There is no such thing as sexual intercourse

I happen to know the secret of academic success. So far I have never divulged it because, well, charity begins at home. But it looks like the field of cognition and culture might be in need of a shot in the arm, so to speak. So I agreed to part with the secret, against a small compensation negotiated with the ICCI.

There is some truth in the old adage that it takes an enormous amount of education to be truly credulous. Indeed, years of familiarity with several academic fields have convinced me that the proposition is quite literally true. Being an academic means (at least in some disciplines I am familiar with) believing a great number of impossible things before breakfast, and, it would seem, the more preposterous the better.

LIncolnWoman2

Consider for instance the academic fondness for the idea that madness is “defined by culture”, as discussed here by Ophelia Deroy. One could discuss the serious claims made by Deroy and the various issues they raise (which I did elsewhere). For the time being, note just this. The notion that there is nothing to madness, except what “culture” decrees, is counter-intuitive to most people in most societies in the world - except to Western academics. Most people in most places who had any contact with insanity inferred that something was really non-standard in some other people’s mental functioning. Hence, probably, the frisson of the notion that it is all arbitrary and changing.

To turn to more telling examples, consider relativism, which tells us that people literally live in incommensurable worlds. Or the common anthropological idea that kinship has nothing to do with reproduction and genetics. Or the literary critics who say that writing is primary and orality is a derived form of communication. Or the notion that gender is completely unrelated to sex.

The mechanism that made these strange notions popular is actually not so mysterious. It is a simple variant on the age-old technique of bait and switch, that is, giving the sucker something attractive to expect (the bait) and then substituting a dud once the customer is hooked (that’s the switch).

Untitled

Most of the academic ideologies I mentioned, and I imagine many others, are attractive because they seem to violate some of our common assumptions. Madness is not brain dysfunction! Manhood has nothing to do with being a fellow! One is not born a woman, one becomes a woman!

But on closer inspection, it generally turns out that the initial, amazing, challenging statements in fact disguised crashingly banal assumptions. Suppose you point out to your academic ideologue that, for instance, if maleness and manhood really are completely unrelated… then it is puzzling that an extraordinarily vast number of [socially constructed] “men” happen to be [chromosomal] “males”, and that such a coincidence is spooky. You will probably be told that you did not quite understand the original statement. What it meant was that the meaning of maleness could not be derived from possession of the Y chromosome… Or if you point out that some forms of insanity occur in many cultures at the same rates, that they trigger highly similar behaviors, are associated with the same genetic predispositions and correlate with similar neuro-functional features, you will be told that you did not understand. What was meant was that the cultural construal of madness was not derived directly from brain dysfunction…

At which point, you might be forgiven to think something like “so that was what all the fuss was about?” and you would be right of course. When push comes to shove, the flamboyant, earth-shattering, romantic, swash-and-buckle assault on our entrenched certainties seems to be, well, a bit of a damp squib.

Many academic radicals are sheep in wolf's clothing.

For a sadly funny illustration of this, consider Jacques Derrida’s extraordinary contortions when persistently nagged by John Searle in a memorable series of interviews. Every time John the mongoose seems to have caught his interlocutor at some dreadful inconsistency (you said that here was no objective truth, then you agreed that this cup of coffee really was objectively on this table, did you not?), Jacques the cobra squirms out of his grip and slithers away into a feeble rewording of the initial claims (… er, I only meant that this would be an existentially impoverished version of reality and objectivity… or verbiage to that effect).

derrida

Now, if you can bear with me, there are serious, interesting cognition and culture issues here.

First, it may be important for us to understand the epidemiology of academic fashions. In a field like ours, where science has a hard time breaking the shackles of common intuitions and incoherent theories, there may be lessons to learn - if only of a defensive kind.

Second, the bait and switch is of course not exclusive to academic fads. In his book on the psychoanalytic cult, Ernest Gellner made a point very similar to this. There is something rather intriguing and counter-intuitive to the central claim, that the self is not unitary, that there is some other, powerful and generally inscrutable source of agency inside our minds, beyond our conscious selves. But bold psychological therising then floundered into extreme banality. The unconscious turned out to be very much like a person, with goals, interests, strategies, cunning, etc. So you were licenced to treat it as an imp or some malevolent ghost inside the machine - which of course is not exactly new, just another version of the angel and the beast. (As Gellner added, compare this to the cognitive unconscious of, e.g. linguistics - which is totally un-person-like). Gellner also suggested that this may be a feature of many successful ideologies - a winning combination of initial, explicit shock and subsequent but implicit reassurance.

