www.chronicle.com /article/do-we-really-need-more-controversial-ideas

Do We Really Need More Controversial Ideas?

Tom Bartlett 11-13 minutes 5/17/2021

Dept. of Unsettling Thoughts

More than 30,000 academic journals publish in excess of two-million papers every year, which works out to something like 5,000 per day or about 200 per hour. That’s a lot; too many, some have argued. It’s not true that most of those papers go un-cited (Nature put the lie to that myth a few years back) but most attract modest readerships because they’re hidden behind high-priced paywalls, or they’re comprehensible to only a select few, or they’re somewhat dull. In some cases, all of the above.

Given that staggering volume of verbiage, you might assume that scholars’ keeping their thoughts to themselves isn’t a pressing problem. But what if there are certain ideas that they’re keeping under wraps? And not just any old ideas, but important ones that might force us to rethink our most cherished assumptions? Maybe they’ve sketched out these theories in a Word doc that they’re too afraid to submit because doing so might hamstring their academic career, infuriate the masses, and force them to move to a cabin somewhere.

Take note, would-be iconoclasts: The Journal of Controversial Ideas wants to hear what you’ve been holding back. It is open access, peer-reviewed, and unrestrained by convention. Plus it offers the option of publishing under a pseudonym so that no one can blame you for your transgressive musings. The journal’s first issue was published recently and it contains 10 button-pushing essays that supply answers to questions including whether it’s OK to commit violence in order to save animals (yes), whether criminals should be be placed in medically induced comas (maybe), and whether in the end our lives have any meaning at all (no).


The through line here is controversy, or at least the potential for controversy, which makes for an unusual reading experience. Often a journal explores a particular topic rather than trying to elicit a reaction. When you open, say, the latest issue of the Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management, you can assume that the articles will be related to — what else? — manufacturing, technology, and management. With the Journal of Controversial Ideas, you’re not sure what to expect. Maybe you’re going to be offended. Maybe someone will give voice to a verboten notion that you secretly hold. It’s an odd organizing principle, almost like a restaurant that advertises “spicy food” but refuses to say what kind.

Another possibility is that you’ll shrug. One downside of declaring that your journal traffics in controversy is that readers will expect to be scandalized and, if you come off as too reasonable, you’ve failed. At the same time, if you make everyone angry, then you’ve succeeded, but now everyone’s angry. Considering that built-in double bind, why start such a journal in the first place?

Because, the editors of the journal argue, scholars need an outlet where they can share ideas that others might deem “tasteless, unnecessarily provocative, or even dangerous.” It may turn out that the truth is “concealed among those unsettling thoughts.” They namecheck Jesus, Socrates, and Galileo as those who suffered social sanction (and worse, in the case of the first two) for their contrarian opinions. They make the case that while the internet provides plenty of platforms for your stray thoughts, it has paradoxically stifled the most daring academic work. Once upon a time, your article appeared in print, it was mailed to colleagues in your field, and that was pretty much it. Obscurity provided a measure of protection. Now it’s possible that your path-breaking paper could get seized on by social media and you might become embroiled in, as the journal’s editors put it, “unwelcome controversy.”

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Francesca Minerva, one of the journal’s editors, and the driving force behind its creation, knows that scenario all too well. I first wrote about about Minerva nearly a decade ago after she and a co-author, Alberto Giubilini, published a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics with the gasp-inducing title “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” That paper argued for the justifiability of “aborting” newborns. “We claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be,” they wrote.

That study became international news and Minerva and her co-author were portrayed as more or less monsters. Regardless of what you think of their argument, it didn’t come out of nowhere. The issue of when a human achieves so-called personhood has been much-discussed by ethicists. Another founding editor of the Journal of Controversial Ideas, Peter Singer, who is probably best-known for his book Animal Liberation, argued in his 1979 book, Practical Ethics, that infanticide is acceptable when a newborn is severely disabled. Just last year, an event at which Singer was supposed to speak was canceled because of pressure from those who object to his long-held view.

