(Credit: Getty/Andrew Rich)
Have you ever witnessed a prank gone wrong? If not, here you go: This is precisely what happened when a philosopher and mathematician, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, respectively, published an intentionally incoherent fake paper titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” in a journal called Cogent Social Sciences.
In an article simultaneously published in the magazine Skeptic, this project was loudly advertised as a “hoax on gender studies.” It primarily aimed to expose what the authors presume to be the nonsensical absurdity of gender studies, an interdisciplinary field that attempts to understand gender identity and how these identities play out in society.
Yet Boghossian and Lindsay’s prank article unambiguously failed to do this and ultimately may have harmed the skeptic community. First, the open-access journal that published their article requests that authors pay to publish. In the case of Cogent Social Sciences, the recommended fee is a whopping $1,350. I have affirmed that Boghossian and Lindsay were, for unknown reasons, asked to pay less than half of this, namely $625, but the journal apparently never got around to actually requesting the money — leading Boghossian to repeatedly declare on social media that he and his colleague were paid “nada” for the article, which taken out of context is patently misleading.
It is, of course, in the pecuniary interest of pay-to-publish journals to accept papers regardless of quality. In fact terrible articles that should have never passed peer review are published in these journals all the time. Case in point: a 2009 fake scientific article written using nonsense-generating software ended up in the pay-to-publish, open-access, peer-reviewed publication called the Open Information Science Journal. One of the co-authors said he was curious whether the publisher would “accept a completely nonsensical manuscript if the authors were willing to pay” — and pay he (almost) did, to the tune of $800.
In another experiment, John Bohannon of Science magazine submitted 304 versions of a fake scientific paper to open-access journals, including some associated with highly respectable publishing companies. He used a fake name attached to a fake institution and managed to get the paper, which had flaws that anyone with a high-school diploma should have been able to detect, accepted to more than half the journals. In Bohannon’s words:
Acceptance was the norm, not the exception. The paper was accepted by journals hosted by industry titans Sage and Elsevier. The paper was accepted by journals published by prestigious academic institutions such as Kobe University in Japan. It was accepted by scholarly society journals. It was even accepted by journals for which the paper’s topic was utterly inappropriate, such as the Journal of Experimental & Clinical Assisted Reproduction.
This reveals just how problematic the pay-to-publish model can be, even tainting the peer-review process — which in the best of circumstances can be flawed. But the fact that Bohannon got the phony paper published is not an indictment of science itself. Why would it be? To show that the intellectual values of a field are fundamentally flawed, one would need to publish in the best journals of that field and trick genuine experts into believing the hoax is a non-hoax. That was what mathematician and physicist Alan Sokal did in the notorious “Sokal affair,” which attempted to unveil the obscurantist vacuity of some postmodern theory.
Still, even Sokal himself was rather nuanced about the implications of his experiment, saying, “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.”
Boghossian and Lindsay are sadly not so nuanced in their claims. Instead, they take their hoax article to expose the entire field of gender studies as an intellectual scam. So, too, does the public intellectual Michael Shermer, the editor in chief of Skeptic. In a rather un-skeptical foreword to Boghossian and Lindsay’s article — subtitled “a Sokal-style hoax on gender studies” — Shermer wrote:
Every once in awhile it is necessary and desirable to expose extreme ideologies for what they are by carrying out their arguments and rhetoric to their logical and absurd conclusion, which is why we are proud to publish this expose [sic] of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed article today.
There was no mention of the quality of the journal or the fact that it was a pay-to-publish one. Indeed, there was no mention of the politics of publishing at all in this foreword. Here, the hoax was entirely pitched as an unveiling of the “extreme ideologies” of gender studies. Elsewhere Boghossian and Lindsay appeared to be vaguely aware that their hoax isn’t really about gender studies at all, as when Lindsay wrote:
When [a more reputable journal] rejected the paper and offered to transfer it to Cogent, we realized that there was a two-pronged opportunity here. One is to test gender studies and related fields, as indicated, and the other is to expose the problem of pay-to-publish open-access journals, which are in part largely motivated (unlike mere vanity journals) to exploit an enormous problem in the academic world at the moment: publish-or-perish atmospheres in academic departments, especially for tenure consideration. We fully realize that going with a journal like Cogent increased our probability of publication and thus muddied the waters on our point against gender studies, but to expose two problems at once . . . was too good to pass up.
