Education, Free Speech, Philosophy, Top Stories

The Journal of Controversial Ideas Is Here

The long-awaited first issue of Journal of Controversial Ideas (JCI), which allows academics of all disciplines to publish peer-reviewed research anonymously, has just been released. In an editorial leading the online issue, the co-editors, philosophers Peter Singer, Francesca Minerva, and Jeff McMahan, write: “By permitting publication under a pseudonym, we hope to enable authors to fulfil their duty to pursue the truth without putting their careers or physical or mental security at risk. Intellectual and moral progress should not require heroes or martyrs.”

All three co-editors have courted controversy, especially Singer and Minerva. Singer has for decades been subject to denunciation for his views on abortion, animal rights, and disability. In 2012, Minerva was inundated with hate mail for an article she coauthored defending “post-birth abortion.” Both have received death threats. In Singer’s and Minerva’s cases, though, the heat came mainly from outraged non-academics. More recently, threats to free speech at universities have come from within. In their editorial, Singer, Minerva, and McMahan draw attention to:

…a surge in open letters and petitions denouncing researchers and their work, signed by academics who seem to be unwilling to rely on the traditional academic practice of finding flaws in the arguments with which they disagree. They instead demand that administrators sanction colleagues who have expressed ideas they oppose. Some of these petitions, signed by hundreds of academics, even demand that editors retract published articles that have passed standard peer review processes.

Within philosophy, the “Hypatia Affair” of 2017 is the most notorious episode. Rebecca Tuvel, an untenured philosopher at Rhodes College, published an article in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia defending transracialism, the idea that it’s possible to transition from one race to another, as analogous to the widely held idea that gender transition is possible. Over 800 people signed a petition demanding that her article be retracted. That never happened, but Tuvel was subject to online harassment, and attempts to get her fired. Hypatia’s board of associate editors responded by posting an apology on Facebook for the “harm” that Tuvel’s article had supposedly caused. This wouldn’t be the last time something like that occurred.

In 2020, Nathan Cofnas published a paper in Philosophical Psychology arguing that research into racial differences is morally permissible. In response, philosopher Mark Alfano declared on Twitter that he would “Ruin [Cofnas’s] reputation permanently and deservedly.” Alfano started a petition to pressure Philosophical Psychology into retracting the paper. That effort failed, but the journal did publish a response piece by a group of Cofnas’s detractors, including Alfano, without allowing Cofnas to reply. Cees van Leeuwen, who had been the editor of Philosophical Psychology for 25 years, then announced his resignation, citing “the imminent publication of a commentary bypassing editor moderation” as the main reason. Cofnas’s account of these events is here.

This nearly coincided with an eerily similar episode that did not, however, involve a petition. MIT professor Alex Byrne published a paper in Philosophical Studies defending the view that the word “woman” primarily means “adult human female.” The same journal later published a reply from Yale professor Robin Dembroff. Editor-in-chief Stewart Cohen, who wasn’t personally involved in the publication process for that article, was dismayed to find that Dembroff’s reply contained ad hominem attacks against Byrne, which violated the journal’s policy. Cohen wanted to issue a formal statement “owning up” to the mistake of running Dembroff’s article as it was, and to allow Byrne to reply. According to Cohen, a fellow editor and the publisher, Springer, opposed issuing the statement, and rescinded his invitation to Byrne. Cohen, who had been editor of Philosophical Studies for 25 years, resigned over the incident.

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These culture war skirmishes, and others involving academics in different disciplines, suggest that there’s a repressive atmosphere surrounding discussion of racial and transgender identities, in particular. So it’s unsurprising that the first issue of JCI features articles on both these topics. But only three articles (or four, depending on how liberally we’re counting) out of 10 bear on race or gender, and they aren’t (to my deplorable mind, anyway) all that controversial. All but three of the authors published in the issue wrote under their real names.

The first article, “Cognitive Creationism Compared to Young-Earth Creationism” by Shuichi Tezuka (a pseudonym), compares “cognitive creationism”—basically, left-wing blank slate-ism about IQ—to young-Earth creationism: “The central idea underlying both cognitive creationism and young­-Earth creationism is that ideas are accepted or rejected on the basis of their compatibility with one’s worldview” rather than changing one’s beliefs to fit the evidence. Tezuka is explicitly writing about cognitive differences between individuals, not groups, thereby avoiding the radioactive race and IQ issue. The article nonetheless bears on that debate because it rejects some environmental (i.e., social) explanations for human differences.

