Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 23, 2017

Predatory Journals and Predatory Skeptics

Filed under: feminism,religion,science,sociobiology — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

On the Skeptic Magazine website there’s an article titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies” co-authored by Peter Boghossian, Ed.D. and James Lindsay, Ph.D. that details how they suckered a “peer-reviewed journal” into publishing a bunch of gibberish filled with postmodernist jargon.

The article appeared in Cogent Social Sciences, a division of Taylor and Francis that along with Sage, Springer and Elsevier represent the top-drawer of academic publishing. Or at least has such a reputation. A representative paragraph appears in the Skeptic article:

We conclude that penises are not best understood as the male sexual organ, or as a male reproductive organ, but instead as an enacted social construct that is both damaging and problematic for society and future generations. The conceptual penis presents significant problems for gender identity and reproductive identity within social and family dynamics, is exclusionary to disenfranchised communities based upon gender or reproductive identity, is an enduring source of abuse for women and other gender-marginalized groups and individuals, is the universal performative source of rape, and is the conceptual driver behind much of climate change.

The references are as bogus as the rest of the article, including one for the Postmodern Generator, a website coded in the 1990s by Andrew Bulhak featuring an algorithm, based on NYU physicist Alan Sokal’s method of hoaxing a cultural studies journal called Social Text, that returns a different fake postmodern “paper” every time the page is reloaded.

They have to admit that the article was rejected by NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, a Taylor and Francis journal whose editorial board is dominated by Scandinavian academics. An recent article suggests that the journal is strongly influenced by 1970s type feminism: ‘We wouldn’t be boys if we weren’t clever with our hands’ – childhood masculinity in a rural community in Norway.

Considering that is it not included in the top-ranked 115 journals in Gender Studies, being rejected by NORMA indicates a failure to leap a hurdle 6 inches above the ground. As is often (or perhaps universally) the case with being rejected by a Taylor and Francis journal, you get an autoreply inviting you to submit the article to a journal in their open-access Cogent Social Science series that despite the Taylor and Francis imprimatur functions like a predatory journal. Basically, you pony up $1,350 (the hoaxers paid half the normal fee for some reason) and Cogent will be happy to put any crap you write on their website.

Because I have been published in Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, a Taylor and Francis journal, I ended up on some mailing lists that periodically generate mass invitations to the recipients asking them to submit something to open-access predatory journals (Internet-based) as opposed to the far more expensive and exclusive print journals found on JSTOR . For a number of years, University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beal maintained a list of such journals that totaled 1,155 as of December 31, 2016. Beal took down his website in January 2017, providing no comment why. One surmises that he got fed up with being harassed by the conmen operating in this field, including an outfit in India that threatened him with a one billion dollar law suit.

One of the more outrageous predatory journals that solicited an article from me had the gumption to include the name of a professor I knew quite well on its editorial board. When I wrote him to inform him about his name appearing there, he was shocked and wasted no time demanding that they remove it. Typically, the worst of the journals don’t even include a phone number and use a bogus street address for their office. Others are more genuine but don’t really subject an submission to the serious peer review that is typical of academic journals. They also charge hundreds of dollars for the article to be published, a way for them to make a fast buck. Is there much difference between the way they operate and how Cogent Social Science operates?

The hoaxers claim that there is a difference since Cogent is included in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). Clearly being included in the directory can be a transitory event since 3,776 were deleted from dataset of 12.595 since its inception, including 376 for ethical lapses. Japan is the worst offender apparently.

Why are these journals called predatory? Since I have become acquainted with many tenure-track professors over the years, I can tell you that they are under enormous pressure to accumulate a paper trail of publications—publish or perish, in other words. Some inevitably succumb to the temptation of paying hundreds of dollars for appearing in a journal that is borderline predatory. Does any of this have anything to do with enhancing humanity’s body of knowledge? I can tell you that even for the best journals coming out of an Ivy school, the number of people who read these JSTOR type articles is vanishingly small.

