The engine of irrationality inside the rationalists

There’s a multi-directional cacophony of gleeful back-patting ringing out across my Twitter feed at the moment. The outpouring of joy stems from an article published in Skeptic Magazine. Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay managed to submit a hoax article to a gender studies journal, and are hailing this as a profound, thermonuclear indictment on the entirety of gender studies, social science and the “academic left”. They wrote that:

“We assumed that if we were merely clear in our moral implications that maleness is intrinsically bad and that the penis is somehow at the root of it, we could get the paper published in a respectable journal” 

Their article was initially rejected by a journal, “NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies”. But they were referred to a smaller outlet, ‘Cogent Social Sciences’, that offers publication where you ‘pay what you like’ (apparently, they didn’t pay anything).

On the face of it, this might seem like a clever take-down of predatory publishing practices. Sadly, that’s not the case. It’s presented by Boghossian and Lindsay, people sharing the article online, and by people responding, as a comprehensive demolition of gender studies, post-modernism, “social justice warriors” (SJWs, in alt-right parlance) and social science:

The authors of the Skeptic Magazine article wrote:

“We suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil. On the evidence, our suspicion was justified” 

Most people, whether they’re part of the skeptic community or not, can recognise that a single instance isn’t sufficient evidence to conclude that an entire field of research is crippled by religious man-hating fervour, and that anyone pushing that line is probably weirdly compromised.

Beyond that basic morsel of logic, academic hoaxes happen in the hard sciences, too:

  • Andrew Wakefield, a British anti-vaccination campaigner, managed to publish a fraudulent paper in the Lancet in 1998.
  • A US nuclear physics conference accepted a paper written entirely in autocomplete.
  • A trio of MIT grad students created an algorithm that creates fake scientific papers – in 2013 IEEE and Springer Publishing found 120 published papers had been generated by the program.
  • A paper entitled “Get me off your fucking mailing list” was accepted for publication by computer science journal.
  • A 2013 hoax saw a scientific paper about fictional lichen published in several hundred journals.

Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List diagram

These hoaxes are consistently presented in a meaningful context – as being valuable demonstrations of a worrying shift to predatory journals, and a consistent lowering of standards in these journals.

These hoaxes do not demonstrate the wholesale failure of biology, or computer science, or medicine. There is no ideological skew against mailing lists in the computer sciences; nor is there a anti-lichen religious fervour in biology. To suggest that this is the case, based on each of those instances alone, would be completely weird.

 


Misdiagnosis 

The authors do dedicate some of their post to discussing the problem of predatory publishing. They write that “in the short term, pay-to-publish may be a significant problem because of the inherent tendencies toward conflicts of interest (profits trump academic quality, that is, the profit motive is dangerous because ethics are expensive)”.

But even then, the authors try and label the journal that published the article as more rigorous than it actually is. “[Cogent Social Sciences] is held out as a high-quality open-access journal by the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), which is intended to be a reliable list of such journals”.

DOAJ is far from perfect – with regards to the aforementioned hoax science paper about lichen, it was noted that “for DOAJ publishers that completed the review process, 45% accepted the bogus paper”.

The authors also insist the journal that published their hoax is rigorous because “Cogent Social Sciences operates with the legitimizing imprimatur of Taylor and Francis, with which it is clearly closely partnered”. Ditto for the hoax lichen paper: “In some cases, academic publishing powerhouses sit at the top of the chain. Journals published by Elsevier, Wolters Kluwer, and Sage all accepted my bogus paper”

The hypothesis presented by the authors – that gender studies is a sinister, anti-male left-wing fraud soaked in religious fervour – isn’t supported by a simple illustration of dodgy practices in academic publishing.

Which raises a very important question: why are the titans of the skeptic / rationalist community being pointedly irrational, when it comes to the reason this hoax was published?

 


The pendulum swing of ideological paranoia 

The article in Skeptic Magazine highlights how regularly people will vastly lower their standards of skepticism and rationality if a piece of information is seen as confirmation of a pre-existing belief – in this instance, the belief that gender studies is fatally compromised by seething man-hate. The standard machinery of rationality would have triggered a moment of doubt – ‘perhaps we’ve not put in enough work to separate the signal from the noise’, or ‘perhaps we need to tease apart the factors more carefully’.

That slow, deliberative mechanism of self-assessment is non-existent in the authorship and sharing of this piece. It seems quite likely that this is due largely to a pre-existing hostility towards gender studies, ‘identity politics’ and the general focus of contemporary progressive America.

