Sokal Affair 2.0: Penis Envy: Addressing Its Critics

“The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” written by Jamie Lindsay and Peter Boyle is a peer-reviewed paper published by the online journal Cogent Social Science on 19th May, 2017. It is a rambling essay, filled with gender studies jargon, which took issue with the implications for trans and gender-queer individuals in regarding the penis as a male sexual organ and advocated understanding it “conceptually” as a social construct. It went on to relate this ill-defined “conceptual penis” to aggressive and abusive attitudes which it related to “toxic masculinity” and ultimately blamed it for climate change. Later that day, published a piece by the authors who revealed themselves to be the mathematician, James Lindsay, and the philosopher, Peter Boghossian and the paper to be a Sokal-style hoax. Their intention, they said, was to highlight two problems; the low standards of pay-to-publish journals and the meaningless nonsense that can be accepted by the social sciences in general and gender studies in particular, providing it upholds fashionable postmodern ideas of gender.

“The Conceptual Penis” included such gems as describing the authors’ “particular fascination with penises and the ways in which penises are socially problematic,” referring to “pre-post-patriarchal society,” claiming to derive “important social truths” from Twitter hashtags, asserting the act of “man-spreading” to be “akin to raping the empty space” and describing climate change as “an example of hyper-patriarchal society metaphorically man-spreading into the global ecosystem.” The sheer ludicrousness of such utterances which go on for thousands of words should have debarred the paper from being taken seriously by any academic outlet. In addition to this, a quick check of the references would have led a conscientious editor to discover fake papers and even the postmodern generator among them! Unfortunately, it was taken entirely seriously and rated “outstanding” by peer-review. This has produced much criticism of Cogent Social Science and also of the state of discourse within gender studies. It has also produced some criticism of the hoax and five primary objections can be distinguished.

The hoax isn’t really a hoax because it makes a good argument.

What is this argument? The authors themselves tried very hard not to make one.

“After completing the paper, we read it carefully to ensure it didn’t say anything meaningful, and as neither one of us could determine what it is actually about, we deemed it a success.”

The argument the critics seem to be drawing out is “Men exhibiting toxic masculinity regard their penises symbolically as weapons with which to dominate society and women, and the same dominating, despoiling attitude is evident in humanity’s disregard for the planet.”

This seems a very tenuous link which relies on the ideological assumption that masculinity equates to destructiveness and exploitation and neglects the significance of consumerism on climate change and the fact that women are, by far, the greater consumers. It is also unclear how changing the way we think about penises would improve the situation.

The hoax targeted a bad journal which does not represent gender studies.

In stark contradiction to the criticism above, many defenders of gender studies have claimed that Cogent Social Sciences is widely known to be a bad journal and more reputable ones would not have taken it seriously. The problem with that is that it is listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), the Emerging Sources Citation Index (ESCI), the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS), Academic Search Ultimate (EBSCO), ProQuest Social Science Journals, the British Library, Cabell’s International and many more of the largest indices. It is not highlighted as a problem in the much-relied upon Beall’s list of predatory journals and was recommended to Lindsay and Boghossian by the NORMA journal. It is part of the highly-regarded Taylor & Francis Group which confirms that Cogent offers thorough scholarly peer review and has all the “traditional values and high standards associated with Taylor & Francis and Routledge at its core.”

Even more significantly (and as shown by the first criticism), the language and “argument” of the hoax piece is indistinguishable from sincere gender studies publications from a range of academic journals. The Twitter account New Real Peer Review, which is dedicated to highlighting ludicrous theses, spent much of the day demonstrating this. Here are just a few examples.

In addition to this, critics desperate to defend the reputation of gender studies by claiming that the hoaxers approached a pay-to-publish journal with very low standards seem to have failed to comprehend that this was the other “prong” of the two-pronged problem they intended to demonstrate existing in gender studies – the existence of pay-to-publish journals with very low standards. Job done.

The hoax is a one-off and proves nothing.

Some critics of the hoax have protested that a single error by one journal in publishing a paper with a clearly ludicrous premise and fake references has been presented as evidence that the whole field of gender studies is flawed. Furthermore, this comes from an ideological bias and is far from being skeptical. However, Lindsay and Boghossian do not make the claim that this one experiment alone proves the problem. Much has been written about the problems within gender studies and much evidence and argumentation provided. Based on this and following Sokal, they formulated a certain hypothesis which they then tested.

“We intended to test the hypothesis that flattery of the academic Left’s moral architecture in general, and of the moral orthodoxy in gender studies in particular, is the overwhelming determiner of publication in an academic journal in the field. That is, we sought to demonstrate that a desire for a certain moral view of the world to be validated could overcome the critical assessment required for legitimate scholarship. Particularly, we suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil. On the evidence, our suspicion was justified.”

It certainly was and it will surprise very few people involved with gender studies.

The hoax is just another attack on the humanities/ Social Science by science.

This is an attempt to deflect attention from the reality of what happened to a tribalist “two cultures” argument in which “science” is argued to be the bully. This doesn’t work for two reasons. Firstly, the perpetrators do not fit obligingly into the “science” tribe. Peter Boghossian is a philosopher, and the effects of academic shift towards postmodern thinking are a topic entirely within his remit. James Lindsay is a mathematician but has researched solidly for years in the area of the psychology of religion and published a well-researched book on the topic. The fact that they both have respect for science and use it in their work should not be considered a black mark against them by those in the social sciences or humanities. The fact that this is so often received badly does not reflect well on those fields. Secondly, the hoax took place entirely within the realm of the social sciences, speaking its own language and operating on its own terms. The social sciences will have to take responsibility for the ideas it itself generates and approves.

