Bad Arguments On Bad Arguments: the Sokal Squared Hoax as an Unfortunate Cliché

by Jeroen Bouterse

James A. Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian

What do you prove by fooling somebody? What did Alan Sokal prove when he got his bogus paper on ‘quantum hermeneutics’ published in Social Text? What did Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian prove when they got several bogus papers published in several different journals?

Earlier this month three authors (to whom I will henceforth refer as ‘PLB’) published an exposé in Areo Magazine in which they explained how and why they had tricked several academic journals into accepting or seriously considering for publication hoax articles. The hoax articles often defend ideas that PLB themselves consider to be highly unethical, such as equating privately conducted masturbation with sexual violence, or calling for training men like we train dogs. The journals in question apparently condoned these ideas even though the articles intentionally lacked good arguments to support them.

According to PLB, this teaches us a lot about the postmodern left. I think it doesn’t. In the following, I will provide some comments on what our hoaxers claim they have shown, how little of that they have actually done, and what they could have done instead. I will start with a relatively minor point: whether PLB are entirely honest about what they’ve pulled off. My main point, however, will be that PLB simply fail to link their evidence to their conclusions.

Misleading claims about misleading claims

Hoaxes tend to favor claims that summarize to ridiculous one-liners, but also admit of careful construction. It’s nice to be able to say that last year a peer-reviewed journal published your paper about how “penises conceptually cause climate change”; but that’s probably not literally what you wrote in the paper. A paper that tries to thread together discourses around masculinity with capitalism, whatever its flaws are, doesn’t need to be as bad as you make it sound. The abstract of this particular paper, for instance, reads as ‘masculinity is not just about sex organs’, not as: ‘penises cause climate change’.

Weirdly, this argument converges with the point the hoaxers are trying to make. The fact that clearly ludicrous claims sound more nuanced and profound when cloaked in postmodern jargon, they would say, is precisely the point. It proves that the whole language of the field, not just this paper, rewards sophistry rather than clear and honest reasoning.

But presenting a paper to its readers as if it is about masculinity and capitalism through the concept of a “conceptual penis”, while presenting it to the public as being simply about how “penises conceptually cause climate change” (subtly changing the adjective to an adverb, completely altering the meaning of the sentence), is itself a sophistic sleight of hand. In pointing this out, I am not defending the content of the original article; I am saying that hoaxers, when boasting of what they got away with, have an interest in exaggerating the enormity of what they did, and in presenting their own bad-faith-arguments as (even) more ridiculous than they were in the first place.

PLB present one of their published papers as “part of Chapter 12 of Volume 1 of Mein Kampf with fashionable buzzwords switched in” (they used this translation). The connotation is obvious: these feminist scholars are prepared to lower themselves to the level of Nazi propaganda or the ramblings of a madman, if only it suits their political biases. I’m ready to be amazed. Here is the first paragraph of the article:

The guy whose work PLB seek to emulate sure comes off as a lot calmer, better-read, and at home in academic language than I remember him to be. In general (though I confess I lacked the patience to read every paragraph thoroughly), I find it near impossible to guess even now which passages PLB have copied from Mein Kampf. I suspect that they take quotes like “[feminism] must change the discourses defining culture” to be faithful to the spirit of the original exhortation that “we must destroy the opponent of these aims”. But if this is the extent of their hoax, I’d rate their claim to have gotten away with a ‘Feminist Mein Kampf’ as somewhere near 2 pinocchios.

It’s probably about the postmodern left – no argument needed there.

Unfortunately, all of this is trivial compared to the fatal flaw in PLB’s entire project: the fact that even if they did what they claim they did, they provide no argument to connect their data to their conclusions.

What do PLB say? Let’s follow their reasoning from the beginning:

“Something has gone wrong in the university—especially in certain fields within the humanities. 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.”

Apparently, it is a problem that some scholarship is not directed towards truth-seeking but towards ‘attending to social grievances’. This complaint is ambiguous: it might be a profession of an ideal of science which tries to keep questions of fact and value separate. In that case, I am sympathetic to it, but I would also point out that in practice, all of science is now and has always been interwoven with social utility. We don’t tend to complain that medicine is “more about healing people than about finding truth”, or that engineering is “more about building stuff than about finding truth”; we usually don’t contrast truth and utility, and the question which is dominant is often moot.

The point, then, seems to be that PLB find fault with the specific content, methods or practices of some fields. These fields they don’t try to delineate in any rigorous manner, however; rather, they simply summarize it under the label of ‘grievance studies’. An unnecessarily tendentious term, and as such a slap in the face of their professed scientific ideals. Through this very choice of words, the essence of the problem has been quietly redefined as not being about bad reasoning, but bad politics. If your field addresses grievances that have to do with culture, society, or identity, then you are by definition part of the problem.

PLB’s attempts to suggest that they’re improving left-wing politics from within are feeble:

“We hope this will give people—especially those who believe in liberalism, progress, modernity, open inquiry, and social justice—a clear reason to look at the identitarian madness coming out of the academic and activist left and say, “No, I will not go along with that. You do not speak for me.”

