Short Cuts

Daniel Soar

Earlier this month, a small storm hit social media when it was revealed that a number of cultural studies journals had been the victims of a massive hoax. Three collaborators had submitted twenty ‘bat-shit insane’ papers – as they described them – to places like Gender, Place and Culture and Sex Roles. Four of the papers were published, and another three had been accepted for publication. One of those that made it was entitled ‘An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant’. The breastaurant – sorry, restaurant – that was the subject of the study was Hooters, the American chain whose speciality is very spicy chicken wings and waitresses in tight orange hotpants and push-up bras. (For years, Hooters has tried, dismally, to expand its business into the UK; hopes for a London outlet have never panned out, but you can visit the one in Nottingham any Saturday night – a sign by the loos plaintively reads: MIAMI, 4378 MILES —>.) The ethnography of Hooters culture by ‘Richard Baldwin’ – one of the collaborators’ pseudonyms, actually the borrowed name of one of their friends, a 71-year-old former champion bodybuilder and emeritus professor of the humanities at Gulf Coast State College – is full of quiet, plausible analysis: ‘Heterosexual male clients do not go to breastaurants merely to ogle servers, nor just to be waited upon by them … but rather to interact with them in particularly flirtatious ways.’ Basically, if you listen to the way men talk to scantily clad women who feed them chicken wings, you’ll find they employ a few double entendres and come-ons: true, surely, and worth recording, but quelle surprise.

But of course the paper that Sex Roles published was a fake: not written by Richard Baldwin at all – despite the paper’s claim that its author was a 71-year-old man in northern Florida who went to the Hooters on Panama City Beach with his bros from a Brazilian jiu-jitsu class every Thursday night for two years and recorded their conversations – but by Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian, three pranksters who may or may not have ever visited a Hooters but who became internet famous, and soon afterwards New York Times famous, for their comprehensive ridiculing of the standards of editing and peer review at Sex Roles and a whole set of journals in related fields. It may be that the most lasting effect of their attack isn’t the fact that they got four fake papers – on dog rape culture in Portland, on fat bodybuilding, on dildos, as well as on Hooters – published in respected places, but that they invented a name for the target of that attack: ‘grievance studies’, which they define as that section of the academy which identifies power imbalances in society and seeks to analyse them from the point of view of the marginalised or oppressed. So they take issue with the whole premise of gender studies, critical race theory, queer theory etc. It is their belief – which they think the relative success of their sting operation has borne out (35 per cent of their papers were accepted for publication, a much higher acceptance rate than holds for the major journal publishers across the board) – that these fields of study are ‘broken’ and corrupt, since they will approve any work that accords with their political preconceptions, however ridiculous the content and however shoddy the scholarship.

This argument only holds, though, if what they wrote was actually ridiculous. It’s worth noting how extraordinarily hard they worked to make their papers suit the journals they were aiming to get published in. Over ten months, Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian, none of whom had a background in cultural studies (Pluckrose, who is British, is an ex-Eng Lit academic, Lindsay an ex-mathematician from Tennessee and Boghossian a philosophy professor at Portland State University), wrote 180,000 words across their twenty papers, diligently responded to editors’ and peer reviewers’ comments and requests, cited all the relevant literature, and generally did everything they could to get their papers up to the necessary standard. One thing they didn’t need to bother with was any of the field research they claimed to have carried out: any journal – Nature included – has to take it on trust that the data included in a study isn’t made up.

I’ve now read most of the 180,000 words, and some of them are genius. I mean, it may on the face of it seem stupid to imagine that a researcher – ‘Helen Wilson’ – would choose to spend a thousand hours over the course of a year observing the interaction between pets and their owners in Portland dog parks, in order to determine whether people’s ways of dealing with their dogs attacking or humping other dogs was or wasn’t gendered (plausible finding: yes, men thought it funny, women didn’t), but all the (totally imaginary) effort was worth it for sentences such as the following, so full of methodological scrupulousness and moral care: ‘The usual caveats of observational research also apply here. While I closely and respectfully examined the genitals of slightly fewer than ten thousand dogs, being careful not to cause alarm and moving away if any dog appeared uncomfortable, there is some relevant margin of error concerning my observations about their gender in some instances.’

