Episode 13: "Not the Silicon Valley Mythology"

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01:05:00

Hosts: Anna Reser, Leila McNeill, and Rebecca Ortenberg

Guest: Dr. Joy Rankin

Producer: Leila McNeill

Music: Careful! and Cassie Lace by Zombie Dandies


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In this episode, the hosts have an extended interview with long-time Lady Science contributing editor Joy Rankin, author of the new book A People's History of Computing in the United States. Then the hosts air their (many) grievances about the latest academic hoax "Sokal Squared."

Show Notes

A People’s History of Computing in the United States by Joy Lisi Rankin

Joy Lisi Rankin

Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship by Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian


Transcript

Transcription by Rev.com

(intro music)

Rebecca:

Welcome to Episode 13 of the Lady Science Podcast. This podcast is a monthly deep dive on topics centered on women and gender in the history and popular culture of science. With you every month are the editors of Lady Science magazine.

Anna:

I'm Anna, co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Lady Science. I'm a writer, editor and PhD student studying 20th-century American culture and the history of the American space program in the 1960s.

Leila:

I'm Leila, the other founder and editor-in-chief of Lady Science. I'm a historian of science and freelance writer with words in various places on the Internet, and I am currently a regular writer on women in the history of science at smithsonianmag.com.

Rebecca:

I'm Rebecca, Lady Science's managing editor. When I'm not working with the Lady Science team, I can be found writing about museums and public history around the Internet and managing social media for the Science History Institute in Philadelphia. Today, a little later, we're going to be joined by a Lady Science contributing editor, J. Rankin. She's going to be talking about her new book, A People's History of Computing in the United States. So we're pretty excited about that conversation.

Anna:

So, before we get into our conversation with Joy, we do want to remind everyone that this month, October, is Lady Science's fourth anniversary and–

Rebecca:

Yay!

Anna:

We did it.

Rebecca:

Barely.

Anna:

I mean, not that four was a specific goal and now we're done or anything, whatever.

Leila:

That would also be a weird number to end on.

Anna:

We're going to do this for four years and then we're going to quit.

Leila:

Yeah, we can't make it to the five. Sorry. Yeah, we're tired.

Rebecca:

We don't believe in round numbers here.

Anna:

Well, that's not true. We believe in as many years of Lady Science as we can possibly do, and we've been able to get this far because of our awesome readers and listeners. So if you want to continue being awesome and send us money for our birthday, that's always welcome. (laughter) You can do that at patreon.com—

Rebecca:

Presents!

Anna:

—/ladyscience or ladyscience.com/donate if you want to make a one-time donation. You know, $40 for four years? I don't know.

Leila:

Just so you know, we now have our sights set on going to PodCon, and someone had asked us to be on a science panel, but we, for some reason, did not have the forethought to think about going to PodCon. So that will be something that we have on the docket for fundraising for the next PodCon. So if you want to give us some money for that, that we'll squirrel away so that we can go national.

Rebecca:

Yeah. We've decided that academic conferences are silly and podcast cons just sound like a lot more fun. So let's do it.

Leila:

To our academic listeners, I mean–

Rebecca:

We love you, but–

Leila:

–it's true. (laughter)

Rebecca:

The conferences are terrible. It's not about you, it's about the conferences, let's be real.

Leila:

Yeah, it's none of you individually.

Anna:

It's just when you all get to the same place. I'm glad this is coming out after we've already been at one conference, but it is before we will be at another one, so a little dicey. But next year, we're just doing PodCon and fun things. I mean, yeah.

Leila:

Let's just keep digging this hole. (laughter) Keep on digging, there is no bottom.

Anna:

Anyway, I did want to just remind everybody that we're right in the middle of our sports series that I've been editing, so make sure you're looking for that. We have already published a great piece on hockey and another piece on masculine fitness, and we have some good stuff coming up about football, roller derby–so stay tuned for more sports content.

Leila:

So before we jump in to the interview, which I actually—this is Leila—was not there for, but before we roll that, we do want to say that we know that many of you, as are many of us on the Lady Science team, are really struggling with what we've seen, well, for pretty much the past two years, probably more, the whole 2016 area-ish until now. But especially with what happened with the Supreme Court nomination, and that Brett Kavanaugh did get confirmed, even though he had multiple sexual assault allegations. So we know that the whole situation has caused many, many, many, many women to confront and relive their own traumas, and so we just want to take a second and say that we believe you and we hear you and we stand with you.

(music break)

Rebecca:

Okay, let's jump right in. We've already said that Joy is a contributing editor to Lady Science, but we'll let Joy tell you a little bit about herself and the work that she does. Welcome to the podcast, Joy. Welcome again, I should say.

J. Rankin:

Thank you.

Anna:

Hi, Joy!

J. Rankin:

Hi, Rebecca and Anna! Thank you. So first, I want to say thank you so much for having me on the podcast. I am so happy to be here. I also have to pause and thank Anna and Leila for creating Lady Science four years ago. Happy Birthday, Lady Science!

Rebecca:

Yay, that's so exciting.

