Last year’s ‘Conceptual Penis’ hoax featured a parody gender studies paper rejected by a range of publications and finally published in a dodgy, pay-to-publish one. I wrote about it here. They claimed that publication was indicative of corruption and ideology in gender studies.
My core gripe wasn’t the overblown conclusions – it was the intent and the tone of the hoax – orchestrated largely in the context of anxiety around the way diversity and inclusion manifest on American university campuses.
The follow-up carries the same tone, but on a larger scale – it has roughly one and a half years of effort plugged into it – 11,630 words, Youtube clips (including a documentary-style video), a press kit and an accompanying photo shoot.
The authors, now three, re-brand themselves as deep-cover embedded gonzo journalists, exposing the rot of what they label “grievance studies”:
“After having spent a year immersed and becoming recognised experts within [“grievance studies”] fields, in addition to witnessing the divisive and destructive effects when activists and social media mobs put it to use, we can now state with confidence that it is neither essentially good nor sound”
Like the ‘Conceptual Penis’ before it, the heart of their gripe with a collection of specific fields is both a lack of scientific rigour and a perceived antagonism towards science:
“That is, for grievance studies scholars, science itself and the scientific method are deeply problematic, if not outright racist and sexist, and need to be remade to forward grievance-based identitarian politics over the impartial pursuit of truth”
This new effort is not a systematic, carefully controlled and well-reasoned take-down of a corrupt collection of fields. It’s confusing, poorly argued and contradictory. What’s more important is why it exists – to further a separate and significant political agenda, and to serve content to a specific, willing audience.
There’s plenty of signposts planted throughout their work – signals tuned to the frequency of every male academic feeling hard done by diversity targets, and unnerved by shouty protests. Their summary video is inter-cut with footage of campus protests, and activists being dragged screaming from lecture halls.
Those worried about free speech in universities gauge the worth of academic output by how much they giggle at its claims, rather than critical, published and peer reviewed inquiry. This is a significant project of hypocrisy and mean spiritedness. It doesn’t help science. It fuels grins and back-slapping.
The clearest signal is the creation of the term ‘grievance studies’ – a pre-loaded insinuation. Like ‘social justice warrior’ and ‘virtue signalling’, it’s tribal identification, a polysyllabic euphemism for standard derision, and most importantly, the labelling of a common enemy.
It’s a significant rhetorical decision that draws a clear shape around the intent of their project. They’re not here to help. This isn’t what helping looks like.
Is it science, or is it lulz
The point of their spear is a collection of fake journal articles they broadcast to a range of journals, some of which were accepted and published. Their project is presented in a quasi-scientific format, with quasi-academic language – it features an introduction, methods and discussion.
“So far, what we’re learning is rather astonishing, but the data we’ve gathered require more analysis to fully comprehend”
“We have uncovered enough evidence to suggest that [political] corruption is pervasive among many disciplines”
Despite the references to data collection and evidence, there’s no analysis in this piece. There’s no table, no chart and no tests of significance. But this happens a lot – their project flits rapidly between the joy of lulz and the language of science. Are they gathering data, or just making a satirical point?
The start of their project involved a collection of hoax papers, written in the style of their previous ‘Conceptual Penis’ work – but they quickly abandoned this approach, due to what is implied in their video as a series of rejections. Hang on. How many rejections were there? From which journals? The authors seem to have discarded and obscured this initial phase, intentionally obscuring data points that contradict a hypothesis they’ve already decided is true.
They then switch from hoax to deception, to the effortful fabrication of data, outright lies about identity, and the stringing along of reviewers, who were, in good faith, assuming they weren’t lying or being deceptive:
The ramping up of these elements of deception and trickery struck an immediate and obvious chord with both critics and defenders. It’s been justified as ‘white hat’ hacking of a corrupt system, and it’s been criticised as pointless, cruel and bad-faith trolling.
If their argument is that vulnerability to deception is unique to these fields, they’re wrong. Many scientific fields feature shocking and impactful acts of fraud discovered well after their publication:
- The fraudulent creation of Element 116 (honestly, I’m almost impressed), published in Physical Review Letters.
- A former Harvard University psychologist who fabricated and falsified data, which was published in several journals, including Cognition.
- Andrew Wakefield’s notorious publication of a fake study in the British Medical Journal, seen largely as a launchpad for the modern anti-vaccination movement.
