And Then There Were Four

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

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

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

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

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

And it suggests there may soon be five.

A Quick Note on Neil deGrasse Tyson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hemant Metha has a different take.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, I see PZ Myers has back-tracked.

Not Well-Meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When The Joke Is On You

I had no idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthropologists on Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garn, Stanley M. “Race and Evolution.” American Anthropologist 59, no. 2 (April 1, 1957): 218–24.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marks, Jonathan. “Commentary: Toward an Anthropology of Genetics.” American Anthropologist 116, no. 4 (December 1, 2014): 749–51.

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

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…]

Good Scholarship On Gender

I was recommended a YouTube video, “Transphobia: An Analysis,” and it easily lives up to its name. I noticed an overlap, though, between that video and my own attempts at a similar topic: we both relied heavily on the writing of trans people in forming our arguments. Both Philosophy Tube and I cite a specific article by Talia Mae Bettcher:

Consequently, when a trans woman says “I’m a woman” and her body is precisely the kind of body taken to invalidate a claim to womanhood (in mainstream culture), the claim is true in some trans subcultures because the meaning of the word “woman” is different; its very meaning is under contestation … I understand this in terms of Marı́a Lugones’s concept of “multiple worlds of sense” […]

Once we adopt a Lugonian framework for understanding trans oppression and resistance, we can see a serious problem inherent in both the wrong-body and transgender approaches: they take the dominant meanings of gender terms for granted, thereby foreclosing the possibility of multiply resistant meanings (…). In a beyond-the-binary model, to say that trans people are marginal with respect to the binary is to locate them in terms of the categories “man” and “woman” as dominantly understood. If trans bodies can have different resistant meanings, the decision to say of those bodies that they are “mixed” or “in between” is precisely to assume a dominant interpretation. So the problem is not the rigidity of the binary categories but rather the starting assumption that there is only one interpretation in the first place (the dominant one). Similarly, in the wrong-body model, to become a woman or a man requires genital reconstruction surgery as the correction of wrongness. But this is to accept a dominant understanding of what a man or a woman is.

Bettcher, Talia Mae. “Trapped in the wrong theory: Rethinking trans oppression and resistance.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 39.2 (2014): 389-390.

While there’s a lot of bad reasoning out there too, the best analysis of gender I’ve seen has come from trans people. It also makes the best analysis I’ve seen from TERFs look like “WRONG” crayon’d on a wall. Take Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, for instance; she’s often held up as one of the best TERF scholars, yet I often find her writing drivel like this:

If gender is a spectrum, not a binary, then everyone is “non-binary”.

This basic logical point should be obvious, and yet is denied by most of the proponents of the spectrum model of gender – indeed, it is often met with angry objections from those who label themselves non-binary. But it’s hard to see how this point can be refuted. If gender is a spectrum, not a binary, then every individual alive is non-binary, by definition. There are not just two points. There is a range of points, and we all of us fall somewhere along the spectrum. And then the label “non-binary” becomes redundant, as it fails to pick out a special category of people.

Or, perhaps, “binary” is an anachronistic label for a large collection of people who cluster around certain behaviors and appearance. We can keep using the term until we think of a better one, so long as we acknowledge that, in the context of gender, the sharp boundaries implied by the name do not exist. The premise that gender occupies a spectrum is compatible with this definition of “binary,” and it permits “non-binary” to remain a useful category.

A graphical representation of the prior paragraph.

If you read forward, you’ll find much of her essay consists of hammering the “binary cannot have multiple meanings” nail over and over and over again, until she gets to her true point.

The logical conclusion of all this is: if gender is a spectrum, not a binary, then there are no trans people. Or, alternatively, everyone is trans.

Well yes, if you deny that “binary” can have multiple meanings, and believe everyone agrees the wrong-body model is correct, that conclusion holds. Marı́a Lugones published her work in 2004, so even the latter premise was false a decade before Reilly-Cooper scrawled that article on a wall.

If you are interested in getting to the bottom of what gender is, then you owe it to yourself to check out the work of trans scholars, starting with Talia Mae Bettcher.

As I was pondering [Kathleen] Stock’s arguments, I couldn’t help reflect on the grading I had just completed for the course “Trans Feminist Philosophy.” I wondered whether her essay would have received a passing grade in it.

In this course, we paid particular attention to (non-trans) feminist engagements with trans people, issues, and theory. We used my Stanford Encyclopedia entry “Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues” as a guide. It served as the starting point for my lectures and our inquiries. I’ll note that this entry is almost like a little book, coming in at 23,000 words. It also has an extensive and, in my humble opinion, highly useful bibliography that includes literature from the late 1800s until around 2014.

In our discussion of feminist/trans interactions, we began with the expulsion of Beth Elliott (a trans woman, lesbian feminist) from the Daughters of Bilitis San Francisco chapter in late 1972 and then considered the infamous West Coast Lesbian Conference (1973) during which Elliott survived a vote that would have expelled her from the conference. We examined all of the feminist perspectives that were at play at the time—including the pro-trans ones. We then went on to examine Janice Raymond’s Transsexual Empire (1979), easily the most important work in “gender critical feminism” (although it wasn’t called that at the time). We looked at the emergence of trans studies through the work of Sandy Stone (1991), Kate Bornstein (1994), and Leslie Feinberg (1992). We examined the development of Queer Theory—especially the work of Judith Butler (1990, 1993) and its relation to trans studies and politics. We looked at trans phenomenology (Rubin 1998) and we looked at the FTM/Butch border wars of the nineties (Halberstam 1998, Hale 1998). We looked at more recent feminist perspectives on trans issues (e.g. Cressida Heyes 2003, Gayle Salamon 2010) by non-trans women, and we discussed the development of trans feminism through the work of Emi Koyama (2003, 2006) and Julia Serano (2007). Unfortunately, we ran out of time. We were going to look at some of the more recent debates with regard to gender critical feminism (e.g. Lori Watson 2016, Sara Ahmed 2016, myself). But we had to stop.

Enjoy the dig.

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.