An embarrassing moment for the skeptical movement

IMG_8356Twentyone years ago physicist Alan Sokal perpetrated his famous hoax at the expense of the postmodernist journal Social Text. It was at the height of the so-called “science wars” of the ’90s, and Sokal, as a scientist fed up with a lot of extreme statements about the social construction of science, thought of scoring a rhetorical point by embarrassing the other side. He wrote a fake paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” full of scientific-sounding nonsense and submitted to the editors of Social Text. They didn’t send it out for peer reviewed and published it as a welcome example of a scientist embracing the postmodernist cause.

Sokal then proceeded to unveil the hoax in the now defunct Lingua Franca, a magazine devoted to academic affairs, thus exposing the sloppy practiced of the editors of Social Text while at the same time embarrassing the postmodernist community.

Sokal, however, is no intellectual lightweight, and he wrote a sober assessment of the significance of his stunt, for instance stating:

“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.”

Move forward to the present. Philosopher Peter Boghossian (not to be confused with NYU’s Paul Boghossian) and author James Lindsay (henceforth, B&L) attempted to replicate the Sokal hoax by trick-publishing a silly paper entitled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.” The victim, in this case, was the journal Cogent Social Sciences, which sent out the submission for review and accepted it in record time (one month). After which, B&L triumphantly exposed their stunt in Skeptic magazine.

But the similarities between the two episodes end there. Rather than showing Sokal’s restraint on the significance of the hoax, B&L went full blast. They see themselves as exposing a “deeply troubling” problem with the modern academy:

“The echo-chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense coming out of the postmodernist social ‘sciences’ in general, and gender studies departments in particular … As we see it, gender studies in its current form needs to do some serious housecleaning.”

And (a large chunk of especially influential people in) the skeptic community joined the victory parade:

“We are proud to publish this exposé of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed journal today.” (Michael Shermer)

“This is glorious. Well done!” (Sam Harris)

“Sokal-style satire on pretentious ‘gender studies.'” (Richard Dawkins)

“New academic hoax: a bogus paper on ‘the conceptual penis’ gets published in a ‘high-quality peer-reviewed’ journal.” (Steven Pinker)

“Cultural studies, including women’s studies, are particularly prone to the toxic combinations of jargon and ideology that makes for such horrible ‘scholarship.'” (Jerry Coyne)

Except that a mildly closer look shows that Boghossian and Lindsay are no Sokals, and that the hoax should actually be treated as an embarrassment for the skeptic community. Let’s do a bit of, ahem, deconstructing of the conceptual penis affair.

(i) Like the Sokal hoax, the sample size is n=1. Since Boghossian teaches critical thinking, he ought to know that pretty much nothing can be concluded from that sort of “sampling” of the relevant population. That’s why Sokal properly understood his hoax as a rhetorical success, a way to put the spotlight on the problem, not of showing anything broader than “that the editors of one rather marginal journal were derelict in their intellectual duty.”

(ii) The B&L paper was actually rejected by the first journal it was submitted to, NORMA: The International Journal for Masculinity Study. Boghossian and Lindsay admit this, but add that they were “invited” to resubmit to Cogent Social Sciences, which is handled by the same prestigious Taylor & Francis publishing group that handles NORMA. The reality is that NORMA itself doesn’t make it even on the list of top 115 publications in gender studies, which makes it an unranked journal, not a “top” one. also, if you check Cogent Social Sciences’ web site you will see that it operates independently of Taylor & Francis. Oh, fun fact: NORMA’s impact fact is a whopping zero… And remember, it actually rejected the paper.

(iii) The “invitation” to resubmit to Cogent Social Sciences was likely an automated email directing the authors to an obvious pay-to-publish vanity journal. See if you can spot the clues from the journal’s description of their acceptance policies. First, authors are invited to “pay what they can” in order to publish their papers; second, they say they are very “friendly” to prospective authors; lastly, they say that they do not “necessarily reject” papers with no impact. Does that sound to you like a respectable outlet, in any field?

(iv) But isn’t Cogent Social Sciences said to be “high quality” by the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)? It may be, but the DOAJ is community run, has no official standing, and to make it on its list of recommended publications a journal “must exercise peer-review with an editor and an editorial board or editorial review…. carried out by at least two editors.” Even vanity journals easily meet those criteria.

