The Journal of Controversial Ideas, Co-Founded by Philosopher Peter Singer, Will Publish & Defend Pseudonymous Articles, Regardless of the Backlash

Pho­to of Peter Singer by Mat Vick­ers, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Aus­tralian bioethi­cist Peter Singer has made head­lines as few philoso­phers do with claims about the moral sta­tus of ani­mals and the “Singer solu­tion to world pover­ty,” and with far more con­tro­ver­sial posi­tions on abor­tion and dis­abil­i­ty. Many of his claims have placed him out­side the pale for stu­dents at Prince­ton, his cur­rent employ­er, where he has faced protests and calls for his ter­mi­na­tion. “I favor the abil­i­ty to put new ideas out there for dis­cus­sion,” he has said in response to what he views as a hos­tile aca­d­e­m­ic cli­mate, “and I see an atmos­phere in which some peo­ple may be inti­mat­ed from doing that.”

For those who, like him, make con­tro­ver­sial argu­ments such as those for euth­a­niz­ing “defec­tive infants,” for exam­ple, as he wrote about in his 1979 Prac­ti­cal Ethics, Singer has decid­ed to launch a new venue, The Jour­nal of Con­tro­ver­sial Ideas. As The Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion reports, the jour­nal aims to be “an annu­al, peer-reviewed, open-access pub­li­ca­tion that will print wor­thy papers, and stand behind them, regard­less of the back­lash.” The idea, says Singer, “is to estab­lish a jour­nal where it’s clear from the name and object that con­tro­ver­sial ideas are wel­come.”

Is it true that “con­tro­ver­sial ideas” have been denied a hear­ing else­where in acad­e­mia? The wide­ly-cov­ered tac­tics of “no-plat­form­ing” prac­ticed by some cam­pus activists have cre­at­ed the impres­sion that cen­sor­ship or illib­er­al­ism in col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties has become an epi­dem­ic prob­lem. No so, argues Princeton’s Eddie Glaude, Jr., who points out that fig­ures who have been dis­in­vit­ed to speak at cer­tain insti­tu­tions have been wel­comed on dozens of oth­er cam­pus­es “with­out it becom­ing a nation­al spec­ta­cle.” Sen­sa­tion­al­ized cam­pus protests are “not the norm,” as many would have us believe, he writes.

But the ques­tion Singer and his co-founders pose isn’t whether con­tro­ver­sial ideas get aired in debates or lec­ture forums, but whether schol­ars have been cen­sored, or have cen­sored them­selves, in the spe­cial­ized forums of their fields, the aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals. Singer’s co-founder/ed­i­tor Jeff McMa­han, pro­fes­sor of moral phi­los­o­phy at Oxford, believes so, as he told the BBC in a Radio 4 doc­u­men­tary called “Uni­ver­si­ty Unchal­lenged.” The new jour­nal, said McMa­han, “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.”

Those who feel cer­tain posi­tions might put their career in jeop­ardy will have cov­er, but McMa­han declares that “the screen­ing pro­ce­dure” for pub­li­ca­tion “will be as rig­or­ous as those for oth­er aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals. The lev­el of qual­i­ty will be main­tained.” Some skep­ti­cism may be war­rant­ed giv­en the journal’s intent to pub­lish work from every dis­ci­pline. The edi­tors of spe­cial­ist jour­nals bring net­works of review­ers and spe­cial­ized knowl­edge them­selves to the usu­al vet­ting process. In this case, the core found­ing team are all philoso­phers: Singer, McMa­han, and Francesca Min­er­va, post­doc­tor­al fel­low at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ghent.

One might rea­son­ably ask how that process can be “as rig­or­ous” on this whole­sale scale. Though the BBC reports that there will be an “intel­lec­tu­al­ly diverse inter­na­tion­al edi­to­r­i­al board,” board mem­bers are rarely very involved in the edi­to­r­i­al oper­a­tions of an aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nal. Justin Wein­berg at Dai­ly Nous has some oth­er ques­tions, includ­ing whether the degree, or exis­tence, of aca­d­e­m­ic cen­sor­ship even war­rants the journal’s cre­ation. “No evi­dence was cit­ed,” he writes “to sup­port the claim that ‘a cul­ture of fear and self-cen­sor­ship’ is pre­vent­ing arti­cles that would pass a review process” from see­ing pub­li­ca­tion.

