‘Grievance studies’ hoax: fair cop or a chilling con?

Tricksters say they wanted to expose overly politicised research, but scholars are concerned about the motivation behind the sting

October 4, 2018
Protestors run over breaking ice
Source: Getty

It was a notorious 2016 paper on “feminist glaciology” – “Glaciers, gender, and science” – by Mark Carey and others that first caught James Lindsay’s eye. As someone “very drawn to the sciences”, with a PhD in physics, he was “amused and aghast and then horrified” by “its nakedly political objective – [that] ‘we need to radically transform glaciology to take in feminist art projects about ice and indigenous myths’”.

He therefore began to examine areas of the humanities “focusing on markers of identity” – notably the work produced by race, gender, sexuality and even fat studies – and became concerned about certain repeated claims that “lived experience is a means of knowledge production”, that “nothing except oppression is objectively real” and that “the Western philosophical tradition is just another way of knowing”. Since such “disciplines have survived more sober and traditional critique”, he decided that the only solution was to “take them on as ethnographers – to become fluent in their language and customs” as a way of undermining them from within.

At this point, Dr Lindsay joined forces with Helen Pluckrose, who describes herself as “an exile from the humanities”, and Peter Boghossian, assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University. All define themselves as “staunchly left liberals”.

They therefore began producing fake articles. Their goal was to prove that “one can start with very exaggerated or ethically grotesque conclusions, draw on existing scholarship to support them and get the articles published” in leading journals. After some initial failures, Dr Lindsay concluded that the key was to respect “a number of offence-based rules”.

Since they were eventually rumbled, the team came clean in a long article titled “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship” in online magazine Areo, where Ms Pluckrose is editor-in-chief. Yet seven of their 20 submitted articles had already been accepted for publication, including one on “feminist spirituality” that Dr Lindsay put together in six hours using “a teenage angst poetry generator”, and four have appeared online. These, they report, include a paper on dog parks as “a place of rampant canine rape culture” and another arguing that heterosexual men might become more feminist and less transphobic if they opted to “anally self-penetrate using sex toys”.

In a blog for the Times Higher Education website, Alison Phipps, professor of gender studies at the University of Sussex, acknowledges that some of the papers were “outlandish”. Yet she argues that others were “simply based on premises (eg, social constructionism) or political principles (eg, trans equality) that the hoax authors find problematic”. She also takes exception to their “demand that all major universities review various areas of study”, calling it “a chilling statement which will certainly feed right-wing attacks on gender studies such as those which have recently happened in Hungary, as well as the targeting of feminist and critical race scholars by the ‘alt’-right”.

For his part, Dr Lindsay reflected that their experience showed that “most people could crank out papers [on ‘grievance studies’] with relative ease if they learned the rules”. Yet he also called for a serious process of “review and reform”.

He added: “We would like these fields to see the light, question their assumptions and come up to the same standards of knowledge production as all others. Of course that will not happen.”


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