Helen Wilson published an article, “Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon,” in the academic journal Gender, Place and Culture this May. The article drew upon a thousand hours of ethnographic observation to produce mildly interesting empirical findings surrounded by theory so bad it read like inadvertent self-parody. A typical line brags that the paper’s analysis of dog parks “forces us to confront realities of oppression and violence within public spaces and to consider their gendered reality and the means by which we perpetuate those problems, inviting us to reconsider dog parks through feminist and animal geography as emancipatory rather than oppressive spaces.” Alas, to a sociologist, the shibboleths and tics of this prose are painfully recognizable, not as those of my field, but of adjacent and occasionally overlapping ones.

Except, as we learned on October 2 from the Wall Street Journal, “Human Reactions” was not inadvertent self-parody but a very deliberate parody drafted and submitted as a hoax. Alas, there is no Helen Wilson and the ethnographic data was fabricated. Moreover, it was only 1 of 20 such articles quickly dubbed the “Sokal squared” hoax, in reference to physicist Alan Sokal’s 1996 prank against the postmodern literary journal Social Text. Sokal facetiously argued that quantum gravity had tendentious political implications and ridiculous ontological ones and the journal bought it. This new hoax was aimed at a style of scholarly work that is sometimes inaccurately called “postmodern,” but which mostly refers to itself as “critical theory” and which the pranksters dubbed “grievance studies.”

The pranksters are Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian: a medievalist, a mathematician, and a philosopher respectively. In just one year, they learned the style and citations of gender studies and related fields well enough to parody them, wrote 20 articles, and got many of them all or part of the way through the peer review process. By the time the Wall Street Journal called the hoax, they had seven papers accepted for publication. An additional four articles had received revise and resubmits (“R&R”), a stage of peer review indicating that a paper is being taken seriously and has reasonably good odds of eventually being published in that journal. Counting publications, “forthcoming” accepted papers, and R&Rs, the team received serious interest in 11 of their papers—11 papers that must be counted as successes for the pranksters and failures for the journals and scholarly fields that supported them. This is an astounding rate of scholarly productivity and an excellent placement rate, even accounting for the expediency of fabricating data.

The published papers are also successes as satire. One of the funniest is “Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria, Transhysteria, and Transphobia through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use,” published in Sexuality & Culture. The main joke is the premise that men can be pegged into enlightenment, but the article is full of subtler humor as well, such as sweeping conclusions drawn from a mere 13 interviews, conservative potential respondents declining to participate in the study, and a soliloquy vacillating on whether it is transphobic for gay men to be uninterested in sex with transwomen. Other papers included jokes about bad methods, such as “Agency as an Elephant Test for Feminist Porn: Impacts on Male Explicit and Implicit Associations about Women in Society by Immersive Pornography Consumption,” which got an R&R at Porn Studies. This paper used the absurd method of having a handful of men take thousands of implicit association tests as they consumed quantities of pornography sufficient to induce severe eyestrain. Bracketing any questions of theory or ideology, this is simply terrible research design, as it has too many observations within subject and not nearly enough subjects to be useful. That the journal didn’t reject on these grounds shows ignorance of basic quantitative methodology.

I myself was a witness to this hoax peer review process. My doctoral student David Schieber emailed me in June about an odd peer review request he’d received. I had to read the abstract he sent me twice to be sure it was really equating fantasizing about someone during masturbation with rape. I replied to David that it was better suited to Tumblr than Sociological Theory, but that he should do the review anyway as a form of professional service. He did and, being a much nicer person than I am, provided three pages of detailed feedback along with his rejection. In their writeup, the pranksters paraded these reviewer comments like they were the corpse of Hector, and indeed several articles about the hoax discussed the masturbation paper while neglecting to note that Sociological Theory rejected the article.

As the Sociological Theory rejection suggests, comparing successes and failures provides the real lessons of the hoax. Seven of the 10 rejections were from sociology journals, and no sociology journal gave an accept or an R&R. All 11 acceptances and R&Rs were from cultural studies journals, mostly gender studies. To their credit, three cultural studies journals also rejected the papers. Though the pranksters continue to lump sociology in with “grievance studies” fields, there was a stark difference; sociology journals (including one that specializes in gender and another specializing in race) rejected the hoax papers, but cultural studies accepted or gave R&Rs to about three-fourths of the submissions.

Sociology doesn’t lack grievance- or activist-focused scholars. In a recent article for the American Sociologist, Mark Horowitz, Anthony Haynor, and Kenneth Kickham found that about 40 percent of American sociologists prefer that the discipline openly embrace polemic and praxis—akin to what the pranksters call “grievance studies.” Likewise, the current president of the American Sociological Association ran on a platform placing “scholar-activism” over “false notions of ‘objectivity.’ ” Nonetheless, this is a minority position, and over half of sociologists prefer a fundamentally scholarly mission for the discipline. In my 20 years as a sociologist, I have found nearly all of my colleagues to be deeply concerned with data and analysis, and many quietly eye-roll at interdisciplinary fields in which the moral mission is paramount. This skepticism includes many colleagues whose own politics are staunchly to the left. The “masturbation is rape” paper failed at Sociological Theory because it is simply not sociology. If you interviewed a bunch of women and asked them how they felt about the idea that men visualize them while pleasuring themselves and it turned out that they did or did not feel violated, that would perhaps be publishable, but providing a jargon-laden bare assertion that porn viewing is sexual assault is an opinion, not a positive claim about social reality, and sociology is about the latter.

One of the criticisms of the hoax is that it wasted peer reviewers’ time and was committed in bad faith, but polemical nonsense wastes reviewers’ time even when it is composed and submitted in earnest. Once it’s published, it wastes the time of readers as well.

The real waste would be to refuse to draw lessons from the prank, whether such obstinacy is from academics defensively closing ranks to protect our least rigorous colleagues, or from critics of academia reaffirming their indiscriminate hostility by lumping together fields where polemic is part of the field’s identity with those where the work is fundamentally grounded in methodological rigor and analysis, notwithstanding the sizable minority that wants to sell this birthright for a mess of wokage.

Anyone who believes topics like gender deserve serious inquiry, as I do and the pranksters claim to, should use the hoax as a way to learn which academic fields treat this as part of their mission but do so in a way that is relatively good at filtering out nonsense. This knowledge helps us appreciate what is effective in these fields and encourages practitioners to keep at it rather than falling into the habits of motivated reasoning and woke credulity—the sensibility that allowed cultural studies journals to take seriously a paper advocating fat bodybuilding, a lightly edited chapter from Mein Kampf, and a proposal to force privileged students to sit on classroom floors in chains. The disciplinary social sciences are not grievance studies, but as this hoax revealed, social scientists should see grievance studies as equivalent to Marley’s ghost shaking his chains on Christmas Eve, warning us not to be like him and share his fate.