The Default: Rebuttals Not Retractions (several updates)


Over the past several days academics on social media have been discussing in increasingly agitated language the publication of “The Case for Colonialism,” by Portland State University associate professor of political science Bruce Gilley, in the academic journal, Third World Quarterly.

There is now a petition with over 6,000 supporters (as of the time of writing this post) calling for the editorial team to retract the article, for the editors who approved it to apologize for “further brutalizing those who have suffered under colonialism,” and for the editors to be replaced.

Ignoring McNulty’s wisdom—this particular dispute belongs to political science, not philosophy—I’d like to share some thoughts on this. After all, what is going on now isn’t all that different from a recent episode in our discipline, and it provides an opportunity to put some thoughts out there should we face such a situation again.

Here are the introductory paragraphs of Gilley’s article, which I post to give you a sense of what it’s about (there is an ungated version of the piece here):

For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. Colonialism has virtually disappeared from international affairs, and there is no easier way to discredit a political idea or opponent than to raise the cry of ‘colonialism’. When South African opposition politician Helen Zille tweeted in 2017 that Singapore’s success was in part attributable to its ability to ‘build on valuable aspects of colonial heritage’, she was vilified by the press, disciplined by her party, and put under investigation by the country’s human rights commission.

It is high time to reevaluate this pejorative meaning. The notion that colonialism is always and everywhere a bad thing needs to be rethought in light of the grave human toll of a century of anti-colonial regimes and policies. The case for Western colonialism is about rethinking the past as well as improving the future. It involves reaffirming the primacy of human lives, universal values, and shared responsibilities—the civilising mission without scare quotes—that led to improvements in living conditions for most Third World peoples during most episodes of Western colonialism. It also involves learning how to unlock those benefits again. Western and non-Western countries should reclaim the colonial toolkit and language as part of their commitment to effective governance and international order.

There are three ways to reclaim colonialism. One is for governments and peoples in developing countries to replicate as far as possible the colonial governance of their pasts—as successful countries like Singapore, Belize and Botswana did. The ‘good governance’ agenda, which contains too many assumptions about the self-governing capacity of poor countries, should be replaced with the ‘colonial governance’ agenda. A second way is to recolonise some areas. Western countries should be encouraged to hold power in specific governance areas (public finances, say, or criminal justice) in order to jump-start enduring reforms in weak states. Rather than speak in euphemisms about ‘shared sovereignty’ or ‘neo-trusteeship’, such actions should be called ‘colonialism’ because it would embrace rather than evade the historical record. Thirdly, in some instances it may be possible to build new Western colonies from scratch.

Colonialism can return (either as a governance style or as an extension of Western authority) only with the consent of the colonised. Yet now that the nationalist generation that forced sudden decolonisation on hapless populations has passed away, the time may be ripe. Sèbe has documented how the founding figures of Western colonialism in Africa (such as Livingstone in Zambia, Lugard in Nigeria and de Brazza in Congo) are enjoying a resurgence of official and social respect in those countries now that romanticised pre-colonial and disappointing postcolonial approaches to governance have lost their sheen. As one young man on the streets of Kinshasa asked Van Reybrouck (as described in his seminal 2010 book on the Congo): ‘How long is this independence of ours going to last anyway? When are the Belgians coming back?’

The petition says, among other things:

The article lacks empirical evidence, contains historical inaccuracies, and includes spiteful fallacies. There is also an utter lack of rigor or engaging with existing scholarship on the issue.

Some of my thoughts on this matter (none of which are about, or constitute a defense of, Gilley’s thesis):

  1. Apart from the above-quoted paragraphs, I have not read the article. This, I suspect, puts me in the same company as most of the signatories of the petition calling for its retraction. If you have not read the article, and you are an academic, you probably should not call for its retraction. There’s room for exceptions here, I suppose: if you’ve heard detailed testimony from a trustworthy/fair source who did read the article, then maybe that is good enough. But the petition’s language itself provides no such detail, and the means by which I believe most people are hearing about this article—in Tweets and Facebook updates—are not typically conducive to providing such detail. Calling for an article’s retraction is rather serious, and the decision to do that should be taken seriously, which typically means reading the article.
  2. In deciding whether to call for an academic article’s retraction, it would be useful to know whether the article was accepted for publication following a usually sound peer review process or through some alternative process (one that perhaps is more permissive of work that does not meet disciplinary norms). As far as I know, we do not have an answer to this question. (I recently wrote to the editor and the journal manager asking about this but have not yet heard back.) [Note: see Update 1.] If an article you find highly objectionable did make it through the peer review process, it could be a fluke, it could point to systematic problems at the journal in their choice of reviewers, or it could be evidence that you (and those who are most vocal) are mistaken about the beliefs and norms that are in fact operative in your discipline (we ought not mistake loudness for prevalence).
  3. In deciding whether to call for an academic article’s retraction, it is useful to know whether that is a permissible option, given the reasons for the proposed retraction and the policies of the journal and the publisher, and any applicable norms governing academic publication (such as COPE).
  4. In conducting our academic work we should try as much as possible to rely on the exchange of evidence and arguments, not (directly) on the numbers of people who agree with us, or the strength of their agreement. Let’s suppose the article was peer-reviewed but that the strongest complaints about Gilley’s article are correct: it lacks empirical evidence, its account of the facts is inaccurate or misleadingly incomplete, it contains errors in reasoning that seem motivated by animosity, and it does not engage with the relevant literature. How should those academics in a position to know these things respond? Is it by saying something tweetable that will convince lots of non-experts to help them try to erase the article from history? That seems to be making use of inappropriate means towards an undesirable end. The history of academia is a history of mistakes—and learning from them. If Gilley’s article is full of mistakes, then the job of the experts is to point this out and help us learn from them, so people are less likely to make them again.
  5. Let’s stop overstating the harms (e.g., “brutalizing,” “violence”) that an academic article can cause. Such overstatement increases the likelihood that legitimate complaints about real problems and harms an article might cause will be dismissed as hyperbole. Part of human progress has been an increased awareness of the variety of ways in which people can harm each other. We don’t aid in that progress by taking an unfamiliar and perhaps difficult-to-explain harm and pretending it is just some obvious severe harm people already recognize.
  6. I’m not naive about the nefarious uses to which even a poor quality academic article—and the negative attention it receives—can be used by interest groups to advance their agendas. I know it is harder for reply articles to be noticed and have an impact. And I’m not ignorant of the research on how, in some contexts, pointing out others’ mistakes reinforces them. But these are just going to be problems that we occasionally have to address or endure in order to preserve academia as a domain for the flourishing of expertise, where it is protected from the pernicious pressures of popularity. No arrangement is perfect; it’s a matter of picking which problems we can stand living with. I don’t want a version of academia in which, in the contest of ideas, when expertise bumps up against popularity, the latter is more likely to win. We should be hesitant to take part in activities that push us in that direction.

