The Corner

Education

Against ‘Idea Laundering’

Peter Boghossian had an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal on what he calls “idea laundering.” Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University, who has a background in scientific skepticism and the Socratic method, describes the hideous cycle of nonsensical jargon, which is now embedded in modern academia.

You’ve almost certainly heard some of the following terms: cisgender, fat shaming, heteronormativity, intersectionality, patriarchy, rape culture and whiteness.

The reason you’ve heard them is that politically engaged academicians have been developing concepts like these for more than 30 years, and all that time they’ve been percolating. Only recently have they begun to emerge in mainstream culture. These academicians accomplish this by passing off their ideas as knowledge; that is, as if these terms describe facts about the world and social reality. And while some of these ideas may contain bits of truth, they aren’t scientific. By and large, they’re the musings of ideologues.

Boghossian describes how non-scientific specialties such as “fat studies” emerge and flourish. It goes something like this: An academic with an ax to grind asserts something like obesity being a social construct (as opposed to a well-established medical problem). The academic backs it up with arguments from authority (the authority having been newly invented e.g. a “fat studies” journal, peer-reviewed by other fatness specialists). This is then passed off as knowledge to eager and well-meaning students.

This is far more than just an irritation. Ideas have consequences, and if we allow pseudo-science to masquerade as science, policymakers could do real harm to real people. In fact, they already are.

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