Anna:

Yay, thank you.

J. Rankin:

I value it so much as a space for thoughtful and clear writing and talking about how gender and science and technology and medicine are inseparable. It's actually one of the things that I am proudest of that I do, is be a contributing editor here. So: thank you!

Rebecca:

Thank you.

Anna:

Yay.

J. Rankin:

So about me, I could say—I was thinking about this because "think a lot" is what I do. I could say I'm a historian, or a writer, or a partner, or a parent. But to me, those are static and boxed in, and this will be a theme that comes up again. I prefer thinking about actions and doing and what people do every day. So I like to learn and I like to write: traditional disciplines and boundaries need not apply. For as long as I can remember, I've studied things in combinations other people tend to find unusual. Like when I was a math major, I wrote an encryption program, but I also wrote about the history of cryptography. So I've also studied opera and theater, and written a play and worked on documentaries. And now I've written a book!

Rebecca:

Awesome. Well, speaking of that book—it's of course what we're here to chat with you about—so can you tell us just a little bit about A People's History of Computing and what makes it different from other computer origin stories?

J. Rankin:

So the people in A People's History of Computing in the United States are students and educators (which would be K-12 teachers, college and university professors) who built and used academic computing networks, then known as "timesharing systems," during the 1960s and 1970s. So some examples of this are, there is a network across New England of high schools and colleges and universities that centered at Dartmouth College. It's called the Kiewit network or the Dartmouth Timesharing System. I also write about Minnesota, which had an incredible statewide timesharing network by the mid-1970s, and also a network based at the University of Illinois called the Plato System.

So my book is a history of the digital age that emphasizes creativity, collaboration, and community. So I'm arguing that these timesharing networks were not coming from individual genius—they were not the product of the military-industrial complex—but rather they were created for and by students and educators at public schools and universities as civilian civic-minded projects.

I think origin stories matter a ton in talking about where we came from culturally, socially, and what we think of as the possibilities for the present and the future. So in my book, I talk about the "founding fathers' origin story" of digital culture. So sort of broadly, it's a focus on homebrew hobbyists—Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Jeff Bezos—and that sort of founding fathers' origin story says only a few people can create change. To me, that's a pretty limiting history. So in contrast, my book points to hundreds of thousands of everyday people who were creating computing communities and making personal and social computing. So I think my history is more optimistic and more empowering because it's a history of many different people creating digital worlds.

Anna:

Okay. So in terms of origin stories, I do want to back up a little bit and just talk about why you work on the history of computing and how you became interested in this topic. I just always like to ask people about their own sort of scholarly origin story, because usually it's super weird. Especially I find for historians of science and technology, it's usually just really strange and roundabout.

J. Rankin:

Yes. It is also a strange and roundabout story for me. So after college, I worked—I had a career that the unifying theme was I launched educational programs, and it was often educational programs that involve technology. So launching an online site that did English as a second language or English as a foreign language, or doing online courses for rural students, that kind of thing. And every time—every time—I was always impressed with and inspired by how creative the students, the teachers, the users would be with whatever technology we put in front of them. They never did exactly what they were supposed to do, but they always did something new and more interesting, and if they had to problem solve or figure it out, they could, and they did. I saw this day in and day out for almost a decade.

So that's the first part. The second part is—I guess I should say to finish that up, I sort of carried that in my head and in my heart when I finally decided to get a PhD and was sort of thinking about doing the history of science and technology, that I was like, "Wait a second, there are all these people out there doing really interesting things with technology and we don't hear these stories." The second part is that I did my undergraduate degree at Dartmouth, which I write about in the book, and Dartmouth had a very rich computing culture in the 1990s when I was there, and it seemed to me like a sort of logical place to start. I knew a little bit about the history from being a student there, and when I thought about like, "Where's a place I could start looking to tell this story?" that was one of the places.

Anna:

Okay. All right. Let's go ahead and—I'm going to jump into the book textually. I have quotes and stuff. (laughs) So in the introduction, you write—I think this ties into what you said when you were sort of introducing yourself and talking about action and being interested in doing and what people do. You say, "We need histories not of computers, but of the act of computing." So I guess professionally, sort of you would be classified as a historian of technology, even though we just talked about boxes. So I'm interested in what that distinction means for you, and what does it mean maybe for history kind of methodologically and also I think the way you intended it, kind of maybe politically as well?

J. Rankin:

Yeah. So this to me is absolutely crucial, because I think when we think about a history of the computer or a computer or even a history of sort of technology, we think of sort of a product or a machine or a device or a system, but that often sort of erases or masks the fact that science and technology are produced by people. So they're social. Science and technology are social. It is people making technology and people sort of constantly creating and inventing and reinventing what technology means or what computing means in particular. So when we talk about computers—or now if we, I think, talk about social media platforms—it's that we're thinking of things that are somehow separate from people, objects unto themselves, and it's like a disconnect between the people and the technology. So I think that's a really false separation. Computing and networks and social media wouldn't be what they are without people.

