Skeptic » Reading Room » Cogent Criticisms A Point-by-Point Reply to Criticisms of the “Conceptual Penis” Hoax

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Cogent Criticisms
A Point-by-Point Reply to Criticisms of
the “Conceptual Penis” Hoax

On May 19, 2017, we published a parody-style hoax paper titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” in an academic journal called Cogent Social Sciences. Immediately upon publication we revealed the hoax on skeptic.com. A great deal of congratulation and criticism followed, with accompanying demands that we address our critics. What follows is a point-by-point reply to 10 popular criticisms.

1. Criticism: The journal is a vanity journal that publishes anything.

Whatever the journal’s problems, this is completely false, unless the journal is lying about its rejection rate. On its landing page, Cogent Social Sciences openly advertises a 61% rejection rate of papers submitted in 2016.

2. Criticism: The journal is otherwise of such low quality that nothing can be determined about gender studies.

In our write-up for eSkeptic, we dedicated significant space to impugning the journal for publishing our paper and did so before moving on to discuss problems that, in our perception, abide within gender studies. As we duly noted, we have every reason to suspect that Cogent Social Sciences harbors deep problems with its editorial and peer-review processes. Our critics’ ability to engage in a selective reading of our write-up surprised us, however, and it caused us to reflect on how to be more cautious with our explanations in future. (Nota bene: we will return to this point further down.)

As we stated, absolutely no academic journal should have published our paper. One did. The one that did is not a vanity journal (see above). It qualifies for faculty reimbursement at many university libraries, and it possessed at least one specialist reviewer whose knowledge of the field of gender studies evidently exceeds ours. This reviewer employed relevant academic terminology with obvious confidence (“capturs [sic] the issue of hypermasculinity through a multi-dimensional and nonlinear process”) and read the paper carefully enough to remark on absence of a tool of analysis (poststructuralist discourse analysis is mentioned in the abstract but it is used nowhere in the manuscript, which the reviewer caught). On these facts alone, it reaches too far to suggest that nothing can be inferred about gender studies from the success of our satire.

At the same time, the “Conceptual Penis” paper is a parody whose target is easily recognizable and unmistakable. The paper is ridiculous, certainly, but it is also immediately identifiable with the field it lampoons. The power of satirical parody lies entirely in its being recognizable for what it mocks. This lends credibility to our abiding suspicion that there is a problem in gender studies and, by extension, other fields of postmodernist studies, and with the moral architecture on the academic Left that enables them.

3. Criticism: But a real journal rejected your paper, therefore gender studies is redeemed.

This is a non sequitur. That a peer-reviewed journal rejected a humorous imitation of papers in its field proves little or nothing. It is weak evidence to try to defend a field from accusations that it has a pervasive problem with obscurantist language and moral bias. The acceptance of a hoax paper will often raise questions, as we intended, but a rejection of an obvious fraud establishes very little. Even if the satire had been less blatant and rejections universal, little could be said to vindicate gender studies. For example, peer-reviewed papers are difficult to publish in any case, and factors other than just quality (such as fit with the journal, impact, and novelty) also play a role. It is remarkable that any journal that is not a complete sham was prepared to publish the paper.

It is only possible to entertain this criticism with any seriousness by ignoring the surrounding mountains of evidence that postmodernist vanity studies fields have built up over decades, which they term “scholarship.” Within the corpus of literature in those fields, there is a voluminous, extant catalog of academically vapid papers that employ certain moral lenses and are written in impenetrable pseudo-analytical prose. That body of literature preceded and motivated our hoax while providing a basis for its style. For those who got the joke, our paper is funny because it’s accurate. That is, it is not so very different from many real papers that are published in gender studies and related fields.

This is the real evidence justifying our initial suspicion about gender studies, and it is bolstered by the current fashionable madness taking over many college campuses. This collective insanity virtually always emanates from ideological complaints rooted in identity politics, aspects of postmodernism, and uses or abuses of “critical theory”. This has been used to indoctrinate a generation of students and faculty who are now taking illiberal, authoritarian actions.

