Do Advocacy Groups Belong in Academia?

Do Advocacy Groups Belong in Academia?

Uri Harris
Uri Harris
9 min read

A few months ago, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Suzanna Danuta Walters. Its title was: “Why can’t we hate men?”

Walters’s byline, printed before the body of the article, read:

Suzanna Danuta Walters, a professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University, is the editor of the gender studies journal Signs.

As the byline suggests, Walters isn’t a layperson sharing an opinion; she’s a social scientist writing within her field of expertise. Her position as programme director at a prestigious university and as editor of an academic journal further underscore her academic credentials.

Walters begins the article by describing incidences of abuse of women by men and notes that “it seems logical to hate men.” Although acknowledging the value of institutional analyses of power, she describes the “universal facts” of various forms of male domination (as opposed to citing examples of men abusing power within various structures and frameworks). Since men “have gone low for all of human history,” she writes, “maybe it’s time for us to go all Thelma and Louise and Foxy Brown on their collective butts.” She finishes the article by stating a set of criteria for men to follow if they “would like us to not hate you for all the millennia of woe you have produced and benefited from,” which include “[d]on’t be in charge of anything,” and “[s]tep away from the power.”

Remarkably, despite her social scientific credentials, Walters makes no attempt to explain the phenomena she’s addressing. Early in the article, she declares the institutional explanations that are popular in her field inadequate for explaining the “universal facts” of male behaviour. Now, there’s nothing inherently unscientific in any of this, of course; many academics think institutional explanations of male and female behaviour are unable to satisfactorily explain the commonalities of male and female behaviour found across different human societies. This is where evolutionary explanations come in. They seem to be able to account for precisely the kinds of “universal facts” that Walters describes in a way that institutional explanations can’t. But Walters makes no attempt to engage with evolutionary explanations. Instead, her response is condemnation, declaring that men have “gone low for all of human history.”

What kind of science condemns phenomena instead of trying to explain them? Biologist E. O. Wilson, cited in Wikipedia, defined science as: “a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” Granted, the world is complex, and explanation can be difficult, especially when dealing with social phenomena. But Walters has two readily available sets of explanatory models from which she can draw: institutional and evolutionary. She dismisses the first and ignores the second. If each of these models is deemed inadequate, one might reasonably expect a scientist to try and combine them. Perhaps male behaviour is best explained by a combination of evolutionary and institutional causes.

Yet what’s blatantly apparent is that Walters has no interest in explanations. In fact, she deliberately avoids them. Why? Well, because explanations and condemnations are mutually exclusive: the more one can explain something, the less one can condemn it. By simultaneously dismissing both institutional and evolutionary explanations, Walters can treat instances of male behaviour throughout human history as uncaused, and thus condemnable. Furthermore, by first dismissing institutional explanations—which by their nature are particular to certain societies—Walters is able to universalise her proclamation, and then by ignoring evolutionary explanations—which are typically universal—she’s able to make that proclamation condemnatory. Thus, she ends up with a proclamation that is both universal—it applies to all men throughout history—and is causally unexplained: their behaviour is condemnable.

There’s a reason Walters does this. She isn’t writing the article to explain male behaviour. She’s doing it to advocate for a set of proposals, and the best way to do that—the best way to break the inertia of everyday life—is to argue from a position of injustice: men have behaved immorally throughout human history towards women, so women today are justified in being angry and men in feeling guilty, which in turn justifies her proposals. The more condemnable she can make historical male behaviour appear—and the more universal she can make it—the more justifiable she can make her proposed actions, not just towards certain individual men, but towards men as a historical collective.

This touches on a fundamental conflict between science and advocacy. Science seeks to explain the world, but explanation conflicts with condemnation, which is an important component of injustice and in turn advocacy. It’s possible to have injustice and advocacy without condemnation, but probably not with quite the same emotional appeal. If Walters were to provide an explanation for male behaviour it would diffuse her condemnation and with it some of the intensity of her appeal to advocacy. (Recall that a central part of her advocacy is for men to “step away from the power” in order not to be hated for the “millennia of woe you have produced and benefitted from.”)

