Hot takes on Controversial Ideas

I’ve run into lots of posts and news about The Journal of Controversial Ideas, both from philosophers who you’d expect to be talking about this thing and elsewhere.1 The journal, organized by Jeff McMahan, Peter Singer, Francesca Minerva and others, is meant to be a forum for scholarly papers which scholars would be afraid to publish elsewhere. To shield authors from blowback, all the papers will be published anonymously.

A. Lots of people have commented that the new journal is likely to be a cesspool of racism, sexism, and other terrible views which people like to pretend they can’t talk about. I suggest this modest principle: If the president can tweet a view, then there are already sufficient venues for its expression.

B. Others have commented that it will be difficult to preserve the integrity of anonymous research. Fraud and plagiarism aside, it is unclear how the journal will guard against disingenuous sock-puppet papers. What is to stop an author from publishing an anonymous paper meant to give themselves, in their acknowledged work, a sparring partner or punching bag? or attack pieces meant simply to trash their rivals?

C. I haven’t seen any clarification of whether the journal will be open-access or subscription-only. Since I haven’t seen any information about funding, I suspect the latter. However, I can’t imagine a university librarian straining an already-tight journals budget to add this unconventional, controversial new thing to their subscriptions.

D. The whole project faces a dilemma:

Junior scholars are genuinely vulnerable. A pseudonymous commenter at Daily Nous notes that some jobs require applicants to include statements about diversity and that publishing the claim that diversity is bad might undercut one’s chances of getting such a job. Even supposing that this is unfair, it would be a terrible mistake for a junior scholar to publish an anonymous paper. Writing the anonymous paper would take time away from writing other papers, ones that a scholar could claim on their CV and which might help them get a job. The injustices of the job market are many, but they’re not remediated by encouraging junior scholars to do research they won’t get credit for.

Senior scholars are already pretty well protected. There may be controversy if a tenured professor advocates something controversial, but any actual blow back can be parlayed into notoriety. And lots of tenured professors advocate awful things without much hew or cry.

So there’s prima facie reason to think that neither junior nor senior scholars ought to publish in this new journal. That leaves independent scholars, but they can’t be the mainstay of a journal.

  1. The items at Quartz and the Open Culture blog are typical.

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