Libertarian pundit John Stossel was back again last week with another feature about the academic hoax story that rocked (or should have rocked) academia last fall.
Starting in June of 2017, three academics — James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian — began writing intentionally ludicrous papers under false names and submitting them to peer-reviewed academic journals. The authors mimicked the catchphrases and buzzwords of the “grievance studies” fields they sought to expose — the language of intersectionality, privilege, and feminism.
Though the papers were fake, the experiment was very real. The hoaxers wanted to see if the hallowed journals’ peer reviewers could discern twaddle from real scholarship. In short: the reviewers couldn’t, at least not when it appealed to their prejudices.
The experiment was interrupted in October 2018 when a Wall Street Journal reporter, Jillian Kay Melchior, exposed the project. Melchior had noticed one of the papers, “Dog Park,” which focused on “dog rape culture,” and found it just too ridiculous to be believed. She apparently had more sense than the staff of Gender, Place & Culture, which gladly published the confabulated paper.
By the time the Wall Street Journal blew the whistle, twenty papers had been submitted in total. Seven papers had been accepted, though only four had been published; seven others were at various stages of review and only six had been rejected.
Gender, Place & Culture even recognized “Dog Park” as “excellent scholarship,” and no wonder — its subtitle was “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon.” I’m sure they lapped that up with a spoon.
The paper’s pseudonymous author, “Helen Wilson,” claimed to have based her findings on a data set consisting of just fewer than ten thousand canine genital inspections. This was so crazy that “Wilson” — who is actually James Lindsay — expected some much-deserved incredulity.
But it never came. Not only did the journal fail to question the data set; it didn’t lift a finger to determine the identity of “Helen Wilson,” much less to verify her credentials as an expert. They simply accepted Dr. Wilson as an authority in doggie sexuality.
“We flattered what they wanted to hear and then they told us it was an important contribution to feminist geography,” said James Lindsay.
As a college grad myself, I can tell you that this is exactly how academia works. Students learn early on that the key to academic success is to emulate the style, tone, and above all the message of their professors. If the profs are talking endlessly about the “social construction of whiteness” — or maleness, or heteronormativity — they should too. That’s how to get an A, how to get recommended for grad school, and how to get hired as an adjunct professor.
An environment like this is fertile ground for farcical “scholarship.”
And it’s been this way for years. Back in 1996, a mathematics professor at New York University, Alan Sokal, submitted a paper about the social construction of gravity to the journal Social Text. Sokal didn’t mean a word of it, of course, though the paper was still published.
As Sokal wrote in his paper:
It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ’reality’, no less than social ‘reality’, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific ‘knowledge’, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.
To many academics, that sounds smart. To normal people, it sounds like someone trying way too hard to sound smart.
Sokal’s paper, and later Lindsay’s, Pluckrose’s, and Boghossian’s papers, stand as shining examples of Poe’s Law. For the uninitiated, Poe’s Law states simply that it is impossible to parody extremist views because the parody will inevitably be mistaken as a genuine expression — even by people who hold those extremist views.
Hence Sokal’s inability to jest about the application of postmodernism to hard physics. People didn’t get the joke — least of all the journal’s editors. Lucky for everyone involved, Social Text was not peer-reviewed at the time. Perhaps if it had been, someone would have called shenanigans, though I doubt it.
Two of the more recent pranksters, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, had already scored a stand-alone hoax paper “The Conceptual Penis As A Social Construct,” which was published in Cogent Social Sciences, a misnamed journal if ever there was one. The paper appeared in May 2017, which appears to be right before they undertook the more audacious twenty papers project the following month.
“The Conceptual Penis” was such an obvious gag that no one could have taken it seriously — no one except a gender studies scholar, which tells us a lot about gender studies as a field. The thrust of the paper is that penises “conceptually” cause global warming and all sorts of other really bad stuff, an obvious attempt to suck up to their reviewers’ biases.
The paper drips with misandry. Penises are bad because men are bad. Global warming is bad too, though an unwavering belief in its existence is a sign of enlightenment. Anything that plugs into the theory of anthropogenic global warming is de rigueur by default.
Boghossian and Lindsay cited twenty sources in their paper, none of which they say they read, and five of which do not exist. The peer reviewer obvious didn’t check any of this or else the jig would have been up. The paper was, according to its authors, “actively written to avoid having any merits whatsoever.”
And yet it was published.
The rush to publish anything that sounds sufficiently “woke” has an equal but opposite counterpart — the reluctance to publish anything considered reactionary. Consider for a moment Sexuality and Culture, the only duped journal whose editor agreed to sit for an interview with John Stossel. Would this journal have published a paper that found that the seeds of homosexuality are planted, at least in part, by childhood sexual trauma?
I doubt it very much. That theory, which was very much accepted by academics until about the 1980s, has fallen out of favor because it suggests that homosexuality should be understood as heterosexuality’s weirdo cousin. More importantly, it precludes the genetic “born that way” explanation that undergirds so many laws, policies, and court decisions.
It’s hard to imagine Sexuality and Culture publishing any paper that disputed the “born that way” argument, and harder still to imagine peer reviewers failing to check every source. Any uncrossed “t” or undotted “i” would be grounds for rejection — and of course they would find one. No paper, no matter how carefully researched and written, would ever be published if it came to the “wrong” conclusions. Conversely, no paper, no matter how sloppily written, would be rejected if it came to the “right” conclusions. Conclusions drive the research, not the other way around.
Sexuality and Culture has published such gems as “I Feel Blacker: Applying a Black Feminist Paradigm to and Intervention Program for Black Men Who Have Sex With Men In the South,” and “Queering Indian Classical Music: An Exploration of Sexuality and Desire.” Those were apparently “serious” papers, or at least they haven’t yet been exposed as hoaxes like “Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria and Transphobia through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use.” That last one was written by “M. Smith,” one of the hoaxers’ pseudonyms, and sought to answer the question, “Do men who report greater comfort with receptive penetrative anal eroticism also report less transphobia, less obedience to masculine gender norms, greater partner sensitivity, and greater awareness about rape?”
The basic gist of the paper is that the world would be a kinder, gentler place if more macho males would explore their anuses.
Well no, not really. It’s drivel — but it carries all the authority of science because it appeared in a journal that claims to be grounded in science, albeit the very soft social sciences. Anyone who doesn’t believe it is, by definition, a science-hater.
Actual endeavors to expand human understanding are wonderful, though difficult to find these days given the sorry state of academia and academic journals. The institution was just too tempting for the Left to resist “marching” through it à la Rudi Dutschke. Indeed, it was one of the first institutions that they attacked and it capitulated without much of a fight. Like everything else the Left touches, it quickly went to pot. It betrayed its purported mission and jettisoned all standards except ideological conformity. All that remains after the academic core has been hollowed out are joke periodicals that fool themselves into thinking that they’re something other than a gussied up version of MAD Magazine.