4. Criticism: We should have held out for a better journal.

It is certainly true that if one targets more than one problem at once (here: the open-access/low-quality journal issue and issues with the field of gender studies) culprits become less clear. As it is, we pointed to a two-pronged problem that, in addition to issues in fields contaminated by postmodernism and related thinking, implicates poor quality journals and the academic infrastructure that supports them, which is a rather serious issue in its own right.

It’s difficult to determine what the impact would have been had we held out for a better journal. It is likely that doing so would have said slightly more about the proclivities of the field of gender studies, but perhaps at the cost that we’d have produced a less ridiculous (and thus less noteworthy) satire.

It’s also unclear that our work would have been published in a top-tier journal, even if all of our assumptions about gender studies as a field were completely accurate and the paper had been sneakier. Papers are sometimes partially judged by the weight of the authors’ reputations (by the editorial board, which decides whether or not the paper is to be peer-reviewed—peer reviewers are blinded from the names of the authors and see only the work), and Jamie Lindsay and Peter Boyle suffer the severe reputation-limiting circumstance of being fictional.

5. Criticism: Hoaxes don’t prove anything.

On their own, they don’t prove much. However, this entire line of discussion misses the point that the hoax’s status and wide reception as a satire reveals: something is amiss in the fields of postmodernist vanity studies, and that “something” is captured in the essence of how our satire was written, if not in its publication.

6. Criticism: We shouldn’t impugn the integrity of gender studies, just as other hoaxes on science journals shouldn’t lead us to impugn that of science.

This is a superficially plausible objection, but again it ignores the mountain of evidence provided by postmodernist vanity studies as well as the robust and proven methods of the sciences. There are no good reasons to assume the scientific enterprise is fatally compromised by bias, despite claims from postmodern studies (including this oft-cited polemical book in which feminist philosopher Sandra Harding called Newton’s Principia a “rape manual,” p. 113), but there are good reasons to believe it of fields like gender studies (which is why we wrote the satire in the first place).

Through the scientific method, bogus studies can be identified, corrected, and retracted. That is, the scientific enterprise proceeds in part by checking and challenging existing literature and has well-established tools for doing so. Postmodernist “qualitative” studies possess no such corrective mechanisms. In fact, they are at times openly contemptuous of the scientific process, and thus satires and hoaxes land more firmly upon them.

7. Criticism: The hoax enables the far right to discredit science (especially climate science).

Translation: This enables the far Right to discredit itself by revealing not only that it doesn’t understand science or scholarship, but that it doesn’t even understand how badly it doesn’t understand.

8. Criticism: We have sexist or hate-based motivations.

This accusation is laughable, or it should be, but the problem it represents is quite serious: hyperbolic outrage cultures frequently resort to these sorts of accusations. The only reason anyone takes them seriously—say, by publishing them—is because it’s now morally fashionable to make such claims and to traffic in them uncritically. In the present climate, it is tiresome but worthwhile to reiterate that for serious accusations (like accusing others of sexist motivations) serious evidence must be presented.

On the related charge that the satire reveals something about us, not as skeptics but as white men (“situated” as such, in the current cant), we’ll say only this: every time someone implicates our sex or race in an attempt to diminish or deflect from the satire or its purposes, they are strengthening our case. They are providing more evidence of a widespread problem in the academic Left’s moral architecture.

9. Criticism: We are ideologically driven against gender studies.

What we’re ideologically driven against is bullshit posing as what it isn’t. If gender studies deserves to be vindicated, let the scrutiny following our satire vindicate it. If not, let it fail.