So I wanted to underscore focusing on computing, the act, and the fact that there are people doing the act of computing, and a practice gets at the idea that people are making and remaking technology all the time. In some ways, think of the 1960s and 1970s as that long ago, but I feel like this history has been largely forgotten. I mean, just in the same way that the fact that women were computers is largely forgotten history. Part of why I'm interested in this book, I say it at the end, I sort of hope—my biggest hope is that it creates more people's histories of technology and sort of recovers all of the people doing these things rather than giving us a few founding fathers.

Anna:

Yeah. So this idea of founding fathers is obviously really integral to your story and this idea that I think fathers is intentional, right? In part because obviously all the men that are sort of talked about in this Silicon Valley sort of mythology of personal computing, they're all men anyway. But I'm wondering what role does gender play in your story sort of on the people's end of things?

J. Rankin:

Yes. So I was looking back through the book, and I realized that gender is everywhere in this story! What role does gender play? So I will say this, it is everywhere in this book, even when I am not explicitly calling attention to it. By that I mean, gender is everywhere in this book in the same way that it's everywhere in society. It's about how relationships and interactions between people, or people in institutions, are structured and shaped and interpreted and made and remade sort of every moment and every interaction. So it's not separate from technology, it's not separate from computing. Gender was and is constantly created and interpreted by the same people who were creating these computing practices and communities in the 60s and in the 70s.

One overarching theme of the book is that girls and women were present and active in these communities in the 1960s and 1970s, but their activities even at the time weren't recognized or sort of remembered after the fact as much as the work done by boys and men. I think one of my favorite examples of this is the women teachers who taught and mentored students on the Dartmouth Network, or the Kiewit Network, which is this network of schools around New England. They had to learn this timesharing system, they had to learn how to write programs in Basic, and then they were teaching this to their students, they're troubleshooting, they're problem solving and mentoring them, and they were recognized at the time for really creating very vibrant computing communities, but were forgotten after the fact.

Rebecca:

The little bits about the students at Dartmouth, and just the degree to which the programs that the kids are creating are exactly what like college boys anywhere would create. It's like, "I have the chance to make a game: it's going to be a football game. I have a chance to make a game: it's going to be Battleship." There's something that is so almost like parody 1950s varsity jacket-wearing New England college boy, but so many other different things that they're doing, and it's easy to take that as the default, as the assumption, as the "Of course that it is." But of course that relates to who was there at the time and who had access to computers and all those sorts of things. But you end up with, yeah, this very hilariously gendered collegiate series of programs that these guys create. (laughs)

J. Rankin:

Yes. Yeah. I mean, it was important to me to sort of not just say, "Oh, computing at Dartmouth was masculine because it was all-male until the early 1970s," but rather to sort of show in detail how computing also becomes masculine with these games, with the socializing, with, "Oh, let me bring my winter carnival date to the computing center to show her my computing prowess." (laughter) To me, that's also sort of a story of showing that it's not necessarily obvious and that it's not necessarily—it didn't have to be that way, maybe that there were other paths. Because the sort of what I think of it as the contrast to that is, there were so many women working at the computer center at Dartmouth, at Kiewit, in the 1960s and in a diversity of roles. But they, too, have been forgotten, or sort of in a way that the culture became masculine and erased them or sort of signaled their participation differently.

Rebecca:

So you talked a little bit about this earlier, but you write that the Silicon Valley myth has really overtaken the history of computing, and that is obscuring this real story that isn't about personal computing at all, but it's said about this collaborative computing, especially in academic settings. So I was wondering if you could talk about the Silicon Valley myth, and then how you see it manifested outside of academic history in kind of the everyday understanding of how technology has developed.

J. Rankin:

So the Silicon Valley myth that I write about includes what I would call the founding fathers' idea, which I talked about earlier. So really a sort of history of computing, or a history even more broadly of digital technology today, that focuses almost exclusively on Silicon Valley, on big names of big corporations. So a history of digital culture that starts with Apple and Microsoft and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and sort of jumps to the era of iPhones and the Internet and Facebook and Google. I think in the United States right now, our cultural moment is dominated by Silicon Valley, dominated by these few big corporations: Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter. But most people think as a result that the United States owes its sort of digital heritage and its current digital creativity to a few guys, or a few corporations that were started generally by guys.

So again, it's such a limiting story. I think it does us a disservice. I like to think that my history of students and teachers and principals and professors illuminate a world of collaboration with the vision of computing and technology for the collective public good. I think because the people in my book are not the usual suspects, having more stories from under-listened to or under-heard people can help us paint a more complex picture of our digital and social heritage and help us imagine more possibilities for the future, and maybe look to ways that we might want to rethink what's happening now and what the possibilities are going forward.

I will add one more thing here, which I think sort of is related to the Silicon Valley mythology, which is another theme in my book, is I want to point to and emphasize the role of investment in public education and in science and technology research and say that was valuable. Clearly it underwrote a lot of the networks that I write about. But also, K-12 education was not where technology went to die. I think right now there's sort of an idea that—this is certainly not my view—but that sort of public schools are where nothing new or creative or innovative happens with technology. And that makes me really sad, because I've seen the creativity firsthand and I've seen the magic that happens. This book is a testament to the outcomes of investing in education and research.

Rebecca:

One thing I kept thinking of in reading here, reading the book is, so once in a while you'll see on the Internet, people refer to late millennials as the "Oregon Trail Generation" sometimes. So people who are in their mid-30s now. Really it's based around the idea that we were all introduced to computing via elementary and middle school, and this idea that an educational setting was really the way that the Oregon Trail Generation first interacted with computing technology. Therefore, there was kind of—the older millennials kind of remember sort of a pre-personal computer world and then being introduced to it. Even given that, the fact that education was this place where computing first entered the lives of people who are adults now and are running a lot of this technology stuff has been lost, and that's really sad.

J. Rankin:

Yes! Yes, absolutely. I will say, full disclosure, I am of the Oregon Trail Generation. I remember being introduced to computing, I think Commodore 64s in my public school in Connecticut. Also, I will say part of what—one of the delights of my book was writing the history of the Oregon Trail and learning that really it goes back to the 1960s in Minnesota and there's a connection to Dartmouth—and I'll let people read the book to find out the rest of that story. But Steve Jobs, I think it was an interview he did with The Smithsonian, where he said Basically Apple in the 1980s owed its success to education, because they sold–

Rebecca:

Seriously! I remember all those Apple computers.

J. Rankin:

–computers! They sold computers to schools.

Rebecca:

Yeah.

J. Rankin:

So it was absolutely crucial and has been largely forgotten. Yeah.

Anna:

Yeah, I was just going to say, I think my first experience with a computer was an Apple II, which by the time I was in middle school was already kind of ancient. It was pretty old by then. Big five-inch floppy disks. But yeah, certainly Oregon Trail for sure. So since we were speaking about some of these specific technologies, I think you do such a good job of explaining the technology in this book, well, for us, the Oregon Trail Generation who knows nothing about what computing was like in the 60s, except that ENIAC was the size of a room or whatever. (laughs) So I'm just wondering kind of, what was your research process to kind of cover your bases in terms of the technology? Did you learn any of these programming languages? You said you had a career in this earlier, so I'm assuming that you already know all about that.

J. Rankin:

So first, thank you, because writing about this in a way that made sense to people and was not in any way sort of obscure or obtuse or difficult to understand, it's one of the things that I really set out to do. I wanted readers to understand the networks and the timesharing because I wanted it to be approachable history. I think I was actually inspired—So in my research reading about Kemeny and Kurtz, John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, who sort of outline the principles behind the Dartmouth timesharing system, the Dartmouth Network. They always put the user first, and reading through their documentation for the system, it's super clear and understandable, and I thought, "I will put my reader first." I want my readers to be—I want her to be able to understand what I'm talking about, and I wanted to give the readers sort of some of the elegance and in some ways the simplicity of these systems and the approachability of Basic, in the same ways that the students and educators of the 60s and 70s were enthusiastic about them.

It was something that sort of screamed out from every source I looked at, was how much students and teachers loved these networks. They loved Basic, they generally thought it was easy to learn and incredibly sort of personally productive and creative. I will say, so other people at the time and since have criticized Dartmouth's system for example, or Basic as "not a real programming language" or not technical enough. I think there's probably a whole other essay I could write in there about gender and what it means to be "technical enough" or not, but I think Dartmouth's network and Basic accomplished exactly what the community set out to do, which was get people computing.

So I did learn some Basic as part of my research, which was generally fun. But I had also had experience, yes. In college, I sort of wrote some programming, and then in my work afterwards, I had done programming as well. So I had some familiarity there, but I also wanted to understand it in a way that I could share it with my readers and have them understand it and feel enthusiastic in the same way.

Rebecca:

So you talk about the transition from computing citizenship to computing consumption. So I was hoping that you could talk a little bit about that transition and what you mean by citizenship in this particular case.

J. Rankin:

Yes. When I researched and even was writing the book, I really struggled with the idea that all these students and educators were just users, and that was sort of, at the time, the best word I could think of or sort of how people were categorizing them. But as I was researching and writing, I was thinking, no, they're creating and they're making and they're doing, and I thought about them as authors writing programs or makers and programmers and coders, but none of those ideas was quite right. As the book came together and writing and revising, and I realized the centrality to my argument of this idea of a collective and community and a collective good, I realized this membership in a computing community is central.

So I introduced the concept of computing citizens to describe those who access the timesharing network. It's a broad definition of a computing citizen, but it really hinges on membership and/or access to, or participation in a computing community. So it's broad and inclusive, in the same way, it mirrors the ways in which the advocates of timesharing networks envision computing access as broad and inclusive. I have a chapter in the book that talks about the vision of computing as a public utility, and really the idea in the 1960s, that was hugely popular and widespread that computing, that would be something like electricity or water, where it would be publicly available and regulated for the public good. So citizenship to me as well emphasizes the communal institutions, the schools, the universities, state and federal government, and the National Science Foundation, for example, that enabled access.

