Journal of Controversial Ideas Publishes Inaugural Issue


The Journal of Controversial Ideas has published its inaugural issue.

The multidisciplinary journal, announced in the fall of 2018, is edited by a trio of philosophers: Jeff McMahan (White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy, University of Oxford, UK), Francesca Minerva (Researcher, University of Milan), and Peter Singer (Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, Princeton University, USA). It allows authors to publish under pseudonyms, an option that three authors in the first issue availed themselves of.

The editors say that so far, they received 91 submissions, accepted 10, rejected 68, and are still processing 13.

In an editorial, McMahan, Minerva, and Singer explain their reasoning for creating the journal:

Twenty years ago, most academic journals were available only in university libraries, or to paid subscribers, and hence almost exclusively to academics. Nowadays, many journals have an online version that is accessible to everyone in the world and even if the journal is behind a paywall, it only takes one person to cut and paste a passage and distribute it via Twitter or Facebook for everyone to be able to read it.

The benefits of the digitalization of information are undeniable. The internet has allowed academics to make their research available to a vast audience, widening its potential impact and increasing the quantity and quality of information now accessible to everyone. This is one of the great achievements of our era. Yet what is widely shared over the internet is often neither genuine academic work, nor popularized but accurate accounts of academic work, but instead the conclusions of academic articles taken out of context and stripped of the reasons for holding them. These distorted conclusions are then circulated to people who are liable to respond with outrage, and this outraged response then proliferates in the manner typical of social media. Some academics get death threats, while others may justifiably fear that their career prospects have been irreversibly damaged. Understandably, they and others who see what has happened to them may decide that the cost of continuing to work in a controversial area is too high.

They then move from the public to what they see are “more serious threats come from within the universities.” They mention that students have asked for lectures expounding views they find offensive to be cancelled and for faculty holding views they find offensive to be dismissed, and lament that faculty themselves sometimes joing these efforts.

Various recent and current attempts by legislators and other government officials in countries around the world to interfere with academic freedom are not discussed at all (“government” is mentioned just once, in a passage on historical threats freedom of expression).

You can read their whole editorial here.

The other articles in this issue of the journal are:

  • “Cognitive Creationism Compared to Young-Earth Creationism” by Shuichi Tezuka (pseudonym)
  • “Gender Muddle: Reply to Dembroff” by Alex Byrne
  • “Deflating Byrne’s ‘Are Women Adult Human Females?'” by Maggie Heartsilver (pseudonym)
  • “Black Pete, King Balthasar, and the New Orleans Zulus: Can Black Make-Up Traditions Ever Be Justified?” by Bouke De Vries
  • “A Puzzle about Self-Sacrificing Altruism” by Saul Smilansky
  • “In Defense of Direct Action” by Ivar Hardman (pseudonym)
  • “Punishment and the Body” by Christopher Belshaw
  • “Who Cares? ―The COVID-19 Pandemic, Global Heating and the Future of Humanity” by Torbjörn Tännsjö
  • “Ultimate Meaning: We Don’t Have It, We Can’t Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad” by Rivka Weinberg
  • “The Epistemology of No Platforming: Defending the Defense of Stupid Ideas on University Campuses” by Michael Veber

The whole issue is available here.

Note: Any attempt in the comments here to identify the pseudonymous authors will be deleted.

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David Wallace
6 months ago

Various recent and current attempts by legislators and other government officials in countries around the world to interfere with academic freedom are not discussed at all

I’m not sure one should attach any great significance to that. In other venues, the journal’s founders have explicitly called out that threat, e.g. Jeff McMahan, quoted in the original DN piece about the journal:

It would enable people whose ideas might get them in trouble either with the left or with the right or with their own university administration, to publish under a pseudonym… The need for more open discussion is really very acute. There’s greater inhibition on university campuses about taking certain positions for fear of what will happen. The fear comes from opposition both on the left and the right. The threats from outside the university tend to be more from the right. The threats to free speech and academic freedom that come from within the university tend to be more from the leftReport

Patrick Lin
6 months ago

If any of the editors are here, I’d be curious what safeguards they have in place to ensure they’re not boosting dangerous conspiracy theories.

In their editorial, they lean on JS Mill for support, but it seems to be faith-based reasoning to think that a free market of ideas will give rise to only the best or true ones. Sometimes more speech is just more noise, and whatever conditions Mill imagined in order for this free market to properly work arguably don’t exist in our world, if they ever did.

