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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Professor Sues Students for "Anti-intellectualism"

Priya Venkatesan earned an Master's degree in genetics then went on to a Ph.D. in literature. She was a Professor at Dartmouth last year and now has a postion at Northwestern.

Here's an except from an article she wrote in Dartmouth Medicine last summer [Yin, meet yang].
In graduate school, I was inculcated in the tenets of a field known as science studies, which teaches that scientific knowledge has suspect access to truth and that science is motivated by politics and human interest. This is known as social constructivism and is the reigning mantra in science studies, which considers historical and sociological understandings of science. From the vantage point of social constructivism, scientific facts are not discovered but rather created within a social framework. In other words, scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct.


In many ways, social constructivism has been reframed as postmodernism, since both movements question the scientific realm's theory of truth—that is, that scientific facts mirror an external reality which does indeed exist. However, this reframing is unnecessary, since clear distinctions exist between social constructivism and postmodernism. Through my experience in the laboratory, I have found that postmodernism offers a constructive critique of science in ways that social constructivism cannot, due to postmodernism's emphasis on openly addressing the presupposed moral aims of science. In other words, I find that while an individual ethic of motivation exists, and indeed guides the conduct of laboratory routine, I have also observed that a moral framework—one in which the social implications of science and technology are addressed—is clearly absent in scientific settings. Yet I believe such a framework is necessary. Postmodernism maintains that it is within the rhetorical apparatus of science—how scientists talk about their work—that these moral aims of science may be accomplished.
By all accounts, Priya Venkatesan is one of those post-modernist thinkers who are much more impressed with their words than with their ideas. They are the ones spoofed by the Sokal hoax back in 1996. Venkatesan is the author of a book called Molecular biology in Narrative form., which is also the title of her Ph.D. thesis. At least one reviewer thought the book was a joke [].

Following all the forms of both Literary deconstructionist criticism as well as Scientific Peer-reviewed journals, one might actually think this was a serious work -- and indeed, the sheer volume of dense text only adds to the realism. Happily, the content of the text seems to be some remarkably well-disguised trippy-hippy post-modernist anti-establishment pseudo-feminist rant taken directly from protest speeches from the sixties.

Well Done! This deserves a place on your shelf alongside your bound volumes of The Journal of Improbable Research and other 'Mad Scientist' Jokebooks!
Professor Venkatesan taught a freshman course on "Science, Technology and Society" at Dartmouth where she expounded at length on various post-modern ideas and the concept that, "scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct." During one of those lectures some of her students challenged her and attempted to refute her post-modernist views. Some students applauded the dissidents.

The result was traumatic for Professor Venkatesan and she ended up quitting her job at Dartmouth. She also launched a lawsuit against her students for violating her civil rights. You can read about it in the Wall Street Journal [Dartmouth's 'Hostile' Environment].
After a winter of discontent, the snapping point came while Ms. Venkatesan was lecturing on "ecofeminism," which holds, in part, that scientific advancements benefit the patriarchy but leave women out. One student took issue, and reasonably so – actually, empirically so. But "these weren't thoughtful statements," Ms. Venkatesan protests. "They were irrational." The class thought otherwise. Following what she calls the student's "diatribe," several of his classmates applauded.

Ms. Venkatesan informed her pupils that their behavior was "fascist demagoguery." Then, after consulting a physician about "intellectual distress," she cancelled classes for a week. Thus the pending litigation.
Her lawsuit has been dropped but the fact that she initiated it in the first place is deeply troubling.

Here's the text of the email message she sent to her students.
Date: Sat, 26 Apr 2008 20:56:35 -0400 (EDT)
From: Priya.Venkatesan@Dartmouth.EDU
To: "WRIT.005.17.18-WI08":;, Priya.Venkatesan@Dartmouth.EDU
Subject: WRIT.005.17.18-WI08: Possible lawsuit

Dear former class members of Science, Technology and Society:

I tried to send an email through my server but got undelivered messages. I regret to inform you that I am pursuing a lawsuit in which I am accusing some of you (whom shall go unmentioned in this email) of violating Title VII of anti-federal [SIC] discrimination laws.
The feeling that I am getting from the outside world is that Dartmouth is considered a bigoted place, so this may not be news and I may be successful in this lawsuit.
I am also writing a book detailing my experiences as your instructor, which will "name names" so to speak. I have all of your evaluations and these will be reproduced in the book.

Have a nice day.
In most of my classes I'd be delighted if students challenged what I was saying and engaged in debate. That's what university is supposed to be all about. The troubling aspect of this case is not only that students were dissatisfied with what Professor Venkatesan was saying in class but, more importantly, that Dartmouth gave her the opportunity to spout such nonsense to freshman students in the first place. What was Dartmouth thinking?

