All posts filed under: Features

Creationism By Another Name

Creationism is the belief that a superior being, unbound by the laws of nature, created the universe. Unsurprisingly, this belief is adopted by all sorts of religious cults; if you believe in the existence of one or more gods, the most parsimonious way to face the mystery of the origin of the universe is to attribute it to this extraordinary being. Creationism is obviously opposed to the theory of evolution, although, by virtue of the undoubted prestige of the evolutionary paradigm, and science in general, some religions are attempting to combine the two positions. They now claim, instead, that God simply created the basic conditions of the universe and life on Earth (which is usually the focus of attention). In academic environments it is very difficult to find someone who will openly and explicitly deny the principles of evolutionary theory. Professors and researchers from any scientific discipline will endorse, more or less accurately, the principles of natural selection, and everyone has a rough idea about what genes, chromosomes, and DNA are. Certainly, nobody will deny that …

Is It Ever Better Not to Know?

“What wretched doings come from the ardor of fame; the love of truth alone would never make one man attack another bitterly” –Charles Darwin, 1848 (in a letter to his friend, Joseph Hooker) “An awful privilege, and an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in which posterity will live.” –William K. Clifford in The Ethics of Belief  Is it sometimes better not to know certain things? Yes, that seems obvious. Very few people would tell a religious parent on their death bed that they have decided to reject the faith their mother or father valued so deeply. We all have illusions we’d prefer to cling to, and sometimes we respect other people’s beliefs, even when we think they’re misguided, because they bring comfort or meaning to that person. Still, we want to argue that over the long run it is better for humanity to know as much as we can about every possible question that might be asked. We think that the intrinsic beauty and instrumental benefits of the accumulated knowledge that …

Don’t Major in Literature

If you love literature and would like to study what you love, do not study literature. What you will in fact be majoring in is contemporary political correctness, French postmodern theory, politics and social critique devoid of any serious political import or aesthetic value, and perhaps most basically—pathetic scholarly debates over methodology. The skepticism that the lay-person has of literature professors is in my opinion strongly justified: the discipline is so obsessed with trivial debates over literary methodologies that it can offer nothing to the non-academic reader except rightful contempt for the elitist literary egg head. So resentful of their low estimation in relation to the sciences that they are desperate for anything that smacks of rigor and technicality. By following the appearance of scientific gravitas they have obtained only posturing. While perhaps less so than in the ’90s, French postmodernism can still be found all over. Students are assigned Paul de Man’s reading of texts as the tension between rhetoric and grammar; Lyotard’s desperate attempt at sociological novelty through a half baked juvenile Wittgensteinianism; …

You Are Not Important: Defund Identity Culture

The Australia Council for the Arts, state Arts ministries, Humanities faculties, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) should not force taxpayers to fund work that explores the desert of identity and rejoices at mirages. Today, one encounters examples of identity culture in multiple artistic fields. “Join us to explore the meaning of identity,” wrote the Director of the 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival on the program’s welcome page. The Director of the Melbourne Conservatorium, Gary McPherson, lists identity among his principal research topics. Pamela Burnard, a Cambridge professor and Melbourne University alumnus, considers identity of supreme importance. According to Burnard, academics and music teachers must “understand the voices and the multi-voicedness of students” and celebrate “diverse creativities” for the sake of an “emergent ecology.” (I do not know what this means.) John Gray, the well-known critic of liberal humanism, referred to Burnard’s ilk as members of “increasingly marginal universities.” The more that twenty-first-century societies lose interest in the Humanities, the more Humanities academics pretend to address everyone, promote social participation, and …

“The Sense of an Ending” and Why We Are Wired to Produce False Memories

How much do you trust your memories? Do you consider the events and perspectives you remember as gospel truth, or as more malleable, fickle things that bend and warp with time and shifting context? The recently released film The Sense of an Ending, adapted from Julian Barnes’s Booker-winning novel, takes the second perspective. It explores the intriguing premise that our own views of our lives may be incomplete and even inaccurate. I research false memories, and so I was curious to see how the film matched up to my own understanding of how our views of our pasts do not always reflect what actually happened. Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is a grumpy retiree who owns a camera repair shop in modern day London. One morning he receives a letter explaining that he has been left the diary of his closest friend from school, Adrian, who committed suicide when they were at university. The diary has been left to him by the mother of Tony’s first college girlfriend, Veronica (Charlotte Rampling). Tony never gets to read …

