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…]

Anthropologists on Race

When’s the last time you held a scientific journal? Probably never, I bet. In the age of digital publishing, distinct “volumes” are mostly a nod to tradition instead of something curated, during those rare times where you can access them at all.

This virtual issue, organized by contributing editor Channah Leff and managing editor Sean Mallin, brings together articles published in American Anthropologist around race and biology, focusing on genetics as one way to understand–and counter misunderstandings about–human difference. From early work on immigration and evolution to more recent work on epigenetics, anthropologists have been at the forefront of conversations about what race is–and what it isn’t.

Which makes this virtual edition of American Anthropologist quite a treat. It isn’t often you get to hear scientists break down the concept of race, and rarer still to realize how long they’ve been questioning it for.

With what we know now, two conclusions are quite inescapable. First, human races – like higher taxonomic units – are subject to evolutionary change. Second, the particular traits by which races distinguish themselves are subject to natural selection, and therefore do not have eternal taxonomic value. I n retrospect, all of the characters used in constructing a classification of man must have been grist in the evolutionary mill.

Now we cannot have change and no change simultaneously. Present frequencies of blood groups or of morphological traits are, at best, interim reports of present conditions. They need not be identical to frequencies in the recent or remote past, and they need not predict gene or trait frequencies in the future. […] As a consequence, the search for ancestors becomes far more difficult than it once seemed. … As soon as we accept changes in gene frequencies, we can no longer employ present frequencies as certain indications of past events.

While this obvious corollary admittedly pulls the rug from beneath our more cherished reconstructions, evidence for changing race may free us from the burden of prefabricated and hypothetical ancestors.

Garn, Stanley M. “Race and Evolution.” American Anthropologist 59, no. 2 (April 1, 1957): 218–24. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1957.59.2.02a00030.

Nor is that even the oldest paper in the collection; one from 1912 found large physical changes in the children of immigrants which brought them in line with the locals, demonstrating a plasticity that contradicts to the rigidity demanded by biological race. If you’d rather have a broad overview of the subject,

We present a review of the history of scientific inquiry into modern human origins, focusing on the role of the American Anthropologist. We begin during the mid–20th century, at the time when the problem of modern human origins was first presented in the American Anthropologist and could first be distinguished from more general questions about human and hominid origins. Next, we discuss the effects of the modern evolutionary synthesis on biological anthropology and paleoanthropology in particular, and its role in the origin of anthropological genetics. The rise of human genetics is discussed along two tracks, which have taken starkly different approaches to the historical interpretation of recent human diversity.

Hawks, John, and Milford H. Wolpoff. “Sixty Years of Modern Human Origins in the American Anthropological Association.” American Anthropologist 105, no. 1 (March 1, 2003): 89–100. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.2003.105.1.89.

For those who are about to wail about them taking a constructivist approach which denies genetics, you’re in for a bit of a shock.

Indeed, multiple studies in 2017 have dramatically expanded our knowledge of genomic variation involving hundreds of ancient and present‐day peoples from across the globe (Marciniak and Perry 2017; Nielsen et al. 2017). Maybe not surprisingly, the results of these studies have empirically confirmed that our understanding of human genetic variation was incomplete, flawed, and biased (Martin, Gignoux, et al. 2017). More relevant to this review, these studies, in addition to the massive amount of data that they produced, have also added dozens of new twists to how we perceive human variation. […]

We have known for some time that contemporary genetic variation is best explained by “geography.” In other words, the closer two humans are geographically, the less their genetic variation to each other is expected to be (Novembre et al. 2008)—mostly independent of ethnicity, religion, or any other group identities. Now our field is at a stage to move beyond simple geographic distance and take the topographic features (e.g., mountains, deserts, seas, etc.) into account to visualize and understand the paths and barriers to contemporary genetic variation (Peter, Petkova, and Novembre 2017). Ancient genomics has now added a chronological twist to it. It turns out that genetic continuity in a given region across time is often an exception rather than the rule (Kılınç et al. 2016; Lazaridis et al. 2016; Skoglund et al. 2017; but see Yang et al. 2017). People move, interact with their neighbors, and create ever‐changing gradients of genetic variation across time and geography.

Gokcumen, Omer. “The Year In Genetic Anthropology: New Lands, New Technologies, New Questions.” American Anthropologist 120, no. 2 (June 1, 2018): 266–77. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.13032.

A number of anthropologists embrace genetic testing, and find that it also discounts lay views of race. For instance, genetic testing has found there are distinct lineages, which is what biological race would predict, but was able to trace some of them back to admixture from Neanderthals and Denisovians. In other words, the racial categories we’ve settled on today don’t map to the lineages we find in our genes.

There’s even some general-purpose awesomeness in this treasure trove.

The value ladenness of this science allows us to identify an important popular fallacy—that a primary axis of modern society is science versus nonscience. Yet no one is really “anti‐science”; such a person is a product of scientistic paranoia. We all make decisions about what science to accept, what science to reject, and what science to ignore. … After all, biological anthropology is obliged to navigate between the creationists, on the one hand, who don’t take evolution seriously enough, and enthusiasts of fads like eugenics in the 1920s or “The Paleo Diet” today, on the other hand, who take evolution too seriously. So, who is worse: the citizen who rejects evolution or the citizen who uses evolution to rationalize a program of genocide? Both are out there and are actively constructing, imposing, and utilizing different meanings on the science; whether or not either of them accepts the descent with modification of species—and is thus “pro‐science”—may be a trivial question.

Marks, Jonathan. “Commentary: Toward an Anthropology of Genetics.” American Anthropologist 116, no. 4 (December 1, 2014): 749–51. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.12153.

As if you didn’t need enough reason to dig in, this is a limited-time offer: these papers will slip back behind the paywall at the end of 2018. So go on, feast your eyes and feed your brain.

Y U Do Dis?

Often, you get the most useful results when you challenge your assumptions. Let’s look at the runt of Boghossian et. al‘s litter.

