Dear friends, have you ever felt after reading an academic article that annoyed you, hearing a scholarly talk that seemed like nonsense to you, enduring a grant proposal that seemed like a waste of money to you, that you’d like to expose that entire field or discipline as a load of worthless gibberish and see it kicked out of the academy?
You probably didn’t do anything about it, because you’re not an asshole. You realized that a single data point doesn’t mean anything, and besides, you realized that your own tastes and preferences aren’t really defensible as a rigorous basis for constructing hierarchies of value within academia. You probably realized that you don’t really know that much about the field that you disdain, that you couldn’t seriously defend your irritation as an actual proposition in a room full of your colleagues. You realized that if lots of people do that kind of work, there must be something important about it.
Or maybe you are an asshole, and you decided to do something about your feelings. Maybe you even convinced yourself that you’re some kind of heroic crusader trying to save academia from an insidious menace to its professionalism. So what do you have to do next?
Here’s what you don’t do: generate a “hoax” that you think shows that the field or discipline that you loathe is without value and then publish it in a near-vanity open-access press that isn’t even connected to the discipline or field you disdain. This in fact proves nothing except that you are in fact an asshole. It actually proves more: that you’re a lazy asshole. At a minimum, if you think a “hoax” paper shows low standards in an entire field of study, standards that are lower than other disciplines or fields of study, you need to publish your hoax in what that field regards as its most prestigious, carefully-reviewed, field-defining journal. If, for example, you can write an entire article that is not only dependent upon fraudulent citations but is deliberate word salad gibberish (and you carefully indicate your intentions as such to an objective third party prior to beginning the effort) and publish it in Nature or the Journal of the American Medical Association or the American Historical Review or American Ethnologist, etcetera etcetera, you may have demonstrated something, though most likely it would be that something’s gone wrong with the editors or editorial board of that prestigious, discipline-defining journal. If you publish it in a three-year old open-access journal with no reputation that publishes an indifferent array of interdisciplinary work across a huge range of subjects and disciplines, you’ve demonstrated that your check cleared. That’s it. Oh, also that you’re an asshole. And lazy.
Let me put it this way: if there are a lot of people in your profession who have undergone the same basic tests of professional capability that you have–they have the same degree, they have functioned as teachers and as scholars in their home institutions, they have undergone tenure review and promotion review (which includes an institution-wide evaluation), they sit alongside you in committees, and so on, then if you want to deem everything they do as completely lacking in value, as programmatically valueless, you have a hard job ahead of you. Because you’re not just arguing against one or two practicioners whose ethics or capabilities you question, you’re not even just arguing against a whole field, you’re arguing that there is something deeply systematically wrong with the entirety of your profession, with all of academia.
That hard job entails being deeply and systematically informed about the field you are attacking. You have to show an expertise that qualifies you to understand what that field is and to show how and when it established its (to you, illegitimate) place in the profession. This is important both because it is a demonstration of the profession you are trying to preserve and it is a sign of your ethical relationship to other professionals. You don’t just trash people because you have a flip opinion or you always do an eyeroll when that guy down the hall says something that you personally think is silly or risible. You don’t just trash an entire field because you read a bad article once or heard a dumb talk once. You don’t cherry-pick, especially if you’re allegedly a scientist or otherwise committed to rigorous standards of proof. You read and think about the most highly-cited, most field-defining, most respected and assigned, work in the field you dislike. If you’re going to do something like this, you have to do it right.
I’m not wild about evolutionary psychology as a field, for example. I’ve heard some work presented in that field that seems horribly weak by common social science standards. I have serious questions about the work of many of its most prominent representatives. I worry a lot about the bad uses that evolutionary psychological arguments are put to by activists, politicians and the general public. But if I set out to argue that the field should be in no way represented in academia, or that it is a fraud? I would spend a year or more reading evolutionary psychology carefully, I would think hard about the history and development of the field, I would examine its connections and affinities within its own discipline and other disciplines, I’d assure myself that there is almost no one who calls himself or herself an evolutionary psychologist who would pass muster for me, and then and only then would I go after the field as a scholarly act. Otherwise, I’d confine myself to some mild sniping and some targeted critique of specific published works that are relevant to some other claim I’m making. Because I can tell you already, knowing something about the field, that it’s got plenty of legitimacy inside of it. I may be critical of it, but it deserves its place at the table. It exists as a real and serious attempt to answer a series of important questions using a series of legitimate methods. It connects to many other subdisciplines like behaviorial economics. If I did all that work, I’d find that at best I have a critical engagement with evolutionary psychology, not the right to argue for its expulsion from the profession. Because I know this, I value its presence and I’m content if my colleagues in psychology decide that it is a field they would like to invest resources in. If I worry sufficiently about it, I will do more work so that I earn the right to have that worry become a constitutive force in arguments about legitimacy and about resources.
That’s what being a scholar is about: knowing your shit, and treating knowledge responsibly. What’s that? It’s hard to do, and you’re busy? Then shut the fuck up and get back to work. Save it for beer talk at your next professional association meeting. If you’re going to step into the public sphere, if you’re going to make judgments of value in a faculty meeting, then it’s work. It has to be done with rigor and craft like any other scholarly work, in direct proportion to how seriously you want to be taken and how serious the critique you’re offering might be.