Fur­ther­more, Wein­berg says, the journal’s puta­tive founders have giv­en no argu­ment “to allay what seems to be a rea­son­able con­cern that the cre­ation of such a jour­nal will fos­ter more of a ‘cul­ture of fear and self-cen­sor­ship’ com­pared to oth­er options, or that it plays into and rein­forces exper­tise-under­min­ing mis­con­cep­tions about acad­e­mia bandied about in pop­u­lar media that may have neg­a­tive effects…. Giv­en that the found­ing team is com­prised of peo­ple not­ed for views that empha­size empir­i­cal facts and con­se­quences, one might rea­son­ably hope for a pub­lic dis­cus­sion of such evi­dence and argu­ments.”

Should schol­ars pub­lish pseu­do­ny­mous­ly in peer-reviewed jour­nals? Shouldn’t they be will­ing to defend their ideas on the mer­its with­out hid­ing their iden­ti­ty? Is such sub­terfuge real­ly nec­es­sary? “Right now,” McMa­han asserts, “in cur­rent con­di­tions some­thing like this is need­ed…. I think all of us will be very hap­py if, and when, the need for such a jour­nal dis­ap­pears, and the soon­er the bet­ter.” Giv­en that the journal’s co-founders paint such a broad­ly dire pic­ture of the state of acad­e­mia, it’s rea­son­able to ask for more than anec­do­tal evi­dence of their claims. A few high-pro­file inci­dents do not prove a wide­spread cul­ture of repres­sion.

It is also “fair to won­der,” writes Annabelle Tim­sit at Quartz, “whether the board of a jour­nal ded­i­cat­ed to free speech might have a bias toward pub­lish­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly con­tro­ver­sial ideas in the inter­est of free­dom of thought” over the inter­ests of good schol­ar­ship and sound eth­i­cal prac­tice.

via Dai­ly Nous

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A New Aca­d­e­m­ic Hoax–Complete with Fake Arti­cles Pub­lished in Aca­d­e­m­ic Journals–Ventures to Show the “Cor­rup­tion” of Cul­tur­al Stud­ies

What Are the Most Influ­en­tial Books Writ­ten by Schol­ars in the Last 20 Years?: Lead­ing Aca­d­e­mics Pick “The New Canon”

The 20 Most Influ­en­tial Aca­d­e­m­ic Books of All Time: No Spoil­ers

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Gerald says:

    Pub­lish­ing pseu­do­ny­mous­ly in a peer-reviewed jour­nal seems improp­er. Debate and chal­lenge are at the heart of schol­ar­ship, and if you are putting a propo­si­tion out there, you ought to make your­self avail­able to accept such chal­lenges. Fur­ther, if a jour­nal allows its con­trib­u­tors to hide behind anonymi­ty, poor schol­ar­ship will like­ly result (after all, no mat­ter how shod­dy the research, the unknown author’s rep­u­ta­tion remains intact). Let’s be rea­son­able — we are not burn­ing peo­ple at the stake these days.

  • Karl Reitmann says:

    It will allow peo­ple to not only write, but even to think, with­out fear.
    Just think of a rep­utable philoso­pher who would dare to tell the world that in his opin­ion, this crazy new trend of trans­gen­derism is creepy, men should get treat­ed for men­tal ill­ness if they think that they are women instead of being willy-nil­ly cras­trat­ed as this has become the sick norm… That philoso­pher would be hound­ed by the thought police.
    There are many oth­er top­i­cal trends which need chal­leng­ing and re-exam­in­ing and coun­ter­ing…

  • agender says:

    @ Karl Reit­mann: Go to Iran! They enforce tran­si­tions m_to_f, and can there­fore brag there were no gays there!!
    Or to be pre­cise: If i can sup­press my dis­gust, I will snip YOUR body because I firm­ly believe that your (ugly) per­son­al­i­ty man­i­fests itself some­where and cut it out!!!
    (The world­view is as old as it is bor­ing — abor­tion­for­bid­ders, blas­phemistkillers and oth­er enforced reli­gions)

    @ Peter Singer: Is THIS the rea­son you gave up pref­er­en­tial­ism — to pre­scribe “val­ues” to oth­er peo­ple???
    Or did you get bored and want con­tro­ver­sy at what­ev­er cost OR more prob­a­bly whomev­er it costs??