Third, the point about education being necessary for downright gullibility may not be a joke. But if it is serious, then a lot of epistemic psychology should be revised. A standard perspective in cognitive and social psychology is that minds start by believing, as it were, and it takes hard work to unbelieve. For instance, Dan Gilbert ran many studies in which people are more likely to judge statements true if their encoding of the statement was interrupted - which supposedly shows that mental systems hold information as true, whenever they represent it, until they (effortfully) add an explicit “false” tag to it. But this is implausible, for many reasons. The effect disappears if you use anything but information of minimal semantic content and minimal relevance to the subjects, if you present sources for the information, etc. More generally, it would be an odd design feature to have mental systems believe in order to understand, when organisms are faced with not altogether honest signalers… Indeed, it may be that mental systems are initially disposed to unbelieve, and that they “bracket” information provided from others until some additional reasoning leads to holding the information as reliable. This would also explain why academics are good at believing nonsense - they simply have more intellectual tools at their disposal to undo native skepticism.

So what about sexual intercourse?

Well, in France a long time ago, quite a few academics were enthralled by Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst who had perfected the art of the guru to a tee. Believers walked around citing the works of the master and trying to convince outsiders, apparently in all seriousness, that profound truths were expressed in the master’s statements, such as e.g. “the problem of women is that they are not”, “feelings are always reciprocated”, “the phallus is the signifier”, “language is structured like the unconscious” (or perhaps the other way around), and, most poignant, “there is no such thing as sexual intercourse”. Some people seemed to discern deep metaphors where I (then a wee lad) could only perceive blatantly false platitudes (except for the last statement, which was actually true of all French psychoanalysts of my acquaintance).

sullivad

Of course, there is another road to success, or so we should hope. There is the patient building and testing of scientific models. To be sure, it takes more effort than the guru bait-and-switch. On the positive side, it does not require that you believe impossible things or even that you abstain from sexual intercourse, if you like that sort of thing.

PS - It may seem to some readers that this post was strongly inspired by Dan Sperber’s The guru effect and Rethinking Symbolism, as well as Steven Pinker’s The language instinct (pp. 427ff) and Hugo Mercier’s work on argumentation as the evolutionary context of reasoning. It is of course the other way around.

Comments (11)
True credulity = suspension of disbelief?
Emma Cohen
Monday, 08 February 2010 22:34
So, are academics of all stripes more credulous than non-academics? And truly or apparently?
Some years back, I gave a talk in which I presented some data on the transmission of concepts of spirit possession, which, probably very boringly, was all fairly mediocre bait and no switch. When I\'d finished, an eminent academic made up for this lack (or seized the opportunity), presenting his proposal that \"we were all possessed\". And all the time at that.
No doubt, to some members of the audience, the possibility that we were all possessed rang of deep and profound truth. They may even have been truly credulous, though perhaps about highly variable interpretations of this statement. And to anyone there, I may have come across as (at least) deferentially credulous, when really I was just politely declining to discuss. I suspect, following your observations, that had I pursued what the eminent academic actually meant, it would have boiled down to something rather bland - another truism. But I got the feeling that that wasn\'t really part of the game. It was supposed to remain cryptic and unprobed, and therefore tantalizingly possible in its wildest sense.
Anyway, I think there might be an important distinction to draw, if you\'re right about the secret to academic success (and I have no reason to doubt you, other than that I strongly suspect your account to be a switch!). At times it seemed like you were talking about a certain kind of academic, and at others it seemed you were referring to all academics - you and your type and Lacan and his type all on the same path to success. Perhaps academics are not all (truly) credulous in the same sense, however. Some are because they want to be (it\'s quirky and creative and wild - it might even make them famous, or guarantee a few papers), and others apparently are in a much less radical sense - they are because they have to entertain the theoretical possibility of the claim\'s truth, at least until or unless the claim is patently dismissed by the evidence. For the latter, if the claim is dismissed, they won\'t feel like someone God (or the guru) just cheated. My suggestion, then, is that a distinction be drawn between true credulity and (provisional) suspension of disbelief.
(Still others say things like \"well, yes, of course, how interesting, indeed it is\" but are really just to polite to say \"you must be bonkers\". Or too lazy to ask \"and in what sense...\" and get themselves in another tangled discussion of semantics and definitions. Clearly they have not yet stumbled upon the path to academic success...).
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reasoning and weird beliefs
Hugo Mercier
Monday, 08 February 2010 23:00
Thanks Pascal for a great post.

