During the pandemic, conservatives and far-right representatives have mobilized in a widespread assault on science as an institution. While this was an ongoing phenomenon long before COVID, during the pandemic it has expanded to a variety of relevant issues that concern the LGBTQ+ community – especially in light of the recent ruling of schools to remove safe space stickers or anything related to Pride, and the planned reversal of Roe vs. Wade.
At the center of the maelstrom are a group of individuals who call themselves the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) – so named by New York Times journalist Barry Weiss, and a label they have also used to describe themselves. While to most people this conjures up images of websites where people can buy illicit substances, the intellectual Dark Web is just a loosely affiliated group of famous academics and pseudo-intellectuals. These include the likes of internet talk show hosts like Ben Shapiro and Joe Rogan; but also discredited academics like Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, who use their scientific credentials to justify conservative positions on hot-button “culture war” topics like legislation targeting the existence of LGBTQ+ people, bans on critical race theory and anti-abortion legislation – driving a wedge between some IDW-aligned people. Although the Intellectual Dark Web is not a formal organization, their mutual support has allowed their collective impact to be felt far and wide.
While each member of the Intellectual Dark Web concerns itself with a variety of different issues, the central line trying to work together is the connection between biology and human social behavior.
While each member of the Intellectual Dark Web concerns itself with a variety of different issues, the central line trying to work together is the connection between biology and human social behavior. While there are a variety of reputable scholars working in this field, they deviate from the IDW by noting the limitations of their work – and they don’t try to use their work to justify discriminatory policies. IDW figures have even gone so far as to claim that women, African Americans, and LGBTQ+ people are inferior. The work of the Intellectual Dark Web resembles the kind of armchair theorizing that gave rise to a whole series of discredited scientific endeavors in the 1950s. We know today that these old theoretical positions are deeply rooted in racism and the rampant bigotry that existed at that time – perhaps why many of their fans come from far-right circles.
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If the intellectual Dark Web remained confined to academic circles, it would likely go unnoticed and its damage could be contained. However, they have done well in cultivating wealthy benefactors who have allowed their voice to be amplified on the internet and beyond. So-called establishment science operates through a process known as peer review in which other anonymous academics critique their ideas. Although the biases of reviewers can sometimes taint this process, these internal debates constitute an entire field of study known as the philosophy of science. However, in the case of the IDW, the problems do not lie in the partisan biases of other scientists, but rather in a failure to meet the rigorous methodological standards of scientific inquiry. Even the mainstream media began to recognize IDW’s devolved standards as a result of the peer review subversion. A review of Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying’s bestseller was described by The Guardian like a book that “lazily repeats[s] misinformation from other pop science books.”
Yet the intellectual Dark Web is not entirely responsible for its ability to massively influence the public, the institution of science is also complicit in its success. Since the 1950s, there have been calls for scholars to speak out about the lived experiences of those they study and establish a greater connection with the public. This call has been answered primarily by scholars from marginalized backgrounds, including LGBTQ+ people, African Americans, and women who have had to fight for recognition within science. Behind every scholar of a minority group is a story of struggle. WEB DuBois, one of the greatest public intellectuals of our time, was underfunded and faced significant opposition to his pioneering scholarship on the study of the African-American experience.
The voices of those on the intellectual Dark Web are being amplified on legitimate science, and the public is mobilizing against the very institutions that could guard against ideas like drinking bleach as a cure for COVID.
In contrast to this, members of the intellectual Dark Web are backed by a range of conservative billionaires. Dave Rubin, for example, is funded by Learn Liberty which is backed by Charles G. Koch – the 20th richest person in the world who has contributed huge sums of money to conservative and far-right politicians, and to anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Eric Weinstein (brother of Bret Weinstein), perhaps the most vocal person on the intellectual Dark Web, is the director of Thiel Capital founded by Peter Thiel which also owns PayPal. This allows the voices of members of the intellectual Dark Web to be amplified on legitimate science, and the public to mobilize against the very institutions that might be guarding against ideas like using bleach as a cure for COVID. .
The intellectual Dark Web has exposed the shortcomings of institutional science and illustrated the important commitment that research institutions have to the public. This is largely due to the lack of an incentive structure for those working in science to engage in this type of work. In fact, young scholars who are often best equipped to engage in public scholarship risk putting their careers at risk because of the political nature that comes with public scholarship. Full professors, who are protected, lack the skills to reach audiences outside of academia – trapped in the pre-verbal ivory tower. This includes a host of individual scientists and other intellectuals who turn to Twitch.TV and Youtube to lead the charge against misinformation. While to outsiders these platforms are more closely associated with gaming and surveillance than science communication, during the pandemic both sites have been used in various intellectual ways.
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An overwhelming majority of science communicators on Twitch.TV acknowledged the potential for harm to LGBTQ+ and other minority communities posted by the intellectual dark web. This is in part due to the platforms’ large trans and non-binary population, and the fact that many of the platform’s key science communicators are from the LGBTQ+ community.
As my own research on LGBTQ+ life has shown, LGBTQ+ people have always been good at using the internet as a mechanism to organize, find community, and ways to establish community – so it’s no wonder that they have applied these community organizing skills to the public. sensitization. These science communicators include those in public health such as Marcus Weinman, Dr. Neuroforieur, philosophers such as Dr. Bwinbwin, and independent science commentators such as Echoplex Media and Gremloe. However, LGBTQ+ allies on Twitch.TV and other platforms, such as biologist The Peer Review, sociologist Professor EXP, and smaller professional journalists like LVELHEAD are also exploring these issues in their own outreach efforts, albeit under distinctly different angles.
Unlike the intellectual Dark Web, what unites these individuals is their dedication and passion for restoring public trust in science, but more importantly in promoting truth, equality and understanding. As these numbers show us, scientists and professionals from all walks of life need to get out of the lab, because we need them more than ever. As the rights of minorities and the LGBTQ+ community continue to erode, that pride may matter more than we all know.
Learn more about the intellectual Dark Web and its constituent figures: