My Times column on an academic hoax:
The latest university prank is embarrassing to academia and hilarious for the rest of us. Philosophy professor Peter Boghossian and mathematician Dr James Lindsay made up a learned paper on the “conceptual penis” as a “gender-performative, highly fluid social construct” that is “the conceptual driver behind much of climate change”, stuffed it full of random jargon and fake references and then got it through peer review into an academic journal.
True, it was a low-grade, pay-to-publish journal of the kind that has proliferated recently as a money-making venture, but the authors were recommended to try that journal by a serious journal, and the peer review was genuine. As the authors have written of their own work: “We don’t understand it either. Nobody does. This problem should have rendered it unpublishable in all peer-reviewed, academic journals.”
This happened last year, too, when Professor Mark Carey published an even more absurd paper arguing that “a critical but overlooked aspect of the human dimensions of glaciers and global change research is the relationship between gender and glaciers” and introducing “feminist glaciology”. In that case, however, the professor continues to insist, against all evidence, that he was serious. Science magazine gave him a lengthy, softball interview to justify his work after it was laughed at on the internet. I still think he’s a joker in deep cover.
Neither paper would have been published if it had not fitted the prejudices of much of academia: leftist, postmodern, relativist, feminist and moralising. “The academy is overrun by left-wing zealots preaching dangerous nonsense,” says Boghossian. “They’ve taught students to turn off their rational minds and become moral crusaders.”
As a system of ensuring quality in research, peer review is in deep trouble. It allows established academics to defend their pet ideas and reward their chums. Its one-sided anonymity, in which the referee retains his anonymity but the author does not, could hardly be better designed to ensure cronyism.
Worse, as a recent report by Donna Laframboise, a Canadian investigative journalist, concluded: “A journal’s decision to publish a paper provides no assurance that its conclusions are sound . . . Fraudulent research makes it past gatekeepers at even the most prestigious journals. While science is supposed to be self-correcting, the process by which this occurs is haphazard and byzantine.”
Peer review’s flaws now allow people with an axe to grind to dismiss even the most rigorous and careful of science along with the nonsense. It’s time for science, and the softer social sciences in particular, to get their house in order.