Dangerous Quackery in the Academy

Pseudo-sciences come in forms that range from relatively harmless to manipulative and dangerous, the well-known forms including occultism, hermeticism, astrology, numerology, physiognomy, palm reading and homeopathy, among many more. However, the common association they share is with the fringe of society and not with the supposed bastion of rationality and the central legacy of the Enlightenment: the academy. And yet the presence of quackery and quacks in the academy and the university is not as unusual as one might hope. The relation between quackery and academic thought is of interest both in its long history, stretching back to the origin of the academy as an ever-present companion that has waxed and waned in influence; and in its continuation in our present world, including many leading Australian universities.

The history of the academy begins, at least in the Western sense of the word, with Plato’s academy. While the legacy of ancient Greek philosophy is undeniable, many scholars justifiably proclaiming it the foundation of the Western thought, this is a legacy littered with beliefs that appear bizarre today. To name a few examples, Aristotle believed that women had fewer teeth than men, and numerology had its most famous practitioner in Pythagoras. However, we are quite comfortable in ignoring these outliers as products of their primitive age while we enjoy the true fruit of their genius—though this distinction is not always clear or consistent. In the first case, while one might scoff at Plato’s exile of all poets from his Republic, you might also find the sentiment less than ridiculous or at least worthy of thought in relation to Theodore Adorno’s famous remark that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. In the second case we find inconsistency according to the shifting of tastes and notions of acceptability that inevitably come with the passing of time, as shown in the examples of pederasty featured in Plato’s texts which were largely censored (considered the side effects of a primitive society) in the Catholic Church’s adoption of Platonic philosophy from St Augustine onwards—examples which, in contemporary scholarship, are acceptable and even celebrated, featuring in some cases as the focus for entire branches of study into Platonic philosophy.

But surely this inconsistency and obscurity between quackery and scholarship has disappeared since the Enlightenment and the secularisation of reason? Not quite. The technological and scientific progress bestowed by empiricism and the rise of rationality are undeniable, however even equipped with them the academy still failed to divorce itself from association with quackery. In all of science’s great discoveries you can observe pseudo-science lingering in its shadow, like a less-well-regarded cousin.

For example, in the advent of early biological and anatomical studies in the eighteenth century there grew up in its wake the pseudo-sciences of phrenology and physiognomy. While threads of physiognomic thought can be detected in some remarks by Socrates and Pythagoras, one of the earliest mentions of the specific term of physiognomy is in reference to it being outlawed in English universities. In 1530 or 1531 Henry VIII declared that “scolers of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge that go about begging” and playing “subtile, crafty and unlawful games such as physnomye or palmestrye” were to be “no longer authorized under the seal of the said Universities”, encouraged in this suggestion by the prospect of losing an ear. Despite Henry’s decree and the intellectual transformation that would take place some two centuries later, physiognomist writers such as Johann Kaspar Lavater would still win great financial success in the seventeenth century. While Lavater distanced himself from older versions of physiognomy in its comparisons of human faces to animals, he still engaged in the baseless though systemised approaches of deriving character from appearance, an approach that would be later developed into the even more scientistic phrenology. As the English writer Hannah More complained in a letter to Horace Walpole, “In vain do we boast that philosophy had broken down all the strongholds of prejudice, ignorance, and superstition; and yet, at this very time Lavater’s physiognomy books sell at fifteen guineas a set.”

While we can empathise with More’s lament, we should question if practices such as physiognomy are not merely an unwanted symptom of the freedom of thought that we afford to scholars in a liberal society, a liberty that if lost would be far more lamentable than the relatively manageable pseudo-sciences and fads that occasionally pass through the academy. And yet the practice of physiognomy is far from innocent. The tracts of Lavater and others which appear ridiculous today once provided the intellectual foundation for the infamous scientifically justified racism in the late nineteenth century. It seems by natural progression that pseudo-scientific theories as easily contorted as physiognomy would be adapted in justification for the mistreatment of races throughout the European colonial period and into the twentieth century in the caricatures of Jews and other undesirables by the Third Reich—these latter caricatures echoing those first physiognomic comparisons to animals in their depictions of Jews as rat-like among other pejorative comparisons. Interestingly, these justifications often relied upon a polygenetic (multiple origin) perspective on race which had as its main opponent the Church, that argued for the monogenetic origin of man as the progeny of Adam.

