The Hoax That Failed, or Skeptics Who Aren’t Very Skeptical

BY HANK REICHMAN

My twitter feed was humming this morning with reaction to an article published in Skeptic Magazine, by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay.  They managed to submit a hoax article — “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” — to a journal they purported to be about gender studies and quickly celebrated this achievement as proof that the entire field of gender studies “is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil.”

“We assumed that if we were merely clear in our moral implications that maleness is intrinsically bad,” the authors wrote, “and that the penis is somehow at the root of it, we could get the paper published in a respectable journal.”

Pretty soon quite a few allegedly skeptical and suitably famous scientist types — including Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker — jumped on the celebratory bandwagon, noting parallels with the famous Sokal hoax of the 1990s.  Tweeted Pinker:

Here’s Dawkins’ take:

The problem, however, is that the real joke was on the hoaxsters, who either failed to discern or willfully covered up the fact that the journal in question was a vanity publication with little to no credibility in academia.  And the alleged “skeptics” failed even to question the legitimacy of the hoaxsters’ sweeping claims.

The article, it turns out, was initially rejected by a journal, NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, which as it turns out doesn’t even make a list of the top 115 journals in Gender Studies.  Boghossian and Lindsay were then referred to a smaller outlet, Cogent Social Sciences, that offers publication where authors “pay what you like” (apparently, these authors didn’t pay anything) in return for publication.  While this open-access journal claims to employ peer review, in fact articles are only reviewed by a single individual and just about all are accepted.  And while it is published by Taylor and Francis, a respected publisher, the journal’s website makes clear that it operates entirely independently of Taylor & Francis, and that its publishing model is utterly different from theirs.

So, on the basis of publishing a hoax paper in an obscure vanity journal with zero credibility in the field they wished to “expose,” the authors — and those who praise them — somehow jump to the conclusion that the entire discipline of gender studies is corrupt.  As one observer wrote, “How they made this deductive leap is actually far more puzzling than how the paper got accepted.”  (Boghossian, by the way, is a philosopher who actually teaches critical thinking.)

Of course, true skeptics would quickly acknowledge that even were this a reputable journal a single instance isn’t sufficient evidence to conclude that an entire field of research is crippled.  The comparisons made by Pinker, Dawson, and others to Sokal’s effort  — which involved the publication of a nonsense piece on the “transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity” —  should have suggested this.  For Sokal was much more circumspect about the significance of his hoax than are Boghossian, Lindsay, Dawson, and Pinker.  Wrote Sokal:

From the mere fact of publication of my parody I think that not much can be deduced. It doesn’t prove that the whole field of cultural studies, or cultural studies of science — much less sociology of science — is nonsense. Nor does it prove that the intellectual standards in these fields are generally lax. (This might be the case, but it would have to be established on other grounds.) It proves only that the editors of one rather marginal journal were derelict in their intellectual duty.

Moreover, as science blogger Ketan Joshi pointed out, “academic hoaxes happen in the hard sciences, too:

  • Andrew Wakefield, a British anti-vaccination campaigner, managed to publish a fraudulent paper in the Lancet in 1998.
  • A US nuclear physics conference accepted a paper written entirely in autocomplete.
  • A trio of MIT grad students created an algorithm that creates fake scientific papers – in 2013 IEEE and Springer Publishing found 120 published papers had been generated by the program.
  • A paper entitled “Get me off your fucking mailing list” was accepted for publication by computer science journal.
  • A 2013 hoax saw a scientific paper about fictional lichen published in several hundred journals.”

Yet no one — and certainly not people like Pinker and Dawson — would ever suggest that these embarrassments invalidate the entire fields of physics, computer science, or biology.  Added Joshi,

The article in Skeptic Magazine highlights how regularly people will vastly lower their standards of skepticism and rationality if a piece of information is seen as confirmation of a pre-existing belief – in this instance, the belief that gender studies is fatally compromised by seething man-hate. The standard machinery of rationality would have triggered a moment of doubt – ‘perhaps we’ve not put in enough work to separate the signal from the noise’, or ‘perhaps we need to tease apart the factors more carefully.’

But the hoaxsters and their supporters were motivated by more, it would seem, than their mere eagerness to confirm preexisting biases.  They hope the “success” of their endeavor will have real-world consequences in the academy.  So, Boghossian wrote previously on twitter,

One troubling feature of the “The Conceptual Penis” is its inordinate focus on climate science, which is somehow related to anti-masculinism (don’t ask me to explain; I didn’t bother to read the hoax, since its authors acknowledge it’s mostly gibberish anyway).  So climate change deniers soon joined those gleefully sharing the piece:

“If skepticism means anything it means skepticism about the things you WANT to be true.  It’s easy to be a skeptic about others’ views,” wrote CUNY historian Angus Johnston in a marvelous tweetstorm responding to the failed hoax.  “That paper isn’t a hoax on the gender studies crowd.  It’s a hoax on the ‘skeptics’ duped into trumpeting its significance.  They got took.”

