Pamela Paul, Cancel Culture Grifters, and the Republic of Letters
It's 2023. How is this possibly still a thing?
I am so tired of this grift.
It’s 2023. States are banning books. In Florida, they are dismantling a reputable Liberal Arts College, denying tenure cases of professors who aren’t sufficiently aligned with Ron Desantis and Chris Rufo. State legislatures are entertaining bills to end the tenure system altogether so they can fire ideological opponents. There is an active assault under way against institutions of higher education. It is not coming from the left.
And yet, here we are once again. The same hustlers are pushing the same tired schtick, insisting that their “heterodox” ideas are being CENSORED by mean colleagues and loud undergrads who have raised questions about the status quo ante. And, naturally, the New York Times is ON IT!
The latest entry into this overstuffed binder of photocopied anecdotes comes from Pamela Paul. Her column this week, titled “A paper that says science should be impartial was rejected by major journals. You can’t make this up,” makes it abundantly clear that she has zero familiarity with scientific journals, the peer review process, or how academia works. It’s clear that Paul chose to devote her scarce column inches to this topic because it aligns with her general worldview that there exists a righteous, meritocratic status hierarchy, and that is terribly threatened by those who fail to appreciate the status quo ante. Pamela Paul is a citizen of the Republic of Letters; its borders must be zealously defended.
(I generally try not to bother with Pamela Paul. As I remarked on Twitter, I think the subtext of every Pamela Paul column is “I’m just trying to make my ex-husband Bret Stephens’s columns look alright by comparison.” The bland musings of one tut-tutting centrist are more than enough for me.)
Paul tells the story of an eclectic set of academics, united in their *grave concern* that the pursuit of objective knowledge is under assault. The academics, hailing from a wide assortment of disciplines, submitted a 26-page diatribe to PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), one of the most prestigious journals in academia. PNAS publishes 6-12 page empirical papers, not 26-page essays. PNAS sent it out for peer review anyway. The peer reviewers were unkind, noting several of the glaring faults in the essay. PNAS rejected the paper. They then sent “informal inquiries” to several other journal editors, who informed them it didn’t seem like a good fit. The paper was eventually published in the “Journal of Controversial Ideas” a new open-access journal on whose editorial board two of the authors sit.
I’ve read the article. It’s bad. But, more importantly, this sequence of events is not the least bit newsworthy! PNAS has a 14% acceptance rate. Honestly, I’m astonished and a little livid that the editors sent it out for peer review instead of desk-rejecting it.
(For those who have never participated in academic peer review, the closest analogy is jury duty. You get an email from an editor that says, effectively, “hey, we’re gonna need you to stop doing all the regular parts of your job for ~1 workday. Instead, can you please read this and write a detailed, anonymous critique? You will not be paid for this extra work, but it is your civic duty to perform this task.” …Now imagine getting called for jury duty 10-20 times per year.)
The thesis of the article, “In Defense of Merit” is that the foundations of science itself are under threat from “Critical Social Justice.” The authors paint an idealized picture of how the scientific process is supposed to work. They then assert that it basically works just like that. Then they claim it is all imperiled by, essentially, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs. They helpfully turned this strawman comparison into a chart (page 9 of the paper, figure 3), which I’ll include below:
Their evidence of this supposed crisis of liberal epistemology is embarrassingly thin. They mention articles like “The Missing Physicists: How Physics Excludes Black Researchers,” which was published in Science, and a Nature editorial titled “Science Must Overcome Its Racist Legacy.” They complain about “ideological intrusion into science,” because they found dozens of papers (across the entirety of academia, which publishes thousands of papers every year) that discussed the history of racism and exclusion within specific disciplines. They seem particularly concerned that many of these papers offer recommendations for how to address these structural inequalities going forward. (Modest policy solutions, OH NO!!!!)
The actual behaviors that concern them include academic conferences insisting that panels not be made up entirely of white men, and academic departments prioritizing diversity in hiring decisions. They also complain about journal editors encouraging authors to pay attention to who they are citing, and about faculty being required to write DEI statements in grant applications and job applications.
Science isn’t actually threatened by any of these initiatives. It could be, theoretically. But it isn’t. Don Moynihan pointed this out in his excellent twitter thread on the topic. Much of what they are complaining about barely happens at all. And where it is happening, it’s treated as just another in a long list of considerations.
