Category Archives: Science

Why the new hoax papers on cultural studies merely confirmed everyone’s priors

impostor
image credit: the most excellent xkcd, esp Munroe’s liberal repost policy

In 1996 Alan Sokal published a hoax paper in the cultural studies journal Social Text which was nonsense, asserting among other things gravity was a social construct. Sokal claimed: “The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that ‘the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project’. They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.”

It’s now been almost a month since the disclosure of a new hoax sometimes called Sokal 2. Three academics James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian published hoax papers in cultural studies journals, with an intent to discredit them. The authors spent 10 months writing the papers, averaging one new paper roughly every thirteen days“. Of the 20 papers they created, 7 were accepted, while 4 more given a “revise and resubmit” (R&R). It’s worth noting no sociology journal accepted a paper or gave an R&R. All the acceptances and R&Rs came from cultural studies journals, most of them gender studies. Example title: Going In Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria, Transhysteria, and Transphobia Through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use. You get the idea.

Now that the commentary has died down, it’s worth assessing what this means. If anything. Here’s my view of the key points/comments:

  • Cultural studies is the field most influenced by critical theory, which in it’s crudest form says ideological power defines social reality.
  • From Tanner Greer: “Academic critiques of the shoddiness of critical theory are inevitably interpreted as political attacks. Which makes sense, I suppose… at the end of the day critical theory is a political position, not an empirically grounded body of knowledge.” Yes, people like Foucault are more sophisticated than power=truth, and worth reading (or in my case, skimming). But if political power creates truth, critical theory by it’s own logic turns all disagreements into power relations disagreements, unbound from empirical correction. So even if all you want to do is improve cultural studies methodology, that doesn’t matter. What matters is who gains/loses power, so all attacks on cultural studies transform into attacks on the left.
  • Sokal’s original hoax showed cultural studies journals would publish nonsense. The new hoaxers were more ambitious in what they said they were doing: “Something has gone wrong in the university—especially in certain fields within the humanities. Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields, and their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview. This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous. For many, this problem has been growing increasingly obvious, but strong evidence has been lacking. For this reason, the three of us just spent a year working inside the scholarship we see as an intrinsic part of this problem.” The hoaxers claim the entire University has gone wrong. That’s too much. After all, they couldn’t even get their sociology hoaxes published. And those overly wide claims backfired, hurting their ability to make more impactful, if far narrower arguments.  Cultural studies remains the field with the problem. Same as 1996.
  • Averaging a paper in two weeks indicates: 1) the hoaxers mastered the field in a few months well enough to spoof it (passing the more difficult than you’d expect ideological turing test), and 2) any field for which you can concoct a paper in a couple of weeks is not that rigorous.
  • Kevin Drum makes a similar point: “If an amateur with no background can spend three months brushing up on your field, and then immediately start cranking out papers that get accepted at serious, peer-reviewed journals, there is something badly wrong with your field. That’s it. That’s what the hoaxsters uncovered.”
  • More from Greer: “The hoaxers deliberately tried to create papers that were outlandish, bizarre, and bull-shittish as possible. What they ended up creating was creating were run-of-the-mill, slightly below average papers in critical theory.” And “It was 100% a stunt–but a stunt designed not just to attract attention to what the authors put in these journals, but to what is *normally* put in these journals.”
  • Several things are all true at once: 1) cultural studies/gender studies is a valid and important field, academics really do need to study oppression and gender/LGBT, 2) critical theory makes cultural studies not just prone to publishing nonsense, but immune from empirical self correction, 3) other fields also publish nonsense, but retain an ability to (oh so sloooooowly) empirically self correct, 4) the hoaxers would have been more successful if they had kept their rhetoric precisely and narrowly targeted at the non-empirical methodology of critical theory, rather than indicting the University and the left as a whole.

One of Marx’s most quoted lines is history repeats “first as tragedy, then as farce.”

While the original Sokal hoax was argued back and forth, in this go round no one even pretended they might change their mind. No one is shocked to discover there’s gambling going on in the casino.

Those who think critical theory in academia has taken a wrong turn (yes, that’s me), had their priors confirmed. But that’s also true for progressives. How did that play out? Let’s go to Zach Beauchamp, who has a good vox explainer on the topic. Beauchamp says “The hoaxers are right that there are problems in identity studies, and that one of those problems is political bias. But their experiment is not convincing evidence that these problems are necessarily worse or more fundamental than those that affect other fields, including ones that seem more ‘scientific’ like psychology or economics.” I disagree with the second sentence, though not the first. But Beauchamp gets to the crux of his critique by asking Lenin’s question who, whom? The authors of the hoax project self-describe as liberals. But who cares. What matters is those most pleased are people like Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who asked hoax coauthor James Lindsay to be on his show. Lindsay declined. Beauchamp concludes his piece: “the fact that this is the type of audience that’s excited about the Grievance Studies hoax says a lot about whose work the project is actually doing.” Fact check on priors confirmed: true. On all sides.

