Last week three self-described “concerned academics” perpetrated a hoax in the name of uncovering what they call the “political corruption that has taken hold of the university.” “I’m not going to lie to you.” James A Lindsay, one of the concerned academics says in a YouTube video, just after laughing at a reviewers’ comments on a bogus article. “We had a lot of fun with this project.” The video then cuts to images of mass protests and blurry phone-recorded lectures, presumably about topics that aren’t worthy of debate. The takeaway from the videos, press kit, and write-up in Areo Magazine is the following: fields that study race, gender, sexuality, body types, and identity are really no more than “Grievance Studies” (their neologism) and the desire to criticize whiteness and masculinity overrides any appreciation of data.
To prove this they spent over a year writing and submitting articles that they wrote in bad faith. Sometimes these articles would have fairly decent literature reviews which would then lend legitimacy to less-than-decent theses. But when you actually read the papers, and the reviews, the picture you get is far less interesting than the sensationalist write-ups or even the Areo piece makes them out to be. The picture you get by actually reading the work is mostly mid-level journals doing the hard, unpaid work of giving institutional authority to ideas that —hoax or not— will rarely see the light of day. This is the real hoax: that academic institutions waste so many good people’s time and energy on work that goes nowhere and influences nobody. I wish we lived in a world where it made any sort of sense to compare the influence of Fat Studies to the influence of oil companies on climate science. We don’t, but —and here’s something that astonishingly no one with a platform seems to want to argue— we should.
It is fair to say that the three co-conspirators in this project are insufferable edgelords. From their matching Twitter profile banners that reproduce the lede image of their article, to their collective body of previous work, everything about them is a screwed up face in the back of the room asking if any of this intersectionality stuff helps “normal people.” They are releasing work that is designed to produce more heat than light. It is all meant to grab headlines and rally the troops, not convince anyone of anything. They play into old, worn tropes about how the qualitative social sciences and humanities do not deserve institutional funding simply because they do not produce marketable, patentable ideas that are useful to industry. I take them at their word that they are “left leaning liberals” because only liberals would spend a year on a project that helped the reactionary right and neoliberal college administrators in equal measure.
This is not their first Culture War battle, just their most popular. Helen Pluckrose, an editor and contributor at Areo, has produced articles like “Skepticism is Necessary in our Post-Truth Age. Postmodernism is Not” and “Androphobia — and How to Address It.” James A. Lindsay fashions himself as a discount Dawkins. He has a PhD in mathematics but writes a lot about religion and how, as one of his books is titled, Everyone is Wrong About God. Peter Boghossian, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University and writer with bylines in everything from mainstream publications like Scientific American to Quillette, actually made an app that, “provides you with the skills you’ll need to spot flaws in weak statements and use reason to politely help people understand why they may not be correct.”
Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian are clearly talented carnival barkers. They have well-produced videos to go along with a just-long-enough article. Their press kit, saved to a Google drive folder, contains all of the articles they submitted along with the anonymized reviews of their work. They have since collectively written an article in New Statesman where they make the same sort of verifiably incorrect statements about French theorists that Jordan Peterson likes to make, calling them”post-modernists” who replace “rigorous evidence-based research and reasoned argument with appeals to lived experience and a neurotic focus on the power of language to create social reality.”
Unsurprisingly, The Atlantic ran a glowing review of the hoax written by Yascha Mounk, dubbing this project “Sokal Squared.” The Sokal Affair, as it is called in many theory-driven fields, refers to the time that Alan Sokal a physicist of some repute, wrote an article filled with gibberish and got it published in Social Text, a journal that at the time was not practicing peer review. Sokal made a similar argument to what Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian made, though much more focused: that the social sciences, if they are to take the natural sciences as a subject of study, should get the science exactly right. It was an obnoxious, bombastic way to make what is ultimately a boring Neil Degrasse Tyson tweet. Sokal Squared does not rise to this low standard.
Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian having done an excellent job of branding their work as flashy and controversial. The work itself though is tame, boring stuff. Take for example the article that Fox News called “Feminist Mein Kampf’.” According to the authors’ press kit:
The last two thirds of this paper is based upon a rewriting of roughly 3600 words of Chapter 12 of Volume 1 of Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler, though it diverges significantly from the original. This chapter is the one in which Hitler lays out in a multi-point plan which we partially reproduced why the Nazi Party is needed and what it requires of its members. The first one third of the paper is our own theoretical framing to make this attempt possible.
I read through their article Our Struggle Is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism and then went through the chapter of Mein Kampf this article is supposed to be mimicking (Can’t wait to find out what Amazon and YouTube suggests to me after putting that in my browser history.) and couldn’t find a single phrase that matched. To be fair, I couldn’t bring myself to read an entire chapter of Mein Kampf (I did not have as much fun with this project as they did.) but when I searched in both texts for common words and phrases I couldn’t find a single match. Even if you told someone to identify the famous text that this article is cribbed from, I am not convinced anyone would figure it out. This isn’t an article demanding concentration camps for men, it’s just a pedantic argument about neoliberalism. There are dozens of these in just as many journals. That is a real problem. But has the SCUM Manifesto finally found a critical mass of adherents ready to Kill All Men? Maybe! And given the decades of terrorism on abortion providers there’s an argument to be made that such an act would be a defensive war. Does this particular project provide evidence of a nascent violent revolution? Absolutely not.
Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian’s biggest get was a publication in Gender, Place, & Culture a feminist geography journal that effused praise on their submission, nominating it for one of their “lead pieces” of the year. This article purported to demonstrate the rape culture latent in humans’ reactions to dogs humping each other (E.g. “When a male dog was raping/humping another male dog, humans attempted to intervene 97% of the time. When a male dog was raping/humping a female dog, humans only attempted to intervene 32% of the time.”) Of course all the data was as fake and the article has been retracted.
Their stated purpose for publishing this article was “To see if journals will accept arguments which should be clearly ludicrous and unethical if they provide (an unfalsifiable) way [sic] to perpetuate notions of toxic masculinity, heteronormativity, and implicit bias.” It is really difficult to parse this ungrammatical sentence. Are they saying this work is “ludicrous” because dogs humping each other should have nothing to say about human gender politics? Are they saying that dogs humping each other could say something about human gender politics but the methods employed in their article are not good enough? It doesn’t matter of course, because the point of this whole thing isn’t about data integrity any more than Gamergate was about ethics in games journalism. The point is to dismiss wholesale, the concepts they cite in their literature reviews. They have a political disagreement with Rebecca Tuvel, who they quote at length in their paper, when she says: “In cultural imperialism, what the dominant group says, thinks and does goes … Their values are what matter, and what will become infused as ‘universal’ values.”
I had the same reaction to all of this as Greg Afinogenov, who recently wrote in N+1,
My initial reaction, triggered by long-dormant Sokal Hoax antibodies, was to become outraged at the political motivations and damaging anti-academic effects of the project. But of course this only plays into the hands of the hoaxers, to whom indignation and charges of unethical conduct from the targets only reveal how effective the hoax actually was.
Afinogenov is also right to say that this entire project is “a remarkably poor model for nonpoliticized scholarship, even if it were true (as it clearly is not) that the hoaxers were any less driven by ideology than their targets.” Indeed, Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian lament that peer review should filter out bias but in Grievance Studies fields this doesn’t happen. “This isn’t so much a problem with peer review itself” they write, “as a recognition that peer review can only be as unbiased as the aggregate body of peers being called upon to participate.” Presumably, if Sandra Harding or Patricia Hill Collins said this about racial or gender-based biases in the sciences, this would be “Grievance Studies” but when our Extremely Concerned About Data authors say it, it’s just the reasonable truth.
