Category Archives: Public Philosophy

Clickbaiting and the evils of Western philosophy

The title of this blog is Footnotes to Plato. This is not because I am inordinately fond of Plato (among the ancients I prefer the Stoics, as many readers know), nor because I literally believe the famous phrase by Alfred North Whitehead from which the blog title derives: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” (Process and Reality, p. 39, Free Press, 1979). I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean it seriously, or at least I hope so.

The quip, however, does hint at a historical reality: Plato is — for good and for ill —the single most influential Western philosopher, in good part because he touched on pretty much every major topic that subsequent philosophers have been preoccupied with. The reason for this, in turn, is arguably twofold: on the one hand, he truly was a towering figure, who had a lot to say about all sorts of things; on the other hand, he was one of the earliest philosophers, which means that the field was completely open and ripe with a bunch of low hanging fruits. This isn’t a thing peculiar to philosophy: Galileo made a huge number of discoveries, from the craters of the Moon to the rings of Saturn, simply because he was the first one to use a telescope.

[Yes, I’m aware that we still study Plato in philosophy, but we don’t study Galileo in science. There are good reasons for this, which have nothing to do with an alleged superiority of science and everything to do with the fact that science and philosophy are different kinds of disciplines, with different methods and concerns. So is mathematics. And literary criticism. See here for an entire book devoted to that topic.]

Back to Whitehead: notice that the phrase specifically refers to the European philosophical tradition. An obvious acknowledgment of the existence of several other traditions, over which Plato had little or no influence. Which brings me to the point of the current post. During the last several weeks I’ve been sparring on Twitter with Bryan van Norden, a self-described “leading scholar” of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, based in Singapore. He has written a book, just out, entitled Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, in support of which he has published a piece in Aeon magazine. It is that piece that has triggered our back and forth, which has, unfortunately, reached rare levels of unpleasantness.

The title of the Aeon article is “Why the Western Philosophical canon is xenophobic and racist,” a rare instance of vilification of an entire field and of an indiscriminate attack on every professional working within it. Is van Norden justified in his accusations? Is such an obvious clickbait the best way to foster a constructive dialogue about the problem? Let’s take a look.

First though, let me make clear that I agree with some of the substance of van Norden’s article (and, presumably, book). Philosophy departments the world over — not just in North America or Europe — should indeed be teaching as many of the varied philosophical traditions as logistically possible. Then again, that goes also for history departments, or literature, and so forth, I would think.

Second, the crucial kernel of truth in van Norden’s argument is the problem famously identified by Edward W. Said in his 1978 book, Orientalism. Said defined Orientalism as a patronizing attitude on the part of “the West” in its representations of “the East,” an attitude that is inextricably tied with Colonialism between the 16th and 19th centuries. Some of the victims, according to Said, have been complicit with the West, as for instance in the case of the romantic aura surrounding descriptions of Arab Culture, which originated with French, British, and American writers, but was then deployed by Arab elites for their own repressive purposes.

Said’s work is important and well known in Western departments, though it has to be noted that it targeted primarily literature (not philosophy), and that it has in turn been criticized in part because of its over-reliance on questionable poststructural methods of analysis. Be that as it may, I know of no one in contemporary philosophy or literature departments in the West who is not aware of Said’s work and very sensitive to potential charges of Orientalism. van Norden clearly disagrees, so let’s take a look at what he says in some detail.

He begins his article with a statement just as bald (and as false) as its title: “Mainstream philosophy in the so-called West is narrow-minded, unimaginative, and even xenophobic. I know I am levelling a serious charge. But how else can we explain the fact that the rich philosophical traditions of China, India, Africa, and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are completely ignored by almost all philosophy departments in both Europe and the English-speaking world?”

Of course, van Norden provides little empirical evidence for that gross generalization. He relies heavily on a survey of graduate programs in American departments, according to which 10% of those programs have a specialist in Chinese philosophy, and many don’t have courses on other non-Western philosophies. That’s not good, but note that it refers to graduate programs (which tend to be highly specialized), and that we are not given comparative numbers of how many Chinese, or African graduate programs feature specialists in Western philosophy. Many graduate programs in the US also lack specialists in philosophy of science, say, or in aesthetics, and so forth. Moreover, at the undergraduate level things are certainly better, with many departments featuring regular offerings in Chinese, Indian and African philosophy.

