If you rewrote a chapter from Hitler’s Mein Kampf using current feminist jargon and submitted it to a respected feminist journal, would they agree to publish it? How about a paper suggesting dog parks are rampant sites for canine rape culture? Or one that explores the threat of “metasexual violence” from (private) masturbation? You can probably guess the answer but read on for the details.
A trio of academics decided to explore the current state of peer-reviewed publishing in the humanities by writing bogus papers to see if there were any limits to what was acceptable. Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian (I wrote about their discussion of intersectionality as a religion earlier this year) wanted to see if highly respected journals covering areas like feminist studies, gender studies, fat studies, etc. would bite on papers that were intentionally written as nonsense.
Their initial efforts were a failure. It turned out that creating a word salad of feminist jargon was not enough to be accepted in high profile journals. Rather than give up, the group decided to dig in and try to understand the field better. Once they had a grasp on what was already being published, they quickly wrote 20 bogus papers. Seven of those were accepted for publication by various journals and several others were pending rewrites and probably would have been accepted if the authors hadn’t been forced to call off the experiment early. For comparison purposes, seven papers is the average number you would need to publish over seven years in order to secure tenure at most universities. The authors estimate at least 10 of the 20 would have been accepted given more time. And they could have kept churning these out and had one or two new papers accepted for publication every month, for as long as they wanted to continue.
They key point here is that the papers themselves were written not as an attempt to expand knowledge but as pure sophistry. Each one started with an absurd premise and then used the contours of social justice thought, what the authors call “grievance studies,” to make the premise seem plausible. From Aero Magazine, here’s the author’s own summary of some of the papers in question:
Sometimes we just thought a nutty or inhumane idea up and ran with it. What if we write a paper saying we should train men like we do dogs—to prevent rape culture? Hence came the “Dog Park” paper. What if we write a paper claiming that when a guy privately masturbates while thinking about a woman (without her consent—in fact, without her ever finding out about it) that he’s committing sexual violence against her? That gave us the “Masturbation” paper. What if we argue that the reason superintelligent AI is potentially dangerous is because it is being programmed to be masculinist and imperialist using Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Lacanian psychoanalysis? That’s our “Feminist AI” paper. What if we argued that “a fat body is a legitimately built body” as a foundation for introducing a category for fat bodybuilding into the sport of professional bodybuilding? You can read how that went in Fat Studies.
At other times, we scoured the existing grievance studies literature to see where it was already going awry and then tried to magnify those problems. Feminist glaciology? Okay, we’ll copy it and write a feminist astronomy paper that argues feminist and queer astrology should be considered part of the science of astronomy, which we’ll brand as intrinsically sexist. Reviewers were very enthusiastic about that idea. Using a method like thematic analysis to spin favored interpretations of data? Fine, we wrote a paper about trans people in the workplace that does just that. Men use “male preserves” to enact dying “macho” masculinities discourses in a way society at large won’t accept? No problem. We published a paper best summarized as, “A gender scholar goes to Hooters to try to figure out why it exists.” “Defamiliarizing,” common experiences, pretending to be mystified by them and then looking for social constructions to explain them? Sure, our “Dildos” paper did that to answer the questions, “Why don’t straight men tend to masturbate via anal penetration, and what might happen if they did?” Hint: according to our paper in Sexuality and Culture, a leading sexualities journal, they will be less transphobic and more feminist as a result.
We used other methods too, like, “I wonder if that ‘progressive stack’ in the news could be written into a paper that says 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.’” That was our “Progressive Stack” paper. The answer seems to be yes, and feminist philosophy titan Hypatia has been surprisingly warm to it. Another tough one for us was, “I wonder if they’d publish a feminist rewrite of a chapter from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” The answer to that question also turns out to be “yes,” given that the feminist social work journal Affilia has just accepted it. As we progressed, 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.
All of these papers had an element of humor to them. For instance, the paper on meta-sexual violence was titled: “Rubbing One Out: Defining Metasexual Violence of Objectification Through Nonconsensual Masturbation.” But the reviewers seemed to find it entirely plausible. The paper about Hooters was titled: “An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant.” One reviewer wrote of this paper, “I agree that the breastaurant is an important site for critical masculinities research that has been neglected in the extant literature and this study has the potential to make a significant contribution.” Even the paper which suggested white students should be forced to listen to lectures while chained on the floor received positive responses such as “it is great that the author is trying to suggest some specific approaches.”
The experiment had to be called off after some outside observers caught on to what was happening and the Wall Street Journal started asking questions. But it ran long enough for the trio to draw some conclusions about what is driving this:
This problem is most easily summarized as an overarching (almost or fully sacralized) belief that many common features of experience and society are socially constructed. These constructions are seen as being nearly entirely dependent upon power dynamics between groups of people, often dictated by sex, race, or sexual or gender identification. All kinds of things accepted as having a basis in reality due to evidence are instead believed to have been created by the intentional and unintentional machinations of powerful groups in order to maintain power over marginalized ones. This worldview produces a moral imperative to dismantle these constructions…
Any scholarship that proceeds from radically skeptical assumptions about objective truth by definition does not and cannot find objective truth. Instead it promotes prejudices and opinions and calls them “truths.” For radical constructivists, these opinions are specifically rooted a political agenda of “Social Justice” (which we have intentionally made into a proper noun to distinguish it from the type of real social progress falling under the same name). Because of critical constructivism, which sees knowledge as a product of unjust power balances, and because of this brand of radical skepticism, which rejects objective truth, these scholars are like snake-oil salespeople who diagnose our society as being riddled with a disease only they can cure. That disease, as they see it, is endemic to any society that forwards the agency of the individual and the existence of objective (or scientifically knowable) truths.
Having spent a year doing this work ourselves, we understand why this fatally flawed research is attractive, how it is factually wrong in its foundations, and how it is conducive to being used for ethically dubious overreach. We’ve seen, studied, and participated in its culture through which it “proves” certain problems exist and then advocates often divisive, demeaning, and hurtful treatments we’d all do better without.
I recommend you read the full write-up at Aero Magazine if you have time (it’s long) but if not, here’s a video summarizing the endeavor. Note, this video is titled “part 2.” Part 1, which deals with similar topics, is also worth a look and is available here: