They’ve done it again: another embarrassing moment for the skeptic movement

In a few days I will be in Las Vegas. No, it’s not what you may be thinking about. I’ll be the token skeptic at one of the largest conferences of skeptics: CSICon, courtesy of the same people who publish Skeptical Inquirer magazine, for which I wrote a column on the nature of science for a decade. I say “token skeptic” because I have been invited by the organizers to talk about scientism, the notion that sometimes science itself is adopted as an ideology, applied everywhere even though it doesn’t belong or is not particularly useful (here is a video about this).

I have been both a member and a friendly internal critic of the skeptic community since the late ‘90s, and I have been reminded of the value of such a gadfly-like role very recently, with the publication of yet another “skeptical” hoax co-authored by philosopher Peter Boghossian and author James Lindsay, this time accompanied by Areo magazine’s Helen Pluckrose. The hoax purports to demonstrate once and for all that what the authors disdainfully refer to as “grievance studies” (i.e., black studies, race studies, women studies, gender studies, and allied fields) is a sham hopelessly marred by leftist ideological bias. The hoax doesn’t do any such thing, although those fields are, in fact, problematic. What the stunt accomplishes instead is to reveal the authors’ own ideological bias, as well as the poverty of critical thinking by major exponents of the self-professed skeptic community. But let’s proceed in order.

Boghossian and Lindsay made a first, awkward attempt at this last year, by submitting a single fake paper entitled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.” It was a disaster: the paper was, in fact, rejected by the first (very low ranking) journal they submitted it to, and only got published in an unranked, pay-per-publish journal later on. Here is my commentary on why Boghossian and Lindsay’s achievement was simply to shine a negative light on the skeptic movement, and here is a panel discussion about their failure at the North East Conference on Science and Skepticism later on in the year. That did not stop major exponents of the skeptic movement, from Michael Shermer to Steven Pinker, from Richard Dawkins to Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne, from praising Boghossian and Lindsay, which is why I maintain the episode was an embarrassment for the whole community.

The hoax, of course, was modeled after the famous one perpetrated by NYU physicist Alan Sokal at the expense of the (non peer reviewed) postmodernist journal Social Text, back in the ‘90s, at the height of the so-called science wars. Sokal, however, is far more cautious and reasonable than Boghossian & co., writing about his own stunt:

From the mere fact of publication of my parody I think that not much can be deduced. It doesn’t prove that the whole field of cultural studies, or cultural studies of science — much less sociology of science — is nonsense. Nor does it prove that the intellectual standards in these fields are generally lax. (This might be the case, but it would have to be established on other grounds.) It proves only that the editors of one rather marginal journal were derelict in their intellectual duty.

In fact, Sokal himself published some good criticisms of the conceptual penis hoax.

Not having learned their lesson at all, Boghossian & co. engaged in a larger project of the same kind, this time sending out 21 fake papers to a number of journals, mostly in women and gender studies. Two thirds of the papers were rejected. Of the seven accepted papers, one was a collection of (bad) poetry, and thus really irrelevant to the objective at hand; two were simply boring and confusing, like a lot of academic papers; one was a self-referential piece on academic hoaxes that one independent commentator actually judged to be making “somewhat plausible arguments”; and three more included fake empirical evidence. As Daniel Engber says in Slate:

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?

Indeed, there are several examples of this in the literature, like a 2013 hoax that saw a scientific paper about anti-cancer properties in a chemical extracted from a fictional lichen published in several hundred journals. Hundreds, not just half a dozen!

It’s very well worth reading the entirety of Engber’s commentary, which exposes several problematic aspects of the Boghossian et al.’s stunt. The major issues, as I see them, are the following:

  1. Hoaxes are ethically problematic, and I honestly think Portland State University should start an academic investigation of the practices of Peter Boghossian. In the first place, I doubt the study (which was published in Aero magazine, not in a peer reviewed journal!) obtained the standard clearance required for research on human subjects. Second, the whole enterprise of academic publishing assumes that one is not faking things, particularly data. So tricking reviewers in that fashion at the very least breaches the ethical norms of any field of scholarship.
  2. The authors make a big deal of the ideological slant of the fields they target, apparently entirely oblivious to their own ideological agenda, which explicitly targeted mostly women and gender studies. Both Boghossian and Lindsay have published a series of tweets (see Engber’s essay) that nakedly display their bias. Is the pot calling the kettle black?
  3. While we can certainly agree that it is disturbing that academic journals publish any paper that is more or less obviously fake, this is not a good criticism of the target fields. You know what that would look like? It would take the form of a serious, in-depth analysis of arguments proposed by scholars in those fields. But Boghossian & co. actually proudly proclaimed, after their first hoax, that they have never read a paper in “X studies,” which means that - literally - they don’t know what they are talking about. Here is one example of how to do it.
  4. What Boghossian et al. really want to convey is that “X studies” are intellectually bankrupt, unlike other academic disciplines, particularly scientific ones. But as the example of the anti-cancer hoax mentioned above, and several others, show, this is simply not the case. Corruption of academic culture, resulting either from ideological bias or from financial interests (pharmaceutical companies are well known to establish entire fake journals to push their products) is not limited to certain small corners of the humanities.
  5. In a related fashion - and surprisingly given that Boghossian actually teaches critical thinking - while the first hoax fatally suffered from a sample size of n=1, the new one is plagued by the simple fact that it has no control! Without a similar systematic attempt being directed at journals in other fields (particularly scientific ones) we can conclude precious little about the specific state of “X studies.”

That said, do I think that the fields targeted by Boghossian & co. are problematic? Yes, as I’ve written before. Here the most useful commentary on the hoax has been published in the New York Times by William Eggington. As he puts it:

The problem is not that philosophers, historians or English professors are interested in, say, questions of how gender or racial identity or bias is expressed in culture or thought. Gender and racial identity are universally present and vitally important across all the areas that the humanities study and hence should be central concerns. The problem, rather, is that scholars who study these questions have been driven into sub-specializations that are not always seen as integral to larger fields or to the humanities as a whole. Sometimes they have been driven there by departments that are reluctant to accept them; sometimes they have been driven there by their own conviction that they alone have the standing to investigate these topics.

That strikes me as exactly right. “X studies” programs should be integrated within a university, either (ideally) in broad multidisciplinary programs, or within the most suitable departments, such as History, Philosophy, Sociology, and the like.

Eggington blames academic hyperspecialization for the current sorry state of affairs in these fields, as well as the “publish or perish” attitude that has plagued academia for decades now. But guess what? “X studies” are most definitely not the only ones to suffer from these problems. They are endemic to the whole of modern academy, including the natural sciences. Indeed, we should be far more worried about the influence of ideology and big money on scientific fields than on small areas of the humanities. After all, it is in the name of science that we spend billions annually, and it is from science that we expect miracles of medicine and technology.

As Engber writes in the Slate commentary, notwithstanding the dire warnings of Boghossian, Pinker, Harris, Dawkins and all the others:

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?)

The new Boghossian-led hoax is another example of badly executed, ideologically driven stunt that targets narrow fields with little impact while leaving alone the big elephants in the room. It is, in the end, yet another embarrassment for the skeptical community, as well as a reflection of the authors’ own biases and narrow mindedness.