Intellectual lulz: epistemic trolling, adolescentism and the poverty of academic hoaxes

Karl Popper — image from BBC

On May 19 “Jamie Lindsay” (actually James Lindsay) and “Peter Boyle” (actually Peter Boghossian) published the latest in a long line of academic hoax papers. The paper is called “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct”, and is meant to be a parody of postmodernist gender studies.

The purpose of such hoax papers is to expose what the perpetrators feel are the incomprehensibility, low intellectual or scientific standards of a certain discipline (the disciplines are invariably feminist oriented). The now standard technique of the hoax is to 1) more or less randomly copy and paste academic jargon-filled sentences into a deliberately meandering and ultimately nonsensical paper, 2) submit this paper to a journal in the target discipline, 3 ) get it past peer-review 4) publish it and finally and most importantly 5) lulz.

The paper was initially rejected by one journal and then published in pay-to-publish predatory journal, which nonetheless claims academic legitimacy. After the paper gets published the authors of the hoax gleefully reveal their clever prank and declare they have exposed the shoddy standards of the journal, and the intellectual bankruptcy of X (specifically feminist sociology or postmodernist philosophy). The implication is that by publishing a purposely absurd article, the journal, presumably representative of the intellectual rigor of its field, discredits the entire field. Never mind that postmodernism questions the very idea of intellectual rigor, and thus academic hoaxes are one of the most postmodern things imaginable. In many ways this academic hoax validates many of postmodernism’s main arguments.

The ostensible goal the conceptual penis hoax, according to the authors was to expose the lack of credibility of social sciences, in particular gender studies, and the problem of pay-to-publish journals.

This latest great hoax reveal was giddily cheered on by such defenders-of-scientific purity and white male stalwarts as Sam Harris:

And Richard Dawkins

Much lulz and bro-level online back slapping were had all around. Score points for rationality, intellectual rigor and science, and zero points for pay-to-publish and gender studies. QED, right?

According to the self-congratulatory article by the authors about the hoax at Skeptic,

“There are at least two deeply troublesome diseases damaging the credibility of the peer-review system in fields such as gender studies:

  1. the echo-chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense coming out of the postmodernist social “sciences” in general, and gender studies departments in particular and
  2. the complex problem of pay-to-publish journals with lax standards that cash in on the ultra-competitive publish-or-perish academic environment. At least one of these sicknesses led to “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” being published as a legitimate piece of academic scholarship, and we can expect proponents of each to lay primary blame upon the other.”

The question is though, blame for what? The authors say the fact that this paper was published points to some problem with academic publishing and gender studies (again problems with academia and gender are key for postmodernists). In this case two white male academics tricked a dubious academic journal into publishing what they claim is a prototypical example of a gender studies paper. Symptomatic of adolescent behavior, Boyle and Boghossian don’t consider a third option in whom to blame for this postmodern prank: themselves.

What kinds of evidentiary standards should we adopt when evaluating their claim that this hoax demonstrates that gender studies is “morally driven fashionable nonsense”? The mere fact that a journal published their deliberately nonsensical paper? Is it a testable hypothesis that gender studies is morally driven, fashionable, and nonsense? One could imagine an absurdly tedious survey asking people about these dimensions.

But, there are many more than two “deeply troublesome diseases damaging the credibility of the peer-review system” not only in gender studies, but in all of science. Science is currently in the midst of a severe replication crisis. Even though most scientists would have a hard time articulating what exactly it is that makes a field a science, one key criterion would likely be that the hard sciences (presumably as opposed to gender studies) should be reproducible. In other words, if I publish the results of a physics or biology experiment then anyone with proper training should be able to take my methods and independently reproduce my result — otherwise the result could be fluke. Science is painfully discovering that this basic reproducibility requirement is currently not being met in any scientific field.

Basic things like measurement error, the fundamental ambiguity of statistical significance, to outright fraud are throwing science into a philosophical and metaphysical crisis to which science cheerleaders like Harris, Dawkins, Lindsay and Boghossian seem to be oblivious.

Lindsay and Boghossian say, “Much of the peer-review system remains the gold-standard for the advancement of human knowledge.” The problem is that it is well known that this system is rife with false research. It’s odd that academic hoaxers defending scientific rigor don’t target hard sciences like medicine for hoaxing since it has been estimated that most published medical research is false. Is half of published gender studies research false? Could a person not get more lulz from publishing a hoax article to the New England Journal of Medicine? It does not appear to be much more difficult to get a fake paper into “hard” science journals.

