The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies
Note from the editor: Every once in awhile it is necessary and desirable to expose extreme ideologies for what they are by carrying out their arguments and rhetoric to their logical and absurd conclusion, which is why we are proud to publish this expose of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed journal today. Its ramifications are unknown but one hopes it will help rein in extremism in this and related areas.
You can also listen to a hilarious discussion of it at the beginning of this podcast by American author, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris:
The androcentric scientific and meta-scientific evidence that the penis is the male reproductive organ is considered overwhelming and largely uncontroversial.
That’s how we began. We used this preposterous sentence to open a “paper” consisting of 3,000 words of utter nonsense posing as academic scholarship. Then a peer-reviewed academic journal in the social sciences accepted and published it.
This paper should never have been published. Titled, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” our paper “argues” that “The penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a gender-performative, highly fluid social construct.” As if to prove philosopher David Hume’s claim that there is a deep gap between what is and what ought to be, our should-never-have-been-published paper was published in the open-access (meaning that articles are freely accessible and not behind a paywall), peer-reviewed journal Cogent Social Sciences. (In case the PDF is removed, we’ve archived it.)
Assuming the pen names “Jamie Lindsay” and “Peter Boyle,” and writing for the fictitious “Southeast Independent Social Research Group,” we wrote an absurd paper loosely composed in the style of post-structuralist discursive gender theory. 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.
Manspreading — a complaint levied against men for sitting with their legs spread wide — is akin to raping the empty space around him.
This already damning characterization of our hoax understates our paper’s lack of fitness for academic publication by orders of magnitude. We didn’t try to make the paper coherent; instead, we stuffed it full of jargon (like “discursive” and “isomorphism”), nonsense (like arguing that hypermasculine men are both inside and outside of certain discourses at the same time), red-flag phrases (like “pre-post-patriarchal society”), lewd references to slang terms for the penis, insulting phrasing regarding men (including referring to some men who choose not to have children as being “unable to coerce a mate”), and allusions to rape (we stated that “manspreading,” a complaint levied against men for sitting with their legs spread wide, is “akin to raping the empty space around him”). After completing the paper, we read it carefully to ensure it didn’t say anything meaningful, and as neither one of us could determine what it is actually about, we deemed it a success.
Consider some examples. Here’s a paragraph from the conclusion, which was held in high regard by both reviewers:
We conclude that penises are not best understood as the male sexual organ, or as a male reproductive organ, but instead as an enacted social construct that is both damaging and problematic for society and future generations. The conceptual penis presents significant problems for gender identity and reproductive identity within social and family dynamics, is exclusionary to disenfranchised communities based upon gender or reproductive identity, is an enduring source of abuse for women and other gender-marginalized groups and individuals, is the universal performative source of rape, and is the conceptual driver behind much of climate change.
You read that right. We argued that climate change is “conceptually” caused by penises. How do we defend that assertion? Like this:
Destructive, unsustainable hegemonically male approaches to pressing environmental policy and action are the predictable results of a raping of nature by a male-dominated mindset. This mindset is best captured by recognizing the role of [sic] the conceptual penis holds over masculine psychology. When it is applied to our natural environment, especially virgin environments that can be cheaply despoiled for their material resources and left dilapidated and diminished when our patriarchal approaches to economic gain have stolen their inherent worth, the extrapolation of the rape culture inherent in the conceptual penis becomes clear.
And like this, which we claim follows from the above by means of an algorithmically generated nonsense quotation from a fictitious paper, which we referenced and cited explicitly in the paper:
Toxic hypermasculinity derives its significance directly from the conceptual penis and applies itself to supporting neocapitalist materialism, which is a fundamental driver of climate change, especially in the rampant use of carbon-emitting fossil fuel technologies and careless domination of virgin natural environments. We need not delve deeply into criticisms of dialectic objectivism, or their relationships with masculine tropes like the conceptual penis to make effective criticism of (exclusionary) dialectic objectivism. All perspectives matter.
