Skepticism, Salon, and Gender Studies

James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian’s “Conceptual Penis” article in Cogent has split the skeptic community into two broadly opposing factions. Generally, one claims that the hoax does not prove anything except the ingrained prejudices of the authors while the other finds that it has struck a blow to the field of gender studies to some degree. 

Many voices have posited their positions, including Helen Pluckrose who defended the hoax, but I thought I’d take a look at the claims of Phil Torres in Salon since he’s been one of the most vociferous critics and his article seems to have gained some traction in opposition to Lindsay and Boghossian’s “hoax.”

(Full disclosure: Torres submitted the article to me at Areo but I was unable to respond to him in a timely manner. Additionally, I found his arguments to have too many flaws in their construction — which I hope to lay out below.)

The largest contention I have against Torres’ position is that he operates off the presupposition that gender studies in its current iteration is a bona fide field — and any of its detractors hold malicious intentions. It is an assumption that runs through his entire piece in Salon. To be clear: there is surely legitimate knowledge to be gained by studying the interplays of gender in society — but it appears he takes the position that Boghossian and Lindsay are simply wanting to strike a blow against gender studies because they hold some ingrained, unjustified prejudice against the field and “social justice,” and not because they see an area of “scholarship” that needs to be criticized. 

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Phil Torres

A recurrent theme in gender studies discourse is the negation of biological reasons for describing the differentiations we see between men and women. This could be due to pure intentions and avoiding “biological determinism” but it could also be due to the ideologues who have insulated themselves within these fields and have convinced themselves that nearly all differences between males and females are “socially constructed.” In the academic article “Undoing Insularity: A Small Study of Gender Sociology’s Big Problem,” Charlotta Stern, a sociologist who has studied gender, makes a similar case by analyzing 23 gender studies articles. In it she finds that of the 23 analyzed, only 1 referenced biological sex differences, 4 were neutral, and 15 were “ideologically blinkered.” Meaning, in Stern’s words,

“At root, these fifteen articles are graded as blinkered because I find that insulation from, or avoidance of, biological-difference ideas damages the quality of reasoning on display. Any one of these studies would be improved by discussing well-established average gender differences in agreeableness, competitiveness, aggression, sexual interest, and risk behavior.”

Stern is saying that gender studies suffers from a doctrine of the blank slate. She posits in her abstract:

“In my experience as a sociologist, I see many ways in which gender sociology tends to insulate itself from challenges to its own sacred beliefs and sacred causes. The sacred beliefs are to the effect that the biological differences between the sexes are minor and that the cultural differences between the genders have little basis in biological differences.”

Keep all this in mind. If Torres is not inclined to believe denigrators of gender studies perhaps he will believe Charlotta Stern — a scholar who has experience operating in this field. Torres takes the position that Boghossian and Lindsay have no expertise in gender studies and, instead, “mockingly retweet abstracts [of gender studies papers] that they, as non-experts, find funny.” There are two problems with this argument: first, as Torres probably knows, in academic papers, abstracts do actually tell a reader a lot about the main thesis of what the author(s) will be arguing in the coming words. So it isn’t that large of a jump to make a judgement on them.

More importantly: the main point that Torres seems to have completely missed in Salon and his subsequent writings is that the theses of these gender studies papers overtly make claims on which we have solid fields of study already operating in — such as the neurosciences, genetics, biology, and evolutionary psychology. In other words, gender studies theory frequently makes claims for human behavior which trespass onto the domains of these sciences. It appears Torres is ignorant that common thought in gender studies often goes directly against the best scientific knowledge we have on motivations for human behaviors and male and female sex difference as causation of differentiation in real world results. Surely, as a skeptic, Torres can see how a field committed to arguing against scientific consensus by applying its “theory” is, should we say, problematic?

