The penis story that didn’t stand up
William Reville: Reputable social science journal fell for paper ‘deliberately constructed to be complete, comical nonsense’
Fake story was written in the jargon typical of gender studies papers
On May 19th last, two researchers under the names Jamie Lindsay and Peter Boyle, published a hoax gender studies paper, entitled The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct, in the peer-reviewed, pay-to-publish social science journal Cogent Social Sciences. The paper was written in the jargon typical of gender studies papers but was deliberately constructed to be completely, even comically, nonsensical. The authors revealed the hoax in the magazine Skeptic. Cogent Social Sciences withdrew the paper but the fact that this paper was so easily published should seriously concern those who work in the gender studies field.
The real identities of the two authors are Dr Peter Boghossian, Department of Philosophy, Portland State University, and Dr James Lindsay, a mathematician and author of four books. The paper was submitted to Cogent Social Sciences from a fictitious group called “The Southeast Independent Social Research Group”.
The abstract of the paper, the first thing a reviewer would read, should have sounded alarm bells. It begins: “Anatomical penises may exist, but as pre-operative transgendered women also have anatomical penises, the penis vis-a-viz maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood, not as an anatomical organ, but as a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity.”
The authors go on to absurdly relate the conceptual penis to climate change: “Toxic hyper-masculinity derives its significance directly from the conceptual penis and applies itself to supporting neo-capitalistic materialism, which is a fundamental driver of climate change, especially in the rampant use of carbon emitting fossil fuel technologies and careless domination of virgin natural environments.”
In their Sceptic magazine article, the authors describe how they laced the article with impenetrable jargon and deliberately made it nonsensical. “We read it (the paper) carefully to ensure it didn’t say anything meaningful, and as neither of us could determine what it is actually about, we deemed it a success.”
The purpose of the hoax was to make a comment on gender studies. “We wrote an absurd paper loosely composed in the style of post-structuralist discursive gender theory. The paper was ridiculous by intention, essentially arguing that penises shouldn’t be thought of as male genital organs but as damaging social constructions. We made no attempt to find out what “post-structuralist discursive gender theory” actually means. We assumed that if we were merely clear in our moral implications that maleness is intrinsically bad and that the penis is somehow at the root of it, we would get the paper published in a respectable journal.” (from the Skeptic article).
This Cogent Social Sciences paper follows in the tradition started by New York University physicist Alan Sokal in 1996. Sokal was critical of much social science research and to illustrate his point he composed a social science paper using the conventional trendy jargon but making no sense. He wanted to see if a reputable humanities journal would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good, and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”.
Sokal’s hoax paper was published in the journal Social Text in 1996. This latest Cogent Social Sciences hoax indicates that little has changed since 1996 in the standards used to judge research in social science. Of course it is only fair to point out that hoax scientific papers have also been published in other fields, eg biology.
Two issues must be considered here; firstly, the ease with which papers can now be published in lower-tier pay-to-publish journals and secondly, the nature of gender studies itself. On the first point, although Cogent Social Sciences is a pay-to-publish journal, it is also peer reviewed. But, what sort of peer-review? This paper should never have survived even a minimally-competent review.
On the second point, gender studies is heavily influenced by the loose philosophy of postmodernism and is very susceptible to bias. Postmodernism is sceptical of reason, questions the scientific assumption of objective natural reality and claims that scientific “truths” belong to larger cultural frames. In the words of Boghassian and Lindsay, “this hoax was rooted in moral and political biases masquerading as rigorous academic theory . . . As we see it, gender studies in its current form needs to do some serious house-cleaning.”
William Reville is an emeritus professor of Biochemistry at UCC.