“Sokal Squared”: 3 Scholars, a Hoax, and the Future of Academia

Nov 08, 2018

Recently, three scholars submitted twenty bogus papers to the most prestigious, peer-reviewed journals in the field of cultural studies. Seven of these papers were published, and it’s likely that more would have seen the light of print if the Wall Street Journal hadn’t exposed the hoax, now dubbed “Sokal Squared.” In this episode, Nathan and Cameron explore some of the implications of this elaborate hoax.

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Nathan Rittenhouse: Hello and welcome to Thinking Out Loud. Thinking Out Loud is a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I'm your cohost, Nathan Rittenhouse.

Cameron McAllister: And I'm your cohost, Cameron McAllister.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, Cameron, we're living in a continuously wild world. It's a fun ride, if nothing else. Let's see, what do we have? We're recovering from hurricanes, tuna companies are inclusion, journalists are disappearing, and the world is still spinning. You sent me a link to an article, or to an episode, or an event that is causing some vibrations in the academic community. Why don't you introduce us to that as our topic for discussion today?

Cameron McAllister: Sure. Happy to do that. Some of you may have heard the word or the phrase "grievance studies," and some of you also might have heard the phrase, Sokal Squared. I'll have to set a little context here first. Sokal, or Sokal, I'm probably mispronouncing the name here, but that's a reference to what was called the Sokal affair, and Alan Sokal was a physics professor at New York University. And during one of the ... I suppose this was 1996, so the height of deconstructionism, really, in American universities. Really the height, I suppose, was in the '80s and in the '90s, maybe that was the last real wave of deconstruction studies.

Cameron McAllister: So Alan Sokal-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Why don't you flesh that out just a little bit for us.

Cameron McAllister: Sure. And we'll get back into this again as we discuss the more recent episode, but, essentially, the deconstruction emphasis in the academy really hit full force in the 1960s, and this was focusing on the thought of people like Michelle Foucault, and then basically a lot of theory. A lot of it coming out of France and then you would have Jacques Lacan, and then of course later on you had Derrida and thinkers of this kind who we're focusing a lot on texts and on what was called deconstruction. Sometimes you hear the shorthand postmodernism for this, but the more accurate term is really deconstruction and interestingly, a lot of these thinkers were operating in the humanities.

Michel Foucault for instance, was a historian who was very interested in looking into the genesis of our various institutions from the prison system to human sexuality. But one key area of focus in deconstruction studies and all of the offshoots that exist to this day really concentrates on power structures, and on how certain groups maintain their power through carefully administering, or enforcing certain norms and certain of types of language. And so deconstruction theory often focuses on marginalized groups, overlooked groups.

This is why, in many ways, you see a lot of the offshoots involve feminist studies or queer theory, all sorts of gender studies, now what are sometimes called fat studies. The territory gets quite exotic and quite extensive. That's a little bit of the background there. Alan Sokal was a physicist and he wrote a deconstructionist paper, submitted it to a prestigious journal, got it published. The problem was it wasn't real. It was actually ... a lot of what he was saying in there was pretty nonsensical, but he was couching it in all of the right academic terminology, all of the right jargon. And so it made it into-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Doesn't he say something like, 'gravity is a social construct' or something in there?

Cameron McAllister: Yeah. He makes claims along those lines. And, actually, in just an aside here, a lot of deconstructionist thought is quite critical of the scientific method because ... it's critical of the institution of science in general because it tends to focus on the fact that there's a lot of, what they would claim, gender inequality, and that some of the absolute claims of the natural sciences are power plays. You get into a lot of really complex territory here, but ... obviously Dr. Sokal, who was a physics professor, is not convinced of this at all and thinks it's highly questionable and suspect, and so he publishes this, and it's this elaborate hoax, and he pulled it off, and it worked and a lot was made of it.

Well, it's happened again, and this is a group of ... this time, it was a group of three academics who got together and managed to write ... they wrote 20 papers and submitted them to some of the best peer reviewed journals in the respective fields that they were targeting, and seven of their papers were accepted. More of them probably would have been accepted, but they were ... some journalists started poking around.

