– Robert Epstein
On June 16th, 02019, Robert Epstein stood before the United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution. His expert testimony was on the topic of “Big Tech” interfering in the proceedings of the previous American federal election. His claim was that Google abused its position as the foremost national search provider to enact surveillance and censorship, biasing the search results with aims to manipulate the outcome of the election. Epstein backed up this claim with a white paper of quantitative data on the monitored search results of 95 experimental subjects. This attracted the interest of many conservative lawmakers and commentators, ever happy to feed the over-baked controversy du jour and continue the public display of their persecution complex about being “unfairly censored” by nefarious liberals. While always a right-wing tactic of working the refs, the topical interest reached a high pitch after major social media platforms belatedly enacted measures on banning conspiracy theorists and provocateurs trying to incite harassment and violence. This eventually percolated upwards through cable-news outlets, winning the affections of an unfortunate senile buffoon, and ever-momentary national attention along with it.
There was just one problem: the white paper was a fraud. Or if not, then something close to it. “In his submitted testimony, Epstein did provide seven pages of citations—but all of them are papers or op-eds he wrote or co-wrote himself. Only one of them—a 2015 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, about how biased results produced by search engines could have the ability to sway undecided voters—was peer-reviewed. Even that study didn’t demonstrate that this has actually happened.” (A. Glaser, August 20th 02019, slate.com)
Epstein presented himself to the Senate Judiciary as a senior research psychologist from the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. It certainly sounds impressive, but in an all-too-common trick of public relations, the AIBRT might as well not exist. As the Ivy Lees and Edward Bernayses had done in times of mass media immemorial, a small business wearing academic frock could pass off heavily-biased scientific data directly to news publications and government agencies, without the chance of peer-review or actual universities to issue objection or censure. The organization only ever had one proper staff member: Robert Epstein himself. Its website prominently featured requests for donations to fund its research on issues of psychology and artificial intelligence, “research” which only ever seemed to have one slanderous target in mind: Google.
Epstein’s beef against Google started in either 02011 or 02012. After being compromised by hackers, Epstein’s website was overridden by embedded malware, prompting most major search engines—and even smaller browser providers like Mozilla—to block access to his site on cybersecurity protocols. I remember, being once a fan of his, seeing the security warnings for myself. Epstein responded by calling for a lawyer and sending numerous abusive emails to Google employees, carbon copied to chief executive Larry Page, demanding the security warnings be removed on grounds of libel. “Your company is continuing—initially through incompetence and now through negligence and malice—to do irreparable harm to my good name and reputation.” Google responded to him, carbon copying the New York Times journalist developing the story, telling him that they had re-scanned his site, only to find it was still infected.
Between the publication of this book and the sudden reveal of his fraudulent activities ten years later, Epstein led an unassuming career as a pop psychologist and cable-news regular. He even gained a penchant for publishing op-eds in conservative newspapers, ranging from the usual fare of plausibly-deniable white supremacist propaganda, to even writing for the mouthpiece of an apocalyptic cult expelled directly from China due to equally bizarre anti-communist activities. This is most certainly an unusual set of hobbies for someone who still wears the câchet of his former position as editor-in-chief of the assuredly nonpartisan Psychology Today. It’s all the more eccentric considering the numerous times, in both his Senate testimony and other writings, he identifies himself not as a conservative but as a fervent supporter of the Democratic party—but by this point that's neither here nor there. Because of the duly political flavour of this more recent scandal, not many people remember him for the seemingly apolitical Case Against Adolescence. It begs the necessary question: was there ever a time when he wasn’t a fraud? Was this book, too, just another feint?
It beggars belief that someone who could seem so much the image of an intelligent and well-researched scholar could ever go on to commit acts of both deceptive malice and ego-driven stupidity. I wondered if the argument that I remembered so fondly reading was ever truly his own in the first place. After opening this book up again for the first time in eight years, I rushed to the 77 pages of notes and citations, a milquetoast mix of scientific journal articles and boring encyclopedia entries; no easily-identifiable opinion pieces in sight. I would’ve thought that alone might have been a comforting thought, yet for some ineffable reason, it wasn’t. It beggared belief that he could seem so much the image of a critical scholar, and that image was—itself—the problem.
