The humanities in Canada are in peril. If they are meant to cultivate the mind and spirit, then humanities students should reflect the quality of the process, institutions acting as refineries. Enter The Varcity’s Gavin Foster’s effort at mounting a defense of the humanities writ-large against the withering certain sub-fields received at the hands of what has come to be known as Sokal Squared after Alan Sokal’s ancestral effort—a slew of intentionally ludicrous hoax papers submitted to top journals in what the authors refer to as “Grievance Studies” for a perceived focus on political resentments taking place of quality scholarship, and use of questionable methodology in justifying claims.
Many of the 20-some-odd papers received critical acclaim by reviewers, some praised for highest quality scholarship possible despite the authors having conducted their elaborate project in just over a year — unheard of in most disciplines. The Varsity article is an exercise in audacity — who would dare to speak for the totality of minds comprising the humanities, each a molecule to the organism? Hopefully, it reflects only a shred of the Arts in aggregate — but deserves a polemic, just in case. Let’s take a deep dive into each of the claims made and see if they stand even a ginger battering.
A team of three academics, who have previously defended and supported militant-atheist, anti-feminist, socially right-wing libertarians, crafted 20 deliberately absurd papers to be published in, what they term, “grievance studies.” These are fields that study social injustice and cultural theory: women’s studies, gender studies, and critical theory, to name a few.
The article betrays itself at the onset as no mere smear-piece, but one using smear-pieces for references — this tactic alone should disqualify it from serious consideration when deferring to reason or one’s moral compass, which are supposed to orient the humanities; guilt by association and elision of context are classic affronts — a lapse of due diligence.
While the intention was to show that these so-called ‘grievance studies’ are lacking academic rigour and truth, the project does more to highlight the ideology of the ‘scientific-right’ — those who believe that ‘non-scientific’ fields deserve less respect. They believe that the humanities and social sciences are fields that uniquely allow nonsense to be published.
The fabricated term “scientific-right” is ensconced in pixelated scare-quotes because Foster leaves it barely qualified — his definition assumes that a “scientific-right” exists the way he imagines it, that the Sokal Squared authors necessarily undervalue non-scientific fields, and that valuing science somehow constitutes a political position.
The rest is a parade of straw men, immediately noticeable upon any cursory inspection of the #GrievanceStudies authors’ written and public statements —they have expressed clear intent on exposing questionable pedagogical and discursive practices within specific humanities sub-disciplines, which they believe threaten to bleed out into academia broadly.
Nowadays, when discussing the humanities, many of those in the scientific-right are quick to jump to labels like ‘postmodernism,’ ‘relativistic,’ and ‘radical left.’ There is no doubt that these associations have gained recent popularity through their constant employment by controversial U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson.
Lending credence to the assumption that humanities majors spend the vast majority of their time stoned out of their minds while deeply researching late-night comfort food home delivery, this humanities neophyte has apparently become acutely amnesiac of the field’s touchstones developed over the past century or so. Most terms mentioned in the excerpt above are part of the technical verbiage of various sub-fields, such as political science, anthropology, and philosophy — their “constant employment” has been at the behest of pioneers long before Dr. Jordan Peterson’s YouTube channel ever went live.
The political objective of the scientific-right is to eradicate alternative methodological approaches to understanding the world, such as postmodernism and critical theory. But the scientific-right overlooks how the sciences are just as, if not more, susceptible to the fallibilities of the disciplines they decry.
If by “eradicate” Foster means “subject certain methodologies to review for quality control,” then this statement would begin to approach accuracy. The whole point of questioning the validity of “alternative approaches to understanding the world” comes from the fact that they are alternatives to tried and tested methods used in other fields of study. Here is a relevant counter-quote, dredged up not from dusty tomes on critical theory but plucked from the mouth of comedian Tim Minchin: “You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? — Medicine.”
I have stated elsewhere that fields aiming to make categorical factual claims about the world and its denizens must at least employ competitive methods to those that have historically yielded results— and in order for that, those methods must be subject to scrutiny and comparison — Foster’s defensive posturing in view of that prospect is telling. Why not point to the Grievance Studies authors’ mission statement, so readers can decide for themselves what their objective was, rather than invent a fictional political label to be applied forcibly onto them, packaged with imputed goals based on pure speculation?
Add to that the fact that foundational theories in many scientific disciplines are plagued by the replicability crisis, leading to the possibility that the tremendous amount of work that is dependent upon these theories could be completely meaningless.
This is not to attack the scientific-right in the same manner in which they attack the humanities. Rather, it is a call to recognize that while both the sciences and the humanities are fallible disciplines, neither should be entirely discounted.
It shouldn’t take a third-year education at Trinity College’s humanities department to diagnose this passage as terminally confused. The foundational theories alluded to — but not specifically addressed — are not “plagued by the replicability crisis,” which resulted from reneging on scientific theory by way of deliberate malpractice or incompetence. It is not scientific theory under assault by the replication crisis: it is the individuals and other entities involved in the fraud.
By contrast, the Sokal Squared papers were accepted due to humanities peer-review processes working perfectly, which indicates there might indeed be a systemic bias or ideological bent afoot within certain sub-fields. Foster states that neither the sciences nor humanities should be discounted wholesale — a sentiment shared by the Sokal Squared team, whose core contention is that the subject matter being handled by Grievance Studies deserves rigorous treatment not currently on offer— if anything, Foster should be joining the team in their concern for the integrity of fields adjacent to his own.
Each discipline has separate intellectual objectives, and should be respected accordingly. The aim of the humanities is not to exclusively investigate matters that are scientific or mathematical in nature. Rather, they are often concerned with matters intrinsic to humanity and culture.
