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"Ice is not Nice" and the Limits of Conversation

Gillespie Interviews Me on ... Friedman's Presidential Addres...

by Pierre Lemieux

Why do apparently serious academics publish such muddled, postmodern stuff? They may seriously believe in their ideology--although if everything is "socially constructed," their theories must be too.

glacier.jpeg One of the benefits of Facebook is that your friends often link to articles that you would otherwise miss. Were it not for Bill Evers, I would have missed the following pearl. An article by Professor Donna Riley in the January issue of Engineering Studies argues that rigor in engineering (and other) studies is "the enemy of inclusive education" and serves the dirty deed of "demonstrating white male heterosexual privilege" (this last bit quoted from the article abstract). "[O]ur standards of rigor," the author explains, "work to reinforce gender, race, and class hierarchies in engineering, and further maintain invisibility of queer and disabled engineering students."

Professor Riley also has something against mathematics: "In engineering disciplines," she writes, "rigor is most closely associated with mathematical content; the 'higher' the math, the more rigorous the approach." We may question whether this is a good recipe for building solid bridges or manufacturing efficient printing presses for academic journals.

Riley is currently Head of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. She seems to be a pillar of the intellectual establishment. Her college website states:

Dr. Riley's research interests include engineering and social justice; engineering ethics; social inequality in engineering education; the liberal education of engineers; and engineering studies.
She was program director for Engineering Education at the National Science Foundation and is described as a "thought leader in the field."

Continuing with her Engineering Studies article, we read:

One of rigor's purposes is, to put it bluntly, a thinly veiled assertion of white male (hetero) sexuality. The term has a historical lineage of being about hardness, stiffness, and erectness; its sexual connotations--and links to masculinity in particular--are undeniable. ... there is a masculine eroticism in the 'clean, hard, fast' values of engineering.

Sigmund Freud might have had something to add.

Riley also writes:

For those of us who work on engineering identity development, rigor may be a defining tool, revealing how structural forces of power and privilege operate to exclude men of color and women, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, first-generation and low-income students, and non-traditionally aged students.

It is difficult not to view this as ideological mumbo jumbo. For another example, consider a recent article in another academic journal, Progress in Human Geology, under the title "Glaciers, Gender, and Science: A Feminist Glaciology Framework for Global Environmental Change Research." The academic authors, Mark Carey et al., argue against "stereotypical and masculinist practices of glaciology" linked to "imperial and hegemonic capitalist agendas." The authors, who were supported by a National Science Foundation grant, declare:
Ice is not just ice. The dominant way Western societies understand it through the science of glaciology is not a neutral representation of nature. The feminist glaciology framework draws attention to those who dominate and frame the production of glaciological knowledge, the gendered discourses of science and knowledge, and the way in which colonial, military, and geopolitical domination co-constitute glaciological knowledge.

This reminds me of the famous hoax pulled by New York University physicist Alan Sokal. Sokal submitted to Social Text, another academic journal, an article titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." After the article was published in 1996, Sokal revealed that he had intentionally written it as meaningless postmodernist jargon. About his article, Sokal says:
Nowhere in all this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions... I go on to suggest that science ... in order to be "liberatory," must be subordinated to political strategies.

One advantage of economics is that its rigorous theories and empirical testing protect us from such social and ideological unrealism. We can't say just about anything. Having a subject, a verb, and a complement is not a sufficient condition for a proposition to be true.

But out there, in the politically correct ivory towers, there is a whole world of language alchemy used by pretended scholars cross-citing each other with all (or some of) the bells and whistles of scientific discourse. In Riley's 16-page article, "scholar" and its derivative appear 14 times, mostly referring to her own views or others who share them.

Even more invisible than, say, the queer or "non traditionally aged" students, is the exploitation of the taxpaying people through public subsidization of higher education and research. Professor Riley must be confusedly aware that the taxpayer is paying part of the subsidized researchers' incomes, or else she thinks that abundance will come as manna from heaven (like in Venezuela?):

[R]igor feeds on competition for scarce resources and rewards. If we can create abundance, we can make room for additional voices; this means new journals, new funding sources.

Why do apparently serious academics publish such muddled, postmodern stuff? They may seriously believe in their ideology--although if everything is "socially constructed," their theories must be too. A demand for this sort of thing may exist, but it is doubtful that much of it would be met with voluntary supply if it were not subsidized and its academic producers had to be financed by their own readers or students. Mainstream publishers produce useless journals only because they can obtain free articles from subsidized academics. Perhaps the main functions of these writings is rent-seeking for subsidies and academic sinecures, and signaling that the scribblers belong to the right intellectual crowd.

Although they should be pushed as far as possible, limits to productive conversation exist. De gustibus non est disputandum is a soft limit: discussing the personal preferences or hang-ups of one conversation participant won't lead you very far--except if you are a psychiatrist. A harder limit is that conversation requires bona fide participants, as opposed to blind ideologues or propagandists. A still harder limit appears when one conversant wants to forcibly impose his views on another one: a conversation on the benefits of slavery between a master and his slave would rapidly reach its limit, at least from the point of view of the slave.

The sort of diversity that socialist postmodernists want to impose through state coercion is not the product of individual liberty; it is a disguised homogeneity defined by their own mob. Everybody must conform to the high priests' preferred lifestyles and modes of thought. This ideology has nothing to do with the empowerment of ordinary people, but everything to do with the empowerment of faddish intelligentsia members. The slaves in this case are those who would prefer to follow other (peaceful) moral rules, live differently, or use their money for other purposes than financing political correctness.

