From Alan Sokal's nonsensical postmodern physics article to the Grievance Studies fake papers, hoaxes serve a useful purpose in science & scholarship
On May 7, 2023 a new documentary series by the filmmaker Michael Nayna, titled The Reformers, premiers on Substack (Part 1 is free, the additional 3 parts are paywalled). It's worth watching. The series is about the Sokal Squared hoaxed papers that revealed the hallow obscurantism of grievance studies. Here’s the description and trailer:
Skeptic magazine revealed the first Sokal Squared hoax paper, titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies.” The original paper is full of academic balderdash. For example:
We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity.
We conclude that penises are not best understood as the male sexual organ, or as a male reproductive organ, but instead as an enacted social construct that is both damaging and problematic for society and future generations. The conceptual penis presents significant problems for gender identity and reproductive identity within social and family dynamics, is exclusionary to disenfranchised communities based upon gender or reproductive identity, is an enduring source of abuse for women and other gender-marginalized groups and individuals, is the universal performative source of rape, and is the conceptual driver behind much of climate change.
Inasmuch as masculinity is essentially performative, so too is the conceptual penis. The penis, in the words of Judith Butler, “can only be understood through reference to what is barred from the signifier within the domain of corporeal legibility” (Butler, 1993). The penis should not be understood as an honest expression of the performer’s intent should it be presented in a performance of masculinity or hypermasculinity. Thus, the isomorphism between the conceptual penis and what’s referred to throughout discursive feminist literature as “toxic hypermasculinity,” is one defined upon a vector of male cultural machismo braggadocio, with the conceptual penis playing the roles of subject, object, and verb of action.
In their exposé the authors of the hoaxed paper, James Lindsey and Peter Boghossian, offer two reasons for their hoax: (1) the pretentious nonsense that often passes for scholarship in postmodernism studies, and (2) the lax standards of some peer-reviewed journals. Critics of the hoax pounced on the second, claiming that the journal that published their nonsensical paper, Cogent Social Science, is a lowered-tiered journal and therefore the hoax was a failure. My motivation for publishing the exposé focused on the first problem. To me, it wouldn’t have mattered if the hoax were published in the Annals of Improbable Research, The Journal of Irreproducible Results, or even the Onion. The point, for me, is not to fool journal editors, but to expose scholarship that passes for cogent argumentation in support of a thesis that is, in fact, what Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, and their colleagues call “pseudo-profound bullshit.”
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Bullshit, they write, is language “constructed to impress upon the reader some sense of profundity at the expense of a clear exposition of meaning or truth.” Bullshit is meant to impress through obfuscation; that is, to say something that sounds profound but may be nonsense. It may not be nonsense, but if you can’t tell the difference then, to quote Strother Martin’s character from the 1967 Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke, “what we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” Compare, for example, any of the passages from the “Conceptual Penis” hoax to the abstract for the 2016 paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Progress in Human Geography titled “Glaciers, Gender, and Science”:
Glaciers are key icons of climate change and global environmental change. However, the relationships among gender, science, and glaciers—particularly related to epistemological questions about the production of glaciological knowledge—remain understudied. This paper thus proposes a feminist glaciology framework with four key components: 1) knowledge producers; (2) gendered science and knowledge; (3) systems of scientific domination; and (4) alternative representations of glaciers. Merging feminist postcolonial science studies and feminist political ecology, the feminist glaciology framework generates robust analysis of gender, power, and epistemologies in dynamic social-ecological systems, thereby leading to more just and equitable science and human-ice interactions.
When this paper was published I thought it was a hoax, so I contacted the University of Oregon, the institution of the paper’s authors, and confirmed it was real. And this is just one of countless examples, posted daily on Twitter @RealPeerReview and retweeted all over the Internet to the amusement of readers who cannot decipher what most of these articles are even about, much less comprehend their arguments and gain value from their conclusions.
