Are Penises Causing Climate Change

If you haven’t already seen this, you’ve got to see this.

Two decades ago, I was personally delighted by what is now known as the Sokal Hoax. I had been a literature major at a small liberal arts college. Sometimes I felt as if I was too down to earth, or perhaps just in touch with reality, for the humanities. I often felt as if academic papers veered off into gobbledygook. However, if I complained about the nonsensical jargon, other students would stick their nose in the air and tell me that perhaps I just wasn’t smart enough to understand it. Deep down inside, I couldn’t help feeling that they were the ridiculous ones and I had a distinct feeling that the emperor had no clothes.

In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmoderncultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal’s intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether “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”.

The article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, was published in the Social Text spring/summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue. It proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. At that time, the journal did not practice academic peer review and it did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist. On the day of its publication in May 1996, Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax.

Well, it seems we have been treated to another, similar hoax.

Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay have written a paper, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” and it has been published in a peer reviewed journal called Cogent Social Sciences. The content of the paper was intentionally incoherent.

The most potent among the human susceptibilities to corruption by fashionable nonsense is the temptation to uncritically endorse morally fashionable nonsense. That is, we assumed we could publish outright nonsense provided it looked the part and portrayed a moralizing attitude that comported with the editors’ moral convictions.

Disturbingly, however, they also note:

As a matter of deeper concern, there is unfortunately some reason to believe that our hoax will not break the relevant spell. First, Alan Sokal’s hoax, now more than 20 years old, did not prevent the continuation of bizarre postmodernist “scholarship.” In particular, it did not lead to a general tightening of standards that would have blocked our own hoax. Second, people rarely give up on their moral attachments and ideological commitments just because they’re shown to be out of alignment with reality.

In the 1950s, psychologist Leon Festinger revealed the operation of the well-known phenomenon called cognitive dissonance when he infiltrated a small UFO cult known as the “Seekers.” When the apocalyptic beliefs of the Seekers failed to materialize as predicted, Festinger documented that many cultists did not accept the possibility that the facts upended their core beliefs but instead rationalized them. Many Seekers adopted a subsequent belief that they played a role in saving the world with their fidelity; that is, they believed the doomsday-bringing extraterrestrials were so impressed by their faith that they decided not to destroy the world after all!

It is therefore plausible that some gender studies scholars will argue that the “conceptual penis” makes sense as we described it, that men do often suffer from machismo braggadocio, and that there is an isomorphism between these concepts via some personal toxic hypermasculine conception of their penises.

We sincerely hope not.


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