While the situation can and should be improved, this is hardly good evidence of racism and xenophobia. More likely, it is the result of lack of training (until recently) in those areas, as well as of budget cuts in the humanities in general, which makes it increasingly difficult to hire full time faculty, in any specialty. And of course, while American society is indeed culturally diverse, it is still made of mostly “Western” students (and faculty), which is the simplest explanation for why there are similar biases also in history and literature departments. Simply put, the charge of racism and xenophobia is vicious, smells of moral grandstanding, and is entirely counterproductive. I’m squarely on van Norden’s side when it comes to increasing multicultural courses, but my case is hardly going to be helped by indiscriminately accusing my colleagues of racism and xenophobia.

The bulk of the Aeon article, in facts, is a concession to the fact that Eastern philosophy has been taken seriously by a lot of authors in the Western tradition, from the translations of Confucius curated by the Jesuits to Leibniz’ interest in Chinese philosophy. Who, then, is the culprit for the current sorry state of affairs? Kant, of course. van Norden presents his own version of the recent history of Western philosophy, in which Kant is made to be a racist uber-villain. There is no doubt that Kant was “racist” from our standpoint, and racist comments are easy to find in the writings of Hume and Mill as well, to mention just a couple of other prominent figures of modern philosophy. This is not surprising because they were all products of the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment was the time when “scientific racism” was developed, the notion, allegedly based on the best science of the time, according to which most non-Western “races” were clearly intellectually inferior.

Now, I completely agree with van Norden that scientific racism was shameful, though many progressive thinkers endorsed it at the time, just like in the early 20th century it was mostly progressives who powered the eugenic movement. Moreover, I do think that race is not, in fact, a biological category (as I’ve written on several occasions, for instance here). I also certainly do not deny that there is racism in our society and I don’t think that individual philosophers are exceptional in that respect.

But it is like for van Norden time has stopped at the Enlightenment. The Romantic backlash never happened. Continental philosophy is ignored, even though many of its exponents have been influenced by Eastern writers. And the postmodern (mostly, but not entirely, unfortunate) uprising never took place either. Truly, it is only the analytic tradition that downplays non-Western (and Continental) contributions, and that’s largely because, in fact, those are hardly compatible styles of doing philosophy. But I for one fervently hope that analytic philosophy is on its way out so that we can get on with the business of doing relevant (as opposed to logic chopping) philosophy.

Back to Kant. van Norden writes: “Kant is easily one of the four or five most influential philosophers in the Western tradition. He asserted that the Chinese, Indians, Africans and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are congenitally incapable of philosophy. And contemporary Western philosophers take it for granted that there is no Chinese, Indian, African or Native American philosophy. If this is a coincidence, it is a stunning one.” It is not a coincidence because a crucial part of that statement is utterly false. Yes, Kant certainly is one of the most influential modern philosophers. But definitely not because of that sort of statements, which he did, unfortunately, make. That said, where on earth did van Norden get the idea that “contemporary Western philosophers take it for granted that there is no Chinese, Indian, African or Native American philosophy”? On what planet is he living in? Surely not the one in which the philosophers and departments I know of actually exist.

van Norden offers no evidence for that sweeping statement, of course, except a couple of anecdotes, one of which features Derrida going to China in 2001 and telling his stunned hosts that “China does not have any philosophy, only thought.” Well, I never had a high opinion of Derrida (to put it mildly), and this is one more confirmation that I was right. But so what? Why not focus instead on people like my CUNY colleague Graham Priest, one of the top logicians in the world, who has been blending Eastern and Western philosophy in his work on paraconsistent logic? Because that wouldn’t fit the clickbait narrative, of course.

