Grievance studies affair
Lindsay and Pluckrose in a video about their hoax
|Type||Hoax; the attempt to publish bogus academic papers|
|Motive||Expose poor science in categories of gender, feminist, race, sexuality, fat, queer, cultural studies and sociology|
|Target||Academic journals within some specific subfields, including cultural studies and Gender studies|
|First reporter||Jillian Kay Melchior, of The Wall Street Journal (2018-10-02) and Mike Nayna|
|Organised by||James A. Lindsay, Peter Boghossian, Helen Pluckrose|
|Filmed by||Mike Nayna|
|Outcome||Out of 20 papers submitted, 4 published, 3 accepted but not yet published, 6 rejected, 7 still under review (at the time when the hoax was revealed, and halted)|
The Grievance studies affair, also referred to as the "Sokal Squared" scandal, was the project of a team of three authors—James A. Lindsay, Peter Boghossian, and Helen Pluckrose—to highlight what they regarded as poor scholarship in several academic fields. Taking place over 2017 and 2018, their project entailed submitting bogus academic papers to academic journals in cultural, queer, race, gender, fat, and sexuality studies to determine if they would pass through peer review and be accepted for publication. Several of these papers were subsequently published, which the authors cited in support of their contention.
Prior to the affair, various academics had expressed concerns about the intellectual validity of much postmodern and critical theory-influenced research and highlighted this by publishing hoax articles in various journals. One of the most noted examples was Alan Sokal's 1996 hoax in Social Text, a cultural studies journal. Sokal's hoax influenced Boghossian and Lindsay, who in 2017 published a hoax article stating that penises should be viewed not as male but as social constructs in the journal Cogent Social Sciences. Joined by Pluckrose, they then decided to repeat the exercise on a broader scale. Their intent was to expose problems in "grievance studies", a term they apply to a subcategory of these academic areas, in which they say "a culture has developed in which only certain conclusions are allowed ... and put social grievances ahead of objective truth." The trio identified as leftists and liberals and described their project as an attempt to raise awareness at what they believed was the damage that postmodernism and identity politics-based scholarship was having on leftist political projects.
Boghossian, Lindsay, and Pluckrose wrote twenty articles that promoted deliberately absurd ideas or morally questionable acts and submitted them to various peer-reviewed journals. Although they had planned for the project to run until January 2019, the trio admitted the hoax in October 2018 after journalists from The Wall Street Journal revealed that Helen Wilson, the purported author of their published article in Gender, Place & Culture, did not exist. The hoax was then brought to wider attention by media outlets and the trio's documentary of the project, which was uploaded to YouTube. By the time of the reveal, four of their 20 papers had been published, three had been accepted but not yet published, six had been rejected, and seven were still under review. One of the published papers had won special recognition from the journal that published it. These published articles included arguments that dogs engage in rape culture and that men could reduce their transphobia by anally penetrating themselves with sex toys, and a rewrite of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf in feminist language.
The hoax received a mixed reception within academia. Some academics praised it for exposing flaws that they believed to be widespread among sectors of the humanities and social sciences influenced by postmodernism, critical theory, and identity politics. Others criticised what they saw as the unethical nature of submitting deliberately bogus research; for this reason Boghossian's employer, Portland State University, initiated a misconduct investigation over his involvement in the project. Critics also asserted that the work did not represent a scientific investigation given that the project did not include a control group, further arguing that invalid arguments and poor standards of peer-review were not restricted to "grievance studies" subjects but found across much of academia.
Sequence of events
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (October 2018)
On May 19, 2017, peer-reviewed journal Cogent Social Sciences published "The conceptual penis as a social construct", which argued that penises are not "male" and are better analyzed as social constructs. The same day, James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian revealed it to be a hoax aimed at discrediting gender studies, although Cogent Social Sciences is not exclusively a gender studies journal. While the journal did conduct a postmortem, both authors concluded the "impact [of the hoax] was very limited, and much criticism of it was legitimate."