The only article that explicitly addresses race issues is “Black Pete, King Balthasar, and the New Orleans Zulus: Can Black Make-Up Traditions Ever Be Justified?” by Bouke de Vries. De Vries argues against “the widely held view that black make-up traditions are categorically wrong” on the grounds that it may be acceptable in a narrow set of cultural circumstances, such as in the annual Zulu parade in New Orleans. That seems so reasonable to me that I wondered whether the article belonged in JCI. Is there really a widely held view that black make-up traditions are categorically wrong? But in a footnote at the beginning of the article, de Vries writes:

I believe that the history of this article shows the need for this type of journal. The current paper was initially under review at a well-­known journal in moral and political philosophy. After the first round of comments, for which the editor of said journal had been able to find only one reviewer, (s)he wrote to me that (s)he was “keen to publish the paper” based on the reviewer’s judgement that it was “an interesting paper on a very worthwhile topic” that offered “plausible theoretical theses” and that was “heading in the direction of being a publishable piece.” However, once I had submitted my revisions, which occurred after the start of the BLM-protests (which may or may not have had an impact on the subsequent events), the reviewer declined to review my revisions and the editor not only rejected the paper without revisions based on (what I thought was) a highly biased report by a new reviewer, but also told me that I “might want to reconsider trying to publish the paper” because of the “very real risk of causing unnecessary offence.”

De Vries understandably doesn’t name the journal where this occurred, but he wrote this under his own name. The editor could potentially come forward and set the record straight if he or she finds this account inaccurate or lacking context. I think de Vries’s story rings true, and it points to another function that JCI might serve. In an age of rapidly shifting norms, views that are now considered acceptable to discuss might suddenly be deemed beyond the pale. So we might want JCI to exist as a kind of insurance policy: if things get worse, we can be assured that there’s at least one outlet that will allow some people to continue saying what they are currently able to say.

As for trans issues, there’s Byrne’s reply to Dembroff that Philosophical Studies refused to run, and a further reply to Byrne from a pseudonymous philosopher. Minerva tells me that the reply to Byrne came about when one of the JCI referees asked if they could write one. The two articles make for interesting reading because they expose just how far apart disagreeing philosophers’ starting points can be on gender issues.

Byrne’s article, “Gender Muddle: Reply to Dembroff” is an effective point-by-point rebuttal to Dembroff. Byrne demonstrates that Dembroff frequently misstates his positions and replies in ways that make no contact with his argument. For example, Dembroff frequently treats Byrne’s assumptions about women as being based on linguistic intuitions about the word “women”; Byrne insists he’s talking about women, not the word “women.” Byrne has little patience for “Dembroff’s hermeneutical approach of reading between the lines rather than actually reading the lines.”

The reply by Maggie Heartsilver (pseudonym) entitled “Deflating Byrne’s “Are Women Adult Human Females?”” is a bit exasperating. Heartsilver wants to show that Byrne’s arguments that women are adult human females don’t threaten the claim that trans women are women (though Heartsilver acknowledges that Byrne never intended to argue for that in the articles she criticizes). To this end, Heartsilver argues that “adult” and “female” are social descriptors when they’re applied to humans; her case that “female” is a social category when applied to humans strikes me as strained.

I finished the article with the impression that there’s no possible evidence for Byrne’s position that Heartsilver would accept as legitimate. For instance, Byrne points out that we talk about Mitochondrial Eve—who lived 200,000 years ago—as being a woman, even though we don’t know anything about her other than she was biologically an adult human female. Heartsilver objects that this is question begging, since it just assumes that Eve couldn’t have been a trans man—in that case, he wouldn’t have been a woman. That’s known as “biting the bullet.”

Christopher Belshaw’s “Punishment and the Body” is one the most interesting articles in the issue. Belshaw argues that we ought to reconsider corporal punishment, which is now usually seen as barbaric and is everywhere being abandoned. But we’re comfortable locking people up in prisons for years, even decades; this arguably harms the people being punished much more than brief torture would. Overcoming our squeamishness about deliberately causing pain might allow us to inflict less harm overall. Belshaw goes on to explore induced, reversible comas as a form of punishment. This would be like the death penalty in that it shortens the duration of the person’s conscious life, but it allows us to resuscitate and compensate people found to have been wrongly convicted.

