Friday, September 27, 2019

Too Hot to Handle: The Emperor’s New Clothes

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Christopher Dummitt is an Associate Professor of History at Trent University, and he has a confession to make: “I basically just made it up.”

Tom: He’s not the first, and he’s probably not the worst, but Dummitt is keen on taking either credit or blame (it’s not always clear which) for successfully swaying Canadian public opinion about sex and gender. He used to tell his students and readers that gender is entirely a social construct, not a biological reality. Today, the vast majority of Canadians believe him.

Problem is he was misusing his authority to deceive the public. The Emperor would go out tonight, but he doesn’t have a stitch to wear. Likewise, Dummitt had no substantive evidence of any sort to offer for his ideology-based position. As he now admits, his so-called “proofs” may legitimately be interpreted any number of ways. He used rhetoric and the “appeal to authority” fallacy to patch the gaping holes in his argument.

But we knew that, didn’t we, IC?

The Big Problem

Immanuel Can: Well, I sure did. I’ve seen those kinds of shenanigans first hand. Various faculties of the humanities at university do it all the time: they “research” without real research, and just write ideology in its place.

Tom: I’m talking to the right person then. Why is it that so many in our society are happy to take these things on authority when we have plenty of evidence we are constantly being lied to by men and women who should know better? Do we have short memories or something?

IC: No. We’ve been taught to revere scientists and scholars or even people who just carry those names. We’ve been told that they are smarter than we are, and we’ve come to feel that, being in the possession of more facts and perhaps more eloquence than we have, they are less likely to lie or be wrong. So when a pronouncement comes down from somebody who has degrees or a significant office of some kind, we bow to what we think is their more trustworthy judgment. And we don’t imagine that they will tend to make mistakes, lie, or outright misrepresent to us in the service of their ideology. They will be, we think, “objective”.

Cherry-Picking the Past

Tom: Dummitt is quite frank about having done plenty of historical research, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. He went cherry-picking his way (his term) through the past documenting case after case that appear to the neophyte to show that gender has not always been defined in precisely the same way at all times and all places. However, it’s not the particular facts that tell the tale; it’s the interpretation put on them by the experts. Dummitt now admits he manipulated bits of carefully selected “evidence” to arrive at his preconceived conclusions. However, had he chosen different bits of evidence, he could equally have demonstrated the opposite. Bottom line: he says that in the field of gender studies, “everyone was (and is) making it up.” That’s pretty damning.

But truly, we know there is nothing scientific about the humanities.

IC: That’s not quite true. For example, the humanities use things like demographics and statistics. But the subjects of study are human beings, which means they’re irregular and unpredictable. They have free will; so they don’t behave like objects, and don’t “stay put” where you think they ought to be, or do only what you think they ought to do. Not only that, but the researchers in any field are also human beings … and that means that sometimes they make mistakes, lie, do something self-serving, or are ideologically driven. So you have to be very careful not to take findings in the humanities without skepticism and without checking closely to see if the things said are really so.

Tom: And whether it’s historical research or statistics, it’s the conclusions you draw from your data that are most significant, and which determine whether you’ve handled your material as a scientist or as an ideologue.

Asking the Wrong Questions

As Dummitt himself points out, the problem was not in the research. It was in the questions he asked of it:
“[T]he biggest question of all — the most important — is the final one: ‘why?’ Why did a certain event happen in the way that it did? In my case, it was: Why did postwar Canadians talk about men and women in the way that they did?

I had answers, but I didn’t find them in my primary research. They came from my ideological beliefs — even if, at the time, I wouldn’t have described this as ideology.”
So now Dummitt finds himself having pushed this agenda for the best part of two decades having never given any particular thought to the socially-transformative power his claims would wield if they became popularly accepted.

IC: Right. That’s the luxury of living in the protected confines of the university, with its tenure and its distance from reality. You can think that because your ideology looks “clever” and “good” to you, that it’s also true. But it’s untested in the real world, and its actually effects can be totally horrendous. Just look at Marxism — there’s no reason that hideous ideology has survived its deeds in the 20th century, except that naive “intellectuals” in some universities keep it alive. And it still looks good to them, which tells you how far removed they are from reality.

