In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal submitted an article called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to Social Text, a journal of cultural studies. Weeks after the text was published, Sokal sent a new article to the same journal, called “A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies,” but was rejected. Unsatisfied, he sent the article to a magazine, Lingua Franca, which finally accepted it.
The publication of this essay sparked vigorous debates among academics in the humanities. Not content with this, he published Fashionable Nonsense, a book written with Jean Bricmont that criticizes the use of scientific terms by academics –generally French– with ties to movements such as poststructuralism, postmodernism, cultural studies, and gender studies.
As had happened with the article, the book shook academia’s foundations, especially in French philosophy. The effect was so great that even today many scientists inspired by it repeat “Sokal hoaxes” by sending fake articles to several academic journals. The most recent victim is gender studies.
Poststructuralism, Postmodernism, and Gender Studies
Having as predecessors feminist academic groups that emerged in the 1970s, gender studies is nowadays a multidisciplinary field dedicated to the study of women, men, and the LGBT population. Some of its main research areas are work, health, violence, education, and rights, while some of its most frequent epistemological influences are poststructuralism and postmodernism.
Poststructuralism was an academic movement focused on the study of Western culture. However, since it was mainly made up of philosophers (e.g. Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler), its products did not exactly follow the scientific method.
For Reynoso (1991), what united poststructuralists was “more stylistic than ideological or methodological” (p. 16), whereas, for Williams (2005), poststructuralists do not employ a scientific model, since it “is criticized and reflected upon, even sometimes ignored in favor of more aesthetic models” (p. 15).
In a similar way, postmodernism is an academic movement mainly comprised of philosophers. However, they differ in that postmodernists are the heirs of poststructuralists; while the latter argued that science was insufficient to understand society, the former believed that science was already dead.
According to Reynoso (1991), postmodernism has all the elements of an intellectual fad: analytical superficiality, repetition of themes, accumulation of assumptions, academic diffusion through humanities departments, stylistic concordance, cross-references, etc. (p. 23). For Eagleton (1997), postmodernism embodies “a style of thought that mistrusts the classic notions of truth, reason, identity, and objectivity” (p. 11).
It was precisely this style that garnered criticism, since some postmodernists presumed to replace the scientific method with rhetoric. When Elster (2013) asserted that the social sciences were in “a deep state of crisis” (p. 1), he was talking about «French theory» (as poststructuralism is also known) and postmodern movements such as post-Marxism and postcolonialism.
For Elster, all those approaches “have in common the lack of respect for the standards of argumentation and evidence” (Ibid.). It is precisely the popularity of poststructuralism and postmodernism that leads many to think that social sciences should not be considered scientific (Morales, 2018).
Despite the criticisms, such movements went on to become the preferred epistemological frameworks in gender studies. It was against them that Sokal and Bricmont directed their criticism when they pointed out that Luce Irigaray, asserted, among other things, that E=mc2 was a “sexed equation” (Sokal & Bricmont, 1999: 114-128). It is also these strand of gender studies which the majority of criticisms are today directed at.
Although the concept of “gender” was first introduced by John Money in the 1950s, it was recycled (and misrepresented) by the social sciences in the 1980s, when poststructuralism and postmodernism expanded by leaps and bounds.
Referring to this environment, Scott (2008) maintained the following: “It seems significant that the use of the word gender emerged at a time of great epistemological confusion that (…) leads social scientists to change their scientific paradigms for literary ones” (p. 64).
Nonetheless, making use of pseudo-theories never comes for free.
The Conceptual Penis
In May 2017, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian, writing under the pseudonyms Jamie Lindsay and Peter Boyle, published a paper in the journal Cogent Social Sciences called “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.”
In it, the authors argued that the “conceptual penis” –understood as “a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity” (Lindsay & Boyle, 2017: 1)– limits gender identity in social dynamics, excludes communities based on gender identity, is a permanent source of abuse for women, is a universal source of rape, and is the conceptual driving force behind climate change (Ibid., p. 5-6).
