Hoax Alert: The Conceptual Penis as a social Construct

Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay have managed to successfully pull off a wonderful Sokal like hoax. They have now written up what they did within a Skeptic magazine article …

The androcentric scientific and meta-scientific evidence that the penis is the male reproductive organ is considered overwhelming and largely uncontroversial.

That’s how we began. We used this preposterous sentence to open a “paper” consisting of 3,000 words of utter nonsense posing as academic scholarship. Then a peer-reviewed academic journal in the social sciences accepted and published it.

This paper should never have been published. Titled, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” our paper “argues” that “The penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a gender-performative, highly fluid social construct.” As if to prove philosopher David Hume’s claim that there is a deep gap between what is and what ought to be, our should-never-have-been-published paper waspublished in the open-access (meaning that articles are freely accessible and not behind a paywall), peer-reviewed journal Cogent Social Sciences. (In case the PDF is removed, we’ve archived it.)

Sokal-Like Hoax?

OK, so if you are not familiar with that, then permit me to briefly explain.

Alan Sokal is a professor of mathematics at University College London and professor of physics at New York University who made a bit of a name for himself in 1996 by writing a totally nonsensical paper and then submitting it to Duke University’s Social Text. He wanted to see if (to use is own words) …

a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions

They happily published “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity“. Once out, he then announced what he had done and why via an article within the May 1996 issue of Lingua Franca. – A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies …

In the second paragraph I declare without the slightest evidence or argument, that “physical ‘reality’ (note the scare quotes) […] is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.” Not our theories of physical reality, mind you, but the reality itself. Fair enough. Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. I live on the twenty-first floor.

As you might imagine, it triggered quite a debate within the scientific community.

So why a new Hoax?

The idea was to expose the extreme ideologies in social science and gender studies, and so with that in mind, this is what they did …

Assuming the pen names “Jamie Lindsay” and “Peter Boyle,” and writing for the fictitious “Southeast Independent Social Research Group,” we wrote an absurd paper loosely composed in the style of post-structuralist discursive gender theory. The paper was ridiculous by intention, essentially arguing that penises shouldn’t be thought of as male genital organs but as damaging social constructions. We made no attempt to find out what “post-structuralist discursive gender theory” actually means. We assumed that 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.

… We didn’t try to make the paper coherent; instead, we stuffed it full of jargon (like “discursive” and “isomorphism”), …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.

It contained a few true gems …

We argued that climate change is “conceptually” caused by penises.

…Not only is the text ridiculous, so are the references. Most of our references are quotations from papers and figures in the field that barely make sense in the context of the text. Others were obtained by searching keywords and grabbing papers that sounded plausibly connected to words we cited. We read exactly zero of the sources we cited, by intention, as part of the hoax.

Some references cite the Postmodern Generator

… references to fake papers in journals that don’t exist

Did anybody review the paper?

Apparently yes …

The reviewers were amazingly encouraging, giving us very high marks in nearly every category.

…They didn’t accept the paper outright, however. Cogent Social Sciences’ Reviewer #2 offered us a few relatively easy fixes to make our paper “better.” We effortlessly completed them in about two hours


Is Pay-to-Publish Open Access the way to go for the future scientific publication?

Rather obviously being able to successfully submit a paper like this does indeed suggest that the approach is problematic and needs a tad more rigour if it is to be viable. For just $625 Cogent Social Sciences will happily publish utter nonsense.

In fact the perpetrators of this hoax identify two specific problems …

  1. the echo-chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense coming out of the postmodernist social “sciences” in general, and gender studies departments in particular and
  2. the complex problem of pay-to-publish journals with lax standards that cash in on the ultra-competitive publish-or-perish academic environment. At least one of these sicknesses led to “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” being published as a legitimate piece of academic scholarship, and we can expect proponents of each to lay primary blame upon the other.

As you might also anticipate, a few folks latched on to what has happened and proceeded to be offended. Jerry Coyne captured some of that drama. Such drama is perhaps inevitable because some are apparently on perpetual standby and ready to be offended when specific names pop up, regardless of what was actually written or said.


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