Does the activist left overlap with the academic left, partially or completely? Have PLB studied the activist left separately from the academic left, and if so, how? Can we define the academic and activist left in other ways than vague hand-waving gestures towards ‘identitarian madness’? We don’t need to know. Just rest assured that whatever the authors will find later needs to be contextualized as the necessary consequences of the postmodern leftist ‘worldview’.

Oh, and of course ‘constructivism’

PLB’s main problem is with the postmodern left is its supposed belief in ‘constructivism’, which they define loosely as the idea that ‘all kinds of things accepted as having a basis in reality’ are instead the result of power. In four bullet points, PLB explain that these things include differences between men and women, the superiority of Western medicine and Western cultural norms, and the fact that obesity is unhealthy.

Maybe, like me, you have trouble seeing the coherence in PLB’s list of grievances. Luckily they quickly move on to point out the deeper issue. The main problem is that constructivists believe that science, philosophy and reason are themselves constructions that need to be ‘dismantled’. PLB provide no explanation of how this claim is related to the hoax itself. Particularly, they provide no evidence that their paragraphs-long sketch of the beliefs of constructivist “snake-oil salespeople” actually applies to the editors and peer reviewers they have encountered during their study.

“But the hoax is their evidence”, you might say. It isn’t. At best, PLB have proven that they were able to fool some people some of the time. In order to see in this feat evidence that constructivism is poison, you need to already believe that constructivism is poison – and you need to assume that all the people involved were constructivists in the way PLB describe constructivism. You need to have bought into the narrative where, if you are a postmodern constructivist, you don’t believe in truth and reason, and therefore you are no good at it, and therefore PLB will be able to fool you with prank articles.

This implicit argument, however, is flawed at every turn, including the supposed implications of constructivism. There is nothing anti-enlightened or obscurantist about the idea that major modern institutions such as science are human-made, and their historical development and operation can be studied critically. You can believe that all kinds of institutions, including modern science, benefit from fundamental criticism, even while believing that scientific and rational ideals are worth striving for. In any case, someone’s allegiance to Western liberal institutions, let alone their cognitive capacities, shouldn’t be measured by their imagined responses to yes-or-no-questions such as “do you believe in Science/Truth/Reason/Jesus?”. That’s childish identity politics. It’s very hard to read into PLB’s monologue on constructivism an honest attempt at perceptive criticism, rather than mere repetition to the point of caricature of clichés from the science wars.

If I were the editor of Areo Magazine, I would worry that PLB’s article could be a ‘meta-hoax’, trying to trick me into publishing an argument full of non-sequiturs (with a “transparent lack of rigor”, to use PLB’s words), made palatable only by constant reference to anti-PC hobby-horses.

PLB overstate their claims, which still fail to support their conclusions unless aided by fuzzy and biased reasoning. By their own lights, that should be a damning judgment. But maybe there’s a place for weak arguments, sometimes.

A (conciliatory) final note on bad arguments

Some people are pleased when they hear the words ‘science’ and ‘reason’. Some people are pleased when they hear the words ‘postmodernism’ and ‘criticism’. Some (like myself) like all of these words. All these sets include people who construct good arguments and people who construct bad arguments, usually in good faith.

I completely agree with PLB that it is good to point out bad reasoning and correct it, in social discourse and especially in academia. I also believe that their own reasoning is flawed, in the sense that none of their conclusions follow from any subset of their findings. They fail not primarily because of their bad cultural politics (to which I have no immediate access; only suspicions), but because of sloppy thinking hidden under value-laden language.

However, even though I like elegant, complete and convincing arguments, like I imagine PLB do, I think that sometimes it is worth suspending your intuitive disgust at a flawed and repugnant argument. I try to be rational and reasonable, but there is a certain status-quo bias to reasonability. You don’t want to be so open-minded that your brain falls out (as the saying has it), but you also want to give interesting thoughts an opportunity to make their case. And if those thoughts are innovative, it is possible that they are not ready to be hammered into an ironclad proof; depending on context, sometimes it is better to be charitable than fastidious.

So my final point is this. Part of me is now curious whether there actually is a case to be made for training men to prevent rape culture. Part of me is curious whether there is something to be said for the idea that sexually fantasizing about someone without their consent constitutes sexual assault in some meaningful sense. PLB have been creative in coming up with ethically repugnant ideas. Rather than trying to get the worst case in favor of those ideas published, I wish they would have made the best possible cases and tried to get those published. Ironically, at least one peer reviewer was charitable enough to help them do that, even as he disagreed with the weird conclusions in the hoax articles.

Coming up with those best-possible arguments would have required some creative thinking, to which PLB seem to be well-suited. Their playful ideas and their willingness to put an inordinate amount of effort into working them out could have given us the best of both worlds. Politically incorrect arguments starting from politically correct premises can be genuinely intellectually exciting, and they can help us reflect on the limitations of our intellectual or moral views – and of political correctness itself. Instead, what PLB have given us are reactionary clichés about postmodern clichés. That is a loss, for out of all bad arguments, clichés are – intellectually as well as politically – the worst.