I’ve been told “hey, uh, your lit review has a ton of white dudes” by an editor before. It was a fair point. I was being a bit lazy in that part of the article, and leaned heavily on a handful of books and articles I’d read years ago. I updated the article to include more of the current literature, which happens to include more women and people of color. But, if I had refused to change the literature review, I don’t believe the piece would’ve been rejected. I just would’ve had to expend the energy to make a clear argument for why these were the right citations.
This, I suspect, is what upsets the authors of “In Defense of Merit.” They don’t want to bother. They’re offended by the suggestion that they should have to. It’s ultimately very petty stuff.
What’s at stake here is, fundamentally, status loss. Jonathan Haidt threw a tantrum a few months ago, publicly resigning from an academic society because they required all papers submissions to include a statement about the DEI contributions of the research. It was just a box-checking exercise — he had the option to just say “this research does not contribute to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the field” — but he didn’t want to check the box. It was evidence that the center of his subfield was becoming a little less focused on people like himself. But also… dude, it’s just a checkbox.
Last summer, I put together a grant application for the WIRED project. The grant application included a DEI-related question, and my answer there was the weakest part of an otherwise strong (IMO) submission. I didn’t get the grant. And that was a bummer. I think this is a fantastic project, and the grant would’ve been a huge help toward completing it in a timely manner. If my ego were larger, and/or more fragile, I imagine I would have reacted to the rejection by thinking “this is THE FIELD’S fault!” But y’know what? There are probably more meritorious projects out there than my middle-aged-white-dude-reads-a-gigantic-stack-of-magazines-and-thinks-lots-of-thoughts proposal. I’ll be alright. This isn’t an Existential Threat to Science Itself.
Again, let me remind you: their underwhelming paper got published in a much lower-tier journal. That is literally how this always goes. Academic Twitter lost our collective minds at this story because it is such a ridiculous, manufactured controversy.
But of course Pamela Paul took the bait. Of course the NYT opinion section went for it. And that’s because there’s an element of this narrative that fits into their broader belief system. It’s the same reason why every 3-6 months, the Times publishes an oped from some conservative undergrad, bemoaning how they have to self-censorship because all their classmates roll their eyes at them. It’s the same reason why a conservative guest lecturer facing counter-speech at Stanford or Cornell is a multi-newscycle spectacle. It’s why Bari Weiss can get filthy rich, just by continuing to roll out her Bari-Weiss schtick.
The leadership of the Times opinion section see themselves as defenders of a righteous, meritocratic status hierarchy — what I have elsewhere called “The Republic of Letters.” Pamela Paul and Bret Stephens and their fellow travelers are Citizens of this august Republic. And just as membership in academia means accepting peer review requests, membership in the meritocratic Republic of Letters means writing opinion columns that bemoan the attacks on meritocracy.
I wrote a thread about this on Twitter, back in the before-times (March 2022). I’m going to cut-and-paste the thread below, since I think it’s still relevant (and since who knows how much longer Twitter’s servers will last):
The thing to understand about today's NYTimes"cancel culture" Editorial Board essay is that they aren't chiefly concerned about threats to democracy or speech. Their chief concern is standing in defense of the Republic of Letters.
The Republic of Letters is inhabited by deft wordsmiths and provocative thinkers. They are lawyers and executives, writers and intellectuals. They engage in Great Debates over public virtue and vice. They opine on matters foreign and domestic. They write with verve and panache.
Membership in the Republic of Letters is hard to come by. Only masters of the craft are invited. (Sure, the right family name and private schooling helps, but it is gauche to mention such things.) Upon entry, your sole responsibility is to engage deeply in public debate.
Two things you have to understand about the Republic of Letters are (1) it is not real. It has never been real. It is an ideal amongst the social class that historically has written for publications like the NYTimes. (2) its inhabitants are threatened like never before.
Membership in the Republic of Letters is supposed to function as a shield against social repercussions for unpopular speech. That's the implicit social contract (implicit because no one ever signed up for it, but everyone has carried on as though it were the case).
That shield is useful for promoting interesting ideas and challenging orthodoxies. It is a fundamentally liberal ideal -- we ought to be free to speak our minds and evaluate the merits of competing arguments without fear of repercussion.