However, the opportunistic adoptions of pseudo-science are not only confined to capitalist exploitation as in colonialism or to one side of the political spectrum as in fascism, for we see the same exploitation on the Left. After reading Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species Marx wrote to Engels that he had found the basis in natural science for their materialist conception of history. Marx even sent a copy of the first volume of Capital to Darwin in which the latter is cited twice, to which Darwin responded in a cordial and non-committed letter. Darwin, in fact, did not open the book, let alone read it, and later wrote to fellow naturalist Karl von Scherzer that he considered it unwise to merge socialism and the theory of evolution through natural selection. In general Darwin was opposed to the “Social Darwinism” that emerged following the publication of The Descent of Man, rejecting dedications from anti-theistic writers (such as Edward B. Aveling) inspired by his theories because he believed that freedom of expression gained more from purely scientific arguments. Social Darwinism, like physiognomy, contributed to the eugenic policies of the Third Reich and also to the totalitarian tendencies of Leninist-Stalinist and Maoist strains of socialism. Darwin’s phrase “struggle for existence” was vulgarised by Marx to suit his concept of class struggle. Indeed, Marx saw his own theories as discovered rather than invented and in his writings, such as in Critique of the Gotha Programme, often objected bitterly to any attempt to base a socialist platform on empty moral demands such as “justice” and “equality”. As Marx wrote in the Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie produces its own grave-diggers. The fall of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”

The teleological certainty in which Marx proclaimed his theories established not only a new system of socioeconomic analysis but also the imposition of a New Time. It is not without grounds that Marx is charged with being a prophet and Marxism with religious overtones, for just as the arrival of Christ required the reassessment of the old dispensation in the light of the new, so too did Marxism act not merely as prediction but also as revelation, and required the reassessment of history in the light of class struggle. Revelation is not only transformative in terms of the past but also the future, and this is particularly dangerous for ideologies like Marxism, whose utopian ambitions are not limited as they are in Christianity by the allegories such as the Fall of the Tower of Babel. In the name of these Marxist utopian ambitions all kinds of evil were permitted in first, the rise of the revolution, and then in its consolation. In the rise of the revolution these evils were largely intellectual, in which opponents of dialectical logic were labelled as not merely in disagreement but rather as objectively wrong and incapably and irreversibly flawed in their thinking. Even in the case that members of the proletariat themselves disagree with the tenets of Marxism, which promises a system which is guided by the wisdom of the proletariat, there is the contingency accusation devised by Engels of “false consciousness”. In the consolation of the revolution there is little to elaborate on. All manner of horrors were committed in the USSR, China and Cambodia, wiping millions of people off the face of the earth for the sake of the imposition of New Time and the creation of New Man—the paradise of communism, after all, was right around the corner.

Although as the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski has observed, all of Marx’s major prophecies have turned out false. Instead of the disappearance of the middle class it has expanded, instead of the absolute impoverishment of the working class their wages and life quality have risen, instead of the inevitable descent of profit rates in capitalist countries leading to their collapse these rates have risen, instead of free market dynamics leading to technological stagnation free markets have led to massive developments while socialist countries have largely stagnated. Much like the Christian sects who have predicted the return of Christ down to the hour and then later been forced to admit that some recalculation is needed, so too have the Neo-Marxists been forced to reassess their prophet’s words, now asserting that capitalism’s true crime is not impoverishment but abundance and the subsequent production of consumer culture which will be the doom of culture and the source of most if not all “injustice”, “inequality” and other, as Marx put it, empty moral demands. Yet by accepting the obsolescence of Marxism in the aforementioned failed predictions we are provided with a principle that rescues at least one of his chief arguments—that religion is the opium of the masses.