Why should disciplines be respected on the sole basis of their intellectual objectives? Would Anti-humanities, or Anti-science be respectable fields if their expressed purpose was to dump on respective nemeses? How about Anti-Vax-ology and Anti-climatology in that same vein? Here, and for the remainder of the piece, Foster invites readers to disregard his deflection of Sokal Squared’s challenge: whether respect for disciplines should hinge on representative scholarship and methods used to yield it, rather than mere stated objectives.
Foster also tries to circumvent the fact that humanity and culture are features of the natural world, and thus could theoretically be approached scientifically — the ascendant field of evolutionary psychology is an example of rapid encroachment on those topics. If Foster wishes to invoke Stephen J. Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria by replacing “religion” with “humanities”, then he has a Sisyphean task — and a potential turf war — ahead of him.
Furthermore, the very arguments that the scientific-right uses to demean the humanities — such as lacking in truth — almost always employ notions developed in the humanities themselves. For instance, when students associate the sciences with figuring out what the ‘truth’ is, they fail to understand that the very notion of truth is developed and investigated within the humanities, not the sciences.
A core investigation in philosophy, which is a branch of the humanities, is the question of what defines truth, whether it is: correspondence to the real world; coherence among a set of held beliefs; or agreement among professionals in ideal conditions. Perhaps it has no definition at all.
It is not just the fictitious “scientific-right” who has reservations about the scholastic environment of the humanities — there are plenty within the field who are uneasy with on-goings — such as two thirds of Sokal Squared. Further, the territoriality put on display here is disconcerting; an immediately intuitive riposte to Foster’s bald assertion is whether anyone or anything can have a monopoly on development of such a gargantuan, elusive concept as “truth” — no aspect of the humanities makes them uniquely qualified to handle that tall order. The pursuit of truth doesn’t belong to any one field, and dismissing science as incapable of making contributions to defining it conceptually is hearsay.
Take the case of neuroscience casting shadows on the notion that we truly have free will; if your brain sends a signal for you to take an action before you are consciously aware of your “decision”, are you a freely acting agent, or are you more beholden to neuroanatomy than most humans are comfortable admitting? Whether or not this finding vaporizes the metaphysical concept of free will is beside the point — the fact that neuroscience data and analysis can bear on the question at all is an indication that Foster has not considered his position as skeptically or as deeply as is required of humanities scholars.
Science is more than data collection; interpretation and discussion of said data, accurate or not, is part of the scientific enterprise — after all, before “science” was a coined term, the practice was referred to as natural philosophy — how this fact escaped a third-year History and Philosophy of Science student raises the brow. In that sense, what is science other than a humanities discipline dealing primarily with describing tangible reality? How does it differ from other humanities disciplines attempting the same, other than use of data and stringent methodology? The conclusion Foster doesn’t want to come to is that interpretive work in science is virtually identical to that done in the humanities — with the added constraint of using supplementary data to vindicate claims, permitting far less of the free-wheeling easily observed in humanities work.
Similarly, publications by Thomas Kuhn in the 1970s garnered a new outlook on the history of science: a picture of scientific practice as being influenced by socioeconomic and cultural factors. His arguments laid the groundwork for a re-examination of how scientists conduct science, and whether they are truly partaking in an objective, value-free discipline, independent of anything that is investigated within the humanities.
It takes inordinate zeal to hold faith that science, or any other intellectual undertaking, can ever be divorced from socioeconomics or culture; science is a product of culture, and enjoys perpetuity in certain cultures because they continue to value the pursuit. Science also never makes claims to being value-free — it holds accuracy, falsifiability, and elegance paramount — how would one be able to criticize scientific work without criteria? Science leaves less room for external influence than other disciplines by way of its methodology, in which opining takes place only after extensive data analysis — by contrast, humanities work is almost exclusively opinion-based throughout, some fields endorsing work that is wholly solipsistic or based on a priori hypotheses with cherry-picked “supporting” data.
Additionally, the ‘grievance studies’ are critical for providing inquiries into the normative questions that plague the sciences. An example of such a question is whether we ought to pursue lines of inquiry and regard them as ‘truth,’ when the consequences of such a discovery could lead to widespread human suffering.
Foster, ever the consequentialist, tries to serve hemlock to the sciences in the form of alleged normative questions concerning research topics and attendant results. These normative questions are not so much a plague on the sciences as much as they are an affliction on the humanities —sheer conjecture about an amorphous “widespread human suffering” seems to be the only flyweight counter-punch to scientific endeavor, easily shrugged off.
It is more likely that some results of scientific research are terrifying generally, but more-so to thin-skinned humanities scholars holding sacrosanct an epistemology in diametric opposition. Foster’s petition to make specific topics of inquiry verboten is not just censorious, but a shrinking from the intrepid spirit of scientific pursuit and the soul of the humanities, if they were to yield similar conclusions to the same questions.
It should be noted that nowhere in the article does Foster successfully attribute political motivations to the Sokal Squared authors, which makes his bizarro taxonomizing of them as “scientific-right” both wildly inappropriate and an insult to all science-minded individuals of right-of-center political persuasion.
I know this offering from Foster is not emblematic of the best — nor the worst — of the humanities’ regular crop harvest. However, does this not garner sympathy for Sokal Squared by being representative of middling humanities work making it onto the pages of University of Toronto’s student newspaper? If anything, this sort of popular reaction to the Grievance Studies hoax reinforces the very concerns it brought to the fore — that humanities pedagogy is in desperate need of improvement.