None of this is to say that calls for retractions are never in order. They certainly are in some cases of academic and editorial misconduct. Whether the publication of Gilley’s article involves such misconduct I do not know*: I haven’t read it, I’m not an expert in the field, and I haven’t heard back yet from the editors.

But it is to say that our default reaction to cases like this should not be “retract!” but rather, “rebut!”

[See Updates 4 and 5, below, for statements from the journal’s editor-in-chief and the journal’s editorial board.]

UPDATE 1 (9/14/17): Farhana Sultana, associate professor of geography at Syracuse, includes information about the editorial review process the paper underwent in a public Facebook post calling for the paper’s retraction:

I have been recently informed it did actually undergo the standard peer review process common in academic journals and was rejected, but was then published as-is as a Viewpoint by the journal; however, such items are still meant to be read and approved by members of the journal’s Board, which consists of several illustrious scholars in this particular journal; I understand that board members were not aware of the piece until its publication.

UPDATE 2 (9/14/17): This essay, “A Quick Reminder of Why Colonialism Is Bad,” by Nathan J. Robinson (Harvard) at Current Affairs, is worth reading. Robinson lays out some of the problems with Gilley’s article. For example:

In his presentation of colonialism’s record, Gilley has deliberately excluded mention of every single atrocity committed by a colonial power. Instead of evaluating the colonial record empirically, he has distorted that record, concealing evidence of gross crimes against humanity. The result is not only unscholarly, but is morally tantamount to Holocaust denial.

Robinson also suggests that Gilley’s article is a trap:

This article does not read as if it is attempting to be taken seriously. Its tone toward critics of colonialism is polemical and mocking… Gilley must intend to provoke people to rage… I expect Gilley wants the following to happen: people will be outraged. They will call for the article to be retracted. Then, Gilley will complain of censorship, and argue that lefties don’t care about the facts, and that his points has been proved by the fact that they’d rather try to have his article purged than have to refute its claims. This is a dynamic that has occurred many, many times. 

(added 9/15/17): I should have also included this excerpt from Robinson’s article:

I am not signing the petition to have it retracted, because I believe that the journal shouldn’t retract it simply because there was public pressure. I am also very concerned that this could be a PR coup for the right, as so many of these things are. It’s tough, of course, because for the reasons I’ve outlined above, the article shouldn’t have been published. Gilley did not meet the standards that should be expected of an academic. He falsified history. When evaluated by a fair standard, he has not upheld the honesty and rigor that should be expected of someone in his position, and the article is a factual disgrace as well as a moral one. But it would be very easy to fall into a certain predictable trap, where the left calls Bruce Gilley a racist, and Gilley declares that they simply can’t handle the truth. And while I’m sympathetic to the argument that we should avoid that by Not Even Addressing Such Rubbish, bad arguments fester when they go unaddressed.

UPDATE 3 (9/15/17): Liam Kofi Bright (Carnegie Mellon), in a post at The Sooty Empiric, makes several good points, capped by the following:

So we have an appraisal of historical events that gets basic parts of the history wrong, ignores or passes over key events, purports to be a cost-benefit analysis while not actually factoring in costs, is  naively credulous as to tyrant’s self-affirmation, and advocates a mode of counter-facutal reasoning that is both underspecified and from what can be discerned amounts to a non-sequitur. This is not good scholarship. I’ll end here. This is more effort into this than I really intended, but I have now seen so many people saying that the arguments of the piece aren’t being given consideration but people are rushing to condemn that I thought this worth setting out. I take this aspect of philosophy seriously, and think that a significant public role we should play is holding people to argumentative standards. For whatever that is worth, The Case For Colonialism does not meet those standards. 

UPDATE 4 (9/19/17): Shahid Qadir, editor-in-chief of Third World Quarterly, has issued a statement on the article. It is noticeable vague on the crucial details. For example:

As a peer reviewed, scholarly journal, our Aims and Scope sets out that TWQ “…examines all the issues that affect the many Third Worlds and is not averse to publishing provocative and exploratory articles”. Throughout its 40 year history, TWQ has been at the forefront of shaping development discourse, with Viewpoint essays enabling challenging opinions to be tested though rigorous double-blind peer review and then debated upon publication by fellow researchers. As with all articles in the journal, this Viewpoint did undergo double-blind peer review and was subsequently published. 

Note that the editor does not say whether all Viewpoint articles are peer reviewed, just that this one was. Nor did he note whether this article was submitted as a Viewpoint article or a regular article. Nor did he say whether the referees recommended publication. Nor did he comment on whether the proper procedures for Viewpoint articles were followed. (Thanks to Clement, in the comments, for this pointer.)

