How academic hoaxes can prove helpful

Over ten months, three writers submitted 20 deliberately ridiculous papers to peer-reviewed academic journals specialising in critical theory. 

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The first people to raise suspicions were journalists, who in July stumbled upon a bizarre study in the academic journal Gender, Place and Culture titled “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon”. Surely this paper, which studied “rampant canine rape culture” for insights into how to train men out of sexual violence, couldn’t be genuine? When a writer at the Wall Street Journal tried to email the author, Helen Wilson, she instead received a response from James Lindsay, a mathematician, who confessed that the study was fake and had been submitted to the journal as a hoax.

Over ten months, Lindsay, together with writer Helen Pluckrose and philosopher Peter Boghossian, submitted 20 deliberately ridiculous papers to peer-reviewed academic journals specialising in critical theory. They cut their project short because of the growing media attention, but by the time their hoax was made public in early October, seven of their papers had been accepted for publication and four had been published, including one that rewrote sections of Mein Kampf with “feminist buzzwords” and another titled “Going In Through the Back Door” that purported to show how masturbating with dildos made men more feminist.

In an article for the New Statesman website, the authors said the hoax was intended to expose “ideologically-biased agendas” in academic fields such as gender, identity and cultural studies. Writing in Areo magazine, they argued that “scholarship based less on the truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established”. They said they hoped to give people, “especially those who believe in liberalism, progress, modernity, open inquiry, and social justice… a clear reason to look at the identitarian madness coming out of the academic and activist left and say, ‘No, I will not go along with that.’”

Predictably, the hoax was seized upon by many on the right eager for an excuse to deride feminism and modern identity politics. In an article in the right-wing online magazine the Federalist, one op-ed writer suggested that the hoax exposed the left’s broader “war on reason”, as evidenced by the mainstream media’s reporting of the sexual abuse allegations levelled against the Republican Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh.

The hoaxers themselves make clear that they share the same social justice commitments and values as many on the left, which is why they believe that critically important subjects such as gender, race, sexuality and culture warrant rigorous, academically sound study – and why they want to expose the “sophistry” that is “corrupting” parts of academia.

It is particularly troubling that peer reviewers for at least seven publications could not distinguish between genuine scholarship and the virtue-signalling nonsense submitted by three pranksters. One article, which reviewers at Hypatia journal rejected pending revision, suggested that privileged students should be ignored, spoken over or forced to sit on the floor in chains as a form of “existential reparations”. That such a cruel and dangerous suggestion – one that invites teachers to rank and penalise their students on the basis of their identity – was not dismissed outright will do little to assuage mounting concern over the partisan and intolerant atmosphere developing on some campuses, the subject of an influential new book, The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.

This is not the first such hoax to hit academia, though it is one of the more ambitious. In one high-profile stunt in 1996, the physicist Alan Sokal published an article in the cultural studies journal Social Text that argued that the laws of physics were a social construct. He said that he submitted the article (which was not peer-reviewed before publication) to expose “sloppy thinking” among “fashionable sectors of the American academic left”.

Some of the fiercest critics of Lindsay and his colleagues say that despite their crusading rhetoric, they are simply trolling the academic community. “This is a genre, and they’re in it for the lulz,” the Duke University sociologist Kieran Healy tweeted. But perhaps even malicious and destructive hoaxes can also be revealing.

The media is regularly subject to hoaxes, some of which are extraordinarily successful, from fake celebrity death announcements to the misleading photos and footage often shared in the aftermath of terror attacks. Often, these hoaxes are conducted in bad faith and they certainly erode trust in a vital institution that is already under threat in this “fake news” era.

And yet, they do also expose real flaws in how journalists report and verify information, highlighting vulnerabilities in the media industry that should be taken seriously and remedied. Hopefully, when emotions are running less high, the academics whowere duped will be ready to start asking themselves difficult questions.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war