What matters to me is the truth about reality (lower t and lower r), which science is best equipped to determine. Ever since the 1980s there has been a movement afoot in academia in which postmodernism has encroached on some of biology, much of social science (especially cultural anthropology), and most of history, literature, and the humanities, in which the claim is made that there is no truth to be determined because there is no reality to study. Nearly everything—from race and gender to genes and brains—is socially constructed and linguistically determined by our narratives. And the more obfuscating those narratives are about these socially constructed non-realities, the better. This is the very opposite of how science should be conducted and communicated, and it is, in part, why we are currently witnessing the campus madness involving student protests—and even violence—when their unscientific postmodern unreal worldviews collide with the reality of contradictory facts and opposing viewpoints. It’s time we put a stop to the lunacy and demand critical thinking and clear communication.
The Morality of Hoaxes
The beauty and power of a well-executed hoax is that it reveals deeper truths not only about both the victims of the hoax and the hoaxers themselves, but about human nature and the foibles of our belief systems.
Decades of careful and extensive research into cognition and the psychology of how beliefs are formed reveals that none of us simply gather facts and draw conclusions from them in an inductive process. What happens is that most of us most of the time arrive at our beliefs for a host of psychological and social reasons have little or nothing to do with logic, reason, empiricism, or data. Most of our beliefs are shaped by our parents, our siblings, our peer groups, our teachers, our mentors, our professional colleagues, and by the culture at large. We form and hold those beliefs because they provide emotional comfort, because they fit well with our life styles or career choices, or because they work within the larger context of our family dynamics or social network. Then we build back into those beliefs reasons for why we hold them. This process is driven by two well-known cognitive biases: the hindsight bias, where once an event has happened or a belief is formed it is easy to look back and reconstruct not only how it happened or was formed, but also why it had to be that way and not some other way; and the confirmation bias,, in which we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence.
Given this state of our cognitive limitations, it should not surprise us that a movement arose in the 1980s that is variously described as postmodernism, deconstructionism, or cognitive relativism. Going far beyond cognitive psychology and leaning heavily on Marxist notions of cultural and class determinism, this academic movement came to believe that there are no privileged truths, no objective reality to be discovered, and no belief, idea, hypothesis, or theory that is closer to the truth than any other. In time, the movement spilled out of lit-crit English departments into the history and philosophy of science, as professional philosophers and historians, swept up in a paroxysm of postmodern deconstruction, proffered a view of science as a relativistic game played by European white males in a reductionistic frenzy of hermeneutical hegemony, hell bent on suppressing the masses beneath the thumb of dialectical scientism and technocracy. Yes, some of them actually talk like that, and one really did call Newton’s Principia a “rape manual.”
In 1996 the New York University physicist and mathematician Alan Sokal put an end to this intellectual masturbation with one of the greatest hoaxes in academic history. Sokal penned a nonsensical article entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” choc-a-block full of postmodern phrases and deconstructionist tropes interspersed with scientific jargon, and submitted it to the journal Social Text, one of two leading publications frequented by fashionably obtuse academics. One sentence from the article, plucked randomly from the text, reads as follows:
It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical “reality”, no less than social “reality”, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific “knowledge”, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.
Sokal’s article was accepted for publication (as “real”, whatever that means in postmodernism), and upon release Sokal revealed it was all a hoax, and did so, deliciously, in the chief competitor of Social Text, the journal Dissent. Sokal called it a nonsense parody, but because most of what passes for postmodernism is nonsense and indistinguishable from parody, the editors of Social Text could not tell the difference! Q.E.D.
Subsequently, Sokal published a comprehensive book-length explanation, Beyond the Hoax, that provides readers with an annotated edition of the original article (explaining how he came up with each and every meaningless phrase!), the subsequent article in Dissent in which he explained himself to the disgruntled readers of Social Text, and a number of subsequent articles and essays he wrote in the decade since the hoax in which he elaborated on the problems inherent in postmodern philosophy of science. The golden nugget within this longish book—worth the price of admission by itself—is the annotated parody. For example, explaining the above passage, divided up into the semi-colon phrases, Sokal writes (with ellipses denoting the phrase explanations):
This statement is, of course, absurd, but it reflects several conceits of “postmodern” theoretical writing. First of all, reality (even physical reality) has become in certain circles a no-no concept, which must be placed in scare quotes. … This assertion is a commonplace (dare I say a cliché) in radical-social-constructivist writing about science. Like most clichés, it contains a grain of truth but greatly exaggerates the case. Above all, it fails to make the crucial distinction between actual knowledge (i.e. rationally justified true belief) and purported knowledge. … The theory-ladenness of observations goes back at least to physicist-philosopher Pierre Duhem in 1894; it poses problems for the most naïve falsifiability theories but by no means undercuts the epistemic claims of science. … This statement is silly, but it strikes the right emotional chords: against “privilege” (especially scientists’ privilege) and in favor of the “counter-hegemonic”, the “dissident”, and the “marginalized”. … Note, finally, that the four assertions contained in this sentence are at the very least debatable (if not downright absurd); certainly some argument in their favor ought to be required. But the editors of Social Text were happy to publish an article in which these assertions are taken for granted. Apparently in certain circles nowadays these assertions are taken for granted.