Our papers also present very shoddy methodologies including incredibly implausible statistics (“Dog Park”), making claims not warranted by the data (“CisNorm,” “Hooters,” “Dildos”), and ideologically-motivated qualitative analyses (“CisNorm,” “Porn”). (…) Questionable qualitative methodologies such as poetic inquiry and autoethnography (sometimes rightly and pejoratively called “mesearch”) were incorporated (especially in “Moon Meetings”).

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In addition to the problematic nature of men’s attraction to women, we also published a rambling poetic exploration of feminist spirituality generated largely from a teenage angst generator which we hypothesised would be acceptable as an alternative, female “way of knowing”. That paper was purely silliness, and the journal a minor one.

“Minor” is a bit of an exaggeration; that journal is ranked 179th out of 268 clinical psychology journals on SJR, and 75th out of 122 medical rehabilitation journals. [Read more…]

The Feminist Mein Kampf

Check your local laws, before going much further. If you’re in Russia, for instance, Mein Kampf is banned on the grounds that it is extremist propaganda. Most other countries are more liberal, even Germany; new copies couldn’t be printed, you couldn’t buy an old copy, and libraries couldn’t stock any copy until 2016, but owning or reading that book has always been legal. In Canada, Mein Kampf was even a bestseller in online bookstores, which made electronic copies available for one dollar.

Still, fair warning that I’m about to print a little bit of Mein Kampf. Brace yourself, and stay safe.

Fifth, though change may come in stages, feminism cannot limit itself to half-measures in solidarity or be selfish. These manifest under choice feminism (Ferguson, 2010), for example, by placing emphasis upon a so-called objective standpoint (cf. hooks, 2000, p. 8) or through pursuit of aims that appear feminist but actually support neoliberalism (Rottenberg, 2014, 2017). Though what constitutes justice is itself multifarious and pluralistic, only a single-minded alignment with solidarity for effecting the goal of justice will suffice (cf. Hirschmann, 2010; hooks, 2000; Patel, 2011; Russell & Bohan, 2016). That is to say, under neoliberal approaches, society will not be made “feminist” in the true sense (Rottenberg, 2014; pace Snyder-Hall, 2010) but only “feministic” with many limitations. This is the state in which we now find ourselves. Neoliberal oppression can only be countered by an effective antidote to neoliberalism — which Rottenberg demonstrated that neoliberal “feminism” cannot provide. Only the blinkering of privilege (cf. DiAngelo, 2011; Dotson, 2014) could underestimate the need for solidarity and regard choice feminism as a workable solution (Rottenberg, 2014, p. 428). Most people are neither scholars nor activists — indeed, few even consider themselves feminists (Houvouras & Carter, 2008). As such, they possess little understanding of abstract theoretical knowledge, and this directs their opinions toward the affective, which is where their compassion and frustration lies. In this sense, individuals are receptive to appeals in one direction or the other but never to a “nuanced” halfway point between the two.

Now, I know what most of you are thinking: Hitler must have been a literary genius, if he could cite books and papers printed over seventy years after he wrote Mein Kampf! That is incorrect, as in reality Hitler owned a time machine. See this documentary for proof.

But the rest of you think I’ve just pulled a fast one. There’s a lot of jargon there, but this passage is just asking for solidarity and education. You can find similar messages everywhere, even in children’s shows. Don’t look at me, though, look at Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose.

We did this as a part of a year-long probe to find out how much certain political biases have taken root within a small but powerful sector of academia. Over the course of that year, we submitted 20 papers to journals that study topics of identity like gender, race, and sexuality, which we feared has been corrupted by a form of political activism that puts political grievances ahead of finding truth.

Seven of our papers were accepted, many in top-ranking journals. These include an adaptation of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” which was accepted by a social work journal.

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We took our experimentation with the idea that we could make anything at all fit some kind of popular “theory” to the limits when we successfully published a section of Mein Kampf as intersectional feminism.

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Three self-styled liberal scholars were given the academic green light for a rewritten version of Adolf Hiter’s Mein Kampf by a leading feminist journal.

“We rewrote a section of Mein Kampf as intersectional feminism and this journal has accepted it,” James Lindsay said in a YouTube video revealing a year-long project he worked on with other self-described left-wing academics, Peter Boghassian and Helen Pluckrose.

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This is the primary point of the project: What we just described is not knowledge production; it’s sophistry. That is, it’s a forgery of knowledge that should not be mistaken for the real thing. The biggest difference between us and the scholarship we are studying by emulation is that we know we made things up.

This process is the one, single thread that ties all twenty of our papers together, even though we used a variety of methods to come up with the various ideas fed into their system to see how the editors and peer reviewers would respond. […]

Another tough one for us was, “I wonder if they’d publish a feminist rewrite of a chapter from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” The answer to that question also turns out to be “yes,” given that the feminist social work journal Affilia has just accepted it.

I pointed out before that the trio have changed their tune about their “Dog Park” paper, but here they’ve gone in reverse. I organized those excerpts from newest to oldest; see how an “adaptation” was formerly a “rewrite?” Now compare that to how they originally described the paper in their methodology. Emphasis mine:

Note: The last two thirds of this paper is based upon a rewriting of roughly 3600 words of Chapter 12 of Volume 1 of Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler, though it diverges significantly from the original. This chapter is the one in which Hitler lays out in a multi-point plan which we partially reproduced why the Nazi Party is needed and what it requires of its members. The first one third of the paper is our own theoretical framing to make this attempt possible.
Purpose: That we could find Theory to make anything (in this case, part of Chapter 12 of Volume 1 of Mein Kampf with buzzwords switched in) acceptable to journals if we put it in terms of politically fashionable arguments and existing scholarship. Of note, while the original language and intent of Mein Kampf has been significantly changed to make this paper publishable and about feminism, the reliance upon the politics of grievance remains clear, helping to justify our use of the term “grievance studies” for these fields.

It’s pretty obvious what’s going on here. The quip “even Hitler loved his dog” is how historians point out that no-one is truly evil; dig deep enough, and you’ll find something to agree with (even if it comes with strings attached). Bruce Hood would ask his psychology classes if any of them would be willing to wear a sweater that was once owned by a serial killer; few took him up on the offer, and those that did were viewed with immediate suspicion by their peers. Our concept of “moral contamination” developed from a folk understanding of physical contamination, and it has such pull on us that stating “Hitler agreed with X” causes you to reflexively disagree with X, because Hitler.

