Is Retraction the New Rebuttal?

Controversy over paper in favor of colonialism sparks calls for retraction as well as worries that academics are relying more on erasure than counterargument to challenge unpopular scholarship.

September 19, 2017
 
Daily Nous

Denounced by some as “clickbait” and others as poor scholarship, a new article on the supposed benefits of Western colonialism has prompted calls for retraction. And while detractors are plentiful and pointed in their criticism, the debate and others like it has some wondering if retraction threatens to replace rebuttal as the standard academic response to unpopular research.

“The offending article has brought widespread condemnation from scholars around the globe,” begins a petition submitted Monday to the editor of Third World Quarterly and its publisher, Taylor & Francis, demanding the retraction of “The Case for Colonialism.” The petition says that the paper, written by Bruce Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University and published earlier this month as a “Viewpoints” essay, “lacks empirical evidence, contains historical inaccuracies and includes spiteful fallacies. There is also an utter lack of rigor or engaging with existing scholarship on the issue.”

With more than 10,000 signatures -- many from faculty members -- as of Monday, the petition continues, “We do not call for the curtailing of the writer's freedom of speech … Our goal is to raise academic publishing standards and integrity. We thereby call on the editorial team to retract the article and also to apologize for further brutalizing those who have suffered under colonialism.”

By its very title, Gilley’s article was bound to raise eyebrows, since academic scholarship across fields is brimming with cases against colonialism. And the article itself is indeed provocative: Gilley argues that “it’s high time to re-evaluate [the] pejorative meaning” of colonialism, since, by his accounting, “countries that embraced their colonial inheritance, by and large, did better than those that spurned it.”

Since World War II, in particular, he wrote, “Anticolonialism ravaged countries as nationalist elites mobilized illiterate populations with appeals to destroy the market economies, pluralistic and constitutional polities, and rational policy processes of European colonizers.” In our “age of apology” for atrocities, he added, “one of the many conspicuous silences has been an apology for the many atrocities visited upon Third World peoples by anticolonial advocates.”

Gilley supports his arguments through various examples, including that of Guinea-Bissau and its guerrilla war against Portuguese rule, led by Amílcar Cabral. The resulting war killed 15,000 combatants out of a population of 600,000 and at least as many civilians, Gilley says, and displaced another 150,000.

Once “‘liberation’ was achieved in 1974, a second human tragedy unfolded, costing at least 10,000 further lives as a direct result of conflict,” he says. “By 1980, rice production had fallen by more than 50 percent to 80,000 tons (from a peak of 182,000 tons under the Portuguese). ...Cabral’s half brother, who became president, unleashed the secret police on the tiny opposition -- 500 bodies were found in three mass graves for dissidents in 1981. A tenth of the remaining population upped stakes for Senegal. The Cabralian one-party state expanded to 15,000 employees, 10 times as big as the Portuguese administration at its peak.

“Confused Marxist scholars blamed the legacies of colonialism or the weather or Israel,” Gilley continues, and things have only “gotten worse … What might have become a prosperous and humane Macau or Goa of Africa is today a cesspool of human suffering. Western and African anticolonial scholars continue to extol Cabral’s ‘national liberation’ ideas. But actually existing Guineans may be asking: When are the Portuguese coming back?”

If Guinea-Bissau seems like an extreme case, Gilley says, it’s not. “Of the 80 countries that threw off the colonial ‘yoke’ after World War II, at least half experienced similar trauma, while most of the rest limped on. For 60 years, Third World despots have raised the specter of recolonization to discredit democratic oppositions and ruin their economies.”

Gilley’s prescribed remedy is to resurrect colonial governance in part by reclaiming the “colonial trajectory abandoned at independence.” Similar to the antisocialist “good governance” agenda in that it includes economic liberalization, political pluralism and administrative streamlining, Gilley says, colonial governance differs in that it “explicitly affirms and borrows from a country’s colonial past” and considers a state’s actual capacity to uphold the rule of law and deliver essential services.

