The term “Femi-Nazi” became all too accurate when a trio of academic tricksters participating in an elaborate hoax submitted portions of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” rewritten through a feminist lens to a leading peer-reviewed feminist journal. The satirical paper was accepted this past academic year for publication by Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work.
The sting operation against academic journals became public this week.
In a truncated year-long project aimed at highlighting the alleged influence of extremist dogma and confirmation bias in academia, the trio wrote 20 farcical “scholarly” papers — three of which were based on rewrites of “Mein Kampf” — for leading cultural studies journals. All 20 of the papers were based on “something absurd or deeply unethical, or both,” the authors have said; seven were accepted for publication.
One of the papers, “Our Struggle is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice,” was written under the alias Maria Gonzalez, PhD, who claimed to be based out of the fictitious Feminist Activist Collective for Truth (FACT).
According to the real-life authors, “The last two-thirds of this paper is based upon a rewriting of roughly 3,600 words of Chapter 12 of Volume 1 of ‘Mein Kampf,’ by Adolf Hitler, though it diverges significantly from the original. This chapter is the one in which Hitler lays out in a multi-point plan which we partially reproduced why the Nazi party is needed and what it requires of its members.”
Hailing from differing countries and fields, the trio of academics is made up of self-proclaimed liberals who claim to want to fix a broken system, not ban the fields of study themselves: Helen Pluckrose, a UK-based English literature and history scholar; James Lindsay, a math PhD; and Peter Boghossian, a professor of philosophy at Portland State University. The project was documented by Australian filmmaker Mike Nayna, who released a viral YouTube video with an authors statement on the project this week.
The scholars targeted high-ranking humanities journals in the niche subjects they label as “grievance studies.” These relatively new fields, which have become popular in the past 50 years with the rise of the civil and women’s rights movements, examine the lives of the historically and traditionally oppressed: women, racial, religious and cultural minorities, and the LGBT community.
With a steep learning curve, the team quickly took six of their initial attempted hoax papers out of circulation, believing they could do better. After adapting their submissions based on peer reviewers’ comments, within a few months, an unheard of seven absurd papers were accepted. Leading the pack was “research” on rape culture at urban dog parks, which was recognized by leading peer-reviewed feminist geography journal Gender, Place, and Culture as “exemplary scholarship.”
It was skeptical media attention after the publication of the dog parks paper which brought the project, initially scheduled for 18 months, to an abrupt end this summer. All papers are available online, as well as the name-redacted comments of the peer reviewers.
According to the trio of scholars, it is likely that another six fictitious papers would have been accepted for publication as their experiment in “reflexive ethnography” within the world of grievance studies progressed.
Is there any idea so outlandish that it won't be published in a Critical/PoMo/Identity/"Theory" journal? Helen Plucrose et al. submitted a dozen hoax papers to find out. https://t.co/TTDLuIQN9p via @areomagazine
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) October 3, 2018
The trio contends that the fields have been infiltrated by radical and intolerant theories. And what better way to prove their point, they figured, than turning to one of the most extreme manifestos in recent history — “Mein Kampf.”
Mathematician Lindsay told The Times of Israel on Thursday, “We decided to try to rewrite something from something old and nasty, and ‘Mein Kampf’ not only is the pinnacle document, it proved accessible for our methods.”
Theological fire and brimstone writing “didn’t transliterate easily,” Lindsay said. However, “much of ‘Mein Kampf’ is an autoethnography.” This style of self-reflective writing is en vogue in the grievance studies’ academic journals and therefore the substitution of feminist or anti-patriarchal terminology for Hitler’s well-known screed was evidently undetectable to the peer reviewers.
According to a comment from the co-editor of the journal, the reviewers were “supportive of the work and noted its potential to generate important dialogue for social workers and feminist scholars.”
A quest to expose ‘sophistry’
In a long co-bylined essay published Tuesday in Aero Magazine, which Pluckrose edits, the trio wrote that during the course of their experiment, “the reviewers’ comments are in many ways more revealing about the state of these fields than the acceptances themselves.”
The team explained their motivations and methodology: “We set out with three basic rules: (1) we’ll focus almost exclusively upon ranked peer-reviewed journals in the field, the higher the better and at the top of their subdisciplines whenever possible; (2) we will not pay to publish any paper; and (3) if we are asked at any point by a journal editor or reviewer (but not a journalist!) if any paper we wrote is an attempted hoax, we will admit it.”
The basis of each paper was “something absurd or deeply unethical (or both) that we wanted to forward or conclude. We then made the existing peer-reviewed literature do our bidding in the attempt to get published in the academic canon,” they wrote.
