On defending shit work

In response to On Reading (Part I) Greg Ashman responded with his post Dense and Complex. While I welcome the debate, and thank Greg for his consideration of my post, I think there are factual, logical and nonsensical problems with his work. Greg’s arguments, if I may summarise, and respond underneath to each one, are as follows:

1. All sociological/critical theory/poststructural work share certain outlooks: ‘In particular, there is a scepticism about objective truth and a disdain for using scientific methods in the social sciences. This is given the signifier of ‘positivism’.’

Unbeknownst to many (it would appear) there is a strong tradition of positivism in both sociology and  philosophy. Whilst I don’t subscribe to these positions myself, the argument that all sociology etc is anti-positivist is nonsense. A little bit of research (ie googling the terms) can simply refute this.

2. While Science and Maths are difficult, New Scientist (and presumably other publications) make this complex work like string theory easy to understand.

Just for fun, I googled ‘introduction to poststructuralism’ reasoning that if this field of endeavour was being deliberately obtuse, you wouldn’t be able to find anything. Here is a screenshot:

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Given that there are around 342,000 introductory posts, papers, podcasts, lectures and comic books available for study, I disagree that explaining  poststructuralism has been shirked. There is more than enough for study there, and while I wouldn’t suggest that they are of equal quality, there is more than enough to go on with.

3. The Sokal Affair showed that postmodernism is nonsense.

The Sokal Affair showcases shit editorial work, and I’m not going to defend it. The editors deserve to be called for publishing the nonsense paper. However, as I’ll explain below, this is not a failure of the academic field and/or peer review. Sokal’s paper is often trotted out for rhetorical effect, with scant engagement with the actual details of the affair. Just to clarify:

  • The nonsense paper was sent to what I would call a literary magazine, not an academic journal, and as such was not subject to peer review. The editors read the paper, and asked for revisions, which Sokal refused to do, and they decided to publish anyway. Obviously this was a mistake, and the editors (and their journal) have had to cop the humiliation of publishing a nonsense paper. This is harsh but fair. However, and I stress this, because the Sokal paper was not published in a peer reviewed journal, the argument that it is an indictment of academic work in the area is not a valid inference.
  • Further, Sokal also published a book which ridiculed many post-modern and structural thinkers. This book was enthusiastically received by the anti-PoMo crowd, until a number of problems of logic and fact were pointed out with the work. Here is one refutation. Someone who can’t even get the history of their own field correct seems to me to be of dubious authority as your go-to-guy for slaying the big bad PoMo wolf.
  • Finally, we all know that Science is not immune from egregious errors in publication. These include plagiarism, fudging results, and downright lying in areas such as cancer research. Now I, and I assume most people, would see these egregious and dishonest acts as exceptions to the rule and that the vast majority of science researchers are ethical, methodical and making their best possible contribution to their field. I am interested that this generosity isn’t extended to much of the theoretical work in and around education. Interestingly, I work as an editor on two education journals that publish sociological and philosophical work in education. Both of these journals have high rejection rates because they are rigorous, methodical and exacting. These rejection rates are as high as for some Science journals. If it was ever true that once upon a time all you had to do was mention ‘discourse’, ‘power/knowledge’ etc to get published, it is certainly not so now.

4. Given ‘that taxpayers are funding thousands of academics to research this stuff, it needs to do a much better job of explaining itself’. On the one hand, I think that all disciplines could do with better outreach communication. Broadly speaking, I agree with the second half of that argument, but as I’ve pointed out above, there is lots of (unread) explanatory and introductory material. However, in the spirit with which the comment was intended, over the next few weeks I’ll take the challenge of explaining poststructuralism in a series of posts, so watch this space.

  • My first problem with this statement is that the idea that we can choose where our tax dollars go isn’t how parliamentary democracy and taxation work. For example, if we could decide how our tax dollars would be spent, I’d imagine that there’d be a number of very nervous elite private schools in Australia. Of course,  wishing that governments would spend tax dollars how we would is the stuff of fantasy.
  • Second, each year government funding makes up less and less of the budget of universities, around 45% on average in this latest report. Following the taxpayer logic (remembering that academics also pay tax, so I suppose they could just refuse as taxpayers if tax payment confers some special authority), academics could manipulate their workload allocation on paper to show that they don’t use the government funding of their wage (approx 45% minus the tax that they pay as taxpayers themselves) for their poststructural research and devote the tax-funded aspects to teaching and service. Given the teaching/service/research workload split most academics work under, I doubt they’d have to change anything that they do. Of course, this example is nonsensical, sketched out to show the messiness of the ‘I’m a taxpayer’ argument.
  • Third, given that many of the most wealthy corporations in Australia pay no tax, one of which is NewsCorp which owns a number of newspapers which comment on Australian education, I wonder if the argument is that as non-taxpayers they don’t really have the right to that commentary? Of course, I would disagree with this because a) the status of taxpayer doesn’t seem to confer the authority in practice that the blog suggests and b) silencing public voices in most cases should be avoided.

Ultimately, this post has extended well beyond the 500 words I set myself for each blog post. If you’ve read this far, congrats, and sorry for the length.

4 thoughts on “On defending shit work”

  1. Just on the point about elite private schools being worried if taxpayers chose where to spend the money, I think you are badly wrong.

    If those students went to public schools the taxpayer would be funding them 100%.
    Spending on public schools saves the country money on both tuition and building costs. The issue then would taxpayers willingly pay more of their tax in order to pull funding from those schools, leading to a fair number of them failing?

    Despite the thoughts of the Left, most people just aren’t that worked up about private schools (and will send their children to them in a flash if they get a scholarship). I would suggest that private schools continue to get public funds because taxpayers don’t have that much interest in paying more tax in order to punish other people for being rich.

    Sorry, but voting taxpayers just aren’t that worked up about social leveling, especially if it costs them money. Which is why parties that suggest it don’t get voted in.

    1. Obviously I disagree. I think parents who send their children to public schools are more interested in ensuring that these schools are funded based on need. In Australia that was the point of the Gonski funding review.

    2. I think you are forgetting some very basic things here, for example the charitable status leading to tax breaks. It is questionable whether all of them are making a significant impact on the lives of the most disadvantaged young people in their local communities. They might even increase inequality, so charity? Probably not.

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