Science

What the “Grievance Studies” Hoax Actually Reveals

The headline-grabbing prank has more to do with gender than with academia.

James A. Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian.
James A. Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian, the scholars behind the academia hoax.
Photo by Mike Nayna

An expansive hoax on academia, more than a year in the making, was revealed on Tuesday in the online magazine Areo. “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship,” an essay co-written by Areo’s editor, Helen Pluckrose, along with fellow freethinkers James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian, explained the ruse: The group wrote 21 bogus academic papers—“outlandish or intentionally broken” ones—and submitted them to what they called “the best journals in the relevant fields.” To their consternation and/or uproarious glee, no fewer than seven of those papers were accepted for publication.

Among these put-ons was a study of the incidence of dog-on-dog sexual assault in Portland, Oregon (published in Gender, Place, & Culture), one on men’s unwillingness to self-penetrate with dildos during masturbation (published in Sexuality & Culture), and an ethnography of men who frequent “breastaurants” like Hooters (published in Sex Roles). “Call it Sokal Squared,” tweeted my fellow Slate columnist Yascha Mounk, referring to the famous hoax from 1996, in which physicist Alan Sokal ginned up a nonsense article on the “transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity” and got it published in the journal Social Text. “You can now be made a professor, and get to teach college kids,” Mounk continued, “by spewing absurd, ideological bullshit.” Steven Pinker sent around the essay too. Bari Weiss chimed in with her bravo.

But if you really take the time to read through Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian’s 11,650-word essay, along with the bogus papers they produced, you’ll find the project fails to match its headline presentation. The hoaxers’ sting on academia is supposed to have exposed the “sophistry” and “corruption” that exist across a broad array of research fields—those built around the “goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity.” The authors call these “grievance studies” and say their disregard for objective truth has yielded to a widespread “forgery of knowledge.” Yet these grandiose conclusions overstate the project’s scope and the extent of its success. They also serve as cover, in a way, for what appears to be the authors’ lurking inspiration: not their problems with the scholarship of grievance, but with that of gender.

Let’s analyze the hoax a bit more carefully. The team wrote up 21 bogus papers altogether. (The essay starts by saying there were only 20; according to Lindsay, that’s because two of the papers were largely similar to one another.) Of those 21, two-thirds never were accepted for publication. The Areo essay dwells on several papers that had been rejected outright, including one suggesting that white students should be enchained for the sake of pedagogy, and another proposing that self-pleasure could be a form of violence against women. They take it as a sign of intellectual decay that such papers managed to elicit respectful feedback from reviewers, even short of publication. (One of those has since explained that he was just trying to be helpful.) But I think we can all agree that it’s neither telling nor newsworthy when a bogus paper fails to get into an academic journal, however offensive or inane it might have been.

What about the seven papers that were accepted for publication? One was a collection of poetry for a journal called Poetry Therapy. Let’s be clear: This was bad poetry. (“Love is my name/ And yours a sweet death.”) But I’m not sure its acceptance sustains the claim that entire fields of academic inquiry have been infiltrated by social constructivism and a lack of scientific rigor.

Another three plants were scholarly essays. Two were boring and confusing; I think it’s fair to call them dreck. That dreck got published in academic journals, a fact worth noting to be sure. The third, a self-referential piece on the ethics of academic hoaxes, makes what strikes me as a somewhat plausible argument about the nature of satire. The fact that its authors secretly disagreed with the paper’s central claim—that they were parroting the sorts of arguments that had been made against them in the past, and with which they’ve strongly disagreed—doesn’t make those arguments a priori ridiculous. But hey, that’s just my opinion.

That leaves us with three more examples of the hoax. These were touted as the most revealing ones—the headline grabbers, the real slam dunks: the dog-rape paper, the dildo paper, the breastaurant research. They also share a common trait: Each was presented as a product of empirical research, based on original data. The dog-rape study is supposed to have resulted from nearly 1,000 hours of observation at three dog parks in southeast Portland. The dildo paper pretends to draw from multihour interviews with 13 men—eight straight, two bisexual, three gay—about their sexual behaviors. And the breastaurant research claims to have its basis in a two-year-long project carried out in northern Florida, involving men whose educational backgrounds, ages, and marital statuses were duly recorded and reported.

