The One Big Idea Trap

In May, the academic journal Gender, Place & Culture published a study of sexual misconduct in Portland dog parks. The authors argued that dog parks are rape-condoning spaces, and the actions of their canine visitors offer valuable insight for how men can be trained out of their own abusive behavior. The paper was titled “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon” – catchy, right? –  and the “data” in the study was based on a year spent watching dogs hump each other.

If you’re thinking “you’ve got to be kidding me,” I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that the study was, thankfully, fake. The paper was part of a hoax to expose corruption in research on sexuality, gender, identity and culture – a field the hoaxers label grievance studies. The team behind the project submitted 20 fake papers to prove grievance researchers would publish nonsense, as long as that nonsense fit the biased philosophy the hoaxers believe had infected the field.

The bad news? While the study was a sham, “Dog Parks” was one of seven fake papers published in full sincerity. The “Dog Parks” paper was even recognized for its excellence as a lead piece in the Gender, Place & Culture 25th anniversary series.1

The other accepted papers were no less absurd. One argued that bodybuilding is biased against the obese because of oppressive cultural norms. Another observed table conversation at Hooters to explain why men would visit so-called ‘breastaurants’ (the answer, of course, is a deep-seated need to assert masculine dominance. Duh!). The title of another study begins with the phrase “Going in Through the Back Door.” Let’s just leave it at that.

The hoax has sparked debate over corruption and bias in academia, the touchy subject of identity politics, and the ethics of the deception itself. Predictably, the reaction has split along partisan lines.2 There’s a more fundamental question lurking behind this story, however, and it’s a question that has implications in our day-to-day lives: why did the publishers fall for the prank?

Put yourself in the shoes of the reviewers and editors who approved the bogus research. Was the motive to greenlight the papers really corruption? Was the decision to publish papers like “Dog Parks” or “Going in Through the Back Door” a conscious, tactical choice to advance an agenda?

The team behind the hoax argue that the grievance studies community is blinded by it’s belief in a single, overarching idea. This belief, called “critical constructivism,” is the idea that differences in society are constructed by social dynamics between groups. People with different personal beliefs (or tolerance for academic word salad) may find this idea compelling, repulsive or downright confusing. That’s fine – whether you agree is besides the point. The problem is not any unique feature of “constructivism,” but the danger of letting any idea become the One Big Idea that defines how you explain the world.

Even the most powerful ideas have their limits. The idea of equality, if taken too far, ends with redistribution of all resources regardless of merit or effort. Likewise, competition taken too far turns the world into a wrestling match where the weak are left to starve.

The adage “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” captures the heart of the issue. Becoming too attached to One Big Idea transforms that idea into the proverbial hammer, and any question into another nail to be struck with the same blunt instrument. That is the trap the hoax’s prey fell into.

This explanation doesn’t excuse the journals that published fraudulent research. If anything, it shows how lost they are.

That doesn’t mean we should dismiss academia or the study of identity, sexuality, gender or culture. We need smart people working to understand how group dynamics and identity influence a world grappling with rising inequality. Shake your fist at the ivory tower all you want, but the eggheads in that tower are largely to thank for computers, medicine, and our understanding of our own minds.

The nerds aren’t perfect, but they’re the best we’ve got. We need them to be better.

And they’re not the only ones – the lure of the One Big Idea trap extends beyond academia or grievance studies. Surgeons fall into the trap when they recommend cutting someone open to treat an injury that physical therapy could heal. Mechanics fall into the trap when they rush to replace the part they specialize in without confirming it is the source of the problem. Data scientists fall into the trap when they force their favorite algorithm on every dataset they come across. I fall into the trap when I see any story as an example of cognitive biases in action.3

It’s easy to point and laugh at researchers caught, to paraphrase the hoaxers, with their heads “up their own back doors.” It’s harder to admit how vulnerable we are to the same mistake.

Avoiding this mistake doesn’t mean abandoning our most cherished ideas, but learning their limits and blind spots. The more mental gymnastics needed to fit your go-to philosophy to a situation, the more careful you should be. Prove the obvious answer wrong before leaping to the outlandish. Perhaps men visit Hooters to satisfy an urge for patriarchal domination… or maybe, guys just like places with attractive people and tasty food.4

Another way to avoid the One Big Idea trap is to learn and apply the big ideas across disciplines, rather than fall in love with any single way of thinking. In a famous speech in the 1990s, Charlie Munger5 said “the first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models—because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does.”

Using only one idea to interpret the world leads us to twist and bend what we see until it fits our preferred view. If wielding a hammer makes every problem look like a nail, carrying a toolbox of ideas increases your odds of seeing a problem for what it is.

A study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania supports the value of a toolbox approach. A group of ophthalmology students were taken from the hospital to the museum for six 90-minute art classes. The classes taught an “artful thinking” mindset that experts use to observe and interpret fine art. When the newly trained students returned to a medical setting, they outperformed a control group on a test of their ability to observe and diagnose eyes with retinal or ocular issues.

While this study is just one narrow example, it suggests how we can avoid the trap that led the grievance researchers into embarrassment. Learning the core principles from a distant field helped these to-be physicians perform better within their own area of expertise. Perhaps more exposure and openness to outside perspectives could have helped the grievance researchers see fake papers about dogs gettin’ frisky and trips to Hooters for what they were – a trap.

The grievance studies hoax exposed a broader problem than corruption within a small slice of academia: how foolish even well-educated and well-intentioned people are when seduced by One Big Idea. Of course, some mistakes are inevitable. We all have our biases and favorite ideas, and we will always be tempted to reach for our trusty hammer first. Familiarity with a broader range of ideas is no magic bullet, but it gives us a fighting chance to choose the right tool for the job.

 

 

 

  1. Insert “facepalm” emoji here.
  2. This is an evergreen sentence.
  3. Actually – scratch that last one.
  4. Giving Hooters credit for “tasty food” is a stretch, but you get the gist.
  5. Long-time investing partner of Warren Buffett.

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