Turns out, the paper was part of a massive hoax. Three scholars — Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian — spent 10 months writing 20 fake, performatively absurd academic papers and submitting them to journals of identity studies and critical theory. The trio sought to expose the excesses of what they called “grievance studies:” academic fields that, in their view, had turned from seeking truth to promoting a narrow swath of progressive ideology, with the help of impenetrable jargon.
The hoax submissions were preposterous, though pitch-perfect in tone. One — “Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria, Transhysteria and Transphobia Through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use” — investigated whether straight men should anally self-penetrate to combat rape culture. Another suggested that “Western astronomy” was a sexist and colonialist enterprise that should be corrected through queer astrology. A paper titled “Our Struggle is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism” was literally a partial chapter of “Mein Kampf” rewritten using women’s-studies buzzwords.
Still, by the time Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian were caught out by the Wall Street Journal, seven of their fakes had been accepted for publication in real academic journals.
Predictably, conservatives crowed over these successes as evidence of academia’s dangerous decline into leftism, while liberal academics attempted to play down their implications. But for such a conspicuous sally into the culture wars, the “Sokal Squared” hoax — so named in honor of the original con of this kind, executed by physicist Alan Sokal in 1996 — didn’t get as much attention as you would expect.
Why? Perhaps because much of America was consumed by the political theater of the Supreme Court confirmation fight, which turned out to be a wildly partisan confrontation centered on gender, sex and power. For weeks, liberals and conservatives lobbed ideological buzzwords and inflammatory propositions, seeking to make a point that the other side did not or would not understand.
Hmm. Sounds familiar.
In an essay describing the reasoning behind their hoax, Pluckrose & Co. declared, “Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant,” within certain fields. Replace “scholarship” with “politics,” and it becomes a perfect criticism of our current national discourse — with both left and right at fault.
The key elements of the grievance-studies hoax mirror those of last week’s events. In the battle over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, two tribes organized around closely held identities that relied on narrow preoccupations (liberals: “Believe women!;” conservatives: “Roe v. Wade!”). The dysfunction that followed was the result of straining to buttress those positions rather than seeking an actual common good — which is what, so I’ve heard, politics is actually for.
With Sokal Squared, supposedly rigorous journals on the left proved all too willing to accept any nonsense that aligned with their obsessions. Meanwhile, the researchers, attacking from the right, were willing to act unethically to get their “point” across. The end result? No truth gathered, no new knowledge shared. An exercise in cynicism rather than creation, sowing doubt about the academic enterprise in an era when truth and education are already under attack.
The Kavanaugh debacle was a failure of a similar sort. Both sides — we can argue about which was more culpable — seemed to care more about their partisan preoccupations than what was best for the country in the long term. Democrats weren’t great — was it actually useful for a senator to order all men to “shut up”? — but Republicans were decidedly worse. In a moment of tension and real pain in the lives of women, was muscling a polarizing, sexual-misconduct-tinged figure onto the court truly the most helpful action? What we got in the end was an increase in cynicism and the degradation of an institution — here, our judiciary — that we need now more than ever.
As usual, the academy was ahead of the curve. The Sokal Squared hoax is worth notice, if only because it’s such a perfect distillation of our broader obsessions with ideology and proving others wrong. Now, for better or worse, more research on our own grievances exists.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post
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