Current Events

Failed and Flaccid: The “Conceptual Penis” Hoax, Once Again.

As is now widely known James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian submitted a fake paper entitled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” which was published in Cogent Social Sciences. They then loudly trumpeted this fact in the pages of Skeptic magazine, concluding “that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil“, and that there are problems with the “open-access, pay-to-publish model” of academic publishing. They made clear that in their view the publication of their paper primarily shows that here are serious problems in “the entire academic enterprise collectively referred to as “gender studies” and that the fundamental problem that the publication of their article exposed was the lack of integrity of gender studies.

This “hoax” then went viral, leading to lots of gleeful mockery of gender studies, feminists, and lots of hearty Internet back-slapping.

But what was lost in all of this self-congratulation was a simple fact: This hoax failed miserably.  And recent revelations show just how badly it failed… for there’s no evidence that anyone was fooled into believing that this paper was real. To repeat, in case you missed this: THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THAT ANYONE WAS FOOLED INTO BELIEVING THAT THIS PAPER WAS ANYTHING BUT NONSENSE.

But there’s now a whole lot of evidence that a lot of people–including many self-professed “skeptics”–fell hook, line, and sinker for the false claim  that this was a successful hoax.

Let’s back up. Lindsay and Boghossian wrote a short paper entitled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” that made absolutely no sense, but which, they thought, would appeal to the moral and political views of persons in gender studies. They then submitted it to NORMA: The International Journal for Masculinity Studies. According to Lindsay and Boghossian’s report, NORMA rejected it but its editors “thought it a great fit for the Cogent Series, which operates independently under the Taylor and Francis imprimatur”. Lindsay and Boghossian then submitted the paper to Cogent: Social Sciences. Cogent then accepted the paper after requiring minor revisions, and published it as a Sociology Research Article. At this point Lindsay and Boghossian wrote their piece for Skeptic declaring that while this shows that there are problems with the pay-to-publish model “our question about the fundamental integrity of fields like gender studies seems much more pressing nonetheless.”

The purported “success” of this hoax was challenged right from the start. I noted that rather than successfully publishing a hoax paper in a genuine Gender Studies journal they had, in fact, been rejected from an unranked journal, and then had published in a pay-to-publish journal in sociology. This tells us nothing at all about gender studies. Developing this criticism Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber noted that their research design was “fundamentally inept”. You can’t show both that gender studies will publish any “fashionable nonsense” and at the same time show that a pay-to-publish journal will publish anything. And Ketan Joshi noted that “Most people, whether they’re part of the skeptic community or not, can recognise that a single instance isn’t sufficient evidence to conclude that an entire field of research is crippled by religious man-hating fervour, and that anyone pushing that line is probably weirdly compromised.”

Neither Lindsay nor Boghossian bothered to respond to any of these criticisms, and they were drowned out by the anti-gender studies fervour that their “hoax” generated.

These criticisms are still sound. But recent revelations show that this “hoax” was even more of a failure than was first suspected.

We’ve now heard from one of the editors of NORMA, Ulf Mellstrom, of the Center for Gender Studies at Karlstad University in Sweden. Professor Mellstrom notes that rather than being fooled by the piece he had his fellow editor “thought it was sheer nonsense” and summarily rejected it. So, why did he say that it would be “a great fit” for the Cogent series, as Lindsay and Boghossian claimed? He didn’t. The letter that Lindsay and Boghossian received was automatically generated by the submission software used by Taylor and Francis and sent without the editors’ knowledge. That this was an auto-generated letter was obvious from its text. So, Lindsay and Boghossian’s claim that the editors of NORMA “thought it a great fit for the Cogent Series” is simply false. Now, maybe Lindsay and Boghossian are not aware that letters can be automatically generated, and so really thought that they had received a personal (albeit rather oddly phrased and stilted) letter from NORMA‘s editors. But this is unlikely. It seems, then, that their account of their interaction with NORMA was intended to mislead.

Note that so far no-one has been fooled by their attempted “hoax”.

The paper now goes to Cogent: Social Sciences. And it goes out to peer review. And they’re required to make minor revisions. And the paper is accepted! Hurrah for Lindsay and Boghossian! Doesn’t this show that the editors and reviewers of Cogent: Social Sciences were fooled?

Not necessarily. Recall, Cogent: Social Sciences is a pay-to-publish journal. (It’s also not a gender studies journal, so why Lindsay and Boghossian think that publishing in it could show anything about gender studies is puzzling.) And as I noted earlier there are a lot of red flags waving wildly calling into question its legitimacy. (It is very “author friendly”, it notes that it doesn’t reject papers just because they will have no impact, and so on.) But surely even a pay-to-publish journal will have some standards, right? And didn’t they receive a revise and resubmit, which indicates that the paper was refereed in some fashion?

