Are Angry Mobs on Facebook Taking Over Academia?

What it means to call the critics of Rebecca Tuvel’s paper on transracialism “bullies.”

Rebecca Tuvel Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rhodes College.
Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College, received much criticism for her recent paper “In Defense of Transracialism.”

Rhodes College

Rebecca Tuvel started off her most recent academic paper in philosophy as many of her colleagues do, with an armchair observation that prompts a thorny question. In June 2015, the assistant professor at Rhodes College noticed what she thought to be an unusual coincidence: In the same month that transgender woman Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who had for years presented herself as being black, was ridiculed for lying about her race. Tuvel wondered why these two women’s stories provoked such different responses. Thinking like a philosopher, she asked: What, if anything, distinguishes these two cases?

The resulting paper, “In Defense of Transracialism,” was published in the high-profile, feminist philosophy journal Hypatia at the end of March. The backlash came four weeks later. First, a group of about a dozen scholars in philosophy put out an open letter to the journal, requesting the retraction of Tuvel’s article on account of the harm it caused “communities who might expect better from Hypatia.” In the days that followed, Tuvel was lambasted for having demonstrated “egregious levels of liberal white ignorance and discursive transmisogynistic violence,” for having created “a dangerous and frankly irresponsible piece of ‘scholarly work’ that misdefines identity,” for making “hurtful and embarrassing mistakes … in her embarrassing paper,” and for committing “epistemic violence.” Meanwhile, the open letter garnered hundreds of signatures from similarly appalled philosophers and other theorists of race and gender, including two academics who had served on Tuvel’s thesis committee. Tuvel herself reported getting hate mail and said she’d been repeatedly “denounced as a horrible person by people who have never met me.”

As the fury mounted, a counter-swell emerged. Mainstream academics started calling out the callers-out and rallied to protect their junior colleague. They noted that several of the critics’ complaints had been overstated and that others were completely wrong. Some scholars warned that the concept of “harm” had been devalued and that Tuvel might even have a case for defamation. The backlash to the backlash soon spilled into the mainstream media. In New York, Jesse Singal took issue with the “online pile-on” with its “trumped-up open letter and unfounded claims of ‘violence,’ ” and called the whole thing “a massive internet witch-hunt.” An article in the Wall Street Journal described Tuvel as having been “pilloried,” and noted that she’d burst into tears while refusing to comment on the story. An op-ed in the New York Times said her treatment was a “tragedy” that provides a “spectacle of the left devouring its own children.” And in recent days, a second open letter to Hypatia has appeared, also with hundreds of signatories, demanding an apology from the journal.*

Lost amid the fury over Tuvel’s treatment, and the invocations of “epistemic violence,” was a more substantive point about her work. By adopting the philosopher’s favorite pose—cogitating, chin on hand, over matters of great importance to groups to which she does not belong—it seemed to certain critics that Tuvel had turned the real and tangible suffering of an oppressed minority into an academic parlor game.

Tuvel’s paper didn’t dwell on Jenner’s case or Dolezal’s, or on any people’s stories in particular. Rather, it used a pair of public figures as the staging ground for a more abstract proposal, that a person’s right to change her race should be protected. Having made this claim, Tuvel goes on to “entertain” and then reject four possible objections to it—including, for example, the argument that you can’t be black unless you’ve grown up black or that your race (but not your gender) is a function of your ancestry. Whether you agree with her conclusions or not, there was nothing that unusual in the way that she, as an academic philosopher, made this argument and wrote it up in her paper. Her rhetorical approach—step one, posit something bold and counterintuitive; step two, use careful logic to demolish counterarguments—is standard practice in the field of ethics.

Those who criticized Tuvel’s approach were, in part, challenging this standard practice. Tuvel had done her work from a privileged, detached position, they said, and hadn’t tried to look very far beyond it. If that’s the normal way of doing philosophy, the normal way is wrong.

In this regard, the Tuvel Affair overlaps with a broader fight within philosophy. On one side are the well-established, tenured professors who have risen to their positions of authority by philosophizing in the standard, armchair mode. On the other is a small but vocal group of younger academics who have argued that this standard mode is both old-fashioned and defective—and indeed that it is constructed to exclude them.

