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In the Age of Trump, We Need Cutting-Edge Humanities More Than Ever

The latest academic hoax emerges from the same ideological position as the Trump administration's attack on trans rights.
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A little over a year ago, author and independent scholar James A. Lindsay and Portland State University assistant professor of philosophy Peter Boghossian thought they had hoaxed the humanities. They convinced a journal called Cogent Social Sciences to publish a gibberish article about "The Conceptual Penis." Alas for them, the fraud crumbled when critics noted that Cogent Social Sciences was not a peer-reviewed journal, but rather a predatory pay-to-publish outfit with no academic standing. Undeterred, the duo added the independent scholar Helen Pluckrose to their gang and spent 10 months writing 20 fake papers. They invented data, parroted the lexica of academic disciplines they despised, and eventually managed to get seven pieces accepted. They did successfully demonstrate, as political scientist Jacob Levy has remarked, that "an enterprise that relies on a widespread presumption of not-fraud can be fooled some of the time by three people with Ph.D.'s who spend 10 months deliberately trying to defraud it."

The trio were hoping to undermine what they call "grievance studies," an umbrella term, they explain, for such disciplines as "gender studies, masculinities studies, queer studies, sexuality studies, psychoanalysis, critical race theory, critical whiteness theory, fat studies, sociology, and educational philosophy."

These disciplines might generally be characterized as fields of inquiry, usually interdisciplinary, that support scholarship about (and from) the perspective of marginalized groups. It's troubling that any of the trio's fake papers made it to press, but not shocking. (Bad work gets published in every field even without fraud. The question is whether it gets cited or refuted.) What's more concerning is that Lindsay, Boghossian, and Pluckrose's exposé is filled with rampant dishonesty. For example, they quote kind comments from a peer reviewer of an absurd paper about masturbation, then use those comments as evidence for supposedly lax standards in the fields—but they neglect to note that those diplomatic comments came from a rejection letter. The reviewer has since outed himself as a graduate student who was trying to be encouraging toward someone he assumed was just another graduate student trying to make an argument.

Still, as news broke about the Trump administration's attempt to define transgender identity out of existence, I kept thinking about this bugbear, "grievance studies." As Katelyn Burns, one of America's most important trans writers, has written, the Trump administration's attack on trans people is very serious:

This isn't a feelings issue, it's a material issue. One of the central roles of government is to issue legal identification, and trans people have a right to identification that doesn't out us as trans. No other demographic is subject to having one's private medical history disclosed by presenting an ID. This shouldn't be the case for trans people either.

The New York Times reports that the administration's memo proposes defining sex "as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with." But this latest policy, as Parker Molloy has written, is just the most recent manifestation of a sustained, concerted campaign spearheaded by right-wing identity groups like the Family Research Council. Molloy argues that this plan begins with stripping away civil rights protections for trans people, but that its broader goal is to use the power of the federal government to enforce reductive gender norms on all people. The latest academic hoax emerges from the same ideological position as the Trump administration's attack on trans rights and the agenda of the Family Research Council.

It was in a gender studies class that I, a wise but foolish sophomore, first learned that there were non-binary ways of defining gender. I took an anthropology of gender class, in which we studied the berdache, a third gender, in Native American societies. I'd previously thought of myself as a smart, well-informed feminist, but in such classes, my mind was blown.

Again and again, I've turned to these disciplines at difficult moments in my life. When my son was born and diagnosed with Down syndrome, I read widely in disability studies as a way to better understand his future and my own. As I wrote recently, both disability studies and one of its sub-disciplines, known as "mad studies," helped me process my own battles with mental illness. As my middle-aged body goes soft in the middle, feminist attempts to broaden our standards of beauty help support me in accepting its changes. These are trivial issues compared to a sustained assault on trans rights from the federal government, but they've been important to me. The hoaxers' attempts to undermine these disciplines place Lindsay, Boghossian, and Pluckrose in alliance with the administration's assault, and the logic of their academic vandalism would threaten to strip people like me of access to the wisdom on which I've come to rely.

To be clear, the trio would deny this characterization. In their essay, they self-identify as liberal and write that they support civil rights, but that "these fields of study ['grievance studies'] do not continue the important and noble liberal work of the civil rights movements; they corrupt it while trading upon their good names to keep pushing a kind of social snake oil onto a public that keeps getting sicker." But I think they're dead wrong. All Lindsay, Boghossian, and Pluckrose have proven is that fraud is possible—and we already knew that. Journals in all fields publish articles that are powerful and transformative, as well as a few articles that are pretty lousy. All fields are vulnerable to hoaxes and mistakes. Psychology and various scientific fields have been crushed beneath the replication crisis, in which experiments that produced core findings long accepted as fact were proven unreplicable. Harvard University recently discovered that 31 papers by a leading cardiologist contained fraudulent data. Andrew Wakefield's infamous fraudulent linkage of autism and vaccines, published in the venerable journal The Lancet, is directly linked to the spread of dangerous childhood diseases in Western Europe and North America. Business schools, which are successfully becoming the dominant disciplines of undergraduate American education, send their articles out via pay-to-publish schemes that often fail to vet articles for quality. Successful hoaxes or low-quality articles, whatever the motivations, reveal very little about the value of any particular discipline.

Lindsay, Boghossian, and Pluckrose decided to give nearly a year of their lives and lend their doctoral authority to an effort dedicated to undermining a set of disciplines that have greatly expanded our understanding of humanity. They have done so at just the moment when the most powerful people in the world are working to achieve through policy what the trio hope to accomplish in academia. What these three call "grievance studies" are really the fields that push at our boundaries of understanding of the self, identity, power, agency, and inclusion. They tell us that no matter what the federal government says, we are entangled with each other and shaped by our imaginations in ways we are just beginning to understand and articulate. This kind of work has never been more important.