A New Academic Hoax–Complete with Fake Articles Published in Academic Journals–Ventures to Show the “Corruption” of Cultural Studies

We should be sus­pi­cious when researchers assume their con­clu­sion; when the results of an aca­d­e­m­ic study mere­ly con­firm the author’s pre-exist­ing bias­es. Humans are wired to seek con­fir­ma­tion, a cog­ni­tive deficit so deeply engrained that it can be exploit­ed among laypeo­ple and spe­cial­ists alike. Art his­to­ri­ans have been fooled by forg­eries, his­to­ri­ans by fake man­u­scripts, and pale­on­tol­o­gists by pho­ny fos­sils. Physi­cist Steven Wein­berg ref­er­enced such high-lev­el hoax­es in a 1996 essay in The New York Review of Books, and he placed that year’s aca­d­e­m­ic scandal—known as the “Sokal Hoax”—among them.

The gist of the Sokal affair runs as fol­lows: NYU math­e­mat­i­cal physi­cist Alan Sokal sus­pect­ed that post-struc­tural­ist-influ­enced cul­tur­al stud­ies was jar­gon-laden, obfus­cat­ing BS, and he set out to prove it by author­ing his own “post­mod­ernist” text, an arti­cle full of mis­used ter­mi­nol­o­gy from quan­tum physics. He sent it off to the jour­nal Social Text, who pub­lished it in their Spring/Summer issue. Sokal then revealed in anoth­er jour­nal, Lin­gua Fran­ca, that the arti­cle had been a fraud, “lib­er­al­ly salt­ed with non­sense,” and had only been accept­ed because “(a) it sound­ed good and (b) it flat­tered the editor’s ide­o­log­i­cal pre­con­cep­tions.”

Sokal’s hoax, it was round­ly claimed, demon­strat­ed that cer­tain fash­ion­able quar­ters of the aca­d­e­m­ic human­i­ties had dete­ri­o­rat­ed into bab­ble, sig­ni­fy­ing noth­ing more than rigid ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ments and a gen­er­al dis­re­gard for the actu­al mean­ings of words and con­cepts. Wein­berg wasn’t so sure. At most, per­haps, it showed the edi­to­r­i­al fail­ings of Social Text. And while human­ists may abuse sci­en­tif­ic ideas, Wein­berg points out that sci­en­tists of the stature of Wern­er Heisen­berg have also been prone to slip­shod, qua­si-mys­ti­cal think­ing.

But the Sokal hoax did expose to the wider pub­lic a ten­den­cy among a coterie of aca­d­e­mics to indulge in mys­ti­fy­ing lan­guage, includ­ing the mis­use of jar­gon from oth­er fields of study, usu­al­ly in imi­ta­tion of French the­o­rists like Jacques Lacan, Julia Kris­te­va, or Jacques Derrida—whom, it must be said, all wrote in a very dif­fer­ent intel­lec­tu­al cul­ture (one that expects, Michel Fou­cault once admit­ted, at least “ten per­cent incom­pre­hen­si­ble”). For a good many peo­ple in the aca­d­e­m­ic human­i­ties, this wasn’t much of a rev­e­la­tion. (Sokal has since pub­lished a more thor­ough­ly crit­i­cal book with the apt title Beyond the Hoax.)

Part of the prob­lem with his hoax as a seri­ous cri­tique is that it began with its con­clu­sion. Cul­tur­al stud­ies are rife with crap argu­ments, ide­ol­o­gy, and incom­pre­hen­si­ble non­sense, Sokal believed. And so, when his paper was accept­ed, he sim­ply rest­ed his case, mak­ing no effort to engage char­i­ta­bly with good schol­ar­ship while he ridiculed the bad. Which brings us to the cur­rent state of the aca­d­e­m­ic human­i­ties, and to a con­tem­po­rary, Sokal-like attack on them by a trio of writ­ers who rest their case on a slight­ly broad­er base of evidence—20 fraud­u­lent arti­cles sent out to var­i­ous niche cul­tur­al stud­ies jour­nals over a year: four pub­lished (since retract­ed), three accept­ed but not pub­lished, sev­en under review, and six reject­ed.

The authors—academic philoso­pher Peter Boghoss­ian and writ­ers Helen Pluck­rose and James A. Lindsay—revealed the hoax this week in an arti­cle pub­lished at the Pluck­rose-edit­ed Areo mag­a­zine. One needn’t read past the title to under­stand the authors’ take on cul­tur­al stud­ies in gen­er­al: “Aca­d­e­m­ic Griev­ance Stud­ies and the Cor­rup­tion of Schol­ar­ship.” While all three hoax­ers iden­ti­fy as left-lean­ing lib­er­als, the broad-brush char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of whole fields as “griev­ance stud­ies” reveals a prej­u­di­cial degree of con­tempt that seems unwar­rant­ed. In the arti­cle, they reveal their moti­va­tions and meth­ods, out­line the suc­cess­es of the project, and post the com­ments of the arti­cles’ ref­er­ees, along with a video of them­selves hav­ing a good laugh at the whole thing.

