Some “New Atheists” Don’t Care About the Facts — A Definitive Guide to the Gender Studies “Hoax”

The “new atheist” movement was founded on an affirmation of good cognitive habits: a commitment to objective truth, acknowledging one is wrong when this is the case, an awareness of how cognitive prejudices can distort one’s beliefs, and a rejection of the sort of tribalism and loyalism that one finds among religious communities.

Yet this movement has failed, especially recently, to live up to its high epistemological standards. Perhaps the most egregious instance of this occurred not but a week ago, when Peter Boghossian (who has a degree in education) and James Lindsay (who has a degree in mathematics) published a fake paper that was loudly advertised as a “hoax” against gender studies in a subsequent article in Skeptic magazine. Amidst the febrile excitement of “rational folks” publicly mocking a tiny corner of academia, the authors failed to notice (a) multiple factual errors in their Skeptic article, and (b) that at least one of the two central conclusions doesn’t follow from the premises given. To date, neither the authors of this “hoax” nor Skeptic magazine has, as the epistemic value of intellectual honesty would demand, acknowledged these problems; no corrections have been made. Indeed, my colleagues and I have yet to receive a single substantive reply to the objections we have outlined — in my case, these objections were clearly specified in a refutation I published in Salon. The collective decision not to engage in careful discussion about where this “hoax” went horribly wrong is quite deplorable, not to mention intellectually embarrassing for the new atheist community as a whole. A hallmark of reasonable thinkers is the capacity to set aside ideological biases and, when the evidence requires, to change one’s mind in public, even when doing so betrays others in the “tribe.”

This article is an attempt to affirm to the broader community of thoughtful academics who have been appalled by the lack of critical thinking and intellectual integrity surrounding this “hoax” that not all of us care more about defending our tribe than apprehending the truth, even when the truth does not comport with our psychological preferences. The following offers a number of important points that directly relate to this hoax. Although I believe that damage has already been done to the credibility of the new atheist movement — as well as the skeptics community — perhaps this could constitute a small palliative to those still dismayed by the episode.

(i) The fake paper was, as mentioned above, boisterously declared to be a “hoax” against gender studies. Yet the journal in which it was published, Cogent Social Sciences (the name itself should be a give-away), has almost nothing to do with gender studies. By “almost nothing” I mean that it has no authority on the issue whatsoever. In fact, a quick glance at its editorial board reveals that not a single “senior editor” has a background in the field; rather, their expertise lies in (I kid you not) tourism, criminology, development planning, geography, sport management and communication sciences. This leads one to wonder: how could publishing a fake article in a journal that has hardly any connection with gender studies say anything substantial at all about the intellectual rigor of gender studies? The answer is obvious.

(ii) Cogent is a little-known pay-to-publish journal, not a “respectable journal” as Boghossian and Lindsay hastily claim. In fact, Boghossian and Lindsay agreed to pay $625 to get their paper published. While paying for publication is somewhat common in science, it is quite rare within the humanities. For example, I have never paid for publication — although Stephen Knight wrote a blog post in which he incorrectly claimed that I have. In fact, I contacted the head editors of both academic journals that Knight mentions, namely Metaphilosophy and Foresight, and both confirmed that they do not charge authors. As of this writing Knight hasn’t corrected this error, which I pointed out to him. This is deeply disappointing, although it’s sadly consistent with the resistance to facts and openness about mistakes that has so far characterized this debacle. [Note: THIS IS NO LONGER THE CASE. Knight was quite gracious in our email exchange and has now added a correction. I am genuinely appreciative of his kind responsiveness. Thanks!]

(iii) But, one might say, Boghossian and Lindsay’s paper was peer reviewed! Take a look at screen shots of the reviews provided by Lindsay. As someone who’s published academic papers in the past, this is by far the most outrageously suspicious peer review I have ever seen. Indeed, Boghossian and Lindsay themselves acknowledge that Cogent offered what “may be a weak peer-review process.” Yet they still describe the journal as “reputable.” Either this is disingenuous, or completely naive.

