encounter with me that left them uncomfortable.

I considered him more likely than not to have sexually assaulted the first victim, back when I knew only of her; between the other women coming forward and his own statement, he’s made it more plausible still.


HJH 2018-12-03: My dogs, this paper has apparently had a monumental impact on my writing skills! I went back and did a quick brush-up, so it should smell a little less. If you’re super-paranoid that I’m flooding the place with deodorant, have at’er.

If instead you’re stinky that I didn’t write up something more substantive, Nathan has you covered.

And then there’s the colleague he harassed. He responds by saying that she gave everyone hugs. He admits to saying to her “If I hug you I might just want more.” There is literally only one way to take that statement. It’s sexual.

I could maybe season the post with a little more science, but the Venn diagram of our reactions is nearly all overlap. It’s worth a sniff.

Also, I see PZ Myers has back-tracked.

Not Well-Meaning

I’ve dealt with Darryl Bem’s work a few times, and my general impression was that he was a well-meaning kook: yes, he’s believed PSI was real for decades, but I got the impression that he was willing to listen to his critics and incorporate their feedback.

[Dr. Kenneth] Zucker referred to another article in Clinical Practice in Pediatric Psychology that he claimed implies that “the first line of treatment should be a gender social transition.” Dr. Diane Chen, one of the authors of that paper, told Rewire.News that was incorrect. “I would not agree with that,” wrote Chen. “As you’ll see from the ‘ongoing controversies’ section for pre-pubertal youth, we discuss the relative harm of encouraging social transition.” The paper recommends instead that parents of children considering or undergoing social transition keep their statements to their children open-ended with respect to their eventual adolescence and adulthood.

I don’t get that impression with Dr. Zucker. Siobhan managed to contact the man after his name came up in the news again, and he still seems to be spreading misinformation and common myths.

A common myth about the type of service described by the AAP, and the service Dr. Janssen offers, is that youth are rushed into referrals for hard-to-reverse or irreversible transition procedures. “If someone comes in and their child is saying, ‘I’ve been thinking about this for the last two weeks,’ it’s not like anybody’s going to make a recommendation that child goes on a some sort of irreversible intervention,” Janssen told us. “It’s more like: Let’s understand this and let’s see how this develops over time.” Any biomedical intervention for an adolescent would only be recommended after they meet the criteria for gender dysphoria in the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which requires a strong desire to be another sex that persists for at least six months.

Here he is, in print, repeating TERF misinformation about gender dysphoria treatment under the guise of it being a political disagreement. But while I’m willing to give Dr. Harriet Hall some benefit of the doubt on the topic of gender dysphoria, as she demonstrates no expertise, Dr. Zucker quite literally wrote the definition. He cannot invoke ignorance as a defense. Worse, he may not have changed his approach to gender dysphoria treatment, despite the evidence suggesting he should.

The [Centre for Addiction and Mental Health]’s report stopped shy of characterizing Dr. Kenneth Zucker’s practice as conversion therapy, but it did conclude his methods were “out of step” with the latest research findings and that they warranted sweeping reforms. Zucker’s clinic, which was housed inside CAMH but operated largely independently, closed later that year;  […]

Zucker confirmed with Rewire.News that he still offers services similar to his CAMH clinic at his private practice.

If Darryl Bem is a well-meaning kook, Dr. Zucker is a dangerous one. He appears immune to outside criticism, yet comes across as an authority to a lay person. Siobhan’s article lays this out quite nicely; despite being a news report, she has no problem poking giant holes in his assertions. I recommend giving it a read.

Moral Relativism

I’ve mentioned WEIRD on this blog before. For those who haven’t heard, the basic idea is that college students in North America are very unlike most people on Earth, yet psychology usually considers them type specimens for our entire species.[1] This calls into question a lot of “universals” proposed in psychology papers.

You might think morality would be a clear exception to that. Young people are fitter, old people have already contributed most of what they will to society; if one of each group is put in danger, we should try to save the former first before the latter. Right?

We are entering an age in which machines are tasked not only to promote well-being and minimize harm, but also to distribute the well-being they create, and the harm they cannot eliminate. Distribution of well-being and harm inevitably creates tradeoffs, whose resolution falls in the moral domain. Think of an autonomous vehicle that is about to crash, and cannot find a trajectory that would save everyone. Should it swerve onto one jaywalking teenager to spare its three elderly passengers? Even in the more common instances in which harm is not inevitable, but just possible, autonomous vehicles will need to decide how to divide up the risk of harm between the different stakeholders on the road. […]

… we designed the Moral Machine, a multilingual online ‘serious game’ for collecting large-scale data on how citizens would want autonomous vehicles to solve moral dilemmas in the context of unavoidable accidents. The Moral Machine attracted worldwide attention, and allowed us to collect 39.61 million decisions from 233 countries, dependencies, or territories.

