Claire Lehmann is the founder and editor of Quillette, an online magazine that publishes essays on a range of topics related to politics, social life, science, and academia. The magazine is quickly becoming a highly respected outlet for open discussion of topics in psychology and the social and behavioral sciences.
I reached out to Claire to discuss Quillette and the role she thinks it can play in academic and public conversations about issues relevant to psychology and related fields.
Could you describe what Quillette is for Psychology Today readers who may be unfamiliar with it?
Quillette is an online magazine (you can find it at Quillette.com) and we publish articles on politics, science (predominantly social science and psychology) as well as history, art and culture.
What inspired you to create Quillette?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly. I think there was a confluence of factors. I had been writing a few columns for the local Sydney newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald, and I was very aware that I couldn’t write anything that was too academic or scholarly, and I also couldn’t write anything that was too politically incorrect. It felt very constrained.
I was also pursuing graduate studies at the time in forensic psychology and was becoming increasingly cynical about the university system. I was reading Peter Thiel, and was struck by his iconoclastic views on education; in particular his claim that the higher education system is like the Vatican on the eve of the reformation. So in mid-to-late 2015, I wrote an article for the Herald about universities in Australia being a road to nowhere, dropped out of my course, and two weeks later started Quillette.
I have seen a number of fascinating psychology-related essays in Quillette on topics such as the role of gender differences in modern professional life, the value of neurodiversity, the nature vs. nurture debate in child development, and how psychedelics could be beneficial in mental health treatment. Did you set out to create a specific space for psychology in your magazine or did this happen more organically?
Thanks. I’m lucky enough to know a lot of interesting researchers (such as yourself) mainly through online networks such as Twitter and have simply been lucky in attracting many interesting submissions. I think I just created a space for unusual viewpoints — but because my own education has been in psychology, and I know several academics in that area, I guess there has been a positive feedback loop that has encouraged this focus.
Quillette has received high praise from some very influential scholars and public intellectuals. This is impressive considering that there is a dizzying number of online magazines, podcasts, blogs, and vlogs focused on politics, science, and social life. What do you think you are uniquely tapping into that has captured the attention of influential thinkers?
Yes, it’s been very humbling to have such support. I think that we are simply offering up an alternative to the blank slate view of human nature that appears to be dominant within the media ecosystem.
The blank slate view, which is the idea that who we are is entirely or predominantly the product of culture and socialization, is very common in left-leaning media. And left-leaning media also happens to provide most of today’s science journalism. It’s kind of ironic, because the convergent evidence coming out of evolutionary psychology, biology, behavioural genetics and neuroscience that falsifies this blank slate view is simply incontrovertible at this point, but most of the media, and even the popular science media keep clinging to it. At times it’s just embarrassing.
Another factor is that although conservative or libertarian magazines are less wedded to blank slate dogmas, they nevertheless do not give a lot of space to science journalism. So there is a gap in the market for data driven, scientifically literate commentary that does not conform to an outdated view of human nature. Quillette has just run with this.
Have you faced any serious backlash for publishing diverse perspectives on politically charged and socially sensitive topics?
In my personal life, no, not at all. I haven’t lost any friends and I’ve only gained new ones. I live in Australia which has both drawbacks and advantages. One of the drawbacks is that there isn’t a very strong intellectual culture here, but one of the advantages is that people are much more chilled out about politics. Politics doesn’t take over people’s lives here, and it’s very normal for people to have friends from across the political spectrum. I really notice a difference when comparing it to the U.S.
That said, Quillette did publish an article on The Google Memo which was received negatively by some, so much so that the website, which was running on minimal infrastructure at the time, became the target of a successful denial of service attack! But thankfully that was resolved, and many people generously pitched in to offer support and donations.
Some of us in the academy are concerned about ideological bias and campus censorship harming academic culture and scholarship, especially in the social sciences and humanities. Quillette has published a number of relevant articles and interviews (including some by and with me). Have these issues influenced your approach to Quillette?
Absolutely. I have enormous respect for creativity and risk taking. It doesn’t matter what the domain is, whether it is art or science or entrepreneurship, you have to take risks to move culture forward. Local cultures on many campuses are not conducive to risk taking and creativity in all sorts of ways, from over-bureaucratization, to oppressive social and speech norms. So my goal with Quillette is to provide a ‘safe space’ for people, academics or otherwise, who have novel ideas but who might feel stifled by such norms.
Just as an aside, I think the problems within higher education go far beyond left-leaning bias. For example, we rarely give serious consideration to the financial and opportunity costs that young people are burdened with, and how this likely exacerbates economic inequalities. We rarely talk about how universities have abdicated their mission of preserving and transmitting the cultural capital of western civilization. The elite schools in America seem more invested in being finishing schools for the wealthy than in preserving the integrity of their liberal arts courses. Of course STEM education is as vital as ever, but STEM training is only a small part of the higher education system.
So I think universities need to be disrupted somehow, but I’m not smart enough to work out how to do that. But I know that Jordan Peterson wants to develop an online accreditation system for humanities education, which I think is a really good idea.
Thank you for your time. How can interested readers find and support Quillette?
Just a final word: one risk is that Quillette will become its own little echochamber. I wish we had more left-leaning writers, particularly writing on issues of class and how scarcity of opportunities and resources may be driving political polarization. I’d love to publish more articles on animal rights, effective altruism and progressive policies that would help young parents at work (I’m a young parent). And I’d love to discover some new writing talent: If you want to write for Quillette email me: claire[at]quillette.com