The hoax was transphobic and sexist.

Some have claimed that the hoax article mocks trans people and women. This is not supported by any honest reading of it. The “research” itself uses the language of queer theory and intersectional feminism taken to their most ludicrous extremes, but these ideologies are quite different to trans people and women. To suggest that trans people and women are all adherents to intersectional feminism and queer theory and would support notions of conceptual penises causing climate change is to do both (overlapping) groups an injustice. The hoax highlighted an ideological problem within a specific branch of the social sciences and an ethical one with a well-connected and indexed journal which publishes it. These are concerns shared by many trans people and women but even if they weren’t, the raising of such concerns and the demonstration of the problem remains valid and does not, in any way, indicate prejudice against trans people or women.

For those of us in the humanities or social sciences who come across this type of article written in all seriousness and quoted and requoted in ever-widening circles of nonsense, this hoax was not simply an amusing “gotcha.” It was also entirely unsurprising and profoundly depressing. It is of particular concern to those of us on the Left. In Fashionable Nonsense, written by Sokal with Jean Bricmont following the hoax, the authors look ahead to potential consequences of the academic embrace of the fashionable nonsense of postmodernism

“At a time when superstitions, obscurantism and nationalist and religious fanaticism are spreading in many parts of the world – including the ‘developed’ West – it is irresponsible, to say the least, to treat with such casualness what has historically been the principal defense against these follies, namely a rational vision of the world… [F]or all those of us who identify with the political left, postmodernism has specific negative consequences. First of all, the extreme focus on language and the elitism linked to the use of a pretentious jargon contribute to enclosing intellectuals in sterile debates and to isolating them from social movements taking place outside their ivory tower… Second, the persistence of confused ideas and obscure discourses in some parts of the left tends to discredit the entire left; and the right does not pass up the opportunity to exploit this connection demagogically.”

This was a prescient observation and the consequences of a weakened Left unable to present a strong, credible and electable opposition to the Right have become only too clear. It is essential to address the confused thinking in academia which is so influential on the irrationalism, illiberalism, identitarianism and culturally relative ethics currently undermining the Left and leaving the political field open to the Right. The “conceptual penis” hoax does so beautifully.

Helen Pluckrose

Helen Pluckrose is an exile from the humanities with research interests in late medieval/early modern religious writing for and about women. She is critical of postmodernism and cultural constructivism which she sees as currently dominating the humanities.
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Helen Pluckrose

Helen Pluckrose is an exile from the humanities with research interests in late medieval/early modern religious writing for and about women. She is critical of postmodernism and cultural constructivism which she sees as currently dominating the humanities.

23 thoughts on “Sokal Affair 2.0: Penis Envy: Addressing Its Critics

  1. So we’re using real peer reviews’ misrepresentations of abstracts in studies that don’t agree with their political orthodoxy as evidence, huh? Credibility, it’s been nice knowing you.

  2. Having followed up the necessary links in Pluckrose’s article, my conclusion is that this is a story of how academic publishers are trying to stay afloat by dramatically lowering their standards for authors who will pay what they call Author Publishing Charges (APC). This is a scandal, but it’s a different scandal than the Sokal hoax, even though the subject manner in the two articles is similar. the Sokal article was accepted by a real academic journal, with university support. That was an Academic scandal, this is just a publishing scandal.

    I think there is a real problem with the fact that Continental philosophy relies on a style that is too vague to be analyzed properly. That’s one of the reasons I became an analytic philosopher, after years of studying continental philosophy. But that doesn’t alter the fact that much of Continental philosophy is capable of profound interpretations, as well as silly ones. This trend of arguments that say “X is really a social construct” has mutated into a lot silly theses, some sincere, some satirical. But Foucault’s original claim–that madness is a social construct–is profound and important. The concept of madness, as we understand it today, presupposes the existence of scientific reason in ways that it couldn’t when what we call mad people today were considered to be possessed by demons or angels. If we just say “what those silly people in the past called demonic possession was really madness” we are illegitimately closing off considering the possibility that both of our concepts are incomplete in different ways. This results in things like treating native American shamans with electroshock therapy because they were talking to power animals. Foucault did a great service by changing the shape of this discussion, even though many other people went down some silly paths as a result.

  3. “The hoax isn’t really a hoax because it makes a good argument.”

    Th only argument it makes is that satire and serious post modernist thought are indistinguishable

  4. The author writes in this pieces:

    “Even more significantly (and as shown by the first criticism), the language and “argument” of the hoax piece is indistinguishable from sincere gender studies publications from a range of academic journals. The Twitter account New Real Peer Review, which is dedicated to highlighting ludicrous theses, spent much of the day demonstrating this. Here are just a few examples.”

    It should be noted that those tweets by New Real Peer Review is comparing this Sokal hoax to other similar hoaxes in the field. It is not, as the author claims, comparing Boghossian and Lindsay’s Sokal hoax with sincere gender studies publication.

    It takes one hell of a commitment to an agenda to think you are providing sources to back up your argument, when you in fact are not. What a blindspot!

What are your thoughts?