Since almost no-one has read Mein Kampf, almost no-one knows that the unabridged and fully-footnoted version is a thousand pages long. “Mein Kampf” translates to “My Struggle,” which was shortened from “Four and a Half Years (of Struggle) Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice;” in other words, Hitler doesn’t just spend a few hundred pages saying Communists and Jews were evil, he also lays out the foundations of a political movement designed to push back against an indifferent and hostile majority. It would be shocking if there wasn’t a bit of overlap with other minority political movements somewhere in that mess. Result: someone unscrupulous could dig out those overlaps, and exploit our ignorance and flawed instincts.

Put another way, if more feminists had, rather than becoming distracted by seductions of choice, the baubles of neoliberalism, or male approval, implacably guarded the interests of oppressed people — especially those dominated by racism, colonialism, imperialism, ableism, homophobia, classism, and all other manners of oppression that intersect with feminism — and if in matters of remaking society more feminists had avowed only their commitment against all oppressions with equal intensity as they defended their will to female choice, and if with equal firmness they had demanded justice for all those oppressed by systems of power (cf. hooks, 2000), today we would very likely have equality. If during the War the German unions had ruthlessly guarded the interests of the working class, if even during the War they had struck a thousand times over and forced approval of the demands of the workers they represented on the dividend-hungry employers of those days; but if in matters of national defense they had avowed their Germanism with the same fanaticism; and if with equal ruthlessness they had given to the fatherland that which is the fatherland’s, the War would not have been lost.
Sixth, feminism requires recognizing that among the most pressing concerns in any society are questions presently relevant about the consequences of particular causes (cf. hooks, 2004). At present, the concern with the broadest causal importance to feminism is the matter of understanding and defying oppression in multiple and intersecting forms (hooks, 2000, 2014). So long as many feminists forward individuated personal choice and fail to recognize the importance of intersecting power dynamics and their intrinsic capacity to oppress, they will also fail to realize that entrenched and self-reinforcing dominance in power and the reciprocal docility in subjugation are the exact qualities inherent to all unjust social dynamics. That is, groups that ignore the role of power in generating oppression, of which theirs is but a single part, or that benefit from it and thus refuse to challenge it (Rottenberg, 2014), have no ultimate hope of liberation from it (cf. Collins, 1990). This is the basis of a call to allyship with deep, affective, solidifying roots; without a clear appreciation of oppression, and hence the problem intrinsic to privilege itself — even within feminism itself — there can be no remediation (cf. Ferguson, 2010; Rottenberg, 2017). It is the question of power that is key to understanding culture, and power comes from coalition, and coalition comes from solidarity through ally-ship (Walters, 2017). All great questions of the day are questions of the moment and represent only consequences of definite causes. Only one among all of them, however, possesses causal importance, and that is the question of the racial preservation of the nation. In the blood alone resides the strength as well as the weakness of man. As long as peoples do not recognize and give heed to the importance of their racial foundation, they are like men who would like to teach poodles the qualities of greyhounds, failing to realize that the speed of the greyhound like the docility of the poodle are not learned, but are qualities inherent in the race. Peoples which renounce the preservation of their racial purity renounce with it the unity of their soul in all its expressions. The divided state of their nature is the natural consequence of the divided state of their blood, and the change in their intellectual and creative force is only the effect of the change in their racial foundations.

Anyone who wants to free the German blood from the manifestations and vices of today, which were originally alien to its nature, will first have to redeem it from the foreign virus of these manifestations.

Without the clearest knowledge of the racial problem and hence of the Jewish problem there will never be a resurrection of the German nation.

The racial question gives the key not only to world history, but to all human culture.

As for those annoying parts where Hitler talks about racial purity or World War One, just copy-paste something else in! Change “choice feminism” into “the working class,” or “the preservation of their racial purity” to “the role of power in generating oppression,” or “equality” into “World War One,” but try to preserve the verbal scaffold around those concepts so people can still recognize the Kampf. The result is only problematic to the extent that concepts like “equality” and “war” are synonymous, otherwise my doing this …

All great questions of the day are questions of the moment and represent only consequences of definite causes. Only one among all of them, however, possesses causal importance, and that is the question of whether pineapples belong on pizza. In pineapples alone resides the strength as well as the weakness of man. As long as peoples do not recognize and give heed to the importance of pineapples as valid a pizza topping, they are like men who would like to teach poodles the qualities of greyhounds, failing to realize that the speed of the greyhound like the docility of the poodle are not learned, but are qualities inherent in their physical form.

… would have convinced you that pineapples don’t belong on pizza. It was an adaptation of Mein Kampf!! Which was written by Hitler!! You wouldn’t want to agree with Hitler, now would you?!

To call this stunt “sophomoric” is an insult to high-school students. The catch, of course, is that those students would not only have to read the original paper (which few people do), but also spend a few hours comparing it to Mein Kampf, which was written by Hitler! So instead, the students would make the reasonable assumption that Boghossian/Lindsay/Pluckrose had accurately described what their own paper is about. The consequences are predictable.

Still, at least Boghossian and friends wouldn’t mislead us about the reception to their paper, right?

21-Mar-2018

Thank you for submitting your article to Feminist Theory. Unfortunately our reviewers did not feel that this piece was suitable for publication in Feminist Theory. We attach the reviewers’ comments below in order to help you to revise the piece for submission elsewhere.

Reviewer 1: The paper often slightly misrepresents the authors and discussions that it cites. For instance, Rottenberg is cited as claiming that liberalism sought to ‘overthrow its oppressions’ (p.5), which is not only factually incorrect but misrepresents what Rottenberg (2014: 419) actually says, which is that liberalism was an internal critique of classical liberalism’s gendered exclusions (therefore seeking inclusion and recognition rather than revolution, which I see as equivalent to calls to ‘overthrow’ something). I would also add that no page numbers are given in the paper for this claim, and this is often repeated in the paper when clearly specific passages are being interpreted.