Another article by Michael Veber argues that we shouldn’t “no platform” speakers on university campuses for having stupid ideas (like Flat Earthers), which is well-argued and thematically appropriate. The third article by a pseudonymous author is a defense of violent direct action by militant animal rights activists in certain circumstances, though the author concedes that these tactics are usually counterproductive. Somewhat surprisingly, the first issue of JCI also contains three articles on pretty abstract philosophical questions. One of them is Rivka Weinberg’s article “Ultimate Meaning: We Don’t Have It, We Can’t Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad.” The abstract begins: “Life is pointless. That’s not okay. I show that.”

I saw Weinberg present a version of this paper at a conference a few years ago. She distributed a handout that listed the objections she would address. One of those objections was that we don’t need to be sad if life has no ultimate meaning because even if life’s meaningless, it’s still fun. The response printed below was simply: “It isn’t.”

If articles like this seem unsuitable for JCI, consider that sometimes abstract philosophical positions spark the same kind of outrage that we routinely see in political discourse. The Guardian recently reported that philosopher Galen Strawson has received hate mail, including death threats, for defending the view that free will doesn’t exist. One note read: “Rot in your own shit Galen.” I hope that Strawson replied that since free will is an illusion, his critic had no choice but to say that.

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What does the first issue of JCI tell us about the journal and the controversy surrounding it? For one thing, I think it demonstrates that allowing pseudonymous publications won’t necessarily reduce discourse to the lowest denominator. The articles in this issue are rigorous and interesting. I don’t see how a fair-minded person could say that their quality is embarrassing (though detractors are predictably saying this). In fact, the ongoing exchange between Byrne and the pseudonymous Heartsilver—according to Minerva, Byrne has expressed interest in writing a response—seems to me more civil and interesting than the earlier exchange between Byrne and Dembroff.

Minerva says that a lot of people have told her the first issue wasn’t as controversial as they were expecting. That was my reaction, too. I expected to see more incendiary articles on race issues, and probably some dystopian-sounding ideas about genetic engineering. Most of the articles here I think probably could have been published in other outlets. That might seem like evidence that JCI isn’t really needed. But it’s revealing that even three authors of these relatively tame articles felt like they needed to use pseudonyms, and that a journal editor allegedly told a fourth that an article narrowly defending the use of black face paint was too hot to touch.

I suspect the author who criticized “cognitive creationism” used a false name because he or she feared retribution from within the academy. The pseudonymous author of the paper defending direct action in defense of animals was more likely afraid of backlash from outside of it—it’s easy to imagine some blogger calling this person a terror-supporter and triggering a pile-on. Heartsilver’s desire to remain anonymous could have been motivated by either worry. So one takeaway is that the ability to publish peer-reviewed research anonymously doesn’t just appeal to right-wingers. Indeed, only one paper defended a thesis that would normally be called a conservative or libertarian political position—Veber’s article criticizing no-platforming—and that was published under the author’s real name.

The lead editorial says that since the initial call for papers one year ago, the journal received 91 submissions, of which 10 were accepted, 68 rejected, and 13 are still being processed. That seems like a small number of submissions for a journal available to all disciplines to receive in a year, especially given that the launch of JCI was announced in 2018. If the atmosphere of the university is truly repressive, then shouldn’t we expect more? On the other hand, academics might be wary about sending material to a journal before its first issue has appeared, especially if they’d consider trying to publish elsewhere sans pseudonym. I’ve heard a number of people express doubts about whether there would be a first issue at all (and for a time I had such doubts myself). Perhaps there will be an uptick in submissions now that a high-quality first issue has been released.

Minerva says that the frequency with which the journal will release issues isn’t yet known—it will depend on the rate at which the editors receive quality submissions. For now, the plan is to publish at least once a year, but JCI could become a biannual publication if enough good papers are received. I hope heterodox thinkers step forward with controversial theses to defend, because I don’t want to wait until 2022 to read the next issue.

 

Spencer Case is an international research fellow at Wuhan University. You can follow him on Twitter @SpencerJayCase.

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