(iv) Yeah, but Cogent was recommended by NORMA, which is a reputable journal — one might rejoin. There are several things to say here. First, NORMA is not particularly reputable within the relevant academic communities, yet it immediately rejected Boghossian and Lindsay’s paper as “sheer nonsense” without peer review. Second, it is false that NORMA recommended Cogent. This is a central claim in Boghossian and Lindsay’s Skeptic article — a claim they describe as “damning.” If they had done a bit more research before blurting out an assumption, though, they would have found that Cogent was recommended by the publishing company Taylor & Francis for monetary rather than academic reasons. (See the bottom of this article for screenshots of my exchange with one lead editor at NORMA.) I eagerly await a correction in Skeptic, but doubt one will be made.

(v) A subpoint: NORMA is a journal that specializes in masculinity studies. As anyone who knows anything about this region of scholarship will attest, masculinity studies is not gender studies. The fact that Boghossian and Lindsay submitted to this journal at all — in an attempt to perpetrate a hoax on gender studies — reveals just how little they understand about the issue they’re trying (but failing) to publicly embarrass. Even more, we have no information about whether they submitted to one or more journals before NORMA. I personally knew that this “hoax” was in the pipeline for many, many months, meaning that they may very well have submitted to journals that ultimately terminated in a dead end. It would obviously not be in Boghossian and Lindsay’s self-interest to (do the intellectually honest thing and) admit that previous journals were contacted, but given the fact that they once published an article in Quillette after it was literally “rejected by 45 different magazines, periodicals, and journals across the political spectrum,” it wouldn’t come as a surprise that their record of success is far worse than they’ve told us.

(vi) So, as I wrote in my refutation: “Submitting an article on gender studies to [Cogent Social Sciences] and then claiming that its publication proves that gender studies is idiotic is tantamount to a creationist writing a fake article about evolutionary biology, publishing it in an unknown pay-to-publish non-biology journal (whose editorial board includes no one with expertise in evolutionary biology), and then exclaiming, ‘See! The entire field of evolutionary biology is complete nonsense.’ This is puerile gotcha-ism that completely misses the target while simultaneously making, in the case of Boghossian and Lindsay, the skeptic community look like gullible, anti-intellectual fools.”

Considerations like this led Steven Pinker to tweet that the hoax “missed the mark.”

(vii) Making matters even worse, it appears that Boghossian and Lindsay were unaware that what they did in Cogent has been done literally hundreds of times before in open-access, pay-to-publish, peer-review scientific journals. Yet no reasonable person has ever concluded that such scientific hoaxes undercut science itself — because that would be a rather unscientific conclusion. Rather, these scientific hoaxes were taken to reveal just how flawed the pay-to-publish model can be. Consider a few examples (quoting a previous article):

(a) John Bohannon of Science magazine submitted 304 variations of a fake scientific paper to journals, including some linked to highly respectable publishing companies. He used a fake name attached to a fake institution and managed to get the paper, which had flaws that anyone with a high-school diploma should have been able to detect, accepted to more than half the journals — some of which were peer review. In Bohannon’s words:

Acceptance was the norm, not the exception. The paper was accepted by journals hosted by industry titans Sage and Elsevier. The paper was accepted by journals published by prestigious academic institutions such as Kobe University in Japan. It was accepted by scholarly society journals. It was even accepted by journals for which the paper’s topic was utterly inappropriate, such as the Journal of Experimental & Clinical Assisted Reproduction.

Friends: just consider what Boghossian, Lindsay, and their anti-feminist followers would conclude if this paragraph described not scientific articles but articles about gender studies. Think about what they would infer from this damning statement. No doubt they would be calling for gender studies to be wholly defunded immediately! This is not a trivial point, because it gets at the issue of intellectual consistency, of which there has been a dearth in discussions about the “hoax.”

(b) A 2009 paper that was randomly generated by software ended up in an open-access, pay-to-publish, peer-review (just like Cogent) publication called the Open Information Science Journal. One of the co-authors said he was curious whether the publisher would “accept a completely nonsensical manuscript if the authors were willing to pay.” He was asked to pay $800, a little more than Boghossian and Lindsay. The director of publications at Bentham Science Publishing told Nature that “a rigorous peer review process takes place for all articles that are submitted to us for publication. Our standard policy is that at least two positive comments are required from the referees before an article is accepted for publication,” to which he added that in this case, “the paper was reviewed by more than one person.”

