Sokal Hoax II: Electric Boogaloo

So there’s a fresh tempest a-brewin’ in the teapot of academia, in the form of three academic hoaxsters who decided to expose the weak scholarship in areas they called “grievance studies” by submitting bogus papers to various journals in those fields. Why?

Something has gone wrong in the university—especially in certain fields within the humanities. Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields, and their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview. This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous.

The hoaxsters contend that the hegemonic worldview they describe has made it impossible to have a good-faith discussion of certain issues, and they describe their efforts as an effort to “reboot these conversations [in the fields under consideration, such as cultural studies, identity studies, and other areas dominated by critical theory.] In practice, what they have done is present an argument that these emperors are in fact without clothes, not unlike the famous hoax that Alan Sokal played twenty-some years ago.

The hoaxers in this case are Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian (hereafter called PLB) — and The Chronicle of Higher Ed reports that they:

[…]  spent 10 months writing 20 hoax papers that illustrate and parody what they call “grievance studies,” and submitted them to “the best journals in the relevant fields.” Of the 20, seven papers were accepted, four were published online, and three were in process when the authors “had to take the project public prematurely and thus stop the study, before it could be properly concluded.”

Some of their topics included canine rape culture in Portland, Oregon dog parks (published and recognized by Gender, Place, and Culture); a recommendation that men anally self-penetrate with sex toys “to become less transphobic, more feminist, and more concerned about the horrors of rape culture” (published in Sexuality and Culture); and the one I found especially over-the-top:

The trolling trio wondered […] if a journal might even “publish a feminist rewrite of a chapter from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” Yup. “Our Struggle Is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism” was accepted by the feminist social-work journal Affilia.

These were not “pay-to-play” journals, either — while those are a problem in scholarly publishing (the academic equivalent of vanity presses), PLB wanted a relatively fair fight:

We set out with three basic rules: (1) we’ll focus almost exclusively upon ranked peer-reviewed journals in the field, the higher the better and at the top of their subdisciplines whenever possible; (2) we will not pay to publish any paper; and (3) if we are asked at any point by a journal editor or reviewer (but not a journalist!) if any paper we wrote is an attempted hoax, we will admit it.

To the credit of the academic publishing world, PLB discovered that top-ranked journals in these fields have their limits. (There is a notable exception to this: highly ranked feminist philosophy journal Hypatia accepted a paper arguing “That academic hoaxes or other forms of satirical or ironic critique of social justice scholarship are unethical, characterized by ignorance and rooted in a desire to preserve privilege.” That is what we in the idea biz refer to as “calling your shot.” Likewise, while Hypatia returned a “revise and resubmit” to a paper that “advocate[s] rating students by their identity, privileging the most marginalized and discriminating against the most privileged to the extent of having them sit on floor in chains and have [sic] their contributions discredited”, none of the suggested revisions had anything to do with the paper’s position.) However, even a partial move down the scholarly food chain yielded some action, as described above.

So PLB let the cat out of the bag (along with a distinct caution not to toss babies of good scholarship out along with the bathwater of ideological bias), and the reactions are interesting. Some commenters found PLB’s work to be funny and telling. Some of the anti-PLB comments condemn the hoaxers’ bad faith and claim that their work was a poorly designed experiment. This appears to me to be a case of the commenter’s not fully fathoming the distinction between “ruthless empiricism” and “practical jokes.” But the one that really made me giggle came from Karl Steel of Brooklyn College and the CUNY Grad Center:

 [PLB’s work] is too narrow in disciplinary scope, he said. It focuses on exposing weaknesses in gender and ethnic studies, conspicuously ideological fields, when that effort would be better spent looking at more-substantive problems like the replication crisis in psychology, or unfounded scholarly claims in cold fusion or laissez-faire economics. [Emphasis mine — Prof. M.]

The trio could have reached out to colleagues in physics and other fields, but instead opted for “poor experimental design.” And they targeted groups that are “likely to be laughed at anyway,” showing not intellectual bravery but cowardice. “These three researchers have demonstrated that they’re not to be trusted,” he said.

Hmm… PLB shouldn’t be “exposing weaknesses in [. . .] conspicuously ideological fields” that are “likely to be laughed at anyway”? Um, isn’t that exactly what we should be doing, if we want to have any credibility? Instead, we live in an era where much scholarship in the humanities is driven by Marx’s call not to interpret the world, but to change it. By doing that, we abandon our responsibility to understand and explain and just become another set of agitators for some political outcome or other, and in turn are willing to excuse crappy work in the name of a political alliance.

And that isn’t funny.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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