Ketan Joshi

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:

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.