The sad thing is that we know the answer to the last question. There are too many universities these days whose faculties subscribe to the gibberish of these post-modernist pseudo-intellectuals. This may be a bigger threat to university students than creationism.

There's lots of stuff about this on the internet. I wish I could have included a link to some of Venkatesan's supporters but I couldn't find any.

The Dartmouth Review: TDR Interview: Priya Venkatesan '90

Sepiamutiny: The Strange, Twisted Tale of Priya Venkatesan, PhD

The Reference Frame: Priya Venkatesan: a mad scholar sues her students

[Hat Tip: John Hawks Anthropology Weblog]


  1. That eco-feminism is pretty insane! It's demonstrable that science benefits women: antibiotics, anaesthesia, ultrasound, gynecology, cancer treatments, birth control for god's sake! Women, more than men, have had their lives changed and improved by scientific advances.

    And as for the prof! Can we spell self-centred, children?

  2. Larry, you've been suckered by the Dartmouth Review. I'm a little surprised that you didn't catch on, since you actually linked to her article in Dartmouth Medicine. The first blockquote you give is a pretty serious quote-mine.

    Immediately after writing how she was taught that "scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct," she writes about her experience in the lab:

    "My experience in [my mentor, Chris Lowry's] lab has shown me that the practice of science is at least partly motivated by the scientific method, though with some qualifications. I found social constructivism too dogmatic in the face of theoretical, abstract reasoning and now find it even more so in view of my experience in the lab, as I have come to realize the characteristics scientific experimentation requires."

    So she's actually criticizing (at least in part) the very views that TDR and the WSJ accuse her of holding.

    Granted, she still comes off as a little crazy, especially since she did try suing her students. But the Review is a breeding ground for budding character assassins. I'd be highly surprised if she's half as unstable as they want you to think.

    For the record, I've also seen students launch ugly crusades against two visiting professors at Dartmouth, which I thought to be totally unwarranted. So I also wouldn't be terribly shocked if Prof. Venkatesan had a bit of a case to make.

  3. "In other words, scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct."

    Uhm, no, that's daft, and constructivism doesn't say that. Just because something is socially constructed, which of course scientific facts are, does not mean it does not correspond to reality, which of course scientific facts do.

  4. So, in summary, a University professor is challenged by a student on a subject that she has spent years researching and on which she has written a book. Instead of refuting the student or defending her position (wouldn't she have done this already to get a PhD?), she quits?

    That's looney. You'd think she could put the questions in the proper perspective and realize the student was merely expressing his social construct in the mantra upon which his suspect knowledge has been built. If she was really disturbed, she should remember that what she imagines is an historical reality of a student asking difficult questions is actually merely her flawed projection of an external reality and her emotional reaction is subject to her own social reconstruction of recalled social history. She should readjust her own rhetorical apparatus and go back to work.

    Kudos to the student for not being intimidated by degrees or credentials and asking some good questions.

  5. Aaron Golas says,

    Granted, she still comes off as a little crazy, especially since she did try suing her students. But the Review is a breeding ground for budding character assassins. I'd be highly surprised if she's half as unstable as they want you to think.

    Did you really read the interview in the Dartmouth Review?

    One of the characteristics of this group is to be as obtuse as possible so that nobody can ever pin you down.

  6. I have read the interview, yes. Bear in mind, it was conducted after things had escalated to the level of the lawsuit, which may account for at least some of Venkatesan's somewhat frantic tone.

    I'm not claiming any special knowledge about what happened in her classroom. Nor am I, personally, a fan of postmodernism.

    I'm just saying that we shouldn't pass judgment on the content or conduct of her lectures based only on the word of the Dartmouth Review and an editorial in the WSJ. I already pointed out how the WSJ quote-mined her to misrepresent her position on science as a social construct. Why should I believe that same editorial, then, when it tells me her lawsuit is just an overreaction to honest criticism? How do we know the student's remarks in class weren't an "irrational" "diatribe"?

    Say what you will about postmodernism in general, but I urge skepticism when discussing this particular case, since there's so little evidence to go on. Unfortunately, I very much doubt we'll ever see anything like lecture transcripts.

  7. "scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct."

    Sure. The only thing I say to the postmodernist feminist pseudoscientists is that next time they get a bacterial infection, they shouldn't take an antibiotic. After all the fact that antibiotics kill bacteria does not correspond to a natural reality, right?

  8. It is VERY "out of touch" to do lawsuits. Her whole attitude over the clapping thing is too dramatic. You can't be that emotionally sensitive. You need thicker skin to confront flashy differences of opinion.
    I also think her contempt towards the students, regarding their incapacity to grasp, is unwarranted when it is her function to convey her points effectively, and convincingly.