To get to this shift to computing consumers, what I realized as I got to the end of this story is that sort of the story ends in some ways when Apple comes on the scene and starts selling individual computers, a product, a machine that people can buy. Largely, for much of our history, that's been something that's celebrated like, "Hurrah, the arrival of the personal computer. Isn't this great? Everyone can have their own." But what I saw for the people about whom I wrote is that in some ways it was a loss. It was a shift from accessing a network that had many people and that had sort of the benefits of a network in terms of access to multiple programs and multiple resources and a community, to an individual, isolated machine where individual people had to spend their monies or school systems had to buy many computers. To me, that was a substantial change that was best captured by thinking about a shift from personal computing and citizenship to consumers and computers.

Rebecca:

I don't know, maybe this is a simplistic question, but I feel like it's one that I a little bit have and that therefore probably other people have. But I'm curious, I'd love to hear you talk about the ... Okay. So yeah, you have these networks and then you have personal computers, and then we have the Internet of course. What do you see as the parallels or wild differences between the computer networks that you are describing and the Internet of the 80s and 90s?

J. Rankin:

I was just reading something the other day, I cannot remember what it was, but someone was saying that the early Internet—we'll say sort of early 90s Internet—was a Utopian place and everyone got along, and before social media corrupted everything or before it got too big and everyone became horribly rude and uncivil and harassing and everything else that happens—Whoever this author was, was saying like, "Oh no, it was so much better then." And my response to that in my head was, "No, no, wait. (laughs) In fact, I have researched networks in the 1960s and 1970s, and people were—" I'm going to be very mild here—"people were not nice to each other back then. (laughter) There were all sorts of problems with how people treated each other online 50 years ago, 40 years ago."

So there are similarities that maybe make me sad. I mean, I think the difference was in a lot of these cases, the communities had a sense of community that was also tied to place or school or university or some kind of affiliation. Where there was a sense of maybe responsibility to the community and idea that this was in some ways a sort of public good or a communal good. Or something that, as people talked and wrote about it and saw it growing, maybe they thought would be regulated, and would be sort of—start to embrace more of an explicit idea of political citizenship as well, or sort of unify computing and political citizenship. I think that's something in this moment in time now that I think people are starting to want or look for in all of the dismay and disappointment about how some of our large Silicon Valley companies are acting. That stands in stark contrast to this moment in the 60s and early 70s. Did I ramble? Did that make sense? Okay. (laughter)

Rebecca:

No. It did. It totally did. It's one of those things where it's like, "I'm going to ask a dumb ahistorical question," but it seems like one that will pop into other people's heads and it certainly popped into mine. So I'll just ask the dumb ahistorical questions.

J. Rankin:

No, I mean it's something I think about all the time. Every time I read any sort of current commentary or critique of technology today, it's hard for me to not stop and think, "What are the similarities? What are the differences? What does current news coverage tend to elide or miss? What voices and perspectives are we not hearing?"

Anna:

I think that's just related to what you described in the sort of Silicon Valley myth, that just it's so overpowering that it contributes to those sort of ahistorical misunderstandings of what the network was like back in the day, because for one thing, we don't know about it at all because of these overpowering narratives about Steve jobs or whatever. It just takes up so much of the discourse, there's no room, unless you write a really good book and make room. So, good job. (laughter)

J. Rankin:

Thanks.

Rebecca:

Yeah.

J. Rankin:

Thanks.

Anna:

Okay, well, Joy, thank you so much for coming on the show. The book is called A People's History of Computing in the United States, and it is available now, right?

J. Rankin:

Yes.

Anna:

As of today, as of the day we're recording.

J. Rankin:

As of the day we're recording!

Rebecca:

Yay!

J. Rankin:

Yes. Yay. Thank you.

Anna:

Happy book birthday.

Rebecca:

Happy book birthday.

J. Rankin:

Thank you.

(transition music)

Anna:

So at the end of every episode, hosts will unburden themselves about something in the news or their work or whatever that's just annoying the crap out of them. It is my distinct pleasure (laughter) to introduce this one annoying thing, because second only to the Vox Victorians, this is my favorite dumb thing that comes around every couple of years. I just love it. Oh, it's so delicious! We're going to talk about grievance studies guys.

Rebecca:

(laughs) The glee with which you say that is beautiful.

Anna:

I just love it. So last week, I guess, a piece was published in this magazine called Areo that was a sort of summing up end-of-project report about a publishing hoax that was undertaken by a team of researchers, people—

Rebecca:

Social justice warriors, as some have taken to call them. (laughter)

Anna:

Oh boy.

Rebecca:

Not us though.

Leila:

No.

Anna:

Some folks spent I believe more than one year writing fake papers and trying to get them published in peer-reviewed journals, and then they publish this very long explanation of why they did it and how this kind of publishing hoax can help us understand the diseased oozing heart of academia that needs to be cut out, that is basically anything that's not a hard science. So if this sounds familiar to you, it's because somebody does this like every five years I guess now, and acts like it hasn't ever been done before. But the sort of originator of this particular—I don't know what you'd call it, very involved method of making a very dumb point is Alan Sokal, right? I guess I could've actually looked that up.

Leila:

Yeah, that's him.

Anna:

Yeah. He was a physicist and he wrote a paper that he submitted to a critical theory journal that wasn't even doing peer review and he got it published in that paper, and then used that as an argument that critical theory and the social sciences and the humanities, particularly where they want to criticize science—so, what we do—are doing a bad job and they don't understand science and they're just appealing to identity instead of learning the actual science or whatever. So that's something—History of science folks learn about that first year of grad school in your methods course, will talk about that particular hoax. So it just seems like every few years, somebody has to do this and shriek about how it's horrible that women and gender studies or critical race theory or any of this stuff isn't physics basically. (laughs)

Leila:

Yeah, because we all have physics envy. And the particular targets of their ire were specifically gender studies, someone did or break down that showed that that was more than half of their fake papers was gender studies, and then there was race studies and fat studies as well. Those were the main grievances.

Anna:

Yeah. So I guess the innovation of this one is that they have now rebranded all things that are, I don't know, I guess not the five disciplines that people studied in the Middle Ages. They've rebranded all of that collectively under the umbrella of what they call "grievance studies," which is just—it's so petty and just small. Their argument is that anybody who does any of this work is just motivated by wanting to cast themselves as a victim or cast marginalized groups as being victimized and appealing to your identity instead of—I guess science is what we're supposed to be doing here in the humanities instead. I don't know.

Leila:

Well, only one of them comes close to being a scientist. I think one of them's a mathematician. I was about to say "math matishism" or something. (laughter)

Rebecca:

A "mathmatitist."

Leila:

Then the other ones are also—One of them is a philosopher and one of them studies medieval writings about women. So I don't even know what at least the two of them, what their particular bone to pick actually is.

Rebecca:

Well, it seems to be like the other difference from Sokal is that it's less about, I think it just—I was looking over it again right before this and I feel like what they write about is less that humanities are inherently flawed and more that any kind of thing where you're saying the dominant structure is flawed is dumb.

Leila:

Yeah. Yeah.

Rebecca:

So that seems to be the thing that they're attacking, is the idea that heteronormativity might be a problem or that science has biases as part of it, and other sorts of things that, yeah, say basically our western social structures are not idealized and magical.

Leila:

Yeah, social constructivism is what they're really attacking.

Rebecca:

Yeah. Which frankly, I can kind of see a certain kind of philosopher and a certain kind of medievalist being angry about the idea that people are saying that the sort of classical versions of their fields are kind of fucked up.

Leila:

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I guess.

Rebecca:

I mean it's still bullshit, but it's kind of a particular sort of old-school asshole humanities personal bullshit.

Rebecca:

Yeah.

Anna:

Yeah.

Leila:

Well, I think that—because I saw several people on social media thinking that these people were brave and clever, because they've even, I guess, said that they're risking their future careers in academia now. Which is weird, because they're going after grievance studies in victimhood when they're already making themselves victims of this thing that they've created themselves—which I mean, whatever. I think that it speaks to kind of people whose maybe fields and research doesn't feel as relevant, because these other fields that have been subordinate and been tangential in universities and in departments are now getting more attention and they're getting more prominence in the public sphere outside of academic walls. I think that a lot of this comes from kind of another generation of academics who feels that their work is kind of maybe fading into irrelevance.

Rebecca:

Yeah. It doesn't mean you don't get still very much support from academia, but if you are a gender studies scholar, you probably have more opportunities to talk to the press than if you are a classical philosophy scholar.

Anna:

Right.

Leila:

I think one thing that a lot of people I haven't necessarily seen ask the question, "Why these specific pockets of academia to go after? Why these specific ones?" Because, I mean, I think that you can learn to fake data in cancer research and get that published in a cancer studies journal. If you will learn the system enough, you learn that peer review system enough, you can game that system and you can get fake stuff published in a cancer study journal. But you'd probably only do that if you already believe that cancer research was bullshit. You would only go to the trouble to knock it down if you already think that it's bullshit. But you don't do that with things like cancer studies, so why gender studies? Why race studies? Why fat studies? Right?

Anna:

Yeah.

Rebecca:

Yeah.

Anna:

It's also like, if what you're concerned about is bunk research getting through the system or whatever, wasting a bunch of people's time looking at fake papers is not doing anything to either expose or help to solve the problem of—These journals are run by extremely overworked and underpaid people. Stuff is reviewed for free, all of that labor is uncompensated, everybody's super stressed out and harried all the time. We had a journal on campus when I was in grad school, and it was a nightmare. The editor is going to be stepping down next year and she's just ecstatic because it just takes so much time and so much energy and she had such a small staff because they couldn't afford to hire anybody to help out.

Anna:

That's a problem that you could be talking about, is the actual economics of how knowledge gets produced: who's doing it, who's getting paid for it, and how much they're getting paid. There's none of that in here. This is just pointing at people—at very busy people—and saying, "You're all dumb idiots with dumb ideas and we win." It's extremely petty and it doesn't do any of the things that they're saying that it should do.