All of the above said, I am indeed weary of “studies” fields, of which women and gender studies are just a couple of examples. As I’ve written in the past, my experience actually interacting with some faculty and students in those programs has been that they do have a tendency to insularity, which could be remedied by integrating them into the appropriate classic departments, like philosophy, history, comparative literature, and the like. That, in fact, was the original intention when these programs first appeared decades ago, and my understanding is that it was the traditional departments that did not want to go down that route, in order to protect their turf, faculty lines, and students tuition money.

It is also the case that many in “X Studies” programs embrace left-leaning politics and see themselves as activists first, scholars next. This is a problem, as the two roles may lead to conflict, in which activism may prevail at the expense of sound scholarship. But the problem isn’t confined to X Studies, as it is found, for instance, in ecology (where a lot of practitioners are also involved with environmentalist organizations), cultural anthropology (protection, not just study, of indigenous populations), and frankly even critical thinking and philosophy. I have made a career of studying pseudoscience (academically) while at the same time advocating on behalf of science and reason (blogs, books, articles, podcasts). So the two activities shouldn’t be seen as ipso facto incompatible (as, for instance, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt does). But one does need to thread cautiously nonetheless.

Finally, my observation by talking to colleagues in X studies and reading some of their papers (an approach that Boghossian and Lindsay boast of having rejected, because they apparently know a priori that it’s all bullshit), is that there is a tendency to embrace a form of environmental determinism — as opposed to its genetic counterpart — about human cognitive and cultural traits. This attitude is not scientifically sound, and it even generates internal conflict, as in the case of some radical feminists who reject any talk of being “trapped in the wrong body” by transgender people. As someone who has actually studied gene-environment interactions I am extremely skeptical of any simplistic claim of either genetic or environmental determination. Human beings are exceedingly complex and inherently cultural organisms, and the best bet is to assume that pretty much everything we do is the highly intricate result of a continuous interplay among genes, developmental systems, and environments.

So yes, X Studies are potentially problematic, and they probably ought to undergo academic review as a concept, as well as be subjected to sustained, external scholarly criticism. But this is absolutely not what the B&L stunt has done. Not even close.

And of course, for balance, let’s remember that science too is subject to disturbingly similar problems (thanks to Ketan Joshi for this brief summary, to which many, many more entries could easily be added — here is a similarly good take):

* Andrew Wakefield, a British anti-vaccination campaigner, notoriously managed to publish a fraudulent paper in the (really) prestigious medical journal Lancet in 1998.

* A US nuclear physics conference accepted a paper written entirely in autocomplete.

* A trio of MIT graduate students created an algorithm that produces fake scientific papers, and in 2013 IEEE and Springer Publishing (really seriously academic publishers) found a whopping 120 published papers that had been generated by the program.

* A paper entitled “Get me off your fucking mailing list” was accepted for publication by a computer science journal.

* A 2013 hoax saw a scientific paper about anti-cancer properties in a chemical extracted from a fictional lichen published in several hundred journals.

And of course let’s not forget the current, very serious, replication crisis in both medical research and psychology. Or the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has created entire fake journals in order to publish studies “friendly” to their bottom line. And these are fields that — unlike gender studies — actually attract millions of dollars in funding and whose “research” affects people’s lives directly.

But I don’t see Boghossian, Lindsay, Shermer, Dawkins, Coyne, Pinker or Harris flooding their Twitter feeds with news of the intellectual bankruptcy of biology, physics, computer science, and medicine. Why not?

Well, here is one possibility:

“American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message” — Michael Shermer, 18 November 2016

“Gender Studies is primarily composed of radical ideologues who view indoctrination as their primary duty. These departments must be defunded” –Peter Boghossian, 25 April 2016

Turns out that a good number of “skeptics” are actually committed to the political cause of libertarianism. This is fine in and of itself, since we are all entitled to our political opinions. But it becomes a problem when it is used as a filter to inform your allegedly critical thinking. And it becomes particularly problematic when libertarian skeptics go on a rampage accusing others of ideological bias and calling for their defunding. Self-criticism before other-criticism, people — it’s the virtuous thing to do.

This latest episode does not, unfortunately, surprise me at all. It fits a pattern that has concerned me for years, as someone who has been very active within the movement and who still identifies with its core tenets. When Steven Pinker openly embraces scientism, turning an epistemic vice into a virtue; or when atheists think that their position amounts to anything more than a negative metaphysical stance — and think that being nasty about it is the way forward; or when atheism, skepticism and scientism are confused with each other for ideological purposes; then I get seriously worried about the future of a movement that has so much potential to help keep the light of reason alive in a society that desperately needs it.