The authors claim to have started their second attempt on August 16, 2017, with Helen Pluckrose joining them in September. The new methodology called for the submission of multiple papers. Each paper would be submitted to "higher-ranked journals"; if it were rejected, feedback from the peer-review process was used to revise the paper before it was submitted to a lower-ranked journal. This process was repeated until the paper was accepted, or until the three authors gave up on that paper. The authorship of each paper was either fictional, such as "Helen Wilson" of "Portland Ungendering Research Initiative", or real people willing to lend their name, such as Dr. Richard Baldwin, professor emeritus of history at Gulf Coast State College.
Over the course of the project, twenty papers were submitted and forty-eight "new submissions" of those papers were made. The first acceptance, "Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at the Dog Park", was achieved five months after the project started. During the initial peer review for its second and ultimately successful attempt at publication in Gender, Place & Culture, what the hoaxers called the "Dog Park" paper was praised by the first reviewer as "incredibly innovative, rich in analysis, and extremely well-written and organized". Similar respectful feedback was given for other accepted papers.
"Grievance studies" and postmodernism
The trio referred to a series of academic fields—postcolonial theory, gender studies, queer theory, critical race theory, intersectional feminism, and fat studies—as "grievance studies" because, according to Pluckrose, they begin "from the assumption of a grievance" and then bend "the available theories to confirm it." Pluckrose argued that all of these fields derive their underlying theoretical perspectives from the postmodernism which developed in the late 1960s. Focusing on the work of the French postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault, she highlighted how he argued that knowledge and power were interwoven and emphasised the role of discourse in society.
Pluckrose suggested that fields such as postcolonial theory and queer theory could be called "Applied Postmodernism" in that they sprung up largely in the late 1980s as a means of pushing the gains of the civil rights movement, gay rights movement, and liberal feminism from the arena of legislative change and into the territory of changing discourse. She argued that these fields adapted postmodernism to suit their activist agendas. From postmodernism, they adopted the idea that knowledge is a social construct, but at the same time they held to the view that "no progress could made unless some things were objectively true." Thus, the "applied postmodernists", Pluckrose argued, insisted that "systems of power and privilege that oppressed women, people of colour and the LGBT" were objectively real and could be revealed by analysing discourses. At the same time, she argued, they retained postmodernism's scepticism toward science and objective knowledge, its view of "society as a system of power and privilege", and "commitment to the belief that all imbalances are socially constructed", rather than arising from biological reality.
Pluckrose described herself and her collaborators as being "left-wing liberal sceptics". She stated that a core reason for why they wanted to carry out the project was to convince other "leftist academics" that there was a problem with "corrupted scholarship" in academic fields that were "based on identity politics and postmodernism". She argued that in rejecting modernism, much post-modernist derived scholarship was also rejecting science, reason, and liberal democracy and thus undermining many important progressive gains. Pluckrose also expressed concern that in both foregrounding the importance of group identity and facilitating the growth of post-truth by claiming that there is no objective truth, this postmodernist theory was contributing to "the reactionary surge to the right" seen in many countries during the 2010s.
Discovery of hoax
The project was intended to run until January 31, 2019, but came to a premature end. On June 7, 2018, the Twitter account New Real Peer Review discovered one of their papers. This brought it to the attention of reporters at The College Fix, Reason, and other news outlets who began trying to contact the fictional author and journal it was published in. The journal Gender, Place & Culture published a note on August 6, 2018, stating that it suspected "Helen Wilson" had breached their contract to "not [fabricate] or [misappropriate] anyone's identity, including [their] own", adding "the author has not responded to our request to provide appropriate documentation confirming their identity." According to the trio, another journal and a reporter at The Wall Street Journal were also asking for proof of identity at this point, and that it was the right time to go public; they admitted the hoax to the journalist in early August.
