Some Work Is Hard

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.

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26 Responses to Some Work Is Hard

  1. lumpkin says:

    Seems to me that the point the hoaxers are making is that some of the social sciences have wandered rather far out into the weeds and this is being driven by a combination of publish or perish and pay to publish. Is pranking some portion of the academic community the best way to make that point?
    Maybe so if insufficient academic rigor is coming from inside that community.

  2. Joe says:

    Honestly, if you need a reason to not take the postmodernist thought in this field seriously, a parody isn’t necessary. Just look up Real Peer Review on Twitter – the stupid bullshit there is far more effective at making people realize that this stuff isn’t worth paying attention to.

    Lol at the hoax though, “penis is a social construct”

  3. AcademicLurker says:

    What’s really annoying about this stunt is the shameful lack of respect it demonstrates for the Sokal Hoax, which, unlike this, was genuinely brilliant.

  4. CLR says:

    “What’s really annoying about this stunt is the shameful lack of respect it demonstrates for the Sokal Hoax, which, unlike this, was genuinely brilliant.”

    What on earth are you talking about? Have you even read their exposé in Skeptic? The authors of this hoax clearly state that they stand on the shoulders of Sokal. They cite Sokal repeatedly and discuss in detail his motivations and specific targeting of the prevalent assumptions in the field which he knew he could exploit and expose. They have followed his inspiration and simply done the same for gender studies and the social sciences in general. They write: “We suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil. On the evidence, our suspicion was justified.” This downright nasty article above simply cannot stand the fact that someone has taken the trouble to point out that the Empress has no clothes on, and so tells them to “shut the fuck up” rather than feel shame and embarrassment, which would be the appropriate response of anyone with any integrity.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m telling them to do some hard work worthy of scholars. Sorry if that offends you. Tumblr awaits your memes.

  6. CLR says:

    Nice try pal but I’m not remotely offended and I don’t do Tumblr. And I think it is you who needs to do some work. Have you ever, even once, looked at anything outside of the gender theory echo chamber that challenges the foundational claims of modern feminism? Gender studies is a sham and this hoax demonstrates for all to see the intellectual shallowness, lack of integrity and rigour, and misandrist motivations of the gender studies project. You just can’t handle it.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m never very clear on why anyone who has little general interest in scholarship, academia or education gets as monomaniacally fixated on a single field in academia as you and many others seem to be. Feminism is not a single thing. Gender studies and feminism are not the same thing. Studies of gender across a wide span of disciplines are not necessarily the same thing as gender studies, an interdisciplinary program of inquiry. There are plenty of critiques of feminism in circulation within academia, and some of them even come from gender studies. There are some critiques of gender studies, the interdisciplinary program, and some even come from feminism.

    I’m also honestly wearied when someone like yourself comes into a space like this and begs for attention in a comment thread. I have maintained a blog since the early 2000s because I have some things to say, but I’m also interested in hosting conversations. I still have the hope even in our less congenial online culture of the moment for conversations. So it seems to me that if you want to have strong opinions about gender studies and/or academia as a whole and yet do something besides add to the noise rather than the signal, you have two choices:

    a) talk in a way that’s more personal, more situated in your own experiences, and more humble in some sense. Tell me why you feel, personally feel, as strongly as you do. Don’t get on a high horse and pretend to have deep concern for intellectual depth, the presence of integrity and rigor and non-discrimination in academic inquiry if in fact you are not otherwise deeply involved in academia or deeply appreciative of it as a whole. This is very precisely what I am speaking to in this particular entry. If you honestly feel aggrieved by what you believe “gender studies” to be, talk about that in a way that’s meaningfully individual and situated.