The Boghossian and Lindsay hoax falls far short of the goal of demonstrating that gender studies is full of nonsense. But it does expose for all the world to see the problematic condition of the skeptic movement. Someone should try to wrestle it away from the ideologues currently running it, returning it to its core mission of critical analysis, including, and indeed beginning with, self-criticism. Call it Socratic Skepticism(TM).

_____

Update: Steven Pinker has admitted on Twitter that the hoax was a bad idea: “‘Gender studies’ is an academic field that deserves criticism, but The ‘Conceptual Penis’ hoax missed the mark.”

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Categories: Atheism & Religion, Public Philosophy, Social & Political Philosophy

69 replies

  1. Massimo,

    Oh heck! You mean we are all human?

    One way to think of it(or anything else) is in terms of cycles. Anything successful is going to elicit imitations, until it is sufficiently drained of excess validity. Action, meet reaction.

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  2. On a personal note, my daughter graduates college today(public health, Bloomberg school, Hopkins) and there have been a fair number of classes mentioned that would fall in the political social studies arena, but I figure it is her world and getting to know the people in it is more important than its various current interpretations and fads.

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  3. Hi Massimo,

    First, yes, the hoax suffers somewhat from the lack of stature of the journal it was accepted by, but I think you’re being a bit unfair to Boghossian and Lindsay. So here are some counter-points:

    That’s why Sokal properly understood his hoax as a rhetorical success, a way to put the spotlight on the problem, …

    And perhaps B&L regard their hoax the same way, as highlighting a problem, rather than amounting to a big deal in its own right? After all, it’s not the only piece of evidence people like them are pointing to.

    And it’s only fair to point out that B&L recognise many of the issues you point to. Their “deeply troubling” comment relates just as much to what they call:

    “the complex problem of pay-to-publish journals with lax standards that cash in on the ultra-competitive publish-or-perish academic environment.”

    The “invitation” to resubmit to Cogent Social Sciences was likely an automated email directing the authors to a well known pay-to-publish vanity journal.

    Well known? Really? Had you heard of it? The better accusation is that the journal was not at all well known, and indeed that few had heard of it!

    And is it a “pay-to-publish vanity journal”? The model of open access journals supported by “pay-to-publish” (or “article processing fees”) is a sound one in line with today’s open-access ethos, and plenty such journals are reputable and solid. There are also a lot of new such journals competing for this market. Is Cogent Social Sciences just a money-making vanity journal (as many others are) or is it trying to be a reputable journal using a relatively new business model? Well, that’s not fully clear:

    See if you can spot the clues from the journal’s description of their acceptance policies. First, authors are invited to “pay what they can” in order to publish their papers …

    That’s in their favour. A journal there as a money-making exercise would not offer to waive the fee.

    … lastly, they say that they do not “necessarily reject” papers with no impact.

    However, one of the big problems has been that the highly prestigous journals have tended to demand “impact” and “significance” in papers. That has led to authors p-fishing and massaging marginally significant results in order to get something accepted by a top journal. And it has meant that papers saying “I could not replicate this result” or “we found no significant effect of this drug” don’t get published, with resulting publication bias.

    As a result, some journals such as PLoS have a policy of accepting or rejecting only on soundness, not on “impact” (aka “flashiness”). So, no, this is not necessarily a problem.

    Does that sound to you like a “top” journal in any field?

    The quote marks suggest that B&L have claimed it was a “top” journal. Have they? They spend a lot of their article discussing the dubious nature of such journals, for example saying:

    “The problem lies within a nebula of marginal journals, predatory pay-to-publish journals, and, possibly to some degree, open-access journals …”

    Andrew Wakefield … notoriously managed to publish a fraudulent paper in the (really) prestigious medical journal Lancet in 1998.

    Fraud is really a very different issue from nonsense papers.

    A trio of MIT graduate students created an algorithm that produces fake scientific papers …

    Yes, “fake” journals that exist merely to make money, and which will indeed accept anything, are indeed a problem. That is part of what B&L highlighted in their Skeptic article (see above quotes).

    A paper entitled “Get me off your fucking mailing list” was accepted for publication by a computer science journal.

    It wasn’t a “computer science journal” is was a fake journal, a money-making scam. Is Cogent Social Sciences of that nature? Well, not necessarily, see above. If it was, they’d just have accepted the paper straight off rather than first refereeing it and asking for some changes.

    But I don’t see Boghossian, Lindsay, Shermer, Dawkins, Coyne, Pinker or Harris flooding their Twitter feeds with news of the intellectual bankruptcy of biology, physics, computer science, and medicine. Why not?

