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An entertaining but revealing development in science culture in recent years has been the intentionally nonsensical academic paper. Earlier this year, political scientist Peter Dreier admitted at Prospect that his abstract for a panel of six years ago, "On the Absence of Absences," was "academic drivel":
I tried, as best I could within the limits of my own vocabulary, to write something that had many big words but which made no sense whatsoever. I not only wanted to see if I could fool the panel organizers and get my paper accepted. . . .1
Well, not only was it accepted, but he was also invited to join fellow academics in Tokyo at the annual international conference of the Society for Social Studies of Science.
Sokal & His Imitators
The hoax journal paper genre was started, as Dreier explains, by New York University physicist Alan Sokal in 1996. Sokal aimed to skewer the postmodern dogma that facts, even in mathematics and physics, are merely a social construct. He submitted an article to Social Text, a postmodern cultural studies journal, that, "shorn of its intentionally outrageous jargon, essentially made the claim that gravity was in the mind of the beholder." The paper, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," was published in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of the journal. Writes Dreier:
As soon as it was published, Sokal fessed up in another journal (Lingua Franca, May 1996), revealing that his article was a sham, describing it as "a pastiche of Left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense . . . structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics."2
Sokal has had many imitators since, a disquieting number of whom have been successful. One entertaining 2015 hoax purportedly showed that boo-boo kisses from mommy did not help heal children's scrapes and recommended "a moratorium on the practice." Other entries don't sound quite so cute, however.
For example, in 2005, MIT researchers developed software they called SCIgen, which "randomly combines strings of words to produce fake computer-science papers." Their aim was to demonstrate that "conferences would accept meaningless papers."3 That was no idle concern. In 2014, computer scientist Cyril Labbé catalogued 120 computer-generated "gibberish" papers that had been published as conference proceedings in the five years between 2008 and 2013 alone. Sixteen papers had appeared in publications of the well-regarded science publisher Springer, and more than 100 were published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. All the papers had to be removed from the relevant databases.
Once discovered, hoax papers can sometimes be retracted with little fuss, but other times the matter doesn't end well. In a very recent case, the authors of a hoax paper about death-camp guard dogs had intended to satirize postmodern attempts to "interpret historical events through the perspective of affected animals." Unfortunately, the authors failed to let the journal or their readers in on the joke. The paper was retracted with some pointed criticism.4
Along with hoax papers, there has been an increase in fraudulent journal papers as well,5 but here we should recognize a distinction: frauds are not the same thing as hoaxes. Piltdown Man and the feathered dinosaur ("Piltdown Chicken"), to cite two concrete examples, were frauds. The fraudster needs the world to believe—and go on believing—the fraud. The hoaxer, by contrast, delights in the moment he can reveal the truth, for that is the point of the exercise.
Left-Wing Bias Paints the Target
Both fraudulent and hoax papers riff off the needless complexity of today's academic prose. Granted, lay readers are often going to be baffled by forbidding but essential technical terms in a research paper. But papers that baffle everyone—even those in the field—while sounding profound are a different matter. Such papers can be seen as resulting from the postmodern invasion of the sciences by nihilist philosophies. Indeed, wags now offer tongue-in-cheek directions for perpetrating a science hoax, and explain how to construct a gibberish paper that gets accepted by journals.5 Perhaps many journals find it easier just to accept a few such papers than to confront the troubling reality they represent: that words don't need to mean anything to be accepted in their discipline.
Social science is especially hard-hit these days; one psychologist described it as "riddled with flaky research and questionable theories."6 There is a surprisingly broad consensus about the cause—that is, everyone from Michael Shermer to Uncommon Descent agrees on it—namely, that the field's overwhelmingly progressive-left bias makes it an easy mark for both hoaxes and frauds.7
It also makes it an easy target for a third category of problem paper that is neither a hoax nor a fraud exactly: the nonsense paper that may well be believed by its authors. Examples of these include the widely cited "positivity ratio" in psychology, which was assessed as "entirely unfounded" in 2013,8 and the recent, apparently serious attempt to "feminize" melting glaciers.9
This sort of thing should come as no surprise. Monochromatic bias exposes a community to greater risk because few of its members even notice a hoax, fraud, or nonsense thesis that passes their bias filter. Usually, the person to whom it doesn't sound right has different commitments and life experiences, and he or she is the one motivated to investigate.
Ironically, many defenders of the status quo in recent years have claimed to be "scared to death of the anti-science lobby."10 Their worries are misplaced. It's actually science that is coming to get them. Soon. •
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