How absurd was it for such work to get an airing? It may sound silly to investigate the rates at which dog owners intervene in public humping incidents, but that doesn’t mean it’s a total waste of time (as psychologist Daniel Lakens pointed out on Twitter). If the findings had been real, they would have some value irrespective of the pablum that surrounds them in the paper’s introduction and discussion sections. Indeed, one can point to lots of silly-sounding published data from many other fields of study, including strictly scientific ones. Are those emblematic of “corruption” too?

It’s true that Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian tricked some journals into putting out made-up data, but this says nothing whatsoever about the fields they chose to target. One could have run this sting on almost any empirical discipline and returned the same result. We know from long experience that expert peer review offers close to no protection against outright data fraud, whether in the field of gender studies or cancer research, psychology or plant biology, crystallography or condensed matter physics. Even shoddy paste-up jobs with duplicated images and other slacker fakes have made their way to print and helped establish researchers’ careers. So what if these hoaxers did the same for fun? These examples haven’t hoodwinked anyone with sophistry or satire but with a simple fabrication of results.

Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian employed this made-up-data method for five of their 21 papers, and three of those were accepted for publication—yielding a hoax-success rate of 60 percent. When they wrote up papers without this added layer of deception, just four of 16 were accepted.

Even if we push the made-up-data papers to the side, those results are still quite grave: Twenty-five percent of bullshit papers made their way through peer review. But what, exactly, does it prove? It would be nice to know how often counterfeit research makes its way into the journals of adjacent fields; e.g., ones that touch on race, gender, and sexuality, but are uncorrupted by radical constructivism and political agendas. Sadly, we may never know, because the field of humanities hoaxing appears to suffer from several of the flaws it aims to expose. For one thing, it’s politically motivated, in the sense that its practitioners target only those politicized research areas that happen to annoy them. For another, it’s largely lacking in scientific rigor. Most (but not all) hoax projects lack meaningful controls, and they’re clearly subject to the most extreme variety of publication bias. That is to say, we only hear about the pranks that work, even though it’s altogether possible that skeptic-bros are writing bogus papers all the time, submitting them to academic journals, and ending up with nothing to show for their hard work. How many botched Sokal-style hoaxes have been tucked away in file drawers and forgotten because they fail to “prove” their point?

It’s even harder to assess this week’s sting because its authors are so weirdly coy about their targets. Whom, exactly, have they stung? It’s never clear: The essay starts by pointing at “certain fields within the humanities” that are motivated by grievance and that examine topics of “gender, race, sexuality, culture.” In the YouTube video released in tandem with the essay, Lindsay says the project has revealed a deeply concerning and pervasive corruption “among many disciplines, including women’s and gender studies, feminist studies, race studies, sexuality studies, fat studies, queer studies, cultural studies and sociology.”

That does sound pervasive. But if you look at the details of the hoax, its targets aren’t really that diverse; they’re clearly focused on the fields concerned with gender. Among the 21 academic journals named in the essay, almost half describe themselves on their websites as venues for “feminist” research; three more refer to gender. (By contrast, just a handful say they’re dedicated to the study of “race,” “sexuality,” or “culture.”) The sham papers, as written, show an even clearer version of this tilt: Going by their abstracts, almost all the fakes (18 of 21) make silly or parodic claims concerning gender; just eight mention race or sexuality.

Going off these numbers, one might presume that “grievance studies,” as the sting would have it, is best defined as mostly feminism and gender stuff. That interpretation would seem to fit the authors’ prior work and interests too. This week’s project turns out to be the offspring of another hoax from Lindsay and Boghossian, published in May 2017. That one, called “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” was billed as an attack on gender studies in particular. “We suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil,” they wrote at the time. “On the evidence, our suspicion was justified.”