    Or b) show some concrete concern for and knowledge about scholarship and scholarly norms. Talk about specific scholarship in specific ways that demonstrates an actual facility with that scholarship. Talk about scholarship you appreciate as well as scholarship you disdain. And show some manners as a guest in someone else’s house: don’t yell at me like I’m an unknown, generic social-justice warrior of your imagination. What I have had to say about gender politics, identity politics, gender studies and so on on this blog is readily knowable. What I have had to say about gender as a subject in my own research is readily knowable. If you just want to spar with figments of your own imagination, or use every comment thread you can find as an outlet for abuse, there are plenty of other forums and sites out there. I am not a moon for you to howl at.

  8. I sign on to your criticism in full.

    I’ll add, however, a couple things that the article (the Skeptic article, which I read, and not the hoax article, which I didn’t red) seems to get right.

    One, the authors make some decent points about pay-to-publish open access journals before they go off the deep end and extend the critique to gender studies as a discipline. There is something fishy about the fact (assuming it is a fact) that Taylor and Francis recommended the “nonsense” article for publication. Still and even so, to the extent that point (about pay-to-publish journals) is a good one, it seems to me to run counter to their other argument about gender studies as a discipline.

    Two, I suspect that gender studies as a discipline evinces, as the authors in the article imply, a certain moral disposition against masculinity and perhaps even biological maleness (the authors don’t seem to recognize that gender studies scholars tend to distinguish between socially constructed/inflected “masculinity” and biological sex markers). I say this as an outsider to the discipline and one who hasn’t even done the preliminary study of the discipline that you say (rightly) is necessary before launching a sustained criticism against the discipline. But it probably did help that the hoax article seemed to criticize maleness. Therefore, while I think the authors were way overreaching when they said “we suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil. On the evidence, our suspicion was justified,” perhaps the authors would have had a better point if they said that anti-maleness might tip the scales in the decision over whether to publish a marginal paper. At any rate, the hoax article is a piece of evidence to support that conclusion and is not, by itself, something upon which an entire discipline can be convicted.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    To some extent, though, to give them credit for making a point about OA journals is the equivalent of a participation trophy. Meaning, they’re so determined to prove something about gender studies that they take little note of the fact that there have been numerous previous projects and efforts demonstrating both that pay-to-play journals are particularly dicey and that even peer review as a whole is suffering somewhat under the weight of the massive flood of work it is being tasked to review. Inconveniently for them, most of these efforts have documented issues with science journals. There’s also a major effort ongoing now to separate legitimate OA journals and exploitative ones via some form of collaborative listing. They only seem to get interested in the point about pay-to-play because an actual gender studies journal turned them down, and to sustain the ‘hoax’ they had to find some other way to keep it going.

    The question of how masculinity, male identity, and biological maleness are situated within gender studies as a whole is certainly worth discussing. There is a substantial historical and anthropological literature that I think does not approach masculinity as something that it is bound to attack or condemn, just as something to understand and study. I could pretty quickly compile a bibliography of 20-30 monographs in my own specific field of specialization (Modern African history) that focus on masculinity and which do not have any particular fixed hostility or negativity to masculinity per se. There is perhaps a predisposition in gender studies to have very strong views about patriarchy–a sociopolitical system in which men and masculinity hold hierarchical power. But this is a bit like saying that political science has a tendency towards having strong views about authoritarianism and fascism, or neoclassical economists (e.g., almost all of them) having strong views about state socialism. Those are both empirical and moral perspectives–they derive from an expert understanding of the consequences of patriarchy or authoritarianism or state socialism, but also they are part of what the discipline or field sees as its raison d’etre. Much as political science wonders fairly constantly what the roots or extent of authoritarian rule might be (does it derive from cultural predispositions? from identity? from economic failure? from the structure of political parties? from the will of the aspirant authoritarian?), gender studies may wonder with some persistence where patriarchy derives from historically, culturally, psychologically, and so on.

