I Think I Get It

We seem to be in a cycle. Every time PZ Myers posts something about transgender people, the comment thread floods with transphobes. Given the names involved, I suspect this is due to Ophelia Benson’s effect on the atheio/skeptic sphere.

Regardless, there may be another pattern in play. The go-to argument of these transphobes was transgender athletes, with the old bathroom line showing up late in the thread. I had a boo at GenderCritical on Reddit, to assess if this was just a local thing, and noticed there were more stories about athletics than bathrooms over there. Even one of the bigots thought this was new. Has there been a shift of rhetoric among transphobes?

If so, I think I understand why.

[Read more…]

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…]

Don’t Trust the Process

The methodology states

Summary: That men frequent “breasturants”[sic] like Hooters because they are nostalgic for patriarchal dominance and enjoy being able to order attractive women around. The environment that breastaurants provide for facilitating this encourages men to identify sexual objectification and sexual conquest, along with masculine toughness and male dominance, with “authentic masculinity.” The data are clearly nonsense and conclusions drawn from it are unwarranted. …

while the Areo Magazine article says

We published a paper best summarized as, “A gender scholar goes to Hooters to try to figure out why it exists.”

neither of which is a good description of the actual hoax paper.

Specifically, my study began in earnest after I amassed nearly 3 months of in situ observations and interactions with the group I came to study and, as such, it began after I noticed certain themes common within the conversations the group had in the breastaurant. In particular, I noticed these themes differed in certain ways from those typical in the gym where we trained together. This gave me certain initial themes (sexual objectification and male control of women) that seemed prevalent and identified with masculinity in breastaurant environments, which inspired my study. […]

I aimed to approach the breastaurant environment in a way that documents and characterizes patterns of masculinity I recognized as largely typical within the breastaurant, although atypical to the participants outside that context. I sought to address the interrelated questions of what features of the environment lead men to enact certain masculine performances in pastiche, how men then interpret these performances as relevant to some presumably authentic masculinity, and what this tells us about a breastaurant masculinity that arises in dynamic interplay in some men within breastaurants.

I was tempted to skip this one, as it falls squarely in PB&J‘s themes of “mistake the absurd for the reasonable” and “mislead people about your own paper.” But if they’re alleging that much of sociology is rife with dodgy methodology …

Purpose: This paper ridicules men for being themselves by caricaturing them and assuming bad motivations for their attitudes. It seeks to demonstrate that journals will publish papers that seek to problematize heterosexual men’s attraction to women and will accept very shoddy qualitative methodology and ideologically-motivated interpretations which support this.

=====

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”).

… it makes sense to analyse one of their papers with a weak methodology. Let’s involve both of us in this: suppose you want to assess the attitudes present by patrons at a certain type of restaurant. What sort of process would you use? Take a few minutes to think about it yourself, before I outline how I’d do it. [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…]

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”).

=====

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?

The Boghossian Experience, in Audio

If you somehow missed my series of blog posts on this “grievance studies” debacle, or you’d just like the info in audio format, you’re in luck! Cory Johnston caught wind of what I’d written, and invited me on the Skeptic Studio podcast to summarise it. I was interviewed just as the third in that series came out, if you’d like to properly situate it in the timeline.

Cripes, I’ve done five posts on Boghossian and friends? Sorry, but the trio are fractally wrong.

Anyway, Johnston is part of the Brainstorm podcast network, a series of skeptic/atheist shows that tick all the CanCon boxes. They have Twitters and Books, and if you like what you see consider tossing them some cash via their store or Patreon.

As for me, I want to polish off an illustration before formally launching my Patreon thing. Give me another day or two, I pinky-swear.

Watch Carefully

I know, you’re all sick of Boghossian’s stunt. I am too. Still, I just spotted something I’d like to document. Here’s a passage from their methodology:

1. “Dog Park”
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.

Here’s a passage from their article in Areo Magazine:

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. 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.

Now, here’s a passage from their op-ed in USA Today:

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. Another develops the concept of “fat bodybuilding” for a discipline called fat studies, and a third claims to address “rape culture” by monitoring dog-humping incidents at dog parks in Southeast Portland, Oregon.

See the slippage? The “Dog Park” paper went from being their favorite to third-tier. It went from being about training men like dogs to addressing rape culture. Either this trio just happened to discover they’d misunderstood their own paper between October 2nd and 10th, or they realized someone had discovered what the paper was really about and are quietly trying to rewrite history.

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.