This battle over rules of discourse doubles as a war of demographics. The mainstream, status quo professors tend to be the older ones—mostly white men—who have dominated the formal study of philosophy for centuries, if not millennia. The “online pile-on” of activists draws disproportionately from a minuscule minority of queer, feminist, and nonwhite scholars who feel they have to struggle for recognition. Indeed, philosophy ranks among the least diverse and most inhospitable fields of academic study. According to recent data, more than three-fourths of tenured and tenure-track positions are held by men, and black women make up just 0.4 percent of professional philosophers—just 55 scholars in a total of 13,000.

In both these regards—as a squabble over methods and representation—the uproar in philosophy looks similar to one that has been raging in the behavioral sciences. Like their counterparts in philosophy, advocates for “open science” have tried to fix what they see as systemic problems in their fields, only to have their efforts dismissed and decried as the work of online mobs and bullies by an older, whiter, and less gender-balanced generation of scholars who seem inclined to stifle change.

The dust-up in philosophy over Rebecca Tuvel has something close to a mirror image in psychology: the calling out (and the backlash to that calling out) of the untenured Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy.

Cuddy’s story starts in 2010, when the professor and two colleagues published the results of a small experiment based on several dozen participants. Their paper said that just two minutes’ spent with arms outstretched could make a person “embody power and instantly become more powerful”—an effect that “has real-world, actionable implications.” In the summer of 2012, Cuddy gave an enormously popular TED Talk on the same idea (now called “power posing”), and she’s since written a best-selling book based around what she calls a “free, no-tech life hack.”

Even as Cuddy’s star was rising, the open-science movement in psychology—a group concerned with poor statistical methods and the lack of reproducibility of results—took aim at her research. First came news of an attempt to replicate the original power-pose experiment from 2010 with a larger sample of 200 people. It found no effect. Then a review of 33 follow-ups to the power-posing paper found that evidence in favor of Cuddy’s “life hack” was, in aggregate, very weak. Finally, last fall, one of Cuddy’s original co-authors turned against the power pose, saying in an open letter to the field that her “views have updated” and that she no longer stands behind the work.

These were sober, scholarly rebuttals to Cuddy’s research program. Other online critics weren’t quite so diplomatic. “I don’t think she really understands the depths of her own ignorance,” one open-science advocate posted. (Earlier, he’d complained about Cuddy’s “bullshit research.”) Writing in Slate, statisticians Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung called the power-pose idea “nothing but tabloid fodder” and the “latest example of scientific overreach.”

Just as Tuvel has spoken out in wounded tones about a “bullying culture, call-out culture” and “ad hominem attacks,” so has Cuddy sounded an alarm within psychology about “ad hominem attacks and public shamings” online. “I have been dealing with nastiness and death threats,” she told a recent conference of her peers. “There is a culture of fear. … Bullying among adults can be just as destructive as bullying among kids.”

In the case of Cuddy, many of the harshest attacks came from people outside her field: Gelman and Fung are statisticians, not psychologists; the “bullshit research” guy is a linguist. The same is true with regard to Tuvel, as many of the most forceful dissents to her work have come from gender studies specialists and sociologists rather than philosophers.

Indeed, the critics within psychology and philosophy have generally been careful to avoid personal attacks and focus more on pointing out systemic problems in the research literature. For the open-science crowd, Cuddy’s work on power poses is just another illustration of the old and broken way of doing science. Cuddy and her colleagues used sample sizes that were way too small, and they overworked their data in a way that produced a false-positive result. That’s not Cuddy’s fault, exactly, since the way she did her research—like the way Tuvel did philosophy—has been the norm for many years.

Still, in both Cuddy’s case and Tuvel’s, senior academics have made a point of singling out the very loudest critics and claiming they represent all dissenters. Last fall, Cuddy’s former graduate school adviser Susan Fiske, a tenured Princeton professor and the former president of the Association for Psychological Science, published a screed against the reformers in psychology, whom she’d labeled “methodological terrorists.” “I am describing a dangerous minority trend that has an outsized impact and a chilling effect on scientific discourse,” she wrote. Online mobs of open-science activists “circumvent constructive peer review” and end up “destroying lives.”