To draw an analogy with theology, just as Alvin Plantinga’s version of “Reformed Epistemology” is a made-up epistemology designed to justify his religious claims, so too have some secular religions made up epistemologies to justify their moral intuitions. The adoption of their own “ways of knowing,” like “feminist standpoint” and “radical constructivist” epistemologies, is a colossal red flag waving atop their entire project. Generally speaking, once a field invents its own nonstandard epistemologies—ones directly at odds with the best epistemic standards we have—there are good reasons for suspicion. Other scholars rightly call this ideological blinkering, and researchers like sociologist Charlotta Stern have done excellent scholarly work documenting it in gender studies.


10. Criticism: We need to know the field of gender studies to criticize it.

Harkening back to 2006, when Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion, there followed a large hailstorm of criticisms hurled at him, much of it claiming that his apparent lack of theological savvy undermined his criticisms of theology and religion. An entire sociopolitical movement rumbled into action in his defense. The atheist and skeptic community identified a fallacy, coined the “Courtier’s Reply,” applied to when proponents insist one cannot criticize a field (in Dawkins’ case, theology) unless one has first attained sufficient sophistication in it.

It is thus ironic that this criticism against us flowed not merely from the postmodernist vanity shops we targeted but from some vainglorious corners of a “skeptic community” eager to scold us as bad skeptics. Some people who have trained themselves to point out the nudity of Emperors lose their sense of proportion when it’s the Gender Studies Empress nakedly parading about. This criticism treats us all to a gentle reminder that we shouldn’t really need. It is easy to see when someone else’s religious beliefs are transparently dubious, but far harder to notice when they are one’s own. In all this high-minded discussion, however, let the point not get lost: the Empress has no clothes.

Conclusion

Here, we’ve addressed the most common, weighty, or pernicious criticisms. Hopefully, we have now clarified some of the confusion. More importantly, we hope to have contributed to a larger, more significant discussion about the academic problems plaguing some peer-reviewed journals, the lingering postmodernist and ideological influence in vanity studies, and the dangers of internalizing morally fashionable nonsense.

About the Authors

Dr. Peter Boghossian is a full time faculty member in the Department of Philosophy at Portland State University. He has an extensive publication record across multiple domains of thought. He’s the author of A Manual for Creating Atheists and the creator of the Atheos app. Follow him on Twitter @peterboghossian.

James A. Lindsay has a doctorate in math and background in physics. He is the author of four books, most recently Life in Light of Death. Follow him on Twitter @GodDoesnt.

26 Comments

  1. Kevin Lowe says:

    If nothing else, hoaxes like this indirectly cause reviewers and journals to be more strict with what passes as legitimate and thus may slightly improve the field imo. Between that and focusing more general attention on the purported problems in the field, I’m thankful this hoax happened and I consider it at least somewhat helpful for the future of science in general.

  2. RP says:

    This is pathetic. I largely agree with you on these area studies fields, which is one reason I follow you on Twitter. But this is just sad. I’ve been a sociology professor since 2001 and neither I, nor anyone in my department has heard of this silly pay-to-publish vanity journal.

    You lead off your defense for why you were fooled by a fake journal by touting the journal’s self-proclaimed rejection rate. You mean the fake journal claims it isn’t fake? You’re a very rigorous thinker!

    Your second point is equally stupid. You can find defenses of flat earth theories and anti-vaxx crap in a wide variety of fake, pay-to-publish science journals. This does not impugn the actual fields the journals represent.

    How many more legit venues rejected this before you went to the Edwin Mellen Press of journals? You look as silly as the idiots you seek to lampoon.

    • Kennwrite says:

      Agreed. This entire atricle could have treated a subject such as ‘bogus science’ and its ability ti find publishers with more circumspection and fluidity. Frankly, it wasted a lot if space making a rather simplistic point, that sometimes a journal or publication with a lesser reputation publishes bad science or lack of evidence-based thinking. This is new news? I question, due to the pile-on of terminology and extraneous qriting, who the audience is, i.e., who is being convinced of the article’s cogency other than those already convinced …

  3. JPHarrison says:

    It’s good to see the anti-hoaxers have descended to the point of insisting the journal must be lying about its rejection rate! Even so, the amount of this attention this hoax has brought to both problems at once is a great outcome.