Let’s analyze for a moment how the issue of, shall we call it “great men’s blunders” is treated outside of philosophy. Take physics, and in particular Newton, a figure that, ironically, strongly influenced Kant, who famously wanted to put moral philosophy on the same firm footing as the sort of natural philosophy that was being done by Newton. It turns out that Newton was a nasty little man, prone to vengeance and abuse of power, and that moreover he spent (wasted would be a better term) a larger portion of his life doing alchemy and Biblical criticism rather than physics. But nobody today focuses on Newton’s personal failures, nor do we read what he wrote about alchemy and the Old Testament. Why not? Because a healthy approach to people’s personal and professional failures is to acknowledge them while at the same time focus on whatever it is of good that they produced in their fields. I’m not about to discard Newtonian mechanics because of Newton’s failures in other respects. Similarly, we shouldn’t revise the history of (Western) philosophy and downplay the positive contributions of Hume, Kant and Mill, among others, because they also said things that by contemporary standards are racist.

Moreover, and this goes conveniently unmentioned in van Norden’s article, Kant was also an anti-colonialist and endorsed a general philosophy of cosmopolitanism. Similarly, Mill did make racist comments, and yet he wrote On Liberty, as well as — with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill — The Subjection of Women. Hume did utter racist remarks, but also wrote cogent, and very modern sounding, essays on moral and political philosophy. Go figure, people are complicated! (Want one more example? Plato did not question slavery, unlike, say, Zeno of Citium. But he advocated for the intellectual equality of women. Which part should we discard and which adopt, you think?)

Perhaps feeling a bit short in terms of overtly “Orientalist” philosophers, van Norden even mentions Antonin Scalia, who apparently referred to the thought of Confucius as “the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.” I got news for van Norden, besides being a first class asshole, Scalia was not a philosopher, nor was his thought representative of philosophy departments.

van Norden ends his article by suggesting that we should add more coverage of non-Western philosophies in the curricula offered by American universities. Yes! And that is precisely what we are doing. But we also have to deal with the realities on the ground, meaning mostly that a lot of philosophy departments simply do not have the resources necessary to do a good job as it is, let alone to branch out in new directions. And yet, I don’t know a single colleague who is both not aware and unsympathetic to van Norden’s worry. If we really want to make progress, are clickbait titles along the lines of “the Western Philosophical canon is racist and xenophobic” going to be helpful? Do we really think that conversations get started and progress gets made that way?

In response to one of my tweets asking for hard data, van Norden replied by quoting an article in the LA Times that reports the following statistics: “African Americans constitute 13% of the US population, 7% of PhD recipients across fields, 2% of PhD recipients in philosophy, and less than 0.5% of authors in the most prominent philosophy journals.”

This is bad, obviously. But van Norden’s reading at face value of what the numbers mean is naive at best, willfully ignorant at worst. Let us set aside the obvious observation that correlation does not imply any particular causal scenario. (I mean, the ratio of female to male nurses in the US is a whopping 9.5:1. Surely nobody in his right mind is going to make an argument based on that figure that hospitals engage in reverse sexism and discriminate against male applicants, right?) The most likely explanation for the philosophy figures isn’t structural racism within the profession, but rather a combination of two other factors: structural racism at the pre-college levels, and culture. I have been on plenty of search committees hiring faculty, as well as on admission committees looking for graduate students. You have no idea how much at pains my colleagues and I have always been to look for minorities (and women). Every. Single. Time. The problem is that blacks and Hispanics are at a structural disadvantage from the very beginning, meaning from kindergarten, and things hardly get better in grade school. That’s a major reason why by the time we get to graduate school and tenure track positions the numbers are abysmal. The issue is not structural racism within the philosophical profession, it is structural racism in society at large.

The second reason for those numbers is culture, as in many of my minority students telling me that they experience strong pressure both from peers and from their families to drop philosophy and major instead in a “real” field, like engineering, pre-med, or pre-law. There are good reasons for this, having to do with the increasingly stratospheric cost of a college education, even in so-called public schools (which nowadays get only a fraction of their budget from States), and with the fact that many of these students are the first in their family to actually go to college. If I were one of their parents I would be concerned as well about “wasting” my tuition money on something as “useless” as philosophy. (Even though, turns out, majoring in philosophy is an excellent bet in terms of post-graduation employment.)

Does any of the above prove that philosophy, as a profession, does not have a problem with racism (and sexism)? No, it doesn’t. But van Norden has done very little to show that it does, relying on selected anecdotal evidence and hastily interpreted surveys to level what he himself recognizes as a “a serious charge.” As Hume would have put it — in his frequent non-racist moments — a wise person’s belief should be proportionate to the evidence, and van Norden’s most certainly is not.

