The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine


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.

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