Over the past year, three scholars have been engaged in a massive, and massively secret, academic project.
Working with documentary filmmaker Mike Nayna, three academics—Helen Pluckrose, an English literature and history scholar; James Lindsay, a math PhD; and Peter Boghossian, a professor of philosophy at Portland State University— submitted over a dozen papers to top academic journals. The journals were in fields like gender studies, sexuality studies, race studies, and critical theory—or, what the trio is now referring to as "grievance studies." These particular fields, they explain, have a "common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity." While the majority of their submissions failed the peer review process and were ultimately rejected, a number of their papers were actually accepted into top journals. And those papers? They were all bullshit.
Perhaps the most egregious of the hoax papers, "Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks," argued that observation at Portland dog parks revealed that dog owners were less likely to interfere when male dogs nonconsensually humped female dogs than other male dogs. This, the paper concluded, was evidence of rape culture. The researcher, the nonexistent "Helen Wilson" of the nonexistent "Portland Ungendering Research Initiative," wrote that she observed one “dog rape per hour." One of the reviewer's feedback was that Wilson didn't adequately respect the dogs' privacy while tracking these acts of dog rape, but, ultimately, the study was published in Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography. It has, by now, been retracted.
Other studies where equally outlandish. The scholars were nonexistent, the methodologies were flawed, the statistics made-up, and the claims unsupported by data. Some of them were even cruel: One paper, which was well-received by the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, advocated making white male college students sit on the floor of classrooms, wearing chains, to both educate them on privilege and punish them for historical slavery. Another study looked at whether straight men who masturbate with butt plugs are less likely to be transphobic. Another replicated a chapter from Hitler's Mein Kampf and it was accepted into the feminist social work journal Affilia. In total, seven of the hoax papers were accepted into top peer-reviewed, academic journals. The dog rape paper even won a special honor. (Not everyone, I should note, fell for the hoax: After Real Peer Review tweeted about the dog study last year, several journalists, including Jillian Kay Melchior at the Wall Street Journal, uncovered the truth. Because of this, the experiment was cut short.)
Why go through all this work for a hoax? The risks are enormous: While Lindsay and Pluckrose have already left academia, Peter Boghossian is untenured. This stunt could easily result in his firing from Portland State. It was also a massive amount of labor, with legitimate scholarly citations, and because they targeted fields like queer studies, race studies, gender studies, etc. the three will inevitably be accused of bias.
They did it, they explained, to expose serious flaws and political biases in these disciplines, as well as problems with the peer review process and the "publish-or-perish" atmosphere at many schools. They do not, however, seem to think these disciplines are inherently worthless or that critical approaches to gender, race, and sex are just plain silly. All three are socially and politically progressive, they write in an article in Aero, and, what's more, they see the value in both social science and social justice. But, they write: "these fields of study do not continue the important and noble liberal work of the civil rights movements; they corrupt it while trading upon their good names to keep pushing a kind of social snake oil onto a public that keeps getting sicker. For us to know anything about injustice in society and be able to show it to those who are unaware or in denial of it, scholarship into it must be rigorous. Currently, it is not, and this enables it, and social justice issues with it, to be dismissed."
Happily, the majority of the hoax papers they submitted—13 out of 20—were ultimately rejected (including one that argued that fantasizing about people without their permission is a form of rape). But the ones that were accepted shows that there is a clear problem in academic publishing and academia more broadly. And it's not the first time they've pulled off such a stunt: In 2017, Boghossian and Lindsay published a hoax paper on the "conceptual penis" that argued "manspreading" is akin to "raping the empty space around him" in a pay-to-publish academic journal. This said more about the state of pay-to-publish journals than academia as a whole, but their latest prank is far more damning and builds on the work of Alan Sokal, an academic who, in the 1990s, successful published a nonsense paper in a journal of postmodern cultural studies.
The backlash for this stunt has already begun. One professor of gender studies at the University of Sussex in the UK, tweeted that this hoax was a "coordinated attack from the right, supported by ‘gender critical’ feminists angry that Gender Studies is trans-inclusive." A historian alleged that the scholars were suspect because their targets "exclude straight white men." There is absolutely no evidence that either claim is true (all three identify themselves as liberal, and they targeted journals, not people), but the repercussions, no doubt, will continue to mount. For some, this will be all the proof required to dismiss "studies" fields out of hand. And, yes, it's certainly possible that this episode will be used by the right to further ongoing attacks on universities across the U.S. As for the disciplines themselves, while this could be an occasion for self-reflection, I suspect it will take a lot more than seven faulty papers to instigate actual change.