‘Conceptual Penises’ and other trolling

On the philosophy of science and making sense of ‘Hoax Studies’

Dear Portland State students,

What should we make of the recent rash of hoax articles that supposedly “[reveal] deep problems in social sciences” and show “something has gone wrong in the university?” What does this mean for your education?

Some—including the authors of these hoaxes, Peter Boghossian, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsey—have compared this rash of hoaxes to the notorious Sokal affair. In 1996, esteemed physics Professor Alan Sokal entered the so-called Science Wars by submitting an article that was largely nonsense purporting to be a postmodernist take on theoretical physics to a leading humanities journal, Social Text. The journal, which is not a peer-reviewed publication, published it.

A New Sokal Affair or Just a Sucker’s Affair?

Let us be clear. We’re not necessarily opposed to a well-executed hoax. But we must ask: What are the contributions of the recent hoaxes? How do these recent hoax papers reflect any understanding of the academic disciplines they aim to critique?

The first attempt by Boghossian and others, posting a concept called the “conceptual penis,” aimed to demonstrate the field of gender studies was without quality standards and biased against men. It was rejected by these journals, which presented an enormous problem. The paper instead went to a so-called generalist social sciences journal for publication, a journal so esteemed one of us recently found a blanket invitation to publish there in our email spam folder.

Seeking to conceal the fact that no serious scholar would view this sort of hoax as having much value, the authors railed against the dangers of online pay-to-publish journals as well as the field of gender studies. The first is a genuine, if entirely unoriginal, concern. The second claim is utterly inappropriate given the hoax failed.

Undeterred, Boghossian and his coauthors crafted more fake pieces to flood the journal-scape, further clogging the pipeline for scholars who want to publish actual research. Some of the junk pieces were “theoretical” pieces, providing so-called theory willfully designed to obfuscate, while other papers actually involved completely falsified data, a thing that we ought to call by its name: fraud.

Since there were 20 or more pieces and journals of any quality require at least two peer reviewers—a job that academics perform without pay because they actually care about improving their disciplines—we can deduce these junk papers involved the authors knowingly wasting the time, effort and goodwill of at least 40 reviewers and at least 20 editors.

We cannot conclude there was some kind of intellectual value provided by the non-research papers, but we can identify the drain on valuable unpaid time of real scholars these “hoaxes” directly produced. Some of your own professors are likely to be among those doing this unpaid work; this is part of the workload competing with their teaching and mentoring activities.

Further, in all research fields, rules of scholarly conduct exist. In the social sciences particularly, the recent “hoaxes” likely constitute a form of academic dishonesty. Just like students, faculty have a code of conduct. In fact, the very first standard in this code reminds faculty members to practice “intellectual honesty, seeking and stating the truth as [they] see it; [They] devote [their] energies to developing and improving [their] scholarly competence.” Moreover, a faculty member is supposed to be a good colleague. By purposefully wasting colleagues’ time and goodwill, Boghossian and his coauthors failed to follow any of these guidelines.

While many would normally consider these non-research, educationally-irrelevant “hoax” activities to be unworthy of addressing, credulous journalists interested mainly in spectacle have taken these frauds and introduced them to the broader world. When supposed scholars repeatedly engage in fraudulent behavior violating acceptable norms of research in any discipline, we have to start asking what the purpose is. Desperate reasoning, basic spite and a perverse interest in public humiliation seem to have overridden any actual scholarly goals.

Nothing about this affair suggests anything but academic dishonesty and flat out disrespect of colleagues. This is why Boghossian does not design and conduct studies to weigh in on biology and gender—instead he is continuing the pattern he began in previous years of provocation for the sole purpose of self-aggrandizement. His invitation of former Google engineer James Damore to tell us why women are incapable of excelling in tech fields was certainly disrespectful of all of his colleagues who identify as women—Damore proved barely articulate, much less a serious gender scholar. Similarly, in asking slyly “Is Intersectionality a Religion?” as he has in public presentations, Boghossian shows he less interested in the hard work of scholarship and more interested in scoring cheap political points without actually engaging pivotal concepts.

In this context, the “hoaxes” are simply lies peddled to journals, masquerading as articles. They are designed not to critique, educate or inspire change in flawed systems, but rather to humiliate entire fields while the authors gin up publicity for themselves without having made any scholarly contributions whatsoever. Chronic and pathological, unscholarly behavior inside an institution of higher education brings negative publicity to the institution as well as the honest scholars who work there. Worse yet, it jeopardizes the students’ reputations, as their degrees in the process may become devalued.

What must be done?

The 1990s were a time of debate and exploration in the field of philosophy of science that rendered Sokal pivotal. However, gender studies, ethnic studies and Black/African American studies programs are not new and have had to fight for their claims to knowledge against an academy designed to minimize them. These intellectual fights are long done (although the political ones rage on), which is why the clown car of hoax writers does not bother engaging with them—the goal, in the contemporary bullying style of Trumpist politics, is to ridicule others for personal gain.

Some faculty practice education in bad faith right in your own backyard. This is to the detriment of the university’s reputation and the serious scholars trying to make PSU an excellent place to seek higher education. Unfortunately, education in bad faith seems more newsworthy than all of the great things happening here. These types of fraudulent, time-wasting, anti-intellectual activities are something we are becoming nationally known for under the guise of free speech or academic freedom.

Make no mistake: We are some of academia’s biggest critics. But we also believe in the core value of education and are pained by the amount of attention being diverted toward unscholarly activities done for individual self-aggrandizement.



PSU Pro-Educational Editorial Collective:

Assistant Professor, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Associate Professor, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Faculty, School of Social Work

Assistant Professor, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Assistant Professor, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Professor, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Adjunct Professor, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Professor, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Associate Professor, Humanities

Ph.D. Student, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Assistant Professor, University Studies

Professor, Urban Studies

*We have opted to communicate our concerns through a collective identity rather than individually. Boghossian has not only indicated his less-than-collegial attitude through his hoaxes, but has actively targeted faculty at other institutions. None of us wish to contend with threats of death and assault from online trolls.

Editor’s note: The print and earlier online versions of this letter incorrectly identified Helen Pluckrose’s name as Heather.