Leila:

Right. It makes no sense to judge an entire academic field by some bad faith actors who intentionally manipulated evidence and data to game the system. It makes no sense to judge the health of an entire academic field based off of two bad actors that did really shitty things to manipulate the system. I haven't seen the people who think that this is awesome, like refer to how many were rejected, the feedback that was given during peer review, and the fact that before this came out in the past week, people were already onto them in the summer because their papers were shitty. (laughter) So I mean, it's not like they just hoodwinked an entire academic field. There was one thread on Twitter, I felt really bad for this guy because he was a graduate student and he was reviewer number one I think for one of the papers.

Anna:

Something like that.

Leila:

So this poor graduate student who reviewed this paper, didn't get paid to do it, and he thought that it was just a grad student paper that somebody after a seminar just tried to quickly turn it into a peer-reviewed journal paper. So he was trying to be nice and kind and provide the best feedback that he could, which is the point of a reviewer. It's not to make someone not look like an asshole and an idiot once they're actually published, it's to provide the feedback that they can in the moment. They wasted this nice man's time.

Anna:

Yeah. Especially, I think that grad student's thread is really telling, because it's a bad faith gesture butting up against a good faith gesture, and it demonstrates that good faith is actually what keeps the academy sort of running and keeps the sort of journal ecology healthy on its own, and that's fine. But for some reason, I don't know, maybe because we're so obsessed with the idea of empirical falsifiable evidence because we've been inculcated into the science cult for the last 30 years, good faith isn't good enough.

Leila:

Yeah.

Rebecca:

And even in science, to go back to the cancer studies metaphor, you could be a scientist and make up a bunch of numbers that prove that, I don't know, eating peas every day will mean that you'll never get breast cancer. You could say something absurd and you could make up shit and you could include a bunch of data—

Leila:

That's happened before!

Rebecca:

That's happened before, exactly.

Leila:

There's a reason why journals retract papers, because people do that!

Rebecca:

Right, exactly.

Anna:

That's something I was tweeting about, is that this also really I think fundamentally misunderstands how this whole process works. Something getting published does not mean it is the whole complete unvarnished truth and Canon Gospel forever and ever. It's one of the first steps to becoming a piece of knowledge that can be used. Nobody can do anything with it until it's published. To get into a journal, it's read by three reviewers and an editor, and maybe a copy editor—maybe a copy editor—but that's it. The second half of peer review, the most important half of peer review, is when it gets published and you get your journal in mail and you open it up and you say, "What the fuck is this?" Then you write a paper refuting that paper. That's how the whole process works. Like, "What are you talking about?"

Anna:

They're acting like the act of getting something published means that it is the truth forever and that if we let anything through the gates of the journals, then we're going to destroy society. It's like, well, you clearly have not been reading these academic journals, because there's all kinds of bad stuff in there, and there's all kinds of perfectly passable but really boring stuff, and there's all kinds of useless shit that literally no one cares about even in their own field. That's how it works!

Leila:

Yeah. I think that that is a fundamental problem that they might have inadvertently stumbled upon that wasn't their point. Then the fact that we are talking about this grad student who wasn't getting paid to review this paper and was already overworked, and was trying to do the best that they could, exposes another flaw in the peer review system—that has nothing to do with their stupid hoax. All it did was waste a young man's time, and that's part of the problem. We know peer review has issues; we know that it's flawed. We know that there's issues of finding out who reviewers are, issues of race and gender discrimination in peer review. We know that those things exist. But manufacturing an outrage that wasn't there until you created it doesn't help get to the real issues that can be resolved in peer review and make peer review better. This doesn't work to make it better.

Leila:

Hoaxes inherently punch down. They punched down and make people feel ashamed, and that's also part of this problem. So when I see senior academics saying that this was brave, no, it's just your brand of humiliation that you like to traffic in, in academia.

Anna:

I think an important thing to say about the content of the papers that they wrote is that they are cruel, and the way they discuss these papers and the way that they discuss sort of learning the tropes of a discipline and then manipulating them, it's cruel. There is a lot of stuff just in this piece that they're supposedly objectively describing what they did. There's a lot of stuff in here that is blatantly fatphobic, misogynistic, and transphobic just in this article. The subject matter, the subjects that they chose themselves and the way that they decided to frame these things are in and of themselves bigoted arguments against feminism. They're antifeminist arguments, they're transphobic arguments, these papers themselves. So it's like, "Oh, you're just showing your whole ass now out there." I love this part in this paper about when they're like, "So why did we do this? Is it because we're bigoted? No." It's like, "No it is. You said the quiet part out loud!" (laughter)

Leila:

"You made the subtext text. You did it! We didn't even have to."

Rebecca:

Also, let's be real, given the way that a phrase like "grievance politics" is used in the year of our Lord 2018, making a grievance studies is not even a dog whistle: we know who you're aligning with. Don't then be like, "No, we're liberals, we're just trying to show how flawed identity politics is."

