The Big Hoax

I’ve been thinking about the Sokol2 hoax, in which various conspirators sent improbable manuscripts to twenty journals of “ethnic/identity studies.” Seven journals went ahead and published the manuscripts even though the manuscripts’ contents were avowedly nonsense. This builds on the work of Alan Sokol, who tried the same thing with literary theory journals, “showing” that their discourse was likewise nonsensical. Both of these moves attempt to discredit an entire class of journals by targeted attacks on a small sample of journals; the intended principle is contamination. This principle may not be applicable; there are those of us who have taken a brown spot out of an apple and eaten the rest.

I am helping a faculty member with a paper in an ethnic studies journal; there are four pages of painstaking comments from the editor, along with the mostly positive comments from two reviewers. I disagree with the editor, but I don’t think anything got by him; he had the extraordinary virtue of finding everything that was wrong or could be construed as wrong. I find it completely impossible that a nonsense article could have gotten by him. He would have rejected it, period, and it probably wouldn’t have gotten through peer review, either. The peer reviewers were pretty sharp, and one pointed out a legitimate hole in the argument that needed patching.

What was lacking from the ethnic/identity studies journals that published the Sokol2 papers? One guess is that they didn’t have enough money to hire a good editor with subject matter expertise and relied on an overtaxed board member to vet the article. But I have another guess.

Peter Elbow spoke of a reader who might play one of two games: the Doubting Game and the Believing Game. The editor whose commentary I was looking at was playing the Doubting Game at grandmaster scale – characterizing writing by what you can find wrong with it. This will induce fear and shame in the author, and the author will revise the paper ruing how bad it was. The faculty member whom I was working with had resubmitted the paper four times, and each time had gotten back pages and pages of withering “advice.” So, that’s one game. In the Believing Game, you focus on what’s right with someone’s writing. You err on the side of charity. You see what the author is getting at, and you help the author to get there. I am guessing that with some of these journals, one of the principles is to get the thoughts of underrepresented voices out in the world, and charitable principles mean a greater chance for the author to be heard. Sokol2 exploited this charity and used it as a weapon to attack the credibility of the journals and the views they stood for.

So, do we have to worry about Sokol3 perpetrators gaming more journals to disparage them? Yes. Should the journals spend an extra $90K a year on a master editor? (There aren’t that many of them around.) Should they play the Doubting Game to make themselves impregnable? Do they want to strike fear and shame into their authors, so that the authors regret having written anything at all? Or do we simply say that the Sokol2 perpetrators are like WWI German submarines: very effective at sinking ships, with very advanced torpedos, but sinking ships is in no one’s interest but theirs. No one is going to claim that the Lusitania was a legitimate target because she presented a very broad attack surface underwater.

Alas, there are no metaphorical depth charges that can be dropped on the perpetrators, and neither can the Humanities declare war against them. Probably the most solid defense against the perpetrators is PR — some kind of damage control operation, as used by rich people and corporations to mop up the consequences of their dirty business. Perhaps the MLA can put them on retainer. Nullify the PR explosion by investigating the perpetrators and publicly making clear what they have to gain. Explain the principles by which the journals stand. The perpetrators’ fraud will vanish into the dustbin of history. That is where fraudsters go; quick, without a Google search, who was Yi-Fen Chou?

One thought on “The Big Hoax

  1. My take, for what it’s worth: The Sokal hoax persuaded those who were already detractors of the post-structuralist movement, and just gave them an excuse to dismiss everything ever published in that vein, in a classic gesture of irresponsible generalization (one editorial board accepted a nonsense article, therefore every article in the field covered by that article is nonsense). Analogously, some people have allergic reactions to penicillin. This doesn’t mean that all antibiotics are contra-indicated for everybody, and you’d be irresponsible to say so, even if you were one of the people who has that allergy.

    That was my first reaction to Sokal— that people should have come down on Andrew Ross and the Social Text board for falling asleep at the switch. Indeed they let us all down, insofar as they gave credit to discredit. Now, in an environment generally hostile to patient analysis and fact-checking, I see the interconnectedness of academic publishing more. It is as if a rent in the fabric “over there” (in that ethnic-studies journal) rips the web we all belong to so that “over here” (in, say, medical humanities or classical philology) we lose some of our persuasive power. It’s symptomatic, by the way, that the people most eager to attack the humanities as useless or self-indulgent show, when they enumerate cases, that they don’t actually know or care what fields are included in the humanities; their ire is directed at feminists, minority-studies scholars, environmentalism, and rights advocates generally. The whole point being to make the world safe for industrial and military exploitation, and crush any objections thereto.

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