Academic Hoaxes and Intellectual Dishonesty

Academic Hoaxes and Intellectual Dishonesty October 9, 2018

The hoaxers are at it again.

In case you don’t recall the Sokal Hoax of the 90s, physicist Allan Sokal submitted a paper to a cultural studies journal that turned out to be a parody of the way math-challenged academics mangle concepts in the field of physics. Since then it has become an annual tradition for someone in the science-fan community to quietly submit a hoax paper to a lefty journal, then cue the thunderous backslapping and triumphalist grandstanding if it gets published. The latest round of hoax papers has come to light and generated discussion in the usual venues.

What do these hoaxers think they’re achieving with these stunts? And what are they really exposing?

The Problem With the Problem

This is just a dispute about quality control, right? Authors of hoax papers are trying to make a point about how lax the standards of review can be in academia, so how can we take issue with such a principled stance?

The most basic ethical issue here is the way hoaxers take advantage of the nature of the publishing process itself. They’re dealing with journals that are hungry for content while lacking the resources to either compensate authors or subject submissions to rigorous scrutiny before publishing them.

Allan Sokal at least admitted there were ethical problems with his hoax, since academic journals make the assumption that authors are submitting real research for proper peer review. The Wall Street Journal printed a very sympathetic article about this year’s hoaxers, but flatly stated that

Such hoaxes are unethical, and The Wall Street Journal doesn’t condone them. The Journal expects op-ed contributors to be truthful about their identities and research, and academic journals also rely on the honesty of their authors.

An article about the latest hoax in the Chronicle of Higher Education cites several academics as being very unimpressed by the success of academic hoaxers. The entire process depends on trust; if the authors of a paper claim to have spent months doing research, the journals are supposed to take them at their word.

The specter of bad faith haunts these stunts.

The Travis Bickle of the Hoax Community

When bad faith meets an agenda, however, you get Peter Boghossian. Unlike Sokal, who wanted to parody the abuse of mathematical terms to further an agenda, Boghossian (founder of the Street Epistemology cult) actively believes that the field of gender studies is “fatally compromised by bias,” and makes it clear that he’s conducting a crusade to show (all together now) that the Emperor has no clothes.

Boghossian has no qualms about the ethics of academic hoaxes, and is forthright about the guilt-free enjoyment he derives from these stunts. Still sore from patting himself on the back for 2017’s “Conceptual Penis” hoax, Boghossian is back with two cronies. They’re jointly responsible for twenty papers submitted to journals across the academic publishing landscape, supposedly nonsensical articles claiming to interpret extensive research on feminist poetry, the fat-exclusionary nature of bodybuilding, and—most notorious of all—the rape-culture of dog parks.

Though two thirds of these papers were rejected by the intended publishers, Boghossian’s wild bunch characterize any willingness to engage with their ideas as proof of the atmosphere of credulity that infests academic publishing. Boghossian is by no means trying to demonstrate that the relative ease with which he can get his papers published exposes merely a problem with quality control; he considers his every prank a takedown of gender studies as a whole:

This is the real evidence justifying our initial suspicion about gender studies, and it is bolstered by the current fashionable madness taking over many college campuses. This collective insanity virtually always emanates from ideological complaints rooted in identity politics, aspects of postmodernism, and uses or abuses of “critical theory”. This has been used to indoctrinate a generation of students and faculty who are now taking illiberal, authoritarian actions.

Who’s Goliath Here?

If the inability to detect fakery in submitted material invalidates a discipline, then it’s not just gender studies that should close up shop. In 2016, a hoax paper written by iOS auto-complete was submitted to the International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics; the “author” was subsequently invited to speak at the event. A paper about a fake lichen was accepted by the kind of open-access journal where “acceptance is the norm rather than the exception.”

Boghossian’s bad faith doesn’t end with his deceptive practices, obviously; he’s also lying about his rationale for perpetrating his hoaxes. 18 of the 20 papers he and his accomplices submitted were on the subject of gender studies; it’s obvious he’s conducting a vendetta against feminist theory. He claims that his hoax papers (especially the “Conceptual Penis” article) are nonsensical, but that’s not true at all. They’re simply carbon copies of the garbled, tedious papers that bad writers would submit to small journals. They describe research that these journals would find worthwhile if anyone cared to undertake it. Just because Boghossian doesn’t think such research is important doesn’t invalidate it.

