This week, three self-described liberal scholars (Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian) went public with an account of a hoax against a range of scholarly journals, from obscure paper mills to field-leading publications. What their targets had in common was membership in a group of humanistic, interdisciplinary social-science fields the hoaxers call “grievance studies”—in other words, gender studies, critical race theory, and other scholarly communities that emerged from the post-’68 “long march through the institutions.” The avowed purpose of these fields is to promote critical engagement with marginalized viewpoints and to advance a general project of social change. (I will use the term “grievance studies” here, though I recognize that it is inaccurate and harmful—under erasure, as it were.) By assembling articles that appeared to share this political impetus while being in some way ridiculous or absurd (for instance, rewrites of parts of Mein Kampf) and getting them published, the three scholars aimed to reveal that these fields have become intellectually bankrupt as a result of poor peer review practices and tolerance of sloppy methodology. But did they succeed? And is what they offer in place of these practices any better?
My initial reaction, triggered by long-dormant Sokal Hoax antibodies, was to become outraged at the political motivations and damaging anti-academic effects of the project. But of course this only plays into the hands of the hoaxers, to whom indignation and charges of unethical conduct from the targets only reveal how effective the hoax actually was. In an article published two years before the Sokal Hoax, the decidedly unpostmodern science writer Jim Schnabel surveyed a range of historical scientific hoaxes (that is, those specifically intended to expose putatively fraudulent methodology) and concluded that they all unfold in roughly the same order. The hoax is perpetrated; the target replies that the hoax did not in fact challenge their competence and, besides, was ethically dubious; the hoaxer ridicules the target for their defensiveness; and the educated public makes a decision based not on the scientific merits of the hoax but on the relative orthodoxy of the hoaxer and hoaxee. In effect, the result of the trick is decided in advance by the power relations of the field—which, as in this case, may well be the entire academic community.
Here is one example. In 1987, the social work researcher Richard Epstein attempted to demonstrate that journals in his field favored studies justifying intervention by social workers at the expense of scientific rigor. Like the authors of the “grievance studies” hoax, Epstein was unable to get his fraudulent papers reliably accepted in top-ranked social work journals (though lower-ranked ones were more accommodating), and so he trained his fire on the peer reviewers, who “did not recognize that the paper was flawed methodologically.” As a result he was discredited by leading scholars and nearly drummed out of his own field. So much for successfully exposing orthodoxy.1
In the current case the situation appears at first glance to be more complicated. The researchers do not seem to represent establishment scholarship: one is an untenured philosophy professor and the others have no formal academic posts. The obscure venue of choice for their account of the hoax, Areo Magazine, models itself on the magazine Aeon but in fact contains low-grade content obviously too petty or pedestrian even for Quillette (“Not All Men is Not a Fallacy. It is Humanism”). Yet what generated the Areo article’s viral lift were strong endorsements from the usual suspects—Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson, both senior psychology professors—and the budding reactionary Yascha Mounk, a Harvard lecturer in government but also head of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. The orthodoxy these men represent is not an orthodoxy of scientific legitimacy but rather the emerging consensus of tech bros, Davos billionaires, and alt-right misogynists. Each of these groups has its own reasons to hate feminist and other critical scholarship—whether for ideological reasons, positivist data fetishism, or the perception that they are uncommodifiable and hence worthless. It has thus been easy for them to find common cause in fighting the old Sokal specter of academic postmodernism that supposedly still dominates academia. At stake in the hoax, then, is precisely the question of whether it is “grievance studies” that is Goliath and methodological “common sense” that is David, or vice-versa.
The answer, to me, seems obvious. Even where they exist as departments, fields like gender studies are less institutionalized, more poorly-resourced, and more disadvantaged in hiring, promotion, and funding compared to mainline counterparts like psychology—doubly disadvantaged in the case of even newer fields like fat studies, also targeted in the hoax. They also tend to employ more women, people of color, and LGBTQ people, whose individual marginalization is compounded by the structure of academic institutions. The low impact factor of most of the journals that published the hoaxers’ papers testifies not just to the barrel-scraping to which they were reduced when more prestigious journals rejected them, but also to the struggle their fields face in the broader academic community. This is to be lamented, not celebrated, for these fields do in fact produce valuable and effective scholarship. “White fragility,” a concept developed by critical discourse analysis scholar Robin DiAngelo, is singled out for special scrutiny by the hoaxers—yet without it one would find it difficult to understand anything about American political discourse since the murder of Michael Brown.
