• ‘Conceptual Penis’ Underappreciated, Overblown

    You’ve probably heard of the “Conceptual Penis” kerfuffle by now; it has been all over my skeptic- and freethought-related social feeds.

    The basic story goes something like this: A philosopher (Peter Boghossian) and a mathematician (James Lindsay) put together a flagrantly nonsensical gender-studies-themed paper filled with post-modernist jargon, submitted it to NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, got redirected therefrom to the pay-to-play journal Cogent OA, where the paper was published following peer review from a couple of scholars in the relevant field. The paper was later revealed as a hoax and subsequently pulled offline (archived copy available here).

    Judging by my extended social circles—admittedly a limited approach—the paper was acclaimed by skeptics while generally condemned among social justice activists, with all the usual rancor and recrimination we’ve come to expect since the great divorce. Aside from the shirts-vs-skins aspect of this controversy, rooted in competing and irreconcilable ideologies, there are a few lessons which we should all be able to appreciate, regardless of personal outlook.

    1. Impenetrable prose may be impossible for us to decode because it refers to complex real-world phenomena which we do not personally understand (e.g. classical gauge theory), or it may be nonsense through-and-through (e.g. the so-called “conceptual penis”). Skeptics and rationalists must take care not to confuse the two, nor to hastily presume one without considering the other.
    2. Allowing a hoax paper through does indeed reflect upon the quality of peer review at a particular publication, especially a paper written by people who admit to having no expertise in the field and who disclaim any attempts at making coherent arguments.
    3. A single hoax cannot tell us much about the state of an academic field as a whole, unless the paper is favorably referenced in high-impact journals with well-established reputations in that field. This approach would require allowing a hoax paper to go unnoticed (as such) for an extended period of time.
    4. There are countless examples of perfectly earnest gender studies publications which only slightly less bizarrely nonsensical than the paper under discussion here. See RealPeerReview on Twitter for entertaining examples, some of which will have you half-wondering whether academic hoaxes are actually a pervasive problem.
    5. Sokal-style hoaxes serve to put editors and reviewers on notice, demanding a certain sensitivity to the possibility of printing utter bollocks. Ideally, this should lead to tighter publication standards, at least in journals enjoying a sound epistemic approach.
    6. Before throwing references to an academic journal around—as so often happens in skeptical discussions—we should check to see if the article or publication cited have significant impact within their own fields. (I’ve run afoul of this rule more times than I’d care to admit.)

    I’m sure that there are other lessons to be drawn here, having to do with the disparate standards of review in disparate fields or the utility of post-structuralist discourse analysis in particular (anyone?) but such things are well above my pay grade.

    Your thoughts?



    Category: HumorSkepticism

    Article by: Damion Reinhardt

    Former fundie finds freethought fairly fab.
    • “the paper was acclaimed by skeptics while generally condemned among social justice activists”.

      It was acclaimed by self described skeptics but I would not label them skeptics. You can agree with the conclusion that Gender Studies has massive academic failings but you can’t say that this “hoax” proves anything. It doesn’t. Every field suffers from predatory journals that allow throw bunk articles. Didn’t Rebecca Watson uses articles from predatory journals to attack Evo Psych a while back? This is the same thing. It certainly isn’t similar to Sokal.

      What’s worrying is many self proclaimed skeptics tweeted it out without question because they agreed with its conclusion. And none that I have seen have retracted their support or raised an eyebrow since it has been revealed the journal in question is not of high standing. Skeptics fell for confirmation bias and refuse to alter their viewpoint despite the evidence. Of all the lessons to be learnt from this hoax I think that is the most concerning.

      • “You can agree with the conclusion that Gender Studies has massive academic failings but you can’t say that this ‘hoax’ proves anything.”

        Not even anything about the journal which published it?

      • It shows the Journal is predatory and has no standards. But nobody is disputing that and this doesn’t come as a shock as predatory journals exist across the entirety of academia.

      • Why couldn’t we say the same of the original Sokal hoax? He only submitted to a single journal, IIRC.