Hoaxes are one of the most powerful tools of instruction and edification ever created because they reveal a weakness in human cognition involving gullibility and self-deception. As long as no one is hurt in the process and the reveal in the end is complete and honest, hoaxes are a form of magic.
Magicians, for example, intentionally deceive their audiences, but as long as they are not claiming to use paranormal or supernatural powers (so-called “real magic”), magic can be one of the best tools for understanding how the mind works by revealing how easily it is tricked. From a scientist’s and skeptic’s perspective, magicians like Penn and Teller are effective because they not only deceive their audiences, they often also reveal how the tricks are done in order to make a deeper point about deception, self-deception, and honesty. A properly executed hoax can be as entertaining and educational as a good magic show.
Moral objections to hoaxes should be reasonably considered, of course, but as long as no one is hurt in the process and the hoax is revealed in the end and shown to be executed with good intentions to make a deeper point, there is nothing unethical or immoral about hoaxing, and in fact the beauty and power of a well-executed hoax is that it reveals deeper truths not only about both the victims of the hoax and the hoaxers themselves, but about human nature and the foibles of our belief systems.
Why do people fall for such hoaxes? The hindsight bias and the confirmation bias. Once you believe that science holds no privileged position in the search for truth, and that it is just another way of knowing, it is easy to pull out of such hoaxed articles additional evidence that supports your belief. It is a very human process, and since science is conducted by very real humans, isn’t it subject to these same cognitive biases? Yes, except for one thing: the built-in process known as the scientific method.
There is progress in science, and some views really are superior to others, regardless of the color, gender, or country of origin of the scientist holding that view. Despite the fact that scientific data are “theory laden,” science is truly different than art, music, religion, and other forms of human “knowing” because it has a self-correcting mechanism built into it. If you don’t catch the flaws in your theory, the slant in your bias, or the distortion in your preferences, someone else will, usually with great glee and in a public forum, for example, a competing journal! Scientists may be biased, but science itself, for all its flaws, is still the best system ever devised for understanding how the world works.
Skeptic is a reader-supported publication. All monies go to the Skeptics Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of The Michael Shermer Show, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His many books include Why People Believe Weird Things, The Science of Good and Evil, The Believing Brain, The Moral Arc, and Heavens on Earth. His new book is Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational.
Wonderful write-up, Michael. I vividly recall the hoax and my immense enjoyment as it played out amongst a cacophony of outraged harumphs and vituperative snorts. What glorious fun! Thanks for bringing back the fond memories.
I followed the Sokal hoax/affair back then and look back on it with great sadness. This was one of the last chances anyone involved in the Humanities (most esp in academia) had to confront, mock and dismantle the Deconstruction machine that has chewed through our culture and society, and yet it was mostly swept under the rug or treated as a humorous tempest in a teapot.
I think at the time people didn't take the postmodern post-Marxist threat seriously, it was just a cabal of angry weirdos best to steer clear of, and also any opposition to their fanatical "Foucault proved nothing exists but power!" cult never seemed worth the risk: even the slightest threat to their project is immediately met with screams of "Bigot!" or "Nazi!" and relentless personal and professional attacks.
I respect and admire Michael Shermer but I'm afraid he's a 20th-century thinker whistling past the 21st-century graveyard: the postmodernists have won, they control all our educational institutions and have seized the means of cultural production, there will be no dislodging them anytime soon and no return to liberal Enlightenment values as long as they reign.
The best we can hope for at this point is that there will be some large slabs of Enlightenment wisdom and scholarship left behind in the rubble once the Deconstruction machine breaks down, and we can use these to rebuild a sane society.
Apologies for the gloom.