By Mark Bauerlein
It was quite an embarrassment. A team of, well, we’ll call them watchdogs, sent bogus research papers to social science journals for publication and received several acceptances. (The authors detail their project here. One of the papers, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” was taken by the journal Cogent Social Sciences. Another one on canine sexual misconduct in public parks was published in Gender, Place, and Culture. Stories on the affair may be found here and here. As the authors explain, they immersed themselves in the scholarship on “grievance,” as they termed the field, they pondered how far certain topics and approaches could be stretched to absurdity and still receive scholarly recognition:
Another tough one for us was, “I wonder if they’d publish a feminist rewrite of a chapter from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” The answer to that question also turns out to be “yes,” given that the feminist social work journal Affilia has just accepted it. As we progressed, we started to realize that just about anything can be made to work, so long as it falls within the moral orthodoxy and demonstrates understanding of the existing literature.
The implication was clear. The journals that were duped have cheap scholarly standards. The fields they represent, “grievance studies,” don’t police themselves well. Or rather, they doggedly monitor the opinions people hold—try getting a job in gender studies if you believe that norms of masculinity and femininity have any grounding in biology—but when it comes to canons of evidence and argument, the fields run low and sloppy. Draw the right conclusions and you can slide by on loose methods and scanty materials.
As with the Sokal Hoax, there was no way the targets could wriggle out of the exposé. They got burned because of their own expectations. As Sokal understood, the hardest injuries to explain away are those that are self-inflicted.
The hoaxers chose a risky target. These are the sensitive fields where you must respect the dogmas of victimhood and justice. To broach them with an irreverent eye as the hoaxers did is to disregard the group identities the disciplines were formed to represent. Exposing the periodicals in the fields as intellectual frauds didn’t merely root out bad editorial practices. It undermined the entire discipline. Worse, it threatened the sociopolitical mission of those disciplines. Did the hoaxers really have to do this? Don’t they suffer enough intellectual insecurity without having meddling gadflies making it worse? Why pick on the vulnerable ones?
It is no surprise, then, that one of the hoaxers, the one with a regular academic post, is in trouble. His home university, Portland State, has opened an investigation into his role in the hoax. Peter Boghossian stands accused of violating research practices. The university has defined the hoaxes as “research,” which makes them fall under the rules of International Review Boards that all research universities observe. He and his colleagues were the inquirers, that is, and the journal editors and peer reviewers who were fooled were the research subjects, the university says. “Your efforts to conduct human subjects research at PSU without a submitted nor approved protocol is a clear violation of the policies of your employer,” wrote PSU Vice President Mike McLellan in an email to Boghossian (quoted in the story above).
In other words, the university has cast the whole enterprise as a customary scientific experiment that falls under the same conditions and expectations that ordinary scientific experiments must respect. That means Boghossian and his team should have submitted their plan to the IRB officials in advance to ensure that it met the guidelines. Those guidelines include not lying to participants. If people are going to be part of an experiment, you have to tell them so.
If the framework sticks, you have to judge Professor Boghossian guilty. But that’s not really the point of the action. The grievance hoaxers are just a few people with little institutional power. Their work is complete, too. They aren’t an issue any more. From here on, others must be discouraged from playing the same tricks—that’s the real goal of the action. The disciplines of grievance, the silos on campus where victims find a home . . . they must be left alone. Anybody contemplating similar schemes of ridicule must know that they will face punishment.
Boghossian et al weren’t conducting normal research. They were exposing corruption. They didn’t plan to put their hoax down on their academic CVs. Boghossian is a philosopher. He doesn’t work in grievance studies. He doesn’t have tenure, and when he submits his scholarly record for review by his department, he won’t (and never intended to) include the hoax as proof of his tenure-worthiness. The hoax wasn’t out to test something general about human behavior. The authors did it because they abhorred the shoddy standards of peer review in the fields, which threatened the reputation of social science and academia at large.
(In their explanation essay mentioned at the top, the authors are careful to distinguish their target: not progressive politics per se, but the insertion of progressive politics into scholarly practice. They added themselves to people who believe in “liberalism, progress, modernity, open inquiry, and social justice.” What they don’t uphold is “identitarian madness.”)
Some people in academia, I have found merely shrug when they see a bad manuscript get approved for publication or a weak assistant professor granted tenure. Others, though, don’t like it, not at all. It bothers them. They experience a slipshod peer review as something that has affected their professional lives well beyond the individual case. To them, peer review ensures the integrity of everything else. Whenever it breaks down, they feel personally compromised.
They’re right. Peer review does guarantee the intellectual quality and professional honesty of the field. That’s because peer review invokes more than just the common knowledge or wisdom of the peers in a field. Peer review begins with logical and empirical criteria: is the reasoning sound, is the evidence sufficient . . .? Before a peer reviewer asks whether the results or conclusions of a study in the sciences or of an interpretation in the humanities fits with his own opinions, he considers the methods and validity. Are things handled well?
Hence, peer review always poses problems for fields based on ideological goals. When activist goals and sociopolitical dogma influence an academic enterprise too much, protocols of inquiry start to fray. “Why worry about collecting more evidence when we already have enough to argue the point we aimed for in the first place?” The attitude makes the field vulnerable to exactly the kind of hoax that was played here.
Which is why the grievance team should be praised, not blamed. They have done a professional service. Ideological fields need to be curbed, but they resist reform through normal channels. They do their own peer review, reinforcing ideological premises again and again until those premises appear to be self-evident truths. People in the field come to think that a belief they have formed, which is a debatable one outside the field, is a reality they have discovered. If you don’t assume it, in their eyes, you haven’t really finished your training for the discipline.
The conformity sets them up for a fall. They are easily duped. The more secure they are in their ideology, the more vulnerable they are to fake research—and public laughter.