Stunt No. 1 was met with widespread criticism, both for its bullying tone and for the fact that it was published in a predatory, pay-to-play journal. Even Sokal himself had some nits to pick with their approach. Boghossian made a spirited defense that June, claiming “there are good reasons to believe” that gender studies “is fatally compromised by bias.” It’s now revealed that even then, he and Lindsay were already working on their follow-up attack—“a much larger and more rigorous study” meant to demonstrate the same idea.

It seems they struggled with that project for the first few months: Their early tries at bogus papers were all rejected out of hand. But the secret work continued and redoubled through the fall and winter. Meanwhile, the nation too grew preoccupied with gender. On Oct. 16, 2017, less than two weeks after the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and when the #MeToo hashtag had just gone viral, Lindsay noted his dismay on social media:

Tweet by James Lindsay
Twitter

That tweet has since been deleted. (So was this one from Boghossian, posted a few months earlier: “Why is it that nearly every male who’s a 3rd wave intersectional feminist is physically feeble & has terrible body habitus?”) In the months that followed, Lindsay doubled down on this response: In an essay for Quillette from January, headlined “Why No One Cares About Feminist Theory,” he complained that gender studies has become “so painfully influential” in American society that it has led to “egregious abuses” such as the “outsized moral panic about sexual harassment.”

That Quillette screed seems a little odd, even self-parodic. (Wait, was it a hoax?) Lindsay calls feminist theory “un-care-about-able” and irrelevant; he says it goes unread even by its own tiny cadre of practitioners. Yet he also posits that its sway is all-encompassing; that it is “leaking into popular culture,” that it has already “leaked into the educational curriculum and university culture,” that it is leaking, leaking everywhere, spreading everywhere, staining us with an occult, menstrual agenda to “remake society in its own image.” If we’re not careful, we’ll all be soaked in feminism.

It’s striking that this histrionic language of infiltration and impurity reappears, near verbatim, in this week’s Areo piece. “These concepts leak into culture,” the authors say, warning of the dangers of left-wing, feminist academe. “Corrupt scholarship has already leaked heavily into other fields like education, social work, media, psychology, and sociology, among others—and it openly aims to continue spreading.” Man the ramparts! Plug every hole that you can find! The leakage from these feminists will never stop.

How timely, too, that this secret project should be published in the midst of the Kavanaugh imbroglio—a time when the anger and the horror of male anxiety is so resplendent in the news. “It’s a very scary time for young men,” Trump told reporters on the very day that Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian went public with their hoax. Both express a fear of false attacks on men, whether levied by regretful sluts, lefty liberals, radical academics, or whoever else.

It all feels a little retro, to be honest. The Supreme Court fight is, of course, a rehash of the one with Clarence Thomas, and the original Year of the Woman in Politics, 1992, has been reinstated for 2018. As I’ve lately argued elsewhere, we’re seeing lots of echoes of the ’90s penis panic, like the then-and-now concern among andrologists that human phalluses are shrinking and human sperm counts are dropping by the day. Now the Sokal hoax of ’96 has been reborn as Sokal Squared, so yet another source of gender-coded apprehension—that objective truth itself is under threat—can be rekindled too.

We might find some solace in the fact that we’ve been through all of this before. Sokal showed already, more than 20 years ago, that postmodernism had run amok and certain sections of the research literature were a waste of ink and paper. Writing in Lingua Franca at the time, he expressed his concern and anger at the implications of this dross: “Theorizing about ‘the social construction of reality’ won’t help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming,” he said.

That sort of scholarship never went away, and yet, surprise, surprise: Civilization hasn’t yet collapsed. In spite of Derrida and Social Text, we somehow found a means of treating AIDS, and if we’re still at loggerheads about the need to deal with global warming, one can’t really blame the queer and gender theorists or imagine that the problem started with the Academic Left. (Hey, I wonder if those dang sociologists might have something interesting to say about climate change denial?)

In fact, given that the poison of postmodernism has been spreading for so long and it hasn’t killed us yet, perhaps it’s time to tweak the diagnosis. The most aggressive symptom of this “corruption” throughout academia may be psychological: a pervasive sense of sadness and disquiet—of grievance, if you will—at the notion that the world is changing and we don’t know how.