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.

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.

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.

When Secularism Is A Lie

In 1990, Gregg Cunningham thought the anti-choice movement was losing the battle for reproductive rights. In response, he formed the Center for Bioethical Reform, then spent years brainstorming how he could reinvent the movement. His answer: secularize it. This allowed anti-choice messaging to dodge past religious disagreement over abortion (Christian denominations are evenly divided over support for abortion) by pretending to be above it all, and get into places a religious approach was barred from entering.

… this is very carefully targeted. When we do this on a university campus there is actually an enormous amount of preparation, and we do a great deal of follow-up. We start pro-life organizations on the campus where none had existed previously, we greatly strengthen currently existing pro-life groups by increasing the size of their membership, by donating to them all kinds of educational resources they can use, we help recruit students to volunteer at the local crisis pregnancy centers. We do a myriad of things of that sort. The same is true of churches. […]

The Genocide Awareness Project is one of a myriad of projects which we are doing, but they are all aimed at the same thing: how can we engage a reluctant culture and educate it over its own objections? It all starts with a willingness to take the heat. We lack moral authority if we are not willing to take the heat.

It signaled that lies and half-truths were perfectly acceptable, since Cunningham’s organization was secular in name only.

We are a secular organization, we’re not a Christian organization, but we are an organization comprised of Christians, and the thing that motivates us personally is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

While Cunningham is an extremist, his ideas have been very influential. The moderates in the anti-choice movement have since noted the failure of religious arguments, and have embraced trojan secularism. Emphasis mine:

the strenuous efforts of abolitionists have yielded very little in terms of measurable progress in reducing abortion, so it’s time to try a more fruitful strategy.

I have my own beliefs about the sanctity and rights of an unborn baby, but I don’t think we’ll change many minds by arguing about that. The proliferation of 3D ultrasound machines, new research about fetal awareness and pain, and the increasing viability of extremely premature babies will continue to make an impression on some people, but for those who are heavily invested in the moral neutrality of abortion on demand, and who see the concession of any status to the fetus as in direct conflict with the rights of the mother, this won’t make a lot of difference.

We need more discussion, then, of abortion as a women’s issue. Abortion damages women. It does them physical and psychological harm, which is multiplied by the fact that very few women seeking abortions give their informed consent (meaning consent even after being advised of the risks.) Those of us who take such things seriously tend to agree that it does them spiritual harm. More broadly, a culture in which abortion is seen as essentially harmless wreaks profound changes to our collective understanding of motherhood, sexuality, the obligations of mothers and fathers to each other and their children, and adulthood.

It’s been embraced so much by extremists and moderates alike, Kelly Gordon found that only 1.9% of anti-choice messages contained a religious element.[1]

The latest variation of this that I’ve heard of this comes from Crisis Pregnancy Centres. Cunningham called them “Ministries,” which is more accurate than I realized.

In a conference room at the Embassy Suites in Charleston, South Carolina, Laurie Steinfeld stood behind a podium speaking to an audience of about 50 people. Steinfeld is a counselor at a pregnancy center in Mission Hills, California, and she was leading a session at the annual Heartbeat International conference, a gathering of roughly 1,000 crisis pregnancy center staff and anti-abortion leaders from across the country. Her talk focused on how to help women seeking abortions understand Jesus’s plan for them and their babies, and she described how her center’s signage attracts women.

“Right across the street from us is Planned Parenthood,” she said. “We’re across the street and it [their sign] says ‘Pregnancy Counseling Center,’ but these girls aren’t — they just look and see ‘Pregnancy’ and think, Oh, that’s it! So some of them coming in thinking they’re going to their abortion appointments.” […]

In her workshop, “How to Reach and Inspire the Heart of a Client,” Steinfeld told her audience about her mission to convert clients: “If you hear nothing today, I want you to hear this one thing,” she said. “We might be the very first face of Christ that these girls ever see.”

When someone’s salvation is on the line, anything is justified. Exploiting the desperation of someone in order to bring them into a relationship with Christ is completely justified, so long as you don’t use the word “exploit.”

Multiple women told me it was their job to protect women from abortion as “an adult tells a child not to touch a hot stove.” Another oft-repeated catchphrase was, “Save the mother, save the baby,” shorthand for many pregnancy center workers’ belief that the most effective way to prevent abortion is to convert women. In keeping with Evangelicalism’s central tenets, many pregnancy center staff believe that those living “without Christ”— including Christians having premarital sex — must accept Christ to be born again, redeem their sins, and escape spiritual pain. Carrying a pregnancy to term “redeems” a “broken” woman, multiple staff people told me.

And here again, we find they deliberately avoid the “G” or “J” words until they’ve sealed a connection.

The website for Heartbeat International’s call center, Option Line, offers to connect women with a pregnancy center that “provides many services for free.” It encourages women who are curious about emergency contraception to call its hotline to speak to a representative about “information on all your options.” On the Option Line website, there is no mention of Christ, no religious imagery, no talk of being saved. But visit the website of Heartbeat itself and you’ll find very different language. “Heartbeat International does promote God’s Plan for our sexuality: marriage between one man and one woman, sexual intimacy, children, unconditional/unselfish love, and relationship with God must go together,” it says. […]

In her session, “Do I Really Need Two Sites?” Chenoweth explained that, yes, in fact, pregnancy centers do. She recommended that centers operate one that describes an anti-abortion mission to secure donors and another that lists medical information to attract women seeking contraception, counseling, or abortion. […]

Johnson … emphasized that waiting rooms should feel like “professional environments” instead of “grandma’s house,” and discouraged crucifixes, fake flowers, and mauve paint before showing slides of Planned Parenthood waiting rooms and encouraging staff to make their centers look just as “beautiful and up-to-date,” especially if they have a “medical model,” meaning they offer sonograms and other medical services. Johnson also said pregnancy center staff should mirror Planned Parenthood’s language.

Lies are an integral part of the anti-choice movement. Lies about what abortion does to you, and lies about what they stand for and believe in. Anyone hoping to promote secularism and humanist values should be wary of religion in secular clothing.

 

[1] Gordon, Kelly. “‘Think About the Women!’: The New Anti-Abortion Discourse in English Canada,” 2011. pg. 42.