In response to this hoax, some well-meaning authors have argued against Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian while ostensibly accepting their framing of the problem. Don’t worry, these critical theorists —Postmodernists, grievance studies scholars, social constructivism warlocks, whatever you want to call them— are staying in their lane and haven’t fundamentally compromised our shared norms and values that science can speak truths. Daniel Engber writing in Slate comes frustratingly close, concluding his essay before fully diving into an idea that itself doesn’t go quite far enough:
In spite of Derrida and Social Text, we somehow found a means of treating AIDS, and if we’re still at loggerheads about the need to deal with global warming, one can’t really blame the queer and gender theorists or imagine that the problem started with the Academic Left. (Hey, I wonder if those dang sociologists might have something interesting to say about climate change denial?)
Yes, sociologists have a bunch of very important things to say about climate change denial but even further, sociologists have a lot to say about the state of climate change science itself! All of these fields do — gender studies, fat studies, cultural studies, science and technology studies— they all have incisive criticisms of a wide array of disciplines that orbit the same idea that predicated their founding as fields of inquiry: that no one has a monopoly on truth. That science is, like all human endeavours, shot through with politics, prejudices, and cultural norms.
This essential idea, that all knowledge is the result of human history, geography, and culture is much more than a splash of cold water on burning passions of ambitious scientists, although it is sometimes that and for good reason. The Cultural Turn —the name given to the moment in the 70s where the social situatedness of knowledge really began to be transformative— says that we can make better scientific breakthroughs, not less. This isn’t a detour, it’s the only way through that assures no one is left behind.
AIDS research is actually a really good example of why Grievance Studies (I’m gonna own it) is actually really useful. In a 1995 article in Science Technology & Human Values Steven Epstein shows how ACT Up! activists became “genuine participants in the construction of scientific knowledge” and how they were able to “(within definite limits) effect changes both in the epistemic practices of biomedical research and in the therapeutic techniques of medical care.” How does Epstein make sense of the complex web of political relations and scientific controversies at the heart of this matter? He fucking cites Foucault:
The science of AIDS therefore cannot simply be analyzed “from the top down” it demands attention to what Foucault has called the “micro-physics of power” in contemporary Western societies-the dispersal of fluxes of power throughout all the cracks and crevices of the social system; the omnipresence of resistance as imminent to the exercise of power at each local site; and the propagation of knowledges, practices, subjects, and meanings out of the local deployment of power (Foucault 1979, 1983).
Could you have done the same kind of work with a Marxist materialist analysis? Yeah maybe. Does that matter? Again, a big maybe, but for Epstein the work of Foucault helped him make sense of a complicated scenario. We now know, thanks to the recently posthumously published fourth volume of History of Sexuality, that even Foucault himself was in the midst of rethinking a lot of his work in this field up until his death (from AIDS ) in 1984. There are lots of good critiques of Foucault that give me pause when it comes to using him in my own work. But the point is that these conceptual models, this way of thinking, is instrumental to good, useful work that makes for better science and exploration.
The Cultural Turn has lost some of that steam in the last few years, and the uncritical media attention around events like “Sokal Squared” certainly hasn’t helped. But this legacy isn’t being carried forward in the elite halls of academia; it’s in the streets, teachers lounges, and bars full of underemployed scholars that may or may not be pursuing a formal degree. With few exceptions, the academics who have made significant overtly political contributions to the discourse are either marginal or low-ranking. From Adolph Reed to Rochelle DuFord (a friend of mine whose work you really should read), authors that have consistently and voraciously condemned power structures are not the ones benefiting from lavish endowed chairs. People who make bank in academia are, to reiterate another one of Afinogenov’s observations, those that have enthusiastically shared Sokal Squared: Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson, and Yascha Mounk.
Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian would have us believe that they have uncovered a massive, powerful strain of political corruption within the American academy on the level with and with the consequences of, say, Merck using ghost writers to get their deadly drug Vioxx to market, but this simply not true. While there are some promising changes —healthcare workers’ understanding of obesity’s relationship to health, and workers’ rights movements are on the rise again— but there is still so much more work to do. I wish the academy were as potent and persuasive as they say it is but it simply is not. These edgelords did not publish barn-burner manifestos about chaining white boys to the floor. They repeated milquetoast, bourgeois arguments that have kept academia from being a prime mover in the political issues of our time.
David is on Twitter: @da_banks