Reflections on a Hoax

10 October 2018, 1406 EDT

Last week, an article published in the online outlet Areo revealed a hoax that involved ideologically motivated academics writing fake papers in the realms of what they characterized as “grievance studies,” and trying to place them in humanities journals—the idea being to demonstrate that such research is meaningless and not rigorous. Besides the fact that the hoaxsters were mostly unsuccessful in this endeavor—only four papers out of the twenty authored were published—the fact that this endeavor has been used as a tool to discredit a wide-range of scholarship in the realms of , inter alia, gender, race, and sexuality studies has caused a stir in academic circles.

For example, Steven Pinker suggested that this was evidence of the bankruptcy of scholarship of the “postmodern” variety, while others, including political science scholars like Daniel Drezner and Henry Farrell have struck back at the political objectives of these hoaxes: Drezner arguing that the methodology of the hoax, itself, was shoddy; Farrell, in a satirical post, pointing out that work of dubious quality makes its way into the top journals of respected social science journals as well, including economics journals.

Others have taken a sort of middle ground, pointing out the ethical problems of such a hoax, but also suggesting that humanities scholars must do better about overspecialization and writing work that is inaccessible to a broader public.

At the expense of repeating insights already made, I want to elaborate on three points regarding this incident:


Epistemology is Not a Battle to the Death

What this boils down to, philosophically, is the implicit claim that there is one proper way of accumulating, producing, and disseminating knowledge. It is essentially a political struggle over theories of knowledge. What is striking here is that the claims made by the hoaxsters, and prominent public intellectuals including Steven Pinker, is that there is one way of knowing, studying, and understanding the world. This is simply an untenable position, pragmatically. Different disciplines have different epistemic communities and different methodologies for approaching the material they study.

Most importantly, however, these different epistemic commitments are not life-or-death battles for the disciplines involved. For example, social constructivism (I use that term broadly and inaccurately) in the humanities does not prevent physicists from studying objects in motion using controlled experiments. Just as the latter does not foreclose the possibility of a close textual reading of discourses of power. They are not engaged in the head-to-head sort of battle that is being implied in such an endeavor.


This is Evidence of a Growing Backlash toward Scholarship on Identity

If this is not really about epistemology and the generation of knowledge, then what is it about? The core motivation of such attacks like this on social constructivist approaches to the humanistic sciences is that such attacks will discredit particular political and social positions on the Left, most significantly feminism and anti-racism. This is not surprising, considering that some of the same critics of so called “grievance studies” approaches have often been accused of sexism, transphobia, racism/ethnocentrism, and the like. A savvy political maneuver is to use a discourse about science and rigor in order to silence and discredit the kinds of research that are actively pushing back against refusals of recognition.

In short, this is a battle of identity politics playing out in our universities, using languages meant to depoliticize these very battles through an appeal to science.


It Ignores Fundamental Principles about the Nature of “Scientific Inquiry.”

In a more general way, these sort of attacks ignore fundamental principles about scientific inquiry that the authors claim to respect. One of the most important of which is publicity, rather than the fraud and deception the authors engage in.

What can we learn from this as producers and consumers of knowledge about international politics? First, we should recognize that these “science debates” that consume our field, and public discourse about intellectualism and the university more generally, are political debates. These debates have little bearing on the actual practice of either natural science or critical social research. Second, these debates highlight the importance of fields like IR, which are dominated by scientistic approaches, to engage more with critical approaches: including feminism, critical political economy, queer theory, and postcolonial approaches.

By engaging with research on its own terms, rather than ignoring or disparaging work ex ante, we may just actually learn something about global politics. Engaging in fruitless and deeply ideological battles over who can produce knowledge, and what that knowledge should consist in, is not constructive.