The hoaxers themselves give ample evidence of this. The comments they so lovingly pluck out from the peer reviews they’ve received (thus committing the scientific sin of only reproducing the data that apparently fits one’s predetermined conclusion) do not show that all of the reviewers took the papers as God’s word. Instead, they are a record of the careful emotional labor the journals’ unpaid reviewers performed on behalf of someone they assumed was a struggling junior colleague. (On Twitter, one of the reviewers revealed himself to be a graduate student who spent hours crafting suggestions about what he thought was a master’s thesis in the process of being revised.) At their best, “grievance studies” fields tend to emphasize a duty of care for authors, their shared political impetus and institutional marginality providing the basis for a scholarly community rather than a field of bitter and often unfair competition.
But perhaps these fields would be more rigorous if their peer-reviewing tradition was more like political science or other mainline white cis male-dominated ones? Anyone with personal experience of “reviewer 2,” with all his gatekeeping and citation-policing, is likely to tell you otherwise. Consider, too, that peer review alone is manifestly incapable of serving the purpose the hoaxers expect of it, which is to present the “gold standard” of scholarship. The highest-ranked journal they hoaxed accepted their paper in part on the basis of a fraudulent ethnography; as numerous hoax scandals in computer science and a wide range of other fields testify, no peer reviewer (let alone an unpaid or untenured one) is capable of reliably detecting fraudulent data. Moreover, even a paper written, submitted, reviewed, and accepted entirely in good faith is vulnerable to being discredited by methodological shifts like the “replication crisis” in psychology (many of whose culprits were unaware that they were juking their own stats). At the very best, the point of peer review is to impose conformity within the parameters of a particular academic field. Many a political-science paper has been torn to shreds by quantitative economists who share different assumptions.
The real objection, then, is to the politics: a field less deliberately politicized, the hoaxers argue, would not have let these papers slip through. We lack explicit examples of such fields here (for some reason, sociology is not recognized in the article as a successful field, though all of its journals rejected the proffered hoaxes). But we can conclude from the authors’ stated alliances here and elsewhere that Pinker, Peterson, and Mounk represent their scholarly ideal—or, at any rate, that Pinker, Peterson, and Mounk represent that ideal for themselves, which is why they shared the article to begin with.
It is hard to imagine a form of scholarship less rigorous, more motivated by nonscientific concerns, and more warped by political hobbyhorses than what these men practice. Steven Pinker routinely misrepresents the scholarship he relies on in his books; a 2013 meta-analysis of the burial sites he studies in his argument on the decline of violence reveals that nearly every one of them has been misunderstood or distorted, without any noticeable impact on its popularity.2 Yet he can never be effectively corrected by any fellow scholar, because the outsized power he wields due to his media platform will always give his views more visibility. Peterson is even worse, a neo-Jungian fantasist whose basic ideas about animal and human behavior are so egregiously wrong he no longer even bothers to justify them through standard scholarly practice. Mounk catapulted to media prominence entirely on the basis of a conveniently-timed claim that recent survey data showed an alarming collapse in support for democracy in Western societies; though critics soon called his analysis cherry-picked and inaccurate, his reputation as the premier pundit of the liberal-technocrat class remains untarnished.3 In each of these cases, it is celebrity, status, and money that immunize a would-be scholar from criticism and disincentivize any revisions to their views. These extra-academic factors have a much greater effect on shaping our own daily lives than the private politics of most fat studies scholars, for they spread incorrect conclusions to a very wide audience and give it the imprimatur of elite academic institutions.
“Sokal Squared” is bad science. Its blatant manipulation of its own “data,” the lack of meaningful controls, and the disconnect between its methods and what it claims to prove are a remarkably poor model for nonpoliticized scholarship, even if it were true (as it clearly is not) that the hoaxers were any less driven by ideology than their targets. As historians and philosophers of science have long recognized, claims that good science is apolitical are routinely deployed in the service of very political ends. By centering their political goals, fields like disability studies give a frame to scholarly inquiry. That such inquiry sometimes brings with it dross, deliberate or not, will not be news to anyone who has ever read a few journal issues cover to cover. But the political goals of these fields are worthy. They are a credible contribution to social justice in a way that the hollow pieties of celebrity pseudoscientists will never be.
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.
Jim Schnabel, “Puck in the Laboratory: The Construction and Deconstruction of Hoaxlike Deception in Science,” Science, Technology, & Human Values 19, no. 4 (1994): 459–92. ↩
The Washington Post’s Erik Voeten and Christopher Claassen both criticized Mounk’s findings, to take two examples. Daniel Denvir and Thea Riofrancos reviewed Mounk’s book, The People vs. Democracy, in April. ↩