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25 August 2022

What’s behind a successful academic hoax?

The competitive nature of academia produces a tendency to group-think, which hoaxers exploit.

By Costica Bradatan

In the spring of 1996 an article came out in a prestigious journal of cultural studies, Social Text, that has since become one of the most talked about essays in academia: “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.”

The essay made some far-fetched claims, including that physical reality does not really exist, but “is at bottom a social and linguistic construct”. True, claims like this were not unheard-of in post-modern circles at the time, but what set “Transgressing the Boundaries” apart was the fact that it was written in jest. The article’s author, Alan Sokal, was a physicist with no expertise in the journal’s field. However, his parody made its way into a highly regarded journal. In so doing it made history.

An academic hoax should be nearly impossible to pull off. Journal editors and peer-reviewers – scholars who have spent a lifetime building up their expertise – are eminently qualified to spot the forgery. Yet scholarly hoaxes targeting journals in the humanities, from the “Sokal Affair” to the more recent “Grievance Studies Affair,” have become common place.

The hoaxers of the Grievance Studies Affair submitted a paper in which they purported to show “that dog parks are ‘rape-condoning spaces’ and a place of rampant canine rape culture and systemic oppression against ‘the oppressed dog’ through which human attitudes to both problems can be measured and analysed by applying black feminist criminology.”

The editor’s response? Excellent scholarship, which we will be honoured to publish. One of the peer-reviewers wrote: “This is a wonderful paper – incredibly innovative, rich in analysis, and extremely well-written and organised given the incredibly diverse literature sets and theoretical questions brought into conversation.”

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Such hoaxes are not just a series of absurd statements meant to make a mockery of the whole system, but have a serious intellectual point: the dangerous ease with which expertise can be faked in the humanities these days.

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What’s more troubling is that often even after the hoaxers have come out of the shadows and revealed their game, the farce’s victims can’t see the problem. Despite Sokal’s unambiguous admission that his article was written in jest and was “liberally salted with nonsense”, the co-editor of Social Text said that “its status as parody does not alter substantially our initial perception of, and our interest in, the piece itself as a curio, or symptomatic document”.

[See also: Does the rise of the Metaverse mean the decline of cities?]

When Sokal wrote, in his hoax text, that “the discourse of the scientific community… cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalised communities”, he meant that as a stinging joke. The targets of the joke didn’t feel the sting.

Two questions come to mind: how is this possible and what does it reveal about academia?

Like many animals, humans tend to herd. The herding instinct has helped us survive throughout much of our evolutionary history. “Group living is our main survival strategy,” concludes the primatologist Frans de Waal. We herd when we are afraid or feel threatened. We herd to identify or to invent our enemies – and to work ourselves up against them. The herd gives us security and animal warmth, a sense of identity and belonging. Herding makes culture. The herd is not only in the world around us, but also inside our minds.

And that’s where many of our problems start. For herding can easily interject itself between ourselves and our quest for the truth. Sometimes there is nothing more alien to the truth than the herd in our heads. That’s why, if we are to make intellectual and spiritual progress, we need to keep our herding instinct in check, or even block it altogether – neither of which is much in evidence in the humanities lately.

Out of a need for security and comfort, we form herds and compulsively flock to their centre, where most of the power, resources and prestige-generating institutions are. We use fancy terms for what we are doing (we don’t herd, we “network”), but at its core our behaviour is structured and informed by the herding instinct.

To stand a chance in what has become an extremely competitive environment, academics have to melt into one crowd or another, to conform to its needs and priorities, and play by its rules. What individual members of the crowd think is largely irrelevant; if they are to be good soldiers, they need to put their thinking at the group’s service. To maintain access to resources, power and funding institutions, we need to act as a group, and for that, group-think is vital.

That is worrying. For while scholars certainly need to collaborate, when collaboration is reduced to mere herding their scholarship cannot but lose its integrity. They no longer think with their own mind: the herd does the thinking for them. The staging of a successful scholarly hoax shows how that happens in practice.

As major sources of professional prestige, scholarly journals are important players in the academic game. They make and break reputations and careers. More importantly, journals serve as gatekeepers: they grant or deny access into a group.

As journal editors receive fresh submissions, the first thing they do is scan them for external markers of conformity to the group’s internal rules and orthodoxy: specific terminology, references to the group’s authorities, favourite themes and topics, and even certain turns of phrase and rhetorical tropes. These are all tokens that those belonging to an academic herd use to signal their membership.

Good hoaxers know that only too well. When Sokal wanted to gain access into the post-modern cultural studies herd, he uttered some of its keywords and turns of phrase – “privileged epistemological status,” “counter-hegemonic narratives,” “marginalised communities” – and the doors opened. The same went for the hoaxers of the Grievance Studies Affair. All they had to do was produce some of the in-group’s recognisable noises – “systemic oppression,” “queer performativity,” “rape culture” – and they were let in.

Once the journal’s editors have identified the markers of conformity in a submission, they seem to stop paying attention to the text, if they don’t stop reading it altogether. The presence of these markers has such a mesmerising effect on the gatekeepers that they deem satirical gibberish superlative scholarship.

Dazzled as they are by the seductive linguistic packaging, reputable scholars fail to see what happens outside those texts – in the real world they are supposedly about, and in relation to which their claims are so blatantly absurd.

What ultimately makes scholarly hoaxes so easy to perform, then, is that journal editors read them as epidermically as their authors write them. Their engagement with the texts is no deeper than the authors’ engagement with the field.

The art of hoaxing – like any con art, like art itself – relies heavily on empathy. As they set out to produce their forgeries, the hoaxers steal into the minds of the editors who are going to read them – into the herd that occupies their headspace – and consider everything from that vantage point. Inhabiting the herd mind, even for a brief period, allows hoaxers to learn all they need to know to perform their forgery successfully.

Ironically, a scholarly hoax is a profoundly post-modern affair: it takes place and exhausts itself within language; it relies on derision and irony; it shows no respect for “privileged epistemological status”. All it is after all is “disruption” and “transgression”. If they got the joke, its postmodern victims would be flattered – but they don’t.  

Costica Bradatan is Professor of Humanities at Texas Tech University. He is the author of In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Wendland is Vision Fellow in Public Philosophy at King’s College, London and a Senior Research Fellow at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.

[See also: Viktor Orbán’s American apologists]

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