The scholarly world has been rocked by an online article titled “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship” by Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian, which reports a massive hoax designed to expose “the problems of ideologically-motivated scholarship, radical skepticism, and cultural constructivism.” The authors wrote 20 articles advancing absurd positions and submitted them to prestigious academic cultural studies journals. Many of them were accepted, which the authors contend demonstrates that the journals were more about promoting sophistry than good scholarship.
We are both scientists who are familiar with the current of skepticism toward science that runs through the humanities. However, we also regard social constructivism as part of the essence of what it means to be human. We, therefore, think that social constructivism needs to be saved -- from its most extreme proponents and its most extreme critics. There is a middle ground that needs to be established and defended against polarized views on both sides.
David Sloan Wilson and Lynette Shaw Discuss Social Constructivism
The reasonable middle ground is based on a combination of evolutionary theory and complexity theory. Evolutionary science became highly gene-centric during most of the 20th century, ceding the study of human culture to other disciplines. Only during the last few decades have evolutionists gone back to basics by framing evolution in terms of variation, selection, and heredity, with genes as only one of several inheritance mechanisms. Other mechanisms include epigenetics, forms of learning found in many species, and forms of symbolic thought that are distinctively human[i]. With terms such as “extended evolutionary synthesis”, “dual inheritance theory”, “cultural multilevel selection”, and “niche construction” evolutionists are just starting to explore terrain that is new for them but well-traveled by scholars in the social sciences and humanities—a bit like the European explorers of the 19th century encountering native people for the first time[ii].
Complex systems theory and tools such as agent-based modeling are required to understand how the macro-level dynamics of social constructivism emerge from the micro-dynamics of human cognitive psychology. This enterprise is only beginning and the first models illustrate a rich array of possibilities, such as the spontaneous formation of subgroups, path dependency, lock-in, and endogenous cultural change. However, these are just proofs of concept until they are related to information on real-world cultural systems—and the “thicker” the description of a given culture, the better.
We understand and appreciate the motivating concern behind Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian’s exposé. For instance, Paul Boghossian’s book Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism, covers the same ground without resorting to guerrilla tactics. These excesses of humanistic scholarship should be acknowledged, critiqued, and addressed. Yet, scientists and scholars committed to the pursuit of objective knowledge need to be humble about their ability to overcome their own cultural biases. Here is a telling passage from the exposé, concerning the failure of the peer review process to weed out their absurd submissions:
This isn’t so much of a problem with peer review itself as a recognition that peer review can only be as unbiased as the aggregate body of peers being called upon to participate. The skeptical checks and balances that should characterize the scholarly process have been replaced with a steady breeze of confirmation bias that blows grievance studies scholarship ever further off course. This isn’t how research is supposed to work.
Unfortunately, this is how scientific and scholarly research does work whenever a community of scientists and scholars is trapped within the bubble of their own social constructions. A glance at scientific theories of race and gender during the 19th century is sufficient to make this point. The solution is to make the scientific community as culturally diverse as possible. Of course, the community must also be committed to the pursuit of objective knowledge. That is the middle ground that needs to be established and defended against polarized views on both sides.
Of related interest:
[i] Jablonka, E., & Lamb, M. (2006). Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of LIfe. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
[ii] Joseph Henrich discusses the encounter between European explorers and native people in his book The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making us Smarter.