    Because those issues you point to really are about fake journals and fake conferences.

    So, to sum up, yes the hoax would have been much stronger if accepted by a higher-ranked journal, but no, it is not an “embarrassment”.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. On the mark Massimo. I used to listen to Shermer’s Sceptics’ Guide to the Universe, but the snark and ridicule made it pretty much unlistenable. If the movement is going to go much beyond its current band of believers, a little humility and introspection would go a long way.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Coel,

    Ah yes, I expected a vigorous defense of Boghossian and Lindsay from you! Even though even Pinker has now agreed that this was a mistake (see updated at the bottom of the OP).

    “perhaps B&L regard their hoax the same way, as highlighting a problem, rather than amounting to a big deal in its own right?”

    No, it’s pretty clear from their Skeptic article that they don’t.

    “it’s only fair to point out that B&L recognise many of the issues you point to.”

    Yes, they are concerned about vanity publishing in general, but I think it is disingenuous to think that that was their primary concern or target.

    “Well known? Really? Had you heard of it?”

    Poor choice of words. I meant “obvious vanity journal.” I now corrected the OP, thanks.

    “The model of open access journals supported by “pay-to-publish” (or “article processing fees”) is a sound one in line with today’s open-access ethos, and plenty such journals are reputable and solid.”

    Indeed, but if you take their full editorial policy, not just that bit, it is screamingly obvious that they are a vanity journal. I receive invitations from journals like that daily.

    “That’s in their favour. A journal there as a money-making exercise would not offer to waive the fee.”

    Actually, no. Reputable journals simply say that they will wave the fee if the author has no funding available. It is common among vanity journals, instead, to bait you with a “pay what you can afford” pitch.

    “one of the big problems has been that the highly prestigous journals have tended to demand “impact” and “significance” in papers”

    That is true, and of concern. But, again, you need to read the full editorial policy and connect the dots (which is really not hard at all). Individually, the pieces may be defended. Together they very clear say “vanity journal.” And it’s hard to imagine that Boghossian and Lindsay didn’t know that, especially after their paper had been rejected.

    “The quote marks suggest that B&L have claimed it was a “top” journal. Have they?”

    I have corrected that, thanks. They claimed that NORMA is a top journal. Which it manifestly isn’t (it’s not even ranked, and has an impact factor of zero).

    “Fraud is really a very different issue from nonsense papers.”

    Not in this context. The point is to show the weakness in the peer review of a field, and a made up paper is simply a particular version of fraud. (Which raises ethical questions about what Boghossian and Lindsay did, by the way.)

    Liked by 7 people

  6. I fully agree with your assessment. The only thing I’d add is that the paper, despite B&L’s claims, isn’t “utter nonsense,” it just makes points with which B&L disagree. The section on climate change seems like a poorly-worded parody of the standard feminist critique of how traditional male approaches to domination and control created a system for the mining and distribution of resources that has led to environmental catastrophe. But satire is supposed to expose the flaws in the argument itself, not just make the writer sound silly making the argument.

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  7. Hi Massimo,

    Ah yes, I expected a vigorous defense of Boghossian and Lindsay from you!

    You’re welcome. Such seems to be my role on this blog.

    Actually, no. Reputable journals simply say that they will wave the fee if the author has no funding available. It is common among vanity journals, instead, to bait you with a “pay what you can afford” pitch.

    But the “what you can afford” does indeed mean “if the author has no funding available”, which, as you say, reputable publishers to offer.

    Here’s what they actually say: “Authors are eligible to apply for a full or partial waiver of the appropriate article publishing charge (APC) if they are based in eligible Research4Life nations. Authors based in a Group A country can apply for a full waiver; authors based in a Group B country can apply for a 50% discount. Waivers may also be granted in exceptional cases at submission stage. Requests should include details of the affiliation and country of residence of all authors, details of where the research was conducted, and confirmation of all research grant funding received.”

    I don’t see anything wrong with that. Indeed I don’t see anything wrong with any of the editorial policies on their website. They are all compatible with a relatively new (and thus not prestigious) journal from a major and reputable publisher, who have adopted a valid “open access” model and are currently trying to build a reputation.

    Yes it’s a low-ranked journal, but the suggestion that it’s a mere money-making vanity journal seems to be one adopted in order to criticise B&L or to dismiss the hoax entirely.

    To assess this properly we really need to assess the standing of the editors and the (anonymous) reviewers; are they recognised academics in the field? (I for one wouldn’t know.)

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  8. Coel,

    You can read the journal’s editorial policy as you like. To me, and to plenty of other commentators (several linked in the OP) it’s pretty obvious that it is a vanity journal. Where was Boghossian’s and Lindsay’s sense of critical thinking? My guess is that they were perfectly aware of what they were doing and went for an easy target, especially after the first (unranked!) journal rejected their paper.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I agree with Massimo’s criticism. My initial reaction to B&L paper was something like “I’m sorry but your hypothesis failed.” My second was – “How is this published on a site committed to skepticism.”
    The initial intention was to have a Sokal effect. The article was submitted to a legitimate within the field publication, that had peer review and no pay for play. Unfortunately the hypothesis that the ridiculous article would be published, failed. So it is likely that the pay for play issue was only addressed to be able to still come out as victors.
    I know the same issue often happens in science, when after initial failure the hypothesis is altered so that based on the results the study can still be published as a success.
    The respectable thing to do would have been to admit to the failed hypothesis and continue the study – submit the paper to other journals and then analyse the results both positive and negative. The paper could be slightly altered to adjust to other journals’ themes.
    The expected thing to do would be just to put the experiment and its result under the table.

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  10. Kirill,

    I honestly think you are being too charitable. This was never a study, it was designed as a stunt, for ideological reasons. And thus has precious little to do with science, skepticism, or critical thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. “The Boghossian and Lindsay hoax falls far short of the goal of demonstrating that gender studies is full of nonsense.”

    It’s just a supplement to what we’ve seen ad nauseam in the press and on campus. If an article with that title were real, it wouldn’t have surprised many. The idea that gender itself is a social construct is pretty mainstream among the current “gender studies” crowd. Not a stretch by any means that they would eventually add the penis to their growing list of social constructs.

    “But it does expose for all the world to see the problematic condition of the skeptic movement.”

    No. Not seeing it. It’s the non skeptics that are in trouble. They are the ones exposed.

    “Someone should try to wrestle it away from the ideologues currently running it”

    It appears as though that’s what you are attempting and failing at. No one is running it. It’s a free for all. Lots of smart skeptics noticing the penchant for nonsense among the social sciences SJW crowd. It’s a real phenomenon and a real problem. Haidt is right. (He’s not running it either)

    “or when atheists think that their position amounts to anything more than a negative metaphysical stance”

    lol. What a telling sentence. More funding from Templeton headed your way, sir. Well done.

    “then I get seriously worried about the future of a movement that has so much potential to help keep the light of reason alive in a society that desperately needs it.”

    You’re not helping. They are.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. ” Like the Sokal hoax, the sample size is n=1. Since Boghossian teaches critical thinking, he ought to know that pretty much nothing can be concluded from that sort of “sampling” of the relevant population. ”

    Is this scientism rampant, or merely pseudoscientific, the application of scientific jargon to non-scientific situations? Was there an experiment? Just kidding. I’ll allow a facon de parler.

    Granted that altho one swallow does not a summer make, we will proceed to conclude or pontificate to our heart’s content. The interesting thing about B&L’s paper is that it is a rather good representation of the position taken by many critical gender students, aside from a few missteps. B&L are disingenuous in saying they themselves don’t know what the paper means. It merely lacks originality, which is probably why it was rejected by NORMA. It is amateurish, for instance, to not develop the connection to Lacan’s phallicism.

    It is clear that the critique of masculinity is also a threat to all hegemons, including Science. The paper raises issues we would rather scoff at than consider. (‘Astrodreamer’)

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  13. Coel, no, B/L did not intend their piece that way. I, like Massimo, expected this from you. It’s called motivated reasoning.

    It’s still a pay-to-play journal. Waivers aren’t guaranteed, and in Group B countries, even if they are paid, they’re partial, not full.

    Were this “The Journal of Noetic Astrophysics,” you’d call it a pay-to-play journal.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Well, with Garth defending Boghossian, Lindsay and Shermer, they need no further help … or, if you are like Massimo and I, no further help to drive that car into the ditch.

    It’s nothing more than “gotcha journalism” via the so-called scientific skepticism.

    Hmm, maybe they’ll show up on Fox soon enough.

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  15. Hi Socratic (and Massimo),

    I, like Massimo, expected this from you. It’s called motivated reasoning.

    And you’re entirely sure that your desire to criticise Boghossian, Shermer, Dawkins et al plays no role in your assessment of that journal? 🙂

    This was never a study, it was designed as a stunt, for ideological reasons.

