Why the new hoax papers on cultural studies merely confirmed everyone’s priors

image credit: the most excellent xkcd, esp Munroe’s liberal repost policy

In 1996 Alan Sokal published a hoax paper in the cultural studies journal Social Text which was nonsense, asserting among other things gravity was a social construct. Sokal claimed: “The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that ‘the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project’. They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.”

It’s now been almost a month since the disclosure of a new hoax sometimes called Sokal 2. Three academics James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian published hoax papers in cultural studies journals, with an intent to discredit them. The authors spent 10 months writing the papers, averaging one new paper roughly every thirteen days“. Of the 20 papers they created, 7 were accepted, while 4 more given a “revise and resubmit” (R&R). It’s worth noting no sociology journal accepted a paper or gave an R&R. All the acceptances and R&Rs came from cultural studies journals, most of them gender studies. Example title: Going In Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria, Transhysteria, and Transphobia Through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use. You get the idea.

Now that the commentary has died down, it’s worth assessing what this means. If anything. Here’s my view of the key points/comments:

  • Cultural studies is the field most influenced by critical theory, which in it’s crudest form says ideological power defines social reality.
  • From Tanner Greer: “Academic critiques of the shoddiness of critical theory are inevitably interpreted as political attacks. Which makes sense, I suppose… at the end of the day critical theory is a political position, not an empirically grounded body of knowledge.” Yes, people like Foucault are more sophisticated than power=truth, and worth reading (or in my case, skimming). But if political power creates truth, critical theory by it’s own logic turns all disagreements into power relations disagreements, unbound from empirical correction. So even if all you want to do is improve cultural studies methodology, that doesn’t matter. What matters is who gains/loses power, so all attacks on cultural studies transform into attacks on the left.
  • Sokal’s original hoax showed cultural studies journals would publish nonsense. The new hoaxers were more ambitious in what they said they were doing: “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. For many, this problem has been growing increasingly obvious, but strong evidence has been lacking. For this reason, the three of us just spent a year working inside the scholarship we see as an intrinsic part of this problem.” The hoaxers claim the entire University has gone wrong. That’s too much. After all, they couldn’t even get their sociology hoaxes published. And those overly wide claims backfired, hurting their ability to make more impactful, if far narrower arguments.  Cultural studies remains the field with the problem. Same as 1996.
  • Averaging a paper in two weeks indicates: 1) the hoaxers mastered the field in a few months well enough to spoof it (passing the more difficult than you’d expect ideological turing test), and 2) any field for which you can concoct a paper in a couple of weeks is not that rigorous.
  • Kevin Drum makes a similar point: “If an amateur with no background can spend three months brushing up on your field, and then immediately start cranking out papers that get accepted at serious, peer-reviewed journals, there is something badly wrong with your field. That’s it. That’s what the hoaxsters uncovered.”
  • More from Greer: “The hoaxers deliberately tried to create papers that were outlandish, bizarre, and bull-shittish as possible. What they ended up creating was creating were run-of-the-mill, slightly below average papers in critical theory.” And “It was 100% a stunt–but a stunt designed not just to attract attention to what the authors put in these journals, but to what is *normally* put in these journals.”
  • Several things are all true at once: 1) cultural studies/gender studies is a valid and important field, academics really do need to study oppression and gender/LGBT, 2) critical theory makes cultural studies not just prone to publishing nonsense, but immune from empirical self correction, 3) other fields also publish nonsense, but retain an ability to (oh so sloooooowly) empirically self correct, 4) the hoaxers would have been more successful if they had kept their rhetoric precisely and narrowly targeted at the non-empirical methodology of critical theory, rather than indicting the University and the left as a whole.

One of Marx’s most quoted lines is history repeats “first as tragedy, then as farce.”

While the original Sokal hoax was argued back and forth, in this go round no one even pretended they might change their mind. No one is shocked to discover there’s gambling going on in the casino.

Those who think critical theory in academia has taken a wrong turn (yes, that’s me), had their priors confirmed. But that’s also true for progressives. How did that play out? Let’s go to Zach Beauchamp, who has a good vox explainer on the topic. Beauchamp says “The hoaxers are right that there are problems in identity studies, and that one of those problems is political bias. But their experiment is not convincing evidence that these problems are necessarily worse or more fundamental than those that affect other fields, including ones that seem more ‘scientific’ like psychology or economics.” I disagree with the second sentence, though not the first. But Beauchamp gets to the crux of his critique by asking Lenin’s question who, whom? The authors of the hoax project self-describe as liberals. But who cares. What matters is those most pleased are people like Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who asked hoax coauthor James Lindsay to be on his show. Lindsay declined. Beauchamp concludes his piece: “the fact that this is the type of audience that’s excited about the Grievance Studies hoax says a lot about whose work the project is actually doing.” Fact check on priors confirmed: true. On all sides.

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