UPDATE 5 (9/19/17): 15 members of the editorial board of Third World Quarterly have resigned. Their resignation letter does not paint a pretty picture of how this article’s publication came about:

As International Editorial Board Members, we were told in an email on 15 September from Shahid Qadir that this piece was put through the required double-blind peer review process. We asked for these reviews to be sent to the Editorial Board, and they were not.

We have now been informed by our colleagues who reviewed the piece for a Special Issue that they rejected it as unfit to send to additional peer review, and they stated in an email to us:

“We would question the editorial process that has led to the publication of the piece. It was initially offered to guest editors Dr John Narayan and Dr Leon Sealey-Huggins as an article to consider for inclusion in the aforementioned special issue. The guest editors relayed their unease with the article and rejected considering the piece for peer review. It has subsequently come to light that the article was later reviewed as a standard article and rejected by at least one reviewer and then repackaged as an opinion piece.”…

We have also been informed through correspondence between Prof Ilan Kapoor and our colleague who was the peer-reviewer, after the piece was rejected by the Special Issue editors, that her review also rejected the Viewpoint. Thus, the fact is established that this did not pass the peer-review when we have documentation that it was rejected by three peer reviewers.

The editorial board members then support the call for retracting the paper:

As the Viewpoint did not pass the double-blind peer review as claimed by the editor in the statement he issued in the name of the journal, it must be retracted and a new statement issued.

The Viewpoint fails criterion #1 of the Committee on Publication Ethics COPE guidelines that state: “Journal editors should consider retracting a publication if: they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error).” These COPE guidelines are Taylor & Francis’s reference documents for ethics of retracting a publication…

Bruce Gilley’s Viewpoint essay, “The case for colonialism” must be retracted, as it fails to provide reliable findings, as demonstrated by its failure in the double-blind peer review process.

I don’t know what evidence has been used in other cases to support an accusation that “the findings are unreliable.” Is failure to pass peer review itself sufficient evidence?

(Thanks, again, to Clement.)

UPDATE 6 (9/19/17): Inside Higher Ed reports on the story.

UPDATE 7 (9/22/17): Bruce Gilley has issued the following statement on his website: “I have asked the Third World Quarterly to withdraw my article ‘The Case for Colonialism.’ I regret the pain and anger that it has caused for many people. I hope that this action will allow a more civil and caring discussion on this important issue to take place.”

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Lelia
Lelia
4 years ago

Thank you for this very thoughtful analysis!Report

Tom
Tom
4 years ago

If part of what you’re telling people is to hold it in before reading up, why not lead by example?Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

Tom’s objection can also be read as a criticism of your rhetorical or political, rather than argumentative, strategy, in which case it seems more successful (if not successful simpliciter).Report

Charles Young
Charles Young
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

Perhaps it is a logical error “to take a statement about X, identify the class of things to which X belongs, and then claim that the original statement is about that whole class of things.” But properly formulated and suitably qualified it’s a kissing cousin of Universal Generalization.

But an “error in reasoning”? Jones picks a mushroom in the woods, eats it, and dies. Am I making an “error in reasoning” if I think twice about eating the mushroom next to it?Report

ejrd
ejrd
4 years ago

These are all excellent general principles. All academics should see the wisdom in them. We should not turn our head away from the very real issues embedded in certain journals which may be unfriendly toward publishing rebuttals to unpopular articles they have accepted nor should we assume that reason will win, or ever really has won, the day in academia.

Scholarship-by-petition is an ugly move that we should all resist. One that threatens to delegitimize academia far more than those who have been seeking to delegitimize it can dream. Opponents should aim to include more voices rather than silence existing ones. Create new journals, hold new conferences, and, whenever possible, publish rebuttals. Although we may not be able to show THEM the error of their ways, we can make those errors plain nonetheless.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  ejrd
4 years ago

Your line about scholarship by petition is well put and important.

What strikes me and is so depressing is the extent to which some of the most liberal people in our profession seem inclined to behave like a howling mob when confronted with ideas they disagree with. That this is a complete betrayal of liberalism — not to mention antithetical to the scholarly mission — should be evident to anyone who has read On Liberty. It demonstrates the extent to which contemporary liberalism has been infected by Frankfurt School style ideas, a la Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance.” And it has been a tremendously unfortunate development for the humanistic disciplines not to mention for our society.

Scholars should be the last people in the world acting this way.Report

Sam b
Sam b
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

I think it is fair to say, from the point of view of colonized people, that there are more important goods than purported “liberal values” insofar as those liberal values create the space for ideological justifications of their oppression. Railing against Marcuse’s idea of “repressive tolerance” seems to ignore the very real anxieties behind his ideas (after all, he was a German Jew who lived during a liberal republic, where many great scholars ended up becoming apologists for Naziism). At heart, the issue is that bad scholarship can thrive in a liberal society if that’s what the market demands. That doesn’t mean Marcuse is right or we should abandon liberal values, but there is good reason not to approach these values as dogmas.

On that note, it’s important to note that it’s not just “ideas people disagree with” but ideas that reify the conditions of their exploitation.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Sam b
4 years ago

The purpose of scholarly inquiry is to pursue the truth. In that context, liberal values are paramount, for all the reasons Mill explains in On Liberty.

The conflation of scholarly inquiry with activism is a good part of what has gotten much of the humanities and some of the social sciences into the trouble they currently are in.