Reviewer 2: The tone is declarative rather than explanatory or conceptual, and the author repeats its normative claims again and again (often in the words of other scholars): that feminism needs to fight oppression in all of its forms and that only an inclusive value-based allyship feminism will do. Yet, the terms the author uses are not well enough conceptualized to even really grasp what is being argued for. In other words, not only do I find the declarative and annunciatory tone problematic but there is no real unpacking of the terms.

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22-Jun-2018

We have now received all reviews for the Manuscript … entitled “Allyship Feminism: An Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism” that you submitted to the Affilia and the peer-review process is complete. Having carefully considered the reviewers’ comments, we have decided to decline the manuscript in its current form and invite you to revise and resubmit a new version.

Reviewer 2: “Put another way, if we feminists had, rather than becoming distracted by seductions of choice, […]” Be careful of the way you use language- this paragraph, like others in your article hearkens to a universal, monolithic we (feminists) who are somehow not from the marginalised groups that you then list- in which case we feminists are presumably white, able-bodies, cis-gendered etc…

Author: The language in this section (now on pp. 20–21) and throughout the paper has been modified to reflect the spirit of this comment. We have been very careful to reconsider much of the phrasing and diction in the paper to avoid such exclusionary totalizing, universalizing, and even implicitly othering language such as this and have adopted a more modest and inclusive tone throughout.

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17-Aug-2018

… “Our Struggle Is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism” which you submitted to the Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, has been reviewed. The comments of the reviewer(s) are included at the bottom of this letter.

The reviewer(s) have been very favorable although there are a few minor outstanding issues to address. Therefore, I invite you to respond to the editorial and reviewer(s)’ comments included at the bottom of this letter and revise your manuscript quickly so that we can move toward publication.

Reviewer 1: In terms of additional revisions, my only strong recommendation at this point is to do one more thorough read of the manuscript, this time watching for those points where your language still allows “privilege” to be a totalizing status.

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21-Aug-2018

We are pleased to inform you that your manuscript entitled “Our Struggle Is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism” has been accepted for publication in Affilia: Women and Social Work.

After three failed attempts in two different journals, and after continually watering down the language to make it less extremist, Boghossian and friends finally managed to get an acceptance. Reviewers in the higher-quality journal correctly spotted how the trio had warped their citations, and spotted the conceptual emptiness distinctive to Mad Libs. All their reviewers were unsettled by the absolutist and totalitarian tone, not the sort of thing you’d expect from “femiNAZIs.” No-one spotted the similarities to a section of Mein Kampf, because no-one reads Mein Kampf. The rewrite was too extensive to be caught by plagiarism detectors, and why would you bother dumping Mein Kampf into the database, anyway? No-one in their right mind would plagiarise it.

You can see why I’m so pissed off by this “hoax;” while Boghossian and friends get to blast out their misinformation in USA Today and New Statesmen, I can only shout from my blog well after the news cycle has moved on. They get to exploit our broken instincts, while I can only plead to your higher brain functions. They’ll likely get away with it, because why would anyone listen to feminazis?

This Isn’t Incompetence

This is a delightful hoax.

Abstract: We propose some novel tools to combat the long existing problem of inter-galactic parasites such as Klaousmodiumcruzi which are known to have caused havoc amongst various populations. We present solution after attentively observing various scientific procedures undertaken by the greatest scientists of our times who existed in segmented Claymation. In total we have investigated 31 different experiments and propose this ground-breaking quick fix which will truly transform the field. We’d also like to boast that our work has received accolades from the scientists whose work we followed including the greats like R’onaldI’saac and Charles Kao.

Farooq Ali Khan shopped that paper to fourteen low-quality biology journals, got it printed in three and accepted in an additional five.

Three of the journals rejected the paper outright, including Journal of Bacteriology & Parasitology, which sent Ali Khan commentary from the reviewers. “The article’s language is very confusing and many words doesn’t make any sense to me, for instance, dinglebop, schleem, schwitinization,” one reviewer said. “Is this a joke?” Another asked. “Intergalactic parasites?”

Alan Sokal’s hoax reads quite differently.

There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in “eternal” physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the “objective” procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.

Unlike Ali Khan’s, Sokal’s hoax is not obvious to a lay reader. Sean Carroll has attended a conference where philosophers and scientists debated whether time exists. You can earn a degree by studying both “hard” and “soft” sciences, using the knowledge from one to reflect on the other. There is serious study into whether or not physical constants are really constant. The “objective” procedures of science have changed over time and are reached by consensus. It takes a lot of domain-specific knowledge to spot anything wrong with Sokal’s paper (hint: “boundary conditions“). While Ali Khan’s hoax exposes journals with poor quality control, which could lead to a race to the bottom if unchecked, Sokal’s hoax tells us that if you say you’re a physicist people trust you to get the physics right.

Sorry, did you think that Sokal’s hoax was similar to Ali Khan’s? You wouldn’t be alone.

In sum, I intentionally wrote the article so that any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize that it is a spoof. Evidently the editors of Social Text felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject. […]

While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. […]

In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths — the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language. […]

Politically, I’m angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We’re witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful — not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many “progressive” or “leftist” academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. Theorizing about “the social construction of reality” won’t help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.

But when you look closer, you realize Sokal didn’t understand his own hoax.

Astonishing statements, hardly distinguishable from those satirized by Sokal, abound in the writings of Bohr; Heisenberg, Pauli, Born and Jordan.  And they are not just casual, incidental remarks.  Bohr intended his philosophy of complementarity to be an overarching epistemological principle-applicable to physics, biology psychology and anthropology. He expected complementarity to be a substitute for the lost religion.  He believed that complementarity should be taught to children in elementary schools.  Pauli argued that “the most important task of our time” was the elaboration of a new quantum concept of reality that would unify science and religion.  Born stated that quantum philosophy would help humanity cope with the political reality of the era after World War II. Heisenberg expressed the hope that the results of quantum physics “will exert their influence upon the wider fields of the world of ideas [just as] the changes at the end of the Renaissance transformed the cultural life of the succeeding epochs.”

So much confidence did these architects of the quantum theory repose in its far-reaching implications for the cultural realm that they corresponded about establishing an “Institute for Complementarity” in the US.  The aim of such an institute, to be headed by Bohr, would be to promote Bohrian philosophy. The aging Max Born begged Bohr not to leave him out of this enterprise.