In this paper:

http://sites.google.com/site/hugomercier/epistemic-vigilance/MercierOurpigheadedcore.pdf?attredirects=0

I try to defend the idea that people who reason more accept more beliefs. On the whole, these beliefs will tend to be epistemically sound, but it is still possible, given the increase in sheer volume, that someone who reasons a lot will have more false beliefs than someone who reasons less (but, in theory at least, even more true beliefs).

Unfortunately, I\'m afraid there is only anecdotal evidence that this is the case. You mention many such anecdotes, and here are some references to more (from the paper linked to above):

A cursory examination of the beliefs of people with impeccable reasoning credentials seems to confirm this prediction. From Newton, who spent more time on biblical numerology than on physics to Linus Pauling who was convinced that vitamin C was the ultimate secret to a healthy life, brilliant intellectuals have had the habit of accepting weird beliefs. Some paranormal beliefs correlate positively with variables usually associated with more or better reasoning (such as cognitive ability or level of education) (Tobacyk, Miller, & Jones, 1984). Mensa members seem to be particularly prone to belief in extra‐sensory perception (Shermer, 1997). Smart, educated people are often among the early adopters of novel beliefs (see Vyse, 1997, in the case of New Age, Shermer, 1997, in the case of UFOs and alien abductions, and Wallace, 2009, in the case of rejection of vaccination). While such evidence falls short of being conclusive, it makes it hard to deny that good reasoning is very far from being foolproof and that even the best reasoners have a tendency to accept weird beliefs that quite often turn out to be wrong.

In summary
sean sonofbig
Tuesday, 09 February 2010 08:18
In the interests of fairness I\'d have to add that not all conclusions drawn in the humanities are [url=http://pgdtllsreflectivejournal.blogspot.com/2010/02/bleeding-obvious.html]statements of the bleedin\' obvious[/url]. Some of them are utterly ridiculous without any underlying truth at all, obvious or otherwise.
What about ideology?
Nicolas Baumard
Tuesday, 09 February 2010 13:10
Great post!

What about ideology as an extra factor for accepting weird theories? It seems to me that many post-modern folks like to entertain theories of gender or sexuality because it fits their political agenda (though we need to explain why they think adopting weird beliefs helps promoting their ideas...).
further thoughts on ideology
David Welgus
Wednesday, 10 February 2010 19:34
I think Nicolas is right that political ideology drives a lot of people to embrace post-modern theories, but I don\'t think they do so just because they are under the belief that post-modern theories promote their political causes. Rather, I think the attraction lies in the idea that the humanities intellectual, by exposing the phalogocentric prejudices of western metaphysics, can actually do something to change the world for the better. In other words, if you accept that the history of western thought is logocentric, and that this characteristic of the tradition has somehow helped to foster political violence and oppression, then it seems reasonable to think that a critique of the tradition and an exploration of alternatives to it might help to make the world a better place in the future. Of course, this argument is only as strong as the critique of western philosophy that underlies it and the alternative to western philosophy that it proposes. In the end, then, it isn\'t very strong at all. Nonetheless, you can see why someone with strong political convictions might find post-modern theories appealing. They give the humanities intellectual an inflated sense of the political importance of his/her work.
A comment on David Welgus\' comment
Hugo Mercier
Wednesday, 10 February 2010 22:59
If this is true, this is a very interesting claim with important consequences regarding the strategy one might use to fight post-modernism (if one would be so inclined).

If postmodern thinkers do not derive their theories from an ideology, but hold them mostly because they provide a way to feel good about changing things in the world, then a frontal assault is very likely to make things worse: they will think that even more people hold these dangerous phalo / logocentric views and that they need to fight even harder.

On the other hand, maybe if they were provided with another mean to feel as if they were having a positive impact (without leaving their armchair), then they might go for it (or, more realistically, would be postmodernists might go for it instead of reaching the point of no return).
Withdrawal
sean sonofbig
Friday, 12 February 2010 10:07
Isn\'t the adoption of post-modern ideas contemporaneous with the point at which the radical left became an irrelevance as far as the general public were concerned?