Afterward, the authors argued that such an article should have never been published, since it was ridiculous on purpose: “If we were merely clear in our moral implications that maleness is intrinsically bad and that the penis is somehow at the root of it, we could get the paper published in a respectable journal” (Lindsay and Boghossian, 2017).
Their strategy was to make the article look like a typical gender-studies essay. Using the Postmodernism Generator (a software that creates fake papers), they sought to craft not a coherent document but rather one filled with jargon, such as “discursive,” “isomorphism,” “patriarchal pre-post society,” insults to men or manspreading (the male practice of invading neighboring space).
“After completing the paper, we read it carefully to ensure it didn’t say anything meaningful, and as neither one of us could determine what it is actually about, we deemed it a success,” the authors confessed.
This scandal stirred controversial debates that challenged gender studies’ critical-thinking skills and produced striking headlines: “A Sokal-Like Hoax Ridicules Gender Studies” (Gámez, 2017).
For Pluckrose (2017), “It is essential to address the confused thinking in academia which is so influential on the irrationalism, illiberalism, identitarianism and culturally relative ethics…”
For Sokal (2017), this scam exposed something deeper: “The pay-to-publish model permits the existence of very-low-tier academic journals that on the traditional publishing model would fail to attract enough paid subscriptions to survive.”
Gender Studies vs. Evolution
One field of knowledge that constantly criticizes gender studies is evolutionary theory. On the one hand, feminist discourse has chosen to ignore the fundamental role of evolution in the determination of human behavior, pointing out that gender differences are the result of social constraints and accusing neuroscience of endorsing a sexist hierarchy (Carbajal, 2017).
On the other hand, psychologists and neuroscientists point out that gender constructivism puts forward a sociological reductionism by ignoring the biological foundations of human behavior (Baron-Cohen, 2010; Soh, 2017).
Although it is true that culture is behind many gender differences (Rippon, 2017), since they arise from the interaction between innate and learned behavior, it is clear that gender constructivism –the spearhead of the so-called gender theory– is wrong (Morales, 2017).
In mid-2017, James Lindsay, Peter Boghossian, and Helen Pluckrose reproduced the Sokal hoax on a massive scale: they submitted multiple parody papers to several gender-studies journals. Authors said, in a long essay that describes their feat (Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian, 2018), that out of 20 papers, 7 have been accepted (4 published and 3 in the process of publication), 7 were under evaluation, 6 were rejected, and one obtained a recognition.
The paper called “Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon,” which stated that, because of perceived gender, female dogs are oppressed as a class compared to males dogs, was published in Gender, Place & Culture, obtaining an award for academic excellence.
A second paper, “Who Are They to Judge? Overcoming Anthropometry through Fat Bodybuilding,” argued for the creation of “fat bodybuilding” to create inclusiveness in sports, was published in Fat Studies.
A third paper called “Going In through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Hhomohysteria and Transphobia through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use,” which asserted that heterosexual men who used anal sex toys showed less transphobia, less obedience to cultural mandates, greater parental sensitivity, and greater awareness of rape, was published in Sexuality & Culture.
A fourth paper, “An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant,” which postulated that breastaurants (restaurants whose female staff wear sparse clothing –e.g. Hooters) are places of preservation of masculinity through the objectification of women, was published in Sex Roles.
Another paper called “Our Struggle Is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism,” reproduced a fragment of Adolf Hitler’s book Mein Kampf with feminist rhetoric and was accepted in Affilia. Finally, other papers were accepted in Hypatia and Journal of Poetry Therapy.
As expected, this scandal also sparked controversy among academics. For Coyne (2018), Lindsay and company have done “a good thing,” because “[m]ost of us know how bad the scholarship can be in these fields.” For Cofnas (Cofnas, Parvini, Arden, Sesardic and Anomaly, 2018), if Alan Sokal called postmodernism a “fashionable nonsense” 20 years ago, “today, postmodernism isn’t a fashion –it’s our culture.”
According to Arden (ibid.), “[t]hese psychoactive hoax papers… are taken seriously because they fit with social science sub fields in which reason has been exchanged for ideology.”
For Mounk (Mounk et al., 2018), “[a]ny academic who is not at least a little troubled by the ease with which the hoaxers passed satire off as wisdom has fallen foul to the same kind of motivated reasoning and naked partisanship that is currently engulfing the country.”
For Bergstrom (Ibid.), “[p]ublishing a bad-faith paper based on fraudulent data proves nothing more about the state of a research field,” so “[a]ttacking a field with satirical nonsense is ineffectual —and just plain lazy.”
Finally, for Essig and Moorti (Ibid.), “[i]nstead of celebrating the hoax, the first thing journalists and outside commentators should have done was to put this into a larger context of attacks and the deep but often anonymous money behind them.”
What About Gender Studies in Latin America?
The scenario described above makes us wonder about the status of gender studies in Latin America. For now, something is true: although here the subjects are less scandalous than those studied in North-American gender studies, the field is also epistemologically nurtured by poststructuralism and postmodernism.
Quotes from authors such as Foucault, Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, Kristeva, Segato, and Butler are commonplace, including almost certain mentions of gender constructivism (Morales, 2017).
Considering this state of affairs, it may be a matter of time before someone, in the true Sokal style, sends parody papers to the most prestigious journals of gender studies in Latin America to see what happens.
In an article published in Scientometrics (a journal specialized in the measurement and analysis of scientific production), Söderlund and Madison (2017), after reviewing 2,805 statements of 36 articles in gender-studies journals, found that many expressed biases and value judgments, unlike other fields in the social sciences.
Likewise, through quantitative analysis, the authors showed that gender studies privilege cultural and social explanations to the detriment of biological or psychological ones.
As we can see, the discomfort is neither superficial nor recent.
However, if something must be said, is that, despite these criticisms, gender studies are an important part of the social sciences. Righteous cannot pay for sinners. Most research on sex, gender, and sexuality provides crucial information for the design of public policies on topics such as violence or basic human rights.
Of course, this is not to deny that an important part of it depends on highly questionable epistemological-methodological frameworks. Therefore, rather than eliminating the field, permanent epistemological vigilance is necessary. I’m not alone in this view.
Two years after the scandal, Sokal (1998) warned that his experiment “doesn’t prove that the whole field of cultural studies… is nonsense. Neither does it prove that the intellectual standards in these fields are generally lax” (p. 6).
The event “[p]roves only that the editors of one journal were derelict in their intellectual duty, by publishing an article on quantum physics that they admit they could not understand, without bothering to get an opinion from anyone knowledgeable in quantum physics, solely because it came from a ‘conveniently credentialed ally’ (as Social Text co-editor Bruce Robbins later candidly admitted), flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions, and attacked their ‘enemies’.”
Likewise, Pluckrose et al. (2018) demanded that universities exhaustively review the academic productions of areas such as gender studies, critical race theory or postcolonial theory –“especially including sociology and anthropology”– with the purpose of separating and highlighting those investigations that actually produce objective knowledge.
After all, as Coyne (2017) said, “not all… areas in social science or the humanities are full of such nonsense, but cultural studies, including women’s studies, are particularly prone to the toxic combination of jargon and ideology.”
Although gender studies are fundamental for a just life in society, we cannot deny that a large part of its production, theoretically speaking, has been wallowing in mud for decades.
Lea el artículo original en español.
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Sergio Morales Inga es antropólogo y egresado de la Maestría en Filosofía de la Ciencia, ambos por la Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, en Perú. Tiene publicaciones en revistas académicas de Perú, Colombia, Argentina, España y Reino Unido. Columnista de evolución humana, género y epistemología de las ciencias sociales en Ciencia del Sur. También realiza divulgación en evolución cultural a través del blog "Cultura y evolución".