The online journal n+1 describes the machinations of the hoaxers as a defense of the white, male privilege that Boghossian thinks doesn’t exist:

In launching their project, Pluckrose, Lindsey, and Boghossian have once more reenacted Schnabel’s old drama about hoaxes reinforcing the existing orthodoxy, yet the orthodoxy they endorse is more powerful, consequential, and factitious than most. It is a resolutely prescientific consensus that assigned gender is immutable, rape culture is made up, and white fragility isn’t real, and that attempts to think critically about these phenomena should be driven out of the academy. These denials are squarely out of line with the most direct evidence of our own senses. I don’t need to get bogged down in debates about the nature of truth to say, quite simply, that to cede the ground of truth to these people is stupid. They’re just wrong.

The Hoax Becomes Reality

The final irony in this matter is that Boghossian’s fakes have become the standard by which society measures the relevance of gender studies. In June, National Review published a scathing critique of the dog-park-rape-culture article, completely unaware that the paper itself was a joke:

The bottom line: Although it is certainly impressive that Wilson spent 100 hours watching dogs in parks for this study, I really don’t think that her work did anything to advance us as a society.

The same could be said of Boghossian’s trolling.

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  • wannabe

    Academia has enough trouble with low-quality research to have to put up with dealing with deliberate hoaxes. Criticism, yes. Hoaxes, no. These three academics, Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian, should be barred from publishing in any professional-quality journal in any discipline. And the same bar should apply to any of their students gaining a degree in 2019 or later. (The delay would allow their graduate students time to seek new advisors.)

    To be clear, this journal ban would be private and voluntary, not governmental.

  • I agree. What usually happens to authors who submit shoddy work, lie about their names or credentials, and intentionally misrepresent their research?

  • wannabe

    AFAIK there’s no central list of such persons. There should be.

  • Neil F

    There are different kinds of hoaxes – fudging the data hoaxes are one thing (and there is an element of that in this hoax). But this is moreso an ideological hoax. Rewriting mein kampf so that the targeted group is cis white men, is hilarious and revealing.

  • Neil F

    No. This hoax pulls the pants off these disciplines – they show that any kind of word soup can be published if the author demonstrates the right ideological commitments in the form of speaking pejoratively about men and white people.

  • This hoax pulls the pants off these disciplines – they show that any kind of word soup can be published if the author demonstrates the right ideological commitments in the form of speaking pejoratively about men and white people.

    That sounds exactly like how someone with a prejudice against gender studies would describe the literature of the discipline.

  • Contractions of Fate

    _”They’re dealing with journals that are hungry for content while lacking the resources to either compensate authors or subject submissions to rigorous scrutiny before publishing them”_

    Those sorts of journals with no rigorous peer-review should not bloody exist, including the on-line only garbage that will publish any shit on spurious subjects. I don’t know who wrote this article, but they aren’t a properly qualified academic in a genuine discipline. I’m sorry if they were embarrassed by a hoax article, but if the discipline was genuine, academic and had qualified practitioners, it would never have got past peer-review; assuming that these “content-hungry” journals actually had any peers to review a submitted paper.

    There was another hoax paper on some philosophical, social sciences gibberish that was written by a computer algorithm, just pulling together trendy phrases from imbecilic nobodies, and that got published as well. It was meaningless. Utter gibberish. But idiots thought it was real.

    Try doing that with a molecular biology paper submitted to a real journal.

    >:8o

  • if the discipline was genuine, academic and had qualified practitioners, it would never have got past peer-review

    Like I mentioned in the article to which you’re ostensibly responding, legitimate science venues and journals have been targeted by hoaxers too. But if I said that proves physics or biology aren’t genuine disciplines, people would have every right to assume I have a prejudice against these fields.

    And the same goes for your callow dismissal of gender studies. So we’re even.

  • Contractions of Fate

    “legitimate science venues and journals have been targeted by hoaxers too”

    Not really true. You mention one conference, which would accept unpublished work for presentations and does not have peer review, and you mentioned one on-line journal that would publish any garbage that comes it’s way, also without peer review. This is not the same as your spurious assertion, which you would know if you were a genuine scientist. For example, there have been only four meetings of “The International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics”, so it’s hardly Top Drawer or well-established.

