If At First You Don’t Succeed

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.

Does that sound familiar? It should.

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. [Peter] Boghossian says. Anyone who questions research on identity, privilege and oppression risks accusations of bigotry.

Yep, after attempting to discredit all of gender studies by publishing a fake paper in a pay-to-publish journal, and being dismayed that no-one thought gender studies had been discredited, Boghossian and crew decided to repeat the experiment, only bigger. There is a unique spin on it this time, however.

While fat activism has disrupted many dominant discourses that causally contribute to negative judgments about fat bodies, it has not yet penetrated the realm of competitive bodybuilding. The author introduces fat bodybuilding as a means of challenging the prevailing assumptions of maximally fat-exclusionary (sports) cultures while raising fundamental ontological questions about what it means to “build a body.” Specifically, he advocates for imagining a new classification within bodybuilding, termed fat bodybuilding, as a fat-inclusive politicized performance and a new culture to be embedded within bodybuilding.

Baldwin, Richard. “Who are they to judge? Overcoming anthropometry through fat bodybuilding.” Fat Studies (2018): 1-13.

That’s one of their hoaxes. But if you read it carefully, you can see a legitimate point.

Conceptually, fat bodybuilding emerged from applying that lens to a prototype: a disruptive “fathletic” event, the “Fattylympics.” The Fattylympics was an act of cultural disruption undertaken as a nonprofit community event in East London in 2012 to satirize the Olympics and offer a different take on “sport, bodies, community, [and] protest” (…). The Fattylympics ultimately relies on (Judith) Butlerian parodic performance, which has been effectively utilized as a culturally disruptive tool, especially with regard to gender/queer activism (…). Here, as Monaghan, Colls, and Evans (2015) explained, “Fattylympics illustrated the possibility of claiming a public space for resisting the dominant anti-fat ethic of sport and physical activity, constructing an alternative value set for active bodies and critically understanding the relationship between fat and health” (117).

“Baldwin” (2018), pg. 3-4

The bit about Judith Butler is pure nonsense that should have been caught during peer review, but their overall proposal is rooted in legitimate body-positive activism. Look at pictures of female weight lifters, and you’ll find two basic body types. The first has a “conventional” body type with minimal fat, not too dissimilar from Michelle Rodriguez or Ronda Rousey.

Type-1 Weightlifters, via Google Image Search.

Type-2 Weightlifters, via Google Image Search.

But there’s a second type, with the stocky barrel-chest that’s more typical of “World’s Strongest Man” events. Women like this are incredibly rare in pop culture; the only example I can think of is Zarya, and she’s a fictional videogame character. The net result is that we’re discouraging or minimizing an entire class of women because they don’t look the way we expect them to. At the same time, it’s clear body fat is not much of a factor in weight-lifting performance. So if we wanted to break body stereotypes, “fat bodybuilding” is a great choice.

“We understood ourselves to be going in to study it as it is, to try to participate in it,” Ms. [Helen] Pluckrose says. “The name for this is ethnography. We’re looking at a particular culture.”

Each paper “combined an effort to better understand the field itself with an attempt to get absurdities and morally fashionable political ideas published as legitimate academic research,” Mr. Lindsay wrote in a project summary. Their elaborate submissions cited and quoted dozens of real papers and studies to bolster the hoax arguments. […]

The trio say they’ve proved that higher ed’s fixation on identity politics enables “absurd and horrific” scholarship. Their submissions were outlandish—but no more so, they insist, than others written in earnest and published by these journals.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is when you are so ignorant of what you’re ignorant of that you think you’re knowledgeable. But if you don’t know anything about gender studies, how can you tell a legitimate paper from a hoax? By doing extensive research to write a hoax paper, yet nonetheless accidentally creating a legitimate one, Boghossian, Lindsay, and Pluckrose have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt they know jack-shit about gender studies. You will not find a better example of the Dunning-Kruger effect than that trio!

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.

Yet Mr. Lindsay says the project is worth it: “For us, the risk of letting biased research continue to influence education, media, policy and culture is far greater than anything that will happen to us for having done this.”

Oh, I sincerely hope the trio are made academic pariahs. I also hope they achieve enough self-awareness to realize the true reason why.

[HJH 2018-10-03]: I had plans to revise to tack on an addendum. After all, the original paper was about bodybuilding, not weight-lifting, and there’s still the obvious retort “but their goal was to fool you into making a legitimate paper, so aren’t you admitting they succeeded?”

And then I read their methodology, and I realized I didn’t have to.

Specifically, over the course of a year we wrote twenty academic papers and submitted them to significant peer-reviewed academic journals in these fields with the hopes of getting them published. Every paper combined an effort to better understand the field itself with an attempt to get absurdities and morally fashionable political ideas published as legitimate academic research. Some papers took bigger risks in this regard than others. […]

We wrote academic papers targeting (mostly) highly ranked, peer-reviewed journals in fields we are concerned might be corrupted by scholarship biased by “grievance studies.” These papers were submitted to the best journals we could find, given constraints of the journals’ aims and scopes, and then we used the feedback we received about them from editors and peer reviewers to improve them and our future papers. […]

Each paper was submitted to higher-ranked journals first and then down a line of suitable alternatives until one of the following occurred: it was accepted; it was deemed too unlikely to succeed for reasons we came to understand to continue with it; or we ran out of time.