  4. Kenny Wyland says:

    It’s such a shame that the two of you are so blind to your dogma. The most your shit paper can possibly have shown is that Cogent is a shit journal.

    That’s it.

    Every time you try to extrapolate to the field of Gender Studies it demonstrates how dogmatically you cling to your bias.

    • Joseph Langston says:

      I’m sorry, but if that was supposed to be some sort of counter argument, or even an argument at all, then I missed it.

      That was just a vitriolic attack with no actual substantive basis. You point your finger and cry dogma, but anyone can do that; where’s the evidence?

      Pointing this out need not imply that I either agree or disagree with this article’s authors.

    • Lori Koonce says:

      Can you use something other than personal opinion to support what you claim

    • 123elle says:

      Absolutely agree. The supposed answers were really just a disingenuous excuse to reiterate and ridicule the topic of gender studies. Accepting at face value this “journal’s” declared 61% rejection rate clearly demonstrates a lack of diligence in verification. It also reveals the authors’ desperate need to stuff the publication into a category that makes the authors’ point. The unintended point made, however, is that this silly, clumsily written paper received short shrift everywhere it was submitted and wasted valuable staff time to read. One only hopes that any evaluation process was immediately truncated after the first paragraph.

      A far more honest and interesting post-“publication” follow-up would have been to interview the editors who rejected this sorry excuse for a parody. It doesn’t even approach satire — and I don’t mean that by way of proving the authors’ point, since their offering failed abysmally in its goal of passing muster at a true professional journal. This proves only that the authors didn’t begin to write a decent satirical paper. The heavy feet of their actual goal, to discredit gender studies itself, was inescapable.

  5. Heywood Jablomey says:

    I find it suspicious that point ten cites an invented fallacy which seems to exist solely so that any old DUDE off the street can have an opinion about something, lack expertise in the area, and we have to back off and take it seriously, or we’ve committed a fallacy. And you are making a *huge* assumption that your critics from within the skeptical community have somehow been co-opted by the “religion” of gender studies.

    • Dan says:

      What does “invented fallacy” even mean? Aren’t they all? It’s just an informal designation of a particular type of “argument from authority” (perhaps another “invented” fallacy?).

      I don’t see point 10 as saying “every opinion deserves respect”, which is nonsense that these authors seem unlikely to endorse.

      The point simply seems to be that you can’t disregard someone’s point because you think they don’t know enough about the topic to speak on it. If a child tells you the sky is blue, you shouldn’t disbelieve them because they don’t understand refraction.

      You can question the authority of someone making a statement, but you can’t dismiss their statement out of hand unless it’s obviously false. And their lack of authority on the topic can’t be what makes it obvious.

  6. Gloria StienMart says:

    https://www.cogentoa.com/article/10.1080/23311886.2017.1330439

    Here’s the link to the retraction statement posted by the “journal.” This article was submitted to a more established venue, and after rejection, was automatically referred and submitted to the company’s “for-profit bullshit journal” division where anyone who pays $1350 can publish anything. It is hard to imagine that a philosophy professor at Portland State could be taken in by such an obvious ploy. This is so outside the norms of scholarly publishing that it’s hard not to suspect an ethical lapse.

    Anyway, “Cogent OA” publishes journals in a variety of fields, including physics, geoscience, etc. If you pay the fee, I’m sure you could publish a paper on the taxonomy of Bigfoot in Cogent Biology. The 61% rejection rate probably includes all those authors who chose not to pay the $1350. The notion that these journals reject papers at the same rate as the mid-tier journals curated by established scholarly societies is absurd on its face. Again, how can a professor at Portland State not know this?