He thought his paper was implausible on the face of it, yet even brilliant physicists would find the thesis plausible. We can chalk this up to partisan blindness: Sokal let his political beliefs cloud his objectivity, such that what he thought was outlandish was actually within bounds.

If you’ve followed along with my two posts on Boghassian’s latest stunt, you can see the same theme repeating. Indeed, they even hint at this in their write-up and methodology.

The goal was always to use what the existing literature offered to get some little bit of lunacy or depravity to be acceptable at the highest levels of intellectual respectability within the field. Therefore, each paper began with something absurd or deeply unethical (or both) that we wanted to forward or conclude. We then made the existing peer-reviewed literature do our bidding in the attempt to get published in the academic canon. […]

Sometimes we just thought a nutty or inhumane idea up and ran with it. What if we write a paper saying we should train men like we do dogs—to prevent rape culture? Hence came the “Dog Park” paper.

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Summary: That dog parks are “rape-condoning spaces” and a place of rampant canine rape culture and systemic oppression against “the oppressed dog” through which human attitudes to both problems can be measured and analyzed by applying black feminist criminology. This is done to provide insights into training men out of the sexual violence and bigotry to which they are prone. Arguably our most absurd paper.

There’s a little plausibility there, but I think most people would consider this idea outlandish. So let’s dig into the details: did they advocate for conventional clicker training, or use something more harsh like chokers?

This article addresses questions in human geography and the geographies of sexuality by drawing upon one year of embedded in situ observations of dogs and their human companions at three public dog parks in Portland, Oregon. The purpose of this research is to uncover emerging themes in human and canine interactive behavioral patterns in urban dog parks to better understand human a-/moral decision-making in public spaces and uncover bias and emergent assumptions around gender, race, and sexuality. Specifically, and in order of priority, I examine the following questions: (1) How do human companions manage, contribute, and respond to violence in dogs? (2) What issues surround queer performativity and human reaction to homosexual sex between and among dogs? and (3) Do dogs suffer oppression based upon (perceived) gender? …

…. Uh, wait a minute. This paper doesn’t seem to have anything to do with training human beings! That’s just part of the abstract, though, by definition a gloss on what they actually did; the true test is in the Methodology section, where all the details are.

From 10 June 2016, to 10 June 2017, I stationed myself on benches that were in central observational locations at three dog parks in Southeast Portland, Oregon. […]

During these observational sessions I gave particular scrutiny to two space-defining categories of a-/morally salient behavior: human companion behavior as it related to dogs and canine actions. The following fall into the former (moral behavior) category: how human companions engaged, ignored, or broke up ‘dog fights’ (aggression between or among dogs) and dog humping/rapes, collection of dogdroppings, use of leashes, humans raising their voices (subjectively determined), use of shock collars, and general human and dog interactions, especially ways in which gender, apparent gender, or gendering interacted within the spaces. The following fall into the latter category of a-/moral canine behavior: penetrative acts among dogs, humping without penetration, dog fights, and urinating and defecating in unauthorized areas (e.g. on a human’s leg or another dog’s head or body or in the communal water bowl). I ignored non-violent dog interactions that elicited reactions and punishments from owners (such as canine coprophagy) because, while they remain relevant to those lessons derivable from observing human–dog interactions within animal spaces that reveal themes of material-semiotic performativity of human/animal relationships (…), they fall outside of the purview of this investigation.

This paper does not look at training men like dogs! Let’s take a quick peek at the Results section, to double-check that.

Averaging across my data, in my observational vicinity there was approximately one dog rape/humping incident every 60 min (1004 documented dog rapes/humping incidents) and one dog fight every 71 min (847 documented dog fights). … These numbers increased or decreased based upon the number of male dogs present at any given time, rising at times to one such incident or the other every three to five minutesduring peak male-density periods. In general, more dog rapes/humping incidents occurred when more male dogs were present, and, somewhat surprisingly, 100% of dog rapes/humping incidents were perpetrated by male dogs. […]

Humans made some attempt to intervene in dog fights 99% of the time, by raising voice(s) (91%), attempting to physically intervene (19%), and other behaviors (29%) including shocking dogs who wore electric dog collars, swinging leashes, pulling out food, blowing horns, and in rare cases singing at the dogs or (once) doing jumping jacks next to the dogs, presumably as a distraction.

The response to dog rapes/humping incidents, however, was markedly different than to dog fights. The data suggest that the deciding variable for whether or not a human would interfere in a dog’s rape/humping incident was the dog’s gender. When a male dog was raping/humping another male dog, humans attempted to intervene 97% of the time. When a male dog was raping/humping a female dog, humans only attempted to intervene 32% of the time. Moreover, humans encouraged the male dog (to ‘get her, boy!’ in one case) 12% of the time and laughed out loud 18% of the time when a female dog was being raped/humped.

Confirmed. But training men does make an appearance… in the Discussion/Future Work section, as a metaphor. Emphasis mine:

Metaphorically, however, we are now better positioned to answer the question, ‘What specific and thematic lessons can be learned from dog parks that have the potential to further equity, diversity, inclusion, and peaceful coexistence and improve human-animal spaces?’ … For example, in dealing with dog rape/humping, though all forms of human physical assault (including against non-human animals) are still violence against the vulnerable and cannot be condoned, the administration of an electric shock at the first signs of rape-like behavior within my observations always elicited a rapid cessation of an ongoing dog rape/humping. By (nonviolent) analogy, by publicly or otherwise openly and suddenly yelling (NB: which was also effective at stopping dog rape/humping incidents) at males when they begin to make sexual advances on females (and other males in certain non-homosocial contexts), and by making firm and repeated stands against rape culture in society, activism, and media, human males may be metaphorically ‘shocked’ out of regarding sexual violence, sexual harassment, and rape culture as normative, which may decrease rape rates and disrupt rape culture and emancipate rape-condoning spaces.