Yeah, Wall Street Journal got them, and so, for ethical reasons, they came forward with their study, but what they were doing was really targeting, I suppose an area that you could loosely call critical theory. It's a place in the humanities. They were going after this because they felt that for a long time, many claims were being made that defied proper research methods, that weren't rigorous, and that were highly political, and highly ideological, and so they wanted to test their hypothesis, that they could make some really, really outrageous claims, and as long as they put them in the proper ideological terms, and as long as they basically use the proper language, they might be able to get this passed into peer review journals and that turned out to be true.

That's what's happened and now there's, of course, been a very strong reaction as this has all gone public. Some people are up in arms and really angry. Some people think that this is really refreshing and that this is good. Interestingly enough, at the end of their study, they talk about the fact that they ... some of the reactions they hope will not happen is that people turn against the humanities, which they don't think is the answer, or that people will turn against the university and say it's just promulgating nonsense. They hope that's not the case either.

What they want is more ideological diversity in the peer review process, and they want some reform in the peer review process in certain sections of the academy. Their goals and aims are somewhat modest, but a lot of people are saying their methods here are questionable at best, quite unethical at worst. What was some of your response to this, Nathan, as you were looking? We can get into some of what they ... some of their papers we probably can't repeat on this show, it's gets a little bit outlandish, but we can talk a little bit about it.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I think anytime you're dealing with a hoax ... if you're in on the hoax, it's funny, and if you were the one who got punked, it's not at all.

Cameron McAllister: Sure.

Nathan Rittenhouse: People will respond to it differently probably depending on where they started from, not based off of the fact that it happened. I think I do see a little bit on one hand, it totally lacks academic credibility in the sense of, of course it itself isn't a peer reviewed study. It doesn't have any of the internationally agreed upon backgrounds as far as like doing an experiment using humans without their consent. For a number of reasons, you can't take this as serious science, let's just put that on the table. And, to be fair, they aren't really doing it that way either.

They're more trying to poke a hole here. The other thing is, we want to be clear, is that in the queer theory, gender studies, gender identity, all of those fields, feminism, that they were kind of doing hit a hit job on, so to speak, they believe that those fields should exist. They aren't anti those categories. They're just anti the methodology by which research is done within those fields. I can see this being one of the things where certain news sources will take it and run it in their own direction without taking full account of what it is that they actually said. So there's that. Who's funding this thing, is a good question. I think you have to be a little wary of jumping on the bandwagon of hoaksters because who knows how far this thing goes, or what else it's connected to, or isn't connected to. So there's that part of it.

All of that aside, let's not even talk about it as the specific things that they were critiquing. But, basically, some of what they were trying to do is to analyze a moral matrix of an academic genre, and figure out how to speak into that. So it would almost be like saying, if I came to you, Cameron, and said, "hey, here's this acorn, swallow this", you're going to be like, "no way", but if I put it in the shape of a pill and stamp aspirin on it, maybe you will, because originally they did submit a bunch of ludicrous ideas, these journals, and quickly got shut down.

So they said, okay, we have to figure out what is the framework, or what is the narrative that we need to package this in, like Alan Sokal did. If we put it in the right terminology and we use this right structure, that privilege is always oppressive, that education is the way out, can we use that and then just slip in ... what can we slip through the system if we put it in the right format? And so I think even the fact that now they're calling this grievance studies as ... I would say it's a derogatory term toward the academic field. Is to say-

Cameron McAllister: Just a quick word on grievance studies. I think, Nathan, you would agree here, I would caution against taking that phrase and running with it because that's their conflated phrase for all of these very diverse fields, and it is quite derogatory. I can see a lot of people taking it and using it in a culture warring sense, and I don't think that that is the answer here at all.

Nathan Rittenhouse: But I think what they're trying to do with that name is to say that there is a type of agenda to the academic field itself, and that might actually be the helpful thing that they're pointing out, if there is a helpful thing here, is that they're trying to say, look, based off of the moral matrix that this field of study uses, we're showing a bias or an agenda that's ... not even really embedded but is explicit here in the way that these studies are done, and look at the impact that this having.

