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From DailyNous:

The Default: Rebuttals Not Retractions (several updates)

Over the past several days academics on social media have been discussing in increasingly agitated language the publication of “The Case for Colonialism,” by Portland State University associate professor of political science Bruce Gilley, in the academic journal, Third World Quarterly. There is...

Comments

Comments in green on the left are from DailyNous, comments on the right are from the philosophymetaforum.

Lelia

38 day(s) ago

Thank you for this very thoughtful analysis! 8 Report

Tom

38 day(s) ago

If part of what you’re telling people is to hold it in before reading up, why not lead by example? 10 Report

Justin W.

38 day(s) ago

One error in reasoning is to take a statement about X, identify the class of things to which X belongs, and then claim that the original statement is about that whole class of things. That is the error you are making here. It is true that refraining from calling for a retraction can be characterized as a type of “holding it in.” But it doesn’t follow from my advising people to read the article before calling for its retraction that I am advising people to adhere to every kind of “holding it in” before doing so. I hope you find this helpful. 32 Report

JCM

38 day(s) ago

Tom’s objection can also be read as a criticism of your rhetorical or political, rather than argumentative, strategy, in which case it seems more successful (if not successful simpliciter). 9 Report

Charles Young

37 day(s) ago

Perhaps it is a logical error “to take a statement about X, identify the class of things to which X belongs, and then claim that the original statement is about that whole class of things.” But properly formulated and suitably qualified it’s a kissing cousin of Universal Generalization. But an “error in reasoning”? Jones picks a mushroom in the woods, eats it, and dies. Am I making an “error in reasoning” if I think twice about eating the mushroom next to it? 6 Report

ejrd

38 day(s) ago

These are all excellent general principles. All academics should see the wisdom in them. We should not turn our head away from the very real issues embedded in certain journals which may be unfriendly toward publishing rebuttals to unpopular articles they have accepted nor should we assume that reason will win, or ever really has won, the day in academia. Scholarship-by-petition is an ugly move that we should all resist. One that threatens to delegitimize academia far more than those who have been seeking to delegitimize it can dream. Opponents should aim to include more voices rather than silence existing ones. Create new journals, hold new conferences, and, whenever possible, publish rebuttals. Although we may not be able to show THEM the error of their ways, we can make those errors plain nonetheless. 38 Report

Daniel Kaufman

38 day(s) ago

Your line about scholarship by petition is well put and important. What strikes me and is so depressing is the extent to which some of the most liberal people in our profession seem inclined to behave like a howling mob when confronted with ideas they disagree with. That this is a complete betrayal of liberalism — not to mention antithetical to the scholarly mission — should be evident to anyone who has read On Liberty. It demonstrates the extent to which contemporary liberalism has been infected by Frankfurt School style ideas, a la Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance.” And it has been a tremendously unfortunate development for the humanistic disciplines not to mention for our society. Scholars should be the last people in the world acting this way. 43 Report

Sam b

35 day(s) ago

I think it is fair to say, from the point of view of colonized people, that there are more important goods than purported “liberal values” insofar as those liberal values create the space for ideological justifications of their oppression. Railing against Marcuse’s idea of “repressive tolerance” seems to ignore the very real anxieties behind his ideas (after all, he was a German Jew who lived during a liberal republic, where many great scholars ended up becoming apologists for Naziism). At heart, the issue is that bad scholarship can thrive in a liberal society if that’s what the market demands. That doesn’t mean Marcuse is right or we should abandon liberal values, but there is good reason not to approach these values as dogmas. On that note, it’s important to note that it’s not just “ideas people disagree with” but ideas that reify the conditions of their exploitation. 5 Report

Daniel Kaufman

35 day(s) ago

The purpose of scholarly inquiry is to pursue the truth. In that context, liberal values are paramount, for all the reasons Mill explains in On Liberty. The conflation of scholarly inquiry with activism is a good part of what has gotten much of the humanities and some of the social sciences into the trouble they currently are in. Your last paragraph commits precisely that conflation and is the ground upon which activists attempt to suppress critical inquiry. 8 Report