    The correct response from the authors of this hoax paper should have been something like: “We attempted to publish a ‘Sokal in Social Text’-style hoax to highlight the excesses in fields like gender studies. We should have been more patient and done more homework when selecting a venue. Our experiment didn’t turn out the way we planned.” The end. Full stop.

    Doubling down and defending this debacle make you look ideological, and actually harms your cause. If I was a gender studies professor, I would point to this episode as evidence that our field is legit, our journals are adequately policed, and our opponents are ethically challenged haters who are unable to assail us.

    What you have done is a disservice to scholars who are in the trenches fighting the battle to restore integrity to the social science class by class, student by student, colleague by colleague. Rather than double down on your failed trick, you should apologize.

  7. Udo Schuklenk says:

    N=1 here. Go on drawing wild conclusions about a field of inquiry based on that sample size. Nuff said.

    • Garble says:

      What did you do with all the time you saved typing “nuff” instead of “enough”?

      This is directed towards Udo Schuklenk’s comment (above)

  8. Mr. T. T. Rothach says:

    To the Skeptic Society: FOR THE LOVE OF DARWIN MAKE IT STOP!!!!!!

    To the ninth page of google search results, everyone and their grannies believes the Conceptual Penis is a piece of shit. Apparently, the slightest hint that Boghossian’s and Lindsay’s criticism of gender studies may be invalid-in whole or in part-means that they aren’t real men anymore, and must proclaim that their opinion is the One True Absolute Truth For Reals to preserve their manhood.

    Isaac Newton did not prove gravity by publishing a hoax paper. Charles Darwin did not prove evolution by submitting a hoax paper. And on it goes forever. Scientists proved their opinions were right by taking apart the conventional knowledge of the day piece by piece and showing how their ideas fit reality better.

    To the Skeptic Society, Lindsay and Boghossian: if you want to prove that Gender Studies is the equivalent of Creationism, you need to get out the textbook on gender studies, read it carefully, and gather evidence from other fields of science to show the illogic or fallacies of gender studies’ claims.

    If you cannot do that, then NO ONE will ever believe you when you say “gender studies is bullshit.”

    • JPHarrison says:

      Didn’t Steven Pinker more or less do that in 2003 in The Blank Slate and Gross and Levitt do it directly in 1994 in Higher Superstition? Didn’t Charlotta Stern use The Blank Slate just this year to demonstrate how gender studies ignores contradictory information just like Boghossian and Lindsay are saying? What you’re telling Boghossian and Lindsay to do has been done, and it just gets ignored while the PoMo Train rolls on. Weak defense, IMO.

  9. William Cutler says:

    Criticism of the hoax gender study paper.

    It wasn’t that good of a hoax. That is, it was close enough to plausible to be accepted, with a little imagination about the definitions of the language, as real. When I read the paper to my wife, who is an ordinary woman and not a trained psychologist, she was in total and energetic agreement with the paper. When I pointed out that the paper was actually a hoax, she said, in effect, “That makes no difference. What the paper says is exactly how it looks to women.” My guess is that the language chosen for the hoax could be easily inferred to be true by a woman who is sensitive to sexism from men.

  10. Mr. T. T. Rothach says:

    Harrison: The Blank Slate was not without its critics, particularly from evolutionary biologists it seems, and after 14 years, it needs to be updated. I am not even going to bother with something published in 1994-everything has changed so much since then. Never heard of Charlotta Stern; there doesn’t seem to be much out there about her. Again, she based everything on a 14 year-old book though? Has nothing been written since?

    So, we got 4 people, 6 if we include Boghossian and Lindsay, who say gender studies is a joke. Is this a consensus among the scientific community? Six people does not sound like a majority opinion in anything.

    If you want to build a consensus, you must do it on facts, like every other scientist who has changed our view of the world, gathering in experts from the various fields that gender studies overlaps for support. Claiming a 33 year-old book is an authority and shoving a hoax paper down everyone’s throats will only result in no one taking your research seriously. Which is exactly what has happened with Boghossian and Lindsay’s paper. If these two had tackled climate change in this way, no one would believe in climate change now, I highly suspect. They made a mistake, and they need to own that and move on.