    I happen to think that it is interesting to investigate how gender can affect science. Many, many scientific studies "proving" the inferiority of women existed, that were later shown to be fraudulent. For too long, this was the dominant opinion in much of XIX-early XXth century science. "A matter of fact" for any good rationalist, positivist empiricist science man of the times (there wasn't much sophistication of epistemology back then)

    Which brings us to Larry's typical attempts to define groups of "enemies" and paint them with a thick brush. Postmodernism and constructivism (social and neurobiological) are not evil. They have introduced fascinating scientific research and important (essential!) epistemological considerations.

    It is based on science, where it is most compelling in history and neurobiology. Those who try to take it to the extreme, for instance, to question science in general, or to elevate mythology to the same category of science, enter immediately in self-contradiction as they renounce the very method and observations that actually make the original case for constructivism.

    I do think Priya takes it too far the ways she has put it. As a constructivist of sorts myself, I would rather say that ocassionally (and documentedly), the scientific community has been incapable of distinguishing between social constructions and facts of nature.

    Positivist "rationalists", who do not properly acknowledge this, are specially prone to confuse ideas with "simple facts" becoming dogmatically held falsehoods. Remember, woman's intellectual inferiority, until not so long ago, was once nothing but a "fact" of nature to most scientists.

  9. A high ranking member of the academic power structure would attempt to strike down her own powerless younglings?

    Dark times ahead I see.

  10. I'd call her a loon but wouldn't want to be sued, YOU ARE NOT A LOON DOCTOR VENKATESAN

  11. Un-be-fucking-lievable. Except, I know, like, ten people who could be her.

  12. Here is a long piece in the Dartmouth Independent.

    Here is my take on it.

    I think that Venkatesan's behavior in Lowrey's lab was - in my ways - worse than her behavior in the classroom.

  13. LOL! Tyro describes my first reaction well.

    Women, more than men, have had their lives changed and improved by scientific advances.

    Granted, but it is quite circumstantial. [I hope they don't add "path dependent state" on the woes of any science less than 'complete'. :-P]

    For example, now that they have found that women is 3 times as likely to get neck problems from car collisions (IIRC mostly from assuming a more upright position, either because of length differences or from different habits), they have started to work out how to construct cars to cut down the difference, use models of the spine that accounts for different mechanical strengths and stresses, et cetera.

    Now, I think this progress is because evidence based medicine have become more used, because "Science. It works, bitches." And that the differences from now on will be analyzed.

    But from the post I get the impression that Venkatesan finds this impossible, science clearly lacking a moral framework that produces conforming to such favorable social constructs.

  14. You can't thrust postmodernism like this as if it were an obligation for them to accept it as if it were "objective truth". To do so is evidently self- contradictory. Does Venkatesan have no social-cultural motivations? That is hardly believable.

    Further to wave her academic credentials to expect students to accept anything she says... perhaps the most un-postmodern thing you can do!

    To defend something like ecofeminism, you have to 1) KNOW that you are making a proposal, not delivering a fact of nature. KNOW that you are defending something that is not obvious.
    2) Expect criticism. You have to have a tough skin. In fact, if you properly acknowledge 1), you may avoid most hostile reactions and even win some adepts.

    If you deliver a postmodern message while at the same time demanding a truly "positivist" obedience and acceptance of your are a blatant example of self-contradiction, and students are indeed left scratching their heads.

    There is a link between ultrapostmodernism and dogmatism.
    A typical problem of pathologically excessive postmodernists is that every issue is transformed in an "us" vs "them", that is, some primitive "political" conflict between groups of people with conflicting social and economic interests. This stops utrapostmodernists from accepting that they may ever be incurring in some REAL mistake: it's just THEIR legitimate worldview. For the ultrapostmodernist, there is simply no good reason why the opinion of others could EVER be better than theirs; it's just a political thing. This mentality of "no other view is better" enables these people to corner themselves into a defence of their particular worldview that is truly dogmatic and impervious to modification.

    This is NOT what PROPER postmodernism is like; it simply states that our worldviews (paradigms) and the natural world are not the same thing: They do not always coincide. We construct or worldviews biologically and socially. This does not mean that there is no natural world, nor that there is no such thing as an argument o theory that is better than another to describe and study it. It doesn't mean that science does not have it's own distinct way of thinking (and specific advantages) when compared to other approaches to knowledge (for example, philosophy).

  15. Post-modernism is a real nuisance. It gives a bad name to a very reasonable position (illustrated, for instance, by Gould in many essays) according to which scientists do not think in a vacuum, and are influenced by the social and political atmosphere in which they live. Post-modernism claims to be fighting against naive scientism (science records pure truth, etc.), but as Bachelard showed long ago, those opposed (and flawed) views actually need each other. We don't need to get rid of one of them, but of both.

  16. So did this book ever get published? What (of anything) ever came of all of this?