When The Wall Street Journal report went public on October 2, the trio released an essay describing their project, as well as a Google Drive archive of most of their papers and email correspondence which included reviewer comments. Simultaneously, documentary filmmaker Mike Nayna released a YouTube video that revealed the story behind the project; Nayna and producer Mark Conway are working on a documentary film about the project.
The project drew both praise and criticism. The science writer Tom Chivers suggested that the result was a "predictable furore" whereby those already sceptical of gender studies hailed it as evidence for "how the whole field is riddled with nonsense" while those sympathetic to gender studies thought it was "dishonestly undermining good scholarship".
Yascha Mounk, author and associate professor of the practice of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, dubbed it 'Sokal squared' in reference to the Sokal affair hoax accomplished by Alan Sokal, and said "The result is hilarious and delightful. It also showcases a serious problem with big parts of academia." Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker said the project posed the question "is there any idea so outlandish that it won't be published in a Critical/PoMo/Identity/'Theory' journal?" In contrast, Joel P. Christensen and Matthew A. Sears, both associate professors, referred to it as "the academic equivalent of the fraudulent hit pieces on Planned Parenthood" produced in 2015, more interested in publicity than valid argumentation.
Responses by the editors of the publishing journals
Ann Garry, a co-editor of Hypatia, which had accepted one of the hoax papers ("When the Joke's on You", which purported to be a feminist critique of hoaxes) but had not published it yet, said she was "deeply disappointed" by the hoax. Garry told The New York Times that "Referees put in a great deal of time and effort to write meaningful reviews, and the idea that individuals would submit fraudulent academic material violates many ethical and academic norms". Nicholas Mazza, editor of the Journal of Poetry Therapy, said: "Although a valuable point was learned regarding the authenticity of articles/authors ... the authors of the 'study' clearly engaged in flawed and unethical research".
Yascha Mounk of Johns Hopkins University said that while the authors received no favors for preparing the hoax, they demonstrated mastery in postmodern jargon and not only ridiculed the journals in question, but, more important, outed double standards of gender studies which happily welcome hoaxes against "morally suspect" fields like economics, but are unable to accept a criticism of their own methods. He also noted "sheer amount of tribal solidarity it has elicited among leftists and academics" and the fact that many of the reactions were purely ad hominem, while few have actually noted that there is an actual problem highlighted by the hoax: "some of the leading journals in areas like gender studies have failed to distinguish between real scholarship and intellectually vacuous as well as morally troubling bullshit". Mounk also countered criticism the trio received about the lack of controls as a "confused attempt to import statistics into a question where it doesn't apply."
Justin E. H. Smith defended the provocation and gave examples from the past in which hoaxes were used to disclose poor scientific practices in respected fields. In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Heather E. Heying pointed out that the hoax helped to expose many pathologies of the modern social sciences, such as "repudiation of science and logic" and "extolling activism over inquiry".
Upon Boghossian's employer Portland State University initiating a research misconduct inquiry, on the grounds of conducting human subject-based research without approval, and further considering a charge of fabricating data, a number of prominent academics submitted letters of support to him and defended the motive of the hoax, including Steven Pinker and various Portland State students. Richard Dawkins, referencing George Orwell's Animal Farm, wrote:
Do your humourless colleagues who brought this action want Portland State to become the laughing stock of the academic world? Or at least the world of serious scientific scholarship uncontaminated by pretentious charlatans of exactly the kind Dr Boghossian and his colleagues were satirising? ... How would you react if you saw the following letter: "Dear Mr Orwell, It has come to our notice that your novel, Animal Farm, attributes to pigs the ability to talk, and to walk on their hind legs, chanting 'Four legs good, two legs better'. This is directly counter to known zoological facts about the Family Suidae, and you are therefore arraigned on a charge of falsifying data..."
