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Will the Sokal Hoaxes Worsen the Academic Echo Chamber?

When only mainstream thinking is allowed, insularity and echo chambers are the result

The latest spate of academic hoaxes, which includes not only the latest Sokal hoax, but also fake papers being published in journals such as the Arabian Journal of Geosciences, is a major cause for concern. While the hoaxes themselves are problematic, what is likely to be worse is the ongoing fallout for researchers and new ideas.

Academics has long had a problem of being insular. Many papers are published on the basis of your status in academics, not the quality of the paper itself. This is not to say that the papers didn’t legitimately pass peer review (though that is questionable in some cases), but rather that the editor decides which papers are “worthy” of peer review based on the editor’s knowledge of that person’s prior work.

Here’s the deal: Journals live and die by their reputation, and no editor wants their journal to be Sokal’d. What does this mean? It likely means that journals will simply increase their desk-rejection (prior to peer review) of papers by newer researchers, especially of solo authorship. The effect of this will be to restrict ideas to only those which are currently fashionable and held by existing, well-known academics. If your paper has to be co-authored by someone already well-known for an editor to take you seriously, then that means that your ideas are probably really well-aligned with the mainstream.

There’s nothing wrong per se with mainstream thinking — it probably became mainstream for good reasons. However, when only mainstream thinking is allowed, this leads to insularity and an echo chamber mentality.

Academic insularity has been happening long before the Sokal hoaxes. In field after field, the doorways to entry have been increasingly closed off to all but academic pathways. For instance, it used to be that the federal reserve was mostly run by ordinary people, peppered with a few PhDs. Now, it seems you need a PhD just to serve coffee at the federal reserve. The problem is not the PhDs. The problem is that having a singular pathway leads to uniformity of thinking, not a dynamic diversity of viewpoints. In many fields, but especially in academics, the way to the top is being sealed off to a single, insular pathway.

Honorary degrees used to supply some amount of viewpoint diversity in academic institutions. If one achieved their wisdom in a field through direct experience, they may be allowed into the academy through an honorary degree. However, in recent years, honorary degrees no longer recognize work, but oftentimes recognize fundraising. The very institutions that confer honorary degrees hold them in disdain. Would Harvard hire someone as a professor who received an honorary doctorate from them? Probably not.

Unfortunately, the spate of Sokal hoaxes may be a catalyst to accelerate this move towards academic provincialism. While the long-term danger for academics is a lack of diversity of ideas, the short-term danger for journal editors is getting Sokal’d. And, I imagine, most journal editors will choose maintaining their own journal’s record over taking risks on new authors with new ideas.

In case you missed it:

Are Sokal Hoaxes Really Helping Reform Science? The evidence is mixed. The current prank on Higher Education Quarterly prompts some questions. Serious problems exist in today’s journals but the hoaxers seem so certain of their view that they don’t approach demonstrating it in a scientific way. (Jonathan Bartlett)

Be On the Lookout for More Sokal Hoaxes. If you spot a Sokal hoax, let us know by tagging @cnaintelligence on Twitter. One of the anonymous hoaxers said, “We plan to reveal the full extent of this hoax later. For now we recommend readers look for other fake papers.” (Jonathan Bartlett)

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

Will the Sokal Hoaxes Worsen the Academic Echo Chamber?