    Now there may be dissident voices who count themselves political scientists or political philosophers who are willing to endorse authoritarian rule in some respect or another. It’s quite rare among modern thinkers or scholars who are not simply acting as court scholars for an actual authoritarian but you can find a few here and there. It’s more difficult to find a scholar who identifies themselves as a member of a gender studies program who endorses patriarchy. But I do think you can find gender studies-identified scholars who write appreciatively about many aspects of masculine identity or experience. If someone finds that a critique of patriarchy is necessarily a critique of masculinity as a whole, then I can’t help but think that they’ve got a bit of a problem there, because that becomes by default a defense of patriarchy itself, or perhaps at best a denial that patriarchy exists or has ever existed. Certainly that latter argument is a possible one, but we are back at that point to “hard work”–that is not an easy thing to simply assert and act as if it is self-evident.

  10. Gal Amir says:

    Well written. Thank you.

  11. Xavier says:

    Patriarchy is natural though

    Men are BIOLOGICALLY stronger, bigger, faster than Women. Men were soldiers, warriors

    Thus one can argue that Patriarchy is natural

    Gender Studies “scholars” deny this…they deny biological differences between women

    look at the Olympic records, Timothy, you will see that the Men’s record is much better than the Women’s record from weightlifting to running etc.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, there you go, I suggest this as a bit of an extreme option and someone jumps in. I think you have a long way to go to make that into a defensible political theory, let’s put it that way. For example, would this mean that a man who is stronger, bigger and faster than you should dominate you, or rule over you? That would equally “natural” if you are going to argue this premise. And yet, it is observably not the case in human history–even societies built around military hierarchy or physicality in history did not necessarily have strict hierarchies laid out along these lines. Famously many kings and other similar kinds of ruling figures have been weaker physically than some of their fellow men.

    Keep in mind the difference with political theory is that you’re asking what should be, what produces the best outcomes, what we should want, etc. If you want to argue that patriarchy is empirically a natural consequence of physical differences, you have a tremendous range of actual political and social variation between human societies across all of human history to explain. Hard work, again, not something you just rattle off with a punchline.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    One thought on this. If you look at what’s been done in the last decade to examine the consequences of pressures to publish, you’d find that the sciences have at least as big a problem, and very possibly by many metrics a bigger one. The assumptions that many are making about rigor in peer review and where it is most present or absent may not be warranted. If you’re seriously concerned by the issue, I recommend you start here: and then follow up by looking at Ioannidis and others who have continued to do “meta-research”. I also think that if you’re concerned about academic rigor, the last thing to be appreciative of is a very non-rigorous attempt to demonstrate it. For this particular “prank” to have been even slightly meaningful, it would have needed to be submitted to the most important journals in gender studies, and the prank creators would have needed to make full disclosure of the peer review comments they received and all communications in full with all editors. There have been a number of other experiments attempting to demonstrate weak standards of peer review or editorial control at many journals, and most of them have been careful to fully document what they’re doing. Most of them have also been directed at science journals and pay-to-play OA journals.

  14. Xavier says:

    It’s important to note that this isn’t just a one time hoax

    the twitter feed NewRealPeerReview posts thousands of shoddy gender studies papers that HAVE been accepted in legitimate journals. ideas like “Feminist Glaciology” to the belief that food discrimination led to Gender Dimorpism

    Also about the physical strength thing, I was saying that physical strength was the reason Patriarchy existed, because their was a general gap in physical strength between men and women (still is)

    the fact that their are individual male’s stronger than me is meaningless

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    Be wary of cherry-picking in general–if you’re going to go looking for things that you think are shoddy, you need to have a clear criteria in mind for what “shoddy” is and you need to apply it to any and all fields. If you want a sense of how difficult the problem of evaluating the quality of knowledge across all fields of research might be, read

    Keep in mind that there is almost no direct empirical evidence for sociopolitical structures of pre-Neolithic human societies, or for that matter even of immediately Neolithic-era ones. You might say that other social primates are a good guide, but they have a striking range of gender roles in relationship to hierarchy: bonobo chimpanzees and gibbons are different from other chimpanzees which are different from gorillas which are different from orangutans which are different from baboons. If we use our status as primates to try and infer a relationship between physical strength or even just general gender dimorphism and social structure, you can choose to tell a striking variety of stories from that. It’s equally complicated to use hunter-gatherer societies in the modern era as a proxy for very early human beings–contrary to the notion that they are unchanging relicts, all of them have undergone considerable change in relationship to other human societies over the last 500 years. They also have a pretty wide variety of gender roles in relationship to social structure.