    Yes of course it was a stunt not a study. So was the Sokal hoax (also a sample of one). In both cases they were designed to highlight long accumulations of evidence, like a cherry on a pie, rather than be the evidence themselves. There is a long succession of real “feminism” articles that are just as bad, some of them highlighted on Jerry Coyne’s blog over the years.

    It’s still a pay-to-play journal.

    There is nothing wrong with that! Honestly, it’s normal practice in many fields, and anyone who damns a journal for that reason is simply unaware of mainstream practice in academia. Further, with many research funders worldwide now demanding that all resulting papers be open access (undercutting the subscription model) many reputable and leading journals are going open access with fees to publish.

    The “Cogent” journals are simply an attempt by a major publisher to move into that model. Other than motivated reasoning, there is nothing to suggest that this journal is anything other than a legitimate, though new and low-ranking, journal. For one thing, Taylor and Francis wouldn’t put their name to it unless they were at least aiming for it to be reputable. (See here.

    Sure, B&L were perhaps a bit too eager to criticise postmodernism with their hoax, but many are way too eager to criticise B&L!

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  16. Perhaps someone can help me understand what this dispute is about. What is gender studies, and what is the problem with it? How is this an issue for skeptics? I thought skeptics spent most of their time worrying about astrology, and ufos, and such. If this sounds to people like I must be living under a rock, then academically speaking I have. I don’t find much time for keeping up with academic fads. Given how many luminaries this result has attracted, I’m completely unclear at what the actual battle is all about.

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  17. And while I’m on about Open Access:

    Pay-to-publish, Open Access, online journals are a far better model than subscription journals! The money to run journals comes out of the university either in library subscriptions or in fees to publish a paper, so it actually makes little difference to them either way, but:

    With Open Access, smaller universities, lone scholars, people in non-rich countries, and importantly the general public (taxpayers!) can access and read it all! Currently much of this is behind pay-walls in the grubby mits of rapacious publishers.

    With pay-walled subscription journals, the publishers have huge power, since they have a huge archive of papers that research groups need access to. They can thus charge much what they like, and make huge profits. The margins on academic journals made by people like Elsevier are just ridiculous, considering that they only contribute a bit of copy-editing.

    But, with Open Access, the publishers have vastly less power, because at the point that someone decides where to submit a paper, only one paper is being considered. So the publisher can’t just hike the fee, or they’ll go elsewhere.

    So, much of the sciences are now heading towards large, online-only open-access journals where by economies of scale and by stripping out the rapacious publishers they can reduce costs and have low fees, and everyone benefits. (And just about every major funding agency is adopting policies to require Open Access for all resulting papers.)

    That means that such journals can accept the “boring” papers that say: “I couldn’t reproduce this effect”, or “I found no effect of this drug”, since it costs them very little to add such a paper to their online database (policy of PLoS).

    And note that if such journals are not profiteering but only covering costs (cf. PLoS again), then they don’t have an incentive to accept papers, so can still enforce proper peer review.

    So please everyone, there is nothing wrong with pay-to-publish Open Access journals! They are the future, they are better for everyone. Many fields are far down that road. If other fields are … ahem … somewhat behind the curve, then why aren’t I surprised? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Massimo – Unfortunately the following quote from your text is not Tweetable. It needs to be prominent in the minds of anyone involved in these fields. I think that your expertise in both biology and philosophy – especially your critique of pseudoscience is a definite advantage in this analysis. Cheers – G.

    “I am extremely skeptical of any simplistic claim of either genetic or environmental determination. Human beings are exceedingly complex and inherently cultural organisms, and the best bet is to assume that pretty much everything we do is the highly intricate result of a continuous interplay among genes, developmental systems, and environments”

    Liked by 3 people

  19. Garth,

    “It appears as though that’s what you are attempting and failing at. No one is running it. It’s a free for all.”

    I assure you — and I really couldn’t care less whether you believe me or not — that my attitude toward the skeptic movement is that of Groucho Marx toward clubs that would have him as a member. (Despite the fact that I occasionally do write for skeptic outlets and give talks at their conference.)

    And if you truly think “no one is running it” you are astoundingly naive. A movement doesn’t need elected leaders to be run by someone. The people who so eagerly tweeted approval of the Boghossian-Lindsay debacle (Shermer, Dawkins, Coyne, Harris, to a lesser extent Pinker) are those running it.

    “More funding from Templeton headed your way, sir. Well done.”

