Tag Archives: Hoaxes

Poe’s law and hoaxes

Some of you may be familiar by now with the second in a series of hoaxes perpetrated by Peter Boghossian* (Portland State University’s Philosophy Department), James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose  (the editor of Areo, the online journal that published the hoaxes findings). The first of these hoaxes, by Boghossian and Lindsay, got a fraudulent  (what that means we’ll have to discuss) article into a very weak pay-to-play journal. They then drew dark conclusions about that fact for the future of scholarship.  You can read a very sound rebuttal of their work  by CUNY’s Massimo Pigliucci here. TL;DR: the hoax was if anything a hoax on many credulous members of the so-called skeptical movement, who thought that posting a crap article in a crap journal meant something.

The latest version of the hoax improves upon the methodology of the first one significantly–it avoided, from what I can tell, the pay-to-play journals and, importantly, it produced a larger number of fraudulent (I’m still not sure this is the right term) article.  In all, the trio wrote 20 and managed to get seven accepted. They even managed to get one of these articles accepted by Hypatia (which has had its own problems recently).

A couple of minor criticisms before I move on to the main point of this post. Other than Hypatia the other journals are hardly top-tier.  (e.g., Journal of Poetry Therapy?).  I’m also puzzled that they call this stuff “humanities” (in the introduction to the project and elsewhere). Other than the Hypatia piece, most of the stuff is what humanities people such as myself would call “social science.” While on the surface this might appear to be a minor terminological issue, there’s a big difference when you get down to it. People may think they have shown something about history, philosophy, and literature when only two of twenty had that focus.

If you’re interested in reading more criticisms, this piece in Buzzfeed does a pretty good job of summarizing the main complaints.

As an argumentative matter, I think this is a lot of wasted effort. Are there absolutely crappy papers that make it through the publishing process? Absolutely. I bet you could ask anyone who reads this stuff and they could point you to some. Sorting this stuff out, however, is just what one does in Academia–this article was bad, let me refute it; this article was bad, so bad we’re going to ignore it. Those are criticisms. And cumulatively over time these criticisms yield results of a kind–results far better than producing some bad work narrowly tailored to pass muster at gullible journals.

If they’ve shown anything conclusively here, it’s that you can produce shoddy work insincerely. Some of the work they produced was accepted only after revisions. Doing those revisions meant insincerely adapting their work to some kind of standard. Whether that standard is a good one is what people dispute (and why, ultimately, there’s  ranking of journals and so forth). But, speaking of insincerity, you can accidentally stumble into a good point. Consider this bit from one of the hoax papers:

Thesis: When a man privately masturbates while fantasizing about a woman who has not given him permission to do so, or while fantasizing about her in ways she hasn’t consented to, he has committed “metasexual” violence against her, even if she never finds out. “Metasexual” violence is described as a kind of nonphysical sexual violence that causes depersonalization of the woman by sexually objectifying her and making her a kind of mental prop used to facilitate male orgasm.

Purpose: To see if the definition of sexual violence can be expanded into thought crimes..

This was from a paper that was rejected. Oddly, they’ve stumbled into a sort of virtue theory argument here. Certain activities are wrong not because they actively harm another person only, but also because they turn their perpetrator into the kind of person who would do that kind of bad thing or at least enjoy that kind of thing. It’s bad, but for primarily self-regarding reasons. Stated this way it’s not great (remember the paper was rejected) but in all of the attempt to do a clever hoax, they actually run over the line into something plausible. The fact, however, that they can’t see the line is evidence that their failure to grasp the meaning of the term “humanities” was more than a mere oversight.

So there’s one problem with hoaxing: you might accidentally make the matter hinge on sincerity. Again, the fact that people write insincere papers is not particularly surprising. Demonstrating this fact is certainly not worth the effort they put into it.

Another feature of the hoax–its baseline logical feature–comes out of Poe’s Law–the eponymous internet law that says that a view is absurd to the extent that it’s impossible to create believable satire of it without saying explicitly: this is satire. As it happens, Scott discussed this here (also, follow the references at the end for more). There, the thought was that there are always weak adherents of views to turn the satire into reportage.

So it’s true in this case. It’s not a secret that there exists really crappy, politically-motivated, or downright unethical work in academia. It’s also not surprising that if you try to satirize some of that work, some people will not recognize it as satire and will take it as genuine work. The more direct route to that thesis is just to look at the work. Such work exists, of course, as it was the premise of the entire hoax.

A somewhat sad coda to this was the tweet thread of the graduate student who refereed that paper. He spent hours crafting feedback for what he thought was an earnest, but inexperienced, scholar. Journals such as these are where such earnest scholars go to continue the discussion and to continue their professional development. So, the net effect of the hoax is that some one of these apparently earnest but inexperienced scholars might be an earnest but insincere person looking to waste your time.

*Not to be confused with philosopher Paul Boghossian (NYU) who is now dealing with mistaken requests for interviews.