Marx argued that while religion provided relief for the working class it ultimately obscured their view of reality and thus their ability to resist exploitation, acting as it were as a camera obscura. And perhaps he has a point here. If prophecy and revelation, whether provided by Marx or by Christ, are merely waiting for the facts to confirm their value, then they seem to be redundant or at most prototypical modes of understanding. If this is the case then perhaps the only clear method of divorcing quackery from academic thought is to exclude all that falls outside of rational certainty. While Marx and his followers may have failed in their pursuit of objective laws of history by their Wissenschaft-ian approach, is it not evident even more now than in Marx’s era that the achievements of empiricism in science and technology are undeniable? Would the solution to the problems of quackery in the academy lie in sensibly restricting our pursuits according to positivist prescriptions, such as Karl Popper’s distinction between science and pseudo-science in which the former is defined as seeking falsification and the latter seeking confirmation? Not quite.

The popular image of a science-on-rails is summarised well by Darwin, who after completing The Origin of Species observed, “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.” Popper himself would defy this image, asserting that a priori knowledge is required to generate new knowledge, and that we cannot understand the world from a blank slate. Indeed, the most vicious blows to the dreams of a new world built upon the steady foundation of empiricism have come from within empiricism. As if by betrayal the facts themselves have pointed to the limitations of such fantasies—most famously in science in the discovery of quantum mechanics, in which the act of observation changing the results of experiments brought the objective mechanistic understanding of the universe into doubt (at least as far as its potential as a totalising force was concerned); and also in the work of Kurt Gödel and his theorem of incompleteness, which demonstrated the inherent limitations of formal axiomatic systems. It is with this disillusionment in the world as perfected on the one hand by natural science and on the other through Marxism that we begin to understand the nature of the quackery that exists currently within the academy.

This disillusionment, a second disenchantment of the very hopes that were won with the first, has had an explosive effect on the post-war academic world. The most influential of the thinkers most traumatised by this second disenchantment are undoubtedly the postmodernists in France—Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard, among others. Though these postmodernists were not identical in their aims or fields of study there are, as James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose have observed, four themes which they share: the blurring of boundaries; the power of language; cultural relativism; and the loss of the individual and the universal.

Truth in postmodernism is merely a matter of shared subjectivities or narratives, including objective scientific knowledge proven through empirical means and moral truths which are taken to be self-evident. Accordingly, it was with no surprise that the world witnessed French postmodernists throw their hat in with questionable movements such as the infamous 1977 petition published in Le Monde as an open letter, arguing against age of sexual consent laws for children, signed by Foucault, Derrida, Althusser, Barthes, de Beauvoir, Deleuze and Lyotard, among others. And yet even this misstep, though obviously to be condemned and indicative of a lack of accountability in terms of postmodernism’s moral aims, is quite minor.

Although the work of the postmodernists was popular in the academy, the immediate effect on the world outside of its ivory towers was negligible. For the general public its ideas were too obtuse, too obscurantist, and sometimes appeared simply ridiculous. Yet before concluding it is harmless for these reasons we should again reflect on the ridiculousness of physiognomy and phrenology and the monstrous systems they would grow into.

We are now witnessing the same contortions that physiognomy and natural selection underwent in the turn of the nineteenth century to become the racial sciences and Social Darwinism. In our century these contortions have found the consummation of postmodernism in social justice scholarship. In the first place the contortion of postmodernism (and also the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School) into social justice scholarship is possible because of its already dubious nature, as was the case with physiognomy. Physiognomy was propagated by confirmation bias, for example one person might remember a number of angry people in their life with big noses or a number of stubborn people who resemble mules and begin to give these coincidental correlations a causal significance. So too do we see this exploitation of confirmation bias in the academy today in a number of examples. One of these is “standpoint theory”, one of mainstay presences across many fields of social justice scholarship.

