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Thursday, June 15, 2017

What the ‘Conceptual Penis’ Hoax Does and Does Not Prove | The Chronicle of Higher Education

This article was originally published in eSkeptic on June 7 and will appear in the print Skeptic magazine in the Summer 2017 issue. Those versions contain notes and bibliographic references that are omitted here.

Photo: Alan Sokal
"The latest academic fake-out making headlines says less about scholarly standards than you may think." insist Alan Sokal, professor of physics at New York University and a professor of mathematics at University College London. 

Photo: Alex Williamson for The Chronicle Review

Academic hoaxes are nothing new. In 1768 the Baron d’Holbach published the Portable Theology, or Brief Dictionary of the Christian Religion — slyly attributing authorship to the Abbé Bernier — in which he stoutly defended the prevailing Christian dogmas with entries like:

Doctrine: What every good Christian must believe or else be burned, be it in this world or the next. The dogmas of the Christian religion are immutable decrees of God, who cannot change His mind except when the Church does.
Probably not very many people were taken in by the hoax. But d’Holbach’s mordant satire was brilliant nonetheless, and it circulated clandestinely for decades.

In 1931 the physicist Hans Bethe and two colleagues published — while they were still postdoctoral fellows — a short article titled "On the quantum theory of the temperature of absolute zero," in the journal Die Naturwissenschaften, parodying speculative attempts to determine the fundamental constants of nature by numerology Senior physicists were not amused, and the authors were forced to apologize.
In 1943 the young Australian writers James McAuley and Harold Stewart hoaxed the modernist literary journal Angry Penguins into publishing 16 poems allegedly found among the papers of a recently deceased — but, alas, fictitious — poet, Ern Malley:

We opened books at random, choosing a word or phrase haphazardly. We made lists of these and wove them into nonsensical sentences. We misquoted and made false allusions. We deliberately perpetrated bad verse, and selected awkward rhymes from a Ripman’s Rhyming Dictionary.
The hoax was quickly outed in the Australian press, and the editor of Angry Penguins held up to ridicule. But some critics nowadays claim that "crazy as it seems, the Malley poems do have merit."
So there were precedents — most of which I was unaware of at the time — for my parody article, "Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," which was published in the spring/summer 1996 issue of the cultural-studies journal Social Text.
But in the past few years, academic hoaxes seem to have proliferated. In 2014 the French sociologists Manuel Quinon and Arnaud Saint-Martin hoaxed the journal Sociétés — edited at the time by the very media-savvy French sociologist Michel Maffesoli — into publishing a hilarious article gushing over the Parisian rental car Autolib’ as:

a privileged indicator of a macrosocial dynamics underlying the transition of a "modern" episteme to "postmodern" episteme. Through the analysis of the vehicle aesthetics (which is characterized here as poly-identificatory) and its most salient functional features (for instance, the connected electric car illustrates the contemporary topos of "dynamic rootedness"), the article interprets the various socio-anthropological aspects of the "Autolib’ " and finally emphasizes the fact that this small car is, among other things, the product/producer of a new "semantic basin."
In 2016 the French philosophers Anouk Barberousse and Philippe Huneman hoaxed the journal Badiou Studies — "a multilingual, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the philosophy and thought of and surrounding the philosopher, playwright, novelist and poet Alain Badiou" — into publishing an article titled "Ontology, Neutrality and the Strive for (non-)Being-Queer" as part of a special issue, "Towards a Queer Badiousian Feminism." The abstract gives a bit of the flavor:

Since "gender" has been continually the name of a dialectics of the continued institution of gender into an ontological difference and the failure of gendering, it is worth addressing the prospects of any gender-neutral discourse through the tools of Badiousian ontology. As established by Badiou in Being and Event, mathematics — as set theory — is the ultimate ontology. Sets are what gendering processes by reactionary institutions intend to hold, in contradiction to the status of the multiplicities proper to each subject qua subject. This tension between subjectivity and gender comes to the fore through the lens of the ‘count-as-one,’ the ontological operator identified by Badiou as the fluid mediator between set-belonging and set-existence …
And so on for 23 pages. (Curiously enough, Alain Badiou himself is a member of the journal’s editorial board.)

So it was a pleasure to read this year’s contribution to the genre, "The conceptual penis as a social construct," by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay (writing under the pseudonyms Jamie Lindsay and Peter Boyle). I’d like to offer a few brief thoughts, first about the article itself, and secondly about what I think its publication does and does not prove. For it seems to me that this hoax, while both amusing and instructive, proves somewhat less than the authors have claimed for it.

The underlying theme of the article — that hypermasculine "machismo braggadocio" can have negative consequences for both men and women — is not, in and of itself, ridiculous; on the contrary, it is by now a commonplace, accepted by almost everyone (including the authors of the parody). So, beyond that platitude, what is novel in this article that makes it worthy of publication in a scholarly journal of sociology?

The answer, in my humble opinion, is: nothing.

The most telling parts of the article, I think, are the passages in which the authors buttress their claims by citing a provably meaningless article that they had produced using the Postmodernism Generator. For instance:

This tendency [to use the word "dick" as a verb] is easily explained by extrapolation upon McElwaine (1999), who demonstrates clearly that, "Sexual identity is fundamentally used in the service of hierarchy; however, according to Werther (1977), it is not so much sexual identity that is fundamentally used in the service of hierarchy, but rather the dialectic, and hence the defining characteristic, of sexual identity. The subject is contextualised into a subcultural desituationism that includes sexuality as a reality."
The reference list cites five nonexistent articles by nonexistent authors. Even the copy editors at Cogent Social Sciences, it seems, were asleep at the wheel.

But not every sentence in the article is completely meaningless, and not every assertion is made entirely without argument. Even the article’s most amusingly outrageous claim — that "the conceptual penis … is the conceptual driver behind much of climate change" — is supported by some argumentation, however flimsy:

Destructive, unsustainable hegemonically male approaches to pressing environmental policy and action are the predictable results of a raping of nature by a male-dominated mind-set. This mind-set is best captured by recognizing the role of [sic] the conceptual penis holds over masculine psychology. When it is applied to our natural environment, especially virgin environments that can be cheaply despoiled for their material resources and left dilapidated and diminished when our patriarchal approaches to economic gain have stolen their inherent worth, the extrapolation of the rape culture inherent in the conceptual penis becomes clear.
Let me even go out on a limb: it is conceivable that this sketch of an argument — on the connection between masculine psychology and environmental destruction — could be transformed, by marshaling additional evidence, into something halfway convincing. But as it stands, this reasoning would barely merit a C− in a freshman course.
So how did such a worthless article get published? Boghossian and Lindsay opine that

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 ultracompetitive 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 latter prediction was astute, and it has been amply borne out by the commentary thus far on the hoax. But I would like to add some nuances concerning the two "sicknesses" diagnosed by Boghossian and Lindsay, starting with the second.

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education