    That your version of the genetic fallacy? Splendidly done, my friend.

    “You’re not helping.”

    The fact that you and Coel cannot even conceive of admitting that this was a disaster tells me all I needed to know about ideological entrenchment in the skeptic movement. So much for open mindedness and critical thinking.

    Mark,

    “The interesting thing about B&L’s paper is that it is a rather good representation of the position taken by many critical gender students, aside from a few missteps”

    I assume you would know that because you’ve read tons of gender studies papers, right?

    Coel,

    “Yes of course it was a stunt not a study. So was the Sokal hoax (also a sample of one)”

    You must have missed the bit where I point out the difference between how Sokal himself interpreted his stunt and what B&L said.

    “There is a long succession of real “feminism” articles that are just as bad, some of them highlighted on Jerry Coyne’s blog over the years.”

    Ah, Coyne, who has probably never read a paper in gender studies, or in philosophy, in his whole life.

    The fact that you keep focusing on the single aspect, pay-to-play of Cogent and not on the full picture, or that you refuse to see the difference between an obvious vanity journal and legitimate open access publications tells me, once more, that your ideological blinders are completely secure, and that there is no further point interacting with you on this topic.

    Bunsen,

    Skeptics have lately greatly expanded their purview, partly because astrology and UFOs were beginning to feel repetitive and didn’t sell magazines.

    Nothing wrong with that, so long as the “critical thinking” is applied honestly (which in this case clearly wasn’t) and from the point of view of actual knowledge of the field being criticized (again, not the case at all).

    I hate to say it, but Feyerabend was absolutely right when he blasted (some) skeptics as self-important, pompous, and often dishonest, back in the ’70s.

    Liked by 5 people

  20. I haven’t followed all of your links, Massimo, so forgive me if you already linked to this, but it seems to be coming from a similar angle.

    http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/05/conceptual-penis-hoax-just-big-cock/

    I must say that it is quite nice to see people whose m.o. seems more often than not to mock, troll, and “punch down” get their comeuppance.

    While skepticism strikes me as only being a good thing, I would not say the same for skeptics. Hume certainly wasn’t one — though he was very skeptical — for he realized that at the end of the day, ones humanity is prior to and takes precedence over ones intellectualizing. “Be a philosopher, but above all, be a man,” he wrote, wisely realizing that to attempt to live and act within the strictures of academic skepticism and rational belief alone not only was impossible, but that the effort produces distorted, grotesque human activity. The execrable Sam Harris, the perennially regrettable Richard Dawkins, Peter Boghossian — who wishes people would confuse him with the infinitely superior Paul Boghossian — Pinker and the Pinkies … all of them serve as a testament to this wisdom.

    One only wishes that the embarrassment would finally cause these people to go away, but alas, as is the case with Trump, there is no shame sufficient to deter those struck with this degree of narcissistic self-love.

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  21. Me: “The interesting thing about B&L’s paper is that it is a rather good representation of the position taken by many critical gender students, aside from a few missteps”

    Massimo: I assume you would know that because you’ve read tons of gender studies papers, right?

    Well yes I have actually. And of course that’s why the paper was so readily accepted; it’s a succession of critical gender studies shibboleths. I’ve had a personal interest in the topic for a long time.

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  22. As for the actual critical gender studies that it claims to refudiate, I remain on terra media, to quote the Latin, on this issue. I side neither fully with Massimo, Dan, et al, nor the other side. (I’m not quite sure if Mark’s on “the other side.”

    This again gives me the opportunity to quote Idries Shah, who was, after all, a philosopher:

    “To ‘see both sides’ of a problem is the surest way to prevent its complete solution. Because there are always more than two sides.”

    The blanket dismissive attitude toward critical gender studies was surely modeled in similar attitudes by many toward the likes of Derrick Bell and critical race theory a few decades ago. Was Bell right on everything he said? No.

    The main issue is discussing generalizations without making them into stereotypes, as I note in my review of one of Bell’s major works: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1637912152

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  23. I can only guess that B & L were inspired by a discussion of the last science wars by Plotnitsky [2000, 2009] On Lacan and Mathematics:

    http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~plotnits/PDFs/ap%20lacan%20and%20math%20Plotnitsky%5B1%5D.pdf

    “…the erectile organ of Lacan’s statement is not the same as the penis. It may not even quite be seen as the phallus, defined by Lacan in the same essay as ‘the image of the penis,’ but instead as in turn the image of the phallus – the image of the image of the penis.

