A Mind-Numbing Instance of Intellectual Poverty

My Initial Post

Click picture for link to article. NOTE: I deleted the Facebook post on 6/26/21 before publishing this essay to preserve the anonymity of the oppositional commenter.

A few days ago, I published the above post on my Facebook page. The article, written by attorney and policy analyst Heather Mac Donald, comments on the partnership of an astronomy professor and a comparative literature professor at Cornell University. The two academics teach a course called “Black Holes: Race and the Cosmos,” which prompts students to ask whether there is a connection between the cosmos and the idea of racial blackness. α 

In the post, I stated, “Comparative literature, rhetoric studies, critical theory, and postmodern philosophy have no place in scientific research. This intellectual cancer continues to spread from the compromised humanities departments.”

A Facebook friend of mine commented on this post and argued that rhetoricians should insert themselves into ALL academic research. This sort of intrusion into scientific departments by non-quantitative humanities disciplines (English, Comparative Literature, Rhetoric Studies, Critical Theory, etc.) fills me with trepidation. For “the why” behind this fearful intuition and an analysis that’s more comprehensive than the conversation that I’ll analyze below, here are a few background sources that I recommend investigating. My study of these works over several years is the intellectual rationale for my initial comment AND my subsequent responses to the oppositional commenter. 

A brief history of humanities scholars' intrusion into the natural sciences

In 1994, mathematical physicist Alan Sokal read Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, which was written by biologist Paul Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt. γ In Higher Superstition, the authors criticize concepts that now dominate wide swaths of the academy. These include deconstructionism, social constructivism, 1960s/1970s French postmodern philosophy, and other humanities schools of thought that characterize the natural sciences as systemic mechanisms of inequality and oppression. The authors were particularly concerned with academics from the humanities and certain social scientists (not economists or business professors) that are emboldened to criticize researchers in the hard sciences, despite having no expertise in those disciplines. Essentially, the authors argue that these academics seek to undo the Enlightenment itself by dismantling concepts, such as objectivity, rationalism, universalism, scientific realism, and the scientific method itself, which are all foundational to the philosophy of modern scientific inquiry. β

The book inspired Sokal to test one of the authors’ claims, which stated that scholarly journals in the criticized disciplines were interested in the advancement of a progressive political agenda, not in producing rigorous scholarship. Sokal successfully published an intentionally ludicrous article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in Social Text, a prominent journal of postmodern cultural studies. The article argued that fundamental elements of quantum physics were social constructs, not measurable physical phenomena. Soon after publication, Sokal announced that the article was a hoax. This sparked intense debate in the academy and amongst members of the elite intelligentsia. δ

Several years later, in 1997, Sokal and theoretical physicist Jean Bricmont teamed up to offer a more comprehensive critique of anti-empirical postmodern scholarship in the humanities named Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. Their focus was explaining to laymen WHY these humanities scholars’ utilization of scientific terminology and concepts is dishonest and incoherent. They argue that the employment of esoteric, technical jargon is a vacuous variant of “name-dropping” – impressing the reader with complex vocabulary that is not logically related to the author’s subject manner in any conceivable way. The two scientists criticize Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Paul Virilio in detail. The book is NOT a general critique of postmodern philosophy or scholarship in the humanities; it only criticizes the erroneous utilization of scientific concepts in humanities scholarship AND nonsensical, relativistic criticisms of the natural sciences by humanities scholars. Sokal and Bricmont display the same concern that I voiced in my initial Facebook post: humanities scholars should not condemn the hard sciences as tools of oppression or deny the objectivity of scientific inquiry when they have no expertise in research methodology. 

Twenty years later, three scholars engaged in an even more elaborate hoax than Sokal attempted in the nineties. This effort has been named “Sokal Squared” and the “Grievance Studies Affair.” Mathematician James Lindsay, philosopher Peter Boghossian, and essayist Helen Pluckrose submitted a host of “hoax” papers to a variety of scholarly journals across several academic disciplines, including gender studies, women studies, fat studies, comparative literature, and other departments grounded in critical theory. One of the papers, “Our Struggle Is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism,” which was scheduled to be released in Affilia: Journal of Women & Social Work, rewrote sections of Mein Kampf using critical feminist jargon. After being exposed by a Wall Street Journal writer, the trio went public with the hoax. Boghossian was subject to a punitive investigation by his employer (Portland State University). ε ζ

In 2020, Lindsay and Pluckrose published Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody, which analyzes how critical theory, postmodern scholarship, and those areas’ intellectual offspring are all actively opposed to liberalism. η  

"Social Text" is published by Duke University.
"Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science" was the U.S. title. "Intellectual Impostures" was the international title.
Examples of Grievance Studies Affair Hoax Papers (not comprehensive)
This article, published in "Gender, Place & Culture," argues that dogs participate in (and perpetuate) rape culture through indiscriminate humping.
This article, published in "Fat Studies," argues that fat bodybuilding should be a new sport - as this would help combat thin privilege and oppressive Western standards of beauty.
This article, published in "Sexuality & Culture," argues that transphobic men should make their female partners anally penetrate them with sex toys to help combat transphobia and homophobia.

The commenter's initial post

This comment “language controls and manipulates US as surely as we control and manipulate IT” is a staple of the anti-empirical humanities scholarship that the previously mentioned scholars (Sokal et. al) attacked. However, I doubt the commenter understands the intellectual roots of their strongly held belief. If you are interested in a rigorous philosophical argument for WHY this statement is both anti-empirical AND a dog whistle for postmodern humanities academics, I highly recommend NYU philosopher Paul Boghossian’s book Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism. 

The commenter’s assertion about language is an endorsement of postmodern constructivism. As Boghossian argues in his book, it is not possible to hold this view without adopting a form of epistemic relativism. In other words, constructivists believe in the radical subjectivity of all forms of knowledge. θ ι

He describes this relativism as the equal validity doctrine, an example of which is:

“There are many radically different, yet “equally valid” ways of knowing the world, with science being just one of them.” θ

This doctrine intrinsically denies that there is an objective nature about reality that is independent of human beliefs and consciousness. ι Constructivists hold that:

“…all facts are socially constructed in a way that reflects our contingent needs and interests…

It is never possible to explain why we believe what we believe solely on the basis of our exposure to the relevant evidence; our contingent needs and interests must also be invoked.” θ 

This belief is where the ubiquitous term “social construct” comes from. Later in the book, Boghossian analyzes how constructivists believe that knowledge is formed. Fundamental to this belief is an obsession with language. Constructivists hold that facts are “description-dependent,” meaning that it is NOT possible for there to be a fact about the nature of reality that is divorced from humans’ ability to explain reality being a certain way; facts are only possible when coupled with some kind of interpretive scheme: ι

“Which scheme we adopt to describe the world will depend on which scheme we find it useful to adopt; and which scheme we find it useful to adopt will depend on our contingent needs and interests as social beings.” θ

As you might guess, constructivists inject a political element into epistemology that is absent from Enlightenment Western philosophy. Because constructivists believe that definitions, which are supposedly functions of humans’ differing self-interests, are foundational to the generation of knowledge, they believe that language should be regulated and carefully scrutinized in ways that pre-Enlightenment, Enlightenment, and modern philosophers (Voltaire, Descartes, Locke, Mills, Kant, Hume, etc.) did not postulate. This is where the oppositional commenter’s proclamation that rhetoricians should be part of “Every research” and why they state “Ignoring rhetoric is to the ignore the important place that language occupies in our lives.”

Obviously, this brief examination does not offer proof for why constructivism and epistemic relativism are logically incoherent or otherwise incorrect (I’ll direct you to Boghossian’s book). Rather, I’m merely describing the intellectual wellspring from which the oppositional commenter’s statement flows.

You may perceive my reaction to the commenter’s posts as overly passionate (perhaps they are). You could also say that I was “triggered,” which would be fair. It’s important to note that this individual has commented multiple times on my posts with a variant of the phrase “we use language and language uses us.” Thus, this is hardly the first time I’ve had to contend with this anti-empirical, pseudo-mystical assertion and my patience/tolerance for it has been exhausted.

I’ll now present the rest of the Facebook back-and-forth in its entirety without comment.

My First Response

The commenter's second post

My second response

The commenter deleted the entire conversation and made a final post.

I did not reply to the final comment because I feared a substantive reply would merely result in another deletion.

There were multiple elements of this virtual encounter that (strongly) annoyed me. 

First of all, after spending a sizable chunk of time writing (what I hoped to be) substantive replies to their posts, the commenter simply deleted the conversation instead of attempting to rebut a single one of my critiques. 

Second, the commenter refused to offer any scholarly (much less scientific) literature to support their claim about language. They were content to proclaim what they believe rather than justify their belief with ANY form of evidence.

Third, the commenter accused me of thinking that I know everything. I acknowledge that my expertise is limited and it is that very conviction which motivates me to oppose non-scientific academics inserting themselves into scientific research – these humanities academics have no expertise in science. 

The conduct of the commenter struck me as a symptom of both intellectual cowardice and intellectual vacuity. 

If you cannot support your beliefs with evidence, I believe your beliefs are certainly unwarranted and likely unfounded.

α Mac Donald, Heather. (2021). “Down A Black Hole.” City Journal – The Manhattan Institute. https://www.city-journal.org/cornell-black-hole-class-racializes-astronomy?wallit_nosession=1&fbclid=IwAR0hz8T37seUGjuh8p8ykU-iaabsJyGhDQpEngYrMZ9GAEnnxry3Ta5Mmdg

β Gross, Paul., Levitt, Normal. (1994). “Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science.” Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN: 0-8018-5707-4

γ Dawkins, Richard. (1998). “Postmodernism Disrobed.” Nature 394, pp 141-143, 9th July 1998. https://web.archive.org/web/20110120082759/http://richarddawkins.net/articles/824-postmodernism-disrobed

δ Sokal, Alan., Bricmont, Jean. (1997). “Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science.” Picador USA. ISBN: 0-312-20407-8.

ε Mounk, Yascha. (2018). “What an Audacious Hoax Reveals About Academia: Three scholars wrote 20 fake papers using fashionable jargon to argue for ridiculous conclusions.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/new-sokal-hoax/572212/

ζ Nanya, Mike. (2018). “Academics expose corruption in Grievance Studies.” https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/19tBy_fVlYIHTxxjuVMFxh4pqLHM_en18 | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVk9a5Jcd1k

η Lindsay, James., Pluckrose, Helen. (2020). “Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody.” Pitchstone Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-63431-202-8.

θ Boghossian, Paul. (2006). “Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism & Constructivism.” Oxford University Press. ISBN: 019928718X.

ι Seigel, Harvey. (2007). “Review – Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism & Constructivism.” University of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/fear-of-knowledge-against-relativism-and-constructivism/

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