Everything Studies on Cynical Theories

by DanielFilan1 min read27th Oct 20216 comments

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A review of Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay's book "Cynical Theories", which casts it as a missive to moderate liberals to get them to reject illiberal strands of popular wokism.

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One amusing part:

If we combine this with the idea above that contemporary wokeness in many ways stand directly opposed to the ideals of early postmodernism — and much of what e.g. Foucault said about the production of what was considered “truth” and “knowledge” in his society applies very well to the woke-industrial complex of today — we can say with a not-quite-straight face that the problem with wokeism (or Critical Social Justice) lies in it being insufficiently postmodernist and too reliant on reason.

[+][comment deleted]1mo 3

I found this account helpful in contextualizing postmodern fields. Insofar as they come from good intentions, postmodern grievance studies is a response to a society that won't pay for criticism; in the absence of epistemic trade relations or functioning civil courts, the main alternative way to make criticism ecologically sustainable is predation, in which critics expropriate from the agents being criticized, making use of the information advantage derived from possessing a valid critique.

Once you understand clearly that academic fields are not generically natural clusters in inquiry-space, but are social constructs exercising narrative power in the service of political agendas (including their own survival), the natural next step is to learn how to construct a performance that can claim resources to further your own agenda.

Postmodern academic grievance studies seems to be an attempt to construct a sort of church which uses its influence over a credentialing system to exercise moral authority over its members, i.e. to compel signs of submission, and sometimes material concessions.

It doesn't seem like an adequate social substrate for a free, technological society, but it does seem like it might be good at de-escalating some kinds of modern warfare in ways that might make me safer from state violence, and it seems like it might be easy for well-intentioned people who can talk with each other (a huge information advantage) to appease once we abandon the delusion that we live in a liberal society and stop trying to assist genocidal oppressors.

Standpoint Epistemical Status: I live in a second world country, and monitor USA politics from across the ocean because it's less depressing than the politics of my own country.

I've heard about Pluckrose, Lindsays and Boghossian social experiment. They framed it as a strong evidience that social sciences went astray and are now producing bad science for ideological reasons. Ironically, however, what Pluckrose, Lindsays and Boghossian did, is an example of bad science itself. For instance, they had no control group. A third of their junk papers were actually published (btw, I'm not sure they did a good job acknowledging the negative results) but how does it compares with junk papers in other fields of science? And of course they had an obvious ideological and monetary incentive for a very specific conclusion of their experiment and made it look more impressive than it actually is. As the whole book is based on the premise that their experiment is valid, I think it's a little unfair to omit this information in the review.

One of the main points of the review (and of the book as well, I assume) is that left-leaning liberals are delusioned to think that social justice is an extension of liberal niceness, but actually an intrinsically illiberal ideology perpetruated by radicals that we should stand against. I must admit, I'm extremely annoyed by this claim. And mainly not because I'm a moderately woke-liberal whose model of niceness includes social justice, but because it exactly mirrors an extremely annoying claim of my own side, that right-leaning liberals are delusioned by conservative scaremongering, perpertruated by fashists that we should stand against. I see such narratives as harming our ability to engage with our opponents in a good faith. Isn't it what you mean by lacking dignity culture? I must admit, however, that leftist do a much better job proving that conservative scaremongering is a thing, than the appeal to ignorance you use in the review to worry us about the dangers of wokism.

The line of arguments that critical studies are illiberal because they remove the focus from the individuals, their personal choices and responsibilities to structural and systemic tendencies seems to prove too much. By the same token nearly all science is illiberal. And I don't see what all the talk about postmodernism here achieves other than poisons the well. Knowledge that our ideas of reason itself are dependant on our social context is no more an abolishment of reason than knowledge of cognitive biases is. One can find strawmen postmodernists in general population just as strawmen of every ideology, to claim that there is some specific problem with specifically postmodernists in specifically social justice movement we need some comparative analysis.