It seems the conclusions drawn from Boghossian’s hoax go beyond post-hoc rationalisation and into a more recent trend in conservativism, where an irrational idea is accepted not because it conforms to that person’s beliefs, but because it contravenes the beliefs of ideological opponents. As Richard Cooke wrote in The Monthly,

“Australian conservatives are anti-anti-Trump, saving their bile for protesters and the emotional, and are so excited by the prospect of their opponents’ humiliation they don’t know quite what to do with themselves”

It’s hard not to suspect a similar reactionary drive underpinning the fragile logic of the assertion that the hoax is representative of an entire field of study. Why does climate change feature so prominently in the hoax article, as a target of serious derision? It’s prominent enough that climate change deniers started sharing the piece on Twitter:

It’s probably because the authors of the hoax eyeball climate action as highly suspect left-wing academic moral subterfuge (rather than action impelled by scientific evidence).

The authors (and people sharing the article) frequently cite a hoax by Alan Sokal, in which a parody post-modern paper was published in a reputable journal. But Sokal was significantly more nuanced in his claims:

“From the mere fact of publication of my parody I think that not much can be deduced. It doesn’t prove that the whole field of cultural studies, or cultural studies of science — much less sociology of science — is nonsense. Nor does it prove that the intellectual standards in these fields are generally lax. (This might be the case, but it would have to be established on other grounds.) It proves only that the editors of one rather marginal journal were derelict in their intellectual duty”

There’s nothing of the constructive, clear-headed charity that Sokal writes with, in Boghossian’s Skeptic Magazine hoax. Shermer, Boghossian and Lindsay inject a strong current of mean-spiritdness into their hoax, far removed from any effort to shine a light on unethical practices in publishing. Issues around rape, identity and sexuality are weird targets for sneering derision, alongside climate change action.

They’ve perceived the shape of political and moral bias in an entire field, based on a single pixel of information. Perhaps, on some level, authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer recognised that significantly more effort and analytical rigour was needed to come anywhere near a comprehensive conclusion about an entire field, but that niggling feeling was buried deep beneath the visceral thrill of seeing their ideological opponents dealt a mighty blow.

66 thoughts on “The engine of irrationality inside the rationalists

  1. In 2001 and 2002, the Bogdanov brothers published no less than five nonsensical papers in physics journals. No one knows for sure how the review process failed, but it seems that part of it was that “some referees were more interested in correcting minor typos than checking the logic of the papers” (to quote John Baez). One reviewer did slam down hard (“It would take up too much space to
    enumerate all the mistakes: indeed it is difficult to say where one error ends and the next begins”). But either the other reviewers slacked off, or if they did do their jobs, the people in charge at the journals didn’t pay enough attention.

    http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/bogdanov.html

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    1. Kudos to the reviewer who did the slamming, and shame on the scammers for wasting that serious scientist’s time! He’s probably have served humanity better by doing some Physics than reviewing garbage.

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      1. If the scientist-reviewers were serious, how did all those scams pass?

        Science has a problem with corruption, fakes and a lack of controll. It’s good when science’s shortcomings gets exposed. I think that the underlying problems should get adressed.

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  2. Shermer has been a bit on the nose for me for quite some time. Reading his Twitter posts is enough to remind you that he doesn’t use that skeptic brain as much as he’d have everyone believe. Between bashing feminists, praising Ben Shapiro, and his libertarian leanings, he is doing the “skeptic brand” a disservice.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Where as I agree the first part of this text that getting an article through into peer-reviewed journal is not any kind of proof of some field being a hoax, I still find the latter part of this text to actually confirm there is some base in calling it “hoax”.

    The latter part basically points finger away from the general critique of gender studies, and claims that the critique is not justified and is ideological (conservatist). The problem I have with this “rebuttal” of critique is — wait for it — that it is ideological too. So as someone “from outside” trying to gasp this situation, I now see this as a war of two ideologies. We have people, who do not accept gender studies in general as they are “plagued with left-wing ideology”; and we have people, who do not accept this critique at all as it is “conservative ideology” and thus do not bother to answer into it.

    The little I have observed myself, I would estimate that 75% or gender studies I have seen are reasonable, justified, and objective; 20% seem to be questionable, especially on the objectivity due to used methods (such as autoethnographies, which I would not accept as research/study for publication, but in sufficient quantities as data for proper study methods, such as systematic interviews) ; and 5-10% seem to be nonsense and more or less driven by ideological or hateful motives (as an example, I once read a paper that claimed wikipedia to be against women, because author’s own POV was not accepted as part of an wikipedia article).

