The “Conceptual Penis” Prank Pulled By Skeptics Shouldn’t Be Taken Seriously

Last week, atheists Dr. Peter Boghossian and Dr. James Lindsay published an article in Skeptic magazine that was intended to expose the problems with both “pay-to-publish, open-access” journals and the entire field of gender studies.

How did they do that? They wrote up a paper so absurd that it should have been flagged as a hoax by anyone with a brain… and then managed to get it published in a peer-reviewed journal (under pseudonyms).


Here’s how they introduced their master plan:

The androcentric scientific and meta-scientific evidence that the penis is the male reproductive organ is considered overwhelming and largely uncontroversial.

That’s how we began. We used this preposterous sentence to open a “paper” consisting of 3,000 words of utter nonsense posing as academic scholarship. Then a peer-reviewed academic journal in the social sciences accepted and published it.

The paper was ridiculous by intention, essentially arguing that penises shouldn’t be thought of as male genital organs but as damaging social constructions. We made no attempt to find out what “post-structuralist discursive gender theory” actually means. We assumed that if we were merely clear in our moral implications that maleness is intrinsically bad and that the penis is somehow at the root of it, we could get the paper published in a respectable journal.

They told the story of how they pulled this off in the article, but here’s what they concluded:

“The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” underwent a blind peer-review process and yet was accepted for publication. This needs serious explaining. Part of the fault may fall on the open-access, pay-to-publish model, but the rest falls on the entire academic enterprise collectively referred to as “gender studies.” As we see it, gender studies in its current form needs to do some serious housecleaning.

The publish-or-perish academic environment is its own poison that needs a remedy. It gives rise to predatory profit-driven journals with few or no academic standards that take advantage of legitimate scholars pressured into publishing their work at all costs, even if it is marginal or dubious… Our question about the fundamental integrity of fields like gender studies seems much more pressing nonetheless.

Got that? The peer-review process is broken, the pressure to publish leads to crappy journals accepting literally anything, and all of that becomes easier in a field like gender studies where even the dumbest ideas pass for brilliant commentary.

That sounds all kinds of damning, and the Skeptic article was promoted online by a slew of Ph.D.s including Jerry Coyne, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. And why wouldn’t they praise the article? It’s not just a clever way of revealing a major problem with the academic publishing world, it takes down a field of study that’s routinely mocked online.

But in the days to follow, several people who looked at the Skeptic article in detail noted a number of problems with how this plan was executed… and what went unstated in the piece.

Just to name a few issues:

  • It’s not surprising that a pay-to-publish journal would accept garbage, even under the guise of peer review. That’s not news. Everyone in academia knows that. (This sort of prank is so common, it has a name. Boghossian and Lindsay even noted that in their article.) The publication that accepted their paper wasn’t even a credible one as far as journals go, no matter what the authors said to the contrary. We don’t even know if the peer-reviewers had expertise in the field; for all we know, they rubber stamp everything.
  • Even if the paper were published in a higher quality journal, it wouldn’t prove there’s something wrong with gender studies. That’s not a defense or takedown of the subject — I’m certainly no expert in the field — but publishing a paper that “sounds” like gender studies in a low-quality journal isn’t an indictment of the entire field of study. As Phil Torres wrote in Salon,

    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.”

    There may be worthwhile criticism of gender studies, but this isn’t it. Furthermore, did anyone who actually is an expert in the subject fall for the hoax? Not as far as I can tell.

  • Boghossian and Lindsay originally submitted their paper to an “unranked” publication called NORMA: The International Journal for Masculinity Studies. That journal rejected their piece with (what was almost certainly) a form letter telling them to submit it to Cogent Social Sciences (the pay-for-publication journal). And voila — they fell for it. If even NORMA rejected their paper, though, isn’t that proof that their hoax failed? It would’ve been far more interesting if they submitted the paper to multiple credible journals which focus on gender studies to see if any of them would have taken it. As it stands, I have no clue what Cogent’s acceptance proves other than some journals are really bad.

If you’re looking for a really thorough, easy-to-understand rundown of everything that’s wrong with this paper, I would urge you to listen to Thomas Smith‘s latest episode of Serious Inquiries Only (in which he spoke with Eli Bosnick of God Awful Movies). They do a great job breaking down how this paper fails in achieving its own stated goals (beginning at the 3:45 mark).

To paraphrase a great point by Thomas and Eli, the article claimed that “gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil.” But what was the point of this prank if not to cripple gender studies due to a dogmatic ideological belief that the field is a joke?

(To his credit, James Lindsay, the co-author of the Skeptic article, will be appearing on SIO soon to respond to the criticism.)

If this article from Lindsay and Boghossian is supposed to represent skepticism at its finest, it fails on that count. And it’s even worse to see so many other notable atheists throw critical thinking out the window in order to support a conclusion they like over a method and logic that would be challenged in a heartbeat if a Creationist used it.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.