Last year scholars James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian proudly declared that they had hoodwinked a peer-reviewed journal into publishing nonsense. As it turned out, however, that attempt to replicate Alan Sokal’s famous hoax from a generation ago was riddled with problems, not the least of which was that the journal they had hacked was a pay-for-play scam. A year later, however, the two are back with another co-author, Helen Pluckrose, with a more serious effort in Areo titled “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship.” The authors attempted to discredit a range of humanities journals by submitting more than 20 papers cloaked in the jargon of their subfields. They were pretty successful in their later efforts despite zero initial training in the cognate fields. In their own words:
To summarize, we spent 10 months writing the papers, averaging one new paper roughly every thirteen days. (Seven papers published over seven years is frequently claimed to be the number sufficient to earn tenure at most major universities although, in reality, requirements vary by institution.) As for our performance, 80% of our papers overall went to full peer review, which keeps with the standard 10-20% of papers that are “desk rejected” without review at major journals across the field. We improved this ratio from 0% at first to 94.4% after a few months of experimenting with much more hoaxish papers. Because we were forced to go public before we could complete our study, we cannot be sure how many papers would have been accepted if we had had time to see them through—papers typically take 3-6 months or more to complete the entire process and one of ours was under review from December 2017 to August 2018—but an estimate of at least 10, probably 12, eventual acceptances seems warranted at the time of having to call a halt.
Whereas the Sokal hoax was widely seen as a teachable moment, and last year’s effort was widely seen as overhyped nonsense, this effort has split academics down the middle. Both the usual suspects and more unusual suspects outside the academy find the study to be compelling. But this effort has invited plenty of derision, as well.
No one in these fields should feel good that so many of these submissions made it past peer review. If you had told me ex ante that three reasonably educated people could publish more than half of their cockeyed submissions in fields beyond their specialty, it would not make me sanguine at all. This shouldn’t be exaggerated; as James Stacey Taylor notes, only two of the seven journals that accepted these hoax papers “could be considered mainstream academic journals.” Two still strikes me as too many, however. So the most important takeaway of this paper is just how easy it is for some scholars to fake their way into a peer-reviewed publication, even if it’s not a widely cited one.
That said, reading this paper reminded me of a short story I read as a kid about a group of high-schoolers who thought they could program a computer to do a lot of their homework. When they were found out, the principal didn’t punish them, because he noted that to pull this stunt off, the students had to master the subject well enough to program the computer. Which meant that they were doing just as much work as the students who simply did the homework. When the authors of this paper acknowledged that it took them several months of failure to learn how to craft a paper that would merit being sent out for peer review, I wondered if they had read that story and recognized the plot.
It cannot be stressed enough that this paper would have never passed the muster of peer review, for several good reasons. The most obvious is the methodology. Yes, the authors got several papers accepted and favorable referee reports in fields like gender studies. What is entirely unclear is whether other disciplines are equally vulnerable.
Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian contend that the fault lies with, “at least fifteen subdomains of thought in grievance studies, including (feminist) gender studies, masculinities studies, queer studies, sexuality studies, psychoanalysis, critical race theory, critical whiteness theory, fat studies, sociology, and educational philosophy.” Two things immediately jump out from that quote. First, what is sociology doing in that list? Without in any way denigrating the other fields, sociology ain’t in the humanities, it’s a pretty established social science. Second, and more important, what would have happened if the authors had devoted the same care and effort to getting an article past, say, peer-reviewed journals but low-impact-factor journals in economics or chemistry?
A deeper problem is that the authors contradict themselves on several fronts. In their conclusion, they warn that in response to their findings, “[The] wrong answers are to attack the peer-review system or academia overall. … the university [is] a center of knowledge production and a gem of modern culture. Fighting the university or the peer-review system would be like killing the patient to end the disease.”
That’s great, but here is how Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian start their paper:
Something has gone wrong in the university—especially in certain fields within the humanities. Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields, and their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview. This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous.
You don’t get to claim that you’re not attacking the university when your first few sentences read like that. It suggests a lack of clarity in the argument — a sentence I would have written if I had been asked to peer-review this essay.
A related problem is how the authors make conclusions that go way, way beyond their findings. In particular:
The problem is epistemological, political, ideological, and ethical and it is profoundly corrupting scholarship in the social sciences and humanities. The center of the problem is formally termed “critical constructivism,” and its most egregious scholars are sometimes referred to as “radical constructivists.” Expressing this problem accurately is difficult, and many who’ve tried have studiously avoided doing so in any succinct and clear way....
This problem is most easily summarized as an overarching (almost or fully sacralized) belief that many common features of experience and society are socially constructed. These constructions are seen as being nearly entirely dependent upon power dynamics between groups of people, often dictated by sex, race, or sexual or gender identification. All kinds of things accepted as having a basis in reality due to evidence are instead believed to have been created by the intentional and unintentional machinations of powerful groups in order to maintain power over marginalized ones.
Full disclosure: Most forms of critical constructivism are not my cup of ontological tea either. But the belief that much of human society is a social construct is not really that radical a notion. Some social constructions are more durable than others, which can make them seem more “natural.” One of the points of “critical constructivism” is to challenge those representations as not very natural at all (see this 1998 Ted Hopf article for an accessible explanation of critical constructivism as applied to international relations).
Do I think that critical constructivists are correct in all their criticisms? No. But they’re not entirely wrong either, and their criticisms are worth engaging in good faith most of the time. In attacking all forms of social constructivism, Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian are denigrating an awful lot of very good scholarship beyond the disciplines they focused on.
The irony of this denigration is clear in their attempt to label all of these fields “grievance studies.” I have no doubt that this framing will be adopted far and wide in conservative quarters. It’s catchy. But surely even these authors would acknowledge that this term would not define all the scholarship in these areas. Too late, though, because in labeling these fields with this overarching moniker, the authors are socially constructing mass public perceptions of them, as well.
Speaking of grievance, the study’s authors seem to possess ample amounts of it. According to the Wall Street Journal’s Jillian Kay Melchior: “Mr. Boghossian doesn’t have tenure and expects the university will fire or otherwise punish him. Ms. Pluckrose predicts she’ll have a hard time getting accepted to a doctoral program. Mr. Lindsay said he expects to become ‘an academic pariah,’ barred from professorships or publications.”
I hope the authors get past their own emotions about these disciplines to take a more stringent look at their strengths and weaknesses. Their paper does point out some weaknesses, to be sure. But the brush they used to paint their portrait of the humanities is way too broad.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship” was published in Aeon magazine.