Reactions to an elaborate academic-journal hoax, dubbed "Sokal Squared" by one observer, came fast and furious on Wednesday. Some scholars applauded the hoax for unmasking what they called academe’s leftist, victim-obsessed ideological slant and low publishing standards. Others said it had proved nothing beyond the bad faith and dishonesty of its authors.
Three scholars — Helen Pluckrose, a self-described "exile from the humanities" who studies medieval religious writings about women; James A. Lindsay, an author and mathematician; and Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University — 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." A skeptical Wall Street Journal editorial writer, Jillian Kay Melchior, began raising questions about some of the papers over the summer.
Beyond the acceptances, the authors said, they also received four requests to peer-review other papers "as a result of our own exemplary scholarship." And one paper — about canine rape culture in dog parks in Portland, Ore. — "gained special recognition for excellence from its journal, Gender, Place, and Culture … as one of 12 leading pieces in feminist geography as a part of the journal’s 25th anniversary celebration."
Not all readers accepted the work as laudable scholarship. National Review took "Helen Wilson," the fictional author of the dog-park study, to task in June for her approach. "The whole reasoning behind Wilson’s study," wrote a staff writer, Katherine Timpf, "is the belief that researching rape culture and sexuality among dogs in parks is a brilliant way to understand more about rape culture and sexuality among humans. This is, of course, idiotic. Why? Because humans are not dogs."
Another published paper, "Going In Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria, Transhysteria, and Transphobia Through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use," appeared in Sexuality and Culture. It recommends that men anally self-penetrate "to become less transphobic, more feminist, and more concerned about the horrors of rape culture."
The trolling trio wondered, they write, 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.
Darts and Laurels
Some scholars applauded the hoax.
"Is there any idea so outlandish that it won’t be published in a Critical/PoMo/Identity/‘Theory’ journal?" tweeted the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.
"Three intrepid academics," wrote Yascha Mounk, an author and lecturer on government at Harvard, "just perpetrated a giant version of the Sokal Hoax, placing … fake papers in major academic journals. Call it Sokal Squared. The result is hilarious and delightful. It also showcases a serious problem with big parts of academia."
In the original Sokal Hoax, in 1996, a New York University physicist named Alan Sokal published a bogus paper that took aim at some of the same targets as his latter-day successors.
Others were less receptive than Mounk. "This is a genre," tweeted Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke, "and they’re in it for the lulz" — the laughs. "Best not to lose sight of that."
"Good work is hard to do," he wrote, "incentives to publish are perverse; there’s a lot of crap out there; if you hate an area enough, you can gin up a fake paper and get it published somewhere if you try. The question is, what do you hate? And why is that?"
Reviews of several of the papers "were partly conditional on claims to have done some sort of actual (very bad) fieldwork," Healy noted.
And that’s where the question of bad faith comes in.
"I am so utterly unimpressed," wrote Jacob T. Levy, a political theorist at McGill University, "by the fact that an enterprise that relies on a widespread presumption of not-fraud can be fooled some of the time by three people with Ph.D.s who spend 10 months deliberately trying to defraud it."
Karen Gregory, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Edinburgh, wrote that "the chain of thought and action that encourages you to spend 10 months ‘pulling a fast one’ on academic journals disqualifies you from a community of scholarship. It only proves you are a bad-faith actor."
Karl Steel, an associate professor of English at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, called the trio’s work "simply not rigorous research" and described three objections to it. It 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.
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.
Other online commenters said the hoax papers lack a control group of papers for comparative purposes.
Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian, reached by phone in Portland, said the papers that were rejected serve as a control of sorts. Better yet, they said, consider this meta-control thought experiment: Look at your journals and the articles they published, and see if you can distinguish them from the hoax articles. If the answer is often no, then there is your control.
Mounk, by phone, also said the control-group criticism is misguided. He called it a "confused attempt to import statistics into a question where it doesn’t apply." If the authors were claiming that their work proves that some publications are, say, 50 percent more susceptible to hoaxes than the average, or that 100 percent of articles published are nonsense because these seven articles were accepted, then you would obviously need controls. But the authors "do nothing of the sort. They demonstrate that it’s possible, with relatively little effort, to get bullshit published." It "sows deep doubt" about the nature of the academic enterprise.
Time will tell, the trio said, but they think the mega-hoax will effectively snuff out their academic futures. Pluckrose thinks she’ll have a hard time getting into a doctoral program, Lindsay predicted that he would become "an academic pariah," and Boghossian, who doesn’t have tenure, thinks he will be punished, and possibly fired. Still, this isn’t the first time that Lindsay and Boghossian have teamed up to mock trendy scholarship. Last year their spurious paper "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct" was published in the journal Cogent Social Sciences.
Meanwhile, Pluckrose and Boghossian are working on a book together, and Pluckrose is writing one on the 50-year development of grievance studies and the leftist academic culture of victimization.
If the three are exiled from academe, said Mounk, that will be unjust and a shame. Through "courage and quite a lot of work," they have shown that "clearly there’s a big corner of academia where the emperors wear no clothes." He called the hoax "a more serious contribution to our understanding of the world than many Ph.D. theses." The three of them, Mounk said, "should absolutely be celebrated."