Well, no. Back in 2014 the Australian computer scientist Peter Vamplew submitted a paper entitled “Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List” to the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology. The paper consisted of nothing more than the phrase in the title repeated over and over again. He received a revise and resubmit: “They told me to add some more recent references and do a bit of reformatting.” Sound familiar? Lindsay and Boghossian only had to make “a few relatively easy fixes” before the paper was accepted. Just as it’s highly unlikely that anyone actually seriously read and reviewed the paper Vamplew submitted, so too does it seem unlikely that Lindsay and Boghossian’s paper was subject to anything close to genuine peer review. It’s far more likely that the “review” was done in-house at Cogent, and consisted of a one or possibly two Cogent employees offering a few comments that appear in the general vein of the paper’s text. And if this was so, then nobody at Cogent was fooled either. With their eyes on the publication fees they just didn’t care enough about the content of the paper to read it.

Now, Lindsay and Boghossian might point to the statement that Cogent issued yesterday, which states that:

“The article was received by a Senior Editor and sent out for peer review as is standard. Two reviewers agreed to review the paper and it was accepted with no changes by one reviewer, and with minor amends by the other. On investigation, although the two reviewers had relevant research interests, their expertise did not fully align with this subject matter and we do not believe that they were the right choice to review this paper.”

But to paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies, they would say that, wouldn’t they? After all, it’s unlikely that Cogent will issue a statement saying “The article was received by a Senior Editor and, as is usual, he emailed it a couple of our other employees and received back their dummy reviews. After a bit of dickering with the authors we agreed to publish it for $625–a bargain, since our usual rate is $1300!”

So, again, we have no evidence at all that anyone was fooled by this attempted hoax.

However, that no-one was fooled by Lindsay and Boghossian’s paper doesn’t mean that no-one was taken in by their hoax. A lot of people were… as it confirmed their biases against gender studies and so they quickly endorsed Michael Shermer’s (mistaken) view that this attempted hoax “exposed” the “extreme ideologies” of gender studies. Among those fooled were Robert Verbruggen of the National Review, Matt Ridley writing in today’s The Times, James Barrett at The Daily Wire, Andy Ngo at The College Fix… and many, many, others. (Appropriately enough, Reason was NOT fooled!  And nor was Salon, The Daily Nous, or Daniel Drezner writing for The Washington Post.)

So, what can we learn from this failed hoax? Three things, I think.

  1. Critical thinking actually matters! A few moments’ reflection should have shown anyone that having a paper published in a pay-to-publish journal in Sociology tells us nothing at all about the intellectual rigor of Gender Studies. (The fact that an unranked journal in gender studies rejected the paper outright should have hindered the rush to judgment even further.) Indeed, as I mentioned in my initial post that anyone would think it did is bizarre. And, as Henry Farrell pointed out, you can’t show both that pay to publish journals will publish anything, and also that since one published your hoax paper on gender studies that gender studies is bunk. (It’s thus rather embarrassing that Peter Boghossian claims “critical thinking” is his academic specialty. I just hope that no-one follows his line of reasoning, and from the fact that “one philosopher seems not to be able to think critically” concludes that “No historians seem to be able to think critically.” That would be both fallacious, and unfair to historians!)
  2. We should take to heart the observation of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont that we shouldn’t accept something just because it seems to confirm our prejudices. People who dislike gender studies shouldn’t have accepted Lindsay and Boghossian’s misplaced claims concerning the “success” of  their attempted hoax without actually thinking whether it actually showed what they claimed it to show. That they did tells us that ideologically-driven thinking doesn’t just exist on the Left. There was plenty on display this week on the Right, and (ironically) among self-proclaimed “skeptics”
  3. The evolution of this story shows how a failure to check sources can result in the propagation of false claims. From the (misleading, but technically true) claim that this paper was published in a peer-reviewed journal the story escalated to the claim (in a national British newspaper) that this paper had been published “in a leading journal” to “widespread acclaim”.

In brief–don’t rush to judgement, subject claims that seem to confirm your views to just as much scrutiny as you expend on those that seem to discredit them and always check your sources!

And never take a class on critical thinking from Peter Boghossian.











  • Sean II

    “Most people, whether they’re part of the skeptic community or not, can recognise that a single instance isn’t sufficient evidence to conclude that an entire field of research is crippled by religious man-hating fervor…” [emphasis added]

    Again, no one is doing that. There is a vast body of context around this, including plenty of evidence that gender studies and feminism are indeed afflicted by a) nonsense and b) hatred.

    People cheered Boghossian and Lindsay not because anyone believed them to be original sleuths who discovered a hitherto unknown problem, but because they at least tried to fight back against a bunch of obvious nonsense which is otherwise lavishly indulged by big and powerful institutions.

    • King Goat

      “My hypothesis is X, now to test it!”