Sam b

35 day(s) ago

Scholarly work should certainly pursue truth, but that’s not the only value we need to consider (it’s certainly not even in the sciences, as seen by the numerous ethical rules now in place regarding research on human beings – the pursuit of truth is still constrained by other ethical standards, hence we cannot replicate the Milgram experiment no matter how interesting the results might be). We also need to consider how mistruths can spread within a “free marketplace of ideas”. Science has certain obvious constraints – you cannot, for instance, misrepresent data. These constraints are useful in preventing the spread of falsehoods. It’s clear that the article in question does this in cherry picking the data on colonialism (how can you ignore the tens of millions who died?). Scholarship can’t help but being political, at least if we are discussing a paper not only defending colonialism but calling for a return to the practice. I think we have good reason to be skeptical of the academy as some kind of apolitical institution that grasps objective truth independent of the systems of social and political oppression in the broader society. Perhaps some paper on the Analytic philosophy of mind or Heidegger’s views of poetry succeed in overcoming political problems (arguable), but if it’s a paper justifying the murder, rape, mutilation and enslavement of hundreds of millions, we’ve certainly entered the political. 5 Report

Daniel Kaufman

35 day(s) ago

I disagree with you that a topic like colonialism is something that should be excluded from open discussion and analysis. And I would be very concerned about the gatekeepers who would make such decisions. If the scholarship is poor, that is the job of peer review to discover. But if the scholarship is up to snuff and one simply dislikes the thesis, then that’s just too bad: the price of genuine, open, critical inquiry. And I don’t agree that “ideas reify oppression.” :This is in the realm of “speech is violence” and other related ideas that a certain portion of the activist community is pressing in an effort to suppress open and frank discussion and debate. I reject it, resist it, and hope others will do the same, or I fear it will be the death of ours and related disciplines. 18 Report

Sam b

35 day(s) ago

The Current Affairs article cited gives a good description why this is a bad piece of scholarship. We already have gatekeepers – peer review boards. They actually said this was bad scholarship, but it was published anyways in a “viewpoints” section, perhaps by editorial discretion. Perhaps the editors wanted the controversy. The idea that scholarship can ideologically justify (and thereby help perpetuate) oppression is NOT the same as the claim that speech is violence, whether or not the second claim is true or false. So much scholarship during the colonial period can attest to that. Nor is it a claim any topic is “off limits”. Instead, it’s just a recognition of the material consequences of certain kinds of scholarship. 3 Report

Jake

34 day(s) ago

Sam b in principle you’re arguments are solid. however, history is replete with examples of the aggrieved justifying actions that they held to be unacceptable in their oppressors. The outcomes are seldom pretty (cf. Israel, Russian communism, gurus etc etc) We need some standards of conduct that allow for the uninhibited expression of ideas and feelings, but that do not cross a line between reason and the incipient beginnings if mob rule. We also need to ensure that all voices are represented in academia, and pretty much everyone on the political spectrum feels that this is not happening 0 Report

Asad

38 day(s) ago

Maybe a better exercise the author could’ve engaged in would be to imagine if any such scenario is justified within the domain of academic philosophy. If some inconsequential professor wrote about how Nietzsche’s philosophy justifies Nazism/White Supremacy and how that is morally commendable making the most asinine and egregious errors and this worst of all articles was published in a very prestigious academic philosophy journal would professors be preoccupied with rebutting or calls for retracting? 4 Report

ejrd

38 day(s) ago

Asad, as per Justin’s thoughtful opening post, I would assume that professors would hopefully engage in his points 1-6. Do you disagree? Do you have an alternate proposal? 12 Report

Daniel Kaufman

38 day(s) ago

Why not write your own article instead of telling the author what article he should have written? 22 Report