    If anyone asserted that this meant that physics was not a genuine discipline, anyone with half a brain would conclude they were an idiot, not that they were prejudiced against physics. The correct analysis is that conferences by their very nature do not exercise peer review, conferences will accept unpublished submissions and that this particular conference, one time, received a submission from a hoaxer.

    I thought this was going to be about something interesting, like the cold fusion business from a few years back, not some crazy, paranoid fantasy of some radical loon. Do you have no examples from The Lancet, The BMJ, Nature, Science, The Journal of Molecular Biology, PNAS and so on?

    And what on Earth are “gender” studies?

  • I never claimed to be a genuine scientist, amigo. But I know moving the goalposts when I see it.

    You claim hoaxes perpetrated on cultural studies journals invalidates the discipline as a whole, but hoaxes perpetrated on physics or biology journals or venues don’t invalidate those disciplines because you’ve already decided that these are genuine and the cultural studies aren’t.

    Aren’t you assuming what you’re supposed to prove?

    And what on Earth are “gender” studies?

    Why are you asking me? I thought you were the expert.

  • Contractions of Fate

    “You claim hoaxes perpetrated on cultural studies journals invalidates the discipline as a whole”
    I didn’t say any such thing. I said that journals that publish anything “with no rigorous peer-review should not bloody exist, including the on-line only garbage that will publish any shit on spurious subjects”.

    YOU appear to defend this completely ascientific practice by saying they were starved of submitted papers and
    | “hungry for content while lacking the resources to either compensate authors or subject submissions to rigorous scrutiny before publishing them” |
    as if that justifies or forgives it, as if they are some sort of oppressed, under-privileged minority that should be allowed to perpetuate poor scholarship and academic fraud because “reasons”.

    NO journal should publish anything that hasn’t been properly peer-reviewed in any field. Some poor articles slip through, but that doesn’t invalidate the peer review process per se. But on-line journals that have no peer review are not worth publishing in, and certainly not worth citing. Conferences and meetings aren’t really relevant as they often focus on unpublished work which is subjected to fairly rigorous challenges by the audience.

    “Why are you asking me? I thought you were the expert”
    I am an actual scientist, but now you mention it, my research suggests that “gender studies” is an invented, nonsense subject, because when I looked it up I found this:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlGSG0q-Fh4
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FEaZyYOLUUk

    Huh? It seems to be de facto invalid, hoaxes or not.

  • Oh. So your knowledge of gender studies is wholly derived from YouTube videos.

    That’s some rigorous research there, amigo.

  • Contractions of Fate

    These are my preliminary results.

    You obviously have not had time to watch them yet, but are those videos inaccurate?

    ?

  • are those videos inaccurate?

    What do you want me to say? Your research led you to the “evidence” that tells you exactly what you want to hear about gender studies, so obviously that’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

    Congratulations on being such a fair-minded freethinker.

  • Contractions of Fate

    See? You cannot engage or discuss or even watch the videos. Is this what youngsters these days call “triggered”? Do you already know what they indicate, so you don’t need to look at them? You made false claims about scientific journals and conferences, you defended the publication of garbage without peer-review, I condemned it. I asked what gender studies were, you said I was the expert. I looked it up and showed you the first two things I found.

    You have done nothing but twist everything to fit your own narrative, like a delusional loon. But don’t worry your pretty little head about it, sweetheart, there are at least, thankfully, enough people with actual qualifications with real degrees in areas that are actually relevant and helpful, rather than invented non-subjects creating imaginary problems and fake issues for people to have.

    😡

  • See? You cannot engage or discuss or even watch the videos.

    Listen to yourself for a minute. You’re getting pissy because I’m in no hurry to watch the YouTube videos you’ve presented as evidence that validates your disdain for gender studies. It’s amusing that you really expect me to believe you’re open-minded and receptive, and that engaging you could lead to some sort of mutual agreement, when all you’ve done from the moment you swooped in is spew condescension and invective. Forgive me for not assuming that any effort to engage you will be worthwhile.

    You have done nothing but twist everything to fit your own narrative, like a delusional loon.

    Um, no, I just took one look at your pompous grandstanding and realized that you’re completely unequipped for civil dialogue.

    Run along now.

