Those worthless humanities papers

Why Professors Are Writing Crap That Nobody Reads

‘Cited’ and ‘read’ are distinct, and often these is a long lag between when a paper is published and when it begins to accumulate citations, and many citations don’t show on database searches although the citations still exist.

I decided to investigate one of the papers cited in the article, “Brides and Blemishes: Queering Women’s Disability in Rabbinic Marriage Law,” to see how much attention it has gotten. The results were somewhat surprising.

An MIT class lists it as ‘required reading’. It’s also required reading for Harvard Divinity School and Brandeis University. This means the professor and all the students have to have read it. This is obviously a larger number than 3. People are reading it.

The people in the comments wern’t having it either; here is the most highly-upvoted comment:

Of course there’s a lot of junk scholarship. But why are the Humanities the object of ire here? There are plenty of junk science articles, with shit titles, that are a huge waste of money, resources, and aren’t read by anyone either.

This is not to say, however, that the value of an article is how much its read or cited in X amount of time. Often the value of a scholar or an idea doesn’t come to late until years or even decades afterwards.

What a stupidly shallow and pedantic article.

People are tired of the shallowness, if not outright garbage, that passes for content online, which could explain why sites such as Slate Star Codex, Quillette, and Wait But Why have seen so much growth, because they offer superior content.

But going back to the article, yes, assuming an entire class reads an obscure humanities article as a required assignment, that is still very few readers compared to, say, the latest Stephen King book, but not all readers are the same. As discussed in the article How Did Jordan Peterson Become So Successful, high-IQ readers in terms of influence are equal to many average-IQ readers. Due to the correlation between wealth & social states and IQ, smarter people tend to have bigger and more influential networks, such as on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. It’s not uncommon for professors to have large Twitter accounts with followers who will read everything tweeted, including difficult, obscure articles from topics as diverse as physics to generative languages. This is a very captive audience.

The out-sized influence of smart people could explain why the alt-right become so influential in just two years, whereas mainstream right-wing talk radio, despite a much bigger audience and a 2-decade head start, failed to have as much of an impact. The concept of intersectionality, which has become common parlance, began as just another weird, seemingly useless article. Although the vast majority of humanities articles get little attention, when they do, the ramifications can be huge, and this is probably a motivation to keep producing them.

Although the papers have no practical value, they have signalling value, which is still very important (at least to the people writing them). But I, too, am ambivalent about tax-payer dollars being used to fund ideologically-motivated, impractical work. One solution is to defund tax dollars to public humanities departments and instead have professors rely on Patreon donations. Much like art exhibitions or book publishing, if people perceive value in their work, they will voluntarily pay for it. Given how much money professors Dr. Peterson, Gad Saad, and Bret Weinstein make on their Patreon accounts, perhaps this is a viable option.