The Crucible of the Application Process

[Note that this was written in its entirety before hearing any admissions decision on my applications this year] Over the past two years, I’ve applied for some of the most prestigious academic positions in the world: for numerous scholarships including the Rhodes, Fulbright, and Marshall, as well as for Master’s and PhD positions at Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, and other top universities. A large part of the application process has been working with applications reviewers, primarily from the university where I studied for my undergraduate degree. In total, I’ve worked with five essay reviewers, a dozen mock interview panellists, and the university’s scholarship advisor. Even though it’s part of their job description to assist students in applying for these positions, it’s extremely clear to me that everyone I worked with went far above what was required of them, and I feel the most appropriate way to start this essay is by expressing my deep and sincere gratitude for their advice and mentorship. This essay is about my experience with the application process—specifically how I was repeatedly …

Companies Shed Degree Requirements to Promote Merit Over Qualifications

At the end of 2016, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) revealed that close to two-thirds of all Australians had completed a degree or apprenticeship. The growth in the number of people attending a university or TAFE has risen out of a cyclical demand-driven system called “academic inflation”. Think supply and demand. If an employer can hire someone with a degree or someone without, they’ll hire the person with a degree because they are seen as the superior candidate. This puts pressure on everyone to get degrees. But once everyone has one, the value of having a degree goes down. A couple of decades ago, a high school diploma was sufficient to get a job in journalism or business. Now a bachelor’s degree is required. Where a bachelor’s degree was sufficient to get a job in research, now a master’s degree is required. Where a master’s degree was sufficient to get a job in university tutoring, now a PhD is required. The number of people gaining master’s degrees has doubled from the early 1980s to …

Laura Kipnis, Rape Culture, and the Disappearance of Sex

Earlier this month, HarperCollins released Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis’ book Unwanted Advances, based on her article about the accusations and subsequent resignation of fellow professor Peter Ludlow for alleged sexual misconduct with a student. Kipnis characterizes the investigation as an “inquisition,” and draws doubt on the “credibility of the accuser’s claims and the fairness of the process”. I won’t go into the further details of the actual case, but what makes Unwanted Advances especially relevant is its broader examination of the “rape culture” hysteria on college campuses, a claim that asserts that fully 25% of women will be victims of sexual assault while in college. A number of critics have dissected the flawed methodology on which this astronomical number is based, and noted that if true, it would mean that American college campuses are as, if not more dangerous than cultures that truly turn a blind eye to rape, such as Afghanistan or the Congo, where 48 women are raped every hour. I think most casual observers would have to be at least somewhat skeptical …

The De-Professionalization of the Academy

The author of the following essay is a Professor at a top-ranking, metropolitan U.S. university. The names of both university and professor have been fictionalized to protect the professor from retaliation. In the fall of 2005, I began working as a full-time faculty member in the General Studies program at Hudson University. I was promoted to full Professor last year. Thus, the tale I tell does not represent sour grapes. Rather, what follows is a jeremiad decrying the direction that academia has taken in order to underscore the threats posed to academic integrity and institutional legitimacy. Over twelve years, I have watched with increasing dismay and incredulity as academic integrity, fairness, and intellectual rigor have been eroded, with the implicit endorsement of administration and faculty alike. I have witnessed the de-professionalization of the professoriate—hiring policies based on tokenized identity politics and cronyism, the increasing intellectual and ideological conformity expected from faculty and students, and the subsequent curtailment of academic freedom. Just to be clear, most of my faculty colleagues are well-educated, bright, and dedicated teachers. …

Reviving “Essentialism” and Other Scientific Straw Men

Cordelia Fine’s latest attempt at human exceptionalism and biology denial Testosterone Rex has drawn rave reviews from (almost) everyone, from the popular press to Nature. Happy to go against this grain, I would like to suggest that these much-circulated rumours of the death of human nature have been somewhat exaggerated. Most of Fine’s targets are probably quite well deserved chunks of popular science, male chauvinism, and journalistic overreach. However, when she turns her sights on serious science she makes some rather egregious blunders. This is a pity—because there is much in the public understanding of sex differences that could really use some popular explication and myth busting. Let’s start with what is positive about the book. Many will find her anecdotal approach to be engaging and charming. I didn’t, but I’m a miserable old curmudgeon who wants to get to grips with the facts, not be reassured via an anecdote about kangaroo testicles that that the writer “doesn’t hate men really”. On this point: I’m always a little unsettled by people who feel the need …