It is also not politically feasible to leash men, yank their leashes when they ‘misbehave,’ or strike men with leashes (or other objects) in an attempt to help them desist from sexual aggression and other predatory behaviors (as previously, this human behavior as directed at dogs, though a sadly common anthropocentric mistreatment of animals, is not ethically warranted on dogs). The reining in or ‘leashing’ of men in society, however, can again be understood pragmatically on a metaphorical level with clear parallels to dog training ‘pedagogical’ methodologies. By properly educating human men (and re-educating them, when necessary) to respect women (both human and canine), denounce rape culture, refuse to rape or stand by while sexual assault occurs, de-masculinize spaces, and espouse feminist ideals – say through mandatory diversity and harassment training, bystander training, rape culture awareness training, and so on, in any institutions that can adopt them (e.g. workplaces, university campuses, and government agencies) – human men could be ‘leashed’ by a culture that refuses to victimize women, perpetuate rape culture, or permit rape-condoning spaces.

If you’ve ever written a scientific paper, you know that the Discussion/Future Work section is where you get to cut loose. I can predict what the consequences of my research are, I can suggest future experiments, I’m free to speculate so long as it’s grounded in what I just researched. Training men like dogs isn’t an extension of what this paper researched, but because the authors invoke it as a metaphor they’re allowed to follow that flight of fancy. And because that flight made it into the paper, they’re allowed to summarize it in the abstract (emphasis mine):

… and (3) Do dogs suffer oppression based upon (perceived) gender? It concludes by applying Black feminist criminology categories through which my observations can be understood and by inferring from lessons relevant to human and dog interactions to suggest practical applications that disrupts hegemonic masculinities and improves access to emancipatory spaces.

“Suggest practical applications” is ambiguous; if you read past the abstract you’ll realize it applies to “educating human men” and “denouncing rape culture,” but if you were first primed to think the paper was about training human beings like dogs you’d initially assume it involved clicker training or choke collars. This is very shady, but it could still carry some pedagogical value if the reviewers didn’t consider it a metaphor.

Reviewer 1: The discussion of the analogy between leashing male dogs prone to rape and sexually aggressive men is undoubtedly of merit, but the paragraph seems to endorse physically shocking male dogs who rape (and not men). If this is indee[d] the author’s position then the author needs to be explicit about it and defend it given objections that, despite its good intentions to stop a physical sexualized assault, it still constitutes human physical assault/violence against already vulnerable animals.

Reviewer 2: I can see someone reading this manuscript and asking, “Are you trying to say that human rape and dog rape are equivalently violent acts?” Of course you are not saying that they are equivalent, but that they stem from similar oppressive and systemic roots and that each is a violent act in its own right. But it might be helpful to sort of have response ready for that question.

Reviewer 3: It strikes me that the author’s data is perhaps more suited to answering questions about how human discourses of rape culture get mapped onto dogs’ sexual encounters at dog parks – leaving out the question of whether or not each of these encounters constitutes rape. For instance, this doesn’t strike me as a paper about “dog rape culture” (implying a rape culture among and between dogs) so much as how human rape culture is reflected in human responses to canine sexual encounters at the dog park?

This is in another universe from Ali Khan’s hoax. This isn’t even on the same level as Sokal’s hoax. We can easily grant that Boghossian and his co-authors were incompetent enough to accidentally create a semi-legit gender studies paper, when they thought they were crafting nonsense. But they can’t claim to be ignorant of what their own paper said.

Almost nobody reads these hoax papers, yet everyone trusts the people who wrote them to accurately describe what they contain. So if you write one thing, and say you wrote another, you can fool a lot of people into believing what you say instead of seeing what you did. Before people can sit down and actually read what you wrote, the news articles and opinion pieces have already been blasted all over the world. The principle of charity means that the people who read you, both peer reviewers and journalists, will soften their words and add shades of gray which look weak next to confident partisan screeds.

I regret to inform you that we have now considered your paper “Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at the Dog Park” but unfortunately feel it unsuitable to send for review for consideration for publication in Gender, Place and Culture.

Specifically, you would need to engage more explicitly with debates in feminist geographies – in terms for example of animals and black feminist geographies – for us to consider sending your paper for external review. I would warmly welcome a manuscript that placed this work into a feminist geography context. Debates feeding into these discussion have populated the pages of the journal for some time. And with a bit of effort, this work could fit the journal.

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I was Reviewer 1 for the Masturbation = Rape hoax paper that tried to get published in Sociological Theory. As a grad student, it was my first time being asked to review a paper for a journal. I’m glad I recommended a reject, and the paper was rejected.

I remember thinking at the time that it was probably a master’s thesis that a student immediately turned around to try to get published. Lots of long block quotes with no explanation. Long sections with no organization. I mentioned this all in the review.

So I structured my review off of a constructive rejection I received from ASQ where the reviewer clearly read the paper, pointed out problems, and offered suggestions for how to proceed. It was the type of rejection where I immediately wanted to work on the paper again.

I don’t like reviews that reject the premise of the paper outright. I’ve received reviews like that since my papers are on the porn industry. So I tried to buy into the paper and offer paths forward. These are the comments that the hoax authors quoted in their write up.

Anyways, I guess I could be more critical in the future, but I assumed a grad student had written a confusing paper and I tried to be constructive. I’m embarrassed that I took it as seriously as I did, I’m annoyed I wasted time writing a review, and I’m glad I rejected it.

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We might find some solace in the fact that we’ve been through all of this before. Sokal showed already, more than 20 years ago, that postmodernism had run amok and certain sections of the research literature were a waste of ink and paper. Writing in Lingua Franca at the time, he expressed his concern and anger at the implications of this dross: “Theorizing about ‘the social construction of reality’ won’t help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming,” he said.

That sort of scholarship never went away, and yet, surprise, surprise: Civilization hasn’t yet collapsed.

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No one in these fields should feel good that so many of these submissions made it past peer review. If you had told me ex ante that three reasonably educated people could publish more than half of their cockeyed submissions in fields beyond their specialty, it would not make me sanguine at all. This shouldn’t be exaggerated; as James Stacey Taylor notes, only two of the seven journals that accepted these hoax papers “could be considered mainstream academic journals.” Two still strikes me as too many, however. So the most important takeaway of this paper is just how easy it is for some scholars to fake their way into a peer-reviewed publication, even if it’s not a widely cited one.

