Grievance studies affair
Lindsay and Pluckrose in a video about their hoax
|Type||Hoax; the publication of 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 (2 October 2018) 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—Peter Boghossian, James A. Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose—to highlight poor scholarship and eroding criteria 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, expressing concerns about the intellectual validity of much research influenced by postmodern philosophy and critical theory, various academics 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, which inspired Boghossian, Lindsay, and Pluckrose. The trio's intent was to expose problems in "grievance studies", a term they apply to academic areas in which they claim "a culture has developed in which only certain conclusions are allowed...and put social grievances ahead of objective truth." As such, the trio, identifying themselves as leftists and liberals, described their project as an attempt to raise awareness for what they believed was the damage that postmodernism and identity politics-based scholarship was having on leftist political projects.
Boghossian, Lindsay, and Pluckrose wrote 20 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 to the hoax in October 2018 after journalists from The Wall Street Journal revealed that "Helen Wilson", the pseudonym used for their article published in Gender, Place & Culture, did not exist. By the time of the reveal, 4 of their 20 papers had been published; 3 had been accepted but not yet published; 6 had been rejected; and 7 were still under review. Included among the articles that were published were arguments that dogs engage in rape culture and that men could reduce their transphobia by anally penetrating themselves with sex toys as well as Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf rewritten in feminist language. The first of these had won special recognition from the journal that published it.
The hoax received a polarized reception within academia. Some academics praised it for exposing flaws that they saw as widespread among sectors of the humanities and social sciences influenced by postmodernism, critical theory, and identity politics. Others criticised what they perceived as the unethical nature of submitting deliberately bogus research. Some 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.
"Grievance studies" and "applied postmodernism"
Through their series of hoax articles, James A. Lindsay, Peter Boghossian, and Helen Pluckrose intended to expose issues in what they term as grievance studies, a subcategory of academic areas where the three believe "a culture has developed in which only certain conclusions are allowed...and put social grievances ahead of objective truth." The trio referred to several academic fields—postcolonial theory, gender studies, queer theory, critical race theory, intersectional feminism, and fat studies—as "grievance studies" because, according to Pluckrose, such areas 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 postmodern philosophy that developed in the late 1960s. Focusing on the work of 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 be 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" are 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 postmodernist-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.
In 2020, Pluckrose and Lindsay further investigated the effects of critical theory in their book Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody.
Sequence of events
By the time of the reveal, 4 of their 20 papers had been published; 3 had been accepted but not yet published; 6 had been rejected; and 7 were still under review. Included among the articles that were published were arguments that dogs engage in rape culture and that men could reduce their transphobia by anally penetrating themselves with sex toys, as well as Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf rewritten in feminist language. One of the published papers in particular had won special recognition from the journal that published it.
Prior to the affair, expressing concerns about the intellectual validity of much research influenced by postmodern philosophy and critical theory, various academics highlighted this by publishing hoax articles in various journals. It was the 1996 hoax by Alan Sokal in Social Text, in particular, that influenced James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian to publish a hoax article of their own.
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"; rather, they should be analyzed as social constructs instead. The same day, Lindsay and 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 of which 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, 20 papers were submitted and 48 "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 began. 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 provided for other accepted papers.
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 that "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, filmmaker Mike Nayna released a video on YouTube revealing 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. 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 that 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 of Classics, 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 the "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 which 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 compared an initiation of "misconduct enquiry" into Boghossian, to that of initiating an enquiry into George Orwell for writing his satirical work Animal Farm, because it attributes to pigs the ability to walk on their hind legs, chanting 'Four legs good, two legs better'. He asked:
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?
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt stated that the inquiry would be "a profound moral error—an injustice—that will be obvious to all who hear about your decision, and that will have bad effects upon the public perception of PSU and of universities in general," and concluded that Boghossian and his co-authors are whistleblowers, who undertook a "career-risking project to stand up for academic integrity by exposing what is, arguably, an academic subculture that tolerates intellectual fraud." Philosopher Daniel Dennett stated that Boghossian's targets "could learn a few things about academic integrity" from his "fine example," undertaken "in good faith." Alan Sokal and Jordan Peterson also supported Boghossian.
Writing for Slate, Daniel Engber criticized the project, saying that "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, 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
Following the discovery of the hoax, all four papers were retracted:
- 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)
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.
- Pluckrose, Helen (March 18, 2019). "The problem with grievance studies". The Australian. Retrieved October 7, 2019.
- Pluckrose, Helen; Lindsay, James (2020). Cynical Theories. Pitchstone. ISBN 978-1634312028.
- 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.
- 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. 27 (2): 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.
- "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.
- McWilliams, James. "A Philosopher's Hoax Embarrassed Several Academic Journals. Was It Satire or Fraud?". Pacific Standard. Retrieved July 15, 2020.
- Boghossian, Peter [@peterboghossian] (January 13, 2019). "I have tremendous respect for @JonHaidt's work. Having his support means a lot to me" (Tweet). Archived from the original on August 24, 2019. 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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