      • Because that wasn’t published in a predatory journal, it was published in a regarded journal that specialised in the topic Sokal wrote about and was peer reviewed in academics in that field. None of that can be said of this “hoax”.

        Edit: actually if I remember correctly Sokal’s paper wasn’t peer reviewed, but neither was the “hoax”. Also, even Sokal said this didn’t say too much of the entire field. Boghossian and Lindsay aren’t so humble. Another difference is Sokal got it published in the first try. The “hoax” was rejected by a journal that isn’t even in the top 100 journals then they were reduced to publishing in a predatory journal.

      • On the matter of peer review in particular, I’d expect Cogent OA to be more thorough than Social Text was back in the mid-90s. Compare:

        “The editors did not seek peer review of the article by physicists or otherwise; they later defended this decision on the basis that Social Text was a journal for open intellectual inquiry and the article was not offered as a contribution to the physics discipline.” – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair

        “Cogent Social Sciences is a multidisciplinary open access journal offering high quality peer review across the social sciences: from law to sociology, politics to geography, and sport to communication studies. Connect your research with a global audience for maximum readership and impact.” – http://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/conceptual-penis-social-contruct-sokal-style-hoax-on-gender-studies/

        Cogent prides itself on peer review, whereas Social Text excused itself from the process.

      • See my edit above. I am unsure if the hoax was peer reviewed. It says they do but that proves nothing. And even if it was peer reviewed it I don’t think it was by anyone within the field of gender studies.

        These facts are unknown and the fact we have Skeptics running around waving victory flags is an embarrassment.

        This really exposes it for what it is

      • I’ve seen a bit of the Cogent reviewer feedback; it didn’t seem particularly thorough, but at least one reviewer knew what a “poststructuralist discursive analysis” is supposed to look like. (I don’t, naturally.)

        That aside, I’m not sure what would really warrant waving around metaphorical victory flags when it comes to hoaxing academic feminism. Maybe getting into one of the more prominent journals? Perhaps not revealing the hoax by prematurely ejaculating on another forum? Possibly waiting to see if favorable citations roll in?

        As to Massimo’s (generally well-balanced and thoughtful) post, I’m not seeing a huge gap between what he concluded and what B&L did.

        “X Studies are potentially problematic, and they probably ought to undergo academic review as a concept, as well as be subjected to sustained, external scholarly criticism.” – Massimo Pigliucci

        “As we see it, gender studies in its current form needs to do some serious housecleaning.” – Boghossian & Lindsay

      • B and L’s opinion of gender studies isn’t the issue. It’s the idea that this “hoax” lends any proof to that opinion. Pigliucci’s did not use the hoax as evidence towards his opinion. B and L did and then some. Then it was championed by other Skeptics as if it cement their previous existing opinions of gender studies. To see so many Skeptics fall prey to confirmation bias then stand behind it despite the evidnece is troubling.

      • “It’s the idea that this ‘hoax’ lends any proof to that opinion.”

        Any hoax perpetrated upon a single journal should incrementally alter our opinion of that journal’s field only to the extent said journal is prominent in said field. I remain unconvinced that Social Text was once largely influential in its own field, but perhaps it was. The editors did not bother with any peer review at the time, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. From where I’m sitting the main difference between Sokal and Boghossian is that the former urged caution about drawing overbroad conclusions.

      • sezit

        Wow, wow, wow. Thank you for this link. What a clear and informative piece.

    • sezit

      A very good assessment of the issues surrounding this publication is at http://seriouspod.com/

      • I gave it a listen, but Thomas seems to peremptorily discount the possibility that Cogent Social Sciences managed to find a couple of reviewers with significant expertise in the social sciences. Not sure why he does this, to be honest.

      • sezit

        He was very clear why he discounted the legitimacy of their peer review, and I agree with his assessment.

        1. The journal’s editors do not have expertise in the subject matter.

        2. The peer review comments are boilerplate and almost copycat of other peer review commentary.

        3. The journal has no ranking that would provide it a benefit of the doubt.

        Why are you so willing to provide benefit of the doubt to a very obviously shoddy effort?

      • 1. Probably false

        2. Certainly false.

        3. It is a rather new journal.