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Chronicle of HIgher Education
‘Sokal Squared’: Is Huge Publishing Hoax ‘Hilarious and Delightful’ or
an Ugly Example of Dishonesty and Bad Faith?
By Alexander C. Kafka OCTOBER 03, 2018
James A. Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian, the academics
who carried out a publishing hoax that targeted scholarly journals
Reactions to an elaborate academic-journal hoax, dubbed "Sokal Squared"
by one observer, came fast and furious on Wednesday. Some scholars
applauded the hoax for unmasking what they called academe’s leftist,
victim-obsessed ideological slant and low publishing standards. Others
said it had proved nothing beyond the bad faith and dishonesty of its
Three scholars — Helen Pluckrose, a self-described "exile from the
humanities" who studies medieval religious writings about women; James
A. Lindsay, an author and mathematician; and Peter Boghossian, an
assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University — spent
10 months writing 20 hoax papers that illustrate and parody what they
call "grievance studies," and submitted them to "the best journals in
the relevant fields." Of the 20, seven papers were accepted, four were
published online, and three were in process when the authors "had to
take the project public prematurely and thus stop the study, before it
could be properly concluded." A skeptical Wall Street Journal editorial
writer, Jillian Kay Melchior, began raising questions about some of the
papers over the summer.
Beyond the acceptances, the authors said, they also received four
requests to peer-review other papers "as a result of our own exemplary
scholarship." And one paper — about canine rape culture in dog parks in
Portland, Ore. — "gained special recognition for excellence from its
journal, Gender, Place, and Culture … as one of 12 leading pieces in
feminist geography as a part of the journal’s 25th anniversary celebration."
Hoax Article in Social-Science Journal Gets a Rise Out of Some Scholars
Not all readers accepted the work as laudable scholarship. National
Review took "Helen Wilson," the fictional author of the dog-park study,
to task in June for her approach. "The whole reasoning behind Wilson’s
study," wrote a staff writer, Katherine Timpf, "is the belief that
researching rape culture and sexuality among dogs in parks is a
brilliant way to understand more about rape culture and sexuality among
humans. This is, of course, idiotic. Why? Because humans are not dogs."
Another published paper, "Going In Through the Back Door: Challenging
Straight Male Homohysteria, Transhysteria, and Transphobia Through
Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use," appeared in Sexuality and Culture.
It recommends that men anally self-penetrate "to become less
transphobic, more feminist, and more concerned about the horrors of rape
The trolling trio wondered, they write, if a journal might even "publish
a feminist rewrite of a chapter from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf." Yup.
"Our Struggle Is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional
Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism" was accepted by the feminist
social-work journal Affilia.
Darts and Laurels
Some scholars applauded the hoax.
"Is there any idea so outlandish that it won’t be published in a
Critical/PoMo/Identity/‘Theory’ journal?" tweeted the Harvard
psychologist Steven Pinker.
"Three intrepid academics," wrote Yascha Mounk, an author and lecturer
on government at Harvard, "just perpetrated a giant version of the Sokal
Hoax, placing … fake papers in major academic journals. Call it Sokal
Squared. The result is hilarious and delightful. It also showcases a
serious problem with big parts of academia."
In the original Sokal Hoax, in 1996, a New York University physicist
named Alan Sokal published a bogus paper that took aim at some of the
same targets as his latter-day successors.
Others were less receptive than Mounk. "This is a genre," tweeted Kieran
Healy, a sociologist at Duke, "and they’re in it for the lulz" — the
laughs. "Best not to lose sight of that."
"Good work is hard to do," he wrote, "incentives to publish are
perverse; there’s a lot of crap out there; if you hate an area enough,
you can gin up a fake paper and get it published somewhere if you try.
The question is, what do you hate? And why is that?"
Reviews of several of the papers "were partly conditional on claims to
have done some sort of actual (very bad) fieldwork," Healy noted.
And that’s where the question of bad faith comes in.
"I am so utterly unimpressed," wrote Jacob T. Levy, a political theorist
at McGill University, "by the fact that an enterprise that relies on a
widespread presumption of not-fraud can be fooled some of the time by
three people with Ph.D.s who spend 10 months deliberately trying to
“The chain of thought and action that encourages you to spend 10 months
'pulling a fast one' on academic journals disqualifies you from a
community of scholarship.”
Karen Gregory, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Edinburgh,
wrote that "the chain of thought and action that encourages you to spend
10 months ‘pulling a fast one’ on academic journals disqualifies you
from a community of scholarship. It only proves you are a bad-faith actor."
Karl Steel, an associate professor of English at Brooklyn College and
the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, called the
trio’s work "simply not rigorous research" and described three
objections to it. It is too narrow in disciplinary scope, he said. It
focuses on exposing weaknesses in gender and ethnic studies,
conspicuously ideological fields, when that effort would be better spent
looking at more-substantive problems like the replication crisis in
psychology, or unfounded scholarly claims in cold fusion or
The trio could have reached out to colleagues in physics and other
fields, but instead opted for "poor experimental design." And they
targeted groups that are "likely to be laughed at anyway," showing not
intellectual bravery but cowardice. "These three researchers have
demonstrated that they’re not to be trusted," he said.
Other online commenters said the hoax papers lack a control group of
papers for comparative purposes.
Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian, reached by phone in Portland, said
the papers that were rejected serve as a control of sorts. Better yet,
they said, consider this meta-control thought experiment: Look at your
journals and the articles they published, and see if you can distinguish
them from the hoax articles. If the answer is often no, then there is
Mounk, by phone, also said the control-group criticism is misguided. He
called it a "confused attempt to import statistics into a question where
it doesn’t apply." If the authors were claiming that their work proves
that some publications are, say, 50 percent more susceptible to hoaxes
than the average, or that 100 percent of articles published are nonsense
because these seven articles were accepted, then you would obviously
need controls. But the authors "do nothing of the sort. They demonstrate
that it’s possible, with relatively little effort, to get bullshit
published." It "sows deep doubt" about the nature of the academic
Time will tell, the trio said, but they think the mega-hoax will
effectively snuff out their academic futures. Pluckrose thinks she’ll
have a hard time getting into a doctoral program, Lindsay predicted that
he would become "an academic pariah," and Boghossian, who doesn’t have
tenure, thinks he will be punished, and possibly fired. Still, this
isn’t the first time that Lindsay and Boghossian have teamed up to mock
trendy scholarship. Last year their spurious paper "The Conceptual Penis
as a Social Construct" was published in the journal Cogent Social Sciences.
Meanwhile, Pluckrose and Boghossian are working on a book together, and
Pluckrose is writing one on the 50-year development of grievance studies
and the leftist academic culture of victimization.
If the three are exiled from academe, said Mounk, that will be unjust
and a shame. Through "courage and quite a lot of work," they have shown
that "clearly there’s a big corner of academia where the emperors wear
no clothes." He called the hoax "a more serious contribution to our
understanding of the world than many Ph.D. theses." The three of them,
Mounk said, "should absolutely be celebrated."
Alexander C. Kafka is a senior editor and oversees Idea Lab. Follow him
on Twitter @AlexanderKafka, or email him at alexander.ka...@chronicle.com.
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