The Emperor Has No References: Academic Hoaxes Since Sokal

Gustav Jönsson | 15 May 2018


Two decades on since Alan Sokal inaugurated the art of hoaxing verbose academic journals with turgid nonsense, the joke is alive and well.

See how willing they are to accept the wildest nonsense” scribbled Moses Herzog, in one of his famous unsent letters, writing about the overzealous evening-class attendees at his maddening academic institution. Bellow’s hero here takes aim at a perennial pest, for the list of academia’s frauds and shysters is as long as your arm, but it was the physicist Alan Sokal who, in 1996, dealt perhaps the sharpest blow to academically respected babble. Sokal was convinced that post-modernist journals would publish next to anything, provided it was along leftist leanings and packaged within sufficiently obscurantist language, and so decided to test his thesis.


He wrote an article that was pure nonsense, thinking that a nonsense text could get accepted if it cited the established obscurantists and flatteringly quoted the journal’s editor. Sure enough, the respected (though marginal) journal Social Text accepted and published Sokal’s article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”. The title was condensed gibberish and the rest of the text followed suit. This jargon workout managed to get away with passages like “it is imperative to restructure and redefine the institutional loci in which scientific labor takes place – universities, government labs, and corporations – and reframe the reward system that pushes scientists to become, often against their own better instincts, the hired guns of capitalists and the military.”


After such an embarrassment to some of the most respected post-structuralist academics, it might be expected that standards improved. No such luck.  Here follows some of last year’s best attempts to take down jargonized academic fields.

The year had a strong start. A paper authored by Dr Martin Van Nostrand (real name John McCool) of the non-existent Arthur Vandelay Urological Research Institute was published in Urology & Nephrology Open Access Journal. McCool, no Urology expert, was surprised when the journal approached him asking if he wanted to contribute to their publication with an article on urology. The journal, McCool soon learned, is a “predatory” journal – asking for a publication fee of $799 despite not editing and peer-reviewing properly.


Spotting an opportunity for some fun, McCool decided to prank the journal. McCool based his entire article on an episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry invents the fictional disease “uromycitisis” to avoid a fine for public urination. Uromycitisis, Jerry explains, leads to a rare kind of poisoning unless the sufferer urinates regularly, clearing him to do so in public. The officer in the sitcom was not convinced, but amazingly the urology journal was, and promptly published the text with only minor revisions.


As it was published by a scarcely respected and “predatory” journal, McCool’s hoax fails to reach heights of Sokal, but its good-humoured punchiness is considerable. (McCool did not pay the publication fee, and nor is he planning to.)


In July, another fine hoax was fielded. Dr Lucas McGeorge and Annette Kin got their paper on “midichlorians” published in four academic journals. That it was a spoof paper should have been easy to notice. The text itself was ripped from the Wikipedia entry on mitochondria and sprinkled with Star Wars references. Somehow the throw-away citation on “sinister buttocks” and “dopaminergic neurons using magic” passed the supposed peer-review. Perhaps the phrase “midichloria perform functions such as Force sensitivity” should have raised red flags; or maybe “Yoda’s ataxia, hereditary spastic paraplegia, and Wookie’s disease”; or perhaps the lengthy monologue by Emperor Palpatine should have given the game away. But no, even referencing “Fett B”, “Solo H”, “Bacca C”, “Kenobi OW”, and “Skywalker L” was not enough to get the paper rejected by some journals.


Several journals did reject the Star Wars paper; but the spoof was so obvious that this should not impress anyone. Also, predatory journals are so called for a reason: they’ll naturally publish any tosh to make a buck. One journal employed two peer-reviewers who actually spotted the Star Wars allusions, but suggested that “Lucas et al., 1977, Palpatine et al., 1980, and Calrissian et al., 1983” be added to the list of references. Yet that journal still asked for the paper to be revised and resubmitted. Another journal, the Continuous Research Online Library, purporting to publish “rigorous articles” even offered Dr Lucas McGeorge a place on its editorial board.


But this Star Wars hoax shares a weakness with the Seinfeld one. Neither went for well regarded journals. Thus, at most they proved what everyone already knows: that there are junk journals. Sokal’s hoax has become famous because it punctured the egos of some of the most over inflated windbags in social studies. Social Text is published by Duke University Press and had at the time of the hoax prominent academics such as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross on its board. Unlike the journals in the aforementioned hoaxes, Social Text had a reputation to lose.


Perhaps the best of last year’s hoaxes, however, was Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay’s “The Conceptual Penis”, touted as a “Sokal-style hoax”.


“The Conceptual Penis” is a rollicking read. It begins with nonsense and continues onwards to absurdity. “The conceptual penis”, it begins, “is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity”. Then the paper asserts that “manspreading” is akin to “raping the empty space” and that it is “best understood via the machismo braggadocio isomorphism”. The paper is a word salad that even the authors admit they cannot understand, featuring obvious give-aways like “pre-post-patriarchal society” and a long list of lewd penis slang (“heat-seeking moisture missile”). Then, to top it off, the authors claim that the conceptual penis is responsible for climate change because of how “virgin environments” can be “cheaply despoiled for their material resources and left dilapidated and diminished when our patriarchal approach to economic gain have stolen their inherent worth.”


It is worth noting, however, that whilst Boghossian and Lindsay claim that their hoax shows that social and gender studies suffer from an “echo-chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense”, the hoax actually fails to prove this.  Sokal himself, commenting on the hoax in Skeptic, noted some of its flaws. First, it was published in a general social studies journal, not in a gender studies journal, and therefore fails to undermine gender studies itself. Secondly, the paper was originally rejected by a mediocre gender studies journal and would almost certainly have been rejected by a prestigious one.  The hoax only shows that a rather marginal publication - one Cogent Social Science – was negligent in its peer-review process. But it did produce laughter – not at all an unworthy aim.


But even when they fail in their primary objectives, academic hoaxes achieve minor miracles – they see something funny published in an academic journal – and there is also a pro bono aspect to the best of them. Several academic subjects and reputations are undoubtedly ripe for ridicule, and with some luck we may see more of them deflated this year.

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