Also, there are many scientists (men and women) who stand opposed to gender studies. Do these women have internalized misogyny and the men hate women or could their objections be legitimate and scientifically based? In his Salon piece Torres makes the analogy that Lindsay and Boghossian’s actions were akin to “Sarah Palin’s mocking of scientists for studying fruit flies.” Well, to the scientists who object to gender studies, “gender scholars” are more often than not the Sarah Palins of their worlds.

Either Torres has to accept the many scientists (both men and women) who operate in fields related to evolution and human behavior have serious problems with gender studies because it makes claims so opposed to their findings, or that they’re simply motivated by some inner hate towards “progress” and an esoteric field.

Onwards to another error. Torres commits to tribal thinking when he writes,

“If anything, the hoax reveals not the ideological dogmas of gender studies but the motivating prejudices of the authors and their mostly white, mostly male supporters against social justice — a term that simply refers to the realization of fairness and just relations among citizens of a society… Notably, Breitbart News praised Boghossian and Lindsay’s hoax in a recent article.)”

So what? If Christian doctrine is maligned and Islamists celebrate, does that mean that there are not legitimate criticisms to be made of Christian doctrine? This is simply a guilt by association argument. To Torres, if party B celebrates because party A is denigrated, one must be associated with party B. Never mind that Lindsay and Boghossian are nowhere close to holding views consistent with Breitbart or the alt-right. Additionally, any time I see a person using the race and sex of an individual as some sort of pejorative (most frequently these days, “white male”) I know they’ve ceased to apply the critical faculties of their brains and have instead settled for collective blaming of some type. 

I also have a suspicion that Torres is playing a game of moral associations. Anyone supportive of gender studies equals good. Anyone critical of it equals “anti-feminist,” against “social justice,” and bad. Since Torres prides himself on skepticism and critical thinking (and, I’m assuming, the knowledge we gain via the scientific method), writing,

“As a skeptic myself, I am cautious about the constellation of cognitive biases to which our evolved brains are perpetually susceptible, including motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, disconfirmation bias, overconfidence and belief perseverance,”

I encourage him to look into the field of gender studies and realize its discourse is infected with post-structuralist ideology and social construction narratives which go directly against our best science on sex difference between males and females for explaining human motivations, results, and behaviors. Torres has clearly expended a ton of skepticism on Lindsay and Boghossian’s positions in Skeptic — but not nearly enough on gender studies as a field. 

While it could be said that the hoax would have been better off if published in a more reputable journal in the “gender studies” field than Cogent, the fact that NORMA (where Lindsay and Boghossian initially submitted — and a journal more related to the study of gender) routinely publishes articles which opine similar theses as that of of Lindsay and Boghossian should not be missed. Yes, it would have been more of a “hoax” had the most “prestigious” journal in this field picked up the article. Agreed. But that does not mean there are not many criticisms and many legitimate critics of gender studies. 

Malhar Mali

Malhar Mali is the founder and editor of Areo. He can be reached via malhar@areomagazine.com

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Malhar Mali

Malhar Mali is the founder and editor of Areo. He can be reached via malhar@areomagazine.com

8 thoughts on “Skepticism, Salon, and Gender Studies

  1. To add insult to injury, NORMA is not a “top journal” by any means. In fact, NORMA doesn’t make it even on the list of top 115 publications in gender studies, which makes it an unranked journal, not a “top” one.

  2. I’m afraid Ms. Kuhlemann makes a fallacy of generalization here. By asserting that there are flaws in evolutionary psychology, she is implying that the other fields that Mr. Mali identifies (not to mention others) also fall into less reputable categories. I also would take issue with the nature of the reputability by way of comparison – the amount of uncertainty is very different than the overt and explicit avoidance of known research.

    It also seems a bit disingenuous to single out a sole example in the article and then equivocate on the main point – that there are differences between men and women (the very nature of which is discounted wholesale by gender scholarship) “to be found… with a genetic component.” Perhaps it is without irony that such a statement is heresy to gender studies purists. See Nicholas Matte’s “There’s No Such Thing As Biological Sex” statement on Canadian television (YouTube).