    However, I am here an outsider, so I cannot estimate how truthful my experience is, I have subjectively made it from the gender study articles I have encountered. But as I can see somewhat reasonable amount of questionable content produced, I see that the criticisim should be taken seriously and not rebutted with claiming it to be ideological. Instead, I would like to see _proofs_ that show that gender studies does not in fact have ideological wing built into it — or if it does, how heavy part it is. Now, it seems to me that no-one is willing to actually make this. I see this — at this point — a crucial task for gender studies to clear their image. And this have happened to other studies in past too, and they have managed to do this. It is part of evolution of the field of science to show that it is factual, objective, and unquestionable in general.

    If someone can point me to a good study with proper methods that studies possible biases or ideologies in gender studies, I would be more than happy to read it. I know that several other fields already do this constantly, so I would assume someone has taken the task for gender studies as well?

    I am a bit concerned at this phase, as I have seen some real gender study folks claim that well justified and well argumented critique is in-fact “hate speech” — pointing to the case of Jordan Peterson, where he was interviewed in Canadian TV with a professor from gender studies, who claimed that Peterson’s critique and POV was “hate speech”. A critique toward findings of scientific field can never be “hate speech”, unless the field is, in-fact, ideological. Hate speech can be only made against people (or groups and their form/ideology/religion) – not scientific field or its findings.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. > A critique toward findings of scientific field can never be “hate speech”, unless the field is, in-fact, ideological. Hate speech can be only made against people (or groups and their form/ideology/religion) – not scientific field or its findings.
      This claim is patently false.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deutsche_Physik
      “Deutsche Physik (literally: “German Physics”) or Aryan Physics (German: Arische Physik) was a nationalist movement in the German physics community in the early 1930s opposed to the work of Albert Einstein and other modern theoretically based physics, labeled “Jewish Physics” (German: Jüdische Physik).”

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    2. About the comment above: To believe that any “proof” can help any “field of science to show that it is factual, objective, and unquestionable in general”, is epistemologically ridiculous. The author of this comment has obviously no clue about the past 80 years of epistemology (Popper, Lakatos, Feyerabend, Adorno, etc.) and perpetuates an extremely naive set of beliefs in what science can do, which is indeed deeply irrational.

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  4. I agree with the critique that the authors were cherry picking, and drawing conclusions from insufficient data, and taking pleasure in trolling. The rest of your defence is exactly like the authors’ attack, pointing out instances of review failure on the other side. I agree their Skeptic article oozes malice, but that doesn’t excuse gender studies from mounting a cohesive defence, or actively trying to explain its concepts to the lay public.

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    1. My point about review failure on the ‘other side’ was to demonstrate that they *don’t* lead to a summary that an entire field is corrupt, rather than to imply that they do.

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  5. “authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins”: it is hilarious for any one who had read their books destined to the greater public, to think that these authors may be archetypes of intellectual and scientific honesty. These two authors are a blotch on the reputation of the scientific method…

    Their own peer-review system on their books consists in mutually praising each other on the back-cover of the other’s work.

    As for the value of the content, “The End of Faith” and “The “God Delusion” are nothing but a tissue of ideological unscientific non-sense. To quote an earlier comment (Blake Stacey) : (“It would take up too much space to enumerate all the mistakes: indeed it is difficult to say where one error ends and the next begins”.

    Citing from memory (which would need to be verified), Dawkins even goes to the length of praising himself to criticize religion, without reading theological books… What he actually attacks is his own misconception of religion fueled by examples taken from sources that are non-authoritative (which in matters of religion is a non-sequitur, as he should know, as it is one of the oldest critics against religion, that it relies on authority): that would be the equivalent of criticizing quantum theory by interviewing people in a sports bar, and proudly neglecting to read quantum physics books.

    As for Harris, …, his use of secondary and tertiary citations, in such a way that contradicts what the original author said and without bothering to check the original work is mind-boggling: there are examples with St Jerome, St Augustine, etc., which are as laughable as the hoax that is discussed here, except that Harris is the subject of the joke.

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  6. “Issues around rape, identity and sexuality are weird targets for sneering derision, alongside climate change action.”
    No. The one target is the ideologised reflexive dishonesty/gullibility in academic circles that too often seem to come with these issues. And that target was hit fair and square.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. The journal seems to be at the very least representative of some methodological issues within some parts of academia. There are countless samples of lack of scientific rigor, intelligibility, reliability, etc. I suggest you follow the account @RealPeerReview on twitter, which is an excellent source of data. It’s clear that some kind of reform in some parts of academia, especially in some sectors of the social sciences, is sorely needed.

