Somehow it is fitting that the most extraordinary academic hoax of our time would deal with dog parks, dildos, Hooters, masturbation, fat shaming, and a feminist Mein Kampf.
In a prank that is alternately hilarious, appalling, and disturbing, three puckish academics managed to place no fewer than seven “shoddy, absurd, unethical” articles in “respectable” academic journals that trafficked in the growing field of grievance studies—a field that includes gender and queer studies, critical race theory and a variety of post-modern constructivist theories now fashionable in the humanities and social sciences. If nothing else, they demonstrated that academic leftism is a target ripe for ridicule as well as outrage.
As they note in their paper, “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship,” the seven fake papers were the “tip of the iceberg” of sophistry in the hyper-ideological swamps of academia.
Indeed, they would surely have gotten more fake pieces published if their article about “dog park culture” had not attracted so much attention for its obvious risibility. The “dog park” article, was published with some fanfare in the journal Gender, Place, and Culture, was titled “Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity in Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon,” and argued that “dog parks are rape-condoning spaces and a place of rampant canine rape culture and systemic oppression against “the oppressed dog.” The study claimed that the observation of the dogs would provide “insight into training men out of the sexual violence and bigotry to which they are prone.” One peer reviewer gushed: “This is a wonderful paper—incredibly innovative, rich in analysis, and extremely well-written and organized given the incredibly diverse literature sets and theoretical questions brought into conversation.” The authors note that the journal honored the article about dog parks and rape as “one of twelve leading pieces in feminist geography as a part of the journal’s 25th anniversary celebration.”
The absurdity of the paper was first highlighted by the twitter account known as @RealPeerReview, which exposes a wide range of junk scholarship (if you don’t follow it, you really ought to.) When the Wall Street Journal and others began sniffing around to ascertain the authorship of the piece, however, the gig was up and the three hoaxers decided to come clean. They admitted that they were also behind the “nutty and inhumane” idea to make white male students sit on the floor as a form of reparations, a paper that explored why straight men “rarely anally self-penetrate using sex toys,” and had even gotten a paper accepted in a feminist journal that was actually a chapter from Mein Kampf, “with fashionable buzzwords switched in.”
In addition to the seven papers that were accepted, they had another three accepted but not published; another seven were “still in play,” and only six had been rejected by peer reviewers.
Their success had been was so spectacular—and the results so farcical—that Harvard’s Yascha Mounck has labeled the grievance study hoax “Sokal Squared,” a reference to what, until now, had been academia’s most elaborate ruse.
On May 18, 1996, the New York Times broke the story that one of the trendiest, most prestigious academic journals in the country had been the victim of an elaborate hoax. The journal Social Text had published a lengthy post-modernist critique of science, unaware that the whole thing was a parody, a complete spoof of academia’s “self-indulgent nonsense.”
The article, written by a physicist named Alan Sokal was “a hodgepodge of supported statements, outright mistakes, and impenetrable jargon,” wrote the editors of Lingua Franca, the journal that exposed the prank. Filled with references to “hip theorists” like Jacques Derrida, it was “full of nonsense and errors.” But it had been published nonetheless.
Hilarity ensued as the implications of the prank became clear not least because it seemed to confirm suspicions that beneath the academic gibberish lurked … well, just gibberish.
But the latest attempt to expose academic drivel is in some ways more ambitious, because rather than simply relying on word salads of jargon, the authors, Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian, set out to mimic the mind-set of the “identitarian madness coming out of the academic and activist left.”
Their experiment began modestly, with an article in a somewhat obscure publication arguing that “penises conceptually cause climate change.” They noted that the impact of the piece “was very limited, and much criticism of it was legitimate.” The three authors quickly determined that only the daftest journals would publish obvious hoaxes (basically pure nonsense) so they shifted to a devilishly clever methodology.
They began each paper with a bizarre or outrageous thesis—that astronomy is sexist, or that men should be trained as dogs—but hijacked the logic, language, and dogmas of existing grievance literature to support their claims. The papers were notable for their shoddiness and preposterousness, but—and here was the key—they fit seamlessly into what passes for scholarship in the world of grievance studies.