For people claiming to be far left liberals themselves, this is them reacting within categories that we would typically associate with maybe their political ideology because they're calling for truth, and a deepening, and a restructuring of the scientific method within certain fields in the humanities.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah. And they're pointing out that a lot of these fields have found ways to critically insulate themselves from any real critiques and that that's a huge problem. These studies, many of them are really crushingly insular, and they'll argue that that's a feature of ... that's actually a structural feature of their integrity. Some of these fields will, they'll go so far as to say that, well, any critiques against this field ... and they'll couch this in different-

PART 1 OF 3 ENDS [00:12:04]

... say that, "Well, any critiques against this field ..." They'll couch this in different terms, but any critiques against some of these fields constitute really power grabs or further acts of marginalization, even some of the people who have responded in the chronicle of higher education. For instance, some of the academics have pointed out, "Look, when feminist studies got their start, they got all sorts of resistance and opposition and there was so much bias against them, and now this is only just going to further that."

Which, on the one hand, I think I'm sympathetic to, but, on the other hand, I think that's sounds like a really good way to screen out balance or any kind of opposition and, of course, that's not the way scholarship works. That's not healthy. You need ideological diversity. You need counter arguments for balance especially in a peer-reviewed journal.

Also, I can guess a lot of people listening might be thinking, okay, what's the practical outcome of this? Well, one example is given, yes, so these are specialized peer-reviewed journals, and, in truth, most of us are not going to read these articles. Fine. But they do point out that a lot of the ideas that are expressed in these journals trickle down into the culture pretty quickly. One example that they give, and the academic who coined the term, the name is escaping me here, but the phrase "white fragility" was coined in one of these journals, and now the person who coined the term ... and, basically, what that meant was when white people are made aware of the privilege that they have, they'll respond extremely defensively and their feelings will get hurt very, very quickly, and hence white fragility.

Well, that phrase now, people have taken it and run with it. The author of the article has a book deal already, but that phrase was showing up on the signs of protesters at some of these various demonstrations. So activists were carrying that as a slogan. So these ideas, as outrageous as some of them may sound, or as esoteric as they may sound, they make their way actually into the street pretty quickly. There's a fast trickle down effect, so this stuff is important. It does make a difference.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So, I guess that's one of the interesting things here, is the way that that trickles down from the academic journals into public life is not a scientific move. People cherry pick what they want out of it-

Cameron McAllister: Sure.

Nathan Rittenhouse: In order for it to trickle into the culture. So, on one hand a lot of people are going to say, well, it doesn't even matter that this wasn't a scientific study. It still highlights, illustrates and gives some data to support a conclusion that we wanted to draw, or actually need to. So, for me, the question that raises is how do we treat scientific literature in our day to day life?

On one hand, you could say, well, read the footnotes kids. Who's being cited in this paper? But that's how they got these papers published, in their footnotes they used references to other journal articles within the field. So they came up with their own topics, but then they cited respected scholars in the field that had just enough of what they were trying to say. You see what I'm saying there?

Cameron McAllister: Oh, absolutely.

Nathan Rittenhouse: They used big names in the footnotes that sort of played to the idea they're using, but then quoted it a little bit out of context.

Cameron McAllister: Well, in order to make their claims more credible, they were drawing on the literature of the field, and it's interesting because when they describe their methodology, and whatever you think of it, they did have a very specific methodology. They basically spin it like they are anthropologists doing field work, only their field work, the people that they are studying, the "natives," you put that word in quotes there, happen to be a very specific type of academic working in critical constructivism and all of these various sub fields of the humanities, that really are descendants of deconstruction studies.

But all of them focusing on the different conventions of our society. So many of these studies that they're looking at believe that, say, masculinity or traditional notions of femininity, marriage, many of the social institutions of our culture, these fields believe that they're elaborate constructions that privilege those who are in power and that marginalize those who maybe, traditionally, haven't had as much access to power, say, women or, say, people who have different sexual orientations.

