‘Why not think about Gender Studies?’ asked an advertorial aimed at prospective students in the newspaper I was reading. Actually, I can think of lots of reasons, starting with: what kind of employer in his right mind (or her right mind, come to that) would be insane enough to take on a graduate with an intellectually worthless degree indicative of shrill resentment, bolshiness, blue hair, lax personal hygiene and weaponised entitlement?
But two US academics, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, recently came up with an even better one. They managed to get published in a social sciences journal a paper arguing that the penis is not in fact a male reproductive organ but merely a social construct and that, furthermore, penises are responsible for causing climate change.
It ought to go without saying that their paper, ‘The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct’, was a spoof. Yet it was peer-reviewed by two supposed experts in gender studies, one of whom praised the way it captured ‘the issue of hypermasculinity through a multidimensional and nonlinear process’, and the other of whom marked it ‘outstanding’ in every applicable category.
Their model was the Sokal Hoax of 1996, when New York University physics professor Alan Sokal persuaded an academic journal to accept a similarly meaningless paper titled ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. His aim was partly to mock the incoherence of post-modernist social science, and partly to demonstrate that humanities journals will publish anything so long as it is couched in the language of ‘proper leftist thought’.
Like Sokal’s, the latest hoax was careful to observe all the fashionable left-wing pieties. ‘We suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding, almost religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil,’ the authors later observed. So they included lots of derogatory language about men and male vices such as ‘manspreading’ — a complaint levied against men for sitting with their legs spread wide, which they described as ‘akin to raping the empty space around him’. This is funny, obviously, but it’s also a bit worrying for a number of reasons. One is what it tells us about the reliability of ‘peer review’, so often claimed in academe as the gold standard which independently validates research. But as Matt Ridley recently noted, all it really is is a way for ‘academics to defend their pet ideas and reward their chums’. He cited a report by Donna Laframboise, a Canadian investigative journalist, which concluded: ‘Fraudulent research makes it past gatekeepers at even the most prestigious journals.’ She was talking not only about social sciences but about the harder ones, such as medicine, where accuracy can be a matter of life or death. She quoted a US National Institutes of Health official’s claim that ‘researchers would find it hard to reproduce at least three-quarters’ of published medical findings.
There are similar problems with her particular area of interest, global warming. A scare industry worth an annual $1.5 trillion has been built on the notion that anthropogenic CO2 is responsible for unprecedented and catastrophic changes to the world’s climate. Yet the scientists promoting this hypothesis are a fairly small, closed shop who validate one another’s work in a process which has been nicknamed ‘pal review’ and whose response to criticism from dissidents is to bully them, smear them and have them denied access to mainstream science journals.
But what should disturb us almost more, I think, is the broader problem that generation after generation of impressionable kids are now paying good money — and expecting good jobs afterwards — to study pure, unmitigated, mind-warping drivel.
There’s a fashion for denigrating all non-STEM subjects as worthless, which I don’t at all agree with: history, English literature, classics and so on do, when properly taught, provide an invaluable training in critical thinking. It’s when a subject gets hijacked by post-modernism — and nebulous fields like gender studies are particularly prone to this — that further education becomes not just pointless but actively dangerous.
Consider, for example, the response in the social studies community to the latest hoax. Far from being embarrassed by it, some of them find it empowering. One academic wrote in Psychology Today: ‘Never mind that post-modernism questions the very idea of intellectual rigor [sic], and thus academic hoaxes are one of the most post-modern things imaginable. In many ways this academic hoax validates many of post-modernism’s main arguments.’
Our children, our future, are spending three, four or more years at university being encouraged to reject truth, logic, reason, the canon of established thought, and encouraged to look down on those poor deluded, undereducated fools who think otherwise. Can you see where this combination of arrogance and toxic stupidity might lead, especially when operating hand-in-hand with aggressive identity politics movements based on race or gender?
In the US, at Pomona College, black students recently argued that ‘truth’ was a tool of white supremacy aimed at ‘silencing oppressed people’. South African students have called science a ‘product of racism’ which should be scratched from the curriculum because it rejects traditional alternatives like witchcraft. Neither of these, unfortunately, was a sophisticated intellectual joke.