(c) The journal Tumor Biology, published by Springer, retracted 107 papers due to faulty peer reviews. As one article puts it, “To submit a fake review, someone (often the author of a paper) either makes up an outside expert to review the paper, or suggests a real researcher — and in both cases, provides a fake email address that comes back to someone who will invariably give the paper a glowing review.” Do we have any evidence that Boghossian and Lindsay’s patently weird reviews weren’t fake? No, not to my knowledge.

(d) A dog in Australia that goes by the pseudonym Dr. Olivia Doll “Serves on seven medical journal editorial boards.” Her research focuses include “the benefits of abdominal massage for medium-sized canines” and “the impact of skateboards on canine ambulation.” She was also recently asked to peer review an article.

(e) Here is some “crap, courtesy of a major scientific publisher.” Enjoy!

(f) Just like Boghossian and Lindsay, a paper accepted by the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology was given “excellent” reviews by peer reviewers. It was titled “Get me off Your Fucking Mailing List,” and it consisted of this line repeated over and over again.

(g) Finally — because there are many more examples to give — “in 2013 IEEE and Springer Publishing removed more than 120 papers from their sites after a French researcher’s analysis determined that they were generated via SCIgen.” SCIgen is a “program that randomly generates nonsensical computer-science papers, complete with realistic-looking graphs, figures, and citations.”

And so on, and so on. Here’s the logical deal: either one accepts that fake papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals undercut science as does Boghossian and Lindsay’s paper undercut gender studies, or one accepts that none of these “hoaxes” undercut any of the fields in which they were published. Boghossian, Lindsay, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and the others are, by endorsing this as a hoax against gender studies, in violation of some pretty basic logic.

(viii) Yes, one might retort, but Boghossian and Lindsay discuss this point: they claim that their hoax both exposes the problems of pay-to-publish journals and reveals the intellectual vacuity of gender studies. This is true — they do claim this. The problem is that they fail to fully realize that accomplishing one of these two “prongs” vitiates the other, and vice versa; i.e., these goals are inversely correlated. For example, if one wishes to demonstrate that gender studies is dum-dum, one would need to convince actual experts in the field through actual gender studies journals. Doing this would of course say nothing about the state of pay-to-publish journals, which have a monetary incentive to accept low-quality work. On the other hand, publishing in a low-quality pay-to-publish journal says almost nothing about the state of gender studies. Lindsay almost grasps this fatal flaw in their approach when he writes the following:

When NORMA rejected the paper and offered to transfer it to Cogent [again, this is false], we realized that there was a two-pronged opportunity here. One is to test gender studies and related fields, as indicated, and the other is to expose the problem of pay-to-publish open-access journals, which are in part largely motivated (unlike mere vanity journals) to exploit an enormous problem in the academic world at the moment: publish-or-perish atmospheres in academic departments, especially for tenure consideration. We fully realize that going with a journal like Cogent increased our probability of publication and thus muddied the waters on our point against gender studies…

(ix) Another response that dedicated defenders of the “hoax” have offered is that Boghossian and Lindsay weren’t trying to expose the entire field of gender studies. To which I respond by quoting them: “Part of the fault may fall on the open-access, pay-to-publish model, but the rest falls on the entire academic enterprise collectively referred to as ‘gender studies.’” Again, they seem to glimpse the inverse correlation between their two prongs in this sentence: you can’t both expose shitty publishing practices and simultaneously accuse an entire field of intellectual fraud.

(x) A quick point about intellectual hypocrisy: while Boghossian and Lindsay claim that gender studies is guilty of sloppy scholarship, one needs to read no more than two paragraphs in their Skeptic article to discover an obvious mistake that even a sophomore philosophy student could detect. They write:

This paper should never have been published. Titled, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” our paper “argues” that “The penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a gender-performative, highly fluid social construct.” As if to prove philosopher David Hume’s claim that there is a deep gap between what is and what ought to be, our should-never-have-been-published paper was published in the open-access (meaning that articles are freely accessible and not behind a paywall), peer-reviewed journal Cogent Social Sciences.

