Jan 24, 2019, 05:57AM

A Renegade Gender Scholar's Thoughts on Academic Standards

An interview with James A. Lindsay. 

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James A. Lindsay, a Ph.D. in mathematics, now facetiously describes himself as a “renegade gender scholar” in the wake of a systematic academic hoax he and two colleagues recently pulled off. Lindsay’s the author of DotDotDotInfinity Plus God Equals Folly, Everybody Is Wrong About God, Life in Light of Death, and God Doesn’t; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges Download. He recently participated in the following email interview with Splice Today.  

Splice Today: You've been busy since our last interview about you and your colleague, Prof. Peter Boghossian, concocting the “conceptual penis” hoax you used to illustrate the lax standards of certain academic journals. I see that now you’re focused on what you call grievance studies. Let's start of by defining what that means. Also, did you coin this term?

James Lindsay: To my knowledge, I did coin the term. I've been watching the conversations in the cultural space around topics like gender studies, race studies, and other cultural studies disciplines that seem to come from a position that makes everything "problematic," like they're somehow aggrieved, and I wanted a simple catch-all term for it. Because they're cultural studies disciplines that focus on grievances, I settled on grievance studies.

ST: Are these grievance studies bona fide academic disciplines?

JL: Thinking in terms of disciplines isn't the best way to think of grievance studies. It's more of a way of thinking about the world. Academics would identify what we're calling "grievance studies" with what's known as "critical constructivism."

ST: During an appearance on Joe Rogan's podcast, you described yourself as a renegade gender scholar.

JL: Well, the term "renegade gender scholar" is a bit of a joke, given my role in the Grievance Studies Affair, but it has a nugget of truth to it, of course.

ST: You used to be a math professor. Could you briefly discuss the career journey that has brought you to your present work?

JL: To be clear, I was never a math professor, although I did teach mathematics at a few colleges and universities for a number of years, up until 2010.

ST: Are you tired of academia?

JL: I left academia for a number of reasons having to do with taking responsibility for personal commitments, and so I started studying philosophy and psychology to try to understand better why so many people around me are so religious—I live in the Southeastern US. I had always wondered.

ST: And where did this lead you?

JL: Over the years, this led to me being quite involved in cultural conversations, and I noticed a lot of peculiarities in how topics like racism and sexism were discussed, probably in 2014 or so for the first time. That led me to start looking into the scholarship we eventually aimed to understand and expose in our Grievance Studies Affair work. 

ST: Yes, so many aspects of progressivism are now starting to resemble faith-based religions. Do you think that grievance studies should be eliminated across the board in The Academy?

JL: This is a complicated and inadvertently loaded question! The general answer is "no," but there's a lot to say here. First, I certainly don't think the disciplines infected by grievance studies should be eliminated from the academy. There's a lot of room and need for good and rigorous gender studies, the study of race, and other forms of cultural studies.

ST: What's your opinion on their academic rigor? There seems to be a lot of just “theory” there, unsupported by much testing.

JL: Grievance studies methodologies are bankrupt, and need to be treated appropriately. Under a banner of academic freedom, these approaches should be able to be undertaken by faculty who wish to work under those assumptions and with those theoretical lenses, but what needs to change is the idea that anyone needs to take any of this seriously unless it can somehow pass the test of being much more rigorous first.

I’d suggest, for example, that papers currently relying upon grievance studies to advance conclusions that are sociological in nature—like white fragility—should be subject to a minimum standard of sociological rigor before anyone sees them as serious. They're currently really bad philosophy that’s enjoying the unearned legitimacy of being some kind of social science, and that needs to stop.

ST: Your team—you've added British academic and Areo editor Helen Pluckrose—has caused a stir with its latest hoax project, the Grievance Studies Affair work you've referred to. This involved submitting bogus academic papers to number of academic journals, and getting a bunch of them published. Which paper surprised you the most when it got published?

JL: This is hard to answer because different papers were surprising in different ways. We were shocked to find out our paper about studying rape culture by examining dog humping in Portland dog parks got accepted.

ST: Didn't you win an award for that?

JL: Yes. Arguably the most shocking moment of the whole project was when it was recognized for excellence by the journal that accepted and published it, Gender, Place, and Culture.

ST: That's not an encouraging development. Any others?

JL: The acceptance of our "Moon Meetings" paper, which was a borderline incoherent rambling mess of "feminist spirituality," built as a "poetic inquiry" around six poems that were largely generated by an online algorithm, was completely unbelievable. The acceptance of our intersectional feminist rewrite of a chapter of Mein Kampf was shocking too. We estimated it to have maybe 200:1 odds of getting in before it did.

ST: I'm not sure such steep odds are applicable to any hoax paper that uses the right terminology. In your paper “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at Urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon,” you claimed to have interviewed around 10,000 dog owners. If each interview were 15 minutes, that would be over 300 eight-hour days of interviewing. And then there's the time necessary to examine the dogs’ genitals, as you claimed to have done. You also claim men should be trained like dogs, including putting them on leashes. How could anyone in academia not hear immediate warning bells?

JL: Almost nothing in that paper adds up. One of the purposes, from our perspective, was to test to see if the editors or reviewers would see patently ridiculous data for what they were in a paper that otherwise gave ideologically and politically favorable conclusions, such as that rape culture is effectively out of control and may benefit from training men like we train dogs.

ST: The dog-training part might have piqued their fantasies to the point where they were willing to accept whatever went with it.