When you factor in that this doesn’t appear to be isolated to one paper

But other accepted papers, I think, use a trick: invent some fake data of interest to the journal, and include a discussion section with some silly digressions. The journal accepts the paper because the core is the interesting data, and then the hoax coverage says that the paper is about the silly digressions. For example, the core of the dog park paper is a fake observational study showing that humans, especially males, are faster to stop male-on-male dog sexual encounters than male-on-female sexual encounters. I think that’s fine; it is actually indicative of heteronormativity or homophobia or whatever. The paper also has an angle about canine rape culture, and that is indeed silly, but the paper is not best described, as The Chronicle of Higher Education did, as being “about canine rape culture in dog parks in Portland”.

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I see a lot of reaction to this stunt along the lines of this post: nitpicking minor inconsistencies, correcting readers on the nature of peer review, etc. What I don’t see is anybody grappling with is the fact that a respected academic journal will publish Mein fucking Kampf if you modernize some buzzwords. And no, we’re not talking about a gotcha with an out-of-context sentence. It was a whole chapter. A WHOLE CHAPTER.

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Did you read the paper in question? Or the reviews? The author’s description of “fashionable buzzwords switched in” seems to be entirely dishonest; the rewrite is extensive enough that I could barely identify which section(s?) of the relevant chapter was the source. For example there’s a repeated theme of avoiding coercion while aiming for unity, which isn’t part of the MK chapter.

In any case, there isn’t much in the way of “eliminationist rhetoric” unless you use a lot of creative interpretation maybe; even in the original chapter, the relevant section is mostly “list of things for building a political movement” without too much regard for the content of the movement, which include things like “you can’t do things by half measures” and “improving people’s living conditions will make them care about your movement.” Where a point that mentions “destroying enemies” occurs in MK, it is completely omitted, not buzzword-swapped or watered down or rewritten, for the paper. Consequently, the paper consists of platitudes about how feminists should be more united and try really hard to fight all kinds of oppression. Hardly deep insights (as the reviewers from Feminist Theory, which rejected it, noted), but also not reasonably described as “the basic ideology of Naziism coated in a thin layer of estrogen.”

… this looks less like incompetence, and more like deliberate fraud. And I’m not alone in saying that.

Out Of Control

To a first approximation, science is about differences between groups: if death is a major motivator for human behavior, then we should expect people who have been reminded of their mortality to act differently than people who were not. Sometimes, a group is only conceptual: if the Higgs boson exists, then when slamming two protons together there should be more photons observed in the aftermath, compared to the amount we predicted. Sometimes, we generate groups after the fact: if we plot star colour and luminosity on a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, stars naturally settle into four major groups. Sometimes, the “difference” we care about is that there is no difference at all: if a cosmetic is safe to use, then if we compare a group of people who use it to people who don’t, we should observe no difference in health. These divisions are so common that we often neglect to clearly delineate our groups: “does a daily dose of Aspirin prevent strokes?” implies that people who take Aspirin are less likely to get a stroke than people who do not.

At some point these groups must be clearly delineated, however; when they are not, a common problem in epidemiology, we lose our ability to find differences between them. Worse, fuzzy groups allow us to manufacture differences that don’t exist, say by classifying legitimate data as illegitimate “outliers” to get the results we want. This “differences between groups” metaphor is surprisingly powerful, to the point that’s a good solution to the demarcation problem. A core claim of astrology is that people differ based on the day they were born; if we divide people into those groups, yet fail to find differences, then astrology cannot be true. The Myers-Briggs personality test claims that we can divide people into specific groups, yet studies that use difference to reconstruct groups have failed to see those groups materialize.

By convention, if we are testing whether or not some change leads to a difference, we call the group we don’t change the “control” group. This group is often conceptual, thanks to frequentist statistical techniques, but that only works if the tools we use to find difference are perfectly calibrated; if they are not, the data might be biased and you’d never know. As a result, lacking a control group is considered a reason to suspect your results.

I apologize if all that was painfully obvious; I grasped these concepts way back in Junior High, well before I was legally allowed to drive. Still, I needed to type it out to convey the pain of what comes next.

[Read more…]

Little Lies and Big Truths

Brett Kavanaugh lied. Yet, as I just pointed out, Republicans are still fighting hard to put him on the Supreme Court, ignoring any damage to the (admittedly quite cracked) political neutrality of the court.

The most obvious explanation is that Kavanaugh is one of their own. Jeff Flake declared “I’m a conservative. He’s a conservative;” Kavanaugh shored up his Republican support by spinning conspiracy theories about a vast Democratic coalition trying to take him down, conspiracies we see echoed by Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Lindsay Graham; and the arbitrary deadline of one week was to prevent a partisan “fishing exposition.”

Partisanship doesn’t explain everything, though. Take Donald Trump: he wasn’t much of a Republican, has been at odds with his own party and allies repeatedly, yet is still enjoying broad support from Republicans of all stripes. There’s got to be something more at work here.

A special-access lie is a deliberately false statement based on facts about which the speaker is thought to have special access. A good example of such a lie is Bill Clinton’s notorious false claim that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman” (i.e., Monica Lewinsky). […] A common-knowledge lie is quite different. This is a false assertion about facts to which the speaker has no special access. … For instance, Trump often pointed to information that was supposedly in the public domain to support his claims, even if it was easily demonstrable that such supporting evidence did not exist (e.g., his claim that his election victory was “the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan,” or his claims regarding the size of the crowd at his inauguration). As such, the ideal-typical case of this type of lie is one in which the speaker not only knows the statement is false, but she knows her listeners also know that she knows the statement is false; it is thus common knowledge that the statement is false.

Hahl, Oliver, Minjae Kim, and Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan. “The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue: Proclaiming the Deeper Truth about Political Illegitimacy.” American Sociological Review 83.1 (2018): 7-9.

A tweet by one of the study authors suggested what that “more” could be. “Common knowledge” lies are false statements that are either known to be lies or could easily be verified to be a lie. Why do these types of lies exist? They signal something to the listener.