By all means, let us fix whatever is wrong with the philosophical profession. But let’s do it by engaging in constructive and nuanced discourse, not in blatant clickbaiting for the sake of selling books. Let’s do it because we are genuinely concerned about future generations, avoiding the temptation of putting ourselves on a high moral pedestal. And above all let’s do it fairly, without tainting countless people with broad accusations of racism.

Know thyself: still excellent advice, after all these years

“gnothi seauton,” know thyself

I have been at Delphi twice already, and I plan on going back again. It is a truly magical place. No, I don’t believe in “magic,” I’m talking about real magic, the sense of awe that strikes you when you arrive there. Despite the tourist shops, the bed and breakfasts, and the restaurants, you cannot avoid been struck by the sheer beauty of the place: a green mountainous peak overlooking a deep valley, from where you can see the Aegean Sea in the distance. No wonder the ancients thought it a place privileged by the gods, as testified today by the beautiful ruins of the temples of Apollo and Athena.

It is in Delphi, of course, that the most famous Oracle of the ancient world resided. Still today you can see the omphalos (i.e., navel), the stone that allowed direct communication between the priestess and the gods. Modern science has suggested that the location is characterized by significant underground quantities of ethylene or methane, which may cause hallucinations to people exposed to them. So far, however, this is speculation, and not really germane to the psychological power of the Oracle. The advice given by the priestess of Apollo, regardless of its natural trigger, was often sound, if not necessarily amenable to an immediate interpretation.

One of my favorite stories is that of Themistocles, the Athenian general who was told that Athens will successfully defend itself from the powerful army of the Persian king Xerxes by building a wall of wood (“Though all else shall be taken, Zeus, the all seeing, grants that the wooden wall only shall not fail”). The notion, of course, is ridiculous on its face. Surely the mighty Persians would not be stopped in their tracks by mere wood. But interpret the advice more creatively, as Themistocles did, and you realize that the wood in question was that of the ships forming the formidable Athenian navy, which did, in fact, annihilate the opponent fleet at the battle of Salamis.

Temple of Athena at Delphi (Photo by the Author)

Delphi was also famous for a list of “commandments” that were allegedly assembled from the wisdom of the Seven Sages, a legendary group of philosophers, statesmen, and law-givers from the early history of Greece. Perhaps the most famous of such commandments was “know thyself,” which has since inspired countless philosophers, most famously informing Socrates’ entire career as a gadfly to the good people of Athens (who repaid him for his trouble, as we know, by putting him to death by hemlock).

Now an article published in Aeon magazine by Bence Nanay (a professor of philosophy at the University of Antwerp, Belgium) tells us not only that “know thyself” is “silly” advice, but that it’s actively dangerous. While Nanay has a point, I will argue that it is his own article that is, in fact, dangerous.

Nanay tells us that the Delphic injunction is based on an untenable picture of the self, and of how we make decisions — though I wonder how he knows which theory of mind and psychological agency was endorsed by whoever chiseled the famous phrase on the entrance to the temple of Apollo.

He invites us to consider a simple situation: “You go to the local cafe and order an espresso. Why? Just a momentary whim? Trying something new? Maybe you know that the owner is Italian and she would judge you if you ordered a cappuccino after 11am? Or are you just an espresso kind of person? I suspect that the last of these options best reflects your choices. You do much of what you do because you think it meshes with the kind of person you think you are. You order eggs Benedict because you’re an eggs Benedict kind of person. It’s part of who you are. And this goes for many of our daily choices.”

The notion is that we have somewhat stable ideas about who we are, which is practically useful, since it saves us a lot of time whenever we have to make decisions. Except if you go to Starbucks, because they have far too many choices. Then again, no self respecting Italian would go to Starbucks. Or order a cappuccino after 11am. (See what I did there? I have an image of myself as a self respecting Italian, hence my choices about where to get my coffee and when it is proper to order a cappuccino. Also, no Parmesan cheese on seafood pasta, please.)