  • Major Major

    I guess a peer reviewed paper in psychology journals about ESP obviously legitimates ESP:

    https://www.petermcgraw.org/is-evidence-for-esp-an-indictment-of-the-peer-review-process/

    Or a climate skeptic piece that makes it into a major journal discredits climate science:

    https://retractionwatch.com/2018/04/23/flawed-climate-science-paper-exposed-potential-weaknesses-in-peer-review-process

    These jerks need to get a life.

  • Anthrotheist

    I generally try not to let minor quibbles in semantics compel me to comment, but sometimes they are significant enough that I capitulate.

    “The final irony in this matter is that Boghossian’s fakes have become the standard by which society measures the relevance of gender studies.”
    As you point out numerous times in your article, discrediting the relevance of gender studies is Boghossian’s fundamental motivation; so his fakes succeeding to that end is hardly ironic. Tragic, yes, but not ironic.

  • I see your point. All I meant is that journalists are taking the hoax papers at face value and using them as examples of the shoddy research that abounds in the field of gender studies.

    It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Anthrotheist

    Ok, I see what you are saying. So when hoaxers take advantage of the systematic credulity of academic journal editors, they (inadvertently?) wind up leveraging the inherent credulity of journalists and the press (and therefore the public) that relies on trust that their sources are being honest. When they poison the water in their own village in order to make their point, they don’t realize that their poison also hurts everyone that depends on them downstream.

    (edit: So I have to wonder, is their behavior, which damages credibility all the way down the information food-chain, more of a symptom of a so-called “post truth society”, or more of a cause?)

  • @disqus_rFxGwbDGog:disqus, I wanted to bring this article to your attention, since you were the one who mentioned the hoax in a post a couple of weeks ago. Feel free to comment if you’re so inclined.

  • There are clashing values here. And a whole lot of human biology and cultural influence. This is hyper-complex.

    For a POV, I look at this issue and most other things through a lens of cognitive and social sciences and what those disciplines have to say about human minds operating in a complex, dynamic society. The caveat there is that I’m an amateur, not expert, in the cognitive and social science of human thinking and behavior. Given that, take this with a grain (or two) of salt.

    Part 1: On the one hand, there is powerful evidence of profound, systematic liberal bias in social sciences. Some very well-known, leading researchers, e.g., Philip Tetlock and Johnathan Haidt, have recently come out and forcefully made this point and backed it up with data I believe is about as unbiased and accurate as social science data like this can get (a detailed summary of the paper is here: https://heterodoxacademy.org/bbs-paper-on-lack-of-political-diversity/ ; the full paper with peer critiques is behind an (obnoxious) paywall at the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences). The paper describes the problems from the lack of political mindset diversity. Their data says that there are almost no conservative researchers (~ 2%) in social psychology, but decades ago it was more or less an even mix of liberals and conservatives. Boghossian et al actually have a valid point.

    Here’s a grain of salt to go with that: I extrapolate that data to all social sciences and that may not be warranted. For example, there’s probably more than 2% of economists, historians and sociologists who self-describe as conservative. But, it seems a useful rule of thumb as a trick to keep the bias issue more easily drawn into working memory when considering information from the social sciences, because: 1) Unconscious bias is powerful and pervasive and it cannot be ignored. Ever. 2) It takes sustained conscious effort to build a neural pathway(s) needed to bring a concept, social science research bias in this case, into working memory. The research I am aware of is compelling that unless one does that, an issue may or may not play into how one views research data-results and their interpretation.

    Part 2: On the other hand, what Boghossian did can fairly be called unethical and a breach of the trust that empirical science operates on. In the mind of the public, what he did provides yet another excuse for non-science people to reject science they dislike for political, social and/or self-esteem reasons, most of which operate mostly unconsciously most of the time.

    And, if Boghossian really thinks that white, male privilege in science or anywhere else doesn’t exist, he is full of malarkey. Feminist issues are real and if Boghossian et al did what they did to undermine critical studies related to feminist issues, they are just plain nuts.

    Part 3 – conclusion: So, how should one evaluate this? In my years of effort to self-teach cognitive and social science, especially as they relate to politics and political thinking, I have been drawn into beliefs on multiple occasions that were later found to be false significantly or completely due to the effects of unconscious bias. Finding out you are wrong about publicly advocating a false point of science is unpleasant, to say the least. That has happened to me a couple of times and I don’t like it. On the other hand, it made me rapidly form the neural pathway(s) to now almost always draw consideration of bias in to conscious working memory when considering cognitive and social science content.

