Hoax Article in Social-Science Journal Gets a Rise Out of Some Scholars

A fresh attempt to poke fun at — and poke holes in — cultural-studies scholarship was revealed this week, with the disclosure that a recently published article in Cogent Social Sciences was a hoax. The article, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” was the work of two people — Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University, in Oregon, and James A. Lindsay, an independent scholar. They describe their exploit on the website of Skeptic magazine.

Like the famous Sokal hoax, which Mr. Boghossian and Mr. Lindsay say they sought to emulate, the article uses a mix of jargon-clotted writing and absurd assertions to mock what its authors call “the echo chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense coming out of the postmodernist social ‘sciences.’” They also staged the hoax, they write, to attack the process by which the article was published — “the complex problem of pay-to-publish journals with lax standards that cash in on the ultra-competitive publish-or-perish academic environment.”

It is unclear if the hoax was timed to juxtapose itself with a controversy, currently roiling philosophy, over an article on “transracialism” that was published in Hypatia, a journal of feminist philosophy.

Like that controversy, “The Conceptual Penis” has drawn a range of responses, from acclaim to disdain. At the Daily Nous, a website that covers news of philosophy, Justin Weinberg describes the article as an “attempted” hoax and says that it was rejected by another, more-reputable journal. At Bleeding Heart Libertarians, James Taylor calls Cogent Social Sciences a “pay-to-publish vanity journal” whose low standards make it difficult to sustain the hoax as proving anything about gender studies as a field or academic publishing as an industry.

Support for the hoax and applause for the hoax artists came from the website Why Evolution Is True, where an anonymous writer observes that, 21 years after the Sokal hoax, “social sciences remain rife with obscurantist nonsense — an academic miasma.”

One of the more thoughtful critiques came from Ketan Joshi, a communication consultant and writer in Australia on renewable energy, climate change, and other topics. On his blog he writes that the hoaxers pose as rationalists but actually harness their anti-gender-studies paranoia to the engine of irrationality. And unlike the “constructive, clear-headed charity” exemplified by Alan Sokal when he revealed his hoax, Mr. Boghossian and Mr. Lindsay “inject a strong current of mean-spiritedness into their hoax, far removed from any effort to shine a light on unethical practices in publishing.”

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