But of course, as Nanay reminds his readers, we also change, all the time. On occasion these changes are sudden and dramatic, and therefore very noticeable. Many people feel and act differently after having had a child, for instance. Or having experienced a trauma, such as a diagnosis of cancer. Many changes, though, are subtle and slow, yet cumulative over time. It is this second kind of change that creates the major problem for the Delphic injunction, apparently: “The problem is this: if we change while our self-image remains the same, then there will be a deep abyss between who we are and who we think we are. And this leads to conflict.”

Not only that. We apparently suffer from what psychologists call the “end of history illusion,” the idea that, right now, we are final, finished products. This, and not our selves of five, ten, or twenty years ago, is who we really are, and who we will keep being until our demise. The end of history illusion is, of course, nonsense. We are never finished, as the only constant throughout our life is precisely that things, including ourselves, change. You can see why Nanay is worried.

The problem concerns much more than your choices of morning java: “Maybe you used to genuinely enjoy doing philosophy, but you no longer do. But as being a philosopher is such a stable feature of your self-image, you keep doing it. There is a huge difference between what you like and what you do. What you do is dictated not by what you like, but by what kind of person you think you are.”

Theater and temple of Apollo at Delphi (Photo by the Author)

In an interesting twist, Nanay even manages to blame our addiction to social media on this alleged incongruence between who we are and who we think we are. That incongruence not only wastes a lot of our time and efforts (because, robotically, we keep doing things we no longer enjoy or think important), it also generates a fair degree of cognitive dissonance between reality and our image of reality. And cognitive dissonance, again the psychologists helpfully remind us, is emotionally costly. “Hiding a gaping contradiction between what we like and what we do takes significant mental effort and this leaves little energy to do anything else. And if you have little mental energy left, it is so much more difficult to switch off the TV or to resist spending half an hour looking at Facebook or Instagram.” Now you tell me!

Nanay concludes that “If we take the importance of change in our lives seriously, [following the Oracle] just isn’t an option. You might be able to know what you think of yourself in this moment. But what you think of yourself is very different from who you are and what you actually like. And in a couple of days or weeks, all of this might change anyway.” He then concludes with a pseudo-profound piece of poetry from André Gide, who wrote in Autumn Leaves (1950): “A caterpillar who seeks to know himself would never become a butterfly.”

Right. Then again, caterpillars are too stupid to philosophize about themselves, not to mention that their are profoundly ignorant of their own biology. And does anyone really believe that, except (maybe) for traumatic experiences, we can change a lot in mere days or weeks?

I hope it is clear what the central flow in Nanay’s argument is: he is assuming an essentialist view of the self, the self conceived as the “true,” unchanging part of who we are, which people are supposed to “discover” in order to live authentic lives. I’m sure some Ancient Greeks did hold to a similar notion (Plato comes to mind), though they were usually far too good observers of human psychology to fall into that trap. It is not at all clear whether whoever came up with the Delphic injunction subscribed to such an untenable theory of the self. What is abundantly clear is that “know thyself” is very good advice regardless, indeed even more so if our selves are dynamic bundles of perceptions, sensations, desires, and deliberations, to paraphrase and build on David Hume.

Let’s consider the more serious of Nanay’s examples, that of the philosopher who doesn’t realize that he doesn’t believe in philosophizing anymore. I don’t know whether that example was autobiographic, but I can certainly counter it with an autobiographical anecdote of my own. Ever since I can remember I wanted to be a scientist, a dream that eventually came through when I was appointed assistant professor of botany and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, back in the distant 1995.

I had a reasonably successful career for several years in my chosen field of specialization, gene-environment interactions, rising through the ranks of associate and then full professor with tenure. My self image had been one of a scientist since I was five or six years old, and it had served me well until my late thirties and early forties.

Then a midlife crisis ensued, partly precisely because my reflections about myself began to alert me of some sort of growing gap between my mental image of me and how I was feeling while doing what I was doing. I realized that I was less and less interested in laboratory and field research, and more and more in theoretical and conceptual issues. And the step from the latter to philosophy of science wasn’t very big. Partly because such conscious reflections (the “know thyself” part), and partly because of serendipitous events, I was able to enroll as a graduate student in philosophy, publish a book and several papers in the field, and eventually switch career and become a full time philosopher.

That’s where I am now, though other adjustments have occurred in the meantime, like my increased interest in public philosophy, and my novel interest in Stoicism. These changes, too, were made actionable by the fact that I have a habit of reflecting about my feelings and experiences, trying as much as possible to keep adjusting what I actually do and what I want to do, in a never ending exercise of reflective equilibrium.