Beyond seeking inspiration from a colonial past, Gilley proposes the idea of recolonization in some cases. Drawing again on the example of Guinea-Bissau, he imagined that its government could lease back to Portugal the small uninhabited Galinhas Island. Mainlanders could come to live under Portuguese-style institutions by choice for, say, 99 years, and a “small European state would grow up on the African coast.”

At 60 square miles, Gilley says, “Galinhas could, over time, easily accommodate the entire population of Guinea-Bissau. If successful, it would attract talent, trade and capital. The mainland parts of Guinea-Bissau would benefit from living next to an economic dynamo and learning to emulate its success, while symbolically escaping from the half-century anticolonial nightmare of Amílcar Cabral. The same idea could be tried all over the coastlines of Africa and the Middle East if successful. Colonialism could be resurrected without the usual cries of oppression, occupation and exploitation.”

The Case Against Gilley

It doesn’t take much looking to find holes in Gilley’s arguments, and a number of thinkers quickly offered critiques. The editor of Current Affairs, for example, wrote “A Quick Reminder of Why Colonialism Was Bad,” in which he called the downplaying of colonial-era atrocities “not only unscholarly” but “morally tantamount” to Holocaust denial.

“I suppose to those unfamiliar with the history, Gilley’s argument could appear superficially persuasive,” reads the Current Affairs piece. “But a moment’s examination of the record reveals why the case he makes is abhorrent. Gilley says he is simply asking for an unbiased assessment of the facts, that he just wants us to take off our ideological blinders and examine colonialism from an empirical perspective. But this is not what he has done. Instead, in his presentation of colonialism’s record, Gilley has deliberately excluded mention of every single atrocity committed by a colonial power. Instead of evaluating the colonial record empirically, he has distorted that record, concealing evidence of gross crimes against humanity.”

Farhana Sultana, an associate professor of geography at Syracuse University who helped organize the petition for retraction, said in a public Facebook post that she was personally offended by Gilley’s work and considered it “a ‘faux’ shock piece” published to attract clicks. “But personal reflections or moral outrage aside,” she wrote, “the article is utterly a shoddy piece of writing lacking any academic merit, based on which it should have been rejected by the journal. The article is historically inaccurate, lacking in empirical evidence, not engaging with the abundance academic scholarship on the topic, poorly written, conceptually weak, cherry-picks issues/topics, mischaracterizes scholarly work, poor cited and reproduces falsehoods.”

Engaging with this piece “does not advance our knowledge of colonialism or anything else, and thus does not serve any purpose, as there are plenty of excellent pieces that discuss issues of colonialism, imperialism, racism, etc., far better than this one,” Sultana added. “Any direct engagement with this piece only amplifies and emboldens horrific ideologies and practices that persist in academia and beyond. The journal should never have published such poor-quality work at all, as it undermines its own standards and reputation.”

Vijay Prashad, the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and a professor of international studies at Trinity College in Connecticut, and a member of the journal’s editorial board, spoke out against the paper on social media, saying that its publication violated Third World Quarterly's postcolonial legacy. Seeking to protect that legacy does not amount to censorship, he said. Some critics also have called for the Committee on Publication Ethics, a group that provides leadership on ethics across journals, to open an inquiry into the matter.

Criticism vs. Censorship

The isn’t the first time scholars have called on a journal retract a controversial article in recent months. In philosophy, division over calls for the journal Hypatia to retract a paper comparing transgenderism to transracialism led to the resignations of top editors and the suspension of the associate editorial board. More recently, the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology re-reviewed, on ethical grounds, a previously accepted study on training a computer to recognize gay and straight faces.

In neither case was the article retracted (and in the latter case, it was mostly outside groups -- not academics -- that wanted the paper retracted). But are calls for retraction, not forceful rebuttals, becoming the new normal when it comes to disfavored research?

Justin Weinberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and editor of Daily Nous, a popular philosophy blog, recently wrote that he wasn't an expert in Gilley's case or field, but that “our default reaction to cases like this should not be ‘retract!’ but rather, ‘rebut!’”

