Leading the thought

Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed on the dud hoax:

As word about the hoax spread over the weekend, the first wave of reactions came from people who thought the hoax said something about the state of the humanities or gender studies.

But then another set of critiques started to appear, taking issue with those who produced the hoax and with those praising them. This set of critiques argued that this hoax did not come close to Sokal’s. His appeared in Social Text, then and now a widely respected journal in the humanities. Cogent Social Sciences is not a major player in scholarship, these scholars noted, and its business model (taking author payments) makes it suspect.

There’s another thing. The new “hoax” is not nearly as well or artfully written as Sokal’s. The satire is much broader – which is probably intentional, because if you want to test how absurd a piece of writing has to be before it’s rejected, you may want to go broad at the beginning to save time, but the fact remains that the quality of the two is very different. They may have intended it to be clunky or they may write clunky by nature. The comparative subtlety of Sokal’s makes it much more fun to read.

Massimo Pigliucci titles his post An embarrassing moment for the skeptical movement. He starts with Sokal, and what he did and didn’t say.

Sokal, however, is no intellectual lightweight, and he wrote a sober assessment of the significance of his stunt, for instance stating:

“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.”

Move forward to the present. Philosopher Peter Boghossian (not to be confused with NYU’s Paul Boghossian) and author James Lindsay (henceforth, B&L) attempted to replicate the Sokal hoax by trick-publishing a silly paper entitled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.” The victim, in this case, was the journal Cogent Social Sciences, which sent out the submission for review and accepted it in record time (one month). After which, B&L triumphantly exposed their stunt in Skeptic magazine.

But the similarities between the two episodes end there. Rather than showing Sokal’s restraint on the significance of the hoax, B&L went full blast. They see themselves as exposing a “deeply troubling” problem with the modern academy:

“The echo-chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense coming out of the postmodernist social ‘sciences’ in general, and gender studies departments in particular … As we see it, gender studies in its current form needs to do some serious housecleaning.”

And (a large chunk of especially influential people in) the skeptic community joined the victory parade:

“We are proud to publish this exposé of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed journal today.” (Michael Shermer)

“This is glorious. Well done!” (Sam Harris)

“Sokal-style satire on pretentious ‘gender studies.’” (Richard Dawkins)

“New academic hoax: a bogus paper on ‘the conceptual penis’ gets published in a ‘high-quality peer-reviewed’ journal.” (Steven Pinker)

“Cultural studies, including women’s studies, are particularly prone to the toxic combinations of jargon and ideology that makes for such horrible ‘scholarship.’” (Jerry Coyne)

Not to mention (again) Christina Hoff Sommers.

Massimo points out other areas of academic publishing that are ripe for satire.

And of course let’s not forget the current, very serious, replication crisis in both medical research and psychology. Or the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has created entire fake journals in order to publish studies “friendly” to their bottom line. And these are fields that — unlike gender studies — actually attract millions of dollars in funding and whose “research” affects people’s lives directly.

But I don’t see Boghossian, Lindsay, Shermer, Dawkins, Coyne, Pinker or Harris flooding their Twitter feeds with news of the intellectual bankruptcy of biology, physics, computer science, and medicine. Why not?

Well, here is one possibility:

“American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message” — Michael Shermer, 18 November 2016

“Gender Studies is primarily composed of radical ideologues who view indoctrination as their primary duty. These departments must be defunded” –Peter Boghossian, 25 April 2016

Turns out that a good number of “skeptics” are actually committed to the political cause of libertarianism.

Libertarianism and above all (and more to the point), anti-feminism. It’s depressing and disgusting that all the big Names in skeptoatheism or atheoskepticism or whatever this thing is are as one in their contempt for feminism and their readiness to attack it on any pretext.

The Boghossian and Lindsay hoax falls far short of the goal of demonstrating that gender studies is full of nonsense. But it does expose for all the world to see the problematic condition of the skeptic movement. Someone should try to wrestle it away from the ideologues currently running it, returning it to its core mission of critical analysis, including, and indeed beginning with, self-criticism. Call it Socratic Skepticism(TM).

There was a little to-and-fro in the comments about whether anyone is “running” the skeptic movement. Massimo replied:

“It appears as though that’s what you are attempting and failing at. No one is running it. It’s a free for all.”

I assure you — and I really couldn’t care less whether you believe me or not — that my attitude toward the skeptic movement is that of Groucho Marx toward clubs that would have him as a member. (Despite the fact that I occasionally do write for skeptic outlets and give talks at their conference.)

And if you truly think “no one is running it” you are astoundingly naive. A movement doesn’t need elected leaders to be run by someone. The people who so eagerly tweeted approval of the Boghossian-Lindsay debacle (Shermer, Dawkins, Coyne, Harris, to a lesser extent Pinker) are those running it.

I would actually disagree with that, since they’re not all “running” it in an organizational sense. Shermer and Dawkins have organizations, but Coyne and Harris don’t. But they all influence it, they shape it, they “lead” it – they’re “thought leaders.” They set the tone. They’re the big Names, and they use their big Name-hood. A tweet by Dawkins or Harris isn’t just a tweet, it’s a summons to a million fans; it’s often a summons to bully someone, whether they intend it to be or not.

Boghossian and Lindsay were basically relying on that form of organization, and they did it intentionally. They hate feminism and they set out to rally the troops to sneer at it.

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