16 October 2018

The violent emptiness of identity politics is a threat to science


“Glaciers are key icons of climate change and global environmental change. However, the relationships among gender, science, and glaciers […] remain understudied. This paper thus proposes a feminist glaciology framework.”

Thus reads the abstract for “Glaciers, gender, and science. A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research” by Carey, Jackson et al., published in Progress in Human Geography in 2016.

You might have thought – whatever other political pressures are brought to bear on the study of glaciers and climate – that a block of ice is entirely indifferent to the gender of the person who studies it. You’d be right, of course, but – and here’s where matters are going awry – also wrong, at least from the perspective of an increasing proportion of the Academy.

That the paper reads like one of the so-called “hoax” papers by James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian isn’t chance; their hoax papers aren’t “hoaxes” at all: just a demonstration of the violent emptiness of what passes for too much “research” in what those writers call “grievance studies”, and what I’ve called the “pathological subjectivism” of too much social science research. (In case you’re wondering: the glaciology paper is real.)

If this specific form of postmodern thinking were restricted to a few university departments, the rest of us could (perhaps) choose not to care. But that’s not an option open to anyone who calls themselves liberal, in the old-fashioned sense of the word.

Whether you’re a Tory, a social democrat or even purely of the left, the cultural dominance of this pathologically subjective form of thinking — of projecting the political grievances of self-identified activist leaders onto the framework of knowledge used by social scientists – is starting to affect us all, whether you live in an ivory tower, a dreaming spire, or a suburban semi in Metroland.

As Helen Pluckrose puts it in this essay: “The Civil Rights Movement, 2nd wave liberal feminism and Gay Pride are widely recognized to have done great things in campaigning for equality and the current movements position themselves as a continuation of this project. They are not.”

Identity politics isn’t liberal progression by another form, but bullying, made respectable by postmodern theorising.

Don’t doubt that this pomo game has penalties for infractions of its rules. An example: whenever I make the – surely obvious – point that I’m not “LGBTQX”, that no human being is a collection of initials, and that transgender political campaigns have nothing to do with male (or female) homosexuality (which is a celebration of one’s gender, rather than a rejection of the very concept), then I know I will receive abuse on social media.

The lobby groups which stand behind those various clusters of initials are ferocious in the action they take against transgressors, and that ferocity is fuelled by the academic “heft” of that school of post-modernist thought.

Anything which contradicts that theory (hello, Shaun Bailey) is a threat to the activist-academic’s identity/sense of self. This is the well-spring for the claims one sees articulated so often in newspaper stories and on social media, about how the opinions of anyone who won’t subscribe to identity politics are akin to “violence”. Violence is illegal, so the expression of such opinions can be silenced.

Hence the banning of Julia Hartley-Brewer from the Labour conference for saying “Boo” while sat alone in a “safe space” room; hence the removal of the “Woman: adult female” billboard outside the same conference; hence biological men placed in women’s prisons; hence the Wellcome Foundation’s paroxysms of creepy humility over how to spell “woman” (hint: it doesn’t contain an “x”). Hence, too, why the rest of us are frightened to speak the truth.

Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist” expresses it well:

…I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

But we must dip our hands, and expose the spawn of the slime kings for the violent emptiness it is. And do so without withdrawing into the unthinking assertion that science is purely “objective”; of course, it is not. We choose which theories we assess and we choose how we assess them. To that extent, the early deconstructionists were right.

Science isn’t anti-subjectivity; but a theory is scientific only to the extent that different opinions about its utility/veracity can be overcome by accumulating evidence about it. If no amount of data can change your opinion about a theory; if you react to data which contradicts your theory by feeling that your very identity is being attacked; then you are pathologically subjective, and a stranger to rational discourse.

It’s tempting to say (Seamus again) that:

…to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity.

But when the International Journal of Evidence Based Healthcare – no grievance studies rag – can publish a paper that argues that evidence-based medicine is “a good example of microfascism” – then we have to pry into the roots, and finger the slime, and hold up this pseudo-intellectual spawn to the sun, in the hope that it evaporates under its cleansing rays.

Science is too beautiful and too important to ignore the threat posed by this activist-academy any longer. If science is Rome, its enemies are Carthage. Carthago delenda est.

Graeme Archer is a statistician and writer.