      X failed to be confirmed in test.

      “Well, everyone knows the hypothesis is well grounded anyway! Who needs another test?”

      • Rob Gressis

        Goat, what do you think about this:

        My hypothesis is that astrology is a junk field.

        Nevertheless, there’s a journal called Journal of Astrology. (There is! It’s the “World’s Premier Vedic Astrology Journal”!)

        It could be possible for a pair of astrology skeptics to submit an article to that journal and fail to get it published. (I don’t know if it is, in fact, possible, but for all I know, it could be.)

        Let’s pretend that the astrology skeptics submit something, it gets rejected, but referred to another astrology journal, and it gets accepted there.

        They say their hoax has succeeded in showing that astrology is a junk field. Obviously, they’re wrong. Indeed, it seems to give some evidence that astrology is *not* a junk field.

        Nevertheless, I don’t think I now have to abandon my original hypothesis that astrology is a junk field.

        You’re not saying that I do. But I think the cases are exactly parallel to the gender studies debate.

        Sean II think it’s a junk-field. So, he’s not concerned that an article attempting to show that failed to show that. He feels as though there’s already enough evidence. I think that’s all that’s going on here.

        • King Goat

          I would say it’s fine to, after reading in the field, say it’s a junk field. What would be strange would be to cite the failed hoax as a jumping off point for saying that or that itself it indicts the field, or to wave off the hoax failure as if It’s not, at the least, a point of data against such a conclusion. The authors of the hoax clearly took the stand that the publication of the hoax *itself* meant the field of gender studies had some ‘splaining to do.’ And lots of people climbed on that bandwagon. Clear mistakes imo.

          • Rob Gressis

            Just out of curiosity, how much astrology have you read?

          • King Goat

            Let me answer this way: regardless of how much I’ve read, I wouldn’t take or point to the example of two skeptics having their attempt at hoaxing the field be summarily rejected as warranting thinking any less of the field.

          • Rob Gressis

            No, you shouldn’t. But if you do reject astrology as a field, do you base that rejection on a close reading of lots of astrologers’ defenses? Or do you think it’s just transparently silly?

          • King Goat

            I think it’s a combination of finding it on its face silly (of course I find a fair amount of quantum theory to be a bit silly), the general consensus of the scientific community that it’s silly and some look into it myself. Probably more weight on two than anything else.

          • Rob Gressis

            I see. Well, I suspect that I’m in the same boat as well w/r/t astrology: from what I know about science (not much), things just don’t work like that. And a lot of people whom I respect don’t take it seriously. And, finally, I’ve not heard of any astrologer who is considered to be intellectually serious.

            When it comes to critical theory, I suspect Sean II feels roughly the same way: the people in that field use a method that is uninformative (viz., autoethnography), they rely on a standpoint epistemology that is discreditable (lots of what we know about the unreliability of testimony and cognitive biases gives us reason to doubt that people from marginalized communities would have any more insight into human goings-on than people from non-marginalized communities), they don’t appear to know anything about mainstream economic theory (is there a critical theorist who ever talks about scarcity, regulations, or economic incentives as an explanation for why people in childcare aren’t paid well — or really in regards to anything?), and they not only don’t know anything about genetics (e.g., biologically based male-female sex differences; genetically based differences among ethnic groups), they seem to reject what we do know about genetics as both false and the result of immorality. At the very least, even if what we know about genetics isn’t on a rock solid footing, it’s certainly on a more solid footing than implicit bias or stereotype threat.

            Note that I am not speaking for myself here; I am trying to imagine why Sean II would lump critical theory (which I’m using as a shorthand for a bunch of things) in with astrology.

          • King Goat

            Correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems to be the main point of this comment: “When it comes to critical theory, I suspect Sean II feels roughly the same way”

            If I’m correct about that, I think I’ve already addressed it. First, half of my comment was about Sean II’s claim that “no one is doing that” where “that” is “a single instance isn’t sufficient evidence to conclude that an entire field of research is crippled.” I pointed out that’s false, as the language of the hoax authors themselves indicate that they, at least, are indeed doing “that” (their words: “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” underwent a blind peer-review process and yet was accepted for publication. This needs serious explaining. 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.” As we see it, gender studies in its current form needs to do some serious housecleaning.”)

            I addressed the other part of my comment above when I said “What would be strange would be to cite the failed hoax as a jumping off point for saying that or that itself it indicts the field, or to wave off the hoax failure as if It’s not, at the least, a point of data against such a conclusion.”

            To use the failure of the hoax as occasion to say “the B&L caricature was accurate enough to succeed as parody” is…passing strange, to be charitable.