Awad, Edmond, Sohan Dsouza, Richard Kim, Jonathan Schulz, Joseph Henrich, Azim Shariff, Jean-François Bonnefon, and Iyad Rahwan. “The Moral Machine Experiment.” Nature 563, no. 7729 (November 2018): 59. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0637-6.

Well, the data is in. I could do an entire blog post on just their summary, but for now merely note the benevolent sexism,[2] focus on punishment, classism, deontology, and cat hatred. That left bar chart is confusing; the bar between the elderly and the young isn’t indicating that both would be spared equally often, but that children would be spared 49 percentage points more often.

Figure 2 (global preferences) from Edmond et. al (2018).

Sure enough, there’s a clear preference for sparing the young over the elderly. But hold on here; this was an online survey, and the map of people playing the “game” shows a definite skew towards North America and Europe. This summary is “global” in that it aggregates all the data together, but not in the sense that it represents the globe’s preferences. We would do better to break down the responses into countries and analyze that.

First, we observe systematic differences between individualistic cultures and collectivistic cultures. Participants from individualistic cultures, which emphasize the distinctive value of each individual, show a stronger preference for sparing the greater number of characters (…). Furthermore, participants from collectivistic cultures, which emphasize the respect that is due to older members of the community, show a weaker preference for sparing younger characters (…). Because the preference for sparing the many and the preference for sparing the young are arguably the most important for policymakers to consider, this split between individualistic and collectivistic cultures may prove an important obstacle for universal machine ethics. …

We observe that prosperity (as indexed by GDP per capita) and the quality of rules and institutions (as indexed by the Rule of Law) correlate with a greater preference against pedestrians who cross illegally (…). In other words, participants from countries that are poorer and suffer from weaker institutions are more tolerant of pedestrians who cross illegally, presumably because of their experience of lower rule compliance and weaker punishment of rule deviation. This observation limits the generalizability of the recent German ethics guideline, for example, which state that “parties involved in the generation of mobility risks must not sacrifice non-involved parties.” …

… we observe that higher country-level economic inequality (as indexed by the country’s Gini coefficient) corresponds to how unequally characters of different social status are treated. Those from countries with less economic equality between the rich and poor also treat the rich and poor less equally in the Moral Machine. … the differential treatment of male and female characters in the Moral Machine corresponded to the country-level gender gap in health and survival (a composite in which higher scores indicated higher ratios of female to male life expectancy and sex ratio at birth—a marker of female infanticide and anti-female sex-selective abortion). In nearly all countries, participants showed a preference for female characters; however, this preference was stronger in nations with better health and survival prospects for women. In other words, in places where there is less devaluation of women’s lives in health and at birth, males are seen as more expendable in Moral Machine decision-making.[1]

Just consider the consequences of all this: do we have to change the moral calculus of a self-driving car if the owner sells it to someone in another country, or if they merely drive into one? If we tweak the calculus to remove all benevolent sexism, people will feel these cars are unfairly harming women; either we need to pair driver-less cars with a global education campaign to eliminate sexism, or there’ll be a mass movement to bake sexism into our cars. At the same time, self-driving cars will save quite a few lives no matter what moral system they follow; should we sweep all this variation under the rug, and focus on the greater good?

Our moral code depends strongly on where we live and how well we’re living, so how could we all agree to a universal moral code, let alone follow it? Non-normative moral relativism, contrary to the name, is the human norm, and imposing a universal moral code on us will cause all sorts of havoc.

Except when it comes to cats.

[HJH 2018-12-05: Huh, where did that graphic go? I’ve popped it back into place.]


[1] Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. “Beyond WEIRD: Towards a Broad-Based Behavioral Science.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33, no. 2–3 (June 2010): 111–35. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000725.

[2] Glick, Peter, and Susan T. Fiske. “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality.” American Psychologist 56, no. 2 (February 1, 2001): 109–18.

When The Joke Is On You

I had no idea.

