James A. Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian / Mike Nayna

Accusations of abuse of power are the most powerful weapons in public debate today. Whether it’s bullying, sexual abuse, homophobia, transphobia, or racial prejudice, an unproven allegation can leave a life in ruins, thanks to the power of the Twittermob, amplified by the internet.

This was on centre stage in its rawest form in the bitter debate over President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. However weak their case was, Trump’s opponents thought that tainting his nominee as a rapist and abuser would bring him down. Amazingly –at least in today’s postmodernist climate — common sense, due process, and the rules of evidence prevailed over hysteria. 

Trump’s victory could mark a turning point in political debate. It shows that the Twittermob’s tactic of smearing its targets as bigots or abusers will not always succeed.

In a serendipitous coincidence, something similar happened last week in academia. Three young academics revealed that they had hoaxed major journals in gender studies and related disciplines.

They had submitted 20 concocted articles applying post-modernist critical analysis to topics ranging from canine rape to fat bodybuilding to Hooters “breastaurants”. Until the hoax was revealed by the Wall Street Journal, ten had been favourably reviewed, seven of these had been accepted and four had actually been published.

From the vantage point of an ordinary reader, the most startlingly implausible of these was published by Gender, Place, and Culture, the leading feminist geography journal and a top-10 gender studies journal. The title says it all: “Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity in Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon”.

Its theme was that dog parks were “rape-condoning spaces” and places of rampant canine rape culture and systemic oppression against “the oppressed dog”. A close study through the lens of black feminist criminology gave insights into how men can be trained to give up habits of sexual violence and bigotry.

Absurd? Not to the academics who edit the journal. A peer-reviewer described it as “an innovative and valuable piece of scholarship”. The editor was so impressed that she selected it as one of 12 studies in feminist geography in the journal’s 25th anniversary celebration.

When the hoax was exposed, the article was immediately retracted. But it’s unlikely that the editors had learned much from the experience. The next one to be published was “Wearable cameras, in-visible breasts: intimate spatialities of feminist research with wearable camcorders in Istanbul”.   

The hoaxers are James Lindsay, a PhD in mathematics, Peter Boghossian, a philosopher, and Helen Pluckrose, editor of an online magazine called Aero. Their beef was that in some fields in the humanities, scholarship is “based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances.” What they describe as “grievance studies” – their catch-all term for cultural studies, identity studies, gender studies and critical theory and their subdisciplines — is now dominant in many universities. “Their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview.”

But, the hoaxers contend, “This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous.”   

They had a lot of fun writing the articles.

Our Struggle is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism” was accepted (but never published) by Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work. The hoaxers took a chapter from Hitler’s ranting autobiography, Mein Kampf, and rewrote it with feminist buzzwords. One of the reviewers described it as “an interesting paper seeking to further the aims of inclusive feminism by attending to the issue of allyship/solidarity”.

What they described as their “most appalling paper” reached the seriously-being-considered stage at Hypatia, a venue “for cutting-edge work in feminist philosophy”. In it, Maria Gonzalez (a fictitious name) of the (fictitious) Feminist Activist Collective for Truth (FACT) argued that classroom teachers should zero in on privileged students and penalise them “by declining to hear their contributions, deriding their input, intentionally speaking over them, and making them sit on the floor in chains”.

“Making them sit on the floor in chains”? Like slaves? Like BDSM? Like dogs?This passed muster? Yes, it did. One peer-reviewer wrote: “This is a solid essay that, with revision, will make a strong contribution to the growing literature on addressing epistemic injustice in the classroom.” Had the Wall Street Journal not exposed them, the hoaxers would have scored another publication.

Which seems to bear out the hoaxers’ belief that any idea, no matter how “nutty or inhumane” can be published provided that it is cloaked with the appropriate jargon and references “grievance studies” scholarship.

Another of their papers questioned the value of modern science. “Stars, Planets, and Gender: A Framework for a Feminist Astronomy” argued that astronomy is inherently sexist and Western. To correct this bias, feminist, queer, and indigenous astrology (star signs and all that) must be incorporated into the study of astronomy. They modelled this jaw-dropping argument on a published proposal for a “feminist glaciology”. This appeared in Progress in Human Geography and has been cited 17 times in other articles and downloaded 6,500 times. If glaciers fit into a feminist framework, why not galaxies?

A peer-reviewer commented that “For existing proponents of feminist science studies, this also makes sense as a next step—to cast a feminist eye on scientific disciplines beyond the ‘soft’ sciences of biology and environmental studies, and to move increasingly towards critiques of and interventions into ‘hard’ sciences, such as physics and astronomy.” The editors of Women’s Studies International Forum asked the hoaxers to revise the paper and resubmit it – meaning that it was quite probable that it would eventually be published.

Does any of this matter? After all, who cares what nonsense wild-eyed academics are churning out in obscure journals?

It does.

Firstly, they are teaching students who will graduate believing that there are no objective, verifiable truths and that morality is merely a reflection of power. These views filter into the media, education, government and politics. Ultimately they corrupt all public discourse by turning every difference of opinion into a test of who can scream loudest. That's what America discovered during the Kavanaugh nomination circus. 

Second, by propping up absurd claims with the paraphernalia of respected scholarship – peer review, respectable journals, technical language and so on– “grievance studies” provides the Twittermob with the pitchforks it needs to lynch its targets. No matter how odious the claim, it can be supported with the scholarly references it needs to make it plausible. 

So Kavanaugh’s nomination and the success of the “grievance studies” hoax both suggest that there is hope for reasoned argument. Perhaps the post-modernist tsunami has rushed as far up the beach as it can go.

Ultimately the hoaxers’ intent was serious and important: using reason to push back against naked emotion and using common sense to push back against inhumanity. “We hope this will give people—especially those who believe in liberalism, progress, modernity, open inquiry, and social justice,” they explain, “a clear reason to look at the identitarian madness coming out of the academic and activist left and say, ‘No, I will not go along with that. You do not speak for me.’”

If only someone would do the world the favour of doing the same for the Alice in Wonderland world of transgender studies.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.