I read this book at a very vulnerable time in my life. I had just graduated high school on fairly bad terms from having to repeat an entire grade level simply due to bureaucratic error; an error so common it affected 25% of my entire graduating class, no matter how good their grades could have been. This retrospect compounded further when I finally reached the much-vaunted university position, only to discover everything I was told about post-secondary was part of a deliberate misinformation campaign meant to control crowd behaviour, carried out by my old school board with the tacit permission of our own parents. I was mortified by this discovery, that I had been the victim of a terrible and systematic abuse of power. At the time, I had not even the means to communicate what exactly the problem was beyond a vague feeling of disgust, let alone what it truly meant or what could’ve been done about it. This book, one that I happened upon by mere accident of being in the right place at the right time, was necessary to clear away the dark clouds in my mind. It is especially wounding this book and its author now sit in such disrepute.
The core thesis of The Case Against Adolescence is about the historical creation of “adolescence” as a demographic age group and how it leads to “the artificial extension of childhood.” This entrapment can be directly correlated to the sturm und drang that is associated with the common trope of teen angst. It persists throughout culture instead of being addressed as a mass-societal source of mental illness because of a cold calculation. As compulsory schooling grew more commonplace, the early school systems from the 01860's till 01920's sought efficiencies in methods to offset their increasing size, finding an entrenching solution in the industrially-inspired “assembly line” form of education. Profit motive also came around in new types of cultural industries geared towards serving teenagers as a captive market. Past administrations, under the preferences of easy management, chose to normalize teen angst into a “regular part of growing up.”
As best as I can tell, the majority of his claims on both the historical development and scientific consensus of adolescence are still correct or remain close enough. Since reading it for the first time, I haven’t seen anything in this book that I couldn’t also find elsewhere in other sources, even when neutrally inclined. Adolescence, as a social phenomena, is a social construct and exists only in industrialized or developed countries. The question, then, becomes what Epstein’s true angle in the topic really was. He seems to inspire the same kind of solipsism that most young students have when trying to handle postmodernist concepts for the first time: thing is socially constructed, ergo, thing is not real; thing is not real, ergo, thing does not exist. Teenagers are faced with higher rates of depression, suicide, and impetus towards crime precisely because of social pressures which consign them to the socially-constructed prison that is adolescence. Epstein’s reaction to this is to take a stance not unlike prison abolition, to render the whole concept null and void. Teenagers should then no longer be considered as teenagers, but instead as adults, with all the rights and responsibilities that would grant and require.
Of course, one has to pay close attention to the argument in play to realize the bait-and-switch that just happened. In response to one source of problems, Epstein offers in solution another source of problems. Even when I was younger, I could tell in reading this book that Epstein’s own ideological bent towards conservatism would cloud his judgment and get in the way of offering true solutions. It wasn’t just in how the choice of topic allowed him what was possibly the only rhetorically acceptable way of ribbing on old ancient nemeses, like feminism and working class solidarity, how their solutions of the past would have these specific effects in the far-flung future. (Epstein, weirdly, would be much more straightforward about this than his senior.) What tipped off my younger self about it was how Epstein just couldn’t help himself. Even when giving grand and overly-optimistic paeans of the limitless potential young people had, he would still find time to work in an all-too-common “back in my day” rant. Not even a matter of partisan politics, my younger self was able to see the imperfections latent in Epstein simply because his nostalgic indulgences could prompt the reaction of “shut up, old man.” Furthermore, while it was cogent to his core thesis on the historical development of adolescence, having an entire chapter dedicated to the question “What Does the Bible Say?” might have been a little too suspect. Perhaps more tellingly, when one looks up this book elsewhere on the internet, oft-quoted is the unfortunate—though small—section from the muddy middle of the book about the benefits and virtues of corporal punishment in child-rearing. That alone would be an immediate disqualifier for most.
