creeping Sokalism in the academy now extends to entire groups of marginal journals

By ann summers


“But why did I do it? I confess that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I’m a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them.” (Alan Sokal)

There was once an angry white guy who felt that some Other was doing less reputable academic work outside of his own field and decided to hoax a publication that did not practice rigorous peer-review. Alan Sokal became well-known among those reactionaries who were unhappy with the rise in post-structural cultural studies and critical theory on college campuses.

The problem occurred when opportunistic RW politicians normalized it as a cause célèbre to attack “soft” disciplines deemed superfluous and even as public policy, reduce curricula and programs (see U. of Wisconsin Stevens Point). Darn those cultures.

Hoaxing academics and academia is good sport and spoofing the peer-review system is important because it often reproduces its own insular research, often with little use other than to advance tenure reviews at ever more mediocre academic institutions. Nothing’s worse than academics with a grudge, except deans with grudges, reheating tempests in tea-pots. But hoaxing Thunderdome is an indulgence for the tenured.

The real unintended cost of popularizing academic work is that when it gets ridiculed  outside the academy such controversy is often used to virally reproduce ignorance like climate deniers or anti-vaxxers.

An updated version of the hegemonic cynicism of Sokalism has been promoted by Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian (PLB) Unlike the Sokal attack on one journal and a specific critical approach, however famous, they chose to hoax a number of journals simply to test quality assurance.

PLBOur paper-writing methodology always followed a specific pattern: it started with an idea that spoke to our epistemological or ethical concerns with the field and then sought to bend the existing scholarship to support it. The goal was always to use what the existing literature offered to get some little bit of lunacy or depravity to be acceptable at the highest levels of intellectual respectability within the field. Therefore, each paper began with something absurd or deeply unethical (or both) that we wanted to forward or conclude. We then made the existing peer-reviewed literature do our bidding in the attempt to get published in the academic canon.…

Rather than taking on the larger discourse of canonical power in non-humanities fields, PLB performs an insurgent act on some academic sub-fields that while critically important, will not address the increasing asymmetry of power among disciplinary units in the modern university. For example PLB could have tackled the research in fields that have more considerable importance to college professors, namely why is it that business school professors have higher average salaries, when it does seem more logical for the medical school professors.

As amusing and even ironic as Sokal and Bricmont attacking continental philosophy might have been, it remains a kind of white male academic bias that privileges those reactionary elements of the academy, and rationalizes bias against legitimate academic discourse, writ egalitarian. If you’ve ever sat in a committee meeting listening to engineers argue with physicists about basic undergraduate math requirements, you’ll know how the smallest, irrational bias can doom entire programs and faculties. Then again, if Alan Sokal had been a PoC, one wonders whether the Sokal Affair would have achieved such notoriety by reinforcing some reactionary prejudices. A deconstruction of that would be less about the working class but the intersection of race/class/gender.

But this latest hoax by Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian is a silly exercise given that the Internet and social media happened since Sokol, and the access to knowledge, the ubiquity of shared research, and even peer-review is changing, however slowly. But it is the usual activity of academics to dysfunctionally cull competing disciplinary approaches or worse, things that don’t seem to measure up, whether it’s falsifiability or some other reproducibility shibboleth.


academia already has its Mad magazine

More importantly, it’s intellectually lazy to pick on easy targets in the “humanities and the social sciences” when science might have the need to really be confronted given the ubiquity of climate deniers among other ignoramuses who may be given cover by such mischief. A sad reality is that Trumpists have always inhabited the ivory tower, as we’ve recently discovered, they don’t like students of color eating their lunches or taking naps in the “wrong spaces”.

Only reactionary idiots would subscribe to a grievance studies premise, and yet, the authors PLB are correct that there are some stupid research ideas like “white frailty”, and various research programs have allowed themselves to flourish with little reflection, much like post-structuralism does really require better foundations in structuralism.

The Big Bang Theory television show has given license to personality disordered scientists believing they are cultural mavens. It’s really like the Harry Potter universe, where Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian are complaining about “Muggle Studies” with the same malevolence as he who must not be named. In the end, “The obvious is sometimes the enemy of the true”.

These academics are less intrepid than doing clerk-like criticism that is necessary to cull the spread of institutional problems of validation that have increased as the Internet transforms scholarly journals and their role in building knowledge.

Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian should probably have put more time actually critiquing the relativism of constructivism rather than punking its practitioners. There are thought experiments and thoughtless experiments. The latter wind up as stunts.

The problem is not “ideology” but ideological prejudice. Submitting absurd academic papers, while amusing, is pretty much still the equivalent of Trump tweets, always dangerous if assumed to be true.

It’s just not that “giant” a version of the Sokal hoax, as much as it’s taken on some of the proliferation of less-rigorous research and even more subaltern fields. The hapless journal-targets are the same, and their peer- review turns out in at least seven cases, to be not even as smart as Derrida or Cornell undergraduates. As always it needs to be called out, but like BBQ Becky, sometimes you just gotta let people cook and stop calling the cops.

Three intrepid academics just perpetrated a giant version of the Sokal Hoax, placing scores of fake papers in major academic journals. Call it Sokal Squared.

The result is hilarious and delightful. It also showcases a serious problem with big parts of academia.


— Yascha Mounk (@Yascha_Mounk) October 3, 2018


.@HPluckrose, @ConceptualJames and @PeterBoghossian set out to show that ideology reigns supreme in what they call “Grievance Studies”: academic areas organized around victim groups,and often more motivated by a political agenda than a serious search for the truth.


If you have doubts about this enterprise – which makes sense since these fields of study do investigate very important topics, like race and gender- take a look at the papers they got published in leading journals. They are… quite something.


In a year, three scholars managed to get seven papers accepted into top journals. If this was the record of an actual academic, it would put them on track for tenure at a major university.

And, deary me, what papers these are!


There’s the paper that doesn’t just advocate stopping white males from speaking in class; it encourages teachers to institute a form of “experiential reparation” by making their white students sit on the ground bound in chains.


There is the paper that labels men who masturbate while thinking about a woman without gaining her prior consent as perpetrators of sexual violence.


There is the paper that dismisses western astronomy as sexist and imperialist, making a case for physics departments to study feminist astrology instead.




And then there’s the coup de grace: a paper, already published in Gender, Place & Culture, which claims to be based on in situ observation of canine rape culture in a Portland dog park.


The authors rightly emphasize that topics like race, gender, or sexuality should be the object of serious study.

Their problem is that the kind of bullshit that now counts as scholarship in some quarters of the academy does not constitute anything like that.


Most likely, the authors will be denounced. Most likely, these areas of “scholarship” won’t change. Most likely, deans will keep pretending that their emperor are fully clothed.

But after today, there’s no more excuse for calling this bullshit out when you see it.


Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian would do more to change academic discourse by addressing the problem of student evaluations in the age of Rate My Professor, for example:


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1 Response to creeping Sokalism in the academy now extends to entire groups of marginal journals

  1. Malisha says:

    Maybe 20 years ago I attended a conference of the Public Health Service and one of the panels was entitled “What research do you want to see now?” Many providers took part in active discussions with many good answers to that question and then a PHS doctor from one of the Mid-Atlantic states announced: “I don’t care what kind of new research you do but please don’t do any more ‘duh’ research.” Then there was a very animated, often hilarious description of studies that were just plain idiotic. Fully funded studies to which apparently highly qualified people had devoted time and energy. If I remember correctly one of them concluded that infant monkeys of some sort preferred playing with their best friends more than with other age-mates. And how did they identify the “best friends”? Why those with whom the subject monkey-child most often played.

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