        The intent of the hoax is to focus on a slew of issues with producing intelligible, reliable and testable assertions within a space which promotes “autoethnography” about one’s morning routine, “feminist glaciology” which supports an equal explanatory power for glacier porn and folk tales about glaciers as with testable research about glaciers, or papers about “Horse-Girl Assemblages” which contain numerous spelling mistakes and don’t seem to produce intelligible content.

        This isn’t an attack on a political position or the social sciences in general. An intelligible, rigorous and reliable approach to social sciences is very productive to the scientific and political discourse, and focusing academic and non-academic thought on issues about women’s rights or minority rights is sorely needed. The academic fields that deal with society and humanities in general need to clean off the clutter, so to speak, to improve their intelligibility, scientific rigor, reliability, to allow for some more and better checks on their results and to produce content which can be analyzed through repeated testing.

        “It’s probably because the authors of the hoax eyeball climate action as highly suspect left-wing academic moral subterfuge (rather than action impelled by scientific evidence).”

        This is very unfair, especially since it shows that while you accuse others of lacking nuance in their criticism while you haven’t provided any evidence for this claim, and it is, indeed, false. A Google search could have easily told you this wasn’t the case.

        Peter Boghossian (you can find him @peterboghossian) and James Lindsay (@GodDoesnt), the author of the article-parody, are neither climate change denialists nor right wing or conservative for that matter.

        The references to climate change in the paper were made with the clear intent of mocking/parodying the trend to analyse scientific results in the “hard sciences” (like climatology) through the language of post-modern philosophy (like in the infamous example of Lacan comparing the square root of -1 to the human penis), not to discredit climate change science.

        That some climate change denialists have latched onto an article whose target wasn’t climate change is unfortunate, but quite frankly inevitable given that nature of the Internet and of climate change denial activism (closer to those of conspiracy groups). Activist groups on social media latch on every bit of information which seems to even vaguely support their thesis. We didn’t blame Noam Chomsky when Osama Bin Laden liked his view on the United States and even cited them on some of his videos, or when his defense of Robert Faurisson on free speech grounds was used an endorsement by various Holocaust denialists.

        Quite frankly I hope you’ll get in contact with the authors of the parody-paper, to discuss the intent and scope of the “hoax” and, I may add, to apologize for your unfair and poorly evidenced rebuttal.

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      2. Honest question: If you were blinkered by your own morality and ensuing ideology would it even be possible to recognize it?

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  7. The skeptic community and the rationalist community are separate social circles, and the rationalist community (which I come from) had nothing to do with this. Please leave us out of it. Especially leave us out of the title.

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      1. There is no “the” context.
        If you have another context to present, it will be noted and compared, and one’s relevance to another will be found sound or wanting.
        Incidentally, the first time I ever heard it used pejoratively was by socialist author Will Shetterly.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Looks to me like a moderately successful take down of ‘open access’ journals rather than of any particular academic discipline or ideology. Being married to an academic, I know that publication in ‘high impact’ journals is the only thing that furthers your career. ‘Open access’ journals are just noise.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Boghossian may not have paid himself, but the notes under the Skeptic article say this:
    “Portland State University has a fund dedicated to paying fees for open access journals, and this particular journal qualified for disbursement. For ethical reasons, however, we did not apply for funding, which in this case was virtually guaranteed. Instead, the article was externally funded by an independent party.”
    So somebody paid $625, if the earlier part of the article is not a lie.

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  10. “Most people, whether they’re part of the skeptic community or not, can recognise that a single instance isn’t sufficient evidence to conclude that an entire field of research is crippled by religious man-hating fervour, and that anyone pushing that line is probably weirdly compromised.”

    Most people would read a random sample of papers from the field before leaping to that conclusion.
    And those who do, find sufficient evidence that gender studies, and similar “disciplines”, are pseudo-academic cover for ideological radicals whose ideas are as connected to reality as the Xenu Hypothesis of Volcanology.

    You also indicate in the above quote that there ARE academics engaged in “religious man-hating fervour” who are not “weirdly compromised”. I not sure how this is possible, let alone how someone could believe it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re reading the quote wrong, Paul. I’ll break it down for you:

      “Most people […] can recognise that a single instance isn’t sufficient evidence […], and that anyone pushing th[e] line [that it is sufficient evidence] is probably weirdly compromised.”

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    2. You’re reading your quote wrong, Paul! I’ll break it down for you:
      “Most people […] can recognise that a single instance isn’t sufficient evidence […], and that anyone pushing th[e] line [that it is sufficient evidence] is probably weirdly compromised.”