Given this book’s proximity to disinformation campaigns and the sudden reappearance of fascism on the world stage, I can no longer afford to let conservatism pass as a harmless quirk of character. Conservatives are animals of hierarchy, and they wouldn’t entertain something so risky to the status quo unless the right type of people stood to profit. I would argue the main issue with The Case is less in what Epstein says and more in what he does not. One is the problem of “warehousing” the young in high schools, and how its only real purpose is in providing large corporations with a steady-supply of an easily controlled minimum-wage underclass of part-time workers. This was so common a complaint about high schools that nearly all of the university freshmen I talked to about this book would bring it up. ... yet for as obvious of an argument as it is, it scarcely deserves mention in Epstein’s book, despite similar excoriations about “cultural industries” so alike. It is an interesting historical note this book was written before the 02008 recession. While there was yet to be any public consciousness of the eventual student debt crisis which would grip most of North America, the topics of post-secondary tuition (which is necessary to get certification in order to even enter the job market) and student loans (which are necessary to finance it) are not broached despite their extreme relevance to the thesis. There is also no mention about power relations, and how the suddenly-adulted erstwhile teens would manage against others who would gain economic and social advantages over them through the simple route of having been there first. It might very well be the case that the assembly line style of education stunts peoples' ability to develop social skills keen to large groups by keeping kids limited to others within their same age. I even have seen the out-of-school effects of that when online communities with narrow ranges of age between the youngest and oldest members would develop problems more rapidly than similar communities when wider. ... but this doesn’t imply simply increasing a subject’s access to a wider variety of age groups will inspire some sort of enlightenment through diversity, not on its own, and especially when there are other things at stake. For every increase in access teenagers would gain to another age group, the reverse will also apply, and other age groups would gain increased access to teenagers.
That is, perhaps, the exact rub that lies in The Case Against Adolescence. The primary beneficiaries from the abolition of adolescence would not be the former teenagers, suddenly free of all the unfair limitations to their freedoms, but instead those who would seek to control and profit from them in that newfound state. Many young people I know may have read this book to confirm our suspicions of ageist discrimination within an industrial education system, yet we were never Epstein’s intended audience. That much was obvious ever since the publication of this book’s second edition, re-titled to Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence. (One might be forgiven for thinking that other book, with another title, a different publication date, and even another ISBN number, might be a different book entirely; but having seen and compared the two books side-by-side, they are in fact the same text. ... down to titles of chapters, order of chapters, titles of chapter sections, order of chapter sections, choices of typography, and even page numbers where chapters or sections start and end; all an exact match.) Notice the ever-so-slight change in vantage, selling its point not to teenagers who are the ones who supposedly could handle it themselves according to the book’s own logic, but instead to the parents of said teenagers. Why would this be the case? From my perspective, the usual motives of a pop psychologist looking to gull the vulnerable self-help market could be discounted, even if that choice would mean he could only fleece the sheep who had wool to spare. The key word in this instance is “our,” the implication of ownership and possession. By living in the strange mix of both childhood and adulthood, Epstein wants teenagers to truly gain the properties of both; all the capabilities towards economically productive work with the temperament and legal status of chattel. Like many of his ideological ilk, Epstein sought to democratize expressions of power away from the impartial hand of the State and back to the pater familias of the capitalist marketplace, enabling the worst tendencies in the petty tyrants of the world. Teenagers are smart. Teenagers have all sorts of hidden capabilities that our school systems don’t value. ... and for the low, low price of governmental deregulation under the mantra of “youth rights,” all of it may be yours.
There was an agenda behind this book. This book was meant to be the intellectual gloss for some type of political purpose, one that may not have been honest about its true motives. With one hand it would promise a new type of emancipation, yet kept the other hand with a knife at the ready. That agenda stood as the reason The Case was never formally adopted into any truly principled movement of youth empowerment. Yet that same agenda, whatever it possibly could have been, never materialized to act on itself. With those things gone, all that’s left is the text itself, standing entirely by its lonesome. Yet the problems stemming from the poor design and corrosive psychology of the industrial compulsory schooling system remain apparent, so much so that I was desperate enough to rely on a snake like Epstein to back up an unmarked claim. Could anything be salvaged from this book? Should anything? The social construction of adolescence is shoddy and in dire need of repair, yet because of the revolving door of adolescence’s eventual point of exit, those problems are never truly solved and simply aged out. All that remains is the cold comfort that it will eventually just be someone else’s problem. ... but it was wrong when it happened to us, and it will remain wrong when it happens to others.