Unlike Alan Sokal, who received almost universal acclaim in 1996 except from those postmodernists he spoofed, Boghossian and Lindsay have gotten bad press. Salon notes that in making an amalgam between predatory publishing and gender studies, the authors neglect to mention that Cogent Social Sciences lacks a single editor in the field. They are experts in tourism, criminology, development planning, geography, sport management and communication sciences—hardly fields that qualify them to evaluate an article on gender inequality. The hoaxers made a self-righteous case against gender studies:

Our aim was smaller yet more pointed. We intended to test the hypothesis that flattery of the academic Left’s moral architecture in general, and of the moral orthodoxy in gender studies in particular, is the overwhelming determiner of publication in an academic journal in the field. That is, we sought to demonstrate that a desire for a certain moral view of the world to be validated could overcome the critical assessment required for legitimate scholarship. Particularly, we suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil. On the evidence, our suspicion was justified.3

I am not exactly sure what evidence they are talking about since the endnote pointed to “countless examples documented on the anonymously run Twitter feed @RealPeerReview”. A cursory glance of this Twitter feed will reveal this sort of thing: “Seems that many academics dislike the wonderful Martian movie (and probably @andyweirauthor’s book it’s based on)”. As a rule of thumb, anything that appears on Twitter is hardly worth considering so it is no surprise that the two hoaxers cite it as proving their point.

Since Boghossian has cultivated a career as a professional atheist, it is no surprise that he used Skeptic Magazine as a platform, where Dawkins is considered a leading exemplary.  Boghossian is a featured speaker of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and wrote a book titled “A Manual for Creating Atheists” that repeats the arguments made by Dawkins in his own book “The God Delusion”. His writing partner James Lindsay wrote one of those books himself. Titled “God Doesn’t; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges”, it tries to show that a belief in God is fed by social needs that people do not know how to meet. Since those social needs will exist as long as capitalism exists, I doubt that such books will do much good.

I get a chuckle out of Skeptic Magazine upholding hard scientific values against postmodernist mumbo-jumbo since its editorial board is a virtual hotbed of sociobiologists, including the aforementioned Dawkins, Jared Diamond and the infamous Napoleon Chagnon. Additionally, the hoax got the endorsement of Stephen Pinker, who like Jared Diamond believes that hunting and gathering societies were far more capable of genocide than Adolph Hitler. Why? Because it is in our genes evidently. Survival International summed up the beliefs of of this unsavory crew:

Steven Pinker (‘evolutionary psychologist’)

In The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), Steven Pinker promotes a fictitious, colonialist image of a backward ‘Brutal Savage’, which pushes the debate on tribal peoples’ rights back over a century and is still used to justify their destruction. Read more about why Pinker’s ‘science’ is wrong.

Napoleon Chagnon (anthropologist)

Steven Pinker would arguably not have been able to reach the conclusions he does about tribal violence without the highly controversial work of a single anthropologist: Napoleon Chagnon studied the Yanomami tribe from the 1960s, calling them ‘The Fierce People’. But are the Yanomami really fierce?

Napoleon Chagnon’s view that the Yanomami are ‘sly, aggressive and intimidating’ and that they ‘live in a state of chronic warfare’ has been widely discredited. Nonetheless, both Diamond and Pinker’s conclusions about tribal violence rely heavily on his work.

Jared Diamond (geographer)

Jared Diamond’s 2012 book, The World Until Yesterday is ostensibly about what industrialized people (whom he calls ‘modern’) can learn from tribal peoples (he calls them ‘traditional’). His book, however, carries a false and dangerous message – that most tribes engage in constant warfare, both needing and welcoming state intervention to stop their violent behavior. Read more.

As far as Dawkins is concerned, we can assume that he was eager to publicize anything that smacked of hostility to feminism given his track record. In 2011, he got in a flame war with feminists as reported by The Atlantic:

Richard Dawkins made an unexpected appearance in the comments section of biologist PZ Myers’ post at Scienceblogs.com last week. Myers was commenting on Rebecca Watson’s recent experience being propositioned in a hotel elevator by a male attendee of a conference at which Watson had just spoken in Dublin. Dawkins got himself into hot water by commenting in the form of a sarcastic letter to a Muslim woman, pointing out how trivial Watson’s experience in the elevator was compared to the abuses Muslim women deal with on a daily basis. “Stop whining will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and…yawn…don’t tell me again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery,” he wrote. “But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.”

Then in 2014, he Tweeted that women should not get drunk if they want to avoid being raped:

Two years later he was disinvited from a conference organized by skeptics for Tweeting a sexist video:

Finally, with respect to the Sokal hoax. Back in 1996, I was thrilled by the news that those masters of obfuscation and critics of Marxist grand narratives were finally getting their comeuppance and from a volunteer who had gone to Nicaragua with a Tecnica delegation I had helped to organize. It was only a few years later when I discovered the background to the con job he pulled on Social Text that I woke up:

I had never really given much thought to Alan’s relationship to Marxism. I, like most people, just assumed that he had gone through volume one of Capital, etc., in the way that young orthodox Jews learn to read Hebrew. Anybody who describes himself as a “socialist” repeatedly in debates with Andrew Ross et al, clearly MUST have at least familiarity with, if not commitment to, the Marxist intellectual tradition.

I discovered that this is not true at all. Despite Alan’s assertion that he is a socialist, in reality he is a left liberal. I had lunch with him on New Year’s Eve in order to discuss my concerns about his defense of the “Kennewick Man” excavations near the Columbia River in Washington State. Alan had defended the scientists against the American Indian “creationists” in his debate with Andrew Ross and I hadn’t given it too much thought at the time. Now that I had become thoroughly immersed in such questions, his position gnawed away at me like a piece of undigested food.

In the course of our discussion, it was revealed to me that Alan’s defense of science has nothing to do with Marxism or socialism. It is virtually indistinguishable from everyday liberal concepts of the role of scientists in society. He said that bad science would expose itself in a free society, so there would seem to be little risk of running into the sort of horrors that took place in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia. All we have to do is criticize the excesses of archaeologists and everything would come out okay in the end. I sat there sipping my wine in a mood of total shock. Alan’s trust in capitalist society was touching but a bit naïve. After all, this was a free country when anthropologists and archaeologists wrote all sorts of racist nonsense throughout the 19th and early 20th century. Leaving this aside for the moment, I had a completely different analysis of how science is conducted. As a stodgy old Marxist, I had become convinced long ago that the ruling ideas of society are those of the ruling class. Science was not immune.

I asked Alan if he had ever read Richard Lewontin or Richard Levins, co-authors of “The Dialectical Biologist.” No, he had taken the book out of the library, but never read it. This was astonishing to me. How could Alan Sokal have become regarded as some kind of defender of Marxist rectitude when he had utterly no engagement with the main experts in the field. In his new book “Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science,” co-authored by physicist Jean Bricmont, there is no index entry for Marx, Lewontin or Levins. In the one chapter that deals with their own views on the science wars, as opposed to the follies of the pomos, they analyze Thomas Kuhn, not the Marxist analysis of what Lewontin and Levins call the “Commoditization of Science.” That is the real issue, not what Lacan thinks of pi.

In point of fact, the Social Text issue that Alan’s spoof appeared in is one of their better efforts. It is available now under the title “Science Wars” and contains first-rate articles by Levins and Lewontin. It turns out that the original Social Text issue was basically a rejoinder to Norman Levitt, Alan Sokal’s ally in the so-called science wars. Alan told Lingua Franca that his spoof was inspired by Levitt’s efforts to expose irrational tendencies in the academy.

Directing his attention to Levitt and co-author Paul Gross’s “Higher Superstitions,” Lewontin writes:

What Gross and Levitt have done is to turn their back on, or deny the existence of, some of the most important questions in the formation of scientific knowledge. They are scornful of ‘metaphor mongers,’ yet Gross’s own field of developmental biology is in the iron grip of a metaphor, the metaphor of ‘development’ To describe the life history of an organism as ‘development’ is to prejudice the entire problematic of the investigation and to guarantee that certain explanations will dominate. ‘Development’ means literally an unrolling or an unfolding, seen also in the Spanish desarollo, or the German Entwicklung (unwinding). It means the making manifest of an already predetermined pattern immanent in the fertilized egg, just as the picture is immanent in an exposed film, which is then ‘developed.’ All that is required is the appropriate triggering of the process and the provision of a milieu that allows it to unfold. This is not mere ‘metaphor mongering’; it reveals the shape of investigation in the field. Genes are everything. The environment is irrelevant except insofar as it allows development. The field then takes as its problematic precisely those life-history events that are indeed specified in the genome: the differentiation of the front end from the back end, and why pigs do not have wings. But it ignores completely the vast field of characters for which there is a constant interplay between genes and environment, and which cannot be understood under the rubric of ‘development,’ Nor are these characters trivial: they certainly include the central nervous system, for which the life history of the nerve connections of the roundworm is a very bad metaphor.