            Consider you’re at a bar and a rogue-ish friend approaches. “I can pull any woman in this place!” he boasts. Taking the challenge, you point him to a beautiful lady standing the bar talking to her rather less beautiful friend. The professed Don Juan approaches the beautiful lady, and she promptly laughs at his pitch and walks away. The less beautiful friend, though, talks with him, and he leaves with her. How odd would it be for his bro to choose this moment to sidle up to you and say “well, ok, he didn’t get that first one, but I can tell you that guy has a record of pulling any woman in the place!” Even if the bros comment is supported by considerable evidence, wouldn’t it be wacky for him to use Don Juan’s failure as a jumping off point for the same’s prowess?

          • Rob Gressis

            Hi Goat,

            You write:

            “First, half of my comment was about Sean II’s claim that “no one is doing that” where “that” is “a single instance isn’t sufficient evidence to conclude that an entire field of research is crippled.””

            I agree with Sean II here. Here’s what happening: You’re saying that P&L are concluding from this one instance to the vacuity of the field. But they’re not, regardless of what they say. They already thought the field was bad before their hoax, and their hoax just confirmed it for them. Now, the hoax shouldn’t confirm it for them; indeed, the hoax very slightly disconfirms their already massively confirmed (in their eyes) hypothesis. But since their hypothesis is already so massively confirmed, they and others misunderstood its value, which is negative.

            As for Sean II’s point that it succeeds as parody, I think that’s right too. For people convinced that gender studies is worthless, their paper reads as they imagine the field to read. And so, since the authors meant it to be rubbish, it’s funny (I suppose) to such people.

            I think the Don Juan example is fairly representative; if you’ve seen this guy pull beautiful women repeatedly, then this one counterexample won’t make you rethink things (and you’ll understand “this guy can get anyone!” as a figure of speech that isn’t to be taken fully literally). But it certainly won’t work for someone who’s never seen him in action; indeed, it’ll just make that person think that he and his fans are confused.

          • King Goat

            I admit I’m a bit flabbergasted at: “But they’re not, regardless of what they say.” Sorry, I take people at the plain meaning of what they say (they should be more careful in what they say if they don’t want that). They said straight up that the acceptance of their article by a non-gender studies journal, after being rejected by one, means the field needs ‘housecleaning.’ They’re plainly wrong about that.

            “you’ll understand “this guy can get anyone!” as a figure of speech that isn’t to be taken fully literally”

            Why be so charitable? Are you that charitable with gender studies hyperbole (which I admit is far too prominent in that field from my readings)? When they say any nonsense will be accepted, and their example proves it will not, why not take them on their word, or if not, at least chastise them on their less than exact usage? Let’s arguendo forgive the bar boaster, but these guys are supposed to be academics, making an academic point.

            “if you’ve seen this guy pull beautiful women repeatedly, then this one counterexample won’t make you rethink things”

            Yes it will, if the claim is: any woman will desire this guy (or, this field will take any nonsense). Really, counter-examples upend categorical conclusions for me.

            But maybe I’m too cautious there. Even if so, how odd would it be for when someone brings up this Don Juan’s loss here, that someone takes *that* opportunity to launch into an attestation of their prowess? That only makes sense as some form of damage control or sympathy for Don Juan. This is the worst foot to put forward, for those who confidently stride here…

          • Rob Gressis

            I didn’t address this point:

            “I admit I’m a bit flabbergasted at: “But they’re not, regardless of what they say.” Sorry, I take people at the plain meaning of what they say (they should be more careful in what they say if they don’t want that). They said straight up that the acceptance of their article by a non-gender studies journal, after being rejected by one, means the field needs ‘housecleaning.’ They’re plainly wrong about that.”

            Let me explain: I like to take people at their word, too, but I also like to accept the best explanation of the data as well. In this case, I think the best explanation of the data entails us not taking them at their word. Here’s why:

            Option 1–your option–is this: these are two guys who don’t have preexisting opinions of gender studies. But they hypothesized that gender studies is a junkyard, and they decide to test their hypothesis with this paper.

            Option 2–my option–is this: these two guys already thought gender studies was stupid, and they wanted to play a prank on it, a prank they thought would work.

            If your option is right, then already something weird is going on: why even come up with this hypothesis in the first place, unless you already thought that gender studies is a junkyard? I mean, these guys are in the skeptic community; they probably read Jerry Coyne and the like; so they probably already think gender studies sucks. But let’s go on:

            Their experiment: let’s submit a nonsense paper to a gender studies journal; if our hypothesis is right, then that journal will accept our paper. If it’s wrong, then they will reject it for intelligible reasons.

            What happens? Their paper is rejected. So they move on to the next journal. It gets accepted at a pay-for-play. They conclude that gender studies is a junk science.

            I submit that if we took these people at their word, then this would be passing strange behavior on their part. If they truly had no opinion of gender studies to begin with, why on earth would *that* be their reaction? I agree that Boghossian is a bad philosopher (based on his philosophy of religion and epistemology work), but I still think my theory is the better theory.