If you’re having trouble understanding what any of that means, there are two important points to consider. First, we don’t understand it either. Nobody does. This problem should have rendered it unpublishable in all peer-reviewed, academic journals. Second, these examples are remarkably lucid compared to much of the rest of the paper. Consider this final example:
Inasmuch as masculinity is essentially performative, so too is the conceptual penis. The penis, in the words of Judith Butler, “can only be understood through reference to what is barred from the signifier within the domain of corporeal legibility” (Butler, 1993). The penis should not be understood as an honest expression of the performer’s intent should it be presented in a performance of masculinity or hypermasculinity. Thus, the isomorphism between the conceptual penis and what’s referred to throughout discursive feminist literature as “toxic hypermasculinity,” is one defined upon a vector of male cultural machismo braggadocio, with the conceptual penis playing the roles of subject, object, and verb of action. The result of this trichotomy of roles is to place hypermasculine men both within and outside of competing discourses whose dynamics, as seen via post-structuralist discourse analysis, enact a systematic interplay of power in which hypermasculine men use the conceptual penis to move themselves from powerless subject positions to powerful ones (confer: Foucault, 1972).
No one knows what any of this means because it is complete nonsense. Anyone claiming to is pretending. Full stop.
It gets worse. Not only is the text ridiculous, so are the references. Most of our references are quotations from papers and figures in the field that barely make sense in the context of the text. Others were obtained by searching keywords and grabbing papers that sounded plausibly connected to words we cited. We read exactly zero of the sources we cited, by intention, as part of the hoax. And it gets still worse…
Some references cite the Postmodern Generator, a website coded in the 1990s by Andrew Bulhak featuring an algorithm, based on NYU physicist Alan Sokal’s method of hoaxing a cultural studies journal called Social Text, that returns a different fake postmodern “paper” every time the page is reloaded. We cited and quoted from the Postmodern Generator liberally; this includes nonsense quotations incorporated in the body of the paper and citing five different “papers” generated in the course of a few minutes.
Five references to fake papers in journals that don’t exist is astonishing on its own, but it’s incredible given that the original paper we submitted had only sixteen references total (it has twenty now, after a reviewer asked for more examples). Nearly a third of our references in the original paper go to fake sources from a website mocking the fact that this kind of thing is brainlessly possible, particularly in “academic” fields corrupted by postmodernism. (More on that later.)
Two of the fake journals cited are Deconstructions from Elsewhere and And/Or Press (taken directly from algorithmically generated fictitious citations on the Postmodern Generator). Another cites the fictitious researcher “S. Q. Scameron,” whose invented name appears in the body of the paper several times. In response, the reviewers noted that our references are “sound,” even after an allegedly careful cross-referencing check done in the final round of editorial approval. No matter the effort put into it, it appears one simply cannot jump Cogent Social Sciences’ shark.
We didn’t originally go looking to hoax Cogent Social Sciences, however. Had we, this story would be only half as interesting and a tenth as apparently damning. Cogent Social Sciences was recommended to us by another journal, NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, a Taylor and Francis journal. NORMA rejected “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” but thought it a great fit for the Cogent Series, which operates independently under the Taylor and Francis imprimatur. In their rejection letter, the editors of NORMA wrote,
We feel that your manuscript would be well-suited to our Cogent Series, a multidisciplinary, open journal platform for the rapid dissemination of peer-reviewed research across all disciplines.
Transferring your manuscript:
- Saves you time because there is no need for you to reformat or resubmit your work manually
- Provides faster publication because previous reviews are transferred with your manuscript.
To ensure all work is open to everyone, the Cogent Series invites a “pay what you want” contribution towards the costs of open access publishing if your article is accepted for publication. This can be paid by you as author or by your institution or research funder. Many institutions and funders now provide financial support for open access publishing.
We took them up on the transfer, and Cogent Social Sciences eventually accepted “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.” The reviewers were amazingly encouraging, giving us very high marks in nearly every category. For example, one reviewer graded our thesis statement “sound” and praised it thusly, “It capturs [sic] the issue of hypermasculinity through a multi-dimensional and nonlinear process” (which we take to mean that it wanders aimlessly through many layers of jargon and nonsense). The other reviewer marked the thesis, along with the entire paper, “outstanding” in every applicable category.
They didn’t accept the paper outright, however. Cogent Social Sciences’ Reviewer #2 offered us a few relatively easy fixes to make our paper “better.” We effortlessly completed them in about two hours, putting in a little more nonsense about “manspreading” (which we alleged to be a cause of climate change) and “dick-measuring contests.”
The publication of our hoax reveals two problems. One relates to the business model of pay-to-publish, open-access journals. The other lies at the heart of academic fields like gender studies.
The Pay-to-Publish, Open-Access Journal Problem
Cogent Social Sciences is a multidisciplinary open access journal offering high quality peer review across the social sciences: from law to sociology, politics to geography, and sport to communication studies. Connect your research with a global audience for maximum readership and impact.