    But let’s just assume for the sake of argument that this version of a “just-so” story (that sociopolitical domination by men originates with average differences in physical strength at some point in the distant past) has some truth to it, just for a moment. It’s not at all clear if that’s true why you assume that a relationship between physical strength and political power should not hold consistently not only between genders but within gender. If the argument is that at that very early moment in human history physical strength secured political domination, why should that property have been applied evenly to everyone with testicles, whether or not they were physically strong? The only reason it might have been even at that early moment would be something rather like ideology: a generalized belief about the meaning of physical strength and the application of that belief to a general imagined type of human beings. If you want to believe the relationship at that point was not ideological or culture but natural or intrinsic, you have no basis for thinking that it would applied evenly to all men. That’s actually consistent with social primates where there seems to be at least some relationship between physical strength and a dominant position in the hierarchy, such as baboons–physically weaker males do not have higher status and authority than all females. Quite the contrary: some very weak males are at the absolute margins of the social structure, and many males are less dominant than high-ranking females. In fact, one of the winning reproductive strategies for medium-rank males in baboon troops is to ally themselves with higher-ranking or senior females. Even with the incredibly simplistic hypothesis you’re laying out, there’s real complexity.

    Let me also point out this: that whatever sociopolitical systems hominids or early homo genus species had, right into early societies of homo sapiens sapiens, they are not sociopolitical destiny for modern societies. There’s at least some fragmentary and contested evidence that some very early human communities and some hominid bands may have practiced some form of routine cannibalism. If the evidence for that became much stronger still, it would not constitute an argument that today, we ought to be cannibals because it’s a natural and normal thing for us to be. The existence of any political systems in the past, whether distantly past or more recently, is not an argument for their continuation today. Even the most aggressively ‘naturalistic’ evolutionary psychologist does not argue that because they believe a particular behavior or “cognitive module” to have a basis in human evolution, it must continue to be a naturalized, acceptable part of our lives today, or that nothing has changed in the course of the development of sapience, of technology, of social complexity and scale. So at some point, it’s not really clear what an argument that says, “At some point early in the evolution of human societies, they had a strong skew to patriarchal modes of sociopolitical organization” means for people today. It certainly doesn’t mean, “So that’s the way it always will be” or even “So that’s why patriarchy persists”. There’s five thousand years of history to account for in between then and now, whatever life was like before that time.

  16. Xavier says:

    tell me how “feminist glaciology” is a legitimate topic

    the criteria that is used to determine shoddy is basic logic and common sense. Many topics are simply laughable and deserve no further criticism, because they are ridiculous in its self

    This isn’t so much an attack on Gender Studies, but more an attack on postmodernism and extreme relativism that has infected the academy since the 60s

  17. Timothy Burke says:

    I’d need to read the article in question, and perhaps more than just the article, if it wasn’t an area of study that I had some knowledge of already. That’s what scholarship is. People who demand rigor shouldn’t expect scholars to just dismiss out of hand something they haven’t thought about. There are many topics and methods that are easily dismissed by someone who is determined to make them sound risible or silly or who simply doesn’t understand what’s being said. In scientific research, for example what’s called “basic research” can often sound almost simplistic or obvious in its premises, but sometimes the most basic subjects are the ones we know the least about, or at least have no rigorous basis for some of our common assumptions.

    I tend to find that people who dismiss “postmodernism” sweepingly don’t really have the faintest idea what it is or was, or are themselves relatively “postmodernist” in their own arguments and viewpoints. This goes double for “relativism”, which is a strange obsession of in alt-right discourse (oddly, because I find most alt-right discussions to be staggeringly relativist and even at times quite ‘postmodernist’).

    If you look up the “feminist glaciology” paper and its author, one of the links you might find is the following interview with Mark Carey, its author. Carey is an environmental historian and historian of science. The content of the essay concerns basically, “How did we come to name, describe and study glaciers as a phenomenon? How was the study of glaciers and glaciation fit into other fields of environmental and geological knowledge? How much was the scientific ‘discovery’ of glaciers, glaciation, etc., linked to historically male-dominated mountaineering and exploration? Are there any lingering effects of those origins in how the field thinks today about glaciers and glaciation?” These seem reasonable enough questions to me, and not at all obviously silly–they could have scientific as well as historical implications.

    If want a good example of that, you might consider Emily Martin’s excellent book The Woman in the Body, which studied how gender-linked language and assumptions affected the study of reproductive health and reproductive biology over many decades, to the point of actively preventing scientists from considering some important hypotheses which turned out to have considerable usefulness. Just to give one major example, Martin points out that for a very long time, mostly male reproductive biologists used active verbs to describe the behavior of sperm and passive verbs to describe ova, and assumed that the major variable in which sperm ended up fertilizing a particular ovum was which sperm reached it first–that it was strictly a matter of which individual sperm cell had the best motility, longevity, navigational ability, and so on. It took a female scholar to point out that no one had even thought to investigate whether ova played an active role in selecting which sperm cell would fertilize–the gendered language that was being used, the deep assumptions built into it, had kept scientists of both genders from thinking about this really basic hypothesis. And yes, on investigation, it turned out ova are in fact quite active in sperm selection–that they are filtering the sperm cells which are attempting to fertilize and in some sense ‘deciding’ which one will fertilize. When Martin asked biologists about this in the late 1980s, they would agree she had a point, but insist that they were only using metaphorical language to describe a process and not really letting it affect their scientific work. But the research that followed on Martin’s analysis showed that was wrong: that they’d just been ignoring a fundamentally useful and important line of research because in some sense they just couldn’t think of it without becoming self-conscious about the gendered nature of their language. There was no malice in that oversight–but it wasn’t trivial, either, because this new line of research had implications for understanding natural selection, for understanding embryology, for understanding infertility, and so on.

  18. AcademicLurker says:

    I would note that Paul Gross, in the article “Bashful eggs, macho sperm, and tonypandy”, challenges Martin’s account. Gross is, of course, one of the authors of Higher Superstition, and so not exactly a neutral party, but he does quote papers from the 1960s and earlier which seem to indicate that people were aware that the egg plays an active role in fertilization.

    I don’t know the field well enough to take a definite position, but there seems to be more than one side to the story.

  19. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes. But I think actually Martin and Gross’ account are likely to be compatible in many ways. Martin’s work was ethnographic; it was about how scientists in their everyday work talk about and imagine research. It’s quite possible to search widely enough and find people and texts which depart from some common conceptions, or even to find that earlier texts have been systematically misrepresented or misunderstood by later readers, including scientists. In writing about early colonial officials in southern Africa, I occasionally come across one who is markedly unusual in some respect, including a few who seem to be quite benevolent in their policies and/or quite non- or even anti-racist. I don’t therefore come to the conclusion that colonial policy was benevolent or non-racist, but I do have to widen my sense of what was humanly possible in a seemingly structured or confined circumstance. I think it’s quite possible that there have been reproductive scientists who saw what Martin saw but who were not at an earlier date able to establish that perception as a mainstream premise of research on fertilization; equally, I think it’s plausible that most of them in the 1970s and 1980s were still not seeing the possibilities.

    Another part of the problem here that I grapple with in my own field is that the things which shape what kinds of research people do are often not in print: they’re in the conversations that professors have with graduate students, in the double-blind peer reviews, in the harsh comments made in a conference panel, in the things a peer says to you about your work over a beer. It’s hard to know how to describe all of that activity, or put it into play–but ethnography is one of the few ways I can think of to at least examine it.