Fiske never names these bullies, nor does she explain what happened to their alleged victims. Instead she alludes to back-channel conversations with other scholars in psychology who she says have been targeted by Facebook vigilantes. “Somebody needs to speak for the people who are too afraid to speak,” she said to one reporter. “Dozens of them have emailed me and said ‘Thank you for doing this,’ ” she told me last September. Fiske explained that the victims weren’t people who would ever go public on their own. Like “rape victims,” she said, their “behavior and motives would just get dragged out in public and impugned again.”

Likewise, a week into the Hypatia backlash, Tuvel’s own grad school adviser, prominent feminist philosopher Kelly Oliver, published an essay on the culture of shaming in philosophy. Her concerns echo Susan Fiske’s: In place of psychology’s “methodological terrorists,” she decries the field’s censorious “mean girls”; in place of Fiske’s “dangerous minority trend” of social media data police and its “chilling effect on scientific discourse,” she invokes a “mob mentality of Facebook” that makes scholars “afraid to voice their opinions in public.” And just like Fiske, she cites anonymous, back-channel stories of terror and abuse from colleagues. Where Fiske compared those unnamed victims to rape survivors, Oliver quotes a friend who likens them to prisoners of ISIS.

The similarities between the backlash to the Cuddy and Tuvel papers (and the similarities between the Fiske and Oliver essays) aren’t merely rhetorical. In both fields, the reformers’ critique of research methods has been treated as a nasty breach of etiquette, and one that stifles any reasonable discussion of their claims. Yet ferocious pleas for comity can also serve as an evasive maneuver—a way to dodge important debates about the favorite habits of a discipline.

When senior academics in both psychology and philosophy defend their younger colleagues from the scourge of vicious online mobs—when they champion free and open discourse, and tone-police their critics—they end up drawing ranks around the system over which they still preside. As the tenured upper class within their fields, they’re the ones who benefit the most by shunting criticism through peer review and away from social media into formal, moderated channels of debate. Why? Because they tend to be the ones who moderate those channels and decide who has access to them.

In other words, by “putting themselves out there and their own careers on the line” in support of Cuddy or Tuvel, the senior academics are pretending that this power differential is upside down. They’ve made it so a small community of activists—mostly younger scholars with a lot to lose—can be painted as a bunch of heartless thugs. When philosophers say that what happened to Tuvel is a “witch hunt,” or when psychologists compare a researcher whose work has failed to replicate to Rosa Parks, that gets things exactly backward. “To say that we’re engaging in a ‘witch hunt’ couldn’t be more paradoxical when we, the feminist philosophers, have long been treated like the witches of the discipline,” wrote one of the authors of the open letter to Hypatia.

It’s not wrong to say that either Tuvel or Cuddy has been mistreated, maybe even cruelly so. But, whether it’s intentional or not, touting their victimhood carries water for those who support the status quo. The question, then, is whether there is any reasonable way to distinguish between the “online mobs” in these two disciplines. Are the open-science advocates in psychology any more (or any less) righteous than the scholars seeking changes to philosophy? What about the people speaking out against them?

It seems to me the open-science movement has a more convincing set of arguments—but then again, I say that as a person with an affinity for the scientific method. (Some people argue that objectivity can be oppressive. I’ll leave that to the philosophers.) It’s also true that open-science advocates aren’t asking Cuddy to retract her work: Their calls to double-check and replicate published research lead to more and better scholarship, not less of it, whereas many of the advocates in gender and race theory want Tuvel’s paper to be stricken from the record.

Yet in spite of these differences, the responses to these movements for reform have the same, disturbing silhouette. Critics of the mainstream methodology have been infantilized and ridiculed by their older colleagues. In psychology, those who advocate for greater rigor have been called “shameless little bullies.” In philosophy, they’ve been denounced as “a mob of bullies in the playground.” Don’t be distracted by these taunts. It isn’t childish to call for better research practice, however it’s defined.

*Correction, May 30, 2017: This story originally misstated the demands of an open letter written after the publication of Rebecca Tuvel’s paper. It did not ask the journal Hypatia to apologize for “entertaining any criticism of Tuvel’s paper whatsoever,” as the piece originally claimed. (Return.)