Tuesday, June 6, 2017

How Not to Defend the 'Conceptual Penis' Hoax

Lately there has been much talk and much debate surrounding a certain hoax paper published by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay. Attempting to follow in the footsteps of Alan Sokal and his famous hoax, Boghossian and Lindsay submitted a nonsense piece of writing to Cogent Social Sciences entitled "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct." Announcing the hoax in Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer and the two authors of the paper gleefully celebrated it for exposing a serious problem with the field of Gender Studies as a whole.

However, learning more about this little stunt reveals it to be more of a self-parody than anything else. Massimo Pigliucci notes that the paper was initially rejected for publication in NORMA: The International Journal for Masculinity Studies, and NORMA actually has no academic ranking and an impact score of zero. The journal they did wind up in, Cogent Social Sciences, is an open access, pay-to-play journal that promises they are "friendly" to prospective authors. These are red flags that should alarm the skeptically minded, but Lindsay and Boghossian have argued that what matters is that Cogent Social Sciences is still a part of the Taylor & Francis publishing group, and it was NORMA that directed them there. Even so, this would only highlight the problem of predatory publishing, not a problem with Gender Studies, and it deserves mention that the email response the duo received from NORMA was very likely auto-generated and Cogent Social Sciences specifically notes on their site that they operate independently of Taylor & Francis.

Massimo also points to a quote from Sokal himself that is far more measured in its conclusion than what Shermer, Boghossian, and Lindsay have concluded from the conceptual penis paper. "It proves only that the editors of one rather marginal journal were derelict in their intellectual duty," Sokal states. There have been a number of Sokal-style hoaxes published in various fields, and Pigliucci outlines a handful of these. One paper that was literally nothing more than the continuous printing of the message, "Get me off your fucking email list", was accepted by a computer science journal, yet there has not been an equivalently passionate declaration that this plays any role in challenging the computer science field.

These problems have already received plenty of attention in the numerous substantive critiques of the hoax itself (see here and here for additional examples), so I won't dwell on them any further in this post. Instead, I want to look at a couple ways James Lindsay has argued the alleged implications of this paper for Gender Studies. Recently, he appeared on the Serious Inquiries Only podcast to defend his part in the hoax. It deserves to be mentioned that the host, Thomas, spends the last 30 minutes of the episode debunking a list of sources Lindsay provides to him that supposedly shows the absurdity of Gender Studies. Several of his sources have been cited zero times, raising questions not just about how Boghossian and Lindsay have interpreted these publications, but whether they truly have the impact the two imagine that they have.

One of the most interesting and frustrating things Lindsay says repeatedly in the podcast is that they could have easily tweaked the paper a little more, cleaned it up, and had it accepted by a more reputable academic journal in the discipline. This is important because of the criticisms about the nature of the publication their paper received. It's hard to argue that your hoax says anything about an entire academic field if the only outlet that would publish it is "marginal" or "derelict" in its duty, to borrow Sokal's words. And it's definitely tough to rebut that charge considering the circumstances here.

Responding to Lindsay, Thomas asks, "So why didn't you just pull off a better hoax then?" This strikes me as a little too generous, though. We can be clear that what Lindsay is using in his defense here is sheer speculation, especially considering that the first journal they submitted to did, in fact, reject their paper and they wound up publishing in a pay-to-publish journal. In addition, neither journal has anywhere close to the kind of reputation that Lindsay presumably thinks they could have accommodated with revisions.

What would those revisions have been, anyway? Perhaps we'd just be discussing other major pitfalls with their hoax even if they had been accepted somewhere else. The trouble with speculation is that it's just as easy and valid to say 'it might not have been' as it is to say 'it could have been.' Besides, going from what we do have with their hoax, there is no real evidence that Boghossian and Lindsay could have managed to succeed with the better effort Lindsay imagines, but there is some pretty persuasive evidence to the contrary.

Asked what would appear differently concerning their hoax if the problem were purely one of predatory publishing, Lindsay claims that there would not be the polarizing sort of backlash that has erupted over their paper. Again, this is sheer speculation, and it's unclear what all Lindsay would categorize as backlash in this context. Does it mean impassioned argument? Criticism with political flavoring? Or is it that some on the far ends of the spectrum have adopted the paper as justification for their other dogmatic beliefs? I suspect that we would see all of the above on either scenario.

Boghossian and Lindsay have argued that there is fault with Gender Studies itself, and that is a claim capable of riling some folks up even if the hoax paper shows nothing of the sort. Obviously, there is a difference between being mad about a thesis and being mad about the way it's established, but beyond this there are going to be those who question the motives of two male authors attacking Gender Studies. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, yet even if I'm going to be charitable to Lindsay's take on this, at best it still seems to me that all their hoax would be demonstrating by riling up some people would be that it can get some people riled up. That is a far cry from raising any criticism of a whole academic discipline, but it does ring familiar to the preacher's assertion that persecution only serves to show he's rightly doing the Lord's work.

In the paper, the authors state that Gender Studies is "crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil." This conclusion - cleverly disguised as a "suspicion" - is not something that can be supported by a single, deeply flawed hoax paper. It's so outlandish that it leads one to wonder if the authors themselves might have a quasi-religious commitment of their own to seeing Gender Studies in this negative light. Hearing about the sources Lindsay provided on the podcast, and how bizarrely misrepresented they have been, it's difficult not to think there's something to this, too.

I have done some reading in Gender Studies, and even taken a couple related courses. I am nowhere near the level where I could be considered an expert, but one of the first things you encounter is that there is disagreement on a number of issues, as there is with most academic disciplines, not to mention a lot of the social sciences. I think there can be good critiques of Gender Studies, although they're going to come from those familiar with the literature, not those who have conducted the most cursory survey of it in order to find fodder for their attack. Unfortunately, the conceptual penis hoax and its defense seems to have all the markings of the latter and none of the former.