Hoax academic papers expose the intellectual malware in our universities
Rosa Klebb is back — as a hacker. In April the heirs of 007’s foe attempted to hack the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague, after it had exposed Moscow’s use of chemical weapons in an attempted assassination. The Russians also tried to get into the email accounts of anti-doping organisations.
Meanwhile, the Chinese have slipped microchips into the motherboards of servers used by the Pentagon, the CIA and the US navy — not to mention dozens of companies. The servers were made by Supermicro of San Jose, California, and sold by Elemental, based in Portland, Oregon. But the pin-sized chips were inserted by agents of the People’s Liberation Army embedded with manufacturing subcontractors in China. A probe by Amazon identified the chips, which created a stealth doorway into any network connected to the Supermicro servers.
In other news, Facebook announced last month that it had suffered yet another massive hack, affecting at least 50m users. It raises the possibility that Facebook Connect — the tool that allows users to log in to other sites via Facebook — has been compromised. The attackers have yet to be identified.
Yes, my fellow netizens (or “data cows”, as you are known to the folk who milk you for your personal information, contacts list and browsing history): cyber-war is here and we are all under attack, even if most of us don’t yet know it.
Yet none of the above was the biggest hack revealed last week. Raise a glass to my new heroes, Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian. In an article published on Tuesday, Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship, the trio revealed that they had pulled off one of the greatest hoaxes in the history of academia.
In the space of 10 months they dashed off 20 spoof articles and submitted them to established journals in the fields of cultural studies, identity studies and critical theory. As Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian say, their papers were all “outlandish or intentionally broken in significant ways”. Each contained “some little bit of lunacy or depravity”. The hack was devastating in its success. No fewer than seven of their articles were accepted for publication and four were actually published before the hoaxers were rumbled (by the Twitter account Real Peer Review and The Wall Street Journal).
It’s hard to choose a favourite. But let’s start with “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon”, published under the fake name Helen Wilson in Gender, Place & Culture, “a journal of feminist geography” owned by Taylor & Francis, an illustrious British brand.
The abstract gives a flavour of the authors’ genius: “This article addresses questions in . . . the geographies of sexuality by drawing upon one year of embedded in situ observations of dogs and their human companions at three public dog parks in Portland, Oregon. The purpose of this research is to uncover emerging themes in human and canine interactive behavioral patterns in urban dog parks to better understand human a-/moral decision-making in public spaces and uncover bias and emergent assumptions around gender, race, and sexuality.”
“Dr Wilson” posed three questions, each of them ludicrous:
■ How do human companions manage, contribute and respond to violence in dogs?
■ What issues surround queer performativity and human reaction to homosexual sex between and among dogs?
■ Do dogs suffer oppression based upon (perceived) gender?
The goal of the article was to “suggest practical applications that disrupts [sic] hegemonic masculinities”. But the authors’ implicit proposal was “to train men like we do dogs — to prevent rape culture”. This drivel was praised to the skies by academic peer reviewers (“a wonderful paper — incredibly innovative, rich in analysis and extremely well-written”) and recognised by the editors as one of the 12 best articles in their journal’s 25-year history.
Another article, published in Fat Studies (“an interdisciplinary journal of body weight and society”, also a Taylor & Francis title), was “Who are they to judge? Overcoming anthropometry through fat bodybuilding”. This Swiftian piece proposed “a new classification within bodybuilding, termed fat bodybuilding, as a fat-inclusive politicised performance and a new culture to be embedded within bodybuilding”.
Avid readers of Sex Roles (a Springer journal) were treated to “An ethnography of breastaurant masculinity: themes of objectification, sexual conquest, male control, and masculine toughness in a sexually objectifying restaurant”.
The journal of feminist philosophy Hypatia (Wiley) asked the fictional Dr Maria Gonzalez of the equally fictional Feminist Activist Collective for Truth (FACT) to resubmit a paper arguing that white males in college should not be allowed to speak in class, but should instead be made to sit in the floor in chains to “experience reparations”.
Sexuality & Culture (Springer) published “Going in through the back door: challenging straight male homohysteria and transphobia through receptive penetrative sex toy use”.
Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian are not professional pranksters. Pluckrose is a scholar of English literature. Lindsay is a mathematician. Boghossian is an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University. Nor are they conservatives; they are self-proclaimed “left-leaning liberals”, which makes their verdict on the whole field of what they call “grievance studies” all the more damning. The fact that they were able to get “seven shoddy, absurd, unethical and politically biased papers into respectable journals” suggests to them that “these fields of study do not continue the important and noble liberal work of the civil rights movements; they corrupt it while . . . pushing a kind of social snake oil”.
The hoax articles are, of course, very funny. Much less funny are the non-phoney articles published alongside them. Much less funny are the affiliations of the editors of these journals. For example, two of the three editors of Gender, Place & Culture hold positions at UK universities. Both have had their research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Yes, cyber-warfare is scary. But I have long believed that our most dangerous enemies are within. The monstrous regiment of grievance studies has established bases in nearly all the universities of the western world, not merely tolerated by administrators, but enthusiastically funded by governments and credulous donors. Now that’s what I call a successful hack.
The friends of the closed society are also hard at work. The rubbish they publish is the counterpart of the rubbish they teach, and the people they teach then graduate with rubbish degrees and live among us.
You could see some of them in Washington last week, carrying signs saying “We believe all survivors” and “Respect female existence or expect our resistance” and making believe that they were the heirs of Rosa Parks — as opposed to unwitting allies of the other Rosa’s hacker heirs.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford