Are Sokal Hoaxes Really Helping Reform Science?The evidence is mixed. The current prank on Higher Education Quarterly prompts some questions
It happened. Again.
In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal submitted a mostly-nonsense paper to the journal Social Text. The purpose? To show that the social sciences, especially the critical theorists, were not intellectually rigorous. His paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was written so that anyone who was familiar with quantum gravity would know that it was a joke. Therefore, when it was accepted, it was obvious that no rigorous review process was in place. The journal apparently just accepted anything that sounded “intellectual-ish” and conformed to the editors’ idea of what scholarship looked like. It became known as the Sokal hoax.
In 2017, a group of researchers began a similar hoax, later tagged as Sokal Squared. The goal, again, was to show that what the authors call “grievance studies” are undermining real scholarship by allowing nonsense to pass as scholarship. They managed to get several of their fake papers published, for example, Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon (May 22, 2018). In fact, for some of the papers that hadn’t been published by the time the experiment ended, the reviewers requested more outlandishness.
That brings us to the present day. The education journal Higher Education Quarterly,” which is run by Wiley (a major academic publisher), published a new paper titled “Donor money and the academy: Perceptions of undue donor pressure in political science, economics, and philosophy.”
If you take the alleged names of its authors, who cannot be traced to any institution of higher education, “Sage Owens” and “Kal Avers-Lynde III,” the initials spell out: S.O.K.A.L. III
It is unclear at this writing what this third iteration of the Sokal Hoaxes is trying to prove. At Power Line, Steven Hayward suggests that the overall goal is to show that any paper can be published if it stokes the biases of leftist editors. If so, the hoaxers have pushed the right buttons: the Koch Brothers, the Federalist Society, right-wing interference… The problem? As search has demonstrated, the funders they study don’t actually fund the research they are studying and some of the organizations have been defunct through the entire period of study. One of them appears entirely fictitious.
While we still don’t know who wrote “SOKAL III” or why, I think it is good to take a moment and reflect on academic hoaxes in general, and what they indicate. The goal of the hoaxers is to demonstrate that critical theory and “grievance studies” journals are only pseudo-academic. They want to show that obviously wrong papers get through as long as they conform to the style and expectations of the journal. So did these hoaxers succeed in their aim?
To begin with, I should say that it is not the job of an editor or reviewer to catch falsified data. Journals assume that data associated with an article is legitimate and was legitimately obtained. Now, there are times when data is obviously wrong, and a worthwhile editor or reviewer should catch that. However, it is not the job of the reviewers to verify or repeat the experiment. They trust the reporting and merely make sure that the reasoning about the data is correct.
Therefore, a proper hoax must illustrate more than just acceptance of falsified data. It has to illustrate acceptance of wrong reasoning about that data. Or, at minimum, the data must be so obviously wrong that any worthwhile reviewer would be able to spot it.
However, there are other requirements of a proper experiment that the “Sokal squared” hoaxers seem to have left out. In order to show that the social science journals they targeted are more problematic than science journals, they would have needed a control group. Note that none of the Sokal hoaxers tried submitting nonsense to a science journal.
Even other Darwinists often complain about “just-so” stories in evolutionary biology, and especially in evolutionary psychology. So why did the hoaxers not dream up an equivalently outrageous just-so biology story to see if it would pass peer review? Were they afraid to know the results? History says that, as long as you are proposing an evolutionary “just so” story, there is almost no idea that is too absurd to be published in even the topmost journals.
The original Sokal hoax, too, had problems. The journal it was submitted to, Social Text, was not a peer-reviewed journal. In other words, the journal was not even claiming to have the same scholarship standards as science journals. In fact, they were relying on Sokal himself to provide the expertise on physics, which was the primary reason for including him.
So, while I am in basic agreement with the hoaxers about the general quality of critical theory and “grievance studies” journals, I find it odd that the hoaxers, so certain of their proposition, seem to be unscientific in their approach to finding out the answers. In fact, we don’t even need to go into hoaxes to see that the same sort of implicit bias can infect ordinary science journals.
As noted by Michael Crichton and followed up on here at Mind Matters News, science journals have been ready to publish whatever the latest trendy topic is for decades, no matter how bad the science content. Then, for topics that are less trendy, they will sometimes retract legitimate papers which have been properly reviewed simply because the topic is out of favor. If an idea is in favor, then, as we’ve seen, the requirements for rigor are relaxed significantly.
So, while I appreciate the attempts of the Sokal hoaxers to demonstrate biases and poor scholarship in the social sciences, I fear that those in the harder sciences will use this as an excuse to ignore their own problems with bias and poor scholarship.
Note: “SOKAL III” has now been retracted.
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