They had twenty papers going at once, yet by their own admission they made 48 “new submissions.” It’s not clear if “new submissions” includes the original submission, so let’s be charitable and say it does. That means that, on average, each paper went through one and a half rounds of peer review. Peer review is probabilistic: reviewers can vary substantially in terms of how much effort and scrutiny they put in, so if you keep submitting a paper over and over you might get lucky and get lazy reviewers. When you’re submitting twenty papers, you make that much more likely for one of them. When you’re editing your papers according to reviewer feedback to make them better fakes, you raise the odds of that even higher. On top of that, after those edits they’d take the paper to another journal with less prestige, and presumably lower standards for peer review.

It’s like watching evolution in action. The authors kick out what they think are nonsensical ideas; since they know jack-shit about the field they’re trying to discredit, some of those turn out to be legitimate by accident, or nearly so. These do well in peer review, though from the looks of it even their best work needed a second round; it took five months to get their first acceptance, yet the median review time is about three months. Either way, the best of the bunch get edited, accepted, and then published. The failures die out or get edited until they join these “successes.”

In reality, the methodology is heavily rigged to generate “success.”

Speaking of which, let’s look at what counts as a success. Here are the articles they got published:

Wilson, Helen. “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon.” Gender, Place & Culture (2018): 1-20.

Smith, M. “Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria, Transhysteria, and Transphobia Through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use.” Sexuality & Culture (2018): 1-19.

Richard Baldwin, “Who are they to judge? Overcoming anthropometry through fat bodybuilding”, Fat Studies, DOI: 10.1080/21604851.2018.1453622, published online on 10 April 2018.

Baldwin, Richard. “An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant.” Sex Roles (2018): 1-16.

Of those four, two were retracted within days of the news coming out. That’s a damn quick turnaround! Say what you will of the peer review process, but quickly scrubbing nonsense from the scientific record isn’t what you’d expect if the field of gender studies was lax about rigor.

Er, sorry, I mean “grievance studies,” the term Boghossian et al. use. What does that term mean, anyway? Emphasis mine:

The specific problem we targeted has various names in various quarters and is difficult to pin down. Careful academics would refer to it as “critical constructivism” and/or “blank slatism” and its scholars as “radical constructivists.” (In this sense, it is the descendants of postmodernist and poststructuralist thought from the mid 20th century.) Pundits have termed it “academic leftism” or “cultural studies” and identify it with the term “political correctness.”

We prefer to call it “grievance studies” because many of these fields refer to themselves as “[something] studies” and because they operate primarily by focusing upon and inflaming the grievances of certain identity groups.

Uh, “critical constrictivism” and “blank slatism” have nothing in common with each other, and the latter doesn’t exist except as a straw. “Academic leftism” is bad, according to three self-proclaimed “left-leaning liberals?” “Political correctness” has no academic meaning at all. “Grievance studies” has as much coherence as ghosts!

Even if we steel-person the argument and go with “grievance studies” as “focusing upon and inflaming the grievances of certain identity groups,” how does promoting increased acceptance of overweight people fit under that banner? How does making men less homo- and trans-phobic via anal sex toys “focus” and “inflame grievances” in certain groups? How about observing a unique pattern of sexism in “breastaurants?” None of their published papers qualify as “grievance studies” papers, for the most charitable definition of “grievance studies,” so they cannot draw any conclusions about the rigor of that field. Even if their methodology was absolutely perfect, these three still cannot prove what they claim to.

Shit, I’ve seen ghost hunters with a more coherent world view. Is this what organized skepticism has been reduced to?!

[HJH 2018-10-04]: Looks like someone else came to the same conclusion as I did, only on a different paper:

I read the article that Hypatia accepted, “When the Joke Is on You: a Feminist Perspective on how Positionality Influences Satire.” In my opinion, if the citations are legitimate and the descriptions of others’ views are accurate (something which I am not in a position to determine at this time), the editors of Hypatia have nothing to be particularly ashamed of. Most of the twenty-page paper is a reasonable synthesis of others’ ideas about oppression and humor. It may not be groundbreaking (as one of the reviewers points out), but it is not ridiculous. It seems to me that only on the last page of the paper are there certain statements that could be interpreted as outrageous, but they are so vague that a much more charitable alternative interpretation would be reasonable. In short, assuming accurate representations of others’ views and legitimate citations, one’s opinion of Hypatia should not be affected by its publication of this paper.

Now I know some of you won’t believe me. So please, read the paper for yourself. It’s right here (look for the document titled “HOH2 Typeset”). You can also read the referee reports and editors comments here (look for the document titled “HOH2 ReviewerComments”). Let me know what you think.

As that last paragraph implies, Boghossian and friends have released their manuscripts to the public. Now you don’t have to take my word for it.