Political Correctness and Academic Punking

Political correctness is hot once again. Donald Trump is beating the drum against political correctness in his speeches and I suddenly feel like I was back in college.

I was a freshman at Yale university in 1990 when Donald Kagan delivered an “infamous” public speech against political correctness and in favor of Western civilization during the freshman assembly. The speech was a bit of a bombshell in the 1990s culture wars and created a firestorm of controversy on campus. Somewhere I may still have a copy of that speech in my college artifacts collection, but I can’t put my finger on it immediately, and its just far enough back in time to not be easily accessible online. It’s remarkable how much information access has changed in the past 25 years, so much that I’m disappointed when I cannot find an easily accessible online copy of a document I remember from my own lifetime. Just to confirm my memory I did a search on the New York Times website and found a few mentions that Kagan was controversial in 1990 for promoting Western civilization. More recent stories, such as an article at the Wall Street Journal just after his retirement, confirm the characterization. In fact Kagan himself is the one who calls the speech infamous.

Beyond Trump, there is another set of convergences which have brought me back to the idea of political correctness. In my small part of the academic world there is a recent dustup about Peter Drier, a professor of politics at Occidental college, who punked a panel at one of the conferences I attend. The conference is the annual meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science, more often called 4S. Drier submitted a nonsense abstract to a panel “On the Absences of Absences”, the abstract was accepted, and Drier ultimately decided not to attend the conference because he couldn’t bring himself to “carry out the hoax to its logical conclusion.” Now he has written his story for publication at the American Prospect under the innocent title of “Academic Drivel Report.”

I find the whole idea of deceiving another academic in order to make any point a bit distasteful. A charitable reading of Drier’s expose, and the spin he puts on it himself, is as a call for more transparent writing styles which are accessible to the public instead of just to a specialist audience. Under this reading the failure of the panel was too much jargon. So when Drier aped the jargon back at the panel organizers they couldn’t recognize the fraud and so decided to accept the paper.

So how are we to reconcile or deal with this fraud? I use the word fraud deliberately because Drier is using fraud to unmask what he considers to be another fraud, an intellectual fraud, on the part of the people who organized the panel. We are left with two different frauds and are asked to adjudicate between them.

Within academic culture there is a certain attitude that glorifies the takedown, disproving another person’s findings, or publishing the lacerating review. Noam Chomsky made his reputation on a refutation of behaviorism. During my time at the University of Tennessee I worked with some researchers whose sole reason for being seemed to be to disprove the results of papers published by others. Just last year there was a great deal of discussion about the unraveling of a paper by Michael Lacour and Donald Green on the transmission of support for gay equality. Just last week the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on Jim Vander Putten, a professor of higher education, who submitted fraudulent abstracts to some education conferences in order to prove a similar point to Drier, namely that the conferences were not rigorous.

The question I ask myself is why some of these takedowns seem justified and others just seem pointless. There is obvious value in questioning the conclusions of others and arguing against them. It is certainly valuable to try to reproduce any social science study in order to see if the results are relevant in other contexts or if the effect size is significant. The recent discussions in psychology over replication are a fascinating and worthy endeavor. The outcome may ultimately be a better form of social psychology. The same can be said for discovering fraud in the any discipline. In sociology the Lacour/Green paper was toppled by a lack of access to the original data and sloppy procedures for analysis. Similar discoveries have been made in the biological sciences and elsewhere.

But the fraud carried out by Drier, Vander Putten, and Sokal (flashing back to the 1990s) seems to be quite different in spirit. For one thing these examples are not arguing against any particular idea or concept, instead they are argument by ridicule. The perpetrators are saying look at how I managed to get one over on these foolish academics in this field. But the failures of any single panel, editor, or reviewer are never just a mistake, rather each of these examples become stalking horses for larger issues like the foolishness of science studies or the shoddy writing of academics.

Furthermore each of these examples appear to have serious axes to grind, whether those axes are political or intellectual. On the political side they offer fuel to the fire of political correctness and general anti-academic and anti-intellectual efforts. Each of them may be self-professed liberals but it is impossible to not be aware, twenty years after the science wars of the 1990s, that political correctness is a fetish for right-wing conservatives in North America. Even with the best of intentions to reform the field, it beggars belief that people who perform these frauds do not know that their efforts will be used by conservatives to decry the liberal orthodoxy of contemporary campus culture. On the intellectual side there is more than a little bit of protesting too much in all of these cases. The implied message is that we, the perpetrators of these hoaxes, are much smarter than the foolish editors who accepted our frauds, because we know what the truth is, we can distinguish good writing from bad, good intellectual arguments from bad, and good research fields from bad.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.