One of the biggest questions facing peer-reviewed publishing is, “Are pay-to-publish, open-access journals the future of academic publishing?” We seem to have answered that question with a large red, “No!”
There is, however, an asterisk on that “No!” That is, the peer-review process in pay-to-publish, open-access journals cannot achieve quality assurance without extremely stringent safeguards (which will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the debate). There’s nothing necessarily or intrinsically wrong with either open-access or pay-to-publish journals, and they may ultimately prove valuable. However, in the short term, pay-to-publish may be a significant problem because of the inherent tendencies toward conflicts of interest (profits trump academic quality, that is, the profit motive is dangerous because ethics are expensive).
The pay-to-publish mechanism should not affect the quality control standards of the peer-review process. Cogent Open Access claims to address this problem by using a blind review process. Does it work? Perhaps not always, if this case is any indication. Some pay-to-publish journals happily exploit career-minded academicians and will publish anything (cf: the famous Seinfeld hoax paper)1. Is that the case here? Gender studies scholars committed to the integrity of their academic discipline should hope so, and they have reason for suspecting it. For a minimal payment of $625, Cogent Social Sciences was ready to publish, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.”2
There seems to be a deeper problem here, however. Suspecting we may be dealing with a predatory pay-to-publish outlet, we were surprised that an otherwise apparently legitimate Taylor and Francis journal directed us to contribute to the Cogent Series. (Authors’ note: we leave it to the reader to decide whether or not NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies constitutes a legitimate journal, but to all appearances it is run by genuine academic experts in the field and is not a predatory money-mill.) The problem, then, may rest not only with pay-to-publish journals, but also with the infrastructure that supports them.
In sum, it’s difficult to place Cogent Social Sciences on a spectrum ranging from a rigorous academic journal in gender studies to predatory pay-to-publish money mill. First, Cogent Social Sciences operates with the legitimizing imprimatur of Taylor and Francis, with which it is clearly closely partnered. Second, it’s held out as a high-quality open-access journal by the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), which is intended to be a reliable list of such journals. In fact, it carries several more affiliations with similar credentialing organizations.
These facts cast considerable doubt on the facile defense that Cogent Social Sciences is a sham journal that accepted “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” simply to make money. As a result, wherever Cogent Social Sciences belongs on the spectrum just noted, there are significant reasons to believe that much of the problem lies within the very concept of any journal being a “rigorous academic journal in gender studies.”
Postmodernism, Gender Studies, and the Canon of Knowledge
In 1996, Alan Sokal, a Professor of Physics at NYU, published the bogus paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” in the preeminent cultural studies journal Social Text which is in turn published by Duke University Press. The publication of this nonsense paper, in a prestigious journal with a strong postmodernist orientation, delivered a devastating blow to postmodernism’s intellectual legitimacy.
Subsequently, Sokal and the Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont noted in their 1997 book, Fashionable Nonsense, that certain kinds of ideas can become so fashionable that the critical faculties required for the peer-review process are compromised, allowing outright nonsense to be published, so long as it looks or sounds a certain way, or promotes certain values. It was standing upon Sokal’s shoulders that we proceeded with our hoax, though we perceived a slightly different need.
Sokal’s aim was to demonstrate that fashionable linguistic abuses (especially relying upon puns and wordplay related to scientific terms), apparent scientific authority, conformity with certain leftist political norms, and flattery of the academic preconceptions of an editorial board would be sufficient to secure publication and thus expose shoddy academic rigor on the part of postmodernist scholarship and social commentary.
A primary target of Sokal’s hoax was the appropriation of mathematical and scientific terminology that postmodernist “scholars” didn’t understand and didn’t use correctly. (We included “isomorphism” and “vector” in our paper in subtle homage to Sokal.) Fashionable Nonsense pays particular attention to postmodernists’ abuses of mathematical and scientific terminology. That is, Sokal took aim at an academic abuse by postmodernists and hit his target dead-center. His paper could only have been published if the postmodernists who approved it exhibited overwhelming political motivations and a staggering lack of understanding of basic mathematics and physics terminology.
The scientific community was exuberant that Sokal burst the postmodern bubble because they were fed up with postmodernists misusing scientific and mathematical terms to produce jargon-laden nonsense and bizarre social commentary carrying the apparent gravitas of scientific terminology. It appears that Social Text accepted Sokal’s paper specifically because Sokal was a recognized scientist who appeared to have seen the light.