            They already thought gender studies is terrible, this experiment didn’t go as well as they wanted but, because they have blinders on, they thought it went well enough, so they revealed their hoax.

            That’s why I don’t take them at their word. It’s the best way of making sense of what happened.

          • Sean II

            “…the hoax very slightly disconfirms their already massively confirmed (in their eyes) hypothesis…”

            Right, and in keeping with your earlier comparison, it’s a bit like setting out to expose horoscopes as bogus and then having the schlimazel misfortune to pick one prediction that happened, by chance, to be right.

            It’s not a reason to believe in horoscopes. It’s a reason to believe in chance.

          • Rob Gressis

            That’s an interesting idea, but I think the explanation is different: even if you’re right that the field is vapid, they still have jargon that they use to distinguish members of their in-group from members of the out-group. I’m guessing P&L aren’t familiar enough with the lingo.

          • Sean II

            That’s a good thought, not necessary at odds with my own.

            To wit, one of the reasons why SJ types change lingo so often is to shake off mere aspirants trying to clone the signal.

            Back in my student days, the same thing happened with late Marxism. There was a kind of code that marked out the real members from the hangers on. Some of which was fairly counterintuitive – i.e. liking Desmond Tutu ( a catholic bishop!) was in, talking about Gramsci was out. That sort of thing.

            But very much supportive of your point: it is quite likely that Boghossian and Lindsay gave themselves away as not with it, in one way or another. For who would have a better grasp on the minute twists and turns of GS fashion than the editors of a journal on…masculinity.

          • Peter from Oz

            Good old Desmond Tutu. He gave his name to a British song term for a degree result. So when young Tarquin or Tansy get in the bottom half of the second grade in their Feminist Studies degrees, they get a “Desmond”, i.e. a 2.2

          • King Goat

            Rob, I enjoy out exchanges, I hope you’ll indulge me in a few more points that come to mind.

            First, do you find ‘critical theory’=’gender studies?’ I don’t, and I’ve had a bit of academic experience with both. Gender studies is a really broad field. It includes everything from pomo weirdness to feminist, but pretty traditional economics (about discrimination, labor force participation, etc.,)…Even in my field, psychology, ‘gender studies’ experts range really widely, from people using pretty traditional, mainstream methodology to study things like ‘body shaming’ variants of bullying to Gilligan’s ‘care’ theory. ‘Critical theory’ is also really broad, covering everything from extreme forms of ‘legal realism’ to some very strange pomo stuff.
            My personal experience reading this stuff, with as open a mind as I can, is that about 70% of it is not useful-ridiculous while the rest is thought provoking-true. YMMV, but, and I say this with all due respect, when you use the terms interchangeably I suspect you haven’t really read widely in these two very wide, often but not always overlapping fields.

            Of course, you might say, well, I haven’t read broadly in them, but that’s because like astrology they seem widely transparently silly, to use your words. And you agree with me that a good reason for thinking something so silly involves the intelligent consensus about it….But I think even Sean II would have to admit the consensus against these fields isn’t as strong as the one against astrology.

            Secondly, this: “At the very least, even if what we know about genetics isn’t on a rock solid footing, it’s certainly on a more solid footing than implicit bias or stereotype threat.”

            I wouldn’t grant you that. Look, I put way more stock in genetics than a lot of people. I’m no blank slater. But here’s the thing: given that there’s a history of scientists claiming that science absolutely shows the genetic inferiority of the Irish, the Chinese, the Jew; of politicians rushing to enact policy based on these ‘scientific’ findings; and then decades later these findings becoming laughable, not even accepted by the modern advocates of the same type of thinking, I’m in no hurry to dismiss the critics of such thinking. They’ve got a shit track record, one really prone to confirmation bias, and so I’m really reluctant to declare anything in that area ‘settled’ enough to start treating people different in ways that might harm them.

          • Rob Gressis

            I haven’t read widely in those fields, and I don’t take them to be equivalent. I was using crit theory as a shorthand for “whatever it is that Sean II, Jason Brennan, et al are using it to refer to”.

            The points I gave in that paragraph are not ones I fully agree with. I’m quite agnostic on the IQ and race stuff (one reason: heritability of IQ is only 20% in Africa. That’s super weird), less so, but still fairly skeptical of biologically based cognitive differences between men and women, etc.

            Implicit bias seems to be on shaky ground, but still ground for all that. We’re sorting it out. Stereotype threat seems on shakier ground, maybe much shakier.

            I personally don’t equate crit theory to astrology. Here’s one reason why: there are a lot of smart people in that field, and even if you think it’s as false as Christian theism (which I don’t think is false, but YMMV), there is still likely to be thought provoking (at the least) stuff.