- German physicist Jan Hendrick Schön “received the 2001 Otto-Klung-Weberbank Prize for Physics in 2001, the 2001 Braunschweig Prize and the 2002 Outstanding Young Investigator Award of the Materials Research Society”. Wow, cool! Oh no, wait. Science withdrew eight articles, Physical review withdrew six, Applied Physics Letters withdrew four, Science withdrew another, Advanced Materials withdrew two, Nature withdrew seven.
- Shinichi ‘divine hands’ Fujimura, renowned for his ability to discover stone artefacts, was photographed digging holes to “bury tools that he later announced as major finds”. Textbooks were re-written.
- Jon Sudbø “admitted creating some 900 fictitious patients in a 2005 Lancet paper on the effect of certain painkillers on oral cancer risk in smokers, since retracted”, and it was found that more than 30 of his publications were invalid.
- Yoshitaka Fujii made up data in 172 studies, and now has 183 retractions to his name.
- Anil Potti had 11 papers retracted from major medical journals in 2012, in another high-profile case of fraud.
The standard set by Pluckrose et al is: a non-zero quantity of made up information published in a field as sufficient to indict it of political corruption, with no controls or comparisons to other fields. It turns out that with enough time and effort, you can dupe scientific journals into publishing falsehoods too. Is science corrupt?
Of course, this isn’t a good standard. Unless you come to the party carrying pre-prepared gripes under your arm, these indictment-by-hoax/fraud efforts are meaningless. Like the ‘Conceptual Penis’ before it, there are parallels and equivalents in so many other fields. The reason their torch shines a narrow beam is because this project is about a collection of deeply held and strongly felt gripes with a specific group of people, not about the protecting the methods of truthful inquiry.
Why does this exist?
I think the conflicting and confusing nature of their project isn’t just clumsiness – it’s necessary. Consider the many contradictions and confusions that have taken form since they announced their ruse:
- The authors ostensibly identify as left-wing liberals (small l, in the American sense), but much of their work has been picked up by right or centre-right outlets (‘Sky News After Dark’, and Andrew Bolt, in Australia are perfect examples of this).
- Their work is quasi-scientific, but it’s also a joke (see videos of the authors giggling uncontrollably at the reviewer comments and responses from journals).
- They say they did this purely to help and assist clean up these fields, but the authors also distribute articles diagnosing social science as ‘insane’ on Twitter.
- In the video, their plea is, in their words, ‘to all the progressives and minority groups’ (appended with footage of a brown dude, in case you weren’t sure), but their project has been championed by a homogeneous and specific tribe pointedly lacking representation from those same groups.
The stark differences between the claimed intentions of the piece and the way it is realised and received in the real world, are far more telling than the shaky critical foundation of their discoveries. Clumsy and contradictory design smooths the take-up of their work among groups vastly different to those they claim to be speaking to in their post.
This project will not be successful in weeding out academic corruption, nor will it improve any legitimate inquiry. It is a tightrope walk performed to maximise congratulatory fervour within a pre-defined collection of campus free-speech anxiety dudes, perpetrated through bad-faith and a mean spirit.
It’s fascinating to compare the quiet pleading of the authors for their work not to be used as an attack on universities and academia, and the incredible, boisterous march of far-right Australian columnists and commentators who saw it as proof that universities are corrupt, left-wing institutions that ought to be defunded.
Outside of Australia’s right-wing fever swamp, the project struck a more militant note – with one particularly popular thread calling for X-Factor style humiliation of academics:
It’s easy to dismiss this as ‘guilt by association’, but the intersecting Venn circles of the alt-right, ‘classic liberals’ and a cleaved-off sub-set of atheists and skeptics are all important when it comes to picking apart the motivations of this project.
The signposts planted in this work are there to draw support from those who hate campus progressives, not those who love science and progress, and it is therefore impossible a collection of right-wing personalities famous for their garbling of science and evidence won’t be caught in the net of celebration:
The reviewers of the journals targeted in this project took the faked submissions on good faith and with open-hearted charity.
When it comes to the claim that this was a generous and constructive effort to help weed out flaws in gender studies, I propose we pay more attention to the ideological cravings it satisfied, rather than the written intentions of the authors. That, I suspect, serves as far more enlightening an explanatory tool than taking them on their word.
This was part of a broader political project – only scientific enough to serve the pre-set purpose of a long-running battle around diversity, free speech and ideology in universities, and cruelly mocking enough to light the fire of support from people who already subscribe to this inflated and imagined narrative of campus pugilism.