Minerva was inundated with threats and insults. “Because of people like you and their ideas the world we live in is full of shit,” one wrote. Another: “You need to be eliminated along with your entire family.” Several correspondents imagined, in some detail, how that elimination might be carried out. She’s continued to receive abusive emails years after the paper was published.

It was that experience, at least in part, that inspired her to start a journal that allows authors to publish pseudonymously. Three of the authors in the first issue chose that route. One of those essays is by “Shuichi Tezuka” and it compares young-earth creationists — i.e., those who believe that a higher power created everything in less than a week a few thousand years ago — to those who conflate behavioral genetics and eugenics. Both groups are ignoring, in the author’s estimation, the obvious scientific truth because of their faith-like commitments. Tezuka isn’t the first person to make that point, and the term “cognitive creationism” isn’t new; it was, as the author notes, coined by Michael Shermer. So why hide behind a pseudonym?

Via email, Tezuka wrote that it’s “common for academics who write about anything that’s perceived as related to the intersection of race, genetics, and intelligence to face severe professional consequences.” Tezuka also pointed to a Twitter thread in which someone suggests that the paper is racist and offers $50 to whoever reveals the author’s actual identity.

Another pseudonymous essay is by “Maggie Heartsilver,” who argues against the idea that trans women aren’t really women. She makes the case that using “woman” only to refer only to an adult female “may simply reflect that the dominant culture is oppressive to trans people.” That’s far from a unique stance so, again, why use a fake name? In an email, Heartsilver, who is a trans woman, writes that she might have published the essay anyway under her own name but wanted to use a pseudonym in order to “avoid harassment by anti-trans creeps.”

Unlike Heartsilver and Tezuka, the third pseudonymous author, “Ivar Hardman,” didn’t even include an email address to allow for reader questions. Hardman argues that it’s permissible in some circumstances for animal-rights activists to engage in violence against people who are harming animals. “I think there is an argument to be made for the view that nearly everyone who experiments on animals is liable to be defensively harmed,” Hardman writes. The author does concede that publicity from such actions could hurt the animal-rights movement and that some forms of violence, like sending mail bombs to those who do business with factory farms, are “not proportionate.”

It’s easy to imagine why Hardman, whoever he or she is, might be nervous about backlash.

None of the essays in the first issue generated significant controversy, or at least not of the viral kind that has swept over Minerva and Singer. Eyes did roll in some quarters. A bunch of Twitter wags floated tongue-in-cheek ideas for their own faux-controversial essays (example: “Kant was just ok”). There was more substantive criticism too. One philosopher dismissed it as a “safe-house for ideas that couldn’t withstand moral scrutiny the first time around.” Maybe that’s true, though the safest house for any idea is never to communicate it in the first place. Whether the Journal of Controversial Ideas will become a short-lived novelty or a publishing mainstay remains to be seen, but what’s wrong with encouraging scholars to be a little provocative, particularly when the incentives of academic life often tend toward intellectual conformity?

Arguably the darkest — and by far the most entertaining — essay in the issue doesn’t wade into politically fraught territory or advocate for repugnant solutions to societal problems. Its glorious title is “Ultimate Meaning: We Don’t Have It, We Can’t Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad.” The author, Rivka Weinberg, a professor of philosophy at Scripps College, informs us that every human life is pointless, even the lives of revered figures like Jonas Salk and Beethoven. She draws a distinction between “everyday meaning” and “ultimate meaning” and concludes that, when it comes to the latter, the game is rigged against us. “Putting little meaning bits or even grand meaning chunks into our pointless life container is not what we thought or hoped we were doing with all of our efforts, is it?” she writes.

Weinberg told me she submitted to the Journal of Controversial Ideas because it’s difficult to get philosophical work published that is “broad, deep, and critical of academic orthodoxies.” The more ambitious the essay’s thesis, the more likely it is that reviewers will try to poke holes. Weinberg also gets pushback from editors who consider her writing too funny, which she finds, like life in general, “hilarious and a little sad.”