“While our papers are all outlandish or intentionally broken in significant ways, it is important to recognize that they blend in almost perfectly with others in the disciplines under our consideration,” they explained. “As we progressed, we started to realize that just about anything can be made to work, so long as it falls within the moral orthodoxy and demonstrates understanding of the existing literature.”
So, for example, they wanted to see if they could get a respected journal to “publish papers that seek to problematize heterosexual men’s attraction to women and will accept very shoddy qualitative methodology and ideologically-motivated interpretations which support this.” Again, success—the journal Sex Roles published “An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant,” in which the (fake) authors argued that men go to Hooters “because they are nostalgic for patriarchal dominance and enjoy being able to order attractive women around.”
Because the three pranksters wanted to see if they see if they could get journals to accept arguments “which are ludicrous and positively dangerous to health if they support cultural constructivist arguments around body positivity and fatphobia,” they wrote a paper arguing for the sport of “fat bodybuilding.” It was duly published in Fat Studies.
And the journal Sexuality and Culture eagerly accepted a piece on sex toys—“Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria and Transphobia through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use” that concluded that the male reluctance to use dildos was “actually homophobic, transphobic, and anti-feminist.”
But their pièce de résistance was their success in getting the journal Affilia to publish a rewrite of a chapter of Mein Kampf by titling it “Our Struggle is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism,” and leavening it with feminist jargon to distract from its Hitlerian antecedents.
Beneath the merriment, the authors made a deadly serious point. “The problem we’ve been studying is of the utmost relevance to the real world and everyone in it,” they write. Much of the work now being produced by academia’s growing and voluble grievance industry, “is positively horrifying and surreal while exerting considerable influence on the field and beyond.”
Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian—who are all self-proclaimed liberals—warn progressives who care about advancing social justice, that “these fields of study do not continue the important and noble liberal work of the civil rights movements; they corrupt it while trading upon their good names to keep pushing a kind of social snake oil onto a public that keeps getting sicker.”
They are a some pains to insist that their prank was not meant to discredit academia or even academic publishing as whole, but they warn that the sheer toxicity of grievance scholarship poses a threat not merely to universities, but to culture at large as well.
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….
This makes the problem a grave concern that’s rapidly undermining the legitimacy and reputations of universities, skewing politics, drowning out needed conversations, and pushing the culture war to ever more toxic and existential polarization.
The whistleblowers called on universities to launch a “thorough review,” of all of the fields suffused with grievance studies “in order to separate knowledge-producing disciplines and scholars from those generating constructivist sophistry.”
But such sustained introspection or reformation seem unlikely, given the arc of academia’s new orthodoxies, which are regarded as authoritative in so many disciplines. Reaction from the academic left has been predictable, with the authors attacked as part of a racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic right-wing assault on legitimate scholarship. Feminist scholar Alison Phipps issued a call via twitter (which has since been deleted) for her fellow academics to “please stand by colleagues in Gender Studies/Critical Race Studies/Fat Studies & other areas targeted by this journal article hoax. This is a coordinated attack from the right.” A critique in Slate also downplayed the gravity of the hoax and questioned why the story would be released “in the midst of the Kavanaugh imbroglio—a time when the anger and the horror of male anxiety is so resplendent in the news.”
Academia’s professional response to the whistleblowers is likely to be even harsher. The Wall Street Journal notes that it is likely the hoax will result in the academic ex-communication of the three scholars.
Mr. Boghossian doesn’t have tenure and expects the university will fire or otherwise punish him. Ms. Pluckrose predicts she’ll have a hard time getting accepted to a doctoral program. Mr. Lindsay said he expects to become “an academic pariah,” barred from professorships or publications.
Even so, Lindsay thinks it was all worth it, telling the Journal’s Jillian Kay Melchior, “For us, the risk of letting biased research continue to influence education, media, policy and culture is far greater than anything that will happen to us for having done this.”