Your last paragraph commits precisely that conflation and is the ground upon which activists attempt to suppress critical inquiry.Report

Sam b
Sam b
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Scholarly work should certainly pursue truth, but that’s not the only value we need to consider (it’s certainly not even in the sciences, as seen by the numerous ethical rules now in place regarding research on human beings – the pursuit of truth is still constrained by other ethical standards, hence we cannot replicate the Milgram experiment no matter how interesting the results might be). We also need to consider how mistruths can spread within a “free marketplace of ideas”. Science has certain obvious constraints – you cannot, for instance, misrepresent data. These constraints are useful in preventing the spread of falsehoods. It’s clear that the article in question does this in cherry picking the data on colonialism (how can you ignore the tens of millions who died?).

Scholarship can’t help but being political, at least if we are discussing a paper not only defending colonialism but calling for a return to the practice. I think we have good reason to be skeptical of the academy as some kind of apolitical institution that grasps objective truth independent of the systems of social and political oppression in the broader society. Perhaps some paper on the Analytic philosophy of mind or Heidegger’s views of poetry succeed in overcoming political problems (arguable), but if it’s a paper justifying the murder, rape, mutilation and enslavement of hundreds of millions, we’ve certainly entered the political.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Sam b
4 years ago

I disagree with you that a topic like colonialism is something that should be excluded from open discussion and analysis. And I would be very concerned about the gatekeepers who would make such decisions.

If the scholarship is poor, that is the job of peer review to discover. But if the scholarship is up to snuff and one simply dislikes the thesis, then that’s just too bad: the price of genuine, open, critical inquiry.

And I don’t agree that “ideas reify oppression.” :This is in the realm of “speech is violence” and other related ideas that a certain portion of the activist community is pressing in an effort to suppress open and frank discussion and debate. I reject it, resist it, and hope others will do the same, or I fear it will be the death of ours and related disciplines.Report

Sam b
Sam b
Reply to  Sam b
4 years ago

The Current Affairs article cited gives a good description why this is a bad piece of scholarship. We already have gatekeepers – peer review boards. They actually said this was bad scholarship, but it was published anyways in a “viewpoints” section, perhaps by editorial discretion. Perhaps the editors wanted the controversy.

The idea that scholarship can ideologically justify (and thereby help perpetuate) oppression is NOT the same as the claim that speech is violence, whether or not the second claim is true or false. So much scholarship during the colonial period can attest to that. Nor is it a claim any topic is “off limits”. Instead, it’s just a recognition of the material consequences of certain kinds of scholarship.Report

Jake
Jake
Reply to  Sam b
4 years ago

Sam b in principle you’re arguments are solid. however, history is replete with examples of the aggrieved justifying actions that they held to be unacceptable in their oppressors. The outcomes are seldom pretty (cf. Israel, Russian communism, gurus etc etc)
We need some standards of conduct that allow for the uninhibited expression of ideas and feelings, but that do not cross a line between reason and the incipient beginnings if mob rule.
We also need to ensure that all voices are represented in academia, and pretty much everyone on the political spectrum feels that this is not happeningReport

Asad
Asad
4 years ago

Maybe a better exercise the author could’ve engaged in would be to imagine if any such scenario is justified within the domain of academic philosophy. If some inconsequential professor wrote about how Nietzsche’s philosophy justifies Nazism/White Supremacy and how that is morally commendable making the most asinine and egregious errors and this worst of all articles was published in a very prestigious academic philosophy journal would professors be preoccupied with rebutting or calls for retracting?Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  Asad
4 years ago

Asad, as per Justin’s thoughtful opening post, I would assume that professors would hopefully engage in his points 1-6. Do you disagree? Do you have an alternate proposal?Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Asad
4 years ago

Why not write your own article instead of telling the author what article he should have written?Report

William Bell
William Bell
4 years ago

Suppose you publish a terrible article – but aren’t allowed to retract it because of the norms suggested here – the author responsible was in fact behaving irresponsibly in their scholarship in many glaring ways, etc. So you resolve to rebut the article in question instead. What happens? Well, now the article has more citations (giving the impression to a non-academic that it is higher caliber) which give it a sheen of quality, it has extra publicity, time & space has been taken away from good new work in order to correct bad work, and the academic responsible for the bad scholarship benefits from the extra citations.

The alternative is that we have risk of ‘scholarship by petition’ sure, but as happened in the Hypatia case, because it was obviously an overreaction, the petitions didn’t work. I haven’t signed any petitions in the colonialism case, but that conclusion is nearly unbelievable, and so I’m not surprised that there are people questioning its veracity. I’d be willing to guess that the critics are correct.

It seems to be a symptom of the same sort of relativism that idpol is accused of that expectations of scholarship are so relaxed that someone would believe journals shouldn’t retract bad scholarship when they screw up. If a scientific journal publishes bad scholarship, the article is usually retracted (not rebutted!), in fact this happens far more in the natural sciences than in the humanities. Why should philosophy, history, or the social sciences be any different?Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  William Bell
4 years ago

Because humanities are much more susceptible to ideologically motivated demands for retraction.

I think the OP is spot on. Indeed I might even go farther.Report

GG
GG
Reply to  William Bell
4 years ago

A quibble: Do non-academics check the number of citations of a paper? I doubt it.Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  William Bell
4 years ago

The conditions for “bad scholarship” in the sciences are, despite their vast differences from most humanities work (excluding x-phi work) very similar to the conditions I hear Justin advocating for.

1. Retract an article that engages in falsification of data or bad statistical, mathematical, or logical methods (rare in the Humanities but not impossible)

2. Academic dishonesty (plagiarism, multiple publications of the same article, etc).

3. Peer-review or editorial problems (the article did not go through regular peer-review, a mistaken version of the article was published without the author’s permission, etc). I would normally put something like “a fundamental misreading of another scholar’s work” here but I would hope mistakes of that nature would be caught at the peer-review level.

Unless a paper has 1-3, it isn’t the kind of bad scholarship that justifies retraction. Bad ideas do not for a retraction-worthy article. They make for low-hanging fruit for those who wish to rebut the article in press (or on blogs!).

