What an academic hoax can teach us about journalism in the age of Trump

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Call it, if you like, a replication experiment. Twenty-one years ago, the New York University physicist Alan Sokal attempted to prove that the influence of postmodern ways of thinking in the humanities had reached the point where academic nonsense was indistinguishable from academic sense. As a physicist, Sokal found writing about science to be particularly offensive, and he submitted a “hoax” paper to the important academic journal Social Text titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Sokal was conducting an experiment to see if “a leading North American journal of cultural studies — whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross — [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” They did.

A few days ago, scholars Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, in their words, published “‘The conceptual penis as a social construct,’ a Sokal-style hoax on gender studies.”

The paper was ridiculous by intention, essentially arguing that penises shouldn’t be thought of as male genital organs but as damaging social constructions. We made no attempt to find out what “post-structuralist discursive gender theory” actually means. We assumed that if we were merely clear in our moral implications that maleness is intrinsically bad and that the penis is somehow at the root of it, we could get the paper published in a respectable journal.

Journalism and the post-truth society

There is an academic context to all this silliness, both in the abstract (various arguments about truth and various “posts” — post-truth, post-modernism, post-structuralism, etc.) and driven by real events (there are many I could point to, but googling “Tuvel controversy” or just clicking here will give you a good sense of what’s going on).

But there’s a way all this stuff actually matters for journalism, too, and it has to do with the arguments we’ve having about facts, fake news, Donald Trump, and the people who voted for him, despite all the factual evidence presented that they might be making a bad decision. The best summary of this whole conversation can be found in an article in Nieman Reports and another one in Vox. The Vox piece draws on an earlier piece by former Politico editor Susan Glasser to argue:

While there was plenty of great political journalism this cycle — all those stories about Trump’s bogus charity, his history of scams and bankruptcies, his record as a sexual predator — it “didn’t seem to matter,” Glasser says. The signal was lost in the ideological noise…she is right to see it as an institutional problem, a matter of authority and legitimacy. Facts do not, contra common belief, speak for themselves. Accuracy doesn’t matter unless there are institutions and norms with the authority to make it matter. The question for the press is how to make truth matter again.

What unites the hermeneutics of quantum gravity, the conceptual penis, and Trump is a general feeling amongst a great many people that goes something like this: Facts don’t matter any more. It’s all opinion. We can’t know what truth is, and we are all just running around trying to get more power for ourselves or our political parties or our conceptual theories. It’s all post-truth, whether journalism or science. And this feeling has also prompted a backlash amongst the scientists of the world, prompting the rise of what the conservative science journal The New Atlantis calls “the cult of science.”

The infrastructures of truth

Does life determine consciousness? Or does consciousness determine life? In other words, does the way the world is set up — its economics, its politics, its institutional arrangements — determine how we think about things, or does how we think about things to some degree determine the way the world gets set up? This is an old argument, at least as old (if not older) than when Marx first gave his answer to the question in a book called The German Ideology. The relevance of this question to the current conversation about post-truth politics is this: Can we reverse the trend? Can we stop what seems like the descent of the Western world into irrationality and tribalism? Should we focus on changing human consciousness, or on the structures that underlie this consciousness?

Because here’s an important point: The “conceptual penis” hoax of 2017 was not a replication of the Sokal hoax of 1996. In fact, the editors of the journal that Boghossian and Lindsay originally submitted the article to, NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, rejected the article, pointing the authors instead to Cogent Social Sciences, a pay-to-publish predatory journal with far lower standards of peer review. This leads Boghossian and Lindsay to claim that their hoax demonstrated two “problems damaging the credibility of the peer-review system in fields such as gender studies:

(1) the echo-chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense coming out of the postmodernist social “sciences” in general, and gender studies departments in particular and

(2) the complex problem of pay-to-publish journals with lax standards that cash in on the ultra-competitive publish-or-perish academic environment. At least one of these sicknesses led to “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” being published as a legitimate piece of academic scholarship, and we can expect proponents of each to lay primary blame upon the other.

Notice something here? The first problem is a cultural one (“fashionable nonsense”) while the second one is a structural one (“the complex problem of pay-to-publish journals with lax standards that cash in on the ultra-competitive publish-or-perish academic environment”). And this has implications for how we approach the problems of “fake news” and “post-truth” in journalism as well.

Do we live in a world that has become fundamentally unmoored from reality? This is the cultural explanation for the political crisis that grips America in general and journalism in particular. The problem lies with human nature, argues Fortune writer Mathew Ingram. “The problem is…us,” writes danah boyd in a brilliant column on why Facebook and Google can’t solve the fake news problem alone.

The puzzles made visible through “fake news” are hard. They are socially and culturally hard. They force us to contend with how people construct knowledge and ideas, communicate with others, and construct a society. They are also deeply messy, revealing divisions and fractures in beliefs and attitudes. And that means that they are not technically easy to build or implement.

And yet: The world has changed a great deal since Alan Sokal first published his hoax in Social Text. There were fewer predatory academic journals of the kind we’ve come to recognize today. Fox News, for heavens sake, was barely a year old! The World Wide Web was 2. Mark Zuckerberg was 12. Jack Dorsey was still in college. The technologies that allowed our post-truth society to take hold in the way it has hadn’t really been invented in any meaningful way.

The problem, in other words, may not be that we — as either academics, humanists, journalists, or citizens — have lost our grip on reality in some cultural or philosophical or human way. The problem may be less human nature and more that the epistemological systems designed to facilitate the deployment of reason and truth in politics and academia are failing us. The “conceptual penis” article was, after all, rejected. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and newsrooms exist as actual organizations with policies and technologies, not simply as an outgrowth of human nature. They are infrastructures — infrastructures which are part of a cultural and symbolic system, but infrastructures nonetheless. Scholars who study infrastructures (whether of the journalistic or academic kind) know that changing them is hard. But they are easier to change than human nature. The least we can do, in that case, is try.

C.W. Anderson is an associate professor at the College of Staten Island (CUNY) and the CUNY Graduate Center.

Photo illustration based on a Stuart Rankin vector of an illustration from an 1894 issue of Puck.

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