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Those Rubes Won’t Run Themselves!

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A couple of scholars assert that they’ve got a sequel to the Sokal Hoax that discredits gender studies:

We used this preposterous sentence to open a “paper” consisting of 3,000 words of utter nonsense posing as academic scholarship. Then a peer-reviewed academic journal in the social sciences accepted and published it.

This paper should never have been published. Titled, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” our paper “argues” that “The penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a gender-performative, highly fluid social construct.” As if to prove philosopher David Hume’s claim that there is a deep gap between what is and what ought to be, our should-never-have-been-published paper was published in the open-access (meaning that articles are freely accessible and not behind a paywall), peer-reviewed journal Cogent Social Sciences.

If you have a modicum of, er, skepticism, that journal name alone should ring alarm bells, and sure enough:

But their hoax gives us absolutely no reason to believe this. First, let’s look at the “journal” that they were accepted at. Like all the digital, open-access journals run by Cogent (a house most people have never heard of before now) it charges authors fees to publish. No reputable journal in the humanities does this. Worse yet, it allows authors to “pay what they can”. This appears to signal that this journal publishes work from authors who can’t get institutional support to publish in it. (Or, if they could, don’t seek this as they would prefer it not be widely known that they’re paying to publish.) The journal boasts also that it is very “friendly” to authors (a clear sign of a suspect outlet) and notes that it doesn’t necessarily reject things that might not have any impact. (!) It also only uses single blind review. The whole thing just screams vanity journal.

[…]

Having managed to pay for a paper to be published in a deeply suspect journal the hoaxers then conclude that the entire field of Gender Studies is suspect. How they made this deductive leap is actually far more puzzling than how the paper got accepted. (It’s thus more than a bit embarrassing that one of them’s a philosophy professor–who, ironically, teaches critical thinking.) I’ve no doubt that there are many things to criticize about Gender Studies. But that a suspect journal published a hoax paper whose topics was gender studies-ish isn’t one of them.

UPDATE: The first journal that Bognossian and Lindsay submitted their hoax paper to, and that rejected it, was NORMA: The International Journal for Masculinity Studies. This journal doesn’t even hit the top 115 journals in Gender Studies. So, what happened here was that they submitted a hoax paper to an unranked journal, which summarily rejected it. They then received an auto-generated response directing them to a pay-to-publish vanity journal. They submitted the paper there, and it was published. From this chain of events they conclude that the entire field of Gender Studies is “crippled academically”. This tells us very little about Gender Studies, but an awful lot about the perpetrators of this “hoax”…. and those who tout it as a take down of an entire field.

El. Oh. El. So the only “hoaxes” here are 1)two academics got suckered into paying to publish in one of those pay-for-play vanity journals whose spam you are very likely familiar with if you’re an instructor with an .edu email and 2)the inevitable parade of hacks touting this non-story as if it proves anything. This stunt discredits gender studies about as much as Alec Rawls self-publishing Crescent of Betrayal discredits cartography and Islamic studies.

While we’re here, it’s worth noting that this crude trolling is really nothing like the Sokal hoax. Even had they gotten this article into some minor real journal, it wouldn’t actually show anything. Let’s say I was to write an article full of what I considered to be specious arguments on behalf of a Supreme Court decision I considered outrageously bad, like Seminole Tribe or Shelby County, and got it published in, say, the Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy. This would demonstrate…that liberals and conservatives differ on the merits of a Supreme Court opinion. Only it still wouldn’t really demonstrate anything even if one grants that the article didn’t meat acceptable standards and was accepted for ideological reasons, because the idea that one bad journal article that was approved by an editor and one or two peer reviewers or group of law students or whatever could discredit an entire field is transparently idiotic.

What Sokal was up to was considerably more subtle and important than some of his admirers understand. There are two things that make the Sokal hoax more interesting than this silly “durr, this bad article proves that an entire academic field has no merit, durr” exercise:

  • While the hoax arguably had some implications for critical theory as a whole, Sokal was looking specifically at how some critical theorists talked about scientific concepts that were directly in Sokal’s area of expertise.
  • More importantly, some of the most damning gibberish in the Sokal Social Text article was found in direct quotes from major names in the field. That some big-name theorists were writing about science while having no idea what they’re talking about is actually important. The fact that some editors at a respected journal in the field didn’t notice is also interesting.

The Sokal hoax actually revealed something interesting. Getting one bad article published in an academic journal wouldn’t, and these would-be hoaxers didn’t even accomplish that much.

…Of course the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would fall for this embarrassingly obvious con:

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