This is the kind of discussion that matters most in the so-called science wars. Instead of shooting fish in a barrel, Alan Sokal should be responding to these arguments. Instead, he has constructed strawmen that are easy to knock down.


  1. Louis: I know it wasn’t your intent in this article but you maybe should have taken aim at the grand poobah of The Sceptic, Michael Shermer. He’s bad news in himself and also is a supporter, wouldn’t you know?, of Sam Harris, both of them Islamophobes. Just one indicator here: https://apps.carleton.edu/carletonian/?story_id=1237343&issue_id=1236971 Given the nature of this so-called hoax (really an attack on Gender Studies Departments) it seems like birds of a feather flock together. why would anyone waste their time on The Sceptic??!!

    Comment by uh...clem — May 24, 2017 @ 12:19 am

  2. In all fairness, IMHO, Sokal himself perhaps should not be blamed too much for this weird and belated imitation of his now infamous hoax. The very idea that a “Sokal Hoax” represents a genre or field in which “new work” is appropriate or welcome–especially now, decades on– is preposterous on the face of it–I can’t imagine that the original hoaxer himself is all that happy about it.

    What on earth would make the perpetrators of this bizarre pale imitation imagine under any circumstances that they were doing anything worthwhile by attacking gender studies in this puny, adolescent fashion?

    Nonetheless, there’s no doubt in my mind all the same that, strange as it may seem, the advent of “theory” in literary studies in the U.S. 1970s and 80s was a cutting edge of neoliberal “reform” in academia. You couldn’t talk too much Derrida or Foucault when it came to tenure as long as you made it clear that you were beyond any mere “naive” radicalism.

    What you couldn’t be was anything smacking of campus unrest, the late Students for a Democratic Society, social class analysis, or any form of Marxism allied with actual social or political revolution. You could be for neoliberal identity politics, but never for actual social equality. That was the intellectual counter-revolution represented by post-modernism in the American academy. That was what “theory” was for.

    What Sokal did was like a blow in the face to the whole borgata of canting, tenured moral and intellectual poseurs who sold the rest of us down the river for a mess of tenured pottage and who were never really called to book by anybody else.

    Sokal poked huge holes in the fraudulent, intimidatingly polymathic character assumed by Derrida and the reactionary egotists who appropriated his near-gibberish for purposes of their own, and it was a richly deserved comeuppance

    As I saw it, the rebarbative Stanley Fish, eminence grise of Social Text rather more than the lesser lights who actually ran the thing, was the big phony who walked away from the Sokal Hoax with pie all over his face. Whatever Sokal’s failings and limitations may be–and far be it from me to want to revisit the Hoax, let alone re-enact it–that was a much overdue comeuppance at the time.

    If you came out of what one of my more successful colleagues used to refer to as “the Lit. Biz”–with its Moloch-like sacrifice of hundreds if not thousands of expendable graduate students and junior faculty–you knew these academics not as vulnerable intellectuals on the margins of capitalist society, but as mighty ogres in their own thoroughly corrupt little domains.

    Seeing them hit and hearing them whimper was deeply satisfying as far as it went.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 24, 2017 @ 9:03 pm

  3. I see I used the cuss-phrase “neoliberal identity politics.” To clarify: I’m for identity politics in the sense of diverse groups and nations marching together as themselves toward the goals of social equality and social justice. I was for the rainbow effect of the recent Climate March in DC, which the World Socialist Web denounced as Democratic Party identity politics. But there is a phony sort of identity-mongering that the Democrats nowadays do go in for–the world as a Free Market rainbow of potential entrepreneurs of varying races, genders, and sexualities, for example–and I’m against that.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 24, 2017 @ 9:47 pm

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