Roundup: Elaine May, Leszek Kołakowski and the press


This week I celebrated the upcoming DVD/Blu-Ray release of Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky and called attention to the work of a most relevant Polish philosopher.

In other news …

Trump’s comments mark the first time the president has openly and directly praised a violent act against a journalist on American soil. It comes as the White House is under intense domestic and international pressure over Trump’s refusal to condemn Saudi Arabia despite growing evidence that its leader, the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the decapitation and dismemberment of the journalist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi.

The Guardian, October 19, 2018

The Committee to Protect Journalists promotes press freedom worldwide and defends the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal. CPJ ensures the free flow of news and commentary by taking action wherever journalists are attacked, imprisoned, killed, kidnapped, threatened, censored, or harassed. You can make a donation to their obviously, increasingly urgent cause here.

I’ll lift a glass to press freedom at Cafe Kajta later today. See you there, or here next week.

Roundup: St. Francis, the Four Gospels, the City of Brotherly Indifference, and something completely different


This week I took part in a Blessing of the Animals at St. Bart’s; recommended a long out-of-print translation of the Four Gospels; and had another look at Philadelphia’s inferiority complex.

With little more than a whisper, Netflix added the full run of all four seasons of Monty Python’s Flying Circus earlier this month, as well as a variety of Python-related films and documentaries, including their best film, the satire of religion Life of Brian (which engendered this excellent collection of essays a few years back), making them readily available to U.S. audiences for the first time in a while. For some people of a certain generation (mine, to be specific), the Pythons became part of the rolling stock of our approach to the world. The series first premiered on the BBC in 1969 and didn’t find its way to the U.S. until 1974, when the series itself ended its British run. While the Pythons and their sense of rampant absurdity and irreverence came out of a long tradition of British satire and humor (from Beyond the Fringe to Spike Milligan and the Goon Show), Americans my age had been prepared for it, especially if we’d subscribed to Mad magazine, then in the years of its peak circulation. And it could be argued that, without Monty Python, there’d be no Saturday Night Live, no Airplane!, no SCTV — American comedy would be a different beast. We almost didn’t have it at all, according to this article by Robert Ham in Paste magazine.

Does it hold up nearly fifty years later, this Monty Python? I think so, and I’m looking forward to revisiting it again over the next few months. In the meantime, below is a sketch from one of their very first episodes, which is exemplary of early Python — a parody of BBC documentaries, the German language, WWII nostalgia, and even, if you squint, a dry, skeptical assessment of the power of laughter itself.

See you at Cafe Katja later today, and here next week.

Roundup: A voyage to Laputa

Yesterday I paid my respects to Russian satirist Vladimir Voinovich, and today the front page of the New York Times reminded me of another satirist, Jonathan Swift.

Voinovich takes a few swipes at Russian education in his books, but Swift made a satire of corruptions in learning a cornerstone of his work. Gulliver makes a visit to the floating island of Laputa in the third book of Gulliver’s Travels, and among Swift’s earliest satires (and the satire which made his reputation) was A Tale of a Tub, which he himself described as an attack on corruptions in religion and learning. Most recently, the Times reports, pranksters at the online journal Areo made another visit to Laputa.

Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian submitted a number of bogus papers with titles like “Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Ore.,” “Moon Meetings and the Meaning of Sisterhood: A Poetic Portrayal of Lived Feminist Spirituality,” and “An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant” to a variety of both peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed academic journals. To the surprise of nobody who is familiar with Alan Sokol’s similar 1996 hoax, many of the papers were accepted and published. You can find Areo‘s full study here.

The target of the Areo tricksters (and Swift was a pretty good trickster himself) is the field of what they call “grievance studies,” which have “a common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity.” Like Alan Sokol’s target Social Text, these are journals devoted to social sciences rather than what we can call “real sciences” like biology, physics, and chemistry, and the processes of empirical study and experiment are far less precise than those of the classic sciences. Even given this, it’s no comfort, for there are real consequences to such shoddy oversight of what are considered academic publications. As ridiculous as many of their papers were, the Areo team found that, as peer-approved researchers, they could be ranked as new peers themselves, piling deliberate fraud upon fraud:

[We received] 4 invitations to peer-review other papers as a result of our own exemplary scholarship. (For ethical reasons, we declined all such invitations. Had we wished to fully participate in their culture in this way, however, it would have been an unrivaled opportunity to tinker with how far we could take the hypothesis that the canon of literature within these fields gets skewed in part because the peer-review process encourages the existing political and ideological biases.)