This last bit is unnec­es­sary and obnox­ious, but does the new hoax—“Sokal Squared” as it’s been called—genuinely under­mine the cred­i­bil­i­ty of cul­tur­al stud­ies as a whole? Is it “’hilar­i­ous and delight­ful,’” asks Alexan­der C. Kaf­ka at The Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion, or “an ugly exam­ple of dis­hon­esty and bad faith?” Har­vard polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Yascha Mounk tact­ful­ly finds in it a seri­ous case for con­cern: “Some aca­d­e­m­ic emperors—the ones who sup­pos­ed­ly have the most to say about these cru­cial top­ics [dis­crim­i­na­tion, racism, sexism]—have no clothes.”

This is a point worth pur­su­ing, and cer­tain recent scan­dals should give every­one pause to con­sid­er how bul­ly­ing and group­think man­i­fest on the aca­d­e­m­ic left at the high­est lev­el of pres­tige. But the great major­i­ty of aca­d­e­mics are not “emper­ors” and have very lit­tle social or eco­nom­ic pow­er. And Mounk is care­ful not to over­state the case. He points out how the hoax has unfor­tu­nate­ly giv­en wel­come “ammu­ni­tion” to right-wing con­ser­v­a­tive axe-grinders:

Many con­ser­v­a­tives who are deeply hos­tile to the sci­ence of cli­mate change, and who dis­miss out of hand the stud­ies that attest to deep injus­tices in our soci­ety, are using Sokal Squared to smear all aca­d­e­mics as biased cul­ture war­riors. The Fed­er­al­ist, a right-wing news and com­men­tary site, went so far as to spread the appar­ent ide­o­log­i­cal bias of a few jour­nals in one par­tic­u­lar cor­ner of acad­e­mia to most pro­fes­sors, the main­stream media, and Democ­rats on the Sen­ate Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee.

The Fed­er­al­ist spe­cial­izes in irre­spon­si­ble con­spir­a­cy-mon­ger­ing, the kind of thing that sells ads and wins elec­tions but doesn’t belong in aca­d­e­m­ic debate. The ques­tion Mounk doesn’t ask is whether the hoax­ers’ own atti­tudes encour­age and share in such hos­til­i­ty, an issue raised by sev­er­al of their crit­ics. As physi­cist Sean Car­roll wrote on Twit­ter, “What strikes me about stunts like this is their fun­da­men­tal mean­ness. No attempt to intel­lec­tu­al­ly engage with ideas you dis­agree with; just trolling for the lulz.” McGill Uni­ver­si­ty polit­i­cal the­o­rist Jacob T. Levy expressed sim­i­lar reser­va­tions in an inter­view, notes The New York Times, say­ing

even some col­leagues who are not fans of iden­ti­ty-ori­ent­ed schol­ar­ship are look­ing at the hoax and say­ing ‘this is poten­tial­ly uneth­i­cal and doesn’t show what they think it is show­ing.’ Besides, he added, “We all rec­og­nized that this kind of thing could also be done in our dis­ci­plines if peo­ple were will­ing to ded­i­cate a year to do it.”

There­in lies anoth­er prob­lem with Sokal Squared. Hoax­es have been per­pet­u­at­ed by smart, ded­i­cat­ed forg­ers, con-artists, and pranksters in near­ly every field, show­ing up all sorts of experts as poten­tial dupes. The sin­gling out of cul­tur­al stud­ies for par­tic­u­lar ridicule—the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of stud­ies of race, gen­der, dis­abil­i­ty, etc. as “griev­ance studies”—reveals an aggriev­ed agen­da all its own, one that ignores the seri­ous prob­lems cor­rupt­ing oth­er dis­ci­plines (e.g. indus­try fund­ing in aca­d­e­m­ic sci­ences, or the gross overuse of under­grad­u­ate stu­dents as the main sub­jects of studies—groups that hard­ly rep­re­sent the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion.)

Some, but not all, of the suc­cess­ful­ly-pub­lished hoax papers sound ludi­crous and ter­ri­ble. Some, in fact, do not, as Justin Wein­berg shows at Dai­ly Nous, and should not shame the edi­tors who pub­lished them. Some of the jour­nals have much high­er edi­to­r­i­al stan­dards than oth­ers. (An ear­ly hoax attempt by Boghoss­ian tar­get­ed an ill-reput­ed, pay-to-play pub­li­ca­tion.) The whole affair may speak to broad­er fail­ures in aca­d­e­m­ic pub­lish­ing that go beyond a tiny cor­ner of the human­i­ties. In part, those fail­ures may stem from a gen­er­al trend toward over­worked, under­paid, increas­ing­ly pre­car­i­ous schol­ars whose dis­ci­plines, and fund­ing, have been under relent­less polit­i­cal attack since at least the 1990s and who must keep grind­ing out pub­li­ca­tions, some­times of dubi­ous mer­it, as part of the over­all dri­ve toward sheer pro­duc­tiv­i­ty as the sole mea­sure of suc­cess.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky Explains What’s Wrong with Post­mod­ern Phi­los­o­phy & French Intel­lec­tu­als, and How They End Up Sup­port­ing Oppres­sive Pow­er Struc­tures

John Sear­le on Fou­cault and the Obscu­ran­tism in French Phi­los­o­phy

Noam Chom­sky Slams Žižek and Lacan: Emp­ty ‘Pos­tur­ing’

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Trappa Skunk says:

    Left-lean­ing types real­ly need to devel­op a sense of humor and allow them­selves to be hum­bled once in a while.

