Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay (henceforth B&L) have an article titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies” on Skeptic.com. The article describes a nonsense paper submitted, and accepted, to the journal Cogent Social Sciences. The authors consider it an indictment of gender studies and pay-to-publish journals.
This being a Sokal-style hoax, it’s worth recapping some of the strengths and weaknesses of the original Sokal hoax. First the weaknesses:
- Sokal’s paper was accepted to The Social Text, which is a journal of only mediocre impact.
- Peer review isn’t intended to weed out bad faith actors, but to enforce some minimum standard. The real test is later, when the academic community cites (or ignores) the publication.
- Sokal only had N=1. Distinguishing between good and bad papers is in general a difficult problem, and one expects that in the perfect balance, some good papers would be rejected, and bad papers accepted.
Now the strengths:
- The Sokal hoax is immediately compelling to general public, even when people don’t look into the details. There’s value in bringing the issue to popular attention.
- When I did look into the details last year, I found the paper’s content to be a damning indictment of the entire field:
It’s not simply that Sokal liberally salts his article with absurdities, it’s that he quotes plenty of postmodern academics doing the same damn thing.
Even if Sokal’s paper were rejected, one would have to account for all the nonsense already published and respected within the field.
- There was a clear way that The Social Text could have avoided being hoaxed, if anywhere in the review process they had asked someone in physics, biology, or math to glance at it.
B&L’s and attempt at a hoax falls short of Sokal, having worse weaknesses, and missing important strengths.
The first thing to note is that B&L actually have N=2. They submitted first to NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, but it was rejected. The editor recommended resubmitting to Cogent Social Sciences, a pay-to-publish open-access journal. It was only then that the paper was accepted. It seems the hoax was only half effective.
It is not surprising that there exist disreputable, predatory journals that will publish your paper as long as you give them money. This does not mean that all pay-to-publish journals are disreputable. B&L clearly recognize this, and I agree with their discussion on this point. As they say, the troubling aspect is that NORMA, a relatively reputable journal, would ever consider recommending what looks like a predatory pay-to-publish journal.
Although… how reputable is NORMA exactly? Matthew Facciani, a sociologist blogger, found that NORMA‘s impact factor is 0. That is no excuse for NORMA, but at this point the hoax looks more like an exposé of low quality journals than an exposé of any particular field.
As far as the content of the article goes, I found it to be unreadable word salad, and I wasn’t willing to put in the effort. In fact, this contrasts with Sokal’s paper, which was dense but perfectly readable. Yes, Sokal wrote a paper full of nonsense. But not all of it was “nonsense” in the sense of being incomprehensible. Most of it was “nonsense” in the sense of being outright wrong. This means that there are any number of experts that The Social Text could have consulted to tell them how wrong it was. When a paper is simply incomprehensible, editors might search a long time before finding some odd reviewers who claim to understand it. (Not that this is what Cogent Social Sciences did. They accepted within a month, which is absurd.)
The other difference is that Sokal quoted extensively from respected academics. This was an effective demonstration that nonsense is widespread in critical theory literature. B&L take an opposite approach, saying:
We read exactly zero of the sources we cited, by intention, as part of the hoax.
In other words, B&L don’t show anything of the wider field of gender studies. The only evidence they present is the mere fact that the paper was accepted.
While the Sokal hoax was impressive, it is important to remember how flawed it was. By itself, it did not, and could not, demonstrate the vacuity of an entire academic field. What it did instead, was bring public attention to an issue. And if anyone wanted to look deeper, they could read any of Sokal’s books on the subject, or even just read Sokal’s hoax paper itself.