Detractors of current academic social science studies will laugh and file this under “barrel, ease of shooting fish in.” But there’s something more problematic that the New York Times report doesn’t address, and that’s the role that academic publishing plays in the current ecology of higher education. (In my day job I have some knowledge of this myself.) One of the reasons for the rise of what are called the “social sciences” was the Enlightenment project of introducing a certain level of empiricism into what used to be the realms of philosophy and the humanities — to put them on a scientific footing so that university and college departments could be put together to attract not only students, but research money as well. There has been a growing tendency to rank colleges and universities on the basis of the number of citable journal publications that their researchers produce; the reputation that a high number of these publications can render to a university or college; and, as an obvious corollary, the amount of money that this reputation can attract from donors, philanthropists, and other funding sources.

If this were true only of the social sciences, we might be able to rest more easily. But it’s not. In 2016, a Last Week Tonight with John Oliver segment examined the plethora of questionable scientific studies published by reputable, peer-reviewed researchers, and though the segment laid most of the blame on media hype, Oliver pointed out that the researchers themselves engage in this same hype hoping for media attention, recognition from their own university administrations as ambassadors to the public, and (no doubt) attractive research dollars.

In the wake of the Oliver segment, the academic publisher Elsevier, which has some skin in the game itself, admitted that the problem did not lie merely with the media:

The science world is heavily influenced by the current culture of “publish or perish”: researchers’ output is measured through quantitative metrics, based on which they receive recognition and rewards. Consequently, similar to journalists, publishers are under pressure [to] publish as much as possible. This results in some researchers “playing around” with variables until they get a significant result, which is further meaningless.

Moreover, this system hinders the publication of negative results or replication studies. As Oliver proclaims, “There’s no Nobel prize for fact checking.”

Of course, not all real- or social-scientific research is half-baked or even fraudulent; most of it is germane, useful, and necessary. But a lot of bullshit can be found as well, and it can be dangerous bullshit. The Areo research, for all of its undeniable entertainment value, is a warning that, as much as these thousands of studies and research papers may be contributing to the vast mountain of human knowledge, they may also be contributing to the even vaster mountain of human ignorance as universities and colleges place more and more importance on mere numbers of citations and grant moneys. These days, when the very idea of scientific factuality (or any other kind of factuality) is under political attack when it comes to climate change or vaccination and autism (or our current political climate), it’s worth admitting that, just perhaps, we’re being conned. Common sense dictates skepticism in the face of absurdity, even or maybe especially when that absurdity reflects our own prejudices. Such poor research and poor peer-review only undermines the credibility of these social-scientific and scientific disciplines. Which, these days, is the last thing we need.

I encourage you to read the full Areo report, which you can find here. I will be researching my own latest project, “The Effects of Fermented Beverages Consumed in an Austrian-Themed Culinary Environment on Middle Class White Male Professionals Following a Five-Day Work Week,” at Cafe Katja this afternoon. Prost!

Roundup: Snark, laughter, and Morton Feldman

R. Crumb, “A Short History of America.”

This week I encouraged you to take a few hours to wrap yourself in the music of Morton Feldman next month, raised a flag to ridicule, and recommended a worthy current affairs podcast to which you should give your attention.

Now hanging on my living room wall, a gift from my wife and daughters (thanks, loves!), is a beautifully framed giclée print of R. Crumb’s A Short History of America, a work about which I wrote here. (And more about the print itself from Alexander Wood — who reproduced it in collaboration with Crumb himself — here.) In Terry Zwigoff’s documentary of the artist, critic Robert Hughes in a few words convincingly put Crumb’s work in a tradition of satiric graphic art that began with Bruegel, Goya, and Hogarth. You can hear his remarks below. See you next week, or at Cafe Katja this afternoon, where I’ll be lifting a glass to posterity.