But because of that, there's an intense focus on calling into suspicion all of these prevailing norms, and so, again, this might sound a little outlandish but I guess this would be the place to bring in, I'm going to bring in two of their papers, just specifically what they talked about. Some of these, just be forewarned if you do your own research, some of these get a little bit crass. These two aren't quite as bad. There's one called "Dog Park" where they really ... it's going to be hard to say this without laughing. They argue that dogs ... that there's rape culture being enacted in dog parks when dogs begin to copulate, and that this becomes a place that fosters toxic masculinity and fosters rape culture, and that, in essence, men need to be trained almost like dogs not to operate according to those impulses.

There, I managed to say this without laughing. So that one, not only was it accepted, it was singled out as one of the best papers, I think, in a round up and it was given special attention-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Like a 25 year anniversary publication or something?

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, and this was one of the top journals, once again, that they picked out. Again, if you want to look at this yourself, and you want to get all the names, I'm hesitant to name all these journals, but you can go to areomagazine.com and you'll find all of this research described. The article is called "Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship."

So, it's a long read, it's a fascinating read, but so that one was accepted. There were several of them, did any of them catch your eye Nathan? I don't want to put you on the spot too much here. There's another one where they go to the restaurant, they talk about going to the restaurant Hooters to sort of study traditional kind of roles of masculinity and how men are attracted to traditional forms of femininity. I mean, it just ... it's hard to talk about some of this with a straight face, but again, because they cited people who are experts in the field, because they used terminology that matched the usage of these journals, these articles were accepted.

The did another one on, the phrase they use is "fat body building," and that paper aimed to challenge some of the views on traditional body building, to say maybe building muscle all the time, that's a deeply ingrained convention that's not so healthy and that marginalizes other people who are obese. This is just some pretty amazing stuff.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yes, you have concerns about, like, feminist astrology or problems of overly masculine artificial intelligence. I mean, so it's a pretty wide range of stuff here, so I think they were shooting for a wide range, but, I guess, on another level to flip that back around, how do you not just get entirely cynical about scientific research and findings when you start thinking, okay, maybe there's an agenda behind this journal, maybe there's an agenda behind this field of study.

It's a little bit dismaying, again, so, for example, I never read a news article about a scientific discovery or research paper without going back and at least clicking through and reading the abstract of that paper, because it's fascinating how many times what the CNN article says doesn't really fit with what the thesis of the paper ... I mean, I'm not picking on CNN, I'm just saying our big media.

Cameron McAllister: Sure.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So the reporting of science, I think, is, for me, where my mind goes on this, of thinking about how we politically and socially and just kind of at a layman's level use and cherry pick data out of scientific papers. You could get a little skeptical about the whole situation sometimes, I think, in an unhelpful way, but need to back up and realize that 99.99999% of stuff there is extremely helpful and worthwhile.

So, I don't want to get cynical, but I want to be cautious at the same time in the way that I trust what I read, because, hey, this is just one example in one field. I'm sure you could go through and kind of write out a moral matrix of how to convince a Christian to believe anything, you know.

In fact, one of the authors of this hoax, you know, author of a hoax, is the author of the book A Manual for Creating an Atheist, and so how to talk people out of their Christian faith, and so he's very interested in systems and ways of arguing and rationality and reason, which maybe he's blurring some distinctions there saying, you know, if you can figure out this group's inner workings and can speak that language, here's how you shuttle this into deconstruct the deconstructionist or how to deconstruct faith.

So, there is kind of a cultural, anthropological, epistemological bent to this that I think is helpful for just making us not skeptical, but making us cautious.

Cameron McAllister: I think so. I mean, at the end of the study, they also are clear that they think ... their hope is not to dismantle all trust in the academia or in the peer review process. In fact, they explicitly say the peer review process is still the best we have for screening out error, and for most of the time it works really well.

But I think we also just need to be humble in the way we ... some of us have a very exalted view of academia or the sciences. Mistakes do get made and these are human institutions. So, I think sometimes just having that perspective can really help us. In our culture, many people, I think, we're always hungry for certainty in different ways, but I think sometimes people look to academia and, especially the hard sciences, as really the last bastion of certainty.