William Bell

38 day(s) ago

Suppose you publish a terrible article – but aren’t allowed to retract it because of the norms suggested here – the author responsible was in fact behaving irresponsibly in their scholarship in many glaring ways, etc. So you resolve to rebut the article in question instead. What happens? Well, now the article has more citations (giving the impression to a non-academic that it is higher caliber) which give it a sheen of quality, it has extra publicity, time & space has been taken away from good new work in order to correct bad work, and the academic responsible for the bad scholarship benefits from the extra citations. The alternative is that we have risk of ‘scholarship by petition’ sure, but as happened in the Hypatia case, because it was obviously an overreaction, the petitions didn’t work. I haven’t signed any petitions in the colonialism case, but that conclusion is nearly unbelievable, and so I’m not surprised that there are people questioning its veracity. I’d be willing to guess that the critics are correct. It seems to be a symptom of the same sort of relativism that idpol is accused of that expectations of scholarship are so relaxed that someone would believe journals shouldn’t retract bad scholarship when they screw up. If a scientific journal publishes bad scholarship, the article is usually retracted (not rebutted!), in fact this happens far more in the natural sciences than in the humanities. Why should philosophy, history, or the social sciences be any different? 4 Report

Daniel Kaufman

38 day(s) ago

Because humanities are much more susceptible to ideologically motivated demands for retraction. I think the OP is spot on. Indeed I might even go farther. 32 Report

GG

38 day(s) ago

A quibble: Do non-academics check the number of citations of a paper? I doubt it. 13 Report

ejrd

38 day(s) ago

The conditions for “bad scholarship” in the sciences are, despite their vast differences from most humanities work (excluding x-phi work) very similar to the conditions I hear Justin advocating for. 1. Retract an article that engages in falsification of data or bad statistical, mathematical, or logical methods (rare in the Humanities but not impossible) 2. Academic dishonesty (plagiarism, multiple publications of the same article, etc). 3. Peer-review or editorial problems (the article did not go through regular peer-review, a mistaken version of the article was published without the author’s permission, etc). I would normally put something like “a fundamental misreading of another scholar’s work” here but I would hope mistakes of that nature would be caught at the peer-review level. Unless a paper has 1-3, it isn’t the kind of bad scholarship that justifies retraction. Bad ideas do not for a retraction-worthy article. They make for low-hanging fruit for those who wish to rebut the article in press (or on blogs!). The only lingering question in my mind is whether authors should be allowed to call for a retraction of their own work. I’m inclined to say no. They shouldn’t. They can, of course, write an article or blog post where they explain why they no longer hold views x, y, z but retraction seems like a really bad option for an article an author considers “bad” but not running afoul of 1-3. 13 Report

EDT

37 day(s) ago

“but as happened in the Hypatia case, because it was obviously an overreaction, the petitions didn’t work. ” That is a pretty misleading characterization of the Hypatia case. The reaction from the journal and the philosophical community (both online and at least in my own experience IRL) was far from an open and shut “this is an overreaction we will ignore this petition”. Hypatia very nearly retracted the article, their official statements regarding Tuvel were hardly full-throated defenses of her article or even their own review process, and it is certainly arguable that had things gone slightly differently (less push-back in defense of TUvel &/or norms of scholarship for example) that Hypatia would cheerfully have retracted her article 6 Report

Rebecca Kennison

38 day(s) ago

Let me make sure I understand your position, Justin. Generally speaking, retractions are serious. I think we all agree with that. But … (1) If a paper was rejected by peer reviewers (as this one was) but still was published solely because the editor wanted it to be, is that editorial misconduct, or not? Should that paper be retracted? If so, by whom, since it was an editorial decision? (2) You don’t discuss retraction in the case of author misconduct. Under what circumstances would author misconduct mean retraction? I can imagine there might be such cases, even in the humanities. What would those cases look like? I’m just trying to understand the parameters here. 5 Report

Justin W.