  • Gerald says:

    This research mere­ly demon­strat­ed some­thing that most clear-head­ed peo­ple intu­itive­ly under­stood: the hard-left is dri­ven by a per­ni­cious agen­da, and when truth becomes an obsta­cle, it is casu­al­ly dis­card­ed. Acad­e­mia ignores this at its own per­il; if it does not weed out the garbage, peo­ple will increas­ing­ly throw out the good with the bad. That would be a bad result for every­one.

  • Bonita Heath says:

    I am grate­ful to these authors for this work. You left out one field, though: dis­abil­i­ty stud­ies, in which you are sup­posed to be “proud” of hav­ing a con­di­tion that could take 20 years off your life.

  • Ayun Halliday says:

    I too enjoyed these authors’ work (and am a full on lib­er­al!) But I take issue with your fram­ing of dis­abil­i­ty stud­ies, Boni­ta.

    I think many in that field are moved to enter it b/c of their expe­ri­ence with dis­abled fam­i­ly mem­bers, see­ing how hard it is for par­ents of dis­abled chil­dren to advo­cate for their chil­dren. Dis­abled adults hope­ful­ly had par­ents who bat­tled for them, and are now tak­ing over that fight.

    Giv­en that the oppo­site of pride is shame, I would choose pride — pride that I had the grit to work twice as hard as able bod­ied peo­ple to accom­plish the phys­i­cal tasks of dai­ly life most peo­ple take for grant­ed.

    What would you say to a young girl who was par­a­lyzed in a no-fault traf­fic acci­dent that claimed the life of her younger sis­ter, who will spend the rest of her life in a wheel­chair, who is deter­mined to remain vis­i­ble and shame free, to advo­cate for accom­mo­da­tions for peo­ple with all dis­abil­i­ties — not just the ones who share her set of par­tic­u­lars, to edu­cate the able bod­ied pub­lic on why these accom­mo­da­tions are nec­es­sary and should become law, if they are not already. If that col­lege bound young woman wants to pur­sue Dis­abil­i­ty Stud­ies, I say right on! As I would say if she wants to pur­sue Anthro­pol­o­gy, Russ­ian Lit­er­a­ture, or Chem­i­cal Engi­neer­ing.

    This young woman is not hypo­thet­i­cal, as you may have guessed. I won­der if she might cause you to rethink your posi­tion, if I could not. Like the authors of this incred­i­ble project/prank, she is pos­sessed of great ener­gy and humor.

  • Andy says:

    This is a non-starter of an argu­ment: “As physi­cist Sean Car­roll wrote on Twit­ter, “What strikes me about stunts like this is their fun­da­men­tal mean­ness. No attempt to intel­lec­tu­al­ly engage with ideas you dis­agree with; just trolling for the lulz.””
    Any­one who has ever tried to have a ratio­nal debate with crit­i­cal the­o­ry types knows all too well that “intel­lec­tu­al engage­ment” is impos­si­ble with a per­son who refus­es to acknowl­edge log­ic, rea­son, and con­sis­ten­cy.

  • Bonita Heath says:

    I’m not sure you could have missed my point more it you tried—and I’m sure you did­n’t (try to miss my point, that is). I am PhD can­di­date in Crit­i­cal Dis­abil­i­ty Stud­ies (CDS) and an advo­cate for accom­mo­da­tions and acces­si­bil­i­ty, and god­dess for­bid, pre­ven­tion of dis­abil­i­ty. I have also been liv­ing with a spinal cord injury for near­ly 20 years. I agree that it is much hard­er to nav­i­gate life with a dis­abil­i­ty. But in CDS dog­ma, you would be heav­i­ly crit­i­cized for sug­gest­ing that we need “grit to work twice as hard as able-bod­ied peo­ple to accom­plish the phys­i­cal tasks of dai­ly life most peo­ple take for grant­ed”. Accord­ing to CDS dog­ma, dis­abil­i­ty is no big deal. We are all expect­ed to fight for the right to accom­mo­da­tions, but nev­er use them. Instead, we are all sup­posed to be “super-crips”. My expe­ri­ence of CDS is that it is iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics at its most absurd. Thus, my admi­ra­tion for this prank stems from not sim­ply the lack of rig­or in much of CDS schol­ar­ship, but the lack of “log­ic, rea­son, and con­sis­ten­cy”, as Andy says. Though I dis­agree with him that this is a stunt of fun­da­men­tal mean­ness. This “stunt”, as he calls it, was a bril­liant move, in my opin­ion, to show that the post­mod­ern dom­i­na­tion of acad­e­mia is ridicu­lous. Post­mod­ernism might even be dan­ger­ous, if it weren’t so irrel­e­vant to the expe­ri­ences of most peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties that I know.

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