The only lingering question in my mind is whether authors should be allowed to call for a retraction of their own work. I’m inclined to say no. They shouldn’t. They can, of course, write an article or blog post where they explain why they no longer hold views x, y, z but retraction seems like a really bad option for an article an author considers “bad” but not running afoul of 1-3.Report

EDT
EDT
Reply to  William Bell
4 years ago

“but as happened in the Hypatia case, because it was obviously an overreaction, the petitions didn’t work. ”

That is a pretty misleading characterization of the Hypatia case.
The reaction from the journal and the philosophical community (both online and at least in my own experience IRL) was far from an open and shut “this is an overreaction we will ignore this petition”.
Hypatia very nearly retracted the article, their official statements regarding Tuvel were hardly full-throated defenses of her article or even their own review process, and it is certainly arguable that had things gone slightly differently (less push-back in defense of TUvel &/or norms of scholarship for example) that Hypatia would cheerfully have retracted her articleReport

Rebecca Kennison
Rebecca Kennison
4 years ago

Let me make sure I understand your position, Justin. Generally speaking, retractions are serious. I think we all agree with that. But … (1) If a paper was rejected by peer reviewers (as this one was) but still was published solely because the editor wanted it to be, is that editorial misconduct, or not? Should that paper be retracted? If so, by whom, since it was an editorial decision? (2) You don’t discuss retraction in the case of author misconduct. Under what circumstances would author misconduct mean retraction? I can imagine there might be such cases, even in the humanities. What would those cases look like? I’m just trying to understand the parameters here.Report

Rebecca Kennison
Rebecca Kennison
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

Thanks, Justin! Very helpful! If you do get around to thinking about my second question, whenever that might be, I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on that. It is somewhat tangential to the issue at hand, though, so I understand if it doesn’t make your to-do list! 🙂Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
4 years ago

I wrote a longish comment on retraction norms (focusing on science vs humanities) a few months ago, which I’ll self-indulgently repost:

The vast majority of papers published in the sciences report on experimental or observational data. The research done is the collection and analysing of that data; the paper is a report on the research, not the research itself. And one thing the journal is doing in publishing the paper is certifying that what is reported is *true*: that the experimenters really did do that research, and do it the way they said they did; that they really did get these results; that the dots on the graph really were produced by a statistical analysis of the data collected. So papers routinely get retracted when the journal stops being able to stand by that certification: for honest reasons (the experimenters themselves discover that they used the wrong rat or had a typo in their code), for dishonest reasons (image duplication, fabricated results), and for ‘grey’ reasons (the experimenters aren’t able to provide the raw dataset when asked). I think the vast majority of retractions in the sciences look like this. But in most of philosophy (and in theoretical physics, mathematics, and very occasionally elsewhere in the sciences) the paper *is* the research, not just a report of it. So this reason for retraction doesn’t apply.
Papers also get retracted, much more rarely, in the sciences because some formal technique is uncontentiously misused. For instance, a math paper might simply make a calculational error that invalidates the claimed result. One external way to see what “uncontentious” means here is that retraction for this reason is basically never contested; indeed, frequently it originates with the author. You can imagine something like that happening in philosophy in some of the more formal corners of logic and philosophy of physics, but the vast majority of philosophy is just not in the business of using formal tools in this way.
What basically doesn’t happen, in the sciences, is that a paper is retracted for non-uncontentious failings of reasoning or scholarship. In theoretical physics, for instance, papers are usually a mixture of formal calculations, approximation schemes, and verbal or semi-verbal arguments; it’s routine for one paper to claim that another’s argument is mistaken, and there are plenty of papers in the literature that everyone agrees are wrong – often quite soon after publication. But I’ve never once heard of a paper being *retracted* in theoretical physics for reasons like that. I think the same is true in the rest of science, though I know the literature less well: medical journals, for instance, are full of discussion of controversies about whether such-and-such experiment was properly designed or such-and-such effect size really justifies the claims being made, but papers don’t get retracted for flaws like that.
Put another way: what a journal is saying when it publishes a paper is, I take it:
1) Any experiments and observations described in the paper really did happen, the way the author(s) say they did, and the data thus collected is the basis of any analysis presented;
2) The formal mathematical claims made in the paper are correct;
3) The paper has been peer-reviewed in accordance with the journal’s policy and, on the confidential recommendation of the reviewer(s), the editors decided the paper is of sufficiently high scholarship and importance to be worth including in the public scholarly record;
4) This paper genuinely is the intellectual product of its author(s).
Only (3) and (4) apply in (most of) philosophy. And (3) is backward-looking (in philosophy as in the sciences): it doesn’t mean that the editors would make the same decision at a later point, just that it’s the decision they made through their duly-applied process.
Stepping from the descriptive to the normative, someone could ask: why shouldn’t journals (in philosophy as well as science) adopt a different policy where (3) is constantly reassessed and papers are retracted (and un-retracted) as and when the editors’ academic judgement shifts? But (quite apart from being grossly unfair on authors given the role publications play in the academic economy, dangerously non-transparent, and wide open to various forms of abuse) it’s not really clear what retraction even *means* here. If a paper is retracted because it makes a data or math error, it’s obvious why I won’t want to quote from or cite it; ditto in plagiarism cases. But if I read a paper in a journal and then the editors retract it because in hindsight they don’t agree with its scholarship, it doesn’t and shouldn’t in any way prevent me from citing the paper and engaging with its arguments – in which case, in what sense is it really “retracted” at all?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

To what degree do you think that support for retracting articles believed to be harmful reflects a more general tendency to shut down opposing viewpoints rather than respond to them with argument? It seems to me that there is a growing trend in the humanities towards shutting people down rather than responding with argument, but I haven’t studied the issue.Report

asst professor
asst professor
4 years ago

I wonder how much of the petitioners ultimately want the article to be retracted vs. are really trying to punish the journal for publishing ideas that go against the orthodoxy, particularly, publishing ideas that are reactionary or conservative.

