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 authors.
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.”
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 culture.”
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.”