The big scandal this weekend: Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay pulled a hoax on a social-science journal by getting a deliberately nonsensical paper published there, and then crowed that this demonstrates the field of gender studies to be “crippled academically.” However, when people with a measure of sense examined B&L’s stunt, they found it to be instead evidence that you can get any crap published if you lower your standards far enough, particularly if you’re willing to pay for the privilege and you find a journal whose raison d’être is to rip people off. Indeed, B&L’s paper (“The conceptual penis as a social construct”) was rejected from the first journal they sent it to, and it got bounced down the line to a new and essentially obscure venue of dubious ethical standing. Specifically, I can’t find anybody who had even heard of Cogent Social Sciences apart from spam emails inviting them to publish there. This kind of bottom-feeding practice has proliferated in the years since Open Access publishing became a thing, to unclear effect. It hasn’t seemed in practice to tarnish the reputation of serious Open Access journals (the PLOS family, Scientific Reports, Physical Review X, Discrete Analysis, etc.). Arguably, once the infrastructure of the Web existed, some variety of pay-to-publish scam was inevitable, since there will always be academics angling for the appearance of success—as long as there are tenure committees.
Boghossian and Lindsay made the triumphant announcement of their hoax in Skeptic, a magazine edited by Michael Shermer. And if you think that I’ll use this as an occasion to voice my grievances at Capital-S Skepticism being a garbage fire of a movement, you’re absolutely correct. I agree with the thesis of Ketan Joshi here:
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’.
That slow, deliberative mechanism of self-assessment is non-existent in the authorship and sharing of this piece. It seems quite likely that this is due largely to a pre-existing hostility towards gender studies, ‘identity politics’ and the general focus of contemporary progressive America.
Boghossian and Lindsay see themselves as the second coming of Alan Sokal, who successfully fooled Social Text into publishing a parody of postmodern theory-babble back in 1999. But after the fact, Sokal said the publication of his hoax itself didn’t prove much at all, just that a few people happened to be asleep at the wheel. (His words: “From the mere fact of publication of my parody I think that not much can be deduced.”) Then he wrote two books of footnotes and caveats to show that he had lampooned some views he himself held in more moderate form.
Meanwhile, Steven Pinker—who happily boosted the B&L hoax to his 310,000 Twitter followers—strips all the technical content out of physics, mixes the jargon up with trite and folksy “wisdom,” and uses the result to support pompous bloviation.
… Which, funny story, is one of the main things that Alan Sokal was criticizing.
I gotta quote this part of B&L’s boast:
Most of our references are quotations from papers and figures in the field that barely make sense in the context of the text. Others were obtained by searching keywords and grabbing papers that sounded plausibly connected to words we cited. We read exactly zero of the sources we cited, by intention, as part of the hoax. […] Some references cite the Postmodern [sic] Generator, a website coded in the 1990s by Andrew Bulhak featuring an algorithm, based on NYU physicist Alan Sokal’s method of hoaxing a cultural studies journal called Social Text, that returns a different fake postmodern “paper” every time the page is reloaded.
But the Postmodernism Generator is not based on Sokal’s method, because Sokal’s method was to read actual papers, find quotations and string them together. He was not a Markov bot! Sokal writes,
In fact, the article is structured around the silliest quotations I could find about mathematics and physics (and the philosophy of mathematics and physics) from some of the most prominent French and American intellectuals; my only contribution was to invent a nonsensical argument linking these quotations together and praising them.
Which was exactly the point, and what he really wanted to talk about: Not the single failure on the part of one “rather marginal journal,” but the widespread examples of famous (or at least academic-famous) people taking about important questions with apparently no feedback or quality control. Sokal argues at length that philosophical, cultural and sociological studies of science are good things we should be doing; his beef is that people were doing these important things badly.
If you subtract out the shoddy publication practices of Social Text, you still have real substance to discuss—in fact, it’s the more important substance. Were all of the examples that Sokal found really as bad as they first appeared? There’s the possibility of a productive conversation there. If you subtract out the shoddy publication practices of Cogent Social Sciences, you’re left with nothing, because there’s no actual work behind Boghossian and Lindsay’s stunt. Peel back the surface, and underneath, there’s just no there there.
Far from being the “son of Sokal” event that Boghossian, Lindsay, Shermer and fans all salivate for, this sorry excuse for a scandal fails to emulate the one meaningful aspect of what Sokal did.
Want to know how I know Cogent Social Sciences is edited badly enough that it isn’t worth the pixels it’s printed on? It’s a tiny clue but a nifty one, the kind of clue that makes the camera spin about one’s head while captions spring into being. The hoax article uses the word transgendered in the first sentence of the abstract, and again in the first graf of the introduction. By my PDF reader’s count, it only uses the word trans three times. This is, I think, a hint to a couple things: First, the authors aren’t as good at faking Feminist Librul Tumblr SJW as they think they are, and second, whatever reviewers the bottom-tier journal had weren’t all that knowledgeable either. See, e.g., the GLAAD Media Reference sheet:
The adjective transgender should never have an extraneous “-ed” tacked onto the end. An “-ed” suffix adds unnecessary length to the word and can cause tense confusion and grammatical errors. It also brings transgender into alignment with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer. You would not say that Elton John is “gayed” or Ellen DeGeneres is “lesbianed,” therefore you would not say Chaz Bono is “transgendered.”
And oh, how B&L try to play up the importance and community standing of the journal they finally managed to dump their load on. “Cogent Social Sciences operates with the legitimizing imprimatur of Taylor and Francis,” they write. And Elsevier publishes Homeopathy.
(I’d say that nobody who says “legitimizing imprimatur” can complain about academic jargon, but I’m too busy making that my new band name.)
B&L seem particularly delighted by one point: “We argued that climate change is ‘conceptually’ caused by penises.” Yeah, “Penises cause climate change!” sounds silly, but then, sexism (and racism) elected Fuckface von Clownstick, so hey. The proximate cause may be the atmospheric chemistry of CO2, but last November, limp white cock made the problem a whole lot harder to solve. (On that note, pasty-pale penises gonna dick us into the next great epidemic, too.) But because a paper getting published in a bottom-tier word bucket that isn’t even a science journal obviously says so much about science, climate deniers have already passed around the B&L boast with much glee and merriment, as Ketan Joshi documents.
Noted clock truther and honey aficionado Richard Dawkins praised the B&L stunt, calling it a “brilliant hoax paper” that “satiriz[ed] pretentious charlatans of Gender Studies”; he later expressed regret that he did not do it himself.
[looks back and forth between the aggrandized Defender of Science(TM) and the climate denialists]
What can we say? Such are the bedfellows made by a conceptual penis.
[Title of this post chosen because we’re long overdue to replace “-gate” with a new scandal suffix.]
EDIT TO ADD (later in the day): An endnote of the boast in Skeptic says the following:
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.
Boghossian claimed that they “didn’t pay a penny”; Lindsay later elaborated that they were prepared to pay, but never got an invoice, and the paper was published before they handed over any money. Lindsay also says that the “pay what you want” language from the journal’s website is outdated, and they now have a “minimum payment policy.” Which makes them even less respectable, in two ways. First, legitimate journals are up-front about these matters; they have fee assistance and waiver policies, and sometimes, no fee at all. Second, if you trust Lindsay’s description of the journal’s behavior, they’re sloppy, disorganized and unprofessional. And getting past their elite intellectual guard was supposed to be such a coup?