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  11. Reblogged this on The Thought Zone and commented:
    I first came across this whole situation yesterday when browsing Twitter. It peaked my interest, being that I at first mistook it as a retort to a previously published (and very much criticized) paper on I believe the similarities of Trans-racialism and Transgenderism. Do not quote me on this, I don’t directly deal with this stuff (persay), but I often find myself discussing it with someone directly involved in these areas.
    Either way, though it seems that the internet is incapable of being even slightly critical of the rational Gods of Atheism, for me, that luxury went away a long time ago. Which is why when I suddenly start seeing tweets from Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and other so called thinkers praising some paper that I am unsure of, my first instinct is “I must be missing something here”. Good thing I know the right people to help me verify this stuff.
    If my grasp is correct . . . what we have here is an EXTREMELY frustrating wasted opportunity. Rather than use this as an opportunity to focus on the problem of academic journals publishing almost anything for the right price (note that the hoax paper was turned down by one journal, and the authors had to PAY for publication!), most of the attention is being put towards slamming gender studies.
    For fuck sakes, you rationalist dipshits . . . these papers are benchmarks. They are sourced by media (among others) for any number of reasoning. Thus it is of the utmost importance that it is not easy to publish trash as credible material.
    To miss this important teachable moment just because trashing Gender Studies is more enticing click bait (lets be honest!) is asinine. If anything, it exposes on a brilliantly grand scale what I have known for a long time already . . . that even the so called “rational” community isn’t beyond ideological sheepishness.

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    1. As I pointed in my comment previously, there is simple way for gender studies to clear their image. Conduct a proper systematic review over the whole field and its major publication forums on how they meet with the requirements of proper science. Categorize and evaluate the presented data and methods of the publications. Analyze the coherence of the presented results. And voilá, you have a solid research to fight against these kind of “rational community” ideologies, because rational community will never try to rebuttal this kind of information. This is what many fields already do to their own publications — that’s why I would assume someone has already done it, and I’d more than happy to read it.

      Now the interesting part is that if “rational community” gets there and decides to make this analysis.. they already have gathered significant amount of “hoax” -like real publications. The matter of question of those is that how significant part of gender studies those are? To outsider, the amount seems significant, but clearly not overwhelming majority either. Maybe we will find out some day, but until that this will be more or less “word against word” -battle.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. General rule of thumb: if you think you can take down an entire academic field with a complex history in, say, a couple of weekends, you might be an idiot.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Not surprising that the bastard child of the irreproducible social “sciences” and doctrinaire feminism should be so susceptible to parody.
    Gender “studies” is a joke – a reductio ad absurdum of the academic occupational formula: teach, publish papers that are ideologically acceptable, then receive tenure so you can intellectually punish other dissidents and keep the sheep in line so they can repeat the process.
    Not surprising a paper consisting of ideologically correct gobbledygook made it to publication.
    I bet a similarly nonsensical gender studies paper about male victims of domestic violence or problems with due process in Title IX tribunals would never have seen the light of day.

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  14. Is any gender theory falsifiable?
    Is patriarchy theory falsifiable?
    Has any researcher, professor or student, not found patriarchy when they went looking for it?
    Gender studies came from political theory, but now makes scientific claims yet refuses to behave as any sort of science.
    And anyone who says anything like that is hounded out of the conversation and must be shut down for their dangerous thinking.
    Have you written about the Red Pill Movie and how gender theorists have repeatedly shut down its ideas?
    Gender Studies is pomo bullshit.

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    1. “Is any gender theory falsifiable?
      Is patriarchy theory falsifiable?”

      Yes, but IRBs typically forbid the kinds of direct controlled experiments that would be necessary to falsify either, which is why we’re left with tools of study that are widely used in social sciences for comparisons, like cross-cultural and trans-historical comparisons. Because these are comparisons of in vivo populations for which we cannot control confounding variables as easily, the degree of certainty we ascribe to the results is lower than for something like a properly controlled laboratory experiment, but for any number of foundational models withing the sphere of gender theory, there is more than enough evidence for reasonable confidence in the operation of the models, e.g. patriarchy and social construction and mediation of gender.

      “Has any researcher, professor or student, not found patriarchy when they went looking for it?”

      One would only be able to do so if one were examining a culture that wasn’t patriarchal; this is not the case with respect to any widely known extant cultures, but there are plenty of examples of historical cultures for which there is not evidence of patriarchy.

      Most of the rest of your comment is simply wrong, and being willfully ignorant and incorrect is probably is what has led to you and people espousing similar views being drummed out of conversations.

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    1. I’m interested in the possibility, and presented it as such. I didn’t present a hypothesis and state that it was supported or justified for a large group of cases based on a single instance.

      Like

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