Even when conversation is difficult or impossible, as in the cases illustrated above, there exist decisive arguments for maintaining free speech in all cases. But free speech is not subsidized speech. There is a problem when the taxpayer-slave is forced to subsidize his intelligentsia-masters' speech. Would this be one of the main causes of the populist reaction?

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Daniel Hill writes:

I'll take a double dose of rigor with my bridge design, thank you very much. If she's the head of the Engineering school at Purdue, then remind me not to drive across a bridge designed by a Purdue graduate.

Pierre Lemieux writes:

@Daniel Hill: She is the head of "Engineering Education," which I gather is the soft part of the School of Engineering (sorry, Sigmund!). Her job is to talk about engineering -- but she is an engineer herself. Your prudence is still required.

KenB writes:

Surely that's satire, right? The sidebar of the page with the abstract had links to other articles, including one called "The Perilous Whiteness of Pumpkins" -- this is all a little too much for me to believe that it's meant to be taken seriously, though a bit of googling didn't turn up any decisive evidence.

Pierre Lemieux writes:

@KenB: I understand you perplexity. As far as I know, it is not satire. (And please someone tell me if it is!) Engineering Studies is a real journal (see I obtained the actual Riley article (under my eyes as I write this) from the journal through Interlibrary Loans at the University of Southern Maine. It was delivered electronically to USM and then to me from the University of Delaware. The publisher, Routledge, is a mainstream one, and prestigious at that. The ID of the article is: ISSN: 1937-8629(Print}1940-8374 (Online) Journal homepage:

Miguel Madeira writes:

Reading only the abstract, it gives me the impression that she is not criticizing rigor in engineering, but rigor in "engineering education research" ("Rigor's particular role in engineering created conditions for its transfer and adaptation in the recently emergent discipline of engineering education research.", "proliferation of boundary drawing exercises that mimic those in engineering disciplines")

And, by wikipedia, it seems that "engineering studies" are a kind of "Ethnic Studies" (who, instead of studying the culture of Hopi Native Americans, studies the culture of engineers).

"Engineering studies is an interdisciplinary branch of social sciences and humanities devoted to the study of engineers and their activities, often considered a part of Science and Technology Studies (STS), and intersecting with and drawing from Engineering education research. Studying engineers refers among other to the history and the sociology of their profession, its institutionalization and organization, the social composition and structure of the population of engineers, their training, their trajectory, etc."

About the "But free speech is not subsidized speech", this is a very dangerous route to take; the fact is that education is massively subsidized, and, in this context, the only alternative to subsidize also silly theories is to have some kind of government direction of academic research (uut of the frying pan into the fire).

Daniel Kian Mc Kiernan writes:

I don't think that economics enjoys much protection from post-modern practice. I'm sure that I could find overtly post-modernist academic journals of ostensible economics, and other academic economics journals in which the rot has set-in. It might be argued that the contents of such journals were not genuine economics (hence my use of the word “ostensible”), but likewise for sociology, glaciology, engineering, &c.

Sol writes:

As support for the reality of this insanity, check out "Why (Urban) Mathematics Teachers Need Political Knowledge" , particularly the section "Mathematics and Mathematics Teaching Is Political". From a professor of mathematics education, it seems to show a complete misunderstanding of how math actually works -- no, the fact that we don't have a proof for every conjecture does not mean "mathematics requires a leap of faith". (BTW, both examples she cites already had proofs by the time this paper was published!) And it contains the same sort of bizarro-world "abstract reasoning / rigor is white" thesis which would be (rightly!) regarded as unforgiveably racist if uttered by, say, someone on the alt right. (Which also weirdly leaves Asians completely out of the reckoning.)

Mark writes:


I think the lesson is that the government should subsidize less ‘research.’ Particular in the humanities and social sciences, where the benefits to society are far more often disputed (at best).

Also, we’re already out of the frying pan; certain kinds of ‘silliness’ are already preferentially subsidized, while others are excluded. It’s fair to insist that ‘anti-whiteness’ type research be denied subsidies for the same reasons as certain other types of racial ‘research.’

Michael writes:

I think you are right to emphasise coercion. A lot of critics take concern with the oppressed at face value: "They really are on the side of the angels, but there are better ways to achieve those worthy ends/they are creating victims, etc". I think they're better understood as a self-interesting elite pursuing power.

I am less comfortable with the promiscuous use of the term 'postmodernism'. We all know who you are talking about, but they are not all postmodernists, and not all postmodernists are 'them'. I'm not sure what we can use instead. 'Tenured radicals', maybe? But the distinction matters to me, because it loses sight of the range of (sometimes) sophisticated postmodern thought, and the diversity of perspectives between the tenured radicals.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"I am less comfortable with the promiscuous use of the term 'postmodernism'(...) 'Tenured radicals', maybe? "

But the problem are the "tenured radicals" (and, technically, I suppose that some authors of this blog could be considered "tenured radicals") or it is a specifically intellectual style, characterized by an attitude "pretensions of an objective reality are a tool of the domination of the privileged social groups" (some of the bigger critics of these line of thinking, like Chomsky or Sokal, are also "tenured radicals")? And are only "tenureds" who came with these theories, or also students, post-docs, assistant teachers, etc.?

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