The broad sentiment contained in standpoint theory is reasonable, suggesting that those who belong to a specific group will have better knowledge regarding things that concern that group. However, standpoint theory goes far further than this commonsense principle, bestowing the standpoint a totalising epistemological significance and also a privileging of standpoints that are perceived to be weaker in terms of societal privilege. The result being that, for example, white individuals are not only suggested to be often less suited at speaking on issues that concern black individuals but that the prospect is logically impossible—and while race is the example topic here it could just as easily be any identity marker where there is a perceived disparity in societal power, with the weaker given absolute supremacy. The reality is that there are dozens of instances where the opposite is just as reasonable—drug addicts and alcoholics for instance often need to be helped against their own will because of the very nature of their weakness. In many instances a white person may happen to have a superior perspective concerning a black issue than a black person, and this could happen despite and even because of the power disparity between the two. For example, it would naive to believe that the negative effects of living as an indigenous person in a remote community in the Northern Territory, such as fewer opportunities for formal education, would not effect the ability of indigenous people to be able to diagnose the very issues affecting their own society—specifically those concerning Western concepts, such as economic conditions or the psychology behind substance abuse and addiction. That poverty is self-perpetuating is well documented, and yet under standpoint theory all those considered impoverished, whether culturally or economically, are seen in most cases as merely middle-class citizens in waiting, needing only to be freed like a damsel in distress and not recognising the pervasive complicity that runs through all human affairs, even those in the now holy matters of being black, indigenous, homosexual, female, and so forth.

An additional naivety of standpoint theory is the assumption that this false supremacy will not be used for deceit and opportunism, as per the historical trend found in the use and abuse of pseudo-sciences. The most flagrant example in recent Australian history is Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, in which Pascoe makes the case for a pre-colonisation Aboriginal civilisation as evidenced by agricultural and trading tendencies across Australia. Even discounting the opportunistic interpretations, the dishonest stretching of facts, and at times outright fabrications (all detailed in Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest, which can be purchased by following this link) one still has the lingering suspicion about theories such as these whose points correspond directly with the popular insecurities that currently incense Australian cosmopolitan society. Through these projected insecurities we have seen the Australian Aborigine take on various roles as environmentalist, conservationist, spiritualist, feminist, humanist, astronomer and arch-democrat as a foil against the vicissitudes of Western civilisation. And in all these projections there rests the unsaid implication that to simply be a hunter-nomad is something to be ashamed of, a far cry from the classic Triumph of the Nomads by Geoffrey Blainey, whose works are now labelled problematic. In the heedless rush of activists and activist academics to deny that Aboriginal culture has any deficit in comparison to European civilisation they inevitably lose sight of authentic Aboriginal culture itself.

What is at play here is identical to the kind of interested forces that motivated the development of physiognomy and phrenology towards the pseudo-scientific justification of European colonialism and anti-Semitism. And with equal fervour we have adopted the ideas of Pascoe and his ilk, the academy above all. Melbourne University has appointed him Enterprise Professor in Indigenous Agriculture and Dark Emu looks set to become taught in universities and secondary schools.

There are grounds for some of the virtues that social justice scholars find in indigenous Australian culture (this appears especially so in terms of forest management for instance) but inevitably these truths are overwhelmed and obscured by the exaggerations, half-truths and lies of charlatans like Pascoe. The first casualty of pseudo-science is always the few instances of truth they contain, which carry the stain long after the quackery has been declared as such, and so in the end it will be genuine indigenous culture which will suffer the most from the quackery of Dark Emu.