Interestingly, the hoax could have been viewed as a useful exposure of pay-to-publish journals.  And the authors do dedicate some of their Skeptic piece to discussing the problem of predatory publishing.  They write that “in the short term, pay-to-publish may be a significant problem because of the inherent tendencies toward conflicts of interest (profits trump academic quality, that is, the profit motive is dangerous because ethics are expensive).”  But that was not the reason Boghossian and Lindsay published their piece or submitted their hoax.  And that’s not the point that all the famous “skeptics” take from all this.

As one libertarian blogger concluded, “This tells us very little about Gender Studies, but an awful lot about the perpetrators of this ‘hoax’…. and those who tout it as a take down of an entire field.”

13 thoughts on “The Hoax That Failed, or Skeptics Who Aren’t Very Skeptical

    • Back before I decided to return to academia, I chuckled at the Sokal hoax. It stayed with me, and is one of the reasons I am now so against blind peer review–and why I rarely submit to peer-reviewed journals. Not only does peer review as we know it lend itself to fraud and hoax, but it narrows study to predetermined paths. I know little about Cogent Social Sciences but don’t see it being under the T & F umbrella as speaking particularly well for it–that it accepted such an article, on the other hand, makes me view it with suspicion. A quick look does make me wonder if it is not closer to vanity or predatory than real scholarship. Even so, an article should stand or fall on its public merit, not on its venue and not on the reputation of its editor or the review process behind it. The most venal venue could publish great stuff, after all. Just as the most respected one can publish junk.

      Most academics, even friends of mine, disagree with me quite strongly on this. But this newest hoax only confirms me in my position.

        • Not explicitly, no. But I did not know that at the time. Whatever, it certainly made me aware of peer review and its limitations–and editorial review and its limitations.

          What I want, anyhow, is for a different kind of review altogether for scholarship, one that does not impose unnecessary bottlenecks.

    • That’s literally addressed in this piece though? Did you bother to read all of it? ” And while it is published by Taylor and Francis, a respected publisher, the journal’s website makes clear that it operates entirely independently of Taylor & Francis, and that its publishing model is utterly different from theirs.”

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  2. (apparently, these authors didn’t pay anything)

    It’s worth noting that though Boghossian’s tweet makes the claim of not having paid, their article as published in Skeptic suggests the opposite:

    Portland State University has a fund dedicated to paying fees for open access journals, and this particular journal qualified for disbursement. For ethical reasons, however, we did not apply for funding, which in this case was virtually guaranteed. Instead, the article was externally funded by an independent party.

    (Emphasis mine.)

    • Maybe the funding went to cover all the extensive “research” behind their “study?” Or perhaps they’re just not being forthright. Thanks for pointing this out.

  3. This is a good article but it contains a significant error. The Andrew Wakefield paper was emphatically not a hoax. It was earnestly dangerous and bad science, the effects of which continue to reverberate today. There is a difference.

    • You’re right, there IS a difference. I’m very far from expert on this controversy, but I understand that it was discredited because it used “fraudulent” (see link in the post) data. If that were intentional, I guess it could be deemed a “hoax,” but otherwise perhaps just awfully sloppy work. Wakefield’s intent is well beyond my ability to discern. Anyway, thanks for the correction.

  4. One troubling feature of the “The Conceptual Penis” is its inordinate focus on climate science“. I’m not troubled. To me, climate change was an obvious thing to include if you’re trying to make a paper irresistible to a Gender Studies peer reviewer. Remember, the hoaxers “suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil.”

    Should you avoid doing something you consider important, just because you think climate change deniers might try to use it in their favour? Of course not. Especially not where it’s of such tenuous use to them. It’s clear that Gender Studies is the target here, not Climate Science.

    Here’s something that appears not to be a hoax:
    Ultimately, through a queer eco-critique, this chapter argues that the heteronormative underpinnings of contemporary international environmental policy discourses work counter to combating environmental degradation through their reliance on Western heterosexualized idea(l)s of coupling and family life.” I strongly suspect that the author (a “Lecturer in International Politics and Gender”) is one academic whose salary is better spent on almost anything else. (My spending preference would be research into clean energy.)

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