As academics, he wrote, “we should try as much as possible to rely on the exchange of evidence and arguments, not (directly) on the numbers of people who agree with us, or the strength of their agreement.” Supposing that Gilley’s article was peer reviewed but that arguments against it are largely correct, Weinberg asked, “How should those academics in a position to know these things respond? Is it by saying something tweetable that will convince lots of nonexperts to help them try to erase the article from history? That seems to be making use of inappropriate means towards an undesirable end. The history of academia is a history of mistakes -- and learning from them. If Gilley’s article is full of mistakes, then the job of the experts is to point this out and help us learn from them, so people are less likely to make them again.”

Sultana said Monday that while rebuttal is the standard practice in academe, it’s “only merited with items that are worthy of debate and solid pieces [that] offer up something intellectually sound and well researched to debate with at all.” Moreover, Sultana said, to offer rebuttals would only play into the metrics game that she and others suspect motivated Third World Quarterly to publish the piece in the first place (think: controversy equals clicks).

By publishing “The Case for Colonialism,” she added, the journal “threw into question the entire integrity of the academic publishing process as well as rigor in scholarship.”

Shahid Qadir, editor of Third World Quarterly, said in a statement Monday that Gilley’s piece had been published as a “Viewpoints” essay after “rigorous double-blind peer review.”

Speaking for the journal’s academic editorial team, Qadir said that by publishing the article “we are not endorsing its pro-colonial views.” Rather, he said, the team is “presenting it to be debated within the field and academy, which this justifiably has been. We will now continue this debate by publishing contradicting anticolonial ‘Viewpoints,’ to firmly challenge this opinion in the very best academic tradition.”

Alice Dreger, a former professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University who resigned in 2015 after the university censored a controversial article in a faculty-produced journal, and who has written about intellectual freedom, said she saw a pattern in the recent calls for retraction. But unlike in her case, she said, it’s not administrators but faculty members leading the call for retraction. In addition to the other recent cases, she noted that Annals of Surgery in July retracted a paper, originally written in Polish, for using all male pronouns to reference to surgeons, according to Retraction Watch. It was likely a translation error, but the journal apologized profusely and pulled the paper until further notice.

“I don’t know what these people on the academic left are thinking, and as you know, I’m on the left,” Dreger said. Quoting the petition against Gilley’s piece, she continued, “You’re not calling for the curtailing of the writer’s freedom of speech? Really? So you just want a piece that’s been published retracted and presumably taken off-line? How is that not curtailing someone’s freedom of speech?”

Dreger said she had “no problem taking journals to task for shitty peer reviewing, or asking, ‘What the hell is wrong with peer review for letting this thing go through?’ or ‘How can you have piece that missed this whole area of scholarship or messed up the data?’ But calls for retraction because you don’t like the political message, which is exactly what this petition is saying? No.”

Raising a point that Weinberg offered in his post, Dreger also questioned the language in the petition -- namely that Gilley’s essay further “brutalizes” those who have suffered under colonialism. Describing it as hyperbole, she said it fuels political attacks against higher education from the right.

“They’re not just using the tools of the master, they’re building tools for the master,” she said.

Gilley did not respond to requests for comment. But he’s previously expressed disdain for what he sees as a lack of viewpoint diversity in academe, including in an August essay for Minding the Campus called “Why I’m Leaving the [American] Political Science Association.”

For the “looniest end of the left-wing academy, even the theory is hostile to viewpoint diversity,” he wrote. “They view the academy as a special zone of (left-wing) Truth that must be protected against (right-wing) Falsehoods of the real world. Genuine pluralism, from this vantage, is a cover for privilege and oppression … Why stick your neck out to accept a panel on political diversity at a political science conference when, to cite another of this year’s [APSA meeting] offerings, one can win kudos for accepting a panel entitled ‘Pussies Grab Back: Feminism in the Wake of Trump’?”

Margaret Everett, Portland State’s interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, appeared to back Gilley in a statement, saying academic freedom is “critical to the open debate and free exchange of knowledge and argument.” The university acknowledges “the right of all our faculty to explore scholarship and to speak, write and publish a variety of viewpoints and conclusions,” she added, and “respects the rights of others to express counterviews and to engage in vigorous and constructive debate about the faculty's work.”

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