If that’s the case, then principles regarding retraction are beside the point, since the point is not retraction, but bad press for the journal. Maybe it’s effective. Hypatia suffered a serious blow, and I imagine this journal will, too. And editors everywhere might hesitate more than a little bit to publish something that goes against the grain.Report

Eric Johnson-DeBaufre
4 years ago

Justin makes some excellent suggestions here but, like the character Thomas More at the end of Utopia, “I rather hope than expect to see them” adopted in the academy at large. Philosophy, I believe, stands a better chance than many other disciplines of embracing these suggestions, but even there they will face resistance.

I’d like, however, to reiterate the importance of #5, which was a pervasive claim Tuvel’s critics made about the effects of her article and which José Luis Bermudez addressed in detail in anIHE article. I have written about this elsewhere and would only add that if we wish to counter successfully the tendency to overstate the effects that “an academic article can cause,” we would do well to understand why–at least for some members of the academy–attributing such power to academic articles comes naturally (even automatically) and why claims of “harm” appear to them as aptly descriptive rather than overstatement.

There are, I believe, very clear reasons for this that have to do with the influence exerted by the work of figures like Foucault and Bourdieu. This is not, mind you, an effort to dismiss the work of either of them. The work I have in mind here is the set of historical researches Foucault undertook on the institutions of the asylum, the clinic, and Bourdieu’s work on the French academy. Both engaged in either extensive archival research or empirical analysis of their respective institutions and both more or less limited the scope of their research and claims to France (Foucault arguably less so than Bourdieu). And from this careful but obviously imperfect research, both men developed a set of distinctive insights into the role these institutions played within larger French society.

When the works of Foucault and Bourdieu first arrived on American shores, their enticing theoretical insights and distinctive formulations—power-knowledge, discursive formation, habitus, cultural capital—came trailing in their wake a considerable but decidedly less sexy body of archival and empirical research on which they were built. American academics, eager for new theoretical insights that they could apply to their own work, embraced the former and largely ignored the latter. As a result, concepts that arose from an analysis of specifically French institutions (e.g. the French academy) became generalized and came to be seen as descriptively true of these institutions globally (or at least in other developed Western countries).

Concepts like “power-knowledge” as well as claims about the social force exerted by certain kinds of “discursive formations” and “practices” like those of the academy—most of which arose from patient but hardly flawless archival and empirical research conducted on French institutions, with specific histories and more or less distinctive modes of thought, conducted in a language other than English and engaged with and intellectually indebted to a different set of interlocutors—have so entered the bloodstream of the American academy that we scarcely remember that they are not native to our shores. This is not to proclaim them irrelevant, merely to acknowledge that whatever hard won insights they contain were not achieved by us. Relieved of the necessity of doing the hard, unglamorous archival or empirical research into the extent to which the products of the American academy—scholarly journal articles, monographs, etc. —exert an influence on the larger culture or shape and constrain the subjectivities of the individuals within it, American academics can instead assume it, confident in their belief that an article published by an untenured scholar in a philosophy journal with limited circulation causes harm.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  Eric Johnson-DeBaufre
4 years ago

This comment seems to suggest a kind of American isolationism with respect to both Foucault’s thinking and thinking “native to ‘our’ shores.”. It is true that some of Foucault’s key ideas were elaborated through erudite studies of some French institutions and that he emphasized their historical and cultural specificity; however, this comment seems to mischaracterize the social contexts within which those ideas were developed and in which they have been used, as well as how Foucault thought they could be used. The suggestion seems to be that, during his life-time, Foucault’s ideas were developed in France alone, with French interlocutors. But that is not so.

During his life, Foucault worked (closely) with a number of North American philosophers and theorists, including, Ian Hacking (Toronto), Arnold Davidson (Chicago), Hubert Dreyfus (Berkeley), Gayle Rubin (when she was in Paris as a postdoc), and Paul Rabinow (Berkeley). These philosophers and theorists were vital to the teaching and writing that used Foucault’s ideas during his life-time, as well as their use and circulation after his death. The suggestion that Foucault’s ideas have been misused and misapplied by “American” theorists and philosophers seems to ignore these engagements. During his lifetime, furthermore, these and other theorists outside of France were using Foucault’s ideas to talk about situation, phenomena, states of affairs, etc. that were not limited to France. Is the suggestion that Foucault was allowing his own ideas to be misused? Indeed, Foucault illustrated many of his ideas (especially in interviews) and even developed them with examples from places outside of France, including the US: to take one example, Foucault’s insights about neoliberalism revolve, in part, around the Chicago School. When Foucault wrote: “Man has become a confession animal,” he was not using the supposedly generic term “man” to refer to only people in France.

Lastly, I think that the comment underestimates the transatlantic circulation of some of the institutional discourses about which Foucault wrote. For example, the introduction and proliferation of asylums for “the mentally unfit and feebleminded” in the US likely never would have taken place in the way that it did were it not for the importation to the US of the claims of Pinel, Goddard, and others from France.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
4 years ago

My apologies for the typo. That should be: “Man has become a confessing animal.”Report

R Forsberg
R Forsberg
Reply to  Eric Johnson-DeBaufre
4 years ago

I agree that #5 is important. Such claims are hyperbole and completely designed to both appeal to emotions and to end the conversation . They also lend credence to those who would criticize academics and the left. Justin’s comments in the original post are spot on.

