By Rob Cuthbert (Editorial from SRHE News, October 2018)
In 1996 physics professor Alan Sokal (New York/UCL) submitted a hoax article to Social Text, a postmodern cultural studies journal. ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ argued nonsensically that quantum gravity was a social and linguistic construct. The journal did not at that time practise peer review and the article was not submitted for expert consideration by any physicist. Sokal revealed his hoax on the day of publication and it was understandably seized on by conservative science academics as evidence that some social science academics are predisposed to accept arguments that fit their ideological preferences, a thesis put forward by biologist Paul Gross (Virginia) and mathematician Norman Levitt (Rutgers), in their 1994 book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, which Sokal said had inspired his hoax.
The Sokal affair prompted much comment, ranging from support of his hoax as a legitimate exposure of academic shortcomings to severe criticism of the questionable ethics of his manoeuvring. Social Text editors at Duke University, Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross, wrote a long response in attempted justification, which variously said the piece had at first been rejected, that it had been accepted in the sense of being a well-meaning attempt by a scientist to engage in an outdated way with a different discipline, that their journal was more like a magazine than an academic journal, and that it was ethically unacceptable for Sokal to behave as he had.
Twenty years on, as Alexander C Kafka reported for The Chronicle of Higher Education on 3 October 2018, “Three scholars — Helen Pluckrose, a self-described “exile from the humanities” who studies medieval religious writings about women; James A Lindsay, an author and mathematician; and Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University — spent 10 months writing 20 hoax papers that illustrate and parody what they call “grievance studies,” and submitted them to “the best journals in the relevant fields.”” Seven were accepted.
Reactions, just as with the Sokal hoax, ranged from contempt for the papers and disgust at the deception, to praise for exposing “a serious problem with big parts of academia”. The story made the mainstream press even on the day after the Conservative Party conference, with a contemptuous leader in The Times 4 October 2018 suggesting there is “a grievance culture that is poisoning social sciences” and wondering if the new Nobel Prizewinner in Chemistry, Sir Gregory Winter (Cambridge) might be persuaded to lead “a thorough review of these disciplines, designed to reintroduce rigour, root out bias and restore public trust.”
Higher education makes you more liberal, said Paula Surridge (Bristol) in her piece for The British Politics and Policy Blog on 8 October 2018. Of course it does. In higher education we entertain and may profess controversial opinions, and respect the right of others to express them. But The Times leader writer represents a culture where distrust of the rigour of the social sciences is all too common, fuelled not only by hoaxes such as these, but also by every instance of academics who slip into unthinking intolerance of anything but the dominant perspective. The appropriate response to alternative views is rigorous examination sufficient to assess their worth, not a priori dismissal.
After the criticism Helen Pluckrose vigorously defended her initiative in The Chronicle of Higher Education on 5 October 2018: “Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields, and their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview. This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous.” On 9 October 2018 The Chronicle invited a range of academics to reflect on the hoax and Eboo Patel, who writes the Diversity blog for insidehighered.com, wrote a reflective piece on 12 October 2018.
Academic opinion is clearly still divided between those who would dismiss the whole thing as beneath contempt because it is dishonest and unethical, and those who believe it makes a case to be answered. In the Pluckrose affair, just as with Sokal, ultimately the editors have been had, and it might have been better to strike a different note in response, more contrite, less self-justifying. Yes, there is an egregious breach of trust involved in each submission, but there is surely an equally egregious breach in its acceptance. Referees, however hard-pressed and unpaid, should either express their views with due care or decline the invitation to review (as they do, in increasing numbers). Editors cannot delegate all their responsibility to their reviewers, however hard it is sometimes to find the right expert assessor. There is no need for a binary choice: a hoax may be both ethically contemptible and expose a worrying tendency which demands attention.
The price of academic freedom is eternal academic vigilance.
SRHE News Editor: Professor Rob Cuthbert