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.
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.
— New Real Peer Review (@RealPeerReview) May 27, 2017
— New Real Peer Review (@RealPeerReview) March 7, 2017
— New Real Peer Review (@RealPeerReview) October 8, 2016
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.