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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