37 day(s) ago

Thanks for the questions, Rebecca. Here’s my response to the first. If I have time later today, I will respond to the second. While I have still not heard back from the journal’s editors, it was reported by a third party (see the first update to the OP yesterday) that, as you note, the paper was rejected by its referees. It also seems to be the case that there is a class of article at Third World Quarterly—a “Viewpoint” article—that normally does not go through peer review, and that Gilley’s article was published as a Viewpoint article. Let me first say that the presence of this category of article in a publication that calls itself a “peer-reviewed journal” is a bad idea if it is going to include anything more than short editorials or other very short pieces that don’t look like regular articles. It may not be explicitly deceptive, but it has a high likelihood of being misleading and causing confusion. I also note that the existence of this type of article does not seem to be mentioned in the “instructions for authors” section of the journal’s website. Second, even if there is such a category of articles in the journal that needn’t go through peer review, it seems like a bad idea to publish in that category a paper submitted as a regular article, and which “looks” like a regular article, which failed peer review. That is not only misleading but it disrespects the referees and betrays the trust the relevant academic community has put in the journal and its editors. Further, if it is true that the procedure for approving Viewpoint articles is to consult the editorial board, and that this procedure was not followed, then that is another problem. So, if my understanding of the journal’s structure and policies is correct (it may not be), and if my understanding of the relevant facts is accurate (it may not be), then I do believe there is grounds for thinking this is a case of editorial misconduct. With the previous “ifs” in place, I’d say that at the very least, Taylor & Francis, the journal’s publishers, should investigate what has happened (and check to see when else, if ever, similar things have happened); it might even be advisable to place a moratorium at the journal on submissions and further publication decisions until the matter is suitably investigated. Whether the article should ultimately be retracted I do not know at this point. However, the decision should depend at least in part on the considerations raised at #3 in the OP, which I can’t at this moment delve into. 12 Report

David Wallace

38 day(s) ago

I wrote a longish comment on retraction norms (focusing on science vs humanities) a few months ago, which I’ll self-indulgently repost: The vast majority of papers published in the sciences report on experimental or observational data. The research done is the collection and analysing of that data; the paper is a report on the research, not the research itself. And one thing the journal is doing in publishing the paper is certifying that what is reported is *true*: that the experimenters really did do that research, and do it the way they said they did; that they really did get these results; that the dots on the graph really were produced by a statistical analysis of the data collected. So papers routinely get retracted when the journal stops being able to stand by that certification: for honest reasons (the experimenters themselves discover that they used the wrong rat or had a typo in their code), for dishonest reasons (image duplication, fabricated results), and for ‘grey’ reasons (the experimenters aren’t able to provide the raw dataset when asked). I think the vast majority of retractions in the sciences look like this. But in most of philosophy (and in theoretical physics, mathematics, and very occasionally elsewhere in the sciences) the paper *is* the research, not just a report of it. So this reason for retraction doesn’t apply. Papers also get retracted, much more rarely, in the sciences because some formal technique is uncontentiously misused. For instance, a math paper might simply make a calculational error that invalidates the claimed result. One external way to see what “uncontentious” means here is that retraction for this reason is basically never contested; indeed, frequently it originates with the author. You can imagine something like that happening in philosophy in some of the more formal corners of logic and philosophy of physics, but the vast majority of philosophy is just not in the business of using formal tools in this way. What basically doesn’t happen, in the sciences, is that a paper is retracted for non-uncontentious failings of reasoning or scholarship. In theoretical physics, for instance, papers are usually a mixture of formal calculations, approximation schemes, and verbal or semi-verbal arguments; it’s routine for one paper to claim that another’s argument is mistaken, and there are plenty of papers in the literature that everyone agrees are wrong – often quite soon after publication. But I’ve never once heard of a paper being *retracted* in theoretical physics for reasons like that. I think the same is true in the rest of science, though I know the literature less well: medical journals, for instance, are full of discussion of controversies about whether such-and-such experiment was properly designed or such-and-such effect size really justifies the claims being made, but papers don’t get retracted for flaws like that. Put another way: what a journal is saying when it publishes a paper is, I take it: 1) Any experiments and observations described in the paper really did happen, the way the author(s) say they did, and the data thus collected is the basis of any analysis presented; 2) The formal mathematical claims made in the paper are correct; 3) The paper has been peer-reviewed in accordance with the journal’s policy and, on the confidential recommendation of the reviewer(s), the editors decided the paper is of sufficiently high scholarship and importance to be worth including in the public scholarly record; 4) This paper genuinely is the intellectual product of its author(s). Only (3) and (4) apply in (most of) philosophy. And (3) is backward-looking (in philosophy as in the sciences): it doesn’t mean that the editors would make the same decision at a later point, just that it’s the decision they made through their duly-applied process. Stepping from the descriptive to the normative, someone could ask: why shouldn’t journals (in philosophy as well as science) adopt a different policy where (3) is constantly reassessed and papers are retracted (and un-retracted) as and when the editors’ academic judgement shifts? But (quite apart from being grossly unfair on authors given the role publications play in the academic economy, dangerously non-transparent, and wide open to various forms of abuse) it’s not really clear what retraction even *means* here. If a paper is retracted because it makes a data or math error, it’s obvious why I won’t want to quote from or cite it; ditto in plagiarism cases. But if I read a paper in a journal and then the editors retract it because in hindsight they don’t agree with its scholarship, it doesn’t and shouldn’t in any way prevent me from citing the paper and engaging with its arguments – in which case, in what sense is it really “retracted” at all? 24 Report