For instance, we would need not only actual engagement (not just access or exposure) with different sides of a debate in order to fairly weigh them, but also a sufficient education in science, civics, etc. as well as critical thinking in order to have the capacity to weigh them in the first place. We don’t have that at scale, at least in the US; and repealing the FCC’s fairness doctrine in the 1980s didn’t help us.

For similar reasons, it’s a fiction that in a free economic market, only the best products, services, companies, etc. will rise to the top. The playing field is very uneven (e.g., for start-ups vs. incumbents), and we have a ton of laws and regulations (incl. anti-trust laws) to correct for the bad things that can happen with unfettered competition.

If faith that the truth will prevail (or even faith in a very limited peer-review) is the primary safeguard for this new journal, that might be dereliction of duty, if they care at all about responsible speech and mitigating actual harms. Or maybe they don’t care about these things but are singularly focused on giving a platform for all ideas; but again, why is this valuable in itself, if the system is not calibrated to aim at truth?Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
Reply to  Patrick Lin
6 months ago

I’m not one of the editors, but in response to some of your concerns:

I’d be curious what safeguards they have in place to ensure they’re not boosting dangerous conspiracy theories”. Wouldn’t the peer review process be the safeguard they have in place? Is there some reason that this journal is more subject to boosting conspiracy theories than other journals?

“For instance, [for the free market in ideas to work] we would need not only actual engagement (not just access or exposure) with different sides of a debate in order to fairly weigh them, but also a sufficient education in science, civics, etc. as well as critical thinking in order to have the capacity to weigh them in the first place. We don’t have that at scale, at least in the US; and repealing the FCC’s fairness doctrine in the 1980s didn’t help us.”

I agree that we don’t have those things at scale, but I would imagine that the people who read this journal are mainly going to be philosophers, or at least academics, right? [And, if it’s like most academic journals, probably not many people in total will read any given article.] So, I’m guessing that at least the critical thinking requirement, at least for the audience of this journal, will be met.

That said, it certainly seems possible–likely, even–that some unsavory characters will point to articles in this journal in order to legitimate their own ideas. E.g., they may say, “See? Even a professor wrote in a peer-reviewed journal that my ideas are acceptable!” But I would bet that in the case of the Journal of Controversial Ideas in particular, that might not work as well as usual (assuming it works well in normal cases). Saying, “an anonymous person, who may or may not be an academic, managed to publish an article defending my view in an academic journal” seems to me less powerful than “Professor [so-and-so], who has a Ph.D. in [such-and-such] from [fancy place] defended my idea in an academic journal.”Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Robert A Gressis
6 months ago

Thanks, Robert.

You asked: “Is there some reason that this journal is more subject to boosting conspiracy theories than other journals?”

Well, insofar as the journal’s aim is to boost or give a platform to controversial ideas, and conspiracy theories are controversial ideas, I’d think it’s a short hop to conspiracy theories, or at least much, much shorter than for other journals.

If this journal has drawn a line to avoid certain issues (e.g., conspiracy theories), that’s part of what I was asking: what are the safeguards here?

As for relying on peer-review as a safeguard, I don’t know how effective that is if we’re only looking for 2-4 peers to green-light a paper. The problems with peer-review are notorious (and a recent subject on this site).

Anyway, if peer-review is a reliable process for ruling out bad ideas and ruling in possibly productive ones…then why is this journal needed in the first place, given all the peer-review going on with other journals?Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Patrick Lin
6 months ago

Anyway, if peer-review is a reliable process for ruling out bad ideas and ruling in possibly productive ones…then why is this journal needed in the first place, given all the peer-review going on with other journals?

Isn’t the ‘ruling in possibly productive ones’ the contested issue here? (Well, that and the concerns about harassment and retaliation that drive anonymity.)Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  David Wallace
6 months ago

Maybe, David. But how does this journal fix that peer-review problem?

For instance, is it giving certain guidance to reviewers that other journals don’t, e.g., to be more charitable toward fringe views? Is it hand-picking reviewers who are predisposed to those views?

As they say, “I’m just asking questions here…”Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Patrick Lin
6 months ago

I wouldn’t worry about this, Patrick. I published a book with the explicit goal of destroying democracy and replacing it with authoritarian dictatorships, but so far, despite lots of sales and ten translations, I only successful installed one dictator. So I suspect this gated, obscure journal will not succeed in doing any actual harm.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Jason Brennan
6 months ago

Just wait until the paperback edition is out.Report

Eric Walker
6 months ago

Various recent and current attempts by legislators and other government officials in countries around the world to interfere with academic freedom are not discussed at all.”