We have Charles’ five assertions. We now conduct an empirical investigation, examining all the individuals in the universe. We might suppose that Charles intends the word “Caesar” to signify or designate Prasutagus (who, as every schoolboy knows, is the husband of Boadicea). On this supposition (5) could be called true and all the rest would have to be called false. Or we might suppose that “Caesar” signifies the historical Julius Caesar, in which case (l)-(4) could be called true and (5) would have to be called false. There do not seem to be any other candidates since any number of persons must have conquered Gaul and/or crossed the Rubicon and /or used the ablative absolute to excess. And so we act on what might be called the Principle of Charity. We select as designatum that individual which will make the largest possible number of Charles’ statements true.

Wilson, N. L. “Substances without Substrata.” The Review of Metaphysics 12, no. 4 (1959): 521–39.

Apparently, the “Principle of Charity” was never named until the second half of the 20th century! My philosophy classes made it obvious that the concept existed well before then, yet apparently no philosopher had valued it enough attach a name. For those in the dark, the “Principle of Charity” is that when critiquing an argument, you should consider the most rational variation of it. You might know this better as “steel-personing.”

Most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a human being, a person, from the moment of conception. The premise is argued for, but, as I think, not well. Take, for example, the most common argument. We are asked to notice that the development of a human being from conception through birth into childhood is continuous; then it is said that to draw a line, to choose a point in this development and say “before this point the thing is not a person, after this point it is a person” is to make an arbitrary choice, a choice for which in the nature of things no good reason can be given. It is concluded that the fetus is. or anyway that we had better say it is, a person from the moment of conception. But this conclusion does not follow. Similar things might be said about the development of an acorn into an oak trees, and it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that we had better say they are.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “A defense of abortion.” Biomedical ethics and the law. Springer, Boston, MA, 1976. 39-54.

The Principle creates a distinct pattern: describe your opponent’s view as strongly as possible, then poke holes in it. Thomson does the entire arc in her opening paragraph, and quite a few afterward, but her entire defense of abortion is one long version of this. She makes it clear that she doesn’t think a fetus should immediately be granted full personhood, and all the human rights associated with that, but nonetheless grants it full rights. Thomson proceeds to defend abortion anyway, on the grounds that we value personal property more highly than the right to life. I definitely recommend reading her paper, as (if successful) it renders the primary argument of anti-choicers irrelevant.

This article will argue that humor, in particular irony and satire, when used in the service of criticizing oppressive power structures and especially by members of marginalized groups, is a potentially powerful tool for increasing receptivity and recognition of other ways of knowing and experiencing society. […] However, when these same ironic, satirical, double-voiced tools of humor are used by members of dominant groups to disparage, mock, or discredit marginalized groups or social justice scholarship that seeks to make oppression visible, they serve no such purpose but rather perpetuate dominant epistemologies and power structures.

Baldwin, Richard. “When the Joke Is on You: A Feminist Perspective on How Positionality Influences Satire (RETRACTED).” Hypatia. pg. 2

Which brings us to another “hoax” paper of PB&J. There’s two main points on offer here, and both of them are quite plausible. [Read more…]

The Flat-Earther Approach

Imagine a group of Flat-Earthers who are astonished and a bit annoyed that anyone would think the world is approximately an oblate spheroid. They hatch a plan to embarrass these “round-Earthers:” they’ll sneak scientific papers that provide evidence the Earth is an oblate spheroid into “round-Earther” journals. When some of them get published, they reveal the true authorship and keel over laughing that the “round-Earthers” could take those papers seriously.

To everyone but those Flat-Earthers, they look completely out to lunch. “The moon is made of green cheese” is not absurd per-se, it is absurd because of the premises it rests on and the consequences that follow. As long as humans have existed, we’ve realised the moon is a giant object some distance away; how would you get enough milk to make something that large? How would you get enough coagulant? I doubt you put much thought into those absurdities, because once society has reached a consensus there’s no need to rehash what everyone knows. The corollary is that if you view all those underlying premises as plausible and the logic connecting them as without obvious defect, then a statement like that cannot be absurd.

[CONTENT WARNING: Uncensored sex talk.]

[Read more…]

The Problem/Solution Gap

Ever read a policy document? They have a pretty simple structure, where the problem is identified and then solutions are proposed. After a while, you start to notice a tight bond between problem and solution that extends beyond policy papers. For instance, trans Canadians didn’t enjoy the same legal rights as cis Canadians, so we passed a law fixing that. Eliminating or reducing gender-based discrimination against trans Canadians is a much more complicated problem, as it consists of multiple forms of bigotry from many different actors, and the solution is equally more complicated. Simple problems tend to have simple solutions, and complex problems tend to have complex solutions.

