This article is more than 2 years old

I read every paper in the first issue of the Journal of Controversial Ideas

... and you'll never believe what I found. Actually, you will, it's mostly the same old contrarian stuff you always hear. Bit of a disappointment
This article is more than 2 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

It’s been more than eight years in the making, but we now have a first volume of the Journal of Controversial Ideas.

I was naturally delighted to have the chance to expose myself to radical and little-heard ideas that I would not have otherwise come across. I approach any academic publication from a similar perspective, but for this journal in particular my expectations were high.

I should note I am not an academic philosopher by any means – I’m a general reader who occasionally gets to engage with a variety of academic writing, so I’m approaching this article from that perspective.

Since submissions opened in April 2020, the editorial team dealt with 91 submissions. Sixty-eight of these have been denied a platform, something that feels like an achievement in itself, and there are thirteen still in production. Three authors from the ten presented chose to avail themselves of the opportunity to use a pseudonym, which means – defeating one of the points of the journal – 70 per cent of successful submissions were from academics who did not feel the publication of these papers would have a “chilling effect” on their careers.


There’s some lovely stuff in the editors’ introduction:

Socrates, Jesus of Nazareth, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo Galilei were considered so dangerous that authorities tried to silence them, and in the case of Socrates, Jesus, and Bruno, as well as many of Bruno’s lesser­ known contemporaries, the persecution ended in execution.

That’s quite some company to put the first crop of authors in.

The central thesis here is that because journals are now more open, with some publishing full open access articles with no paywall, academic research is now being read more widely. Therefore, people are taking statements out of context and using them on social media to attack academics. This atmosphere has led students and academics to demand reprisals for authors deemed to have been “objectionable”.

So, a brave and fearless journal has written out of the ashes of academic life that will provide a home for these brave souls. The lack of academic research on unpopular ideas mean that these ideas move to “forums” and become more virulent and influential being discussed only by those who agree – a statement written (I assume) some time before every anti-lockdown or anti-vaccine position was backed up by a “scientific” paper.

The editors note:

Ideally, the need for this journal will be short­lived because our efforts will help to foster cultural conditions in which editors of academic journals will no longer have to worry about publishing controversial papers, and researchers will be able to publish controversial articles in any journal they find appropriate without fearing that doing so will endanger their well­being or career

I applaud this commitment to self-immolation. Although it does feel like the rich tapestry of academic publications already provide a home for ideas similar to those expressed in the first round of papers.

Cognitive Creationism Compared to Young-Earth Creationism

This pseudonymously attributed paper purports to compare two strands of creationism from a psychological perspective. The novel term “cognitive creationism” in fact deals with people who reject “certain widely accepted hypotheses” from behavioral genetics and differential psychology. What hypotheses? Well, variation in IQ scores by ethnic group, of course – although there’s a slight subtlety in that what our author claims to be doing is separating out people who look at the entire absence of meaningful evidence and dismiss it on moral grounds rather than scientific ones. “Cognitive Creationism” is, at best, an insult. And not a new one.

To put it another way, people who don’t want to imagine a scientific backing for racial profiling (even when there is no clear evidence for such a position) are just as confused as those who belive in the Creation exactly as described in the Old Testament. A conclusion that reminds me of nothing more than an old Newman and Baddiel sketch. Do you know Young Earth Creationism – well, that’s you, that is.

Gender Muddle: Reply to Dembroff

Literally a continuation of the “adult human female” argument that you can read in pretty much every newspaper or magazine. This isn’t even a research paper, it’s a response (and one that cites dictionary definitions as if that was a thing) – it feels like this argument should probably have stayed on twitter.

Deflating Byrne’s “Are Women Adult Human Females?”

Apparently it is possible to simultaneously hold the position that women are “adult human females” and that “trans women are women”. This pseudonymous paper is an examination of the logic underlying Bryne’s argument rather than a radical restatement of trans rights. It is hard to believe that this intervention – including a detailed consideration as to whether the mitochondrial Eve could have been a “trans man” – will be the one that finally makes everyone happy with the fact that people live their lives in different ways.

The article concludes: “The bottom line, in my view, is that people should use words as they like so long as they are guided in their usage by a proper concern for justice and for the wellbeing of others.” Quite. But it is not clear how this article backs up that conclusion – or indeed sheds any further light on a debate that is rapidly veering from unpleasant to toxic.

Black Pete, King Balthasar, and the New Orleans Zulus: Can Black Make-Up Traditions Ever Be Justified?

Is “blackface” make-up ever justified? This paper cites a few historical examples where the use of such make-up has passed into tradition. The nub of the argument in this paper is that:

such traditions can be morally vindicated if (i) the large majority of individuals who help to maintain these traditions do not believe that they denigrate black people; (ii) the relevant traditions do not depict black people in denigrating ways; and (iii) the relevant traditions are not gratuitously offensive

So it argues against the Dutch Black Pete tradition (as it is deemed to be a denigration), but in favour of the New Orleans Zulu tradition and the role of Balthasar in Spanish Epiphany parades. It’s not exactly a rule of thumb that we can use to decide whether – say – UK Border Morris traditions are OK. It’s more like an opinion than a conclusion in that respect.

A Puzzle about Self-Sacrificing Altruism

What if you died saving someone from drowning at sea, and the person you saved wasn’t very nice? Well you should really only save past heroes, but if you are a past hero yourself you shouldn’t risk your own life because it is more valuable. That’s it – that’s the paper.