The bottom line is that my life, I can confidently assert, has been made better and better by trying to follow the Delphic commandment. I suspect the same is true of other people, who can benefit from a monitoring of the evolving “self,” coupled with the occasional redirection and adjustment of what they do or pursue. Contra Nanay, it is this process of self knowledge that reduces, or even preempts, the cognitive dissonance he refers to. And, apparently, it will also save you a lot of wasted time on Facebook and Instagram.

What is truly dangerous is not to follow the not at all “silly” advice that has served Socrates and so many others since. You may end up mispending a good chunk of your life if you ignore it. And if you have the chance, go to Delphi. You’ll thank me for it.

An embarrassing moment for the skeptical movement

IMG_8356Twentyone years ago physicist Alan Sokal perpetrated his famous hoax at the expense of the postmodernist journal Social Text. It was at the height of the so-called “science wars” of the ’90s, and Sokal, as a scientist fed up with a lot of extreme statements about the social construction of science, thought of scoring a rhetorical point by embarrassing the other side. He wrote a fake paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” full of scientific-sounding nonsense and submitted to the editors of Social Text. They didn’t send it out for peer reviewed and published it as a welcome example of a scientist embracing the postmodernist cause.

Sokal then proceeded to unveil the hoax in the now defunct Lingua Franca, a magazine devoted to academic affairs, thus exposing the sloppy practiced of the editors of Social Text while at the same time embarrassing the postmodernist community.

Sokal, however, is no intellectual lightweight, and he wrote a sober assessment of the significance of his stunt, for instance stating:

“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.”

Move forward to the present. Philosopher Peter Boghossian (not to be confused with NYU’s Paul Boghossian) and author James Lindsay (henceforth, B&L) attempted to replicate the Sokal hoax by trick-publishing a silly paper entitled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.” The victim, in this case, was the journal Cogent Social Sciences, which sent out the submission for review and accepted it in record time (one month). After which, B&L triumphantly exposed their stunt in Skeptic magazine.

But the similarities between the two episodes end there. Rather than showing Sokal’s restraint on the significance of the hoax, B&L went full blast. They see themselves as exposing a “deeply troubling” problem with the modern academy:

“The echo-chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense coming out of the postmodernist social ‘sciences’ in general, and gender studies departments in particular … As we see it, gender studies in its current form needs to do some serious housecleaning.”

And (a large chunk of especially influential people in) the skeptic community joined the victory parade:

“We are proud to publish this exposé of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed journal today.” (Michael Shermer)

“This is glorious. Well done!” (Sam Harris)

“Sokal-style satire on pretentious ‘gender studies.'” (Richard Dawkins)

“New academic hoax: a bogus paper on ‘the conceptual penis’ gets published in a ‘high-quality peer-reviewed’ journal.” (Steven Pinker)

“Cultural studies, including women’s studies, are particularly prone to the toxic combinations of jargon and ideology that makes for such horrible ‘scholarship.'” (Jerry Coyne)

Except that a mildly closer look shows that Boghossian and Lindsay are no Sokals, and that the hoax should actually be treated as an embarrassment for the skeptic community. Let’s do a bit of, ahem, deconstructing of the conceptual penis affair.

(i) Like the Sokal hoax, the sample size is n=1. Since Boghossian teaches critical thinking, he ought to know that pretty much nothing can be concluded from that sort of “sampling” of the relevant population. That’s why Sokal properly understood his hoax as a rhetorical success, a way to put the spotlight on the problem, not of showing anything broader than “that the editors of one rather marginal journal were derelict in their intellectual duty.”

(ii) The B&L paper was actually rejected by the first journal it was submitted to, NORMA: The International Journal for Masculinity Study. Boghossian and Lindsay admit this, but add that they were “invited” to resubmit to Cogent Social Sciences, which is handled by the same prestigious Taylor & Francis publishing group that handles NORMA. The reality is that NORMA itself doesn’t make it even on the list of top 115 publications in gender studies, which makes it an unranked journal, not a “top” one. also, if you check Cogent Social Sciences’ web site you will see that it operates independently of Taylor & Francis. Oh, fun fact: NORMA’s impact fact is a whopping zero… And remember, it actually rejected the paper.

