You’d think they’d learn. When Boghossian and Lindsay published their phony “conceptual penis” paper, they were roundly mocked and ridiculed for concluding that academia was corrupt because they got a badly written paper published in an obscure journal, proving nothing. It’s the skeptical equivalent of p-hacking — yes, if you carry out a badly designed experiment, you will sometimes get a positive hit, but you can’t conclude anything from it. No one is surprised that, in the volume of papers submitted to the peer-reviewed literature, clunkers get through. We know the system is not perfect.
But now we learn that, after their initial ‘success’ with the “conceptual penis” article, they sat down and repeated the same thing, over and over again. They intentionally flooded journals with “fake news”, and when some of it leaked through, cried triumph.
Beginning in August 2017, the trio wrote 20 hoax papers, submitting them to peer-reviewed journals under a variety of pseudonyms, as well as the name of their friend Richard Baldwin, a professor emeritus at Florida’s Gulf Coast State College. Mr. Baldwin confirms he gave them permission use his name. Journals accepted seven hoax papers. Four have been published.
What I have learned from this is that the familiar trio of frauds — Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose — have a real talent for writing garbage papers, which I’d actually kind of already known from their activities on social media. Now they’ve gone beyond their original efforts of making nonsensical interpretations to making up data, as in a paper about observations made at a Portland dog park, which made a number of people suspicious, and which led to an unraveling of their game.
All of this prompted me to ask my own questions. My email to “Helen Wilson” was answered by James Lindsay, a math doctorate and one of the real co-authors of the dog-park study. Gender, Place & Culture had been duped, he admitted. So had half a dozen other prominent journals that accepted fake papers by Mr. Lindsay and his collaborators—Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University, and Helen Pluckrose, a London-based scholar of English literature and history and editor of AreoMagazine.com.
The three academics call themselves “left-leaning liberals.” Yet they’re dismayed by what they describe as a “grievance studies” takeover of academia, especially its encroachment into the sciences. “I think that certain aspects of knowledge production in the United States have been corrupted,” Mr. Boghossian says. Anyone who questions research on identity, privilege and oppression risks accusations of bigotry.
You know, if you’re a left-leaning liberal, there are plenty of gigantic targets you could be taking aim at: all you need to do is look at all three branches of the federal government, or police activities nation-wide, or the military-industrial complex, or the undermining of regulations by big corporations, or wealth inequality. We have no shortage of big, serious problems. But for some reason, these left-leaning liberals have decided that academia is too left-leaning, and must be exposed. And what have they exposed? A set of problems that Francis Bacon railed against in the 17th century.
Bacon was well aware that science had a weakness, that it was done by flawed humans who had their own biases (he was rather deeply flawed himself), and strove to make people self-aware of their own weaknesses and make efforts to use a rigorous methodology to circumvent those problems. Even the big name journals in technical fields occasionally publish terrible work because it meets pro forma conventions and is backed by lots of money (<cough, cough&> the ENCODE project), but you don’t see PluckBogSay going after those — instead, they have an agenda of conspiring against feminist and social science journals, which says something about their intent.
It might have been interesting if they’d chosen journals in their own fields, and written articles that satirized weaknesses in their own discipline…oh. Hey. I just realized — maybe Boghossian’s entire career has been a performance art piece criticizing how lackluster frauds can get academic jobs in philosophy. He may yet pull a valid criticism out of his hat.
But punching down at marginal journals because they have a soft spot for tendentious prattle ain’t it. It’s also exploiting a feature of academia that I rather like — trust. Even Alan Sokal has problems with what they’re doing.
This isn’t the first time scholars have used a hoax paper to make a point. In 1996 Duke University Press’s journal Social Text published a hoax submission by Alan Sokal, a mathematical physicist at New York University. Mr. Sokal, who faced no punishment for the hoax, told me he was “not oblivious to the ethical issues involved in my rather unorthodox experiment,” adding that “professional communities operate largely on trust; deception undercuts that trust.”
I could agree that many disciplines can be too trusting, and that more self-discipline is warranted. We do, however, have an ethical mechanism for addressing that problem: it’s called writing rebuttals and critical arguments that directly address bad work. It’s what I do with creationism, for instance. I’ll write a confrontational article pointing out why their claims are bogus, using knowledge of my own field to explain why they are wrong. I don’t sit down and write 20 garbage creationist articles (even though that would be trivially easy to do) and contribute to their body of work, which they’ll then use to justify creationism.
If you can find a bad article accepted for publication in a feminist journal, please do jump on it and tear it apart. That contributes to the strength of the discipline. Don’t write a bunch of bad articles of your own, which are clearly intended only to weaken the whole discipline and provide a set of easy, straw-man arguments that you can use to pretend you’re a smart guy.
They seem to know deep down that what they’re doing is wrong and unethical, and they have a rather fatalistic view of their future prospects.
Mr. Boghossian doesn’t have tenure and expects the university will fire or otherwise punish him. Ms. Pluckrose predicts she’ll have a hard time getting accepted to a doctoral program. Mr. Lindsay said he expects to become “an academic pariah,” barred from professorships or publications.
Interesting that they frame the anticipated consequences in terms of being punished or barred. That’s not the case at all. They’re going to have serious problems with a future in academia because they’re writing trashy papers that don’t further the knowledge in their disciplines at all, and seem to be more interested in policing people they don’t like than in advancing philosophy, mathematics, or literature. Maybe if there were a department of anti-feminist studies somewhere, they could fit in. Or maybe their real specialty is “grievance studies,” the very thing they are complaining about.
Otherwise, setting themselves up as martyrs is all the qualification they need to get a position in some right-wing think-tank, which is clearly the appropriate destiny for these “left-leaning liberals.”