“This is the primary point of the project: What we just described is not knowledge production; it’s sophistry. That is, it’s a forgery of knowledge that should not be mistaken for the real thing. The biggest difference between us and the scholarship we are studying by emulation is that we know we made things up,” they wrote.
In undertaking the hoax, the use of satire was often employed. According to the authors, every paper “also endeavored to be humorous in at least some small way (and often, big ones).”
The team was so successful that four journals asked the papers’ fictitious authors to become peer reviewers themselves. For “ethical reasons,” they declined.
The proverbial wheels came off after a Twitter account called “New Real Peer Review” sniffed something foul from the Dog Park essay. Soon, local newspapers became suspicious, and eventually, in cooperation with the hoax team, the Wall Street Journal broke the story this week, with an ever-widening international ripple effect and coverage.
Satire as social commentary
It is not the first time scholars have written hoax papers to illustrate a broken academia. While other fields can be equally guilty of publishing unscientific work, gender studies in particular has already been repeatedly flagged as problematic.
After the current hoax experiment became public this week, author and Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk proclaimed on Twitter that “Three intrepid academics just perpetrated a giant version of the Sokal Hoax… Call it Sokal Squared. The result is hilarious and delightful. It also showcases a serious problem with big parts of academia.”
In 1996, mathematics and physics Prof. Alan David Sokal submitted a nonsensical paper to Duke University’s Social Text journal called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” in a (successful) experiment illustrating editorial bias and the prevalent incorrect use of scientific terms.
The Sokal hoax was the basis for a May 2017 experiment when two of the current project’s authors, Boghossian and Lindsay, attempted to replicate his success with the publication of a fake paper that claims “that penises conceptually cause climate change.” They write about the experiment in an essay, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies,” which discusses the problematic nature of “pay-to-publish” open access journals.
In September 2017 the duo became a trio with the addition of Pluckrose and the new, much more elaborate project was launched.
According to the scholars, the goal of the current project was not to end the study of these niche academic disciplines, rather highlight the intolerant thinking within their lock-step that is infiltrating popular culture.
Asked by The Times of Israel if academic journals in the field of Jewish Studies would also be in their sights, Lindsay answered that the team didn’t fully examine this particular field. “The grievance studies methods are dubious, and I hope [Jewish Studies scholars] don’t take them up,” he said.
“I’ve only looked closely at one paper in Jewish Studies and it seemed to use similar methods but criticized a nasty streak of antisemitism in critical race scholarship,” he wrote via Twitter, citing a paper called, “Critical Whiteness Studies and the ‘Jewish Problem.'”
The cited paper was written in response to the increasingly trendy theory proposed by Critical Whiteness Studies and promoted by young American Jews on college campuses, social media, and even mainstream Jewish media, that Jews are not “white.”
According to the paper’s abstract, “‘whiteness” is used as a critical concept denoting those who enjoy white privilege in American and other Western societies.” Calling a Jew “white,” however, “is more than controversial, for it assimilates the most persecuted minority in European history to the dominant majority, while downgrading the significance of antisemitism.”
The fact that this type of topic itself is being debated within the ivory tower and infiltrating popular culture is not what appears to bother the scholars. Rather, it is the fact that there are few skeptical and critical checks within peer-reviewed journals and that what they consider to be a “kind of blatant corruption” through confirmation bias is pervasive in the fields.
“Politically biased research that rests on highly questionable premises gets legitimized as though it is verifiable knowledge. It then goes on to permeate our culture because professors, activists, and others cite and teach this ever-growing body of ideologically skewed and fallacious scholarship,” writes the team.
“We managed to get seven shoddy, absurd, unethical and politically biased papers into respectable journals in the fields of grievance studies. Does this show that academia is corrupt? Absolutely not. Does it show that all scholars and reviewers in humanities fields which study gender, race, sexuality and weight are corrupt? No,” they write.
However, when a journal publishes — without revisions — a paper written in under six hours by a man which describes “moon meetings” for women in womb rooms with vulva shrines, it might reasonably be thought that something is deeply amiss. When an essay which promotes the pedagogical boon of silencing and chaining “privileged” pupils to the floor to affect “experiential reparations” is taken under serious consideration and given notes for improvement, one might wonder about the Ivory Tower’s foundations.
The authors are now calling upon universities to conduct a thorough review of the grievance study fields “to separate knowledge-producing disciplines and scholars from those generating constructivist sophistry.”
“Research into these areas is crucial, and it must be rigorously conducted and minimize ideological influences,” they write. “The further results on these topics diverge from reality, the greater chance they will hurt those their scholarship is intended to help.”