In particular, whereas the speaker of a special-access lie is implicitly upholding the norm of truth-telling, the common-knowledge liar is implicitly attacking this norm. Following Frankfurt (2005), such a liar is a type of “bullshit artist”: he is publicly challenging truth as a prescriptive norm. … Insofar as a speaker seems capable of distinguishing between truth and falsehood and yet utters a statement everyone knows is false, the speaker is flouting the norm of truth-telling and inviting his listeners to endorse such violations. Indeed, listeners are complicit in the norm violation as long as they do not challenge him—and especially if they applaud him.

Hahl (2018): 9.

In the general case, the speaker is arguing that everyone lies, but no-one wants to admit it. By breaking that taboo, they flag themselves as speaking truth to power, even if they themselves are quite powerful. For instance, Kremlin propaganda doesn’t argue Russia is free of corruption, instead it argues every country is corrupt. Admitting to this truth gains your trust and allows them room to be corrupt, plus denies any way to actually fix corruption.

A minority—or even a majority under some conditions (…)—may privately disagree with publicly-endorsed norms, but a group’s established leadership (however formal or informal) tends to determine group membership, at least in part, based on compliance with such norms. Accordingly, individuals who seek social acceptance generally have an incentive to hide their deviance through public compliance and even to enforce a norm they do not privately endorse (…). […] Put differently, voters have two ways to determine a candidate’s authenticity. One
approach is to determine authenticity on the basis of the candidate’s sincerity or prosociality: inauthentic candidates are those who tell lies or who violate publicly-endorsed norms. A second approach for determining authenticity is based on the implicit claim of the lying demagogue – that is, publicly-endorsed norms are imposed rather than freely chosen. The lying demagogue thus claims to be an authentic champion of those who are subject to social control by the established political leadership.

Hahl (2018): 10-11

People may say they never got drunk in high school or college, but Kavanaugh is indirectly calling them liars. By lying about Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony and Leland Ingham Keyser’s statements, he’s dog-whistling that every guy has forced themselves on women but few would admit to it. By saying he earned his seat at Yale through hard work when he didn’t, Kavanaugh is quietly saying he’s on the side of people with power and privilege.

What’s the larger truth in Kavanaugh’s case? I’m speculating now but I’d say there are three levels to it.

At the most basic level, it’s simply that it’s unacceptable to hold someone accountable for high school hijinks 35 years later, esp without evidence. And so when he claims there were no hijinks when everyone knows there were, he’s inviting his fellow partisans to help protect…

… him from being held to an unfair standard. They know he’s lying but they collude in the lie for a higher purpose.

Second, the larger truth may be the partisan battle, as evoked by his opening statement. Under this logic, the GOP are invited to collude in his lies bc he will be a reliable champion of the cause. The lies are in service of the larger truth that Democratic power is illegitimate.

Finally, and as suggested by our experiments, he may also be appealing to his fellow traditionalists’ anxiety about threats to their culture. What kind of real American doesn’t like beer, amirite? And what kind of loser doesn’t have too many beers once in awhile? The larger…

… truth then is that those high school hijinks were *good* and it’s wrong for these jerks to now cast aspersions on them. Of course these three logics are complementary. One, two, or three of them could be working for any one person.

No wonder Republicans have rallied to Kavanaugh’s side and, via their conspiracies, added falsehoods of their own. It also changes our rhetorical tactics.

Larger implication: Exposing lies is insufficient to reach across this kind of partisan divide. We have to look harder for the deeper implicit claims being made & why they resonate with those who seem unable to see the lies. They *can* see the lies but their *focus* is elsewhere.

A Reminder About Sexual Assault

I think Garrett Epps nailed this.

The gendered subtext of this moment is, not to put too fine a point on it, war—war to the knife—over the future of women’s autonomy in American society. Shall women control their own reproduction, their health care, their contraception, their legal protection at work against discrimination and harassment, or shall we move backward to the chimera of past American greatness, when the role of women was—supposedly for biological reasons—subordinate to that of men?

That theme became apparent even before the 2016 election, when candidate Donald Trump promised to pick judges who would “automatically” overturn Roe v. Wade. The candidate was by his own admission a serial sexual harasser. On live national television, he then stalked, insulted, and physically menaced his female opponent—and he said, in an unguarded moment, that in his post-Roe future, women who choose abortion will face “some form of punishment.”

In context, Trump promised to restore the old system of dominion—by lawmakers, husbands, pastors, institutions, and judges—over women’s reproduction.

And as they point out, the subtext has now become text with the allegations of sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh. There are plenty of other reasons to deny Kavanaugh a Supreme Court seat, mind you, but the Republican Party has descended so low that corruption and a dismissal of human rights mean nothing when it harms them (but everything when it harms their opponents). Even Senator Susan Collins, considered to be on the liberal side of the Party, still twists in knots to defend Kavanaugh. These allegations of sexual assault might have been the straw, though.

Of course, now that sexual assault is back in the news, all the old apologetics are being vomited up. “Why didn’t she speak up?” “Boys will be boys.” “You’re ruining his life!” “There’s no evidence.” “This can’t be a common thing.” “Just trust the system.” It’s all very tired, and has been written about countless times before.

For instance, here’s a sampling of my own writing:

Evidence-Based Feminism 2: Sexual assault and rape culture

Debunking Some Skeptic Myths About Sexual Assault

Index Post: Rape Myth Acceptance

Christina Hoff Sommers: Science Denialist?

A Statistical Analysis of a Sexual Assault Case

Men Under Construction

Sexual Assault As a Con Game

Consent on Campus

Colleges and Sexual Assault

Destruction of Justice

Sexual Assault as a Talking Point

“There are no perfect victims.”

False Rape Reports, In Perspective

Everyone Needs A Hobby

Steven Pinker and His Portable Goalposts

Perfect, In Theory

Holy Fuck, Carol Tavris

Recovered Memories and Sexual Assault

Talking Sexual Assault

The evidence around sexual assault is pretty clear, and even in Kavanaugh’s specific case there’s circumstantial evidence that makes the accusations plausible. If people are still promoting myths about it at this point, it’s because they want to.

[HJH 2018-09-17: Added a few more links. Props to Salty Current of the Political Madness thread for some of them.]