Oh, the humanities.
Fake news grabbed academia by the tweedy lapels this week, after three scholars confessed to a brazen hoax. Over the last year, Helen Pluckrose, Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay wrote bogus papers, which they submitted to peer-reviewed journals in various fields they now lump together as “grievance studies.”
In one “study,” published in a journal of “feminist geography,” they analyzed “rape culture” in three Portland dog parks: “How do human companions manage, contribute, and respond to violence in dogs?”
In another, using a contrived thesis inspired by Frankenstein and Lacanian psychoanalysis, they argued artificial intelligence is a threat to humanity due to the underlying “masculinist and imperialist” programming.
They advocated for introducing a new category — “fat bodybuilding” — to the muscle-biased sport. They called for “queer astrology” to be included in astronomy. They offered a “feminist rewrite” of a chapter from Hitler’s Mein Kampf. They searched for postmodern answers to ridiculous queries such as: why do straight men enjoy eating at “breastaurants” such as Hooters?
(Hint: it’s not for the chicken wings.)
Hijacking the idea of “progressive stack,” in one paper they concluded “white males in college shouldn’t be allowed to speak in class (or have their emails answered by the instructor), and, for good measure, be asked to sit in the floor in chains so they can ‘experience reparations.’”
This is bonkers. This is to academic inquiry as a Ford Fusion is to space travel.
“As we progressed,” the pranksters explained in an Areo essay, “we started to realize that just about anything can be made to work, so long as it falls within the moral orthodoxy and demonstrates understanding of the existing literature.”
Starting in August 2017, they wrote 20 increasingly outlandish papers and “submitted them to the best journals in the relevant fields.” Incredibly, seven papers were accepted for publication; four have already appeared online.
This triumph of fake news is more bad news for universities.
How could 80 per cent of these papers with preposterous conclusions — in one, the fictitious author claimed private masturbation while thinking about a woman without her knowledge or consent amounted to sexual violence — have gone to full peer review? How could journal editors, presumably smart and rigorous, get bamboozled by claims the average layperson would dismiss as idiotic?
And what does this tell us about the state of the humanities, circa 2018?
Reaction to the hoax within the academic world was sharply divided. Critics have accused the authors of engaging in “bad faith,” of trolling journals for publicity and cheap laughs. They have ascribed dark political motivations to the mockery.
But as the pranksters point out, they are not “racist, sexist, bigoted, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, transhysterical, anthropocentric, problematic, privileged, bullying, far right-wing, cishetero straight white males (and one white female who was demonstrating her internalized misogyny and overwhelming need for male approval) who wanted to enable bigotry, preserve our privilege, and take the side of hate.”
Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon
They are self-described liberals. They are merely exposing what many others have claimed in recent years, namely that radicals are polluting certain disciplines from the inside. These “social justice warriors,” the argument goes, are sacrificing objective truth for social constructivism. They are blowing up enlightenment values and the scientific method to advance agendas in the culture wars.
Whether you are disgusted or delighted by the hoax, this is not an abstraction.
“To many not involved in academia, particularly those who are skeptical of its worth generally, it may seem like we’re addressing yet another obscure academic squabble of little relevance to the real world,” write the authors. “You are mistaken. The problem we’ve been studying is of the utmost relevance to the real world and everyone in it.”
It’s hard to disagree. At a time when other institutions are bending under the weight of mistrust — at a time when the flow of information often winds around partisan and social pylons — universities need to be above the fray.
A university should be a citadel of intellectual freedom, not a bunker in which conclusions are preordained. A university should open minds, not close down reality. A university should champion free speech, not imprison ideas inside mirrored silos that espouse nonsense in the name of a subjective greater good.
The long-term impact of this hoax is tough to predict. But in the present, it should intrigue anyone who cherishes higher education, anyone who cares about reality in an increasingly surreal age.
As the authors write: “We undertook this project to study, understand, and expose the reality of grievance studies, which is corrupting academic research. Because open, good-faith conversation around topics of identity such as gender, race, and sexuality (and the scholarship that works with them) is nearly impossible, our aim has been to reboot these conversations.
“We hope this will give people — especially those who believe in liberalism, progress, modernity, open inquiry, and social justice — a clear reason to look at the identitarian madness coming out of the academic and activist left and say, ‘No, I will not go along with that. You do not speak for me.’”
It may be a hoax, but it’s a very real wake-up call.
Vinay Menon is the Star’s pop culture columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @vinaymenon