(iii) The “invitation” to resubmit to Cogent Social Sciences was likely an automated email directing the authors to an obvious pay-to-publish vanity journal. See if you can spot the clues from the journal’s description of their acceptance policies. First, authors are invited to “pay what they can” in order to publish their papers; second, they say they are very “friendly” to prospective authors; lastly, they say that they do not “necessarily reject” papers with no impact. Does that sound to you like a respectable outlet, in any field?

(iv) But isn’t Cogent Social Sciences said to be “high quality” by the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)? It may be, but the DOAJ is community run, has no official standing, and to make it on its list of recommended publications a journal “must exercise peer-review with an editor and an editorial board or editorial review…. carried out by at least two editors.” Even vanity journals easily meet those criteria.

All of the above said, I am indeed weary of “studies” fields, of which women and gender studies are just a couple of examples. As I’ve written in the past, my experience actually interacting with some faculty and students in those programs has been that they do have a tendency to insularity, which could be remedied by integrating them into the appropriate classic departments, like philosophy, history, comparative literature, and the like. That, in fact, was the original intention when these programs first appeared decades ago, and my understanding is that it was the traditional departments that did not want to go down that route, in order to protect their turf, faculty lines, and students tuition money.

It is also the case that many in “X Studies” programs embrace left-leaning politics and see themselves as activists first, scholars next. This is a problem, as the two roles may lead to conflict, in which activism may prevail at the expense of sound scholarship. But the problem isn’t confined to X Studies, as it is found, for instance, in ecology (where a lot of practitioners are also involved with environmentalist organizations), cultural anthropology (protection, not just study, of indigenous populations), and frankly even critical thinking and philosophy. I have made a career of studying pseudoscience (academically) while at the same time advocating on behalf of science and reason (blogs, books, articles, podcasts). So the two activities shouldn’t be seen as ipso facto incompatible (as, for instance, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt does). But one does need to thread cautiously nonetheless.

Finally, my observation by talking to colleagues in X studies and reading some of their papers (an approach that Boghossian and Lindsay boast of having rejected, because they apparently know a priori that it’s all bullshit), is that there is a tendency to embrace a form of environmental determinism — as opposed to its genetic counterpart — about human cognitive and cultural traits. This attitude is not scientifically sound, and it even generates internal conflict, as in the case of some radical feminists who reject any talk of being “trapped in the wrong body” by transgender people. As someone who has actually studied gene-environment interactions I am extremely skeptical of any simplistic claim of either genetic or environmental determination. Human beings are exceedingly complex and inherently cultural organisms, and the best bet is to assume that pretty much everything we do is the highly intricate result of a continuous interplay among genes, developmental systems, and environments.

So yes, X Studies are potentially problematic, and they probably ought to undergo academic review as a concept, as well as be subjected to sustained, external scholarly criticism. But this is absolutely not what the B&L stunt has done. Not even close.

And of course, for balance, let’s remember that science too is subject to disturbingly similar problems (thanks to Ketan Joshi for this brief summary, to which many, many more entries could easily be added — here is a similarly good take):

* Andrew Wakefield, a British anti-vaccination campaigner, notoriously managed to publish a fraudulent paper in the (really) prestigious medical journal Lancet in 1998.

* A US nuclear physics conference accepted a paper written entirely in autocomplete.

* A trio of MIT graduate students created an algorithm that produces fake scientific papers, and in 2013 IEEE and Springer Publishing (really seriously academic publishers) found a whopping 120 published papers that had been generated by the program.

* A paper entitled “Get me off your fucking mailing list” was accepted for publication by a computer science journal.

* A 2013 hoax saw a scientific paper about anti-cancer properties in a chemical extracted from a fictional lichen published in several hundred journals.

And of course let’s not forget the current, very serious, replication crisis in both medical research and psychology. Or the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has created entire fake journals in order to publish studies “friendly” to their bottom line. And these are fields that — unlike gender studies — actually attract millions of dollars in funding and whose “research” affects people’s lives directly.

But I don’t see Boghossian, Lindsay, Shermer, Dawkins, Coyne, Pinker or Harris flooding their Twitter feeds with news of the intellectual bankruptcy of biology, physics, computer science, and medicine. Why not?

Well, here is one possibility:

“American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message” — Michael Shermer, 18 November 2016

“Gender Studies is primarily composed of radical ideologues who view indoctrination as their primary duty. These departments must be defunded” –Peter Boghossian, 25 April 2016

Turns out that a good number of “skeptics” are actually committed to the political cause of libertarianism. This is fine in and of itself, since we are all entitled to our political opinions. But it becomes a problem when it is used as a filter to inform your allegedly critical thinking. And it becomes particularly problematic when libertarian skeptics go on a rampage accusing others of ideological bias and calling for their defunding. Self-criticism before other-criticism, people — it’s the virtuous thing to do.

This latest episode does not, unfortunately, surprise me at all. It fits a pattern that has concerned me for years, as someone who has been very active within the movement and who still identifies with its core tenets. When Steven Pinker openly embraces scientism, turning an epistemic vice into a virtue; or when atheists think that their position amounts to anything more than a negative metaphysical stance — and think that being nasty about it is the way forward; or when atheism, skepticism and scientism are confused with each other for ideological purposes; then I get seriously worried about the future of a movement that has so much potential to help keep the light of reason alive in a society that desperately needs it.

The Boghossian and Lindsay hoax falls far short of the goal of demonstrating that gender studies is full of nonsense. But it does expose for all the world to see the problematic condition of the skeptic movement. Someone should try to wrestle it away from the ideologues currently running it, returning it to its core mission of critical analysis, including, and indeed beginning with, self-criticism. Call it Socratic Skepticism(TM).


Update: Steven Pinker has admitted on Twitter that the hoax was a bad idea: “‘Gender studies’ is an academic field that deserves criticism, but The ‘Conceptual Penis’ hoax missed the mark.”

On the crucial importance of rhetoric

IMG_8164As is well known, we officially live in an era of post-truths and alternative facts. Even though we have arguably always lived in it, to an extent, the current cultural and political climate has moved even scientists, a group of people notoriously shy when it comes to social and political engagement, to get to the streets and protest in defense of science. Who would have thought.

A recent Gallup poll showed that — despite the overwhelming scientific evidence — only 45% of Americans are seriously worried about climate change. But the worst news comes when one looks at the details: the partisan split is incredibly sharp: 66% of Democratic voters are worried (wait, only 66%??), and a mere 18% of Republican voters are. When we add to that the likely observation that even those who are concerned with climate change express the feeling more as a badge of identification with the party line than because they genuinely understand what the problem is, we are in dire straits indeed.

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Philosophical counseling as pseudoscience?

Philosophical counseling (PC) is the idea that people may benefit from discussing their everyday problems or long-term goals within a framework offered by one or another philosophical approach. Although the term “philosophical counseling” has been in use only for a few decades, this is what (some) philosophers have been doing for literally millennia, from the ancient Stoics and Epicureans to modern Existentialists, from Buddhists to Confucians, both ancient and modern. It’s a philosophical genre that for good (according to some) and ill (according to others) has given us Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy and Alain De Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life.

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The problem with “Indigenous science”

The logo of the Worldwide Indigenous Science Network

Last month I was invited by Frances Widdowson, a faculty in the Department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies at Mt. Royal University, in Calgary, to participate to a panel discussion on the topic of the “indigenization” of the university curriculum. It was a weird experience, to say the least. [Warning: if you think that as a White Male European I am automatically disqualified from offering reasoned opinions on matters pertaining the history of exploitation of Indigenous people by Western nations, you may want to stop reading and take a walk. I’m trying to save you a possible ulcer.]

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How I became a philosopher

Aristotle, the first scientist-philosopher

As some of my readers know, I have an unusual background. I began my academic career as an evolutionary biologist (Master’s at the University of Rome; Doctorate at the University of Ferrara, Italy; PhD at the University of Connecticut), switching to philosophy (PhD at the University of Tennessee) later on. A number of people, even recently, have asked me why. Here’s the answer, which I offer not (just) as a self indulgent piece of personal biography, but as a reflection on the academic world and the role of serendipity in life. It may be of interest to some, especially young students who are considering a career in either field.

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