Hoaxes, "grievance studies," and Ronell

I was in grad school during the Sokal hoax and, as strange as it sounds, the hoax was a comfort to me. I applied to NYU on the reputation of Neil Postman, a sharp and accessible media critic, who, unknown to me, was ill and who died in my first year. I had a lot of good teachers, especially my advisors, but I also wrestled with the some of the ascendant “critical theory” material that was displacing Postman. (I also heard talk of abusive faculty and departments, which NYU’s Avital Ronell has now made infamous.)

Bourdieu and Foucault were difficult at first, but I appreciated their insights, and continue to make use of their work. My concern, and low spirits, arose because of critique influenced by literary studies and Marxism. I won’t detail my concerns here, but the Sokal hoax was a balm because it confirmed that though I was required to ingest this literature, I was not alone in thinking it was awful. I also found the substantive discussion about the hoax fascinating; I read everything about the affair, the blog posts, editorials, learned letters, and compiled volumes.

Despite my interest in this topic, last year, when James Lindsay and Peter Boghoassian’s “Conceptual Penises” emerged, I was indifferent. It was published in a poorly ranked peer-reviewed journal; you can get anything published somewhere. The follow up with Helen Pluckrose, and referred to as “Sokal Squared,” is much more compelling: “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship”.

Boghassian, Lindsay, and Pluckrose managed to get an alarming number of absurd submissions reviewed and accepted. I’m sure the peer reviewers are relieved that their feedback is anonymous. Those reviews support the hoaxers’ contention that claptrap is accepted—and praised!—if it follows preexisting ideology and habitus, to use Bourdieu’s term. Simply, you need only cite the right papers, use the right jargon, and adhere to the correct ideology, and even the absurd can get a pass. Scholarship should be more than this.

Of course, hoaxes are inherently factious. They deceive and are an abuse of good faith. Yet, deception can yield a greater good and we ought demand more of scholarship.

The hoaxes also sting, given I locate myself within the fields of the humanities and social sciences. On one hand, I think it is unfair to claim such shoddiness is representative, on the other, I can’t deny the problem exists even if it is relatively minor relative to all the other nonsense and awfulness afoot in the world.

It is also saddening that this intervention is targeted at those concerned with social justice. In my opinion, “grievance studies,” to use the hoaxers’ term, is an unfortunate though understandable coupling of crucial concerns with flawed metaphysics.

I am a modernist, and committed to the Enlightenment project, which needed its own critique and reform in the 20th century. I believe there is a reality, though our understanding of it is imperfect; the methods of science and reason are powerful, though embedded in flawed social constructs; liberal values are essential to human welfare, though its practice falls far short of its ideals. Naive notions of neutral markets, objective science, and meritocratic governance needed critique and reform, and much of it came from outside, from disappointed Marxists, disillusioned academics and literary critics, and the people on the margins. These ideologies still need reform, and those outside a system are best able to see its shortcomings. Yet these fields have become systems unto themselves, naive to their own excesses and shortcomings, which have calcified over time. Academic celebrities’ defense of Ronell’s abuses is evidence of that.

As I write this, The Chronicle’s article on “’Sokal Squared’: Is Huge Publishing Hoax ‘Hilarious and Delightful’ or an Ugly Example of Dishonesty and Bad Faith?” is shown next to last month’s piece “‘I Want to Burn It to the Ground’: Are the Foot Soldiers Behind Psychology’s Replication Crisis Saving Science — or Destroying It?” Yes, quantitative sciences are facing their own quandary, but two wrongs don’t make a right.

No field is immune from blight, and I’m happy to see efforts towards its identification and improvement. In the sciences, improved methods, registered experiments, replication, and open data are necessary and needed reforms. Elsewhere, the way forward is less clear to me.

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