I am going to venture a stronger claim about this than David Wallace did.

Here is a reason government interference might not have merited a discussion of its own: interference originating from civil society, as opposed to the state, is becoming more energetic and more visible than it used to be.

This is not to say that there is no state interference or that it is waning. Nor is it to deny that state interference is increasing or malignant. I am not venturing a claim about those things. The claim is that civil society, which includes public and private entities, is relatively recently aflutter with its manifold censoring activity. And this is particularly worrisome because, in Mill’s words, social tyranny “leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life.”

But even if it were not in fact increasing, its increasing visibility would be just as worrisome. Expression is not just for communicating opinions, values, or desires already formed, and then, once they are “out there,” better understanding them and determining the extent of their truth. Expression is also for the very *forming* and *having* of opinions, values and desires in the first place. To paraphrase Merleau-Ponty, expression does not merely translate thought but accomplishes it. Stifling expression thus works to constrict and impoverish one’s inner life — it “pinches” one’s nature and “enslaves the soul itself,” as Mill puts it. This is why self-censorship is all the more tragic. And yet all it can take for one to stifle one’s own expression is one’s feeling unfree to express oneself, and all it can take for that feeling to arise is the perception of possible social cost.Report

Daniel Weltman
6 months ago

The author of the direct action paper chose to use a pseudonym (this despite the fact that the paper’s conclusion is, I think, relatively uncontroversial among a lot of animal rights scholars). This is in part a reflection of the sad state of affairs of government crackdowns on animal rights activists. Governments go to great lengths to combat animal rights groups (see for instance this list of known undercover UK police officers and the groups they spied on). And under US law, even completely non-violent stuff (which is what basically all the animal rights groups are doing, by the way) counts as terrorism under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.Report

Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  Daniel Weltman
6 months ago

Yeah counting that stuff as “terrorism” is just absurd.Report

Spencer Jay Case
6 months ago

The editors should have put Rivka Weinberg’s article last, so that prospective readers could at least finish reading the entire first issue before deciding to kill themselves.Report

J.Bogart
J.Bogart
Reply to  Spencer Jay Case
6 months ago

Speaking from the grave?Report

Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  J.Bogart
6 months ago

Still in the early planning stages.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Spencer Jay Case
6 months ago

What would be the point?Report

Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  David Wallace
6 months ago

Well there wouldn’t be *a point* to suicide if there was no ultimate meaning. But living could still seem unappealing once that fact has been internalized.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Spencer Jay Case
5 months ago

I meant ‘what would be the point of moving Weinberg’s article to the end’, but in any case I was just being facetious. (It helps while away the empty nothingness that is existence.)Report

Evan
6 months ago

The argument about engaging with the Flat Earthers one is interesting. But a part of me can’t help but see that Flat Earthers and their theories will inevitably diminish anyways since in the distant future, space travel will probably be so casual like driving cars. Once that reality occurs, I think they’ll change their minds. Assuming humans live til then of course.Report

Alec Fraher
6 months ago

Just when SUKI Finn gets going on the metaphysics if nothing, Bojan Radej and Mojca Golobič demonstrate that the Liar Paradox can be answered and altered with the Revenge Paradox (see Beall et al) by way of mesoscopic inquiry.

In doing so they ask without asking – Is the Rime of the Ancient Mariner pure male fantasy about wanting to give birth and be ever lasting….. living to tell the tale….So.if Suki Finn is onto something maybe it’s the en-gendered notions within Stern’s construction of proprioception, a matter tackled by the likes of Julia Kristeva, Laura Doyle and Morag McSween…. and if, as Adam Seligman has suggested, we’re nearer to a ‘new’ pre-modern era than is comfortable, so how does anyone begin to assume to know how to frame a relevant question….. worth asking…..Report

Um, what?
Um, what?
Reply to  Alec Fraher
6 months ago

Of course! It was right in front of us the whole time!Report

Bojan Radej
Reply to  Alec Fraher
5 months ago

Thank you Alec, here is a link to the book presentation (complex society: in the middle of a middle world, Vernon Press, 2021): https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/social-complexity-complex-society-middle-world-bojan-bojan-radej/?trackingId=8SEZc3cBMJ0Pc97QbrC5Cw%3D%3DReport