Depending on the attention you pay to academic disputes at the edge of our current culture wars, you may already have come across the authors of Cynical Theories. Former literary academic Helen Pluckrose and mathematician James Lindsay rose to prominence in 2018 through the so-called “Grievance Studies Hoax”. Along with philosophy lecturer Peter Boghossian, they set out to prove that a certain subsection of modern academia is more concerned with political correctness than empirical correctness. The “probe” they set up to prove this involved spending a year crafting 20 “outlandish or intentionally broken” papers for submission to journals that qualified in the trio’s eyes as promulgating “grievance studies”.
The results were published with fanfare by the group themselves, and picked up with glee by commentators. Seven of their papers were eventually accepted for publication (though only four appeared before the hoax came to light), and one – on “rape culture in dog parks” – was even given special recognition for excellence by the journal that published it. Cue much laughter, and much discussion of academic impostures, broken ideologies, and emperors’ new clothes.
Others saw the affair differently. The problem is that it did not actually prove what the authors wanted it to prove. As science writer Tom Chivers, among others, noted, it is invidious to claim that there is a particular problem with humanities and social sciences journals in the midst of the ongoing replication crisis in scientific journals. Indeed, it is impossible to do so at all if your experiment does not compare the two. More simply, and more fatally, it is not quite logical to assert that your hoax shows a widespread disregard for empirical proof when the papers published contained quantities of carefully fabricated empirical proof. The dog park paper, for instance, featured an invented 10,000 hours of field observation, which is presumably why, despite its prima facie silliness, it was taken seriously. The accurate word for this is neither probe nor hoax but fraud.
With this in mind, I approached Cynical Theories with caution. On one hand, Pluckrose and Lindsay characterise it as a liberal, scholarly, and above all rational dissection of the theoretical underpinnings of what is known as “Social Justice”; a dissection based on the premise that actual social justice is best served by calm evidence-based discourse and rational debate. On the other hand, it is a book whose central claim is that “postmodern theory” (Theory, for short) is a “dogmatic fundamentalist ideology” that literally “threatens the foundations of advanced Western societies”; a claim based, so far as I can tell, on the premise that if you look at anything too closely, nothing makes sense any more, everything is bad, and we are all doomed.
If this sounds like an exaggeration for effect, it is not, and given the authors’ professed love of empirical argument, it makes Cynical Theories a somewhat schizophrenic read. Much of the book consists of historical sketches of the development of different branches of Theory designed to show how carefully Pluckrose and Lindsay have done their homework. And they have. While far from perfect (quoting “the online Encyclopaedia Britannica” for your definition of postmodernism is hardly confidence-inspiring) the histories they give are neither terrible nor wildly inaccurate. The problem is what invariably follows: the leap from history to hysteria. In every case, it transpires that the ideas at hand are driven by “radical scepticism”, “nihilistic despair”, and overwhelming “cynicism”.
This is not so much slippery-slope thinking as the argumentative equivalent of an Olympic luge. Where even the most theory-centric academics see a hodgepodge of approaches, patchily useful in different ways, to be used bricolage-style, Pluckrose and Lindsay see nothing short of a doctrine that seeks to take over the world by destroying knowledge itself. They may be “fluent in the language and culture of Social Justice scholarship and activism”, but their approach to it reminds you of a paranoiac construing scraps of a conversation picked up through a party wall. Everything is fuel for the fear.
This is, not to put too fine a point on it, daft. Theory is frequently obscure, and much of it qualifies as what the late, great G A Cohen defined as “unclarifiable unclarity”, which is to say, bulls---. But much of it is not and does not. And the restricted claims that writers such as Jacques Derrida or Richard Rorty make about the relationship between the world, language, and truth do not add up to anything like Pluckrose and Lindsay’s apocalyptic characterisations. The only way to make them look like they do is not through reasoned argumentation but through rhetorical exaggeration. The word “radical” does so much heavy lifting here that it deserves some kind of medal: in 268 pages of the main text, it appears more than 100 times.
Inevitably, this will do the job in some quarters. Cynical Theories has already been praised by Steven Pinker, among other self-appointed upholders of “Enlightenment values”. But the truth is, it fails on its own terms: not because the values of rational, evidence-based argument that Pluckrose and Lindsay claim to stand for are poor values, but because the book itself so transparently does not fulfil them. You could be forgiven for wondering who the real cynics are here.
Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay is published by Swift at £20. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books