Contrary to popular belief, fusion power generation is not really like the Sun

Sun
image credit

Most positive news stories about generating electricity from nuclear fusion mention fusion powers the sun. The implication being nuclear fusion is simple, clean and healthy. Unlike nuclear fission, which is what existing nuclear reactors use. Nuclear fission produces radioactive waste, and the reactors have a risk of meltdown. Not good. But fusion has its skeptics too. Negative fusion stories always quote some version of “Fusion Power is 20 years in the future – and always will be.” I first heard that line in the early 1980’s in college. I had a part time student job working for a grad student in the physics department, who was doing fusion/plasma research. My role? Hours and hours of time spent cleaning and prepping the very large cellophane/oil capacitors that powered plasma generation. Basically a dishwasher.

Continue reading Contrary to popular belief, fusion power generation is not really like the Sun

Getting fat is a metabolic disorder. An evolutionary take on Paleo and Low Carb Diets.

Fatmouse
image credit

Last year I wrote a couple of posts supportive of Gary Taubes’ book Why We Get Fat. I’m still a believer so wanted to do an update. Though I’ve tried to be careful in noting below where Taubes’ view differs from the scientific consensus.

Continue reading Getting fat is a metabolic disorder. An evolutionary take on Paleo and Low Carb Diets.

Mundane Science and SF are awesome. Please stop it with the invisibility cloaks and FTL.

MundaneSF

While most of my posts are about technology, at heart this is a futurist blog. Futurism is “the attempt to systematically explore predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present, whether that of human society in particular or of life on Earth in general.” And to be clear my focus is on what’s going to happen in the next two, five, ten or twenty years. Not the distant future. So if you come for the tech, consider staying for the societal implications. Not surprisingly, my post with the most pageviews is about near term technology: voice interaction becoming the God Particle of mobile. But also in the top five is why there aren’t any space aliens. A topic worth more consideration than you may expect. Call this approach realistic, near term futurism. Extrapolate what we know today. But under no circumstances cheat by bending the technology or science. Science is awesome enough already.

Continue reading Mundane Science and SF are awesome. Please stop it with the invisibility cloaks and FTL.

The Reproducibility Crisis in Science. Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love nukes with a side of bacon.

strangeloveandbacon2

On the left, Peter Sellers from the classic cold war satire “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb“.  On the right, a side order of bacon. Here’s how I learned to love them both.

Continue reading The Reproducibility Crisis in Science. Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love nukes with a side of bacon.

Coal is so bad it makes fracking good

Untitled

Support is roughly split for hydraulic fracking, the process of extracting shale gas using chemically treated pressurized water. A recent United States poll shows 45% support, 41% don’t support, and the rest don’t know what it is. But of course that same poll shows fracking support is highly polarized, with Republicans supporting 71%/20% and Democrats against 22%/60%. Since environmental beliefs are tightly tied to identity politics in the US, it’s hard to change anyone’s mind. But one way to think about this is not to argue fracking is good. Obviously it’s not. Instead, start by acknowledging that energy generation is inherently dangerous. So let’s ask is how fracking compares to its clear alternative. Coal. And compared to fracking, coal is pure evil.

Continue reading Coal is so bad it makes fracking good

GM Crops: The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

gmcrops

Genetically Modified (GM) crops are slowly gaining traction against “frankenfood” opposition. I think this is great. Though if you hate GM crops, of course you’re unhappy. Similar to global warming, people tend to hold quasi-religious beliefs about GM crops. So realistically this (partisan) post won’t change anyone’s mind. But if you are on the fence or haven’t been paying attention, it’s worth reviewing where things stand.

Continue reading GM Crops: The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Living with a deep faith in science

science shirt

Last week’s post on Atheism as a sacred belief showed how atheists can be as dogmatic as anyone. The central insight is anything we care passionately about can become sacralized, and immune to reason. Even atheism. Since I’m a ra-ra science fan, science works that way for me. For example I love this “it works bitches” xkcd comic, and related t-shirt pictured above (only $19.99!). Not surprisingly, I can’t help but feel science denialism is a kind of sacrilege. I’ve already done a post on how science denialism does NOT exclusively come from the right. But this time wanted to dig a bit deeper, exploring the pitfalls of having a deep faith in science, as well as listing common anti-science beliefs.

Continue reading Living with a deep faith in science

Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes

whywetaubes

This is part 2 of a two part series. Part 1 is here.

In last week’s post we contrasted the “energy in/energy out” model of getting fat with the “wrong kinds of food” model. This framing comes from Gary Taubes’ book Why We Get Fat. Again, be warned I’m a fan of Taubes and his book. With that said, in this post I wanted to cover Taubes’ core arguments, but then contrast it with where the scientific consensus on obesity appears to stand.

Continue reading Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes

Two Models of Why We Get Fat

TwoModelsGetFat

This is part 1 of a two part series. Part 2 is here.

Why do we get fat? The prevailing model is energy balance, pictured above on the left. When people eat more than they burn off, they get fat. All calories are the same. Just do the math. In contrast, on the right is a picture of various kinds of food. In this model, people get fat because they eat the wrong kinds of food, like sugar. All calories are not the same because the body responds differently to different kinds of food. Now to be up front, I’m a big fan of science writer Gary Taubes and his book Why We Get Fat, where he argues high carb intake is to blame for obesity. But low carbohydrate diets are controversial, so instead of tackling this head on let’s step back and see why the energy balance model on the left is flawed.

Continue reading Two Models of Why We Get Fat