But there are still mistakes that are made in peer-reviewed journals. There are mistakes that are made in scientific peer-reviewed journals, but the answer there isn't to abandon all hope, walk away, and say that we can't know anything and just embrace radical skepticism. I think it's just to understand that these are human institutions, and also, yes, we could use some academic reform in certain fields, because there just needs to be more ideological diversity. There needs to be a little bit more balance.

And I don't think that that's an outlandish claim. I think most people would recognize that.

But yeah, Nathan, I think your word of caution to us as Christians is warranted as well. We live in a culture where, for the most part, we can be so selective with the news that we read, with the information that we gather that the tendency, I think, to really feed that confirmation bias is a little bit stronger these days, because there's just so many tailor-made facts. So, what if there's a study that emerges, for instance, I can think of a way that you can really perpetrate a hoax on many well-meaning and smart, well-informed Christians by coming up with an elaborate hoax about some archeological find that corroborates something in the Old Testament. Let's say a universal flood from the book of Genesis or something like that.

Well, I think when those kinds of articles come out, or you remember, in another vein, during the whole DaVinci Code craze, Nathan-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Where we got all worked up about a book that said "fiction" on the front of it.

Cameron McAllister: Yes, exactly. And there were all sorts of claims circulating and all sorts of, and many people were really, enthusiastically embracing the evidence without thinking very critically about it. I think this is something we all fall into occasionally.

And so, we all need to be more careful, like you do when you read an article that purports to be science, Nathan, you go back and you look at the abstract. We all need to do a little digging and, yes, it takes more time, but again, what we've said over and over again on the podcast of course is that we need to take more time to think through and to be reflective bout claims that are made.

Especially when it's something that appears to support what we already believe is true because, I mean, in those cases, we're going to be very, very tempted to sort of accept it and swallow something wholesale.

So, I think ... I don't think that we see something like this and we walk away, filled with despair, but I think it can be a helpful lesson in intellectual humility, doing a little bit more work, and thinking more carefully through. I think we all, in our day and age, need to ask ourselves how committed we really are to the truth. Many people just want to see their views confirmed. That's the atmosphere around us. I think that's a big part of what post-truth means. I don't think it has as much to do with theory for most people and everything to do with really having their way confirmed or getting done what they want to get done.

But how committed are we to, really, to the truth? And as Christians, we're totally, we are committed to the truth, we believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. So, that will affect the way we read the news. That will affect the way we think about these different ideas that circulate. Also, to those of us who are younger, there's a great temptation to take some of the terminology that's really fashionable and run with it, and it just-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Okay, so let me jump in here a second because this is the question that I have, just as I kind of read through a number of different articles and responses and the different people and voices and camps that are weighing in on it. Can I legitimately differentiate between thinking something is funny and being gleeful about somebody else being wrong.

Cameron McAllister: Oh, yeah, sure.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So, I think that's the balance right in there. Come on, Cameron, just a little bit. Some of these are pretty funny.

Cameron McAllister: Oh, they're funny.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, they're funny.

Cameron McAllister: They're very funny.

Nathan Rittenhouse: But, so can I, in the pursuit of truth, acknowledge that this is a funny thing but on the other hand, not be gleeful in a disparaging way-

Cameron McAllister: Smug about it.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Of, yeah ... Do you know what I'm asking? I'm not quite articulating my question the way I want it to come out but I'm just kind of ...

Cameron McAllister: I think so. Oh, I think you can laugh at some of this and you really should. If you read this, it is funny. It just is. But, I do think it's possible to do that without being smug or triumphalistic. And saying, "See?"

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, there's a good word.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, I think ... And interestingly enough, if you read the fine print in the study, these three authors try to counsel against that as well.

By the way, just putting their political cards on the table, all three of these academics identify themselves as liberals, so they're critiquing their own camp in their own words. That's what they say. They don't want people to take this and run with it and they say, though, "We know many people will and sort of get all triumphalistic about it and say, 'See, all these grievance studies and all these academics who aren't really doing scholarship at all, it's just a bunch of sophistry and nonsense.'"

No, I think there's a balance there. I think we do need to laugh but I don't think we need to look down our nose at people. I think we can laugh, I think we can call for reform within certain fields of academia. Because, and again, they do say this in the study as well, and this I appreciate, the problem is when shoddy scholarship makes it through like this and when really ideologically driven agendas happen in scholarship, it actually, what it does is it hurts those fields. It actually hurts feminism. It actually hurts gender studies. It hurts critical theory, it hurts cultural theory because then they're taken less seriously. So, they want more rigor and they want more accountability.

I think that's a noble goal. Their methods are, I would agree, quite, fairly questionable and maybe look a little mean spirited but I think they're bringing to the forefront some suspicions that a lot of us have had that there's this growing cultural vocabulary with all these different terms and, usually, the ones that most people know are microaggressions and safe spaces but it gets way, way more elaborate. In some ways, people will try to demonstrate their legitimacy just through cultural literacy.

And demonstrating your legitimacy just through cultural literacy doesn't do much more than say that you just speak the language. That's what C.S. Lewis would just call chronological snobbery.

It's one thing to master the cultural lingo or the academic jargon but it's another thing to actually be committed to real scholarship, the pursuit of truth and also responding fairly to honest criticism and a real peer review process.

I think we need more of that and, I think, what they're pointing out is there's definitely a real need there and as Christians, I think we can shine a light here if we happen to find ourselves in the academy, if we're academics by being rigorously committed to the truth. That might cost us something.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, it also shows up though, I mean, so most of us, I mean, there will be people who are academics listening to this show but a majority are perhaps not. So I was thinking more on a kind of day to day level. I was in a discussion one time and somebody said, "List the qualities of a good friend." And I said, "Willing to disagree with me." I was the first one to speak. And they were like, "Yeah, that's not where I thought that was going."

But what I meant by that, pushes into this a little bit in the sense that I think we need to, as Christians, hold each other accountable on some of this stuff too in a kind way because we really are for the other person and for the truth and so there's stuff that you see spearing around on Facebook or whatever.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: That we can, I don't think, it's not our role to police the world, but, for the sake of the credibility of the gospel, we need to be helpful and encouraging our brothers and sisters in Christ not to get sucked down these vacuous rabbit holes that really have no bearing one anything important in life.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, I think so. I think, again, guarding what we pay attention to as well. Being careful in our conversations but also being willing to laugh at ourselves because we've all, everybody's been, most people have been duped. Most people have made mistakes. Hey, I think we've all made mistakes. I think if we, in our day to day lives, commit to-

Nathan Rittenhouse: , yeah,

Cameron McAllister: being able to disagree but that assumes that you're willing to be friends with people who will disagree with you and maybe some of us need a little push in that direction but, hey, we've got a wonderful opportunity coming up because we're about to move into November. It's happening already. November means, for many of us, Thanksgiving, and that means we're going to be in close quarters with family members, stuck at a table together.

You know, I often say that, Nathan, I think you would agree, sometimes the hardest people to disagree with, we talk about speaking cross cultural dividing lines and ideological diversity, but often the hardest people to talk to and disagree with are the people closest to us, so family members for sure.

I think, as Christians, this can be a real opportunity for us to love those who are the most difficult for us to love and that's often family members because those disagreements run deep and it's complicated. There's a lot more to it.

I think it would be wonderful if we all committed to, not to being pushovers, but to being willing to disagree and to listen, especially to those who are closest to us if they hold views that we happen to believe are deeply misguided or even harmful.

I think that, I actually do think that's one very practical lesson that we can draw from the study and from our cultural moment.

But, we've given you a lot to think about here. We have covered a lot of territory and I do apologize if you've been scratching your head a little bit and thinking, "What's the relevance of this stuff?" It gets a little esoteric and odd.

Nathan Rittenhouse: The relevance is check your sources.

Cameron McAllister: Yes. There you go, there you go. Check your sources.

Well, I think Nathan and I, I certainly enjoyed but thank you very much for tuning in, this is Thinking Out Loud. It's a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope.

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