Grievance Studies vs. the Scientific Method
The Grievance Studies Project, a yearlong exercise in revealing the corrupt and corruptible nature of many of academia’s newest disciplines, has prompted discussion far and wide. This is exactly what needs to happen.
Recently I had the following interchange on twitter. James Lindsay is one of the three creators, directors, and producers of the Project (Peter Boghossian and Helen Pluckrose being the other two). James had recently argued that the Grievance Studies people were back on their heels, and that change was imminent. I’m not so sure.
I took the question from Mr. Barker, whom I do not know, in the spirit intended. Here is my reply.
Word choice is important, and it sways people, so you are right to wonder — is it necessary to use language that implies competition?
In this case, it is. There is real conflict here.
It is not the scientists and other practitioners of Enlightenment methods and values who created the conflict, however. Nor are we “defending our privilege” by resisting the forces that are coming at us.
Postmodernism, and its many derivatives, do include kernels of truth. Our sensory apparatus biases us, and we are mostly unaware of those biases. Foucault’s metaphorical extension of Bentham’s Panopticon allows for schools, factories and prisons to be understood as similar in their use of power to control populations. Even Critical Race Theory has at its foundation the real observation that the American legal system has had a particularly difficult time emerging from its racist past, and that full recovery from that past is not yet on the horizon.
But the modern instantiations of postmodernism, in the form of Grievance Studies, have jumped the shark.
Unfortunately, the rest of us cannot just decide to tune out, while Grievance Studies renders itself less and less coherent and relevant to a functioning society. For it is spreading in such a way that it is taking out other disciplines, revealing the cowardice at the heart of people, and making it difficult — impossible in some cases — to have nuanced discourse about complex topics. It has moved far beyond the fringe disciplines in which it began, and its conclusions and personnel are ever more normalized across American society.
Here’s an anecdote, told because it is relevant, but also because it is illustrative of a more general trend. I have experienced other things like this, and have heard many other such stories as well. Data is not the plural of anecdote, but these anecdotes — they do pile up.
In the Summer of 2017, I spent five days at a meeting of ~100 people on a mountaintop in Utah. The participants skewed male and, to a lesser degree, tech — lots of STEM guys from Silicon Valley were in attendance. Early on, Grievance Studies reared its head. The rest of us were discussing society, science, the self. Or, we had been. The conference ground to a halt.
The aggrieved comprised a scant handful of people, but those few nearly broke the community. The vague accusation, for which there was no evidence, was of widespread misogyny among the participants. This was August of 2017, immediately after James Damore had published his now-famous google memo. The memo implicitly put forth the radical idea that women are people, too, complete with agency and the ability to make decisions suited to their preferences. Women, he argued (based on solid evidence), on average, have somewhat different preferences from men, on average. For this, he was vilified and fired, and Grievance Studies was off to the races.
It was a big win for Grievance Studies, and a stunning blow to science. A scientific approach to the question of why women only represent one fifth of software engineers at Google would seek all possible hypotheses, and then attempt to distinguish between those hypotheses. A Grievance Studies approach, by contrast, allows for one and only explanation. The single explanation for why women are “under-represented” in many STEM fields is not up for debate: the one true answer is that it is due to discrimination, historical and current, by men against women. This shall not be tested. If you question it, you will be shamed and bullied until you shut up, or leave.
It was in that cultural context that this conference on a Utah mountaintop was taking place. So the idea that misogyny was ubiquitous was in the zeitgeist.
Early on, as the accusations began and the conference began to falter, I found myself in conversation with a good-hearted, smart and kind man who felt allyship with the few women making the claims. He had genuine curiosity about what was going on, and wanted to know why I was so fiercely pushing back against the incursion. I told him this:
“I fear that I am having to defend science itself, the process which, despite its inefficiencies, has no equal at discovering error and bias. The scientific process is not everything that a society needs, but it is needed: It is necessary, if not sufficient, for civilization.”
It is therefore terrifying to watch as this attempt by activist academics to dismantle logic and hypothesis, falsification and rigor, gains ground. This is conflict, plain and simple. There may be far more than two sides, but there are at least two, and both cannot win.
There is much more of note from that Utah mountaintop, but in the interest of both brevity and protecting the privacy of those in attendance, I will add only this: Bret Weinstein (my husband) and I attended together. Just a few months earlier, we had dealt with Grievance Studies activists in a far more hostile environment at Evergreen, where we were tenured, and our futures at that college were, at that point, still up in the air. Watching this unfold now in a group that we would have thought immune to it, watching it do real damage to the development of both relationships and ideas, we thought that we might have something to offer. We are evolutionary biologists with background in sexual selection, in the evolution of sex and sex roles, on territoriality and courtship and parental care. So we put together an impromptu lecture — there were wide gaps in the schedule as the conference fell apart — and invited anyone with interest and time to come.
For two hours we talked — conversationally, with ample audience engagement — about what male and female are, what our long history as sexual beings means about who we are now, and whether it is, in fact, likely, that men and women have identical interests and abilities. (For those on the edge of their seats: No. No it is not likely that men and women, on average, have identical interests and abilities.) Some of the aggrieved were in attendance.
Afterwards, we received gratitude. Not hatred or anger or disgust. Gratitude. And requests for further reading. Open discussion, in which not only truths are shared, but also the basis on which we arrive at our understanding, is a remarkably powerful tool. I was doing it with undergraduates for 15 years (as was Bret). Part of what worries me so deeply about the Grievance Studies “scholars” is that they, too, have students, and I doubt very much that open inquiry, or encouragement of disagreement, are on the syllabus.
We have a disagreement. In its simplest rendering, it is a disagreement between the methods and goals of Grievance Studies, and those of science.
Some disagreements are simply misunderstandings. With better communication, they can often be resolved, without anyone losing what they desire or need. Other disagreements exist in non-zero-sum space, so both sides can walk away with some of what they desire, without costing the other.
Not so this disagreement.
This disagreement is zero-sum. What one side wins comes at a cost to the other side.
The rhetoric of Grievance Studies is becoming a cultural norm, spreading far beyond colleges to K12 schools, to corporate culture (Google, Starbucks, so many more), to the left-leaning mainstream media (New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian…).
Grievance Studies states that by disagreeing with its conclusions, you prove them true. Asking for evidence of racism, for instance, is taken as (wait for it…): evidence of racism. Grievance Studies has made itself unfalsifiable. It is patently racist and sexist (just not in the usual directions). And by cloaking itself in words that sound good, it has fooled a great many people.
What happens to a society that does not have an educational system which challenges people, which tells them when they’re wrong, which demands that they become their best selves? What happens when the educational system, instead, congratulates (some) individuals on how perfect and yet oppressed they already are?
We are seeing the answer to that. It is not pretty. It is not honorable or just or democratic. Angry people, more and more entrenched at both extremes, feel the hot thrill of victory when they slam someone from the other side down. It is usually a metaphorical slam, occasionally a literal one. Every adult human can recognize this sensation, if they are being honest with themselves. Righteous fury is an all-body extravaganza. Grievance Studies stokes that fury, encourages it. It advises that your feelings — your lived experience — is the only valid form of knowledge. It encourages you to conflate what you think with who you are. Thus, if someone argues with you, they are attacking your very being. You have every right to be outraged.
Science is the antidote to outrage. Science also coexists quite well with compassion, love, generosity, and gratitude. Why do I use words of conflict to describe what the Grievance Studies Project has helped to unveil? Because the most universal source of knowledge and progress in the world is under attack by outrage artists, and they must be stopped.