The joke may have been on them

Phil Torres wrote up the Boghossian-Lindsay hoax that flopped in Salon.

In an article simultaneously published in the magazine Skeptic, this project was loudly advertised as a “hoax on gender studies.” It primarily aimed to expose what the authors presume to be the nonsensical absurdity of gender studies, an interdisciplinary field that attempts to understand gender identity and how these identities play out in society.

Yet Boghossian and Lindsay’s prank article unambiguously failed to do this and ultimately may have harmed the skeptic community. First, the open-access journal that published their article requests that authors pay to publish. In the case of Cogent Social Sciences, the recommended fee is a whopping $1,350. I have affirmed that Boghossian and Lindsay were, for unknown reasons, asked to pay less than half of this, namely $625, but the journal apparently never got around to actually requesting the money. Boghossian has repeatedly declared on social media that he and his colleague paid “nada” for the article’s publication, which taken out of context is patently misleading.

Almost as if they’re not being fully…truthful.

To show that the intellectual values of a field are fundamentally flawed, one would need to publish in the best journals of that field and trick genuine experts into believing the hoax is a non-hoax. That was what mathematician and physicist Alan Sokal did in the notorious “Sokal affair,” which attempted to unveil the obscurantist vacuity of some postmodern theory.

Still, even Sokal himself was rather nuanced about the implications of his experiment, saying, “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.”

That’s probably because Sokal isn’t a self-important blowhard, while Bogo and Lindsay…

Boghossian and Lindsay are sadly not so nuanced in their claims. Instead, they take their hoax article to expose the entire field of gender studies as an intellectual scam. So, too, does the public intellectual Michael Shermer, the editor in chief of Skeptic. In a rather un-skeptical foreword to Boghossian and Lindsay’s article — subtitled “a Sokal-style hoax on gender studies” — Shermer wrote:

Every once in awhile it is necessary and desirable to expose extreme ideologies for what they are by carrying out their arguments and rhetoric to their logical and absurd conclusion, which is why we are proud to publish this expose [sic] of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed journal today.

Hahaha no that’s not why. It’s because they hate feminism.

Submitting an article on gender studies to that particular journal and then claiming that its publication proves that gender studies is idiotic is tantamount to a creationist writing a fake article about evolutionary biology, publishing it in an unknown pay-to-publish non-biology journal (whose editorial board includes no one with expertise in evolutionary biology), and then exclaiming, “See! The entire field of evolutionary biology is complete nonsense.” This is puerile gotcha-ism that completely misses the target while simultaneously making, in the case of Boghossian and Lindsay, the skeptic community look like gullible, anti-intellectual fools.

All that being said, Boghossian and Lindsay do accomplish something notable, although not original: They show just how easy it is to get a fake paper published in a pay-to-publish journal. This is not a trivial point, although they could have saved many hours of work by randomly generating an article, as the authors above did for the Open Information Science Journal. Or they could have intentionally plagiarized an article and then submitted it. But Boghossian and Lindsay would never have done this because their real ideologically motivated target was gender studies.

But the situation is actually much worse than that: Boghossian and Lindsay likely did damage to the cultural movements that they have helped to build, namely “new atheism” and the skeptic community. As far as I can tell, neither of them knows much about gender studies, despite their confident and even haughty claims about the deep theoretical flaws of that discipline.

But they know they don’t like it. Isn’t that enough?

As the historian Angus Johnston put it on Twitter, “If skepticism means anything it means skepticism about the things you WANT to be true. It’s easy to be a skeptic about others’ views.” The quick, almost reflexive reposting of this “hoax” by people like Dave Rubin, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Christina Hoff Sommers and Melissa Chen reveals a marked lack of critical thinking about what exactly this exercise in attempted bullying proves.

If anything, the hoax reveals not the ideological dogmas of gender studies but the motivating prejudices of the authors and their mostly white, mostly male supporters against social justice — a term that simply refers to the realization of fairness and just relations among citizens of a society. This is part of a larger reaction witnessed across American culture in the past few years: a pushback against women’s rights, gender equality, racial equality and a sensitivity to the plights of marginalized peoples. It’s what got Donald Trump elected as president, and it’s what fuels the alt-right. (Notably, Breitbart News praised Boghossian and Lindsay’s hoax in a recent article.) If the authors — and the good folks at Skeptic — had thought a bit more carefully about this ruse, they might have realized that this faux paper’s publication says no more about gender studies than computer-generated papers published in scientific journals say about science.

Yet the urge to label the hoax a victory against gender studies was uncontrollable. This only reflects poorly on the intellectual honesty and thoughtfulness of those “in” on the joke — although it appears that, in the end, the joke may have been on them.

But they’ll always have Breitbart.

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