It’s Time

I finally gave in and set up a public Patreon account. My financial situation isn’t as good as it once was, and I could use the pocket change. It’s on a per-work basis, as my posting schedule is erratic and goes through long dry spells. I only intend to ding patrons for my larger, more analytic posts; those “hey look at this cool thing” posts are too easy to charge for. If you’re worried about a posting spree draining your bank account, no problem: Patreon allows you to set up a monthly cap, so you’ll never be caught with a surprise bill.

Why the reluctance to hop on this bandwagon? The main reason why I never became an artist is that I have no appetite for self-promotion. Long-time friends and family members have no idea about my blog, because I know their interests and know it’s not their cup. Running a successful Patreon demands a pro-active social media presence, and that’s just not my thing. I’m not anti-social so much as a-social, which leads to all sorts of confusion when people meet me in person.

Having said that, I do have a few special things planned.

Some people dropped out of the hike, due to the lousy conditions. There is no such thing at O'Hara.

I used to be an avid photographer, and I’ve still got a tonne of unprocessed photos sitting on my hard drive. So let’s say that if you contribute at least $5 in any given month, then if you send me an address I’ll send you a photo postcard. I’ll track which ones you receive so you’ll never get the same one twice. I also have a lot of old ideas kicking around that were never fully completed, so a members-only poll of which ones to revive might encourage me to finish one of them. Even if not, it at least gives you some insight into where my head is at.

So if that sort of thing is appealing to you, or you just like the stuff I write enough to donate some pocket change, sign up. If you don’t or can’t, no problem! I don’t plan on going anywhere.

Y U Do Dis?

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

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

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

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

Help A Brother Out

Tony Thompson Jr. has been around the social justice side of atheism/skepticism for a long while; I mean, just check the page count on his blog. He’s a great guy, but his personality can’t stop hurricanes. Tony escaped the worst, but he’s still had to deal with no electricity or running water, a lack of food and other essentials, and his funds are running dry.

If you’ve got a few extra dollars, send them his way.

The Feminist Mein Kampf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21-Mar-2018

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

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

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

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22-Jun-2018

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

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

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

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17-Aug-2018

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

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

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

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21-Aug-2018

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

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

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

The Boghossian Experience, in Audio

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

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

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

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

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.

Watch Carefully

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

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

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

This process is the one, single thread that ties all twenty of our papers together, even though we used a variety of methods to come up with the various ideas fed into their system to see how the editors and peer reviewers would respond. Sometimes we just thought a nutty or inhumane idea up and ran with it. What if we write a paper saying we should train men like we do dogs—to prevent rape culture? Hence came the “Dog Park” paper.

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

Seven of our papers were accepted, many in top-ranking journals. These include an adaptation of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” which was accepted by a social work journal. Another develops the concept of “fat bodybuilding” for a discipline called fat studies, and a third claims to address “rape culture” by monitoring dog-humping incidents at dog parks in Southeast Portland, Oregon.

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

The Problem/Solution Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This problem is most easily summarized as an overarching (almost or fully sacralized) belief that many common features of experience and society are socially constructed. These constructions are seen as being nearly entirely dependent upon power dynamics between groups of people, often dictated by sex, race, or sexual or gender identification. All kinds of things accepted as having a basis in reality due to evidence are instead believed to have been created by the intentional and unintentional machinations of powerful groups in order to maintain power over marginalized ones. This worldview produces a moral imperative to dismantle these constructions.

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

The premises of constructivism as an epistemology are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Isn’t Incompetence

This is a delightful hoax.

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

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

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

Alan Sokal’s hoax reads quite differently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out Of Control

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

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

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

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

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