Boghossian is no Sokal

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  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.

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Paper: The Sokal Hoax

In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal was unhappy with the tendency in academic postmodernism to dismiss scientific work. So he submitted a bogus paper called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to Social Text, a journal in cultural studies. After it was published, he revealed it as a hoax. And now, it is one of the best known shots fired at academic anti-science.

While the hoax is a good conversation-starter, I would caution against thinking it’s a total slam-dunk. Journals are there to filter out shoddy work, rather than bad faith actors. Secondly, AFAICT Social Text is a journal of mediocre impact. Finally, Sokal himself said that academic postmodernism has now backed off from many of its previous excesses. (Sokal credits the Bush administration, which was more effective at satirizing academic postmodernism than he ever was.)

In any case, this is a paper report. To humorous ends, I will review Sokal’s paper as if it were a serious work.
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A look back at the Brights

The Brights was a movement in the 00s to rebrand atheists as “brights”. It immediately fizzled, as everyone laughed it out of the room. Can you imagine calling yourself a bright?

I first heard about brights in 2007, but apparently it was coined some years earlier, by Paul Geisert in 2003. He and his wife Mynga Futrell founded The Brights organization, whose website still stands today. The word was initially supported by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, but was immediately mocked by both conservative columnists and skeptical authors (not all articles are publicly available). Nowadays, nobody ever bothers to remember it except as a hilarious object lesson in how constructed labels can go wrong.

“Bright” is a funny word, but I will discuss it earnestly. I will deconstruct its motivations, analyze the arguments for and against it, and investigate where it ended up.

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Link roundup: January 2019

My Atheist (etc) Reaction to “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret?” – This is a book by Judy Blume, and published in 1970.  Although I had not heard of the book, this review was interesting to me, as a window into secular family life in the past and present.  It reminds me of my husband’s story–his family didn’t go to church, which led the neighbor’s kid to tell him he was going to hell.  Hearing my husband’s concerns, his parents ended up joining the UU church.  He later left the church, although his parents are still active.

Did the Sokal affair “destroy postmodernism”? (video) – This youtuber, Cuck Philosophy, says much the same stuff that I say about Sokal–that he was rigorous and humble in his conclusions, but overshadowed by his hoax and public perception thereof.  If one of the biggest failings of “postmodernism” (insofar as it is an intelligible category) is that it got coopted by rightwingers to deny reality, we have to admit that anti-postmodernism attitudes have been coopted for the same purpose.  On a related note, I was very disappointed to hear that Sokal is among Boghossian’s defenders.

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Ethical review of academic hoaxes

I learned from PZ that Peter Boghossian is under ethical investigation for his “grievance studies” hoax.  Peter Boghossian was one of three authors of the hoax, but the other two (James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose) do not hold academic positions, so are unlikely to be sanctioned.

An institutional review board (IRB) concluded that by involving journal editors and reviewers, they were conducting research on human subjects, and per standard policy they should have gotten IRB approval before beginning.  Everyone–including Boghossian’s defenders–suspects that if he sought IRB approval, he would have been rejected.

Note, there are plenty of experiments that deceive human subjects and still get IRB approval, but I suspect this particular hoax would encounter problems beyond mere deception.  They were undergoing peer review, which is rather arduous labor to get from non-consenting subjects.  The hoax also involved fabricating data, and the IRB decision on that matter is still pending.  I would also say that the hoax did not have much scholarly merit, which is a legitimate consideration for these ethical reviews.

Boghossian’s defenders, of course, are spinning a “martyr for free speech” narrative.  If the target of his hoax were something more acceptable, would he still have been criticized on ethical grounds?

Well, actually…

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The skeptical mythology of postmodernism

Ever since I started blogging in 2007, one of the boogeymen of the skeptical movement was so-called postmodernism. Postmodernism, as skeptics understood it, was an ideology where anything goes. It was extreme moral relativism. It was the idea that truth itself was a social construct. It was the idea that no one could know anything, and yet people could have their own personal truths, which may differ from one another. In short, it was one of skepticism’s antitheses.

Transcript: You have your truth, and I have mine. All knowledge is theory-laden. All perception is internal to the perceiver. There is no meaningful "reality." In the shadow cast by this knowledge, I decide for myself what is good and what is not. Caption: Postmodernism is the only explanation for black licorice.

Source: SMBC. I think the best way to describe the skeptical concept of postmodernism is by showing how skeptics choose to portray it in parodies.

Even in 2007, this seemed kind of sketchy to me. I recall writing a post titled “What’s with postmodernism?” wherein I complained that the term was inconsistently defined, and trusted sources offered a completely different picture of what postmodernism really was. Now that I have more experience in academia, and a much greater degree of cynicism about the skeptical movement, I feel more confident in simply calling bullshit. Postmodernism is a villain invented by skeptics, originally based on a real thing, but so far abstracted from reality that it may well be called mythology.

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So you want to discredit an academic field

Perhaps you’re an evolutionary biologist who thinks evolutionary psychology is too panadaptationist. Or you’re a creationist who thinks evolutionary biology is the devil’s handiwork. Maybe you think Freud is fraud. Or you think climate science is fake news produced by lizards. Perhaps you find postmodern theory to be a bunch of anti-scientific babble. Or perhaps you have a bee in your bonnet about how gender studies believes in “cisnormativity” in “the workplace”.

No matter your target, whether your crusade is honorable, foolish, or malevolent, discrediting an entire academic field is a tall order. After all, an academic field is the work of many very educated people, and you barely have enough time to read even a few pages. You have difficulty understanding what Gibberish Studies is even talking about (which is of course one of your critiques!), and you have a life outside of attacking academics, and also your writing deadline is tomorrow. What to do?

If discrediting an entire academic field is too ambitious, then perhaps it is also too ambitious for me to write a comprehensive guide telling you how to do it. This might fit into the demarcation problem in philosophy, but it’s an unsolved problem–anyway, who has time to read all that philosophy? I give you something more low-brow, simply a list of practical tips.

1. Get a degree

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