We have already addressed the dubious “peer-review” claim above — this term has only the most tenuous content, given the multiple-choice review form that Boghossian and Lindsay received. The more relevant point is that Hume claims nothing of the sort! Rather, his thesis is one cannot infer “ought” statements from “is” statements. This may sound pedantic to the untrained ear, but it is really quite basic knowledge among philosophers. The crux is that if one is going to accuse X of being guilty of Y, it behooves one to avoid doing Y oneself. Hypocrisy doesn’t invalidate a point, but it does — once again — reveal the overall sloppiness of this supposed “hoax.”

(PS. It’s the Skeptic paper that should never have been published. Indeed, this episode provides a real-life example of what scholars call the “unilateralist’s curse”: as a community grows, the probability that someone will misjudge the value of an action increases. If that action can be performed unilaterally and if it’s actual value is negative, then the probability of a negative outcome for everyone will also increase. Boghossian and Lindsay decided to act unilaterally in this case — for example, they never consulted the community more broadly about whether this would be a good idea — and it appears that the actual value of their “hoax” has been largely negative, discrediting a community that is already regularly accused of anti-intellectual nonsense. The result is an outcome that affects everyone in the community, including myself.)

(xi) On a related note, which is a bit personal, Boghossian — who I once coauthored papers with — has quite literally “deplatformed” me by “blocking” any contact on the social media platform of Facebook. This is irrational because Boghossian is an outspoken advocate of free speech and critical dialogue — but it’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened, as I have also been banned from Jerry Coyne’s website for literally asking the question, “So, why not focus our attention on higher priorities?,” which Coyne claimed was a violation of the blog’s rules. Coyne also hurled insults at me (repeatedly saying that I’m “obtuse”!) and admitted that I made his “temper” flair by interrogating his claims. I suspect the impetus behind blocking me on social media is (a) I have made good, logical arguments for why his “hoax” is foolish, and (b) he claims that I am guilty of a “personal attack” on him in the following paragraph, which recapitulates an above point:

As for rigorous thinking, Boghossian and Lindsay write in their Skeptic article (reading it again, painfully) that, “As if to prove philosopher David Hume’s claim that there is a deep gap between what is and what ought to be.” No, that’s not what Hume claimed. What he claimed is that ‘ought’ statements cannot be logically inferred from ‘is’ statements. If you’re going to get on the case of gender studies folks for sloppy scholarship, at least get your own scholarship in order!”

It should be clear that this is a statement about scholarship rather than authors — it’s an exhortation to be intellectually consistent with your own principles. Yet Peter was “triggered” and “took offense,” which is risible because his career is currently based (in part) on calling other people “snowflakes,” which is much less ambiguously a “personal attack” than my criticism above. Indeed, I would bet $1,000 that if someone responded to Peter calling them a “snowflake” with “Hey! That’s a personal attack, man. Not fair! I’m cutting off all communications!” Peter would promptly elevate them as a quintessential case of snowflakes gone wild. No doubt, the censorious Coyne would follow, perhaps as well as Sam Harris et al. The point: I have yet to receive any substantive replies from Boghossian about my counterarguments. Rather, the message has been one of silence and silencing — not a good look for a community that prides itself for critical thinking and free speech.

(xii) Finally, it’s worth noting that while many in the new atheist tribe refuse to acknowledge that this “hoax” says a lot about how the profit motive can corrupt the peer-review process, Lindsay has changed his own story a bit. At first he embraced the advertisement that this paper was a successful and clever “hoax,” but later he began to refer to it as “satire” (following Harris and Dawkins). Even more recently, he’s started describing it as a “joke paper,” which is a far cry from it being a “hoax.”

What those of us who genuinely value intellectual honesty would like to see is for him to openly and honestly admit that this wasn’t a “hoax” at all. It says no more about gender studies than randomly generated papers say about science. Yet if there’s one thing this exercise in petty gotchaism has revealed, it’s that the tribalistic instinct remains strong even in individuals who purport to embrace objective epistemic standards.

“…certain kinds of ideas can become so fashionable that the critical faculties required for the peer-review process are compromised, allowing outright nonsense to be published, so long as it looks or sounds a certain way, or promotes certain values.” — Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, describing precisely what they are, obliviously, guilty of.