We see it in socialism as well, which now forever carries the stain of the totalitarian tendencies of Marxism. But we should not forget that there are strains of socialism outside of the quackery of Social Darwinism and material dialectics—and without these strains, such as democratic socialism, the modern welfare state as we know it would have been inconceivable, and our society worse for it. So too would certain aspects of social justice scholarship be a positive contribution to our society were they not poisoned by the quackery they come packaged in, which more often than not is counterproductive. And yet to argue for either more grounded and reasonable approaches to Aboriginal culture or socialism is an incredibly difficult task because it asks you to fight a war on two fronts: on the one hand you are arguing in the regular sense for your ideas against people who are opposed to them and the other hand against those who are largely in agreement but view the few differences as heresy against an established orthodoxy. As it happens the disputes about the minor details are often more violent, the heretic or traitor after all is more of a threat. We see this for example in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which Orwell wrote despite having socialist sympathies. In response to this threat reasonable discussion and debate are sabotaged by intentional mechanisms.

In Marxism, as we have discussed, these mechanisms were “class consciousness” and “false consciousness”. Seemingly in agreement with Marx’s famous principle of “first as tragedy, then as farce” we can see the revival of these quack concepts in social justice scholarship. Standpoint theory, as we have discussed, resembles the concept of class consciousness and the privileged stance that the proletariat were given within it. Both operate out of reductive sociological models: class consciousness out of “cultural hegemony” and standpoint theory out of Foucault’s grids of “power/knowledge”. While differing in how they are theorised, these structures perform identically in practice by asserting that the privileged (whether they be bourgeois, white, male or heterosexual) inevitably reinstate the oppressive structures even in actions which are aimed at helping the proletariat or the oppressed. In social justice scholarship this has been supported by the pseudo-scientific “implicit bias theory” which has been proven not only to been discovered by very questionable means but also to counterproductively increase race-based tensions in the workplaces where it has been introduced through professional development seminars. One of the prosperous companies that run these seminars in the US is operated by Robin DiAngelo, who has written the best-seller White Fragility. DiAngelo writes:

[White Fragility is a] state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviours such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-induced situation. These behaviours, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

This blatant Kafka-trapping places white dissidents into a no-win situation, in which arguing, ignoring or fleeing are all evidence of white supremacy. The only winning move is to submit. This dynamic has become widespread in both public and private life, from the academy to the school house, from the dinner table to the conference room of corporate businesses. And yet while “standpoint theory” has subdued the privileged, what if the unprivileged happen to disagree with extremist social justice measures?

As we have discussed, the contingent mechanism for this in Marxist discourse is the accusation of false consciousness made against dissident proletarians. The equivalent contingency in social justice scholarship is the accusations of “internalised vice” such as internalised racism/sexism/homophobia against dissident members of those respective identity groups. In same way that the USSR declared itself to be guided by the wisdom of the proletariat which was stored in the Party as opposed to being found in any single proletarian, so too does social justice scholarship take opportunistic accounts of which specific black voices count towards the Black voice. In Australia this method has been used to silence the important contribution of dissident indigenous voices such as those of Bess and Jacinta Price, who have been banned from speaking events because they have suggested that indigenous Australian culture, a culture that has remained consistent for 60,000 years as is so often pointed out, may fall outside of the set of privileges that modern liberal society affords for women and thus contribute to the high rates of domestic abuse in remote communities (alongside the typically named causes such as alcoholism and lack of job opportunities). That mother and daughter Bess and Jacinta have good grounds to make such arguments in terms of what we know about pre-colonial indigenous culture and that they both are Warlpiri women themselves and have been the victims of domestic abuse seems to mean very little under the charge of internalised racism, or as it might be more accurately termed, heresy.

But perhaps associating this quackery with religion is unfair, for at least in Christianity the final judgment of the soul is left to God, whose will in its entirety cannot be known by the human mind. On the other hand, Marxists and social justice scholars declare they have managed to contain the totality of human society within their theories. It is no wonder that Marxism and social justice scholarship have attracted many of the intelligentsia—the prospect of explicable sin is alluring and even noble in a certain light. However, once sin is totally explicable in concrete terms it is also totally unforgivable—this we can observe in the charges of being bourgeois, Jewish, white, male or heterosexual, for which there is no clemency or pardon.