            But the main point is that that long spiel above was my attempt to represent Sean II’s views. Not my own.

            Figure of speech: I’m liable to take crit theorists at their literal word because I have an unfair double standard. I shouldn’t, but I’m human. When someone reminds me, I adjust, then I forget.

            Did I miss anything?

    • Sergio Méndez

      “Again, no one is doing that. There is a vast body of context around
      this, including plenty of evidence that gender studies and feminism are
      indeed afflicted by a) nonsense and b) hatred.”

      Don´t feel insulted that I do not take you on your word…but what is that “vast body of context” and “plenty of evidence” you are talking to? Actually, the fact that the “skeptic” comunity claimed this was a succesfull hoax, when te evidence shows clearly otherwise…well…makes me skeptic about them (and about your claims).

  • Puppet’s Puppet

    Ah, yes, “Public intellectual is a bit too carelessly immodest about the significance of his public stunt. More at 11.” Look, if I can be forgiven for bringing up something a bit tangential to this tired subject…Christina Hoff Sommers, who is a much better public intellectual than Peter Boghossian anyway, has just tweeted a link to a paper by Nora Berenstain. Berenstain is not only responsible for that ridiculousness; she was responsible for a prominent absurd and antiacademic attack on Rebecca Tuvel. But here’s the thing: Berenstain is not one of Brennan’s SPEP bogeymen. She’s a legitimate, analytic philosopher who has published in Synthese on math and modality and in Australasian on “necessary laws and chemical kinds.” And she’s hardly alone. Will Brennan finally write a post that stops blaming postmodernist bullshit (and bratty undergrads and greedy administrators and probably Brexit) for all of academia’s social ills, and faces up to the growing threat to our values from within legitimate academia, and the widespread cowardice in confronting it?

    • Rob Gressis

      I’d be interested in someone responding to her epistemic exploitation paper. I may even try to do it myself, but I think it would take me quite a while to get up-to-date on the relevant literature.

  • RJL

    “This “hoax” then went viral, leading to lots of gleeful mockery of
    gender studies”

    “This hoax failed miserably”

    Which is it?

    The juxtaposition of these two phrases shows that OP does have some
    tacit awareness of the different audiences at issue here. The hoax
    failed… if one considers the hoax’s goal to convince academics that
    there are lax standards in gender studies journals. But analytic
    philosophers already believe this, and gender scholars will never
    believe this: so neither are the intended audience.

    The hoax did succeed by going viral amongst a different audience… the
    audience not of academics, but of the interested layman who follows
    ‘issues’ on twitter and blogs. It was retweeted by Pinker, Sam Harris,
    and other mouth-pieces for a certain sort of centrist,
    plague-on-both-houses rationalism.

    The audience for this hoax, and the field in which its success is to
    be judged, is general educated public opinion—the kind of people who
    vote, and write to their congressperson or university president, who
    donate to alumni causes, and send their children to college.

    That crowd does not have much insight into the politics of journal
    protocols, editorial groupings, or hierarchies of journal prestige.
    They simply see that a journal affiliated with a major publisher such
    as Taylor & Francis has published this in an apparently legitimate

    I agree that it can’t function simultaneously as an argument against
    pay-to-play and lax reviewing standards. But to the intended audience
    that doesn’t matter.

    All that matters is that everyone can see something is rotten in Denmark.

    • James Taylor

      If the intent was to fool people into thinking that a legitimate Gender Studies journal accepted a junk paper–and if THIS was the hoax–then, yes, the “hoax” succeeded. But note that if this was the intent then Lindsay and Boghossian intended to publicize widely a view that they know to be false with the intent of damaging the reputations of many other people whose ideological commitments they do not share. At the very least that’s academic misconduct; at worst it’s possibly actionable.

      Their *avowed* claim was to hoax a Gender Studies journal with a fake paper. This they failed to do.

      • RJL

        I’ll agree, changing one word of this: “to lead people into thinking that a legitimate Gender Studies journal accepted a junk paper”. I think that was their intent. Further, I don’t think they did it in bad faith, or that they believed themselves to be claiming something they knew to be false. I think the judgement about the legitimacy or not of the journal is something like the aesthetic judgement of a work of art – it’s possible to argue for a very weak position, without doing so in bad faith. One just happens to think that the meagre evidence is sufficient.

        • RJL

          So it’s clear, I believe all of these:
          1) They believe themselves to have sufficiently shown a general audience that there is something wrong with journal standards and practices in gender studies
          2) They have failed to show by their paper that a legitimate gender studies journal has accepted and published obvious nonsense
          3) There is sufficient evidence elsewhere (e.g. RealPeerReview abstracts) that gender studies journals have published obvious nonsense

          • Sean II

            All true. You could also put it this way:

            The only way to make gender studies look unridiculous is by narrowly focusing the conversation on this article.

