Why you should care
The left's left science, they argue. They're trying to bring it back.
This article is part of a series examining the fringes of American life, exploring their origins and how they’re redefining the mainstream of tomorrow. Read the first installment here, and the second here.
- A movement of liberal intellectuals who believe that the social justice discourse has broken with science and rationality is now set to release its ideological charter.
- They’re trying to carve out political space between the left and the right. Cynical Theories, the new book they’re releasing this month, might be their best shot at that.
The three scholars were disillusioned. They had watched for years as what they felt was anti-intellectual and evidence-free scholarship took over academia — particularly in “social justice” fields including post-colonial and critical race theory, as well as gender and fat studies, among others. Their solution? To submit a number of bogus academic papers to ostensibly serious academic journals in those fields … and show how easily unsupported claims could be presented as factual without reasonable proofs.
Of the 20 papers they turned in to respected, peer-reviewed journals in 2017 and 2018, one suggested that Western astrology, based on math, was both sexist and imperialist and should be replaced with things like “mythological narratives” and “feminist interpretative dance.” Another argued that dogs having sex at a Portland park was a sign of rape culture. Yet another suggested college professors should enact “experiential reparations” … by chaining white students to the floor and ignoring their complaints as wrongful attempts to “recenter the needs of privileged groups at the expense of marginalized ones.”
Yet despite the absurdity of their arguments, seven of their papers were accepted, while another seven were still under review and only six had been denied by the time the authors revealed their ruse to the Wall Street Journal in October of 2018. “We think studying topics like gender, race and sexuality is worthwhile, and getting it right is extremely important,” said James Lindsay, one of the three scholars, along with Areo magazine editor Helen Pluckrose and Portland State philosophy professor Peter Boghossian. However, Lindsay added, “a culture has developed in which only certain conclusions are allowed … the fields we are concerned about put social grievances ahead of objective truth.”
While some academics praised their effort in exposing intellectual flaws, others criticized them. But those early steps served as the ideological inspiration behind the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web,” a growing school of thought that includes a collection of mostly left-leaning professors, pundits and thinkers united in their criticism of the modern social justice movement as authoritarian and illogical.
The book is a tactical nuclear strike on the heart of the moral architecture that is sustaining Culture War 2.0.
Peter Boghossian, Portland State philosophy professor
The coalition includes figures such as the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson and the atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris, as well as lesser-known folks, such as mathematician Eric Weinstein and his brother, Bret. The latter was forced to resign from Evergreen State College after students protested his decision to fight a campus event that demanded white students not show up for a day. Others loosely affiliated with the movement include evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro and popular podcaster Joe Rogan. They don’t all love the name for their movement — it was originally coined jokingly by Eric Weinstein but has since stuck.
But these counter-revolutionary thinkers who might appear a fringe group now are poised to soon have their biggest moment yet: The publication this month of Cynical Theories, a book that Boghossian believes will have the same groundbreaking impact that Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion had on atheism.
“The book is a tactical nuclear strike on the heart of the moral architecture that is sustaining Culture War 2.0,” says Boghossian, who has read and offered feedback on the book authored by Lindsay and Pluckrose. “This will take the culture war to the next level.”
While a strange alliance, the Intellectual Dark Web is tied together with a belief that classical liberalism has largely led to the global progress on social issues … and that this progress is being threatened by both far-right authoritarians and an illiberal, anti-science doctrine from sections of the left. “It’s just the idea that we have to still maintain free speech. We have to maintain due process, we have to respect the scientific method and science, and facts and reason. To not have this idea that there is no objective reality,” says Bridget Phetasy, a comedian who identifies with the “classically liberal” description those in the Intellectual Dark Web movement often use themselves.
Another commonality for the “island of misfit toys,” as Phetasy once called them, is a baptism through fire, often after being “canceled” by progressives. That includes people like YouTube commentator Dave Rubin, a left-leaning former Young Turks host once celebrated for advocating gay marriage and marijuana legalization, but now shouted down by liberal students at college campuses for questioning the left. “It’s interesting: I’m a lifelong lefty,” Rubin told me last winter. “Progressivism has taken over today’s left and is, in many ways, the complete antithesis of liberalism.”