    “…From this perspective, there is a way, at least one way, to argue that the statement in question and the connections (rather than an identification or even a metaphor) between the erectile organ and the square root of –1 as making sense… Both the signifier of the erectile organ in the Lacanian psychoanalytic field and the square root of –1, i, in mathematics may be seen as fundamental formal, symbolic, entities that enable an introduction of, and may be seen as structurally generating, two new symbolic systems – that of the Lacanian psychoanalysis (his (re)interpretation of Freud’s Oedipal economy) and the field of complex numbers in mathematics.”

    The article contains much else to ponder.

    I liked Graham Harman’s comment on his blog:

    “That said, we still have a problem. We still operate in a medium where the combination of empty jargon plus political self-righteousness often passes for a step in the right direction. And until that cultural problem changes, we will be open to dozens more Sokal hoaxes.”

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  24. Just goes to show, smart people can do really dumb things.

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  25. Mark,

    “Well yes I have actually. And of course that’s why the paper was so readily accepted; it’s a succession of critical gender studies shibboleths. I’ve had a personal interest in the topic for a long time.”

    You may have had an interesting in it, but I remind you that the B&L paper was actually rejected by a gender studies journal with zero impact, unranked. So clearly some gender studies reviewers could smell the bullshit a mile away.

    Socrates,

    Not sure on which side you think I am, but just as a reminder, I wrote explicitly that I do have more than one problem with X Studies. I simply don’t think a juvenile prank is a good way to address the problem.

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  26. Socratic: I am highly suspicious of most area-studies disciplines and especially dubious about much that passes under the rubric of “gender studies.” That said, the current effort at playing “Gotcha!” strikes me as cheap and very low-scoring; like little kids hopping up and down and going “Us too! Look at us too!” after the much cooler older kid (Sokal) does something.

    Liked by 5 people

  27. Dan, I’m definitely with you on the “gotcha.” And Massimo. That’s why I mentioned “gotcha journalism,” as I know about it professionally. I’ve done it once or twice, but … only after being repeatedly burned … and did it more subtly than this.

    Massimo: I don’t think you throw ALL the baby out with the bath water, but I do think you throw out both arms and both legs, to analogize.

    Per Idries Shah, I would throw out just the bathwater, but note that the baby WAS dirty at the time, and thus needed some time of bath, and would draw a better one. But, contra the SJWs, I wouldn’t keep the baby in the same bath water and pretend i was doing the best job of getting him clean, either.

    Analogies! One of the things I learned well at divinity school.

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  28. Let’s look a bit more at critical race studies, or more accurately, critical cultural studies. I of course reject things like “black Athens” and “black Jesus,” and I do know that the Greeks noted their debt to both Egypt and Babylon. However, over the centuries, both the noting of that debt and the debt itself got ignored. And, by the time of the Enlightenment, often denied.

    Or, European scholars claiming Native Americans were idiots because they didn’t invent the wheel. First, they did, but it was only to be found on toys. In turn, they didn’t invent wheeled carts because the largest pre-Columbian beast of burden in the New World is the llama, and it and its cousin cameloids don’t have the proper body structure to take to harness and pull a wheeled vehicle.

    Then, you have, as the polar opposite of Islamists, the Christianists like Rodney Stark and Samuel Huntington, who do their damnedest to deny that any European advance of late medieval or Renaissance times came at all via the Arab world.

    There are, in both race studies and gender studies, many “squeaky wheels” getting a lot of grease. But, there are non-squeaky wheels doing good academic work. Stephanie Coontz, of an older generation, and probably not classifiable as an “SJW,” comes immediately to mind: http://www.stephaniecoontz.com/

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  29. Unfortunately I don’t think Pinker recanted. He just shared an article that expressed what you quoted and then shared another article later that was defending the “hoax”

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  30. Well noted, Massimo.

    We should remember that the problem here is not (as the B&L enthusiasts would like to believe) that Feminist journals are so biased that they are blind to substance. Many – but not all – are, and that is disturbing. But this is not the way to confront or discuss that issue.

    The question here should be whether respected experts in their field, acting as peer reviewers, are doing their proper job as reviewers, or whether (as apparently in the Sokal case) they prefer to browse an article and rely on the style of an article, rather than its substance.

    Unfortunately, neither B&L nor their supporters have asked that question. They seem to prefer the cheap shot to the protracted engagement. They prefer simplistic reduction to measured discussion and debate.They want to ‘win’ an argument instead of actually building a convincing line of reasoning.

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