  11. Michael Brandow says:

    “On these facts alone, it reaches too far to suggest that nothing can be inferred about gender studies from the success of our satire.”

    Anyone who didn’t already know gender studies was shit scholarship probably missed the satire.

  12. Kenneth Dyson says:

    What did your hoax do to futher your hypothesis that GS is a bullshit field?

    If you failed to get it published would you have been convinced that your hypothesis was incorrect?

    If you have all these mountains of evidence that GS is bullshit I would love if you would reveal them. Seems rather synical or lazy to try to criticize the whole field with this simple hoax attempt.

    Disapointing.

  13. 123elle says:

    The authors’ failure to verify the “61 percent” rejection rate reveals their desperation to publish the paper and supposedly achieve their goal: humiliating the editors of valid journals, and probably gender studies itself. This clumsy, heavy-footed excuse for a parody would have been summarily rejected at any credible publication. Denying that only reinforces the truth. Far more interesting would have been to interview editors who actually did waste the time to read it (hopefully not beyond the first paragraph). This response only fortifies the point that the authors least wish to make.

  14. Andrew says:

    I appreciate the posting of a least SOME evidence to back up the claim that Gender Studies as a field has endemic problems. The previous article made that claim solely on the basis of vague assertions and the hoax article itself. That was not sufficient, and I think that neither is the evidence posted here. If Gender Studies is actually as faulty as you claim, I would like to see some sort of meta-analysis of gender studies papers and journals, establishing just how “accurate” the hoax paper was and how ridiculous the articles published in the field are. That would be how you establish such a broad conclusion, not by posting single articles and making broad extrapolations. The linkage of Gender Studies with other programs and with left-wing academia in general is so unsupported as to be insulting to the reader.

    What a shame.

    • BM says:

      Gender studies is obvious ideological driven bullshit that follows none of the norms of science. It’s play acting at being scientists. The problem is that academics is rife with political funding controlled by leftists who have pushed for more and more government funding and control of universities. That along with a corrupt funding scheme of government backed loans. Loans given out with No regard for whether the “education” received will result in the ability to pay it off.

  15. BM says:

    Number 7 is completely bogus. X studies is not science and therefore no one could use it to criticize climate research. Your acceptance of the premise is disappointingly naive. Even the most unhinged right wingers are intelligent enough to understand that postmodernism is ideologically driven.

    Climate science itself has a large degree of ideological corruption quite independent of the non-sciences. There is lots of junk science and overreaching in the field. Very few of the grandeur and alarmist claims are supportable by the underlying science. The numerous fraudulent papers relied upon from the IPCC shows that. Some examples being the Himalayan glaciers meltdown fraud, and Mann’s hockey stick. All the climate models are garbage and can’t predict a thing.

    Although CO2 is clearly a greenhouse gas and more orbit would tend to increase temperatures the exact am out is unclear. The claim that climate temperatue is unstable in an upward direction in relation to C02 quantities is clearly absurd on it’s face. If that were true natural variation would have kick us over the edge long ago.

    The recent decades long pause in recent cyclical variations completely falsified most alarmist claims. They were claiming that 95% or more of upward variation was due to man. Which would meant that the increase at climate long period scales could only be reduced to around 90%. Yet it was reduced to 0% by the pause.

    Ideologically driven cliamte alarmism has been completely falsified. It’s garbage. Sure, man effects climate but they should stop the Chicken Little time.

  16. Jonas says:

    Part of postmodernism is irony. This wasn’t a hoax paper–this was a real academic paper. The authors may say it’s a hoax, but it wasn’t to those who accepted and published it.

    If I were to become a priest and preach about God, then afterwards say, “Actually, I’m an atheist and I played a hoax on you, therefore your viewpoint is flawed” would this make anyone become an atheist?

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