That passage is a tease, at the expense of the whole discipline of gender studies, but it’s also brilliant: performatively, it’s a perfect reproduction of the kind of caution about methods that good ethnography requires. And it’s nice: why should Helen Wilson inspect genitals too closely if it makes the genitals’ owners uncomfortable? By writing the kind of proviso that a feminist geography journal demands, and by writing it well, Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian were – really – doing just what any other academic submitting work, in any field, would have to do: conform to the requirements of the house journal, noting potential methodological flaws where they exist, being persuasive. Any piece of argumentative writing is a performance, whether it’s in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy (issued quarterly to subscribing university libraries by Wiley-Blackwell) or in the London Review of Books (available in all good bookshops). But standards apply. Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian have, to their credit, been scrupulously open – and methodologically rigorous – about their failures as well as their successes, and in a long article in the online magazine Areo, which Helen Pluckrose edits, they explain that their first attempts at getting published in peer-reviewed ‘grievance studies’ journals weren’t the successes they hoped for, because they’d made the mistake of assuming that these places would publish any old shit at all, whether or not it made sense on its own terms, so long as it stuck it to cis straight white males.

This turned out not to be the case. Before Pluckrose got involved in the project, the other two warriors for academic freedom had collaborated on a hoax paper entitled ‘The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct’, which argued, inter alia, that the penis wasn’t in fact the male reproductive organ so much as a ‘gender-performative, highly fluid social construct’ and as such was responsible for every imaginable ill in the world, including climate change. That paper was, admittedly, bat-shit insane – and it’s insane that it got published, in a Taylor and Francis peer-reviewed journal called Cogent Open Access. But for two reasons this was less than a total coup: one, Cogent Open Access is a ‘pay-to-play’ journal, increasingly common in academia, which will publish work if you give it money; two, as Alan Sokal, the perpetrator of the original postmodernism-trashing hoax, pointed out, some of the penis text – despite its authors’ best efforts – actually made sense.[*] For their expanded effort at subversion, targeting the most highly regarded serious journals in their fields, the three freedom fighters initially tried to be as hoaxish as they could, writing patent rubbish; but they soon discovered that rubbish was rejected out of hand. The only way to succeed was actually to become passable cultural studies academics. And the only way to do that was to study the literature, to ‘engage more deeply with the existing scholarship’, to understand and learn from the arguments, and try to apply them in their own work. If you leave aside the fact that the research it claims to report on was totally fictitious, the breastaurant paper published by Sex Roles is markedly better than a similar non-spoof paper, about masculine behaviour around barbecues in south Texas, that was published by Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. In innumerable ways, the editors and peer reviewers of these journals sharpened up and improved the texts the new would-be cultural studies academics submitted: Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian thought they could get away with jargon, but peer reviewers told them not to use the word ‘discourse’ when they meant ‘conversation’, and to write clearly and simply. The journals did their job.

So I’m not persuaded that these hoaxers have proved, through their writing, that cultural studies are a sham. One of the papers that got accepted but hadn’t yet been published before the story of the hoaxing broke was entitled ‘When the Joke Is On You’. I think the joke’s on them: the only way they could get away with what they did was obediently to produce exactly the kind of work that the field requires. It makes sense to say, after this, that cultural studies are crazy only if you already believed that they were crazy, that their very method and premise are dangerous and wrong. And, clearly, this is what a lot of influential people believe. By their friends you shall know them. Among those most delighted by this episode have been Niall Ferguson, Steven Pinker, David Deutsch and Douglas Murray: weirdly few non-white non-men. I recommend that, on their next visit to Portland, these people spend some time in a dog park or two.

[*] John Sturrock wrote about the original Sokal hoax in the LRB of 16 July 1998.