In this day and age, academics need to stand together
Over the past 12 months, three scholars — James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian — wrote 20 fake papers and submitted them to journals in fields including gender studies, queer studies, and fat studies. The three, who consider themselves left-leaning liberals, have done a terrible disservice to academia.
Consider the following. We have a President who lies multiple times a day while attacking the legitimate media who attempt to get their story right. Inevitably, mistakes get made. After all, we are all human. The correct thing to do under those circumstances is to admit the mistake and correct it, which is exactly what most members of the so-called mainstream media do. Trump and his followers, however, have taken advantage of this honesty to delegitimize the media.
This is no small problem. In attacking institutions that attempt to get to the truth, hard as that may be, Trump and his followers create an environment in which everything is suspect. If there are no actual facts, and everyone has their own alternative facts, then there can be no honest discussion about issues. As former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.”
The alternative is a dystopian world. Consider George Orwell’s comment that “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.” He was commenting on the efforts of the Soviet Union at the time to constantly rewrite history until nobody knew what was true anymore.
Trump is essentially trying to do the same thing in America right now. His administration has removed any references to global warming on government websites. In so doing, he is changing reality to reflect what he wants it to be, not what it really is.
Even more than journalism, science is messy. That is why climate deniers can point to the fact that scientists still have doubt that global warming is reality. The way science works is that you come up with a theory and test it to see if the evidence supports the theory. That is the essence of the scientific method. As a result, all scientists can say is that there is a lot of evidence to support the theory. But to be a real scholar, you must remain open to new evidence that might change your understanding.
For example, Isaac Newton calculated the orbit of the planets with great precision. He was absolutely on target for all planets except one: Mercury. Hundreds of years later, along came Albert Einstein. His new formulation of gravity as part of his general theory of relativity suddenly was able to correctly predict Mercury’s orbit. Does this mean that Einstein’s theory is proven? To a scientist, you can never say absolutely yes to that question. As of right now, it is the best theory we have and it has a lot of support, but we cannot know for certain that a better theory will not emerge from the data sometime in the future.
This open-mindedness inherent in honest scholarship is what anti-intellectuals take advantage of. By arguing, correctly, that scholars cannot provide rock solid answers to nature’s and society’s questions, they raise doubt about the entire scientific enterprise. The result has been a retreat to self-serving opinions and baseless superstition. Consider that one third of Americans don’t believe in evolution. Again, evolution is a theory, but it has enormous evidentiary support. The result is that 98% of scientists accept it. But I guarantee you that even these scientists would consider themselves open to a new theory that better explains the evidence we have at hand.
To be truly open-minded, we need to allow various kinds of debate to occur in various kinds of forums. In my field, there are several journals dedicated to business ethics. Does anyone doubt that the scholars publishing these journals believe business-people should behave more ethically? Thus, the articles they publish will be skewed toward pro-business ethics arguments, and the truth is that more than a few scholars believe discussions of business ethics are inappropriate. Does this mean we should ridicule business ethics journals? I think most people would agree the answer is no.
Journals dedicated to the discussion of gender studies, queer studies, and fat studies might only be a little less in the mainstream than journals of business ethics. But by their nature, they will publish articles that tend to regard tolerance for people with those identities as positive. These are the kind of journals targeted in this hoax.
When the journals discovered that they accepted articles for publication that were hoaxes, they immediately retracted the articles. Interestingly, retracting papers is not uncommon. As scholars discover mistakes in research that was done in good faith, it is publicly retracted. And as other so-called scholars seek to pad their resumes with articles based upon data they fabricated, those articles are retracted as well. Science is inevitably a halting process in which people move in one direction before discovering it is incorrect, only to move in another direction. And, like all human endeavors, there are a certain population of charlatans within it.
The point of all this is that the scholarly endeavor requires people to remain open-minded even to ideas that may seem outlandish. It is worth noting that the idea that doctors could reduce infection by washing their hands was once considered crazy. But there are scores of other ideas that were ultimately tossed into the circular file. If we close ourselves to diverse voices that some may consider crazy, we also close ourselves to the next brilliant idea that just is yet to be proven.
By making fun of these journals that are trying to give a forum to certain heretofore neglected voices, these three hoaxsters have given ammunition to those who wish to further delegitimize the search for truth. If these three are sincere about scholarship, as they claim to be, they should be fighting for open-mindedness rather than undermining certain alternative voices. If truth matters, those of us who seek it need to stand together against the very real forces that would rather keep us in darkness.
As George Orwell said in another context, “in our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.” James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian might have thought that they were simply engaging in a funny hoax. In so doing, however, they provided fodder to those who seek to silence honest scholarly discussion.
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