            The minute anyone broadens their range to include the rest what’s written in that field, it looks exactly like what Boghossian and Lindsay allege.

          • RJL

            Yes. 3 above gives a strong prior that they were justified in believing 1. i.e. “another brick in the wall”

      • Jeff R.

        “legitimate Gender Studies Journal.”


    • Sean II

      I should add: the educated public is right not to care about peer review, protocols and journal rankings, etc.

      Most of what’s written in such outlets is forgotten immediately, and forever.

      Anything that isn’t – i.e. anything that has meaningfull connection to reality – will quickly turn up elsewhere.

      Only professors caught up in the heat of prestige competition have any reason to care about this ranking and impact crap.

      A thoughtful person who merely wants to stay informed has other, better means of finding out what’s true. He can easily see the corruption inherent in peer review, and take a pass waiting for better means of filtration.

  • Pedro Silva

    This attempted hoax obviously fails to prove what its authors intended to. In his critique, however, James Taylor commits one of the fallacies he decries (taking an observation in one field and claim it applies to a different one): the lack of peer-review in the predatory OA journal International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology cannot be used to conclude that Cogent Social Sciences uses the same non-standards. The existence of predatory OA journals who will publish all kinds of trash also does not imply that all journals who use that business model will publish anything, or that traditional subscription-based journals (which are often subscribed as part of “bundle deals” , rather than by individualized decisions based on their quality) are somehow immune from publishing trash or sub-standard work: the value of a subscription deal offered by a publisher is influenced not only by perceived quality but by the number of journals, disciplines and papers in the bundle. Adding a few hundred journals to a bundle deal instead of decreasing prices for next year makes subscription renewal more atractive to librarians/administrators, even if most of the additional journals would never have been requested individually by researchers due to their low quality.

    • James Taylor

      It is not merely the fact that Cogent’s journals are OA that supports the claim that they operate in a manner similar to IJACT. (Indeed, I’ve never claimed that merely being OA renders a journal a vanity journal.) As I note both in this post and my earlier one, there are several reasons to think that Cogent is a vanity journal that will publish anything, including its fee structure, its explicit claim that it will publish papers that will have no impact (i.e., don’t worry if your work is junk, we’ll publish it anyway!), its explicit claims to be very “author friendly”, and its claims that its referee process is aimed at making submitted papers publishable.

      • Pedro Silva

        You did not say that “merely being OA render a journal a vanity journal”, but you did say that “No reputable journal in the humanities does this.”

        Disregarding “perceived impact” does not mean the journal will publish junk. It means that only technical/intelectual rigor are evaluated, rather than considerations regarding “sexiness”/political appeal/immediate applications/niche interest. Several OA journals in the physical/hard sciences take that approach (PLOS One, Scientific Reports, PeerJ, Royal Society Open Science,etc. ). That does not prevent the ecology papers published in PLOS One from having an average number of citations above the number observed top ecology journals (which filter for “perceived impact”), which hints at the subjective and highly fallible nature of the editorial considerations of perceived impact. Most of the papers in these journals do accrue citations at a lower rate than observed in the most prestigious journals, but are you really willing to argue that small pieces of knowledge should be kept away from the scientific record because of their low impact?

        I understand that social sciences/humanities have their own specific institutional cultures/practices which render them more wary of open access, but I would not expect a humanities scholar to argue, in the age of Trump, that “expected impact” should be a factor in deciding what counts as “knowledge worth producing/sharing”

        • James Taylor

          “I would not expect a humanities scholar to argue, in the age of Trump, that “expected impact” should be a factor in deciding what counts as “knowledge worth producing/sharing”.”

          I suggest you re-read what I wrote, since I didn’t do this.

  • Honestly, the only people following this issue are the authors of this blog, and a few other writers who are frequently read by the authors of this blog. I don’t know anyone else who cares, which is at least some anecdotal indication of how influential this hoax has been, and how influential “gender studies” is as a general rule.

    To that last point, I hang around maybe some more blue collar crowds than the average BHL author, and what happens when you hang out with those kinds of people is that they tend to laugh and mock the concept of “gender studies” – not because they’re sexist jerks, but because they think the “discipline” itself is worthless. The phrase you’ll often hear is something to the effect of, “They might as well have studied Underwater Basket-Weaving.” Underwater Basket-Weaving is the catch-all term for a useless college degree, or at least has been in my social circles for the past 20 years.

    In short, the mere fact that this matter has been discussed so extensively on a website called Bleeding Heart Libertarians is incomprehensible to me. Outside the bubble, nobody honestly cares.

    • Jeff R.
    • James Taylor

      Well, it’s been covered by national newspapers and magazines in both the US and UK, national US TV shows, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed., and a host of other places. The “bubble” seems rather large! I wouldn’t bother addressing it if this was limited to the confines of the rather credulous “skeptic” community.