    So, what’s the final grade? Everyone will differ because this is complex and humans are messy, cognitively speaking. That said, it feels about right to think what Boghossian et al did was ~ 85% bad and ~15% good, i.e., the bad far outweighs the good. That good vs bad assignment is mostly based not on what effect on scientists it will have. Instead, it is mostly based on the effect it will have on people who need reasons to reject science they dislike. In other words, what Boghossian et al did, provides source material to non-scientists to feed confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, anchoring effects, priming effects and other unconscious biases, which IMHO, is much more bad than good. On the other hand, the good is a little kick in the pants to scientists to remind them of their own biases and to try to cut it out to the extent their minds and biology allows.

    Given all that spew, is it persuasive or not? Inquiring minds want to know.

  • Thanks. Comment is posted.

  • As far as part 1 goes, I can’t help but question Haidt’s objectivity. This was the guy, after all, who wrote that article in the Atlantic that characterized college kids as hypersensitive hypocrites. I think I’m within my rights to suspect that Haidt is an alarmist whose vendetta against academia isn’t tempered by fair-mindedness.

    Apart from that, I think it’s misleading to compare the liberal slant in social psych to the underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM fields (as Haidt does in the paper you linked above). The subject matter of the social sciences is so value-based that I think it’s reasonable to expect conservatives whose value systems are more geared toward authority and tradition to avoid fields where critiques of power structures abound. It’s no different than wondering why there are so few pacifists or freethinkers in the military top brass.

    I think you hit the nail on the head in part 2. It’s not as if Boghossian thinks gender studies are worthwhile, and he’s merely pointing out the amount of substandard research that gives the field a bad reputation it doesn’t deserve. He quite explicitly considers legitimate gender studies papers every bit as vapid and useless as his hoax papers. The backslapping he’s received from Harris, Dawkins, and the usual bunch of bros does nothing to dissuade me from the opinion that the problem isn’t the quality control in gender studies journals; it’s the very idea that women consider themselves entitled to dissenting opinions about power and knowledge in our culture.

    Thanks for contributing!

  • Your criticism of Haidt is valid. That’s a fair point. That said, it does not negate all of his science and beliefs. I am aware of people who are now arguing that, based on Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory, that conservatism is morally superior to liberalism, and I think Haidt himself is moving in that direction. I also question his fair-mindedness.

    I suspect you are right to think that conservatives whose value systems are more geared toward authority and tradition to avoid fields where critiques of power structures abound. That is an astute observation and it probably hits the nail squarely on the head.

    Just curious, what do you think about assigning ~ 85% bad and ~15% good to what Boghossian et al did? In the last 6 months or so, I have started doing that when it is reasonable to think that way. The idea for that part of thinking about issues that implicate values seems helpful as another way to see right and wrong or good and bad. The research by Philip Tetlock showing that the ‘best minds’ break beliefs down to probabilities. Best minds are believed to be, roughly, the most rational or most capable of rationally balancing the power of unconscious parallel processing with the weak capacity of serial conscious reasoning. Those minds tend to see the likelihood of future events in terms of probabilities.

    Right or wrong, I have extrapolated Tetlock’s insight about dealing with future events to the matter of assessing morals or values. It is my attempt to see such things from a different POV. Tetlock’s data argue that looking at things from multiple POVs are better than a single POV. I think the same is true for assessing morality and good vs bad.

  • Just curious, what do you think about assigning ~ 85% bad and ~15% good to what Boghossian et al did?

    I’m not sure I’d even say he did that much good. The fact that he has brought lax quality-control standards to the attention of journal editors, and made plain that the pay-to-publish-or-perish system in academia doesn’t necessarily encourage solid research, may be the only constructive things he has accomplished with the hoaxes. The According to Matthew blog pointed out that academics have already been trying to refine theory-building with tools like wikitheoria. The fact that Boghossian has pulled identical pranks in the past makes even that low estimate seem generous.

  • Fair enough. I was just curious if you saw this as an all bad thing with no good. Your knowledge is deeper than mine so assignment of good vs bad can rationally differ.

    Wikitheoria is new to me. I need to check that out. Thanks for the link.