A new paper in the journal Cogent Social Sciences argues that the penis should not be viewed as an organ but as “a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity.” Sound absurd? Psych! Authors “Peter Boyle” and “Jamie Lindsay” are really Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, and they intended the paper as a righteous burn on the entire field of gender studies. “We suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil,” the authors wrote in confessing the hoax. “On the evidence, our suspicion was justified.”
The stunt, which the pair revealed last week, was meant to recall physicist Alan Sokal’s 1996 publication of a similarly nonsensical paper (“Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”) in a respected humanities journal called Social Text. Sokal’s hoax prompted annoyance and outrage, but also soul-searching over whether the humanities had become too reliant on postmodern jargon.
Boghossian, a philosophy professor at Portland State University, and Lindsay, an author with a Ph.D. in mathematics, haven’t landed as direct a punch. First, their paper was rejected by the first prestigious journal to which they submitted it, NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies. One of NORMA’s editors has since said of the paper, “we thought it was sheer nonsense.” In their rejection note, the NORMA editors suggested it might be a better fit at the lower-status journal Cogent Social Sciences, with which it shares a publisher; they have since said that the recommendation was automatically generated by a company-wide referral system, and that they meant to reject it outright. The paper has been taken down by the journal but can be viewed here.
There’s still the question of why Cogent Social Sciences accepted the paper, of course. Boghossian and Lindsay claim they intended the stunt as a dual critique of gender studies and pay-to-play open-access journals. Cogent Social Sciences, like some other open-access journals, asks authors to pay a fee to help the journal remain free to readers: “The whole thing just screams vanity journal,” one philosopher blogged in response, in a post dismissing the con as “a big cock-up.” The fact that a paper blaming climate change on “damaging themes in hypermasculinity" was accepted does raise questions about that particular obscure journal and the quality of its peer review. But as Inside Higher Ed pointed out in its thorough coverage of the kerfuffle, Cogent Social Sciences is not the kind of prominent journal that Social Text is and was. This just isn’t a kill shot.
What Boghossian and Lindsay’s caper really exposed was their own obsessions. They are both figures in the New Atheism movement, which is an overwhelmingly male scene. The pair have collaborated before; Boghossian contributed the introduction to Lindsay’s 2015 manifesto Everybody Is Wrong About God, for example. Lindsay’s other book titles, which I swear to the Flying Spaghetti Monster I did not make up, include Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly and God Doesn’t; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. And a perusal of their writing online reveals a persistent discontent with the supposed uselessness and hypocrisy of women’s studies and gender studies departments, and feminism more broadly:
If mathematics is criticized, mathematicians would think you’re daft. If women’s studies is criticized, adherents become indignant.— Peter Boghossian (@peterboghossian) August 27, 2015
Gender Studies is primarily composed of radical ideologues who view indoctrination as their primary duty. These departments must be defunded— Peter Boghossian (@peterboghossian) April 25, 2016
Why do some (SOME!) male academics get so hung up on the supposed uselessness of this one particular interdisciplinary field? As Australian scientist Ketan Joshi pointed out in this post on the “conceptual penis” hoopla, the hard sciences are hardly immune to hoaxes. Last year a conference on nuclear physics accepted a paper written completely with autocomplete. The abstract included the sentence “The atoms of a better universe will have the right for the same as you are the way we shall have to be a great place for a great time to enjoy the day you are a wonderful person to your great time to take the fun and take a great time and enjoy the great day you will be a wonderful time for your parents and kids.”
Yet no one is calling for physics departments to be “abolished” in order to “revitalize our broken university system,” as Boghossian tweeted of women’s studies last year. Gender studies and women’s studies seem to really, really bother a certain type of (USUALLY!) male Big Thinker. “It isn't only in America that you'll find salaried academics paid to regale students with gems like, 'The penis is shaping up to be the central metaphor of the gender crisis of the Nineties,’” prominent New Atheist Richard Dawkins warned back in the mid-1990s, when he was best known as a zoologist. “Look out for new courses with names like 'Gender Studies.’” Yes, look out! On the other hand, if jargon-heavy papers in obscure academic journals outside your own discipline bother you that much, you could try proving the gender theorists wrong by not being such a massive dick and just look away.