Lindsay comes oh-so-close to the epiphany needed to see the fatal flaw in his and his colleague’s project: These two “prongs” aren’t merely in tension; they are inversely correlated. Publishing in Cogent doesn’t merely muddy the waters on their point against gender studies; it completely vitiates it. Cogent isn’t even about gender studies. Not a single “senior editor” of the journal has an academic background in the field. Rather, their expertise lies in (I kid you not) tourism, criminology, development planning, geography, sport management and communication sciences.
The most crucial point, therefore, is this: Submitting an article on gender studies to that particular journal and then claiming that its publication proves that gender studies is idiotic is tantamount to a creationist writing a fake article about evolutionary biology, publishing it in an unknown pay-to-publish non-biology journal (whose editorial board includes no one with expertise in evolutionary biology), and then exclaiming, “See! The entire field of evolutionary biology is complete nonsense.” This is puerile gotcha-ism that completely misses the target while simultaneously making, in the case of Boghossian and Lindsay, the skeptic community look like gullible, anti-intellectual fools.
All that being said, Boghossian and Lindsay do accomplish something notable, although not original: They show just how easy it is to get a fake paper published in a pay-to-publish journal. This is not a trivial point, although they could have saved many hours of work by randomly generating an article, as the authors above did for the Open Information Science Journal. Or they could have intentionally plagiarized an article and then submitted it. But Boghossian and Lindsay would never have done this because their real ideologically motivated target was gender studies.
But the situation is actually much worse than that: Boghossian and Lindsay likely did damage to the cultural movements that they have helped to build, namely “new atheism” and the skeptic community. As far as I can tell, neither of them knows much about gender studies, despite their confident and even haughty claims about the deep theoretical flaws of that discipline. As a skeptic myself, I am cautious about the constellation of cognitive biases to which our evolved brains are perpetually susceptible, including motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, disconfirmation bias, overconfidence and belief perseverance. That is partly why, as a general rule, if one wants to criticize a topic X, one should at the very least know enough about X to convince true experts in the relevant field that one is competent about X. This gets at what Brian Caplan calls the “ideological Turing test.” If you can’t pass this test, there’s a good chance you don’t know enough about the topic to offer a serious, one might even say cogent, critique.
Boghossian and Lindsay pretty clearly don’t pass that test. Their main claim to relevant knowledge in gender studies seems to be citations from Wikipedia and mockingly retweeting abstracts that they, as non-experts, find funny — which is rather like Sarah Palin’s mocking of scientists for studying fruit flies or claiming that Obamacare would entail “death panels.” This kind of unscholarly engagement has rather predictably led to a sizable backlash from serious scholars on social media who have noted that the skeptic community can sometimes be anything but skeptical about its own ignorance and ideological commitments.
As the historian Angus Johnston put it on Twitter, “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.” The quick, almost reflexive reposting of this “hoax” by people like Dave Rubin, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Christina Hoff Sommers and Melissa Chen reveals a marked lack of critical thinking about what exactly this exercise in attempted bullying proves.
If anything, the hoax reveals not the ideological dogmas of gender studies but the motivating prejudices of the authors and their mostly white, mostly male supporters against social justice — a term that simply refers to the realization of fairness and just relations among citizens of a society. This is part of a larger reaction witnessed across American culture in the past few years: a pushback against women’s rights, gender equality, racial equality and a sensitivity to the plights of marginalized peoples. It’s what got Donald Trump elected as president, and it’s what fuels the alt-right. (Notably, Breitbart News praised Boghossian and Lindsay’s hoax in a recent article.) If the authors — and the good folks at Skeptic — had thought a bit more carefully about this ruse, they might have realized that this faux paper’s publication says no more about gender studies than computer-generated papers published in scientific journals say about science.
Yet the urge to label the hoax a victory against gender studies was uncontrollable. This only reflects poorly on the intellectual honesty and thoughtfulness of those “in” on the joke — although it appears that, in the end, the joke may have been on them.
So where do we go from here? There is a way out: The authors could acknowledge that their hoax implies absolutely nothing about gender studies. It merely demonstrates that pay-to-publish journals will accept low-quality articles — a point that, as previously implied, is boringly unoriginal. Changing their views in response to facts like those mentioned above would be the ultimate confirmation of the values of skepticism, reason and epistemic humility.
Source: New feed