Good comments and exchange of ideas all the way through this thread.Report

jake
jake
Reply to  Eric Johnson-DeBaufre
4 years ago

I think that we should simply grant that language can harm, perhaps even brutalize. There are times when an emerging rhetoric harms the oppressed, justifying their oppression. There are times when such language harms and even dissolves institutions and traditions. The issue is not about whether language harms, but rather what is the moral standing of the language, those that use it and those that are harmed by it.
And that is exactly why academia must be open to all voices, no matter how harmful they might be. Academia must remain open because academia has an obligation to harm the immoral through reason, evidence, and an understanding of both human fallibility and human potential for good. By shutting voices down forcefully and resorting to nascent mob rule, the raison d’etre of the humanities is gone.Report

JT
JT
4 years ago

Suppose Robinson is right (and he is) that Gilley’s piece is intended as a provocation and stakes out a position tantamount to Holocaust denial. If so, it would be reasonable to call for its retraction. However, according to Justin’s principles, such a call would be unreasonable. Thus, Justin’s principles are inadequate. Moreover, if Robinson is right, then the knee-jerk, ‘high-minded’, namby-pamby liberal tut-tutting on display in the comments here is much more puerile and pernicious than it purports to be (did you people even read the piece? Or, are you just THAT ignorant of the history of colonialism?). But, then again, so is much of what passes for philosophy these days. (What am I even doing here? I should really get on with moving on to sunny Santa Fe.)Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  JT
4 years ago

You will generally find that you are more persuasive if you don’t just flat out insult your interlocutors.

I’m sure Santa Fe will be glad to have you.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Ah, yes, tone-policing, the liberal’s last resort. How sensitive your conceited pride must be if my use of ‘namby-pamby’ and ‘puerile’ and scarequoting of ‘high-minded’ was enough to have pricked it so. But, anyway, Santa Fe is just a state of mind; really, I’d be glad to be anywhere if you aren’t.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  JT
4 years ago

Suppose Justin is right (and he is) that a call for retraction would be unreasonable. However, according to JT’s principles, such a call would be reasonable. Thus, JT’s principles are inadequate.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

Oh no, you reversed Moore’d me. I am slain.Report

EDT
EDT
Reply to  JT
4 years ago

Wouldn’t a “reverse” Moore just be the regular initial argument?Report

JT
JT
Reply to  EDT
4 years ago

I MT’d Justin, then Wallace MT’d my MT’ing of Justin in defense of Justin–ergo, double Moore’d.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  JT
4 years ago

Oops, as my slip between ‘reverse’ and ‘double’ shows, you might be right that ‘reverse’ wasn’t the best term to use there.Report

J. Otto Pohl
4 years ago

I don’t think the article should have been published in the first place since it couldn’t pass peer review. On the other hand I also don’t think it should be retracted since it has already been published. I had the same position on the Tuvel article. Although apparently her article did legitimately pass peer review.

I have read the article and it is not very good. I have a preliminary critique of it here.

http://jpohl.blogspot.com/2017/09/first-thoughts-on-bruce-gilley.html

It certainly does neglect to deal with the actual history of colonial oppression. Whether this is actual denial or not is more of a judgement call since he doesn’t come out say that these atrocities did not occur. He just claims that the colonial regimes were better for the indigenous people than the subsequent independent states. A claim that does not stand up at all when one considers his examples are Congo under the Belgians and Kenya during the suppression of the Mau Mau uprising.Report

Matt
Reply to  J. Otto Pohl
4 years ago

Thanks for the helpful comments on your blog, J. Otto – I’ve missed seeing you around the blogs. (I think I more or less agree with your take here.)Report

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
4 years ago

One point that I would make is that there is a clear tension between pointing out any sound basis for a retraction on scholarly grounds, and gathering lots of signatures on a petition.

If you have identified a genuine reason why a piece should be retracted, a letter or email signed by one person is sufficient to point this out to the editors.

Gathering many signatures is just an attempt to bully, and emphasizes the weakness not the strength of any points being made.Report

Abiral
Abiral
4 years ago

I’m a little ambivalent still about the retract vs rebut question, but here are two points in favour of the case for (calling for) retraction which I think have some merit, and which I haven’t seen other comments here make:

(i) A particular fact about the journal in question, Third World Quarterly, is that it is a publication that was established under an anti-colonial ethos, and done so at a time when many felt that the development discourse had no space for non-Western voices. The Editor’s Note of the very first issue of TWQ lists these grievances, saying that ‘the major western powers seem to be working towards a situation where the developing countries would be left with no forum for the resolution of their problems.’ Subsequently, they pledge:

‘It is in this uncompromising environment that we come to strive for understanding, accommodation, and solutions. Our concern is the Third World: we will speak for it, indeed, speak with its voice. We will focus attention on specific problems and suggest specific solutions with interdisciplinary scope, and not concern ourselves with abstract and theoretical issues.’

It seems immediately clear that this statement stands in tension with the publication of Gilley’s piece. In a Twitter thread, Vijay Prashad, who is on the board of editors for TWQ, has drawn attention to the origins of the journal and argued that ‘to have an imperialist essay in a journal with this history is the abomination. Other venues for such essays… it is not censorship to want a journal to adhere to the outlines of its legacy and its values. Claims for academic freedom and censorship miss this aspect.’ This seems to me like a good argument for calling for a retraction from this particular journal.

But there is also a broader point: Prashad says that at the time of the journal’s founding, ‘imperialist ideas dominated thought. This was to be a modest venue to think against these imperialist ideas.’ The Editor’s Note from Issue 1 confirms this sentiment. Now, most people here seem to agree that the oppression involved in imperialism was bad, and that rebuttals to imperialist ideas that condone such oppression are important. Presumably, then, they also agree that the oppressive intellectual conditions of an imperialist culture are not good. If, then, pieces seek to reintroduce or reaffirm that kind of environment in spaces that are supposed to be committed to avoiding oppression – which I would hope is most if not all intellectual venues – then is it not fair to call for their retraction? One does not have to call it epistemic violence or anything like that to recognize that it is harmful to attempts at creating intellectual spaces for getting past oppression if those same spaces are going to be hijacked to debate whether the effort of doing so is right in the first place.