      • Okay, look at it this way: William Hung — remember that guy? William Hung? — was covered by national newspapers and magazines both in the US and the UK, national US TV shows, etc. etc. Remember Unsolved Mysteries with Robert Stack? Remember Ripley’s Believe It Or Not? Remember Jenny Jones? From within the bubble, it looks like everyone is interested in your “stuff,” whether your “stuff” happens to be alien abductions or gender studies. But from the outside the bubble, it’s just the spectacle of the thing. It’s something to talk about over beer after work, where “work” in this case means something like fixing people’s carburetors or servicing their HVAC units.

        I realize this might be an unfair criticism to make of an academic blog, but it helps keep things in perspective. Jason Brennan often says that the problem with certain corners of the gender studies world is that they’re unrigorous ad hoc political advocacy. This is kind of what the blue collar folks mean when they liken it to underwater basket weaving, they just don’t have the academic vocabulary to put it that way.

  • pierre menard

    This post seems significantly overstated. The points it makes are valid, but they do not quite add up to the conclusion “the hoax failed.” The journal seems to have respectable academics as editors. It may not be a top-tiered venue (to put it lightly), but all speculations here about their peer-review process are just that — speculations. Lindsay and Boghossian have stated they did not pay anything to publish this article. It’s somewhat misleading to say the journal is “Pay to Publish” — you can simply decline to pay their fees and they’ll publish the paper regardless (the journal advertises this on its pages). The other papers published by this journal appear to be respectable. Saying “we have no evidence anyone was fooled” is unconvincing, since you wouldn’t expect there to be evidence — who wants to come forward now that the paper has been revealed as a hoax and admit they were fooled?

    Sure, it would have been better if a well-known venue specializing in gender studies has published this. That is to say, all the counterpoints brought up in this post add up to the (much weaker) conclusion “the hoax has not been as successful as it could have been.”

    • James Taylor

      But since there’s *no* evidence that anyone was fooled, why isn’t it fair to say that there is *no* evidence that anyone was fooled? The evidence that this was successful should have been provided *at the time of revelation*. The “evidence” that Lindsay and Boghossian provided focused mainly on their claim that the editors of NORMA liked the paper, thought it worth publishing, and suggested Cogent as a better fit–claims that have turned out to be false.

      Lindsay and Boghossian have stated that they agreed to pay $625, but haven’t done so as they were not pressed for this. (So it seems that we can add contract violation to their list of offenses!)

      The journal requires a minimum fee to publish–this is explicitly stated on their website. They do say that they might waive this for persons from low-income countries, replicating a standard offer made by reputable science journals.

      • pierre menard

        > Lindsay and Boghossian have stated that they agreed to pay $625..

        Do you have a source for this?

        For what it’s worth, this is a respectable model for journals in the sciences. You submit a paper, the journal asks you & your institution for money, you ignore their emails, and the paper gets published. It works because some institutions actually will pay. It is not quite pay to publish (since you usually publish without paying). It seems like the Cogent “pay what you can” model explicitly allows for this.

        It thus matters quite a bit to this discussion whether Lindsay and Boghossian were *approached* to pay $625 or whether they *agreed* to it. Do you have a source for the latter?

        • James Taylor

          I agree that this is standard *in the sciences*. As I noted in my first post on this issue this raises many red flags *in the humanities* where journals with open access and everyone is asked to pay to publish are almost invariably scams. The source for the agreement is in their original article on this failed hoax, as well as in other posts where they say that they had secured third-party funding. See:

          • pierre menard

            Models migrate across disciplines. This journal clearly is not a scam (just look at its editorial board and browse the other articles in it). I’ve read the original article, but see no statement there that Lindsay and Boghossian agreed to pay $625; the L & B article merely says that the journal was ready to publish after this payment.

    • James Taylor

      Cogent’s response to this includes this gem: “We are reviewing our academic editor and peer reviewer education program to ensure editors and peer reviewers are fully equipped with the skills they need to assess whether a paper is fit for publication.”

      I wonder how much time other (real) journals take to educate their editors and referees so that they can competently assess the papers submitted to them? That a journal has such a program casts even more doubt on the credibility of its “review” process.

  • James Taylor

    It seems that Cogent Social Sciences have now added “data” on their rejection rate to their website, listing it as 61%. I believe that this is a *very* recent addition to their website (i.e., post-revelation), and note too that it’s usual to provide acceptance rates, rather than rejection rates. Make of this what you will!

  • Spencer

    Why isn’t the statement issued by Cogent, that the paper was reviewed and accepted by two reviewers, *some* evidence that it did fool those people? There’s no decisive evidence that the statement is a fabrication.

    • James Taylor

      I address this in paragraphs 10 – 15, above!

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