Something has gone horribly wrong in academia. Last August, a trio of scholars began writing hoax academic papers and submitting them to peer-reviewed journals that specialize in what the scholars call “grievance studies”—identity politics thinly disguised as scholarship. Instead of being laughed off, a surprising number of these scholarly lampoons were actually published over the past year by some of the leading feminist and gender studies journals.
One journal published a paper that includes a chapter from Adolph Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” rewritten in the language of intersectionality theory. Another journal, specializing in “feminist geography,” published a paper online in May about how dog parks are “petri dishes for canine ‘rape culture.’” The pseudonymous author issued “a call for awareness into the different ways dogs are treated on the basis of their gender and queering behaviors, and the chronic and perennial rape emergency dog parks pose to female dogs.”
Perhaps the most disturbing is a paper that argues for “experiential reparations” for students deemed privileged, including “sitting on the floor, wearing chains, or intentionally being spoken over.” That one hasn’t been published yet. Its status is “revise and resubmit.” The unnamed reviewers reportedly recommended that privileged students should be subjected to even harsher treatment, and expressed concern that underprivileged students might be exploited by the burden of having to teach about privilege.
All of this is the work of mathematician James Lindsay, Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University, and Helen Pluckrose, a scholar of English literature and history. Of the 20 papers they have written so far, four have been published and three have been accepted for publication. A number of others have been returned with a request to revise and resubmit. In a project summary, Lindsay wrote that each paper “combined an effort to better understand the field itself with an attempt to get absurdities and morally fashionable political ideas published as legitimate academic research.”
The authors, who describe themselves as “left-leaning liberals,” have been chronicling their experiment online, including an essay published this week and a video posted on YouTube. They are obviously having fun with it all.
The Origins Of Postmodernism’s Malign Influence
Their project is a replication—on a much grander scale—of the Sokal affair, a hoax paper by mathematician Alan Sokal that was published by the journal Social Text in 1996. Sokal said he wanted to find out if a leading journal of culture studies would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”
Sokal had been inspired to conduct his experiment by a 1994 book, “Higher Superstition,” by biologist Paul R. Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt that argued some humanities journals would publish anything as long as it expressed “proper leftist thought.” Gross and Levitt were pushing back against postmodern academics who challenged the nature of scientific inquiry and suggested that scientific theories are nothing more than social constructs. These postmodernists, they said, were fundamentally anti-intellectual and toxic to academia.
They likely had no idea how right they would turn out to be. Sokal’s paper, a mashup of physics jargon and post-structuralist drivel, was never peer-reviewed like the papers of Lindsay, Boghossian, and Pluckrose have been, but it was an early sign of where culture studies, and academia in general, was headed. What Sokal did not see—and could not have anticipated—was the degree to which these malign postmodern ideas would seep into the mainstream and produce the virulent strain of identity politics we see all around us today.
Identity Politics Has Gone Mainstream
The reason Lindsay and his colleagues were able to pull off a such a massive version of the Sokal affair 22 years later is because entire university departments have since been taken over by academics who are so committed to identity politics and activism they will publish almost anything if it serves their political agenda.
You can see this instinct at work even in the objections of feminist academics to the hoax. Despite Lindsay’s disclaimer that he and his colleagues are “left-leaning,” their project must be interpreted as a “coordinated attack from the right.”
But this political instinct isn’t restricted to academia. Much the same thing has happened to vast swathes of the news media. In the circus surrounding confirmation proceedings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, newspapers and magazines that once prided themselves on telling the truth have jettisoned all semblance of balance—or even objective reality.
Examples abound. Witness the New York Times’ breathless reportage on Kavanaugh’s beach party planning in high school, or how in 1985 he might have thrown ice at someone in a bar. Consider the decision of NBC News to air Katie Snow’s interview with Kavanaugh accuser Julie Swetnick without corroborating a single one of Swetnick’s slanderous claims.
Our political institutions have likewise given themselves over to the same impulses. Senate Democrats, in a display of duplicity and cynicism almost unparalleled in modern politics, have been willing to say and do nearly anything to derail Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Indeed, they have shown themselves willing to destroy the lives of both Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, all the while feigning moral outrage.
Meanwhile, large numbers of Americans on the left have seemingly made up their minds about Kavanaugh’s guilt, without a shred of evidence or corroboration of the accusations against him. College students, having imbibed the poison of identity politics their entire academic lives, have shown us, yet again, what it produces: angry mobs.
This is what happens when a society makes war on reason. If the Sokal affair in 1996 was a warning about the dangerous anti-intellectual currents running through academia, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings in 1991 were a parallel warning about those same currents running through our politics.
Today, those currents have become a flood. Lindsay, Boghossian, and Pluckrose have shown us just how bad things have gotten in academia, and the Kavanaugh debacle has confirmed for us that what happens in academia never stays there.