Matters of Faith

Tuesday brought news of the latest self-indulgent hoaxing of academic journals by a trio of “academic exiles” intent on establishing that the academy is a at once a hothouse of left-wing ideological orthodoxy and, at the same time, a credulous fantasy-land where anything couched in the language of “theory”, however nonsensical, can get published. (How well these ideas agree is not my business to sort out.) In the event, they submitted 20 junk papers to a set of journals in or associated with feminist philosophy and gender studies; of these, seven made it past the peer review stage and four were published.

Hoaxes like this are, inevitably and rightly, embarrassing for the editors, reviewers, and journals involved. Procedures in place for ensuring quality should not allow junk to go to press. But — as many since the Sokal ur-hoax, arguably including Sokal himself, have pointed out — these hoaxes prove a good deal less than is usually claimed for them. The authors in this case pretend to have undertaken a study that exposes ideological bias in specific fields — in particular, fields associated with the study of gender, which are, not by chance, popular targets — by showing that anything that makes the right moral noises, whether or not it has any scholarly content, will receive the rubber stamp of “experts” in these fields. By implication, such expertise is no more than ideological posturing, and the fields in question mere figments of campus Political Correctness run amok.

Despite the authors’ pretensions for their “study”, this hoax is far from proving any such thing. In the first instance, of course, most of their submissions did not succeed; the numbers are nothing to be proud of but they hardly support the view that absolutely anything will get through. (It’s telling that a graduate student who revealed himself as one of the reviewers who rejected a submission of theirs was subsequently described by their supporters as having learned a valuable lesson. What lesson would that be?) Second, it is far-fetched to draw any conclusions about fields of study from the failures of one or two journals, once or twice, to spot crap. Four junk papers appearing in as many different journals, in related but distinct fields, is not a meaningful sample of the normal run of work in any one of those fields. It doesn’t show that whole fields of study are ideological nonsense. It shows that reviewers can be fooled by people trying to fool them.

That is not news. Nor is it unique to fields that study things like gender and race, as opposed to, say, mathematics and engineering — two areas recently subjected to a hoax that placed 120 AI-generated nonsense papers (which should, presumably, have been even easier for educated eyes to spot than the hand-crafted junk submitted here) in journals. Every field can be hoaxed, and many have been. But only some fields can be hoaxed profitably. There is no built-in audience of people who despise mathematics and applaud when mathematicians get pranked. But there is a large audience, in social and traditional media, primed for the humiliation of “left-wing”, and especially “feminist”, scholars. If one wanted to establish something about the relative intellectual legitimacy of gender studies and, say, economics, or engineering, or physics, one could presumably try to fool reviewers in each, see who did better, and figure out why. That didn’t happen here, because the point wasn’t to conduct any such study. It was to embarrass a target. (That they labelled all the fields concerned dismissively as “Grievance Studies” is just the crassest evidence of parti pris.)

More interesting than the prank itself, to my mind, is the glee with which certain “public intellectuals” greeted it. Here, for example, is cognitive psychologist and self-appointed champion of Enlightenment Steven Pinker:

Since Pinker is among those most eager to decry the closed-mindedness of “postmodern” academics, it is noteworthy, if not surprising, that he here mocks them explicitly for entertaining “outlandish” ideas. (While misreporting the number of papers and misspelling the name of an author involved, but let these errors pass; he’s a psychologist, after all, not a feminist.)

But more remarkable is Pinker’s celebration of the abuse of good faith that this hoax represents. It is, again, right for the editors and reviewers concerned to be embarrassed. On the other hand, it is not surprising that repeated attempts to fool people who are trained and indeed professionally obligated to engage with submissions of all kinds in good faith will, occasionally, work. No reviewer knows every aspect of a topic equally well — and this is especially likely to be a problem in interdisciplinary fields, or fields that employ eclectic methods, sources, or theoretical vocabularies. Reviewing is voluntary work, unremunerated, but absolutely necessary to scholarship. It is also often undertaken by people — whether students, adjuncts, or tenure-track faculty — who do not have time, even were they minded, to assume each submission is a scam until they can prove otherwise. (Whether this arrangement is for the best is another matter, but has nothing to do with the fields in question.) Their working assumption is, and has to be, that submissions are made in good faith. In this case, that assumption was used against them.

Pinker knows a thing or two about unwarranted good faith. His most recent, bestselling book purports to be about the Enlightenment, despite the fact that he has no training in eighteenth-century history and appears to have done little by way of reading or engagement to address the lack. The same goes double for another fan of the hoax, Canada’s Next Top Lobster Jordan Peterson — a psychology professor who has proclaimed himself an evolutionary biologist and who regularly inveighs against the legacy of Karl Marx, despite a distressing uncertainty about when, exactly, he wrote. There are perhaps no bigger beneficiaries of ideologically conditioned credulousness alive today than these disciplinary specialists-turned-universal-geniuses. So to see them leverage their academic positions and prestige into unearned reputations for universal wisdom, while at the same time denouncing the vacuity of academic scholarship is… well, par for the course in 2018.

Trust in expertise is, in the end, the branch these profs-turned-hucksters, too, are sitting on. When they’ve finished sawing though it just to spite the leftists, the feminists, the “PC” and the PoC scholars with whom they share it, I wonder who will have farther to fall. And I wonder what kind of “thought leaders” will arise in their place.

3 thoughts on “Matters of Faith

  1. Had such hoaxes been pulled off on a legal journal, you could count on the editor’s dismissal, perhaps to be followed by a malpractice suit. Professionals are not allowed serious cockups about which you appear too forgiving. Once I was seeking data on relative gender performance and encountered a number of these journals, which were all promoting sexual equality. There was no academic rigor, certainly no weighing of relative gender performance. It was all leftist propaganda of zero academic value. The “lobster” sneer was unworthy and the fact that Jordan Peterson butchers the arguments of all comers, is a tremendous joy to millions of us. We are also pleased with other luminaries Ben Shapiro and Victor Davies Hanson, who are joining the fight to disestablish the bien pensant.

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    • I can only agree that Peterson is a great butcher of arguments, though not in the sense you appear to intend. I wonder how far you’ve made it into Maps of Meaning. As for Shapiro, his own claims about what this hoax proves run well ahead even of those made by its authors, which says all that need be said about his attachment to accuracy. Hanson announced his forthcoming paean to Trump’s entrepreneurial spirit just days before it was revealed to rest upon decades of tax fraud.

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