The Conceptual Penis Hoax: Solid or Flaccid?
Last month, the philosopher Peter Boghossian and mathematician James M. Lindsay perpetrated a hoax on the journal Cogent Social Science, in an attempt to expose the academic field of Gender Studies. The paper, entitled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct", is a hilarious piece of satire, making the preposterous argument that the human penis is not so much an anatomical organ, but "a gender-performative, highly fluid social construct" that is damaging to society because it is "exclusionary to disenfranchised communities". After revealing the hoax in Skeptic Magazine, the perpetrators have received lots of encomiums for their efforts, but they have also taken quite some flak. By itself, this is not unusual, as it also happened to Alan Sokal when he pulled off his famous hoax on cultural studies in 1996. But this time, the criticism also came from within the skeptical community. Now Boghossian and Lindsay have published a point-by-point rebuttal of their critics' arguments, again in Skeptic Magazine.
Now I had to admit that I think the critics have a point. Much though I enjoyed the “Conceptual Penis” paper as a hilarious piece of satire, and much though I concur with Boghossian and Lindsay's low opinion of Gender Studies, I think their point-by-point rebuttal is mostly a collection of red herrings, and even a little embarrassing. It's quite clear (to most of us at least) that much of what passes for “research” in Gender Studies is just political posturing or even vacuous nonsense. But the problem is about the hoax itself: despite their initial claims, the hoax has little probative value, because there is a giant confounding factor in the experiment: the journal Cogent Social Science is a dubious, obscure, pay-to-publish journal with little or no reputation in the field of Gender Studies. The hoaxers discuss the problems with pay-to-publish journals in their article, but they fail to note that they are testing two things at once. And since everyone agrees that pay-to-publish vanity journals are a problem pretty much everywhere, the conclusion about Gender Studies as a whole does not follow (even though it's most probably right).
In their reply, Boghossian and Lindsay first reject the criticism that Cogent Social Science is a worthless pay-to-publish journal ("this is completely false"), but later on they begrudgingly admit that their hoax “would have said slightly more” about Gender Studies if they had chosen a better journal. Now that’s quite an understatement. OF COURSE their paper would’ve made a much bigger splash if they had succeeded in getting it accepted in a top-tier journal of Gender Studies (or even a slightly less ridiculous paper). I think they would be better advised to just frankly admit this, rather than sticking to their guns.
Implicitly, they are aware of this problem, as in their reply they (1) shift the discussion to direct evidence about the sorry state of Gender Studies (“surrounding mountains of evidence”), and (2) downplay the importance of the publication venue and its reputation in the field. Strangely enough, Skeptic Magazine editor-in-chief Michael Shermer even wrote that it wouldn't have mattered to him if the Conceptual Penis paper had been published in The Onion. Really? That seems like retroactively moving the goalposts. It was presented and hailed as a hoax, not as a simple piece of satire. And the crucial point about hoaxes is that you publish them in an allegedly “respectable” venue in some field, which is thereby exposed. You go for the Emperor, not one of his puny underlings.
In the aftermath of the Sokal hoax, when the physicist Alan Sokal submitted a nonsense paper to the postmodern journal Social Text, the discussion immediately revolved around the question of Social Text’s academic standing. The embarrassment of postmodern cultural studies was rightly taken to be directly proportional to the journal's reputation in the field. Sokal would never have made the frontpage of the New York Times if he had published his paper in The Onion, or even in an obviously crappy vanity journal.
As for the list of "popular criticisms" addressed by Boghossian and Lidsay, I think it's lame that they don't quote a single one of their critics, but just pick and paraphrase what they consider to be the most important objections. That's usually a bad sign. If you don't quote or reference your critics at all, the danger of straw-manning always looms large. Apart from that, some of the replies are really weak. For instance, (1) the self-advertised "rejection rate" of the targeted journal is a pretty worthless piece of information. Even if we take this self-serving boast at face value -- which we shouldn’t -- journals can reject papers for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with quality control (scope, subject, length, quality of language, or just the author's refusal to pay the publication fee…). In fact, Boghossian and Lindsay make that point themselves later on, in a different context. And yes, they “duly noted” the problems with Cogent Social Science's peer review, but they failed to “duly note” the evidential implications of this: the hypothesis about the laxity of pay-to-publish journals ALONE would be (mostly) sufficient to explain why their paper was accepted. The answer to point (3) is an illegitimate reversal of the burden of proof. Their hoax aims to establish something, so the onus is on them to show why it does, not on the critics to show that the conclusion is false.
I’m not saying that the hoax doesn’t demonstrate anything. For one thing, the flowery praise of the anonymous reviewers, presumably academics in the field of Gender Studies, are quite jaw-dropping. But I’m sorry to say that I think the hoax itself has been oversold. It's not Sokal 2.0. Which is a pity, because again, the problems with Gender Studies are real. Their paper would’ve “deserved” a "better" journal. :-)