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.”


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

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