More is at Stake

Tom: This is how Dummitt puts it, and I think the quote’s a classic:
“It was one thing when I was having drinks with fellow grad students and battling it out in the inconsequential world of our own egos. But now much more is at stake.”
Er … yes. I rather think it is. But the thing is that much more was ALWAYS at stake. These self-indulgent prats are teaching our children. Whether you are a teacher, writer, researcher … if you don’t make communicating the absolute truth your primary object, there are going to be negative consequences, and not just for you. Sometimes the one who starts the ball rolling is the least affected by the nonsense he pushes downhill. He’s up there out of the way mumbling to himself while the dominoes he knocked over are tumbling away over there conveniently out of sight.

IC: That’s one of the advantages of the university — there are no consequences for speculation, which means you can speculate widely, and think about things other people don’t have time or ingenuity to speculate about. New discoveries are often made that way. But the downside is that we’re talking about theory, not practice. The ideas the university generates, particularly in the humanities, are untested by reality, or tested only in special confines of the laboratory. Their real-world, long-term effects just aren’t known. And yet, these theories are handed down with tremendous authority, because they’re thought to come from the smartest people.

Smart people in a bubble are still only people in a bubble. Their ideas are not fully proven, and the theorists are insulated from the consequences of their mistakes.

The ‘Safety’ of Peer Review

Tom: We are often told that the integrity of the scientific process is protected by peer review. In this case, Dummitt submitted his work to be critiqued by his peers. This was the result:
“I just assumed that gender was a social construct and proceeded on that basis. I never engaged — at least not seriously — with anyone who suggested otherwise. And no one, at any point of my graduate studies, or in peer review, ever did suggest otherwise — except in conversations, usually outside of academia. And so I was never forced to confront alternative, biologically oriented explanations that were at least as plausible as the hypothesis that I’d dressed up with the air of certainty.”
Great protection there. So you can pretty much write anything you want and nobody with the intellectual chops to recognize your conclusions are questionable at best feels compelled to push back. Meanwhile, Dummitt’s book has been cited authoritatively 112 times in other published works on the same subject. He can disclaim (or partially disclaim) it now, but that doesn’t change what’s out there.

IC: Peer review is a problem. The “peers” in question are from the same sorts of background and circumstances as the person they’re reviewing, and everyone has a stake in approving the achievements of their own discipline. So they don’t really challenge each other much.

Tom: Agreed. So says Dummitt.

Pushing Back

IC: And that situation is made much worse by the tendency of all professors to come from only the political Left. They really don’t get to hear many contrary views … at least, not vigorous ones from opposite viewpoints. The famous “Sokal Hoax” exposed this fact brilliantly.

Tom: How do you propose Christians fight this sort of thing? Universities and colleges are not hiring or giving tenure to professors who fail to genuflect to the narrative, and it doesn’t seem to me like there’s much for a young Christian studying the humanities to learn from people who have no interest in pursuing truth. Do we have to start sending them Christian subversives? Or are we better to walk away from the whole thing and start our own institutes of higher learning? And that doesn’t even begin to touch the destructive influence of all this on society …

IC: Hmm … there’s no one answer to that. It depends: what are you trying to get out of the university experience? An education? Then maybe pick one of the more conservative-leaning universities, like Oklahoma Wesleyan or the University of Chicago. You can find out the names of the places that favor academic freedom from this site or its Canadian equivalent. But are you looking to expose yourself to a challenge from the secular left, or a mission field? Maybe pick a secular, left-leaning university. There are many considerations. Knowing what you want is the first of them.

Tom: And for those of us too old to be worried about university, either for us or our kids, consider sharing the linked article. The more people who know the Emperor has no clothes, the fewer of us are likely to emulate him.

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Image courtesy michael clarke stuff [CC BY-SA 2.0]

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