It’s important to note that the difference between science and advocacy is not the presence or absence of data or even academic theory. Advocacy groups often appeal to both. The difference is that the aim of science is to explain, while the aim of advocacy is to advance the interests of a particular group. The fact that Walters’s article contains references to studies and observations isn’t sufficient grounds to label it science; what matters is the aim. Does it include conflicting data? Does it address opposing theories and arguments? This is where the distinction becomes clear. Unsurprisingly, every one of Walters’s studies and observations supports her case. And as mentioned, she dismisses or ignores explanatory models completely.

Clearly, Walters is not doing science, she’s doing advocacy. Her aim is to build a case that advocates for the interests of her constituency, women. She selects supportive observations and studies, condemns rather than explains, and utilises emotionally charged language. Now, scientists sometimes do advocacy work. And, obviously, Walters isn’t writing in an academic journal. But this is why Walters’s lack of explanatory models is important: her entire case is constructed around their non-existence. The universal condemnation of historical male behaviour she advances conflicts with any explanatory model. I don’t see any reasonable way Walters’s article can be viewed as an extension of a body of work attempting to explain male behaviour.

But maybe Walters isn’t representative of her field? Certainly, we shouldn’t draw too much from the actions of one person. Is there reason to think Walters is unique in her approach?

*  *  *

Earlier this year, Columbia University undergraduate philosophy major Coleman Hughes wrote a short article comparing his experiences in two courses he was taking: 1) a course on feminist epistemology and queer theory, and 2) a generic philosophy introductory course. “Leaving aside what is taught,” Hughes notes in the article, “the courses differ greatly in how they’re taught.”

In the generic course, no viewpoints are considered sacred, and the class spends much of its time trying to expose weaknesses in the arguments of the philosophers covered. In the other course, however, students rarely ask questions let alone make critiques, and when they do the professor “has a mysterious way of answering without ever suggesting that the argument could simply have a weakness.”

The contrast is not just with the generic introductory course, but with all the philosophy courses Hughes has taken:

Of the seven philosophy courses I’ve taken at Columbia so far, not a single one has operated even close to this way—philosophy professors are always the first to point out logical weaknesses, strong counterarguments, and alternative points of view, even when they fundamentally agree with the course material. In this class, I got the sense that the professor was wedded to the material, such that a critique of the material would have been synonymous with a critique of her. As hyperbolic as this might sound, voicing a strong pushback against any idea that the Professor favored was nearly unthinkable.

Instead of debate, a recurring feature of the course is the professor advocating for specific ideological views and encouraging political action, Hughes notes. The purpose of this class it seems—unlike the other philosophy classes Hughes took—was not the pursuit of truth, but the inculcation of a particular set of advocacy arguments.

This demonstrates another aspect of the fundamental antagonism between science (or philosophy) and advocacy mentioned earlier. The best way to approach the former is to adopt a reflective attitude and to consider arguments provisional and open to criticism. On the other hand, the best way to approach the latter is to convey one’s arguments with conviction, which naturally discourages both self-criticism and criticism from others.

This even extends to the characteristics of the professor. Hughes gives a description of his professor as someone prone to occasional outburst of anger and condemnation. While these traits might make one an effective advocate, they aren’t conducive to one’s ability to be open to alternative viewpoints, as Hughes suggests in his article. (The classroom atmosphere he describes clearly discouraged criticism.)

This reminds me of an episode late last year at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. A graduate student’s Facebook post included the following sentence: “A gender studies course might discuss identity politics with an experienced and knowledgeable leader, but a first-year grammar class taught by a dispassionate Master’s student is a different story.” Note how the word “leader” is used for professor or lecturer, and how “dispassionate” is considered a vice.