Hey Nonny Mouse

37 day(s) ago

To what degree do you think that support for retracting articles believed to be harmful reflects a more general tendency to shut down opposing viewpoints rather than respond to them with argument? It seems to me that there is a growing trend in the humanities towards shutting people down rather than responding with argument, but I haven’t studied the issue. 28 Report

asst professor

37 day(s) ago

I wonder how much of the petitioners ultimately want the article to be retracted vs. are really trying to punish the journal for publishing ideas that go against the orthodoxy, particularly, publishing ideas that are reactionary or conservative. If that’s the case, then principles regarding retraction are beside the point, since the point is not retraction, but bad press for the journal. Maybe it’s effective. Hypatia suffered a serious blow, and I imagine this journal will, too. And editors everywhere might hesitate more than a little bit to publish something that goes against the grain. 15 Report

Eric Johnson-DeBaufre

37 day(s) ago

Justin makes some excellent suggestions here but, like the character Thomas More at the end of Utopia, “I rather hope than expect to see them” adopted in the academy at large. Philosophy, I believe, stands a better chance than many other disciplines of embracing these suggestions, but even there they will face resistance. I’d like, however, to reiterate the importance of #5, which was a pervasive claim Tuvel’s critics made about the effects of her article and which José Luis Bermudez addressed in detail in anIHE article. I have written about this elsewhere and would only add that if we wish to counter successfully the tendency to overstate the effects that “an academic article can cause,” we would do well to understand why–at least for some members of the academy–attributing such power to academic articles comes naturally (even automatically) and why claims of “harm” appear to them as aptly descriptive rather than overstatement. There are, I believe, very clear reasons for this that have to do with the influence exerted by the work of figures like Foucault and Bourdieu. This is not, mind you, an effort to dismiss the work of either of them. The work I have in mind here is the set of historical researches Foucault undertook on the institutions of the asylum, the clinic, and Bourdieu’s work on the French academy. Both engaged in either extensive archival research or empirical analysis of their respective institutions and both more or less limited the scope of their research and claims to France (Foucault arguably less so than Bourdieu). And from this careful but obviously imperfect research, both men developed a set of distinctive insights into the role these institutions played within larger French society. When the works of Foucault and Bourdieu first arrived on American shores, their enticing theoretical insights and distinctive formulations—power-knowledge, discursive formation, habitus, cultural capital—came trailing in their wake a considerable but decidedly less sexy body of archival and empirical research on which they were built. American academics, eager for new theoretical insights that they could apply to their own work, embraced the former and largely ignored the latter. As a result, concepts that arose from an analysis of specifically French institutions (e.g. the French academy) became generalized and came to be seen as descriptively true of these institutions globally (or at least in other developed Western countries). Concepts like “power-knowledge” as well as claims about the social force exerted by certain kinds of “discursive formations” and “practices” like those of the academy—most of which arose from patient but hardly flawless archival and empirical research conducted on French institutions, with specific histories and