Jonathan Haidt defended the hoax by saying:
The project was undertaken because there is a long running and colossal violation of academic integrity in a few departments in the academy. There is a disciplinary norm in some fields and journals of publishing papers that take a particular moral/political position, whether or not they have scholarly merit. That was Alan Sokal's point in his hoax paper: as long as he seemed to be taking a social constructionist point of view, it didn't matter that the editors could not understand what he had written. The grievance studies hoax shows that this problem persists, across multiple journals in several fields. Boghossian and his colleagues undertook a long, time consuming, and career-risking project to stand up for academic integrity by exposing what is, arguably, an academic subculture that tolerates intellectual fraud.
Writing for Slate, Daniel Engber criticized the project, saying "one could have run this sting on almost any empirical discipline and returned the same result." Similarly, Sarah Richardson, Harvard University professor of women's studies, criticized the hoaxers for not including a control group in their experiment, telling BuzzFeed News, "By their own standards, we can't scientifically conclude anything from it." n+1 magazine published a critical article that cited a survey by science writer Jim Schnabel of similar hoax attempts, summarizing Schnabel's conclusion as "the educated public makes a decision based not on the scientific merits of the hoax but on the relative orthodoxy of the hoaxer and hoaxee. In effect, the result of the trick is decided in advance by the power relations of the field." The article goes on to assert that the relative orthodoxy in this case was "not an orthodoxy of scientific legitimacy but rather the emerging consensus of tech bros, Davos billionaires, and alt-right misogynists".
In UnHerd, Chivers noted that while the so-called "grievance studies" fields "probably" contain more "bullshit ... than most scientific fields", the project distracted attention from problems of shoddy scholarship across the entirety of academia. He highlighted that several weeks prior to the project's public revelation, the professor of food behaviour Brian Wansink had resigned from his position at Cornell University following exposure of instances of scientific misconduct on his part.
Carl T. Bergstrom, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, says "the hoaxers appear woefully naïve about how the system actually works." Peer review is not designed to remove fraud or even absurd ideas, he claimed, and replication will lead to self-correction. In the same article, David Schieber said he was one of the two anonymous reviewers for "Rubbing One Out", and argued that the hoaxers selectively quoted from his review. "They were turning my attempt to help the authors of a rejected paper into an indictment of my field and the journal I reviewed for, even though we rejected the paper."
A number of professors at Portland State University signed an open letter which accused the trio of exploiting "credulous journalists interested mainly in spectacle" to conduct academic fraud and dishonesty. "[B]asic spite and a perverse interest in public humiliation seem to have overridden any actual scholarly goals." The authors asked to remain anonymous, alleging Boghossian had targeted academics at other institutions and that they would likely receive "threats of death and assault from online trolls".
List of hoax papers
Accepted and published
- Helen Wilson (pseudonym) (2018). "Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon". Gender, Place & Culture: 1–20. doi:10.1080/0966369X.2018.1475346. (Retracted)
- Richard Baldwin (borrowed identity) (2018). "Who Are They to Judge? Overcoming Anthropometry and a Framework for Fat Bodybuilding". Fat Studies. 7 (3): i–xiii. doi:10.1080/21604851.2018.1453622. (Retracted)
- M. Smith (pseudonym) (2018). "Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria and Transphobia through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use". Sexuality & Culture. 22 (4): 1542. doi:10.1007/s12119-018-9536-0. (Retracted)
- Richard Baldwin (borrowed identity) (2018). "An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant". Sex Roles. 79 (11–12): 762. doi:10.1007/s11199-018-0962-0. (Retracted)
Following the discovery of the hoax, all four papers were retracted.
Accepted but not yet published
- Richard Baldwin (borrowed identity). "When the Joke Is on You: A Feminist Perspective on How Positionality Influences Satire". Hypatia.
- Carol Miller (pseudonym). "Moon Meetings and the Meaning of Sisterhood: A Poetic Portrayal of Lived Feminist Spirituality". Journal of Poetry Therapy.
- Maria Gonzalez, and Lisa A. Jones (pseudonyms). "Our Struggle is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism". Affilia.
Revise and resubmit
- Richard Baldwin (borrowed identity). "Agency as an Elephant Test for Feminist Porn: Impacts on Male Explicit and Implicit Associations about Women in Society by Immersive Pornography Consumption". Porn Studies.
- Maria Gonzalez (pseudonym). "The Progressive Stack: An Intersectional Feminist Approach to Pedagogy". Hypatia.
- Stephanie Moore (pseudonym). "Super-Frankenstein and the Masculine Imaginary: Feminist Epistemology and Superintelligent Artificial Intelligence Safety Research". Feminist Theory.
- Maria Gonzalez (pseudonym). "Stars, Planets, and Gender: A Framework for a Feminist Astronomy". Women's Studies International Forum.
- Carol Miller (pseudonym). "Strategies for Dealing with Cisnormative Discursive Aggression in the Workplace: Disruption, Criticism, Self-Enforcement, and Collusion". Gender, Work and Organization.
- Lisa A. Jones (pseudonym). "Rubbing One Out: Defining Metasexual Violence of Objectification Through Nonconsensual Masturbation". Sociological Theory.
- Carol Miller (pseudonym). "My Struggle to Dismantle My Whiteness: A Critical-Race Examination of Whiteness from within Whiteness". Sociology of Race and Ethnicity.
- Carol Miller (pseudonym). "Queering Plato: Plato's Allegory of the Cave as a Queer-Theoretic Emancipatory Text on Sexuality and Gender". GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies.
- Richard Baldwin (borrowed identity). ""Pretty Good for a Girl": Feminist Physicality and Women's Bodybuilding". Sociology of Sport Journal.
- Richard Baldwin (borrowed identity). "Grappling with Hegemonic Masculinity: The Roles of Masculinity and Heteronormativity in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu". International Review for the Sociology of Sport.
- Richard Baldwin (borrowed identity). "Hegemonic Academic Bullying: The Ethics of Sokal-style Hoax Papers on Gender Studies". Journal of Gender Studies.
- Richard Baldwin (borrowed identity). "Self-Reflections on Self-Reflections: An Autoethnographic Defense of Autoethnography". Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.
- Brandon Williams (pseudonym). "Masculinity and the Others Within: A Schizoethnographic Approach to Autoethnography". Qualitative Inquiry.
- Helen Wilson (pseudonym). "Rebraiding Masculinity: Redefining the Struggle of Women Under the Domination of the Masculinity Trinity". Signs.
- Mike Nayna (October 2, 2018), Academics expose corruption in Grievance Studies, retrieved July 9, 2019
- Schuessler, Jennifer (October 4, 2018). "Hoaxers Slip Breastaurants and Dog-Park Sex Into Journals". The New York Times. Archived from the original on October 10, 2018. Retrieved October 11, 2018.
- Mounk, Yascha (October 5, 2018). "What an Audacious Hoax Reveals About Academia". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on October 7, 2018. Retrieved October 8, 2018.
- Jaschik, Scott (May 25, 2017). "How the Hoax Got Published". Inside Higher Education.
- Kafka, Alexander C. (October 3, 2018). "'Sokal Squared': Is Huge Publishing Hoax 'Hilarious and Delightful' or an Ugly Example of Dishonesty and Bad Faith?". The Chronicle of Higher Education.
- "The Hoax That Backfired: How an Attempt to Discredit Gender Studies Will Only Strengthen It". Pacific Standard. Retrieved November 3, 2018.
- Pluckrose, Helen; Lindsay, James A.; Boghossian, Peter (October 2, 2018). "Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship". Areo Magazine. Archived from the original on October 10, 2018.
- "Project Summary and Fact Sheet, via Leiter Reports". leiterreports.typepad.com. October 3, 2018. Archived from the original on October 3, 2018.
- Engber, Daniel (October 5, 2018). "What the "Grievance Studies" Hoax Actually Reveals – The headline-grabbing prank has more to do with gender than with academia". Slate. Archived from the original on October 7, 2018. Retrieved October 8, 2018.