Are these ideas not a form of withdrawal from unpleasant reality into a more comfortable world by people whose ideas are generally considered outside of reasonable debate?
What we need to do is think less complexly!
Richard Garner
Saturday, 13 February 2010 14:33
This is what such a post boils down to: think less complexly. If all the author has to say against Derrida, Foucault, or Lacan, is that they adopted nuanced positions that accept the complexity of the topics they chose then, well, okay.

Of course if you simply string together the phrases \"postmodernism,\" \"objective truth,\" \"Jacques Derrida,\" \"Jacques Lacan,\" you of course have a devastating rebuttal to anyone who wants to think more complexly than equating an XY chromosome structure with a genetic predisposition to wear a tie. Of course, the fact that these authors gave nuanced and specific rebuttals to people who attempted to associate them with the label post-modern is merely another inconvenient fact.

For someone concerned with \'objective truth\' and the \'incoherent\', it is more than telling that the very titular quotation from Lacan here is incorrect. The French is \"il n\'y a pas de rapport sexuel,\" and the near universal English translation is \"there is no such thing as a sexual relationship.\" I am sure I\'ll be accused of splitting hairs, but this is, in fact, the objective truth of the matter. Google the title of this post, and you come up with links to ... this post! Certainly not Lacan\'s work. But in any case, for someone who thinks men are simply men, and vice versa I assume, the idea should have some resonance, at least.

In any case, if madness is universal, why don\'t we treat it with shamans as many cultures do or have done? And for that matter, why are shamans effective at treating disorders of the psyche in other cultures, and even ours? Or, whatever happened to our western diagnosis of \"mad traveler\" that Ian Hacking reminds us of in his book of the same name? Subtle questions, yes, but ones that certainly problematize this too simple view of the world, and of academic thought.
False Dichotomies
Nicholas Smyth
Monday, 30 August 2010 00:05
First: The idea of an unconscious mental realm as the source of our action and experience was most certainly new. Citing the \"angel and the beast\" as some kind of intellectual predecessor is bizarre.

More generally, while I think your bait-and-switch analysis is dead on, you seem to speak here as though our only two options are to engage in spiralling Lacanian nonsense-philosophy or to put on lab coats and start attaching electrodes to mice. Surely the responsible thing is to trust our best methods AND to do the philosophy required to show WHY they are our best methods. The thing is that while it may be uncomfortable, we are forced to confront the grains of truth contained in these \"mad\" theories, and these grains of truth can erode our confidence in the monolith \"science\".
Brilliant!
Lucy Fisher
Monday, 30 August 2010 19:55
It\'s like when people say \"All you need is confidence\" or \"you\'ve got to have trust\" and then proceed to dilute the concept until none of its original meaning remains.

The tragic thing is that people actually believed this stuff, and tried to live by it.

Props to Nicolas, David and Sean.
Political dimensions
Guido Corneille
Monday, 15 November 2010 17:37
A very nice article, made me chuckle about my pathetic attempt to \'do academics\'. However, one should always be careful with such remarks. Although this post is spot on, the current political situation in the UK would gladly read this article as an argument to abolish arts, humanities and social sciences, or even academics altogether!

We are probably all aware that it was once \'common sense\' that the earth was flat, and it took a very gullible madman, with many absurd ideas, to suggest otherwise. But history has taught us that \'rationality\' and \'empirical research\' does not get you far without a crazy idea, a \'what if\' to break flawed \'common sense\'.

And yes, isolating yourself in university buildings whilst forcefully pushing yourself to believe and un-believe everything and whatnot, in order to produce even a hint towards groundbreaking concepts like \"the earth is a globe that revolves around the sun\", \"We\'ve evolved from monkeys\" or \"I guess maybe women could vote?\" [i]does[/i] produce a couple of loonies and some \"[url=http://http://pgdtllsreflectivejournal.blogspot.com/2010/02/bleeding-obvious.html]bleedin\' obvious[/url]\" or \"utterly ridiculous\" claims. I know we will bear with them, knowing that most wisdom originated from this sort of madness.

But there are plenty of people out there that do not see this connection as clearly (not much surprise there I suppose) and posts like this are not only great reflexive tools for academics, but also great nourishment for a portrayal of the academy as elitist, counterproductive and useless.

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