 JL: You'll also notice that the conclusions we drew from those transparently ridiculous data don't quite follow, which was another point we were interested in examining with the paper.

ST: Your papers underwent extensive peer review and then you received notes intended to help you revise your work, but you've noted that the suggestions actually made the work crazier. Can you give one or two examples some of the craziest suggestions you got?

JL: The most shocking example came in our "progressive stack" paper about making classrooms aligned with social justice. We suggested that white male students "listen and learn in silence" and be invited to sit in the floor in chains "as an educational opportunity."

ST: They liked that idea? I'm sensing a level of sadism here, or need for revenge.

JL: We thought there was absolutely no way the reviewers would go for that. They ended up having a problem with it: in the hope of making the paper publishable, we’d recommended approaching those students with compassion, and this was a problem. Instead, we were directed to literature in "critical pedagogy" that advocated that the only way to overcome privilege is to make students uncomfortable, and then to leave them in their discomfort. To treat them with compassion, the reviewers told us, threatened re-centering the needs of the privileged over the more marginalized students.

Another example comes from the dog humping paper mentioned above. The reviewers suggested that we indicate that we took steps to protect the dogs' privacy while recording information about them and while inspecting their genitals. This added some hilarity.

In our paper titled "When the Joke Is on You," which was about us and the ethics of our probe from a perspective of feminist philosophy—spoiler: we argued it's never ethical to make fun of social justice—they had us point out that white male comedians like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, who nevertheless use humor to advance social justice positions, need to be treated with subtlety and care because, whatever their attitudes about social justice, they're still trapped in a straight white male perspective. As a final example that didn't make the work crazier but was insane on its own, one of the reviewers for our paper about "fat bodybuilding" told us calling the sport of fat bodybuilding the "final frontier for fat activism" was unacceptable because the word "frontier" evokes thoughts of the genocides of indigenous peoples. They requested we choose a different word. On the other hand, also in the reviews for that paper were demands that we problematize our own "thin privilege," which apparently excluded us from knowing what it's like to be subject to fat stigma.

ST: Looking at the titles of your papers, one might think there's nothing you could make up that's too absurd to get published in gender studies journals as long as it affirmed the untested theories of feminism and gender studies. Where do you think that line is?

JL: I don't know. We often found ourselves in the odd position of seeing other real papers that were even more ridiculous than ours. Check out pretty much anything in the journal Qualitative Inquiry, for example.

It seems to have followed from the field having been too insular for too long. Only grievance studies scholars review grievance studies papers, and there seems to be this kind of constant pressure to make everything a little more woke, a little more aware of the problematics, a little more avant-garde. Add that to the fact that no truly rigorous critical review is hitting many or most of these papers, and you have a recipe for being able to advance pretty insane politicized nonsense so long as it fits the orthodoxy and is written up in the right way.

ST: Are your hoax papers distinguishable from the ones that normally appear in the journals you targeted?

JL: Mostly no. Probably a paper like the dog humping example is, but it's probably our silliest and most blatant in terms of using ridiculously unbelievable data. The majority of the papers blend right in, though, which is the problem.

ST: What's the main takeaway from your latest project?

JL: Many people assume our probe exposed poor peer review in journals that publish grievance studies papers, but that's incorrect. The peer review is fine. The problem is that critical constructivism and everything built upon it is crap. When the reviewers and editors said things about our papers like "this is an excellent contribution to feminist philosophy," this is a "truly marvelous paper," and "this is an important contribution to knowledge," we have to take them at their words. That just says this problem goes a lot deeper than peer review, and that focusing on peer review misses the point.

ST: The sort of behavior and attitudes that you've been targeting in places like gender studies departments is also happening in more traditional fields. Do you have any observations on this phenomenon, and is the entire Academy in danger?

JL: Some problems that plague grievance studies do exist in other fields, certainly, but critical constructivist methods don't exist in other fields. Grievance studies is unique in its methodological and ethical failures in this regard, and it's probably unique in being a humanities-based discipline that's being allowed to pretend it's a social science by making sociological conclusions without attendant sociological rigor.

ST: What are the major problems within The Academy?

JL: I do have concerns more broadly for The Academy, particularly its strong leftist bias, its increasingly administrative and bureaucratic structure, its overwhelming focus on student retention at almost any cost, the publish-or-perish approach to earning academic tenure that undermines research quality, the continual growth of the academy, including administration, campus, services, facilities, etc., without substantial increases in professors, including hiring armies of underpaid adjuncts. The Academy is in danger because of many of these things and correctives will be needed. It's a huge problem.

ST: Are there ulterior motivations among the gender studies academics that are not spoken of in public? A hidden agenda?

JL: Possibly, but in the sense I think you mean, they're quite open about their agenda and always have been. They want to remake society, and that happens to start with remaking education.

They want to disrupt "hegemonic power dynamics" and, essentially, make their distorted theoretical view of what constitutes social justice the primary mission of society. A college student I know recently told me one of his professors said, "Gender studies is the future of the world." They don't exactly hide it, and because we all keep giving them a pass because we assume they're working for noble missions like the reduction of racism and sexism, they don't have to.

ST: What kind of feedback have you received from within The Academy on your hoax?

JL: The Academy has been the only disappointing sector of the population in terms of our feedback. That's not to say it's all been bad, but on the whole, The Academy has been less receptive and more unfairly critical than the general population and media. While some academics have had the courage to stand up and support us, many more have done so only in secret, asking us not to tell anyone what they've said or to keep them perfectly anonymous if we do. 


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