On top of that, when you describe the problem well enough the solution becomes obvious; when the problem is vague, the solution is vague too. Trans Canadians lack legal rights? Give them legal rights. Trans Canadians are discriminated against? We could dream up a thousand solutions to that, but until we get more detail we’ll have no idea which solutions are effective or counter-productive.

This equivalence is an excellent heuristic: if we spot someone outlining a complicated problem but proposing a simple solution, we’ve got good reason to suspect something fishy. Let’s try this on Carl Benjamin’s hilarious petition.

Social justice has become scientifically illiterate, logically unsound, deeply bigoted and openly supremacist. Social justice professors are indoctrinating young people into a pseudoscientific cult behind closed doors that is doing damage to their health, education and future. …

Walk with me through this. “Social justice” is a huge umbrella that encompasses anti-poverty, street harassment, body positivity, and ageism activism as well as a thousand topics more. To Benjamin, all of these forms of activism suffer from an epistemic deficit or irrational bigotry, to varying degrees. Assuming he’s correct, what would the solution look like?

We know how to deal with misunderstandings or ignorance: education. Specifically, we’d need a public awareness campaign, much more comprehensive than what’s come before. Those only work when they come with clear, concrete instructions, so vague assertions of “be more logical” or “don’t discriminate” aren’t good enough. You’d have to generate hundreds, perhaps thousands of messages to overcome the significant heterogeneity of the target audience. Benjamin’s vague handwaving about science and logic isn’t nearly enough information to get started, you’d need massive levels of consultation with the affected branches of social justice to fill in the details. All of this would need funding, otherwise it fails before it begins. You’d also have to watch for any political roadblocks, it’d do no good to gather up the funding and information in order to have the idea squashed by someone in power.

But notice that this all very vague; the same solution would apply to getting more people to vaccinate, or quit smoking. We need a lot more information before we could put anything concrete into action. The vagueness in the problem description is reflected in my solution. But what is Benjamin’s proposed solution?

… To clarify, we are calling for the teaching of social justice courses in universities to be temporarily suspended.  What follows is up for debate, but as it stands now, social justice is causing far more harm than good and it must be halted and reassessed.

Shutting down university courses is much too simplistic, given that much if not most social justice happens outside of universities. There is a little vagueness: what qualifies as a “social justice” course? Social work? Anthropology? Psychology? History? That bit about what comes next sounds like a threat, like he’s going to make the shutdown permanent. Still, we could implement this by merely sitting Benjamin down in front of a course list. Compared to my solution, it’s remarkably simple and precise.

Complex problem, simple solution. So where’s the fish? The most obvious one is that Carl Benjamin is ignorant, a fish with abundant evidence.

He might have a hidden motive, though. Problem/solution complementarity provides us with a tool that may uncover it: if the problem determines the solution, then the solution might link to the problem. This threatens to affirm the consequent, so we can’t guarantee that what we catch is what Benjamin is secretly up to, even if he genuinely is hiding something from us. Still, we can sketch the outlines of what sorts of problems his solution could solve.

Publicly-funded universities are the primary source of non-partisan research into the troubles our society faces. Some non-government organizations do similar work, but it is much easier to dismiss them as partisan. It speaks volumes when non-government organizations try to disguise their partisanship by leeching off the trust we grant universities, academia has accumulated a tonne of it over the years. The research they generate, then, is vital if we hope to resolve our society’s problems.

Shutting social justice courses down then benefits the people who profit from the flaws in our society: the bigots. The privileged. Wannabe dictators. That might be Benjamin’s hidden fish, or there may be another fish that benefits from shuttering some university courses, or he may not have a fish at all, or he may not realize he’s holding one. Whatever the case, it’d be tough to find anything more loopy than Carl Benjamin’s petition.

The problem is epistemological, political, ideological, and ethical and it is profoundly corrupting scholarship in the social sciences and humanities. The center of the problem is formally termed “critical constructivism,” and its most egregious scholars are sometimes referred to as “radical constructivists.” Expressing this problem accurately is difficult, and many who’ve tried have studiously avoided doing so in any succinct and clear way. This reticence, while responsible given the complexity of the problem and its roots, has likely helped the problem perpetuate itself.

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.