This all paints an ugly picture, but surely the fundamentals that have guided the academy, its skeletal principles, will render it immune against this passing fad and eventually allow it to become the centre of a renewal in good-faith dialogue about social justice? Not quite. For there is growing support for the alteration of the fundamental structure of the academy according to various research reform agendas. One such example is the “Indigenous Research Reform Agenda” by the Lowitja Institute, which calls for the introduction of standpoint-theory-esque privileging into academic medical research and publishing.

The reality is, of course, that truth has no allegiance to any class, race, sexuality or gender, despite what Goebbels, Marx, Foucault or a Black Lives Matter activist may say. To think otherwise is wishful thinking that will always have disastrous consequences. It is the commonality of truth that upholds the healthy functioning of the academy, which the academy should uphold for the rest of society. While the academy should be allowed the freedom to dream beyond what is already known—indeed this is what has made the academy possible from Plato on through the Enlightenment—this should not come at the cost of flirting with totalitarian quackery.

Those of us with personal experience of the current brand of academic quackery would not suggest that Henry VIII’s barbaric method for curbing the practice of physiognomy would be appropriate for the academics who play at similar trickery in our universities today. But I also believe we can find consensus that the tricks themselves—standpoint theory, implicit bias theory, and internalised vice—deserve nothing less than to be severed and cast from the body of the academy as once were the ears of so many wayward scholars.

Conor Ross is a Melbourne writer of poetry and prose.


  • nfw

    The “academy” these days is just one big employment rort for those who can’t or don’t want to obtain real jobs in the real world and the administrators needed to administer them. It’s as bad as any public service department whereby more staff, not necessarily producing research of any worth or students of any value from their nobody fails (especially if you’re a Chinese foreign student) degree mills, equates to more power for vice-chancellors and hence higher salaries all round as the money cascades from the top.

  • Peter OBrien

    “The first casualty of pseudo-science is always the few instances of truth they contain”. Too true, Conor.

  • Stephen Ireland

    Peter Sutton, in Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers, observes that Pascoe, in Dark Emu, ignored the voluminous evidence of Australian Aboriginal practices compiled and published by trained anthropologists and archaeologists.

    Sutton then writes that ‘journalistic abandonment of the academy, if that is what it is, seems to be symptomatic of a break from the past – a past in which professional knowledge and lay knowledge were more distinct, and the distinction more respected. The authority of the academy has slipped.’ (p. 21)

    There are so many implication barely buried in these words but as we have all seen, prior to Peter O’Brien and Christophe Darmangeat’s public exposés, both the academy in general, the media, the ABC Education units, school curriculum and resource writers, and much of the public welcomed the quackery. Many of those groups still do.

  • Adam J

    @ Stephen,
    Nowadays the distinction is even reversed. O’Brien is not a professional anthropologist but he outdid many who are. Another point is that the academy in the past sought to raise the level of debate and knowledge; now they are just as likely to insult people for not being an expert, where an expert is someone that publishes rubbish in a journal read by 25 others.
    The authority of the academy has slipped because some of its members slipped into insanity.

  • Tony Tea

    For your delectation:

    “Australian Society of Authors
    We’re delighted to announce that Bruce Pascoe is the recipient of the 2021 ASA Medal!
    The Medal is offered to an Australian author/illustrator who has made an outstanding contribution to Australian culture, both as a creator & advocate.”

  • Lawriewal

    Following Tony Tea’s comment above went looking for The ASA site.
    If you have the stomach for it you might wish to read the complete citation to PASCOE at the above link.

    BTW thanks to Tony for the heads-up,

  • Elizabeth Beare

    Yes, nfw, the money does cascade from the top. As has often been noted, a fish rots from the head.
    Stronger Chancellery appointments within our university system would have cracked down and sent these academic imposters packing long before things had come to this pass, What went on with Peter Ridd and the Chancellery at James Cook University makes an instructive case study of how deficient in understanding of genuine scholarly enquiry and freedom some Vice-Chancellors can be. Yet they praise and encourage the dross within their walls.

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