Tonight I finished the first draft of my first article for the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective since last year. This has been quite a difficult and stressful past few months, and I haven’t had the chance to do as much writing as I wished.
Only my fierce (and possibly misdirected) commitment to myself to keep this blog going has kept content flowing here. However, I was quite glad to get to work on this article, even though it arose quite spontaneously and unexpectedly.
It started from an article that appeared in American Prospect by the social theorist Peter Dreier. Dreier admitted to having sent an abstract that he wrote as pure nonsense to a panel at the Society for Social Studies of Science. They accepted it, but rather than follow through on his Sokal-like fraud, he kept silent about it for six years – the original panel was for the 2010 Tokyo conference.
|I told my fellow Collective members that my contribution
to the debate on this Peter Dreier situation would go "The
Full Borges," and I was pleasantly surprised that they were
okay with this.
The gang at the Collective was quite upset about it, because 4S has become the regular international conference for our community. So we all started a conversation about how to respond to Dreier having admitted that he’d punked 4S a couple of weeks ago.
That conversation has lasted more than 100 emails so far. All manner of opinion has been shared. It’s what I love about being in SERRC, that we can all sometimes jump in on these massive, stimulating, fascinating conversations about critical conceptual issues.
And a few articles about Dreier’s deception will appear on the SERRC website over the next few weeks or so. I don’t want to get into details – I’ll just link them on my blog, my Twitter feed, my Facebook author page, and my Facebook personal page when they appear.
I’m rather glad I ended up the first in the schedule too. Basically, I think what Dreier did was generally reprehensible – a total violation of his ethical standards as a researcher and a person. Just as I think Alan Sokal’s was.
The difference is that Sokal followed through on his scorched-earth assault on the entire influence of postmodernist ideas in theories of science, and Dreier just wrote his passive-aggressive article in American Prospect six years after the fact. So in a way, I respect Sokal more for his commitment.
I’ll leave the details of my critique for my article for SERRC. Because tonight, I want to talk about how I went about writing it. If arguing with people about politics and ethics on social media over the past few years has taught me anything, it’s that polemics don’t teach people shit. Explicitly arguing against someone’s position will rarely, if ever, convince them to drop that position.
This is really the great lie of how my discipline of philosophy is taught in undergraduate classes. Students encountering philosophy for the first time in a university setting are often told that it must always be written as arguments, and that the best philosophical writings are the most compelling, clear, logically valid arguments. They begin from intuitively true premises, then proceed through clear inferences to make their conclusions undeniable.
Then you actually read the tradition and all the best books are sprawling monsters of conceptual literature bursting to the seams with divergent interpretations and utterly weird ideas.
This is why I’ve started using my position from outside the university system to contribute more experimental writing to the philosophical tradition. Last time, I wrote a review of a book about Plato’s political concepts in the form of a dialogue between myself and Socrates. It was a good read, but in terms of it succeeding in what I wanted it to do, it was no more than a 7/10.
I told my comrades in the Collective that my first volley would be a critique of Dreier that would go the Full Borges, if I can riff on a phrase from Ben Stiller. In stories like “Tlon Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “Funes the Memorious,” and “The Aleph,” Borges describes our own world, but twisted in a key detail that, when it’s revealed, makes our world fantastic.
Now, that key detail is usually very strange. One of his recurring key details is the notion that thought alone can shape the fabric of reality. It's the central concept of “Tlon Uqbar Orbis Tertius.” In my case, the key detail that transforms our world is far more innocuous. I imagine what circumstances would eventually make Dreier realize he was wrong.
I believe that Dreier made a mistake in submitting his fraudulent paper to the 4S conference. Not only was it an ethical mistake – it was an epistemic mistake. He thought that the source of error was a direct result of the individual organizers’ laziness, haughtiness, or charlatanry.
But there were more systemic causes of the failure of gatekeeping that let his fraudulent abstract through. Causes that don’t ask for the panel organizers’ repentance, but that demand Dreier’s redemption instead.
Any more details of the article? Spoilers.