• ‘Conceptual Penis’ Underappreciated, Overblown

    You’ve probably heard of the “Conceptual Penis” kerfuffle by now; it has been all over my skeptic- and freethought-related social feeds.

    The basic story goes something like this: A philosopher (Peter Boghossian) and a mathematician (James Lindsay) put together a flagrantly nonsensical gender-studies-themed paper filled with post-modernist jargon, submitted it to NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, got redirected therefrom to the pay-to-play journal Cogent OA, where the paper was published following peer review from a couple of scholars in the relevant field. The paper was later revealed as a hoax and subsequently pulled offline (archived copy available here).

    Judging by my extended social circles—admittedly a limited approach—the paper was acclaimed by skeptics while generally condemned among social justice activists, with all the usual rancor and recrimination we’ve come to expect since the great divorce. Aside from the shirts-vs-skins aspect of this controversy, rooted in competing and irreconcilable ideologies, there are a few lessons which we should all be able to appreciate, regardless of personal outlook.

    1. Impenetrable prose may be impossible for us to decode because it refers to complex real-world phenomena which we do not personally understand (e.g. classical gauge theory), or it may be nonsense through-and-through (e.g. the so-called “conceptual penis”). Skeptics and rationalists must take care not to confuse the two, nor to hastily presume one without considering the other.
    2. Allowing a hoax paper through does indeed reflect upon the quality of peer review at a particular publication, especially a paper written by people who admit to having no expertise in the field and who disclaim any attempts at making coherent arguments.
    3. A single hoax cannot tell us much about the state of an academic field as a whole, unless the paper is favorably referenced in high-impact journals with well-established reputations in that field. This approach would require allowing a hoax paper to go unnoticed (as such) for an extended period of time.
    4. There are countless examples of perfectly earnest gender studies publications which only slightly less bizarrely nonsensical than the paper under discussion here. See RealPeerReview on Twitter for entertaining examples, some of which will have you half-wondering whether academic hoaxes are actually a pervasive problem.
    5. Sokal-style hoaxes serve to put editors and reviewers on notice, demanding a certain sensitivity to the possibility of printing utter bollocks. Ideally, this should lead to tighter publication standards, at least in journals enjoying a sound epistemic approach.
    6. Before throwing references to an academic journal around—as so often happens in skeptical discussions—we should check to see if the article or publication cited have significant impact within their own fields. (I’ve run afoul of this rule more times than I’d care to admit.)

    I’m sure that there are other lessons to be drawn here, having to do with the disparate standards of review in disparate fields or the utility of post-structuralist discourse analysis in particular (anyone?) but such things are well above my pay grade.

    Your thoughts?



    Category: HumorSkepticism

    Article by: Damion Reinhardt

    Former fundie finds freethought fairly fab.