One could also argue about the success of immunisation against nationalism an fashism, and I think there are good reasons to thinks that western societies are much more vulnerable towards these vices than we would like them to be and taking this immunisation for granted is a mistake. But a more important point is that in this methaphor wokeness and social justice are our immune system against fashism. And I agree, autoimmune diseases are a thing. It's important to make sure that our immune system doesn't target false positives. There are discussions of this problem amount the left and I think it's important that more liberal-minded people participated in them in a good faith. I don't see how creating a rallying flag for liberals to stand against social justice in a culture war is going to help. On the contrary, this leads to evaporation of group beliefs and more radicalisation of the left due to toxoplasma of rage.

I don't think you can make a case against default ideology in science from the liberal position. After all there is no actual coercion or brainwashing. Smart people arrive to similar conclusion due to similar information. It's a liberal argument in favour of wokism, if anything. To present this as a problem, you have to, unironically, and quite with a straight face, accept the main premise of critical theories you are arguing against.

The idea of a new secularism is interesting, and I think we will end with something like it when the systemic issues that critical social justice is concerned about are solved. Until then, however, I don't understand how it supposed to work. Lets take an example: the de facto continuous segregation of american black people. What is the liberal, reasonable, secular and definetely not postmodernist solution here? Allow to stack more than two things on top of each other? That would work. Unless, of course, there is some kind of political lobby for preserving suburban lifestyle, or the value of the property, or state rights, or whatever is the current  ephemism for the status quo where low class black people are not allowed in the neighborhood...
It seems that what authors propose is just stop carrying about these issues which isn't going to work and, moreover, is kind of evil.

Regarding the authors' attempts to get papers published in these journals, the review doesn't make it seem like the book relies on that experiment being valid (and the review itself does not) - it just talks about various features of these fields and theorizes about their causes and effects. I also don't think that their experiment was 'bad science' in the sense of being uninformative. If 'grievance studies' journals are willing to publish bad papers, that does tell you something about those journals, even if 'hard science' journals are also willing to publish bad papers (which we know, thanks to the replication crisis and bloggers like Andrew Gelman, that they are). Also, Wikipedia says "By the time of the reveal, 4 of their 20 papers had been published; 3 had been accepted but not yet published; 6 had been rejected; and 7 were still under review.". It seems unfair to include the papers that were under review in the denominator, since their efforts ended early, so I'd evaluate their success rate at 1 in 2, rather than 1 in 3, which isn't so bad.

The line of arguments that critical studies are illiberal because they remove the focus from the individuals, their personal choices and responsibilities to structural and systemic tendencies seems to prove too much.

This is really not what the review portrays the arguments to be, so I'm having difficulty engaging with this paragraph. Could you perhaps quote an example of that argument in the book or in the review that you think is invalid?

But a more important point is that in this methaphor wokeness and social justice are our immune system against fashism.

I'd say that liberalism is a sufficient immune system - altho I'm obviously interested in ways that it isn't.

I don't see how creating a rallying flag for liberals to stand against social justice in a culture war is going to help. On the contrary, this leads to evaporation of group beliefs and more radicalisation of the left due to toxoplasma of rage.

I think the idea is to give a certain strain of thinking a name, and analyse what its like, to make it easier for people to figure out if that strand of thinking is somehow bad and avoid it if it is. Presumably you're sometimes in favour of this kind of thing, so I'd like to know what you think makes this effort different

I don't think you can make a case against default ideology in science from the liberal position.

I think liberalism allows the idea that many people can have a wrong worldview!

Regarding how the 'second secularism' deals with issues like de facto segregation in the US: I agree that that's the sort of thing that critical social justice cares about, but it's also something that liberalism can discuss and grapple with. As you mention, in order to understand the problem you probably also need to understand racism, but that doesn't automatically mean that things other than critical social justice can't deal with the problem, or that critical social justice frames are going to be successful (e.g. it might make you think that people only bring up house values as a pretext for racism, when it seems pretty intuitive to me that people actually do care about how much money they have).

A final note: I get the sense that you maybe think I wrote this review. I actually didn't, but I mostly liked it, somewhat mooting the point.