Cynical Theories is the first cohesive attempt to tie together the intellectual strands of the Intellectual Dark Web. The book spends most of its pages defining its opposition, which it loosely calls “social justice” fields that, according to the authors, are rooted in a pessimistic postmodernism that denies objective truth and asserts that people’s beliefs are actually oppressive tools created by society to maintain power.
Take the example of best-selling author Robin DiAngelo and her concept of “white fragility” — the assumption that every white person is racist, and that anybody who disagrees with her is only doing so because of their societally ingrained racism. If disagreeing or remaining silent are signs of “fragility,” then that leaves only one choice, Cynical Theories argues: “to remain put, show no negative emotions, and agree with The Truth,” as defined by these theories.
Other examples exist too. At social justice-influenced protests, one sign may read “Words are Violence” next to another that says “Silence is Complicity.” Critics argue that if it’s both racist to stay silent and to speak in a way construed as allowing oppression, you are only permitted one option: to speak in agreement.
David Shor, a white liberal data scientist was lambasted, and then fired from his analytics firm earlier this summer for tweeting an evidence-backed study by a Black Princeton professor that peaceful protests are more effective than violent ones in winning Democrats votes. These theories explain how a lesbian reporter could face intense backlash for journalistically documenting that some (not all) trans people later decide to reverse their transition. “Anyone right of Bernie Sanders is basically called a white supremacist at this point,” Phetasy says.
The irony, Cynical Theories posits, is that these illiberal measures don’t work in defeating discrimination. Rather than ending racism, they reinforce the belief that people’s identities and viewpoints are irrevocably determined by the color of their skin. They suggest that reason and logic are the invention of white Western oppressors — an ahistorical view that implies minorities have no claim or contribution to science. The presumption of innocence, once seen as a liberal conceit aimed at protecting the oppressed, is ridiculed as justification to guard the racially privileged. And by defining some groups as irrevocably evil, and others as good, it both erases individual free will and threatens to inflame tensions between communities … a reality that is not hard to see quickly emerging in America.
Yet the Intellectual Dark Web has demonstrated its own intellectual inconsistencies. Despite criticizing “post-modern neo-Marxism,” Peterson revealed last year that he actually hadn’t read Marx since he was a teenager. Rather than defend his beliefs, Shapiro fled from an argument with the BBC’s Andrew Neil.
Cynical Theories argues bad ideas should be debated, and defeated, with vigorous public discussion. But when given the chance to criticize the findings of Charles Murray and Stefan Molyneux — so-called “race scientists” who assert that minority IQs are genetically lower than those of whites — both Rubin and Harris demurred, instead giving those racist views a criticism-free platform. As Matt McManus, a professor of politics and international relations at Tec de Monterrey in Mexico, says: “They situate themselves as paragons of rationality or insight,” but their influence on broader cultural debates “will always be limited if they do not up their game intellectually.”
Cynical Theories is an attempt to correct that. However, it too has blind spots. While crediting liberalism for leading to the gains of the modern feminist movement, LGBT rights and the civil rights movement, it suggests almost total victory was reached in those fields by the end of the 1980s. It ignores how modern liberalism also allowed for the disproportionate mass incarceration of Black Americans under Bill Clinton’s presidency, marked increases in Islamophobia after 9/11 and inequalities in policing that persist today, among other things. “Liberalism hasn’t necessarily failed, but it certainly has proven deficient,” McManus says, particularly in raising the voices of the disadvantaged to share equally in the marketplace of ideas.
Still, the members of the Intellectual Dark Web argue that their methods for seeking progress remain preferable: Even in its failings, liberalism allows for critique and improvement, a concept that they say social justice theory routinely rejects (or, rather, “cancels”). Soon, they’ll have their own founding document with which to convert others to their thought. If successful, they might not be on the fringes of American politics for much longer.