Remember, to be good rationalists, we must keep our work free of the taint of ideology – or worse, social justice. Proper skepticism is neutral and apolitical. Except when it isn’t:
Every once in awhile it is necessary and desirable to expose extreme ideologies for what they are by carrying out their arguments and rhetoric to their logical and absurd conclusion, which is why we are proud to publish this expose of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed journal today.
The authors, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, aimed to carry out a Sokal-style hoax in which they wrote a deliberately ridiculous paper, titled “The conceptual penis as a social construct”, and submitted it to an academic journal on gender studies. It got published, which they claim to be a devastating indictment of the field and a validation of their preexisting beliefs about it:
Particularly, we suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil. On the evidence, our suspicion was justified.
The authors of the paper, as well as other prominent white male skeptics, wasted no time doing an end-zone dance:
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) May 19, 2017
Gender Studies is primarily composed of radical ideologues who view indoctrination as their primary duty. These departments must be defunded
— Peter Boghossian (@peterboghossian) April 25, 2016
— Michael Shermer (@michaelshermer) May 19, 2017
— Sam Harris (@SamHarrisOrg) May 19, 2017
But wait a minute. There’s a problem which all these congratulatory, back-slapping tweets don’t mention: Boghossian and Lindsay’s hoax paper was rejected by the first journal they submitted it to, NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies. Instead, they received an invitation to resubmit to another journal by the same publisher, Cogent Social Sciences, which accepted it. But Cogent‘s standards are, let’s say, somewhat less rigorous:
First, the open-access journal that published their article requests that authors pay to publish. In the case of Cogent Social Sciences, the recommended fee is a whopping $1,350… It is, of course, in the pecuniary interest of pay-to-publish journals to accept papers regardless of quality. In fact terrible articles that should have never passed peer review are published in these journals all the time.
…Cogent isn’t even about gender studies. Not a single “senior editor” of the journal has an academic background in the field. Rather, the various editors’ expertise lies in (I kid you not) tourism, criminology, development planning, geography, sport management and communication sciences.
Open-access publishing began with noble motives, as a revolt against outrageous subscription fees charged by academic publishers. But it’s spawned a cottage industry of bottom-feeder “journals” whose standards of peer review are low to nonexistent and that exist for the sole purpose of taking authors’ money. This is a well-known problem, but hardly an indictment of the fields which these journals parasitize.Boghossian and Lindsay seem sensitive to this charge, as they claim in a footnote that “We never received an invoice from the journal. We did not pay to have this published” – but they also say “the article was externally funded by an independent party”. This makes their excuse pure semantics. Their paper was published in a pay-to-play journal. It hardly matters whose pocket the dollars came out of.
Submitting an article on gender studies to that particular journal and then claiming that its publication proves that gender studies is idiotic is tantamount to a creationist writing a fake article about evolutionary biology, publishing it in an unknown pay-to-publish non-biology journal (whose editorial board includes no one with expertise in evolutionary biology), and then exclaiming, “See! The entire field of evolutionary biology is complete nonsense.” This is puerile gotcha-ism that completely misses the target while simultaneously making, in the case of Boghossian and Lindsay, the skeptic community look like gullible, anti-intellectual fools.
Some people who initially applauded the hoax, like Steven Pinker, retracted their praise after these problems were pointed out, and good on him for intellectual honesty. Others chose to double down. Jerry Coyne – who presents himself as a scientist, mind you – said it doesn’t matter that this experiment didn’t deliver the result its creators hoped for, because he just knows their hypothesis is true.
I don’t know much about gender studies, so I’m not qualified to pass judgment on its validity. It could be rigorous and full of worthwhile insight, or it could be fashionable nonsense dressed up in academic jargon; or, like most fields of inquiry, it could be a bit of both. Either way, this one flawed experiment doesn’t give us license to make sweeping pronouncements.
The problem for the hoaxers is that, if one hoax paper in one low-quality journal impugns the entire field of gender studies, there are a lot of other academic disciplines we’ll have to throw out. PZ points out that pure pseudoscience or outright fake papers have been published in evolution, cosmology, and molecular biology. Massimo Pigliucci cites similar cases in mathematics, computer science and nuclear physics. And earlier this year, three Polish scientists made up a fake scientist named Anna O. Szust (oszust is Polish for “fraud”) with a fictitious CV and got dozens of journals to accept her as an editor. Some even offered to make her editor-in-chief, sight unseen.
Should we also call for defunding any field of science that didn’t detect these hoaxes? If not, why the double standard?
As Ketan Joshi puts it:
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… 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.
The reaction to this article is further evidence, if any was needed, that the upper echelons of atheism and skepticism are dominated by white men who are hostile to anything that questions their privilege. Boghossian and Lindsay didn’t single out gender studies at random; they picked it as their target because they believe the field is a stronghold of liberalism.
To be clear, the problem isn’t that Dawkins, Boghossian, Lindsay and the rest have politics different from mine. The problem is that their skepticism deserts them when they see anything, however tenuous, that validates a political belief they hold. When you see something that claims to support a belief you want to be true, that’s the time to be more rigorously skeptical, not less. Many of our so-called thought leaders seem to have forgotten this basic principle of rationality.
Worse, these same white guys often have the temerity to claim that they’re the unbiased, apolitical ones, whereas us social-justice warriors are tainting the pure water of skepticism with “ideology“. Ironically, if this shabby and nakedly political hoax accomplishes anything, it should be to prove once and for all why this is a false and untenable distinction.