Campus Free Speech

No, 'The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct' Hoax Doesn't Prove Gender Studies Is Garbage

Hoax social science paper is more an indictment of pay-to-publish journals than anything else.



Two authors submitted a hoax paper filled with postmodern gobbledygook to an academic journal in order to demonstrate that the field of gender studies lacks rigor: wholly incoherent screeds about "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct" (yep, that was the title of the hoax paper) will pass muster.

The authors, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, succeeded in a very narrow sense—a journal did agree to publish their paper. But they did not prove their larger point, since the journal that accepted "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct" is Cogent Social Sciences, a kind of vanity publisher that requires its writers to pay a fee.

Boghossian, a philosophy professor at Portland State University, and Lindsay, a mathematician and author, were attempting a Sokal-esque scheme—Alan Sokal being the author of a very famous hoax paper, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," which was published by the leftist academic journal Social Text. But Boghossian and Lindsay were turned down by their initial target, NORMA: The International Journal of Men's Studies. The fact that Cogent agreed to publish their work—for a fee—isn't exactly powerful evidence that the field of gender studies is, as Boghossian and Lindsay put it, suffering from a "deeply troublesome disease."

"Having managed to pay for a paper to be published in a deeply suspect journal the hoaxers then conclude that the entire field of Gender Studies is suspect," writes James Taylor of Bleeding Heart Libertarians in a highly critical post. "How they made this deductive leap is actually far more puzzling than how the paper got accepted."

Hank Reichman points out that the experiment works better as a critique of pay-to-publish journals, rather than as an indictment of gender studies:

Interestingly, the hoax could have been viewed as a useful exposure of pay-to-publish journals. And the authors do dedicate some of their Skeptic piece to discussing the problem of predatory publishing. They write that "in the short term, pay-to-publish may be a significant problem because of the inherent tendencies toward conflicts of interest (profits trump academic quality, that is, the profit motive is dangerous because ethics are expensive)." But that was not the reason Boghossian and Lindsay published their piece or submitted their hoax.

To be sure, there are some real problems with gender studies as a field. "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct" was a deliberate hoax, but "Women's Studies as Virus: Institutional Feminism and the Projection of Danger," was real enough. (Feminist authors: feminism is cancer—but that's a good thing!) And who can forget that paper about feminizing glaciers?

But, if the main criticism of gender studies is that it's unscientific and dogmatic, the field's critics should be careful about not falling prey to dogma themselves. Skeptics ought to be more, well, skeptical.