  20. AcademicLurker says:

    Although Gross worked in the field of reproductive biology for decades, and was disputing Martin’s account from that perspective. Not, of course that that means that Gross’s views are definitive.

    It strikes me that this was one of the central sources of tension in the Science Wars. On the one hand, scientists were unused to being treated as objects of anthropological study, and to some extent resented the STS folks presumption to speak for them. On the other hand, due to their cultural prestige, scientists were able to “speak back” to the people studying them and be taken seriously by the public in a way that the “exotic” or marginalized cultures that anthropologists more commonly studied could not. From their reaction, it’s clear that the science studiers were not ready for this. So everyone on all sides found themselves in positions they weren’t used to occupying.

    And of course, sometimes the intrepid anthropologists simply get it wrong. One of my favorite instances was a paper about the supposed masculine biases that led physicists to treat certain fluid dynamics problems in a “linear”* manner. The only problem was that the equation that was the central object of the paper’s study was nonlinear. In fact it’s listed on wikipedia under “famous nonlinear partial differential equations”. Oops.

    *the bizarre moralizing that was attached to the terms “linear” and “nonlinear” is a whole separate issue.

  21. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes. I think that’s an astute analysis of issues on both sides of that initial reaction to STS/science ethnography. In general, ethnography on “speaking subjects” tends to show how much ethnographers rely on not being contested later on by other “people of the book”–but also how much many scientists are invested in thinking that language and habitus are just a sort of surface-level noise that has nothing to do with the deep business of producing scientific knowledge, that it can be easily “seen through”. I’m always struck by this when I read some of the newer cognitive science/social science work where everything that humans do is seen as subject to numerous unconscious or non-conscious processes, with consciousness being a post-facto story-teller, except the work of scientists. When you ask how that’s ontologically and epistemologically possible given what the rest of this research shows (e.g., doesn’t this mean that we do in fact, at least sometimes, use something like conscious rationality to produce truth?), most of the researchers producing this work seem genuinely puzzled by the question.

  22. Sorry it’s taken so long for me to respond (and I know you were just waiting with baited breath for me to respond ! 🙂 ). I would just like to clarify a few points.

    I’m not trying to bait gender studies as non-valid or “anti-male.” I’ve had some “bullies on the playground” experiences from graduate school, none of which says anything about gender studies as a whole. In fact, while I’m not a gender studies person, I think the enterprise is worthwhile. I can see a gendered component to something as dry and boring as my own area of expertise (political and business history, and especially antitrust/antimonopoly).

    I’m also not very eager to find praise for Skeptics a la Michael Shermer. I note things they seem to get right more as a declaration against my interest….because I find such Skeptics to be too sweepingly dismissive of other things that I either believe or that I used to believe and still hold on to in some ways. (I still have good things to say about positions that rationally speaking I reject.)

  23. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree with you about skepticism, actually–I mostly want people who think of themselves that way to understand that they’re not really doing a great job, by and large. But there are reasons to not be a person who identifies as a skeptic in a deep sense. Skepticism is a tool, it’s not a mode of selfhood.

  24. Travis Roeper says:

    This type of thing happens all the time in computer science (see – Though to be fair, computer science has its own share of critics that don’t view its study as legitimate.

  25. David says:

    What would you recommend reading in order to have a clearer understanding of post-modernism? I’ve started reading Explaining Post-Modernism by Hicks, but I am uncertain whether or not he has an unfairly negative outlook on the philosophy.

  26. Timothy Burke says:

    A surprisingly difficult question. The first thing I’d say, and you seem wise to this already, trust no explanation that is either deeply, avowedly postmodern itself or the opposite, deeply hostile to it. You might be able to learn some useful things from Hicks, but you need to understand that he’s a somewhat hostile guide to postmodernism.

    You could do worse than the Oxford Very Short Introduction series on most topics; Christopher Butler’s Postmodernism is good. You might also look at Catherine Belsey’s Poststructuralism, which helps keep clear the difference between the two.

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