Hoax of Mirrors

The so-called ‘Sokal squared’ hoax is both mind-numbingly stupid, and unwittingly beautiful.

The hoax, revealed this week, was perpetrated by a trio of ‘researchers’ who you can see in promotional photographs standing facing the camera like the line-up of secretly powerful oddballs in some cable channel’s latest superhero mini-series, or the new season of CSI. This unlikely (and yet so likely!) team submitted faked papers to a range of academic journals to prove that these journals would publish even the most ridiculous claims as long as they conformed to their ideological (read: ‘left-wing’) biases. Could they get a paper published that suggested masturbating while thinking about someone without their permission is sexual assault? How about persuading a journal to run a piece critiquing the masculinist bias of astrology and calling – among other things – for interpretive dance as an alternative form of scholarship?

I’m not linking to the piece, because the stunt is entirely about oxygen. Yet I can’t resist discussing it. Why? Because their failure is beautiful. It is structured in such a clean and simple way that I think the hoaxers deserve credit for creating such a stupid and yet unwittingly beautiful thing.

Let’s start with the stupid, because there is so much of it.

Most of the papers were rejected. Even those that were published were often subject to substantial revisions. There are questions about whether the journals that did publish the papers are really the ‘leading’ journals of their fields that their authors claim.

So far, so simple.

But the beauty of this hoax is in how complete the self-own performed by the authors is. At a structural level, their endeavour mirrors itself, performing exactly the opposite of what it claims to. This stretches from the the details of what they did, to their supposed conclusions.

In terms of what they did, it’s hard to put it more succinctly than Brandy Jensen:

Think about this.

In order to prove that the fields they targeted were not really academic disciplines, the hoaxers invested a huge amount of effort in… treating them like academic disciplines. This involved reading a lot of secondary literature, and, as the hoaxers themselves admit, slipping their supposedly outrageous conclusions into this existing body of ideas. Well done folks, you’ve discovered bad-faith academic sensationalism! I can’t believe no-one ever knew this existed before today and especially that it only exists in these few fields, rather than, you know, being a serious problem in fields with huge funding budgets, such as medicine, physics, and psychology.

But this also has other implications.

What if the papers are actually right?

I should say that there is no indication that the journals that published them believed the articles were 100% right. News flash: that is not how academic publishing works. Take a look at the comments and replies sections of any journal, in any field, and you will realise how consensus coexists with disagreement. That’s why we call it academic debate.

Nor am I saying (as a non-expert) that their arguments sound right. They did chose surprising ideas to make their point more forcefully.

But isn’t that based on some wonderfully stupid assumptions? What they are arguing is that because these ideas are obviously ridiculous, getting journals to take them seriously is an indictment of those fields. The logic of that idea is that research that has surprising conclusions is probably wrong. Well done folks, you’ve invented the dogma of academic orthodoxical infallibility! Maybe the supposedly stupid ideas you came up with are actually worth considering. After all, you put the work in to make them plausible, and a range of reviewers tried to help you work those ideas through. Accidental genius?

At its basis, the hoaxers claim that their ‘experiment’ (and lol don’t get me started on their ‘methods’) proves that entire fields of scholarship are governed more by political bias than by research findings. I haven’t used their phrase up until now because, well, it’s a stupid phrase for these disparate fields that they call ‘grievance studies’. The fact of the matter is that the only evidence that the authors provide of academics publishing results in order to conform to their own preexisting ideological biases is… their own experiment.

In this game of mirrors, it is absolutely clear who truly represents the field of  ‘grievance studies’: the hoaxers themselves.

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