Who is responsible for all those cranks?

So a running theme in my work is responsibility for communication—how we understand our obligations to communicate truthfully, accurately, and with the ends we seek. So it was with great interest that I watched Suzanne E. Franks (TSZuska), Kelly Hills (Rocza), and Janet D. Stemwedel (Docfreeride) hold a conversation in the wake of Virgina Heffernan’s “Why I’m a creationist.” I’m not going to spoil the amazing train-wreck that is Heffernan’s post; if you’d like to see some of the fireworks that ensued you should head across to watch the fallout as Thomas Levenson and Carl Zimmer got stuck in.

The conversation between Franks, Hills, and Stemwedel is interesting, I think, for the way they navigated Heffernan’s alleged status as a Foucauldian, and how this linked up with issues with postmodernism more generally. Postmodernism is an area I’ll leave to the experts above; what interests me is how we connect the bad apples, the cranks, and the downright malevolent with broader criticism of a field.

I’ll work with my own field, the analytic tradition of moral and political philosophy. It has all sorts of bad apples and problematic characters: we seem destined (the horror) to include people like Robert Nozick. Now I am about as anti-Nozick as it gets, but I can’t deny that he was an American political philosopher from the same cohort as John Rawls; someone whose theories are not so important to me as is one of his students, whom I count as a friend and mentor. I feel I have to kind of have to grind my teeth and allow Nozick as part of the “family,” albeit not a part I much like.

But do I have to own responsibility for every obnoxious kid that reads Nozick? And takes him seriously? Yikes. That sounds terrible. Yet perhaps in some cases I do—if there is a professor out there teaching that Anarchy, State and Utopia is God’s Divine Word, I’m probably stuck with their students as a product of my field’s “sins.” 

I will hang my head cop the criticism that analytic philosophy has produced a frightening amount of first-rate assholes in its time.

Will I, however, take responsibility for right-wing libertarians and their fascination with Adam Smith’s “invisible hand?” I’m hesitant—primarily because most libertarians just casually gloss over The Theory of Moral Sentiments and run straight for The Wealth of Nations, and that just seems like intellectual laziness and cherry-picking at its worst. I can be held for bad writing; bad theories improperly rebuffed; or teaching that is antiquated, bigoted, or just wrongheaded. But it is much harder, I think, to say that I am responsible because a whole group of people found it inconvenient to read the other half of a body of work.

These, I think demonstrate a (non-exhaustive) series of relations we might have with certain elements of our intellectual movements and traditions, who use common language to achieve results that don’t sit right with us.

We could, of course, just reject that someone is properly part of our practice. This is, I’ve no doubt, as much political as it is a question of whether someone’s practice possesses the necessary or sufficient conditions to be classed as part of one’s group—we want to be able to say that some practices that take our name are simply Doing It Wrong. Yet we don’t want to allow just anyone to get away with that at any time–it removes a powerful and often legitimate critique of being able to point at an element of some set of people and go “they are a problem, and they are indicative of some larger issue.”

Another way we could approach this is to say “well that’s an instance of Bad X, but Bad X is not the same as X being bad.” That’s an important part of managing a field’s boundaries. The problem, of course, comes in identifying at what point instances of Bad X become signs of X being bad. My co-supervisor, Seumas Miller, has done work on institutional corruption that I think would be interesting to apply here, but that’s a paper in itself.

Finally, we could acknowledge and go “that’s not just an instance of bad X, but a sign that there is something wrong with the way we practice or communicate X. We should fix that.” I’ve talked before about the need for responsibility in science writing, and that applies to my field as much as any other.

Which of these is Heffernan? Is she Just Doing It Wrong, a bad po-mo (but not evidence of po-mo being bad), or a sign of something more problematic? I don’t know. Franks, Hills, and Stemwedel, I think, cover all three possibilities. Maybe Heffernan is a combination, a hybrid, or something altogether than these three distinctions I’ve made.

I’ve thrown the original chat up in Storify for anyone who wants to see the source I’m working from. It has been edited inexpertly, but I hope not leaving anything important out (though I did leave out an entertaining discussion on Foucault and Emo-pop that you’ll have to track down on Twitter). You can find it here.


4 thoughts on “Who is responsible for all those cranks?

  1. Kelly (@rocza)

    That’s an interesting boundary question – at what point is someone just interpreting and applying differently, and where do they end up Just Wrong? You’d think I might have some clear idea of this, given I’m one of the participants in your example, but.. oops?

    Interestingly, I think it’s a grey area Foucault would find quite interesting, because it’s an intersection of power and knowledge, and well. 😉

    1. Nicholas Evans Post author

      I don’t think there is a clear boundary, in no small part because the problem is (at least) two dimensional. Part of it is definitely a question of categories, which are slippery. There is also the inherent slipperiness of the “bad X” phenomena. But a lot of it is performative—how we mark outliers has consequences for group dynamics.

      A point of interest for me is how long a group should continue going “nah, that’s just Bad X” or “nah, that’s just wrong.” before they have to start connecting the dots and showing there is a larger problem. “Bad apples” are a great way to lead eyes away from rotten trees.

      And love, you’ve often accused me of being a closet conti. My secret is out! 😉

  2. Zuska

    One of the stages in feminist critiques of science is/was the move from “bad science hurts women” to “western science is an inherently oppressive sexist racist colonialist enterprise”. Many women scientists who are feminists see the key issues as those of access, retention, bias (i.e., let us in & we’ll do Good Science Properly Done). Some feminist critiques of science, even from women who are/have been scientists, focus on inherent flaws of scientific enterprise, and/or even ask if we can truly “know” things. Not a lot of conversation between these two groups.

    All kinds of issues can be present simultaneously – problems in/with X (access, bias); instances of bad X (sexist science); and X is bad (scientific enterprise as currently constituted has inherent flaws).

    Sometimes Science makes me sad.

  3. Pingback: How do we respond to the Nature Publishing Group? | The Broken Spoke

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