Last month, Areo magazine published a year-long project, dubbed Sokal Squared, that sought to expose the humanities as unscientific, devoid of truth, radical, and outlandish.
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.
Over the course of a year, they managed to get seven of these papers published in peer-reviewed academic journals. One paper that discusses how dog parks are “rape-condoning spaces” gained special recognition in Gender, Place, and Colour.
All these papers are, of course, ridiculous and should not have been published. 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.
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.
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.
Three years ago, three Massachusetts Institute of Technology students crafted an artificial intelligence called SCIgen to generate ostensibly legitimate, but actually nonsensical, computer science papers. This resulted in the publication of 120 nonsensical papers in highly respectable scientific journals, many of which were peer-reviewed.
This wasn’t an isolated phenomenon. In 2010, Cyril Labbé revealed that he had utilized his own program, HAL, to generate 100 false papers in, once again, well-regarded, peer-reviewed scientific journals.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Possible examples may be investigations into ‘race realism,’ genetic enhancement, and nuclear energy. All these inquiries could lead to extremely disastrous effects for states and, potentially, for the world. Inquiries into ‘grievance studies’ allow us to examine the social conditions under which scientific investigation operates — a crucial, morally necessary survey that influences and shapes the sciences.
The very fact that a year was wasted on such a project is an embarrassment to the academics who have endorsed it. At most, they shed light on the issues plaguing academic journals in general and should be framed as such, rather than seeking to delegitimize specific disciplines for political reasons.
Sokal Squared shows how out of touch those on the scientific-right are. It is time that they recognize the importance of the humanities, both in relation to the sciences and in their own right.
Gavin Foster is a third-year Philosophy and History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at Trinity College.