Why target gender studies? Postmodernism and feminist standpoint epistemology challenge the cherished and yet unjustified belief in the universality and neutrality of science. The universality and neutrality of science are metaphysical assumptions that more often than not go unspoken among working scientists. The key is not to conflate objectivity with universality and neutrality. Objectivity is at bottom the ability to meet objections.

But actual physicists are sometimes much more open to debating whether the laws of physics apply beyond what we can observe. What’s more, philosophy of science has demonstrated that evidence always underdetermines theory. In other words: theory has much more content than what can be observed. The universality and neutrality of science are two such theories that are strictly speaking unfalsifiable: we cannot test whether our physics is true throughout the unobservable universe, nor can we test whether science is neutral relative to some absolute value-less criteria.

Thus how can we justifiably believe in the truth of a theory whose content exceeds the evidence for it? The only rational way around this philosophers of science like Popper have identified is through objectivity — which is also inherently difficult to define. Philosopher Stathis Psillos says, “whatever is independent of particular points of of view, perspectives, subjective states and preferences.” Thus objectivity amounts to inter-subjective agreement. A scientist puts forth a theory, people criticize it, test the theory, the scientist responds and so forth. As Sandra Harding says, “The notion of objectivity is useful in providing a way to think about the gap that should exist about how any individual or group wants the world to be and how in fact it is.”

In this way, gender studies and standpoint epistemology ask uncomfortable questions about the social values that scientific communities use to arrive at inter-subjective agreement. If the scientific community consists entirely of men from a certain socioeconomic class how neutral can their scientific judgements be?. Feminist epistemology furthermore argues that objectivity does not imply neutrality of value-freedom, as seems to be assumed to by academic hoaxers. Values influence the evidential judgements that scientists use to decide whether to reject or accept evidence or a theory. For example, simplicity is a value scientists use to evaluate two competing theories, preferring simple theories over complex ones — but what exactly is simplicity? And why do we assume a simple theory is more likely to be true? This is in addition many unconscious cognitive values and biases from which scientists suffer.

Epistemic trolling began with the famous Sokal hoax. Lindsay and Boghossian even claim to pay “subtle homage” to Sokal’s hoax in their hoax paper. In 1996, Alan Sokal, NYU physics professor successfully published another more-or-less random copy-pasting of social science-sounding and quantum physics phrases in a serious peer-reviewed journal that specialized in postmodernism and social constructivism. He did this in order to demonstrate that postmodernism is silly or empty and postmodernist journals will publish anything — even a random mash-up of postmodern and quantum physics sounding phrases.

The Sokal hoax still causes a lot of debate; “hard” scientists and champions of rationality like Noam Chomsky laud Sokal’s hoax as a brilliant exposure of what they viewed as the lack of intellectual rigor and incomprehensible language. Sokal eventually published a famous book called Fashionable Nonsense which harshly criticized postmodernism. One of Sokal’s targets, postmodernist philosopher Jacques Derrida, pointed out that it’s kind of sad that Sokal is now known for this hoax and not for any of his physics work.

What the hoaxers and their fans often share is a philosophically uncritical stance toward science. And too often, it seems, a harshly critical stance toward social science. The broad underlying assumption is that social science is not legitimate and that only the so-called hard sciences — physics, biology, chemistry — have any merit. While the fields of philosophy of science, Science & Technology Studies (STS) and epistemology have been debating and examining the nature of knowledge and objectivity for centuries, the modern “science wars” have become an intense and often politically polarized debate since the Sokal hoax.

At the root of the science war is the seemingly simple question — what is science? According to people like Sokal, Lindsay, and Boghossian science is simply physics, chemistry and biology (tack on neuroscience for Sam Harris). But for philosophers or any intellectually curious person this answer is inadequate. According to philosopher of science Samir Okasha, “We are not asking for a mere list of the activities that are usually called ‘science’. Rather we are asking what common feature all the things on that list share, i.e., what is it that makes something a science.”

Lindsay and Boghossian claim to want to restore the “reliability of the peer-review process.” It’s hard to see how a fundamentally postmodernist prank is a step toward this noble goal.