Surprise! Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian manage that impressive feat. I’ve already pointed out their problem is nonsensical, so this time I’ll point out its impossible to steel-person. To understand “critical” and “radical constructivism,” you first need to know what “constructivism” is.

The premises of constructivism as an epistemology are:

  1. Knowledge is constructed, not transmitted.
  2. Prior knowledge impacts the learning process.
  3. Initial understanding is local, not global.
  4. Building useful knowledge structures requires effortful and purposeful activity.

The constructivist perspective is clearly divergent from earlier views of education that presumed we could put or pour information directly into a student’s head. Starting from constructivism, real learning can occur only when the learner is actively engaged in operating on, or mentally processing, incoming stimuli. Furthermore, the interpretation of stimuli depends upon previously constructed learning.

The next leap: “Radical constructivism does not deny an objective reality, but simply states that we have no way of knowing what that reality might be.” When I see red, I’m not directly experiencing electromagnetic waves but instead a complex set of neural impulses in my brain. This is trivial to prove, but as a corollary it implies that what I think is reality may not be “real;” in other words, radical constructivism proposes that I might be mistaken. From there we jump to “cultural constructivism,” which adds the existence of “cultural influences, including custom, religion, biology, tools and language.” Our mental models are influenced by culture and society, and we may pass down “myths” or false statements of fact shared by multiple people. From there, it’s a short hop to “critical constructivism:” myths should be actively hunted down and eliminated.

How the heck do you steel-person the idea that we do not hold false beliefs? How do you oppose the idea that any of our society is socially constructed, when the only way I can even convey that concept to you is to use an ever-shifting construct our society created?! We’re in the same place we were with Benjamin’s problem description, only worse. While Carl Benjamin’s petition is a mere three paragraphs long, Boghossian and friends drone on for 11,650 words, using volume to bury their misrepresentations.

Radical constructivism is thus a dangerous idea that has become authoritative. It forwards the idea that we must, on moral grounds, largely reject the belief that access to objective truth exists (scientific objectivity) and can be discovered, in principle, by any entity capable of doing the work, or more specifically by humans of any race, gender, or sexuality (scientific universality) via empirical testing (scientific empiricism).

I just debunked that via thirty seconds on Google and a few minutes of reading, a step most people reading their essay won’t take. This fits with the trio’s established pattern of dishonesty. Still, even if their problem description is less coherent than Carl Benjamin’s, they must have a better solution on hand.

What do we hope will happen? Our recommendation begins by calling upon all major universities to begin a thorough review of these areas of study (gender studies, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, and other “theory”-based fields in the humanities and reaching into the social sciences, especially including sociology and anthropology), in order to separate knowledge-producing disciplines and scholars from those generating constructivist sophistry. We hope the latter can be redeemed, not destroyed, as the topics they study—gender, race, sexuality, culture—are of enormous importance to society and thus demand considerable attention and the highest levels of academic rigor. Further, many of their insights are worthy and deserve more careful consideration than they currently receive. This will require them to adhere more honestly and rigorously to the production of knowledge and to place scholarship ahead of any conflicting interest rather than following from it.

Nope! The trio assume that no major university monitors the quality of its scholars, and that once they start they’ll immediately separate out all the academics who assume that myths might exist, give them a stern talking-to, then put them back to work. Apparently, scholars espousing cultural constructivism will never become administrators, and university executives without academic experience will be able to spot cultural constructivism better than academics themselves. And what about the minor universities, which surely outnumber the major ones?

Sorry, that’s all you explanation you get: out of that 11,650-word essay, a mere 376 are devoted to solutions, and the majority of that is spent saying what won’t work rather than what will; my last quote was the entirety of “what will.” Nonetheless, their solution is about as simple as Carl Benjamin’s: ask them what constitutes a major university, hand them a list of academics who are associated to those universities, and then try to convince them not to engage in constructivism.

Which means a similar chain of reasoning applies here, too. Putting academics next to a wobbly yardstick is a great way to pressure them to conform to your whims, as merely decreasing the number of tenured positions may have the same effect. Again we find the people who benefit from society’s problems would also benefit from the proposed solution, but this time we can’t dispel the fishy smell with the ignorance card as easily. Heck, while Carl Benjamin hasn’t got a university education, Boghossian himself has published a paper on constructivism in a peer-reviewed journal. He should know of what he speaks, yet his paper is no more accurate than the essay.

This trio’s effort has a worse problem/solution gap than Carl Benjamin’s petition, and that’s not something to be proud of.