Our hoax was similar, of course, but it aimed to expose a more troubling bias. 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. Like any impostor, ours had to dress the part, though we made our disguise as ridiculous and caricatured as possible—not so much affixing an obviously fake mustache to mask its true identity as donning two of them as false eyebrows.
Sokal exposed an infatuation with academic puffery that characterizes the entire project of academic postmodernism. Our aim was smaller yet more pointed. We intended to test the hypothesis that flattery of the academic Left’s moral architecture in general, and of the moral orthodoxy in gender studies in particular, is the overwhelming determiner of publication in an academic journal in the field. That is, we sought to demonstrate that a desire for a certain moral view of the world to be validated could overcome the critical assessment required for legitimate scholarship. Particularly, we suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil. On the evidence, our suspicion was justified.3
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.
Conclusion: A Two-Pronged Problem for Academia
There are at least two deeply troublesome diseases damaging the credibility of the peer-review system in fields such as gender studies:
- the echo-chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense coming out of the postmodernist social “sciences” in general, and gender studies departments in particular and
- 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.
“The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” underwent a blind peer-review process and yet was accepted for publication. This needs serious explaining. Part of the fault may fall on the open-access, pay-to-publish model, but the rest falls on the entire academic enterprise collectively referred to as “gender studies.” As we see it, gender studies in its current form needs to do some serious housecleaning.
To repeat a critical point, this paper was published in a social science journal that was recommended to us as reputable by a supposedly reliable academic source. Cogent Social Sciences has the trappings of a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. There is no way around the fact that the publication of this paper in such a journal must point to some problem with the current state of academic publishing. The components of the problem are, it seems, reducible to just two: academic misfeasance arising from pay-to-publish, open-access financial decision-making; and unconscionable pseudo-academic inbreeding contaminating, if not defining, the postmodernist theory-based social sciences.
On the other hand, no one is arguing, nor has any reason to argue, that respectable journals like Nature and countless others have adopted a peer-review process that is fundamentally flawed or in any meaningful way corrupt. Much of the peer-review system remains the gold-standard for the advancement of human knowledge. The problem lies within a nebula of marginal journals, predatory pay-to-publish journals, and, possibly to some degree, open-access journals—although it may largely be discipline-specific, as we had originally hoped to discover. This is, after all, not the first time postmodernist academia has fallen for a hoax.
This hoax, however, was rooted in moral and political biases masquerading as rigorous academic theory. Working in a biased environment, we successfully sugarcoated utter nonsense with a combination of fashionable moral sentiments and impenetrable jargon. Cogent Social Sciences happily swallowed the pill. It left utter nonsense easy to disguise.
The publish-or-perish academic environment is its own poison that needs a remedy. It gives rise to predatory profit-driven journals with few or no academic standards that take advantage of legitimate scholars pressured into publishing their work at all costs, even if it is marginal or dubious. Many of these scholars are victims both of a system that is forcing them to publish more papers and to publish them more often, to the detriment of research quality, and of the predatory journals that offer to sell them the illusion of academic prestige. Certainly, we have every reason to suspect that a majority of the other academics who have published in Cogent Social Sciences and other journals in the Cogent Series are genuine scholars who have been cheated by what may be a weak peer-review process with a highly polished edifice. Our question about the fundamental integrity of fields like gender studies seems much more pressing nonetheless.
“The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” should not have been published on its merits because it was actively written to avoid having any merits whatsoever. The paper is academically worthless nonsense. The question that now needs to be answered is, “How can we restore the reliability of the peer-review process?”
- For more here, read about “Dr. Martin Van Nostrand’s” famous hoax paper.
- Portland State University has a fund dedicated to paying fees for open access journals, and this particular journal qualified for disbursement. For ethical reasons, however, we did not apply for funding, which in this case was virtually guaranteed. Instead, the article was externally funded by an independent party. We never received an invoice from the journal. We did not pay to have this published.
- Our suspicion arose from countless examples documented on the anonymously run Twitter feed @RealPeerReview.
About the Authors
Dr. Peter Boghossian is a full time faculty member in the Department of Philosophy at Portland State University. He has an extensive publication record across multiple domains of thought. He’s the author of A Manual for Creating Atheists and the creator of the Atheos app. Follow him on Twitter @peterboghossian.
James A. Lindsay has a doctorate in math and background in physics. He is the author of four books, most recently Life in Light of Death. Follow him on Twitter @GodDoesnt.