So, Hughes’s example indicates that Walters isn’t unique in her advocacy approach, and that this same approach is present within an academic setting as well, but it also adds to the distinction between advocacy and science. Not only are condemnation and selective appeal to data conducive to success for the former, but so are leadership, passion, and conviction. Whereas for the latter, explanation and embrace of conflicting data are what drives success, supplemented by openness, dispassion, and self-criticism.

But this is still only a couple of examples. Can it be generalised more broadly?

*  *  *

Last week, Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian published an essay in Areo magazine describing their efforts over the past year to expose bad scholarship in a set of academic fields they refer to as “grievance studies.” They submitted a total of twenty academic papers to leading journals in the relevant fields, testing the boundaries of what would be accepted for publication while also documenting the responses from reviewers and editors. Seven of their papers were peer-reviewed and accepted for publication (four already published online) with several more still under revision. They were forced to end the experiment prematurely after one of their papers was discovered by journalists who started asking questions.

The authors argue that the centre of the problem is what they call “critical constructivism,” essentially the idea that “many common features of experience and society are socially constructed,” dictated by powerful groups to “maintain power over marginalized ones,” and that this worldview “produces a moral imperative to dismantle these constructions.” As long as academics in these fields adhere to this worldview, and make sure to refer to existing literature and use appropriate terminology, they can write whatever they want and get published. This appears to have been the authors’ ingoing hypothesis, which they considered validated by the results of the experiment.

While this was an interesting experiment, and I recommend reading the essay in full, I depart somewhat from the authors in their characterisation of the core problem, which seems to me to be more related to advocacy than to any particular epistemological or moral worldview. In other words, women’s and gender studies fields, for example, have become attached to a radical version of constructivism because it’s an effective way to support advocacy of women’s interests, as they define them, not because of abstract philosophical beliefs.

Walters demonstrated this in her article. She was quite content to dismiss institutional (i.e., constructivist) explanations of male behaviour in favour of “universal facts,” precisely so she could make a stronger case for the collective condemnation of men and thus for the advocacy of women’s interests, as she sees them.

What the experiment really showed, it seems to me, is that these fields will accept anything that advocates for the interests of their constituents, provided it meets minimal academic standards. It just so happens that a radical constructivist worldview allows for these standards to be quite low. The journals are not going to turn away, say, statistical research papers for being insufficiently constructivist, so long as the data supports advocacy of their constituents’ interests. Indeed, the authors appear to have submitted and received positive feedback for everything from poetry to an ideological manifesto to field research.

This seems to me to be the main takeaway from this experiment. It’s not just that these fields have an element of advocacy, which I suspect many people were aware of, but that they’re seemingly entirely founded in advocacy. And as we’ve seen, there’s a deep conflict between advocacy and science.

Now, I should also say that I don’t completely share the authors’ disregard for “critical constructivism.” Clearly, there’s a kind of radical constructivism that goes too far, but nevertheless, many social phenomena are at least in part socially constructed, and the way to uncover them is through a critical examination of societal beliefs and concepts. In no way is this unscientific. Modern physics, for example, relies on a redefinition of our commonsensical notions of space and time. Similarly, understanding human behaviour may well require critical examination of seemingly commonsensical concepts like gender, race, and sexuality. One cannot reject a critical constructivist approach entirely without rejecting a central part of science.

The problem is advocacy, and its commitment to a particular set of interests, rather than to the pursuit of universal knowledge. This isn’t to say that there’s no place for advocacy groups. Political and social change could not be achieved without them. But they don’t belong in academia. There are undoubtedly many implicit biases present in academia, but this doesn’t justify introducing explicit ones. Rather, it justifies identifying and removing the implicit ones, even if one can never get rid of them entirely. Objectivity is a direction more than a state.

Even setting aside academia itself, a well-functioning society is a transparent society, and a situation where a select subset of advocacy groups conceals itself under the cloak of academia is not transparent, especially given academia’s privileged position in our society. We need to ask ourselves whether it makes sense for advocacy groups to continue to operate within academia indefinitely.

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