In Defense of Direct Action

This pseudonymous paper makes the case for the use of coercive force to defend animal rights. The argument goes something like this:

  1. Puppies are cute and fluffy, so you should get stuck in to stop people hurting puppies
  2. Other mammals are cute (if not actually fluffy in all cases) too
  3. So it’s OK to fight people to keep mammals safe.
  4. If you eat, make clothes out of, or do medical research on mammals it hurts them.
  5. So it’s OK to fight people to stop them doing that to mammals.

I’m not sure what this adds to the debate. But frankly, I am deeply, deeply, offended that the author clearly doesn’t care about people hurting octopuses, and I can understand (even if I don’t support) why they chose to deny me my right to email them at length about this.

Punishment and the Body

Instead of putting criminals in prison, shouldn’t we – like – just put them in a coma? Like in Demolition Man (the paper doesn’t actually mention the critically overlooked 1993 Sylvester Stallone vehicle)?

We’re clearly on the cusp of a “Journal of Kitchen Conversations at 3am After A Night in the SU” and frankly, my paper “Is TJs Still Open? An inquiry into the working practices of late night burger vendors in central Leicester” was – I feel – unfairly turned down.

There’s almost an interesting point here about why some (especially in the US) are in favour of capital punishment but not corporal punishment, and I’d be interested to see either qualitative or quantitative survey data on that. But, as others in the kitchen would say, “that’s just some guys’ opinion”.

Who Cares? ―The COVID-19 Pandemic, Global Heating and the Future of Humanity

Crikey! Dealing with the big questions here! The paper asks whether it matters if the population of the world went extinct following global heating – “many people, including our politicians” think that it doesn’t, and this is weird because people clearly cared about everyone not dying of Covid-19.

There’s a standard summary of the positions that would argue against our continued existence as a species: pessimists, actualists, and deep ecologists – those who see the variety and plurality of species as paramount. Just to give you a flavour of the quality of the paper I’ve some sympathies with deep ecology (in my darker moments) – the argument against this position is presented thus:

As to deep ecology, it is mistaken. Species have no intrinsic value; what counts are experiences of happiness and pain among human (sentient) beings.

So – not really an argument, more an alternate position. We don’t learn which (if any) politicians hold any of these viewpoints, it’s abstracted from a general preponderance of inaction. We end up with us all being urged to do what we can to prevent global heating, a conclusion that feels rather mundane and – dare I say – conventional.

Ultimate Meaning: We Don’t Have It, We Can’t Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad

Yes, that’s the title of an academic paper. And also a summary of the paper. I’m very much back in a student kitchen sipping black tea and looking for some super noodles – but I note that the idea that life has no meaning is hardly a controversial or radical position for a person (even a person that is neither wearing black nor listening to the Sisters of Mercy) to take.

The Epistemology of No Platforming: Defending the Defense of Stupid Ideas on University Campuses

I don’t know how things work with contrarians but I feel like you should have your contrarian card revoked (possible in a ceremony involving Brendan O’Neill) if you are actually defending current government policy. Basically this paper examines epistemic (“this idea is dumb”) rather than moral (“this person is a literal actual nazi, who has the uniform and the badge and everything”) arguments in favour of not offering a speaker on an unconventional idea at no cost when nothing else is on.

We bash straight into John Stuart Mill, and then how it is important to be able to prove that the earth is not flat. It’s missing a justification as to why you need an external speaker (who would likely not be convinced by evidence to the contrary) to teach these ideas – Mill on “real contact” doesn’t cut it for me here in the age of smartphones and YouTube.

It’s not clear what evidence one could present that would convince this author that bringing in speakers on stupid ideas is a waste of time, effort, and money. Like many papers in this volume there are more strawmen than a scarecrow festival, and fundamentally it is difficult to see how such an inclusive position would not lead to an argument for the pedagogical utility of stupidity applying to every contrary position. Which is perhaps the point, but would make for an unwieldy curriculum.

To conclude

What’s here that’s new? What’s here that I couldn’t read elsewhere? Unless I’ve got a radically incorrect understanding of the state of the current literature in philosophy, cultural history, and (sigh) gender critical feminism none of these ideas are beyond the pale of what is currently out there in mainstream thought. Certainly you might expect pushback on some of these ideas – but as an academic you would expect some pushback on pretty much any idea you put forward. Such is the nature of academia.

In a way, the existence of this journal and the unremarkability of the content gives lie to the grand conspiracy of hegemonic normalisation that sparked its creation. In the worldview that this journal espouses there would be an immediate backlash. There hasn’t been – it’s even taken me two days to notice that this stuff is out.

So how do I feel about having been exposed to these radical and unconventional ideas? In all honesty, I wasn’t. Maybe I was expecting something to blow my mind, or radically expand my understanding – if I was, it didn’t happen. My lasting impression is that the “free speech/academic freedom” debate isn’t about novel or radical ideas at all. It’s about the promulgation of the same tedious tropes you read everywhere. And that’s the dirty secret of this agenda – it’s about advancing the cause of dull, done-to-death, talking points.


Here’s the XKCD meme that everyone is doing:

3 responses to “I read every paper in the first issue of the Journal of Controversial Ideas

  1. Propose motion that Wonkhe formally launch “Journal of Kitchen Conversations at 3am After A Night in the SU”

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