And it is an ideal that, instinctively, ought especially apply in spaces of learning and debate -- universities, public events, and newspaper opinion sections.
But it is also an ideal that has never been universally applied. The shield only has ever extended to the members of the Republic of Letters. (Though it is also gauche to mention such a thing. Say it too loudly or often any your membership might be revoked!)
The way to understand this NYTimes editorial, and Bari Weiss's substack tirades, and the "cancel culture is a threat to democracy" genre from writers-who-happen-to-charge-a-hefty-speakers-fee, is that they are trying to defend the Republic of Letters from outside attack.
OF COURSE Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill is a bigger threat to free speech than trigger warnings in college classrooms. OF COURSE the State of Texas's attack on trans lives has more chilling effects than Yale Law students shouting down a speaker. This isn't complicated.
But those laws are outside the bounds of the Republic of Letters. They apply to citizens of the United States. And the NY Times editorial board has dual citizenship in the Republic of Letters. Their second citizenship is their higher calling. And they see it threatened.
Members of the Republic of Letters takes seriously the responsibility to write stern essays about the dangers of banning books/targeting LGBTQ citizens/ripping trans children from their parents. (Or they write provocative essays arguing the laws are Good, Actually. So clever!)
But they are personally threatened by the new possibility that they might face the same sort of repercussions for unpopular/racist/just-plain-awful speech that apply to LITERALLY EVERYONE ELSE ON THE PLANET. The Republic cannot survive if its members have no special privileges.
That's why fretful essays about the plague of campus self-censorship will always have a friendly home at the NYTimes... That's why the actions of elected officials are given second billing to the vibes of young folks. The first duty of the Republic is to defend the Republic.
What I'd like the NYTimes to understand is that the Republic of Letters is just a nice story they tell one another. There are real threats to actual democracy right now. And the rest of us wish they would prioritize American democracy over their shared fantasyland.
There are real threats to academia. Some come from conservative elites like Chris Rufo and Ron Desantis. Others are institutional, arising from decades of disrepair within academia itself. Even if Rufo and Desantis and the book banners and the curriculum cops all vanished, academia would still face serious trouble. Tenure track jobs are in steep decline. The academic career path is barely viable anymore. Tenured positions have been replaced by low-paid adjuncts. The peer review system is collapsing under its own weight (it turns out that if when you take away job security and health care, while requiring your workforce to teach twice as many classes, you end up with fewer professors feeling a civic obligation to repeatedly sign up for academic jury duty). Oh, and there’s also a multi-discipline replication crisis. It turns out that the many of the edifices of “liberal epistemology” were false-front architecture all along.
Diversity statements are no threat to academia or to scientific knowledge. They’re an attempt to correct long-standing blind spots and inequalities within the field. Academia has been heavily biased in favor of people-like-me for decades. The meritocratic playing field has been tilted. There are now a few attempts underway to correct for that tilt. It is only an outrage if your ego or your ideology hinges on denying the very existence of that tilt all along.
But more importantly… how on Earth is it 2023 and we are still talking about this as though it ranked highly among the various crises we collectively face? Why are the august citizens of the Republic of Letters so incapable of seeing beyond their own status-loss?
Shame on Pamela Paul. Before you write about a topic for the paper of record, there should be some bare minimum of research you engage in.
Shame on the twenty-nine authors of this diatribe. The gall of them to abuse the already-overtaxed peer review system just to engage in a bit of public grandstanding. Don’t you have real research agendas to attend to?
But, most of all, shame on the Times. The Republic of Letters is not the Republic most in need of your defense.
It's often been remarked on that Gen Z is the first generation to come of age on the internet, but I think a lot of what explains this backlash from the "Republic of Letters" as you call it is that Gen X is the first generation to get old on the internet. Previous "intellectuals" that saw themselves as members of this republic got old surrounded by yes men and ass-kissers. Now via Twitter/other social media people can just call them dilettantes with outdated ideas to their faces and they just can't psychologically cope.
Completely with you on this. It drives me nuts that someone like Pamela Paul can champion an essay like this that she plainly hasn't read, without having any idea what the basic standard of quality and rigor is in scholarly publishing. The article is profoundly shabby--the authors declare their loyalty to a vision of science that they don't even remotely enact in the essay itself. Here's my dissection of the essay. https://timothyburke.substack.com/p/academia-sleight-of-hand