Leila:

Yeah. You're exactly right. This is just another iteration of a self-appointed liberal talking about how identity politics is sinking the left. It's just another iteration of that and I just have zero patience for that anymore. It's such a boring conversation to keep having.

Anna:

So I did want to bring up there was—it's just been a smorgasbord of amazing stuff this last week or so. But there was another piece, let me find it, in Salon called "Why Most Narrative History is Wrong," which is I think in a kind of similar vein, although it's more attacking public history or popular history. Because the author goes to great lengths to say that he's not talking about academics. So it's sort of the other side of the coin. Not only are the academics bad, that's what these hoaxers tell us. But now, whoever this is, I believe he's a philosopher, writing in Salon is telling us that your popular history books and stuff are also just ripping up the fabric of society with their untruths, and we know this because of neuroscience somehow.

Anna:

Honestly, the article is so poorly written, I really have a hard time tracking the argument. But the part that we talked about in the Slack that's sort of most relevant to all of our interests is the way that he talks about the history of science and how that is—This is his argument for why narrative history doesn't work, because he says, "Even where historical narrative doesn't seem indispensable to understanding something, it is widely believed to be the best way. Nothing illustrates this belief more clearly that the penchant of science writers for historical narrative science. Science is not stories: it's theories, laws, models, findings, observations, experiments," nouns! That last part I added myself. "Yet, almost the only way writers communicate science to the general public is through the narrative history of breakthroughs or the biographies of scientists who achieved them."

Leila:

I mean, another thing that directly goes against the things that I read about, (laughs) being a popular history writer, and my upcoming piece in Baffler where I actually have a sentence that says, "Science is as much a story as art or literature, and one that we have done a particularly bad job of telling."

Anna:

Absoltuely.

Rebecca:

That's a great sentence.

Leila:

I feel so attacked by all of these things. I mean, not really attacked, because I also—

Rebecca:

They're all dumb.

Leila:

I'm not going to change what I do because some men decided that what I do doesn't matter.

Anna:

I mean, yeah, we're right. So it's fine.

Leila:

We're right.

Anna:

All of is basically aimed right at the core of what we do at Lady Science. So the other quote, this is the one I really wanted to read because I like this one as a historian of science myself. He says, "Meanwhile, there are several other things we need to consider that should make us skeptical about narrative history as a path to understanding. For one thing, when it comes to physics, geology and the other natural sciences—" you know, all the rest of the squishy ones too I guess—"the specialists don't care about history much at all. Read the textbook, scientific journals, attend seminars and colloquia where they present their results to one another. The histories of their disciplines, how they go out to where they are today, don't come into it. Facts, data, evidence, observations—" more nouns—"they're all important, and many are about past events, recent or distant. All they do is provide evidence for scientific results, finding models or theories." I love that he's saying "They are using data from four years ago, but they're not talking about the history." (laughter) Yeah, this is—

Leila:

But also, history of science, the discipline was basically founded by scientists wanting to learn about the history of their field.

Rebecca:

Exactly. I think that a good 50% of the audience of the science history museum where I work right is scientists and they get super excited.

Leila:

Yeah. I mean, and what the scientists did who founded this field, it's mostly been trash history, but to claim that there's just no interest there and people don't care is just not true. They founded an entire discipline tangential to science.

Anna:

I think nobody told him that there is a discipline of the history of science. I think this dude genuinely thinks no one's ever written about the history of geology, and I know five people who do that for a living. (laughter) I love that his last thing, and I'll stop quoting this ridiculous article, because it's so badly written, he says, "Scientists never confuse science with the narrative histories of science, still less with biographies of science." O-kay.

Anna:

So I love the juxtaposition of this huge hoax that they tried to make in this big smoking deal and this dude off in the kind of backwater that is now what's left of Salon being like, "I've never even heard of the history of science!" So we can't win for losing, either we're tearing apart the fabric of society or we just don't exist. So whatever.

Leila:

Well, I mean, I guess—

Anna:

Cool!

Leila:

That's a good place to actually end. We're they're tearing apart the fabric of society or we don't exist. Or: If we're not tearing apart the fabric of society, do we exist?

Anna:

Man, far out!

Leila:

Well, that's been our episode today, folks! (laughter) If you liked our episode, leave us a rating and a review on Apple Podcast so that new listeners can find us. If you have questions—

Anna:

I don't know why they'd want to do that. (laughter)

Rebecca:

So they can tear apart the fabric of society with us!

Anna:

Oh, right. Okay.

Leila:

Help us, so you can exist too. If you have questions about any of the segments today, tweet us at @ladyxscience or #ladycipod. For show notes, episode transcripts, to sign up for our monthly newsletter, read monthly issues, pitch us an idea for an article and more, visit ladyscience.com. We are an independent magazine and we depend on the support from our readers and listeners. As we remind you all the time, you can support us through a monthly donation with Patreon or through one-time donations, just visit Ladyscience.com/donate, and until next time, you can find us on Facebook at @ladysciencemag and on Twitter and Instagram at @ladyxscience.

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49 episodes