Prashad’s twitter thread: https://twitter.com/vijayprashad/status/907923080252674049

(ii) The Robinson article linked above is, I think, very good and gets at Gilley’s intentions in a way that seems likely to me: Gilley does not engage with historical facts in any substantive way, and it seems quite plausible that his intent primarily to turn heads or provoke ire or make a case for ‘free speech’. This seems to me to be another way of calling the article out for bullshit – of the Frankfurtian variety. That is to say, it might be the case that Gilley is not just willfully misconstruing the facts (or even incompetent a constructing historical arguments), it may be that he is actually uninterested in the accuracy of his specific statements (or alternatively, only interested in the accuracy of his specific statements formulated in the way he’s done, and uninterested in the truth or falsity of the bigger picture or the implications of his statements). If this is the case, and I’ve seen several people suggest that it is, then what is the right way to deal with bullshit? Is it really only to call out the statements/speaker for accuracy? It seems strange to think that it is. There isn’t a direct argument for retraction here, but at least a possible reason to think about responses beyond rebuttal.

Just a final note about point #5 in the original post – that we should be careful about overstating the harms of academic speech. I’m sympathetic to the sentiment and the notion that we ought to be careful in constructing our categories of harm, but I do also worry that it could tip too far down the other end. It may be true that academics sometimes overestimate the effect or significance of things in academia, but there are also good reasons to think that speech and violence are connected in closer and more complicated ways than a lot of people seem to grant. I am thinking of the kinds of arguments in Lynne Tirrell’s wonderful essay/chapter, ‘Genocidal Language Games’. And it would be good to be mindful that Gilley’s essay isn’t just a piece that leaves out certain facts, or misrepresents certain people, or uses politically incorrect language. It’s a proposal to return to a system that inflicted unimaginable cruelty and horror – including multiple genocides – on large sections of the world’s population.Report

Mohan Matthen
Reply to  Abiral
4 years ago

I didn’t think Gilley was suggesting a forcible return to the colonial “system.” (Strange term, as if it were a form of government, rather than simply domination.) Actually, I couldn’t quite figure out what he was suggesting, in practical terms. It is more of a sentiment, a la Niall Ferguson: the Europeans did good by civilizing the darker parts of the world. Offensive and silly as I find this, I think it’s ok to say and/or to read such things, I don’t see why it should be retracted.Report

Mohan Matthen
4 years ago

I quickly read the article. It misses why colonialism is colonialism: it is rule by foreigners (a) without the consent of the governed and (b) for the profit of the colonizers. It’s more than slightly odd to say that Singapore “replicated” colonial governance; none of the above is true in Singapore today. It’s all the more odd because the economy of pre-independence Malaya was based on commodities such as rubber and tin that were planted and exploited by foreigners for the benefit of their own economies. You can say that Singapore adopted many British institutions and used them to develop an extraordinarily successful nation. But this is different than to suggest that they continued down a path that was already established under the British.
That said, I take it that the editors published this piece as a “viewpoint,” because they wanted to display or exhibit opinion that is usually not published there. Given that it is not overtly a hate-piece, I don’t see why this is not their right. Actually, it shows a certain open-mindedness.Report

Erik H
Erik H
4 years ago

Honestly, quite a bit of the opposition (using terms like “brutalize” as you note) is more off-putting than the article. And I find it telling that the Current Affairs article does not share a photo, or a reference, which applies in the last fifty-odd years. When someone discusses modern approaches to “colonialism”, is it really reasonable to point to the 1920s and 1960s as opposition, rather than Puerto Rico?Report

Clement
Clement
4 years ago
Sikander
Sikander
4 years ago

One difference between this incident and the Hypatia transracialism controversy is that the former involves a genuinely offensive article on an ethical topic, whereas the latter involves a position on racial self-identification that is supposed to be progressive and inclusive of more people. While I disagree with the theses in both articles, I find the claim that a system that included slavery and subjugation is overall good to be problematic and offensive in a way that Tuvel’s thesis does not even come close to being.

That being said, I am opposed to all calls for retraction unless there was fraud or some other form of misconduct that, according to pre-established (and correct) rules and without reliance on ideologically-driven judgements of how ~*scholarly*~ the work is, justifies retraction.Report

Clement
Clement
4 years ago

Author Gilley asks to withdraw his paper from Third World Quarterly:
http://www.web.pdx.edu/~gilleyb/Report

Clement
Clement
4 years ago

More from the publisher, Taylor and Francis:
http://www.tandfonline.com/pb-assets/TWQ-response-Sept-2017.pdfReport

Clement
Clement
4 years ago

The paper is now withdrawn, and the reason is: “the journal editor has subsequently received serious and credible threats of personal violence. These threats are linked to the publication of this essay.”
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01436597.2017.1369037Report

Clement
Clement
3 years ago

And now (June 2018) another journal as published the paper:
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12129-018-9696-2Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Clement
3 years ago

Ah, good. The original would-be publisher of an academic essay withdrew it because a rabid mob threatened violence against the editorial board, and the only way to guarantee the board’s safety was censorship. And now another academic journal is taking its chances for the moment, though the rabid mob is likely to target that journal’s board next, and it’s anyone’s guess what will happen then.

Nothing to see here, I guess, folks, since the paper is getting published at present. It’s not as though anyone in academia is likely to shy away from researching or arguing about these matters objectively just because this sort of thing is going on, is it? Or…Report