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Don’t be so quick to laugh at the ‘grievance study’ hoax

James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, Peter Boghossian

James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, Peter Boghossian

October 5, 2018   5 mins

I enjoy a good Sokal-style hoax. There have been quite a few. There was Alan Sokal himself, of course, whose paper, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, was published by the journal Social Text in 1996. It claimed that quantum gravity was a social construct. (It’s probably not, for the record.)

Since then, there have been a few more. The quackish field of ‘integrative medicine’, a serious-sounding rebrand of various forms of pseudoscientific alternative medicine, had its Sokal moment in 2010, when a professor of medical education submitted a paper to a integrative medicine conference about a new form of reflexology involving massaging the buttocks, complete with a little homunculus-map of the human body drawn around the circumference of the bum. (Massaging your buttocks is not a proven cure for anything, apart from tense buttocks.)

And last year the hoax article ‘The conceptual penis as a social construct’, arguing “that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a gender-performative, highly fluid social construct”, was published in the journal Cogent Social Sciences. (The penis is probably best understood as an anatomical organ.)

The latest is from two of the same authors of the ‘conceptual penis’, but is far wider in scope. The pair, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian, along with a third, Helen Pluckrose, submitted 20 articles to various journals in fields such as ‘cultural studies’, ‘gender studies’, ‘critical theory’ or ‘identity studies’.

They included a paper on ‘rape culture and queer performativity’ in dogs, a paper suggesting that men should penetrate themselves anally with sex toys in order to become less transphobic, and a rewrite of a chapter of Mein Kampf as a feminist tract, ‘Our Struggle Is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism’. Seven (including those three) were picked up by a journal.

Pluckrose, Boghossian, and Lindsay describe the fields they were hoaxing as ‘grievance studies’, because, they say, their “common goal” is to analyse every aspect of society until you can find some way of attributing it to privilege and make it “problematic”.

It’s caused the predictable furore: people who think gender studies is a load of po-mo bullshit anyway think this shows how the whole field is riddled with nonsense; people who think gender studies is worthwhile think this is dishonestly undermining good scholarship. The latter charge is given a bit of weight by the fact that the hoaxers didn’t just write airy nonsense, as Sokal did, but pretended to have done actual fieldwork, with numbers and everything, which, to me, crosses a line.

But I have a different complaint. My complaint is that pointing out that ‘gender studies’ journals let a lot of bullshit through is too easy. Of course ‘gender studies’ has a lot of bullshit in it. I’m sure it has a lot of good and important scholarship in it too; it’s not my area of expertise but feminist philosophy is a proud tradition. And pointing out the failings of these odd little academic enclaves feels like displacement activity, distracting ourselves from the problems in our own household by looking at the neighbours’.

I think there’s a parallel with crackpot ideas. Homeopathy doesn’t work. Young-earth creationism isn’t true. 9/11 wasn’t an inside job. Most of ‘us’ in the real-world, study-the-evidence bits of society agree on that.

But if we go around saying “look at those silly people who believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories, we’d never be stupid like them”, we’re imagining that only other people, stupid people, believe things without good evidence. We are, as a wise blogger once said, ‘Other-ing’ irrationality. Then we look at all our own beliefs, none of which is quite as obviously preposterous as those of the “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” crowd, and nod, and congratulate ourselves on how wise we are. Whereas, what we should be doing is training ourselves to be vigilant for the ways in which our beliefs do go wrong, which of course they do, in more subtle and sometimes more insidious ways.

That’s what’s going on, I think, in the grievance studies hoax. Yes, these fields have a lot of bullshit. Yes, probably more than most scientific fields. But, by saying “look at those silly grievance studies journals, scientists would never fill our journals with stupid stuff like that”, we allow ourselves to pretend that there are bits of academia that are Wrong and Stupid, and that this one is somehow qualitatively different from the rest.

Sadly, that is not true.

A few weeks ago, Brian Wansink, a professor of food behaviour at Cornell University, resigned after being found guilty of scientific misconduct, following diligent detective work by other academics and good old-fashioned investigative reporting by BuzzFeed’s Stephanie M Lee. Thirteen of his papers have been retracted over the last few years, having been shown to be filled with statistical misconduct – basically, chopping up data to find interesting-looking correlations where there were none. His work had garnered huge amounts of media coverage and a position overseeing a $22 million “smarter lunchtimes” programme funded by the Obama administration.

Wansink was a high-profile example, but far from the only one. Statistical failings have undermined much-cited research into ‘power posing‘, ‘positive psychology‘, and the links between violent video games and aggression. There is great and understandable scepticism about the impressive claims made for the much-hyped educational concept ‘growth mindset’, and the doomy claims around social media and screen time.

And it’s not as if it’s only ‘gender studies’ that allows things through because they are appropriate to the current cultural climate rather than because they are empirically well-supported. Lots of workplaces still offer ‘implicit bias training’ to help staff avoid subconscious racism and sexism. At one of my old jobs we had a long diversity meeting which heavily relied on the concept; Hillary Clinton mentioned implicit bias while debating Donald Trump.

But the whole concept of implicit bias, based on the ‘implicit associations test’, has been found to be predictively useless: people who score highly for subconscious racism do not behave in more discriminatory ways than people who don’t. (In fact, the best prediction, for whether someone will discriminate against black people or gay people or women, is still to ask them.) The whole of science, especially psychology and medicine, is riddled with these sort of problems, of studies which just don’t stand up to scrutiny. In the last seven or so years it’s become known and described as the ‘replication crisis’.

This doesn’t let grievance studies off the hook. The Sokal-style hoaxes really do remind us that, at best, the gatekeeping of those fields is weak and inadequate. And it’s not without consequence: a lot of the endless, furious back-and-forth about transgender rights has its basis in some piece or other of academic work from within these fields. The thinking that goes on within “grievance studies” cloisters can burst out into the world, just as it can from any part of academia.

For people like me, though, and for people in the sciences in general, it’s easy to point to grievance studies’ woes and say: “Look, that’s what Bad Academia looks like. Isn’t it great we’re not like them?” and then carry on with business as usual. That’s not a great idea.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.


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