  • Renee Wenker says:

    This is the most exhil­a­rat­ing news I’ve heard since my pas­sion­ate, exhaus­tive self-edu­ca­tion, a con­scious choice I made at a very ear­ly age. I LOVE to under­stand things, know things, learn things, a pas­sion that dri­ves this soul’s unique pur­pose. I’ve been attempt­ing to write a draft of one of my “con­tro­ver­sial ideas” on, called, “T.O.E.: A The­o­ret­i­cal Pro­pos­al on the Prop­er­ties of the Quan­tum Field.”

    The thing is…I’m not a physi­cist, or sci­en­tist (not through tra­di­tion­al acad­e­mia). But I KNOW so many things that are not known by the most edu­cat­ed in the world, and to have a chance to pub­lish my high­ly advanced and unique phi­los­o­phy, regard­less of its’ recep­tion by read­ers, will make it pos­si­ble to achieve my life­long goal: To awak­en the mind of any­one who reads it, enabling the poten­tial­i­ty (at the very least) that sud­den, total, awe-inspir­ing com­pre­hen­sion, and instant enlight­en­ment.

    I keep mak­ing small updates, addi­tions and a con­cise syn­op­sis that will catch a read­er’s eye, even just briefly. My “the­o­ry” is actu­al­ly a high­ly advanced epis­te­mol­o­gy, con­tain­ing a har­mo­nious blend of unique philoso­phies in a broad spec­trum of glob­al diver­si­ty, cul­tures, reli­gions, mores and ethics, his­tor­i­cal car­bon-dat­ed doc­u­men­ta­tion, and sud­den aware­ness of, awak­en­ing to, and enlight­en­ment based on a one-of-a-kind men­tal and visu­al per­cep­tu­al lens.

    The ONLY ones that neg­a­tive­ly react to your pro­pos­al for a jour­nal that pub­lish­es unique, con­tro­ver­sial ideas, beliefs, philoso­phies, etc., will be peo­ple who choose to believe that writ­ten thoughts have the pow­er to trig­ger fear; fear of shift­ing per­ceived real­i­ty from that which is known, into an unknown man­i­fest­ed real­i­ty.

    Words, beliefs, ideas have NO POWER, except those each and every indi­vid­ual SUBJECTIVELY choos­es to believe. Fresh, unique ideas being objec­tive­ly con­sid­ered and either dis­missed or accept­ed and imple­ment­ed is an oblig­a­tion to evolve as human beings, and with­out that duty and action will­ful­ly applied, there would be no func­tion or pur­pose for expe­ri­en­tial life as a sen­tient, self-aware human body.

    Amer­i­ca’s Con­sti­tu­tion was cre­at­ed after years of debat­ing how it would be upheld and gov­erned, once it’s authors, and social lead­ers were long gone from life. The res­o­lu­tion was what made Amer­i­ca the first coun­try to respect indi­vid­ual rights and free­doms. The res­o­lu­tion was the uni­ver­sal con­sen­sus that Man had the abil­i­ty to gov­ern them­selves, moral­ly and eth­i­cal­ly guid­ed by their inher­ent Divin­i­ty, as One, Under God.

    Let’s think first before let­ting the ego con­trol our reac­tions, and use com­mon sense, objec­tiv­i­ty, and high­er rea­son­ing before Amer­i­ca’s cit­i­zens lose their inher­ent, con­sti­tu­tion­al right to express orig­i­nal, unique thoughts, ideas and beliefs, with­out judge­ment, but not with­out dis­cern­ing wis­dom.

    Renee Wenker

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