    Reputation is made by the company that you keep, and gender scholarship is *so* weak that it has been forced to embrace the ultimate in narcissistic and solipsistic approaches – authoethnographies – because there is simply no means for external validation by using the scientific method. The entire library of gender studies research in the past ten years has been value-laden; everything is “problematic” and “oppressive.”

    This, of course, is Mr. Mali’s point. By avoiding established (and reproduced) research in psychology, communication, marketing, management, medicine, biology, genetics, physics, and mathematics, gender scholars continue to show that the do not wish to be tested on the merit of their work, but the vehemence with which they believe their work. Mr. Torres prefers to change the nature of that conversation to an unrelated, ad hominem, discourse. To which, I believe Mr. Mali is 100% correct in his assessment.

  3. “It appears Torres is ignorant that common thought in gender studies often goes directly against the best scientific knowledge we have on motivations for human behaviors and male and female sex difference as causation of differentiation in real world results.”

    It appears Malhar Mali is ignorant that evolutionary psychology is one of the least reputable branches of science. Evo-psych studies routinely fail to properly account for confounding environmental factors, routinely make wildly speculative extrapolations on the basis of rather thin evidence, and often build entire arguments out of sheer speculation. My personal favourite is the research on the evolutionary basis of blushing. An appeasement display, apparently, though people blush when they are angry, too. And blushing is only visible among pale-skinned people. But apparently evo-psych doesn’t need to make sense!

    Of course there is a degree of difference to be found in comparisons between a population of males and a population of females. That’s true of any characteristic with a genetic component, but only at the aggregate population level, and most of the differences are modest. At the individual level, there’s tremendous overlap across groups – whether racial, gender or cultural. Even where there are – on average – significant differences, it does not follow that they can justify characterising individuals within that group as though they are all the same. Which is what gender studies (and race studies, for that matter) are about.

    Now, don’t get me wrong – there is a fair amount of questionable waffle in gender studies. Like too many of the social sciences, gender studies articles too often use ornate, obscure Academese to disguise weak or inconsistent arguments. But it’s not a disreputable field. At least, it’s no more or less reputable than evolutionary psychology.

  4. That’s not ‘logic’.

    If a science or history paper only had to conform to what has already been written it would contribute as little to the world as gender studies.

    A basic requirement of academically sound disciplines is that the object of study exists external to the discourse used to describe it.

    For example, the Earth orbits the Sun. That was true before we understood it. It would still be true if we didn’t know it to be true.

    All the fiddling with the geocentric model of the universe couldn’t make that true even if it corresponded to what was already accepted.

    That’s not the case with gender studies. Gender studies will never produce a Galileo because ‘yet the Earth moves’ carries no weight in a discipline that simply consists of regurgitating twice-eaten vomit.

  5. By this logic, all of scholarship — which operates by way of a(n admittedly flawed, imperfect, but *potentially* rigorous) peer review process — is bunk: just “agreement with ortothodoxy not correspondence to reality.”

    These are really silly arguments.

  6. How would someone disagreeing with Pomo dogma pass the ‘peer review’ process of a gender studies journal?

    The criteria for publication is agreement with orthodoxy not correspondence to reality.

    No gender studies journal will publish a paper that says the rest of its contents are horseshit no matter how well argued.

    The disconnect with reality is a feature not a bug.

  7. This is a pretty lame reply. You’re missing the forest for the trees: Skeptic gleefully published a sloppy article with misinformation, and publication in this particular journal — which most scholars recognize as suspect — seems to prove nothing. That’s kind of the end of it. There’s nothing more to it.

    This isn’t how scholarship works. You want to prove something about gender studies, get it written up in a peer review paper, participate in the process of making knowledge. Otherwise, you’re all — everyone involved in this embarassing thing — just tilting at windmills.

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