- Pluckrose, Helen (March 18, 2019). "The problem with grievance studies". The Australian. Retrieved October 7, 2019.
- New Real Peer Review [@RealPeerReview] (June 7, 2018). "The application of "Black feminist criminology categories" to human reactions of "rape culture" among dogs in Portland, Oregon 🙄😂tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0966369X.2018.1475346" (Tweet). Archived from the original on June 17, 2018. Retrieved November 10, 2018 – via Twitter.
- Huber, Dave (June 9, 2018). "Study: Dog parks are manifestations of rape culture and oppression". The College Fix. Archived from the original on September 7, 2018. Retrieved November 10, 2018.
- "This Study, 'Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks,' Is, Uh, Real (Update: Nope)*". Reason.com. June 11, 2018. Archived from the original on November 1, 2018. Retrieved November 10, 2018.
- "Expression of Concern: Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon". Gender, Place & Culture: 1. August 6, 2018. doi:10.1080/0966369x.2018.1507885. ISSN 0966-369X.
- Jillian Kay Melchior (October 2, 2018). "Fake news comes to academia". The Wall Street Journal. New York. Archived from the original on October 5, 2018. Retrieved October 5, 2018.
- Mike Nayna (October 2, 2018), Academics expose corruption in Grievance Studies, retrieved November 11, 2018
- "Academic Hoax Reveals Deep Problems in Social Sciences". The Stranger. Seattle, Washington. Archived from the original on October 5, 2018. Retrieved October 11, 2018.
- Chivers, Tom (October 5, 2018). "Don't be so quick to laugh at the 'grievance study' hoax". UnHerd. Retrieved October 6, 2019.
- "'Sokal Squared': Is Huge Publishing Hoax 'Hilarious and Delightful' or an Ugly Example of Dishonesty and Bad Faith?". The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 3, 2018. Archived from the original on October 9, 2018. Retrieved October 8, 2018.
- Christensen, Joel P.; Sears, Matthew (October 30, 2018). "Sokal-squared hoax was a put-down of scholars concerned with racial issues (opinion)". Inside Higher Ed. Archived from the original on October 30, 2018. Retrieved November 15, 2018.
- "What the 'Grievance Studies' Hoax Means". The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 9, 2018. Retrieved October 24, 2018.
- "Is Huge Publishing Hoax 'Hilarious and Delightful' or an Ugly Example of Dishonesty and Bad Faith?". the Passive Voice.
- "What the 'Grievance Studies' Hoax Means". The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 9, 2018. Archived from the original on October 10, 2018. Retrieved November 15, 2018.
- Mangan, Katherine (January 7, 2019). "Proceedings Start Against 'Sokal Squared' Hoax Professor". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved January 11, 2019.
- York, Chris (January 9, 2019). "Richard Dawkins Defends Academic Peter Boghossian Who Hoaxed Journals With 'Feminist Mein Kampf'". Huffingtonpost UK. Retrieved January 15, 2019.
- Boghossian, Peter [@peterboghossian] (January 9, 2019). "I am deeply concerned that we are failing students. Here's a powerful student letter. "I could no longer stomach the overall climate that seemingly pervaded every single class..."" (Tweet). Retrieved January 15, 2019 – via Twitter.
- Boghossian, Peter [@peterboghossian] (January 13, 2019). "I have tremendous respect for @JonHaidt's work. Having his support means a lot to me" (Tweet). Retrieved January 15, 2019 – via Twitter.
- Hughes, Virginia; Aldhous, Peter. "Here's What Critics Say About That Big New Hoax On Gender Studies". BuzzFeed. Archived from the original on October 9, 2018. Retrieved October 8, 2018.
- Afinogenov, Greg (October 4, 2018). "Orthodoxxed! On "Sokal Squared"". n+1. Retrieved October 4, 2018.
- "'Conceptual Penises' and other trolling". PSU Vanguard. Retrieved January 9, 2019.
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