more or less distinctive modes of thought, conducted in a language other than English and engaged with and intellectually indebted to a different set of interlocutors—have so entered the bloodstream of the American academy that we scarcely remember that they are not native to our shores. This is not to proclaim them irrelevant, merely to acknowledge that whatever hard won insights they contain were not achieved by us. Relieved of the necessity of doing the hard, unglamorous archival or empirical research into the extent to which the products of the American academy—scholarly journal articles, monographs, etc. —exert an influence on the larger culture or shape and constrain the subjectivities of the individuals within it, American academics can instead assume it, confident in their belief that an article published by an untenured scholar in a philosophy journal with limited circulation causes harm. 22 Report

Shelley Tremain

36 day(s) ago

This comment seems to suggest a kind of American isolationism with respect to both Foucault’s thinking and thinking “native to ‘our’ shores.”. It is true that some of Foucault’s key ideas were elaborated through erudite studies of some French institutions and that he emphasized their historical and cultural specificity; however, this comment seems to mischaracterize the social contexts within which those ideas were developed and in which they have been used, as well as how Foucault thought they could be used. The suggestion seems to be that, during his life-time, Foucault’s ideas were developed in France alone, with French interlocutors. But that is not so. During his life, Foucault worked (closely) with a number of North American philosophers and theorists, including, Ian Hacking (Toronto), Arnold Davidson (Chicago), Hubert Dreyfus (Berkeley), Gayle Rubin (when she was in Paris as a postdoc), and Paul Rabinow (Berkeley). These philosophers and theorists were vital to the teaching and writing that used Foucault’s ideas during his life-time, as well as their use and circulation after his death. The suggestion that Foucault’s ideas have been misused and misapplied by “American” theorists and philosophers seems to ignore these engagements. During his lifetime, furthermore, these and other theorists outside of France were using Foucault’s ideas to talk about situation, phenomena, states of affairs, etc. that were not limited to France. Is the suggestion that Foucault was allowing his own ideas to be misused? Indeed, Foucault illustrated many of his ideas (especially in interviews) and even developed them with examples from places outside of France, including the US: to take one example, Foucault’s insights about neoliberalism revolve, in part, around the Chicago School. When Foucault wrote: “Man has become a confession animal,” he was not using the supposedly generic term “man” to refer to only people in France. Lastly, I think that the comment underestimates the transatlantic circulation of some of the institutional discourses about which Foucault wrote. For example, the introduction and proliferation of asylums for “the mentally unfit and feebleminded” in the US likely never would have taken place in the way that it did were it not for the importation to the US of the claims of Pinel, Goddard, and others from France. 3 Report

Shelley Tremain

36 day(s) ago

My apologies for the typo. That should be: “Man has become a confessing animal.” 0 Report

R Forsberg

36 day(s) ago

I agree that #5 is important. Such claims are hyperbole and completely designed to both appeal to emotions and to end the conversation . They also lend credence to those who would criticize academics and the left. Justin’s comments in the original post are spot on. Good comments and exchange of ideas all the way through this thread. 4 Report


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