Fashionable Nonsense

James A. Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian at acceptance of Pluckrose’s article

In 1996, Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, was curious to see whether the then-non-peer-reviewed postmodern cultural studies journal Social Text (published by Duke University Press) would publish a submission which “flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” The submission was an experiment to test the journal’s intellectural rigor. 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.”

Sokal submitted a grand-sounding but completely nonsensical paper titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” The article was published in the journal’s spring/summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue. It proposed that Quantum Gravity is a social and linguistic construct. In May of 1996, three weeks after its publication, Sokal revealed in the magazine Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax. He argued that the left and social science would be better served by intellectual underpinnings based on reason.

The event received much publicity and came to be called the Sokal Affair. The event was front-page news in The New York Times on May 18, 1996. Sokal responded to leftist and postmodernist criticism of the deception by asserting that his motivation was to “defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself.” The hoax caused controversy in a number of areas: about the scholarly merit of commentary on the physical sciences by those in the humanities; the influence of posmodern philosophy on social disciplines in general; academic ethics, including whether Sokal was wrong to deceive the editors and readers of Social Text; and whether Social Text had exercised appropriate intellectual rigor.

Sokal followed up in 1998 by co-authoring with French physicist and philosopher Jean Brimont the book Fashionable Nonsense. The book accuses some social sciences academics of using scientific and mathematical terms incorrectly and criticizes proponents of the “strong program” of the soiology of science for denying the value of truth. The book had contrasted reviews, with some lauding the effort and some more reserved. In 2008, Sokal revisited the Sokal affair and its implications in Beyond the Hoax.

Alan Sokal

Since 1996, few serious observers of academia would argue that academic jargon has gotten any more reasonable or less ideological. In fact, academic language is even less coherent than in the late 90s when Sokal wrote his article. Luckily, two liberal professors – James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian – stepped forward in the summer of 2017 to carry Sokal’s “torch” forward. Their bogus paper was called “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” in a journal called Cogent Social Sciences.

After this paper, the two teamed up with professor Helen Pluckrose and the trio were off to the races writing more papers full of academic gibberish. While that Sokal hoax only involved a single article, the new hoax from the trio involved 20 papers, produced every two weeks or so, submitted to various journals over the period of a year. By 2018, the authors said that four papers had been published; three had been accepted but not yet published; seven were under review and six had been rejected.

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A paper published in a journal called Sex Roles, said the author had conducted a two-year study involving “thematic analysis of table dialogue” to uncover the mystery of why heterosexual men like to eat at Hooters. Another, published in a journal of feminist social work itled “Our Struggle Is My Struggle,” simply scattered jargon into passages lifted from Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

One of the articles by Pluckrose (writing under the made-up name of Helen WIlson) was reported in the 10/4/18 New York Times. (See the author’s reaction to this in the YouTube video at the top of this page) Published in the journal Gender, Place & Culture and titled “Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon” the study purported to observe dogs having sex, and how their owners reacted, to draw conclusions about humans’ sexual attitudes. Humans intervened 97 percent of the time when male dogs were “raping/humping” other male dogs, the paper said. But when a male dog was mating with a female, humans intervened only 32 percent of the time and actually laughed out loud 18 percent of the time. The paper’s author cautioned: “Because of my own situatedness as a human, rather than as a dog, I recognize my limitations in being able to determine when an incidence of dog humping qualifies as rape.”

James A. Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian

The three revealed the hoax in the article titled “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarshipin the 2/10/18 journal Aero with an explanation. The hoaxes might be funny and laughable to many but they attempted to address some serious wrongs in the modern (postmodern) university. They wrote:

“Something has gone wrong in the university—especially in certain fields within the humanities. Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields, and their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview. This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous. For many, this problem has been growing increasingly obvious, but strong evidence has been lacking. For this reason, the three of us just spent a year working inside the scholarship we see as an intrinsic part of this problem.”

Embarrassed journal editors who were the target of the prank quickly stamped the word “Retracted” across published papers. At the same time, the hoax drew appreciation from scholars who tend to be skeptical of work focusing on race, gender, sexuality and other forms of identity.

“Is there any idea so outlandish that it won’t be published in a Critical/PoMo/Identity/‘Theory’ journal?” the psychologist and author Steven Pinker tweeted. Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Harvard, called the hoax “hilarious and delightful” on Twitter. In an interview, he said of the authors, “What they have shown is that certain journals, and perhaps to an extent certain fields, can’t distinguish between serious scholarship and a ridiculous intellectual hoax.”

Helen Pluckrose / Carrying the Battle into Wokeness

In the few years since the trio’s papers in 2018, the jargon of the academic world has only gotten crazier with the addition of “wokeness” to the gibberish of postmodernism. And, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay are again up to the task to comment on the current insanity with a new book titled Cynical Theories (2020).

During an interview in the July 2020 Spiked, Pluckrose discusses wokeness saying:

“It comes from a mixture of postmodern scholarship and leftist activism. People sometimes try to explain it too simply, when it actually has lots of strands. At the centre is a postmodern conception of knowledge, power and language. In short, there is the belief that knowledge is a construct dependent on dominant ways of talking. The powerful get to say what knowledge is and dictate how things are spoken about legitimately. Everybody on all levels of society speaks into this and perpetuates the power imbalance. These invisible systems of power are known as things like patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism, cis-normativity, hetero-normativity, fatphobia, and ableism. These are all understood to be omnipresent below the surface, and to reveal themselves in the way people speak about things. Therefore, there is a need to interrogate speech and pick it apart and find the problematic biases behind it. That is the basic philosophy underlying it all.”

The interview is excellent for anyone who wants to hear some of Pluckrose’s comments on current woke culture. But much better to subscibe to her email list.

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So, we move on deeper and deeper into a woke, cancel culture that finds the satire of hoax articles unacceptable and subject to be canceled from culture. Like the Dr. Seuss books. Even the hilariously funny Babylon Bee which serves as a type of modern Mad Magazine, has been labeled racist by our woke media. In this atmosphere, one wonders what would happen to famous humorists and social commentators like Mark Twain. Hoax articles, satire and humor is something that today’s woke culture cannot stand. Most likely because it is far too easy to make jokes about it and put it in its place.

But don’t wait for Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay or Peter Boghossian to write some new hoax article. Start writing one yourself. On the Science Geek site, there is a “Jargon Generator.” The creator of the generator writes about it:

“This fine academic tool was designed to assist in the writing of reports, grant applications, and other documents related to public schools. I believe that it will be particularly useful for people involved in writing reports for Accreditation. Amaze your colleagues with finely crafted phrases of educational nonsense! The javascript code is adapted from’s Web Economy BS Generator. I would be remiss if I did not thank my district’s Professional Development staff for introducing me to many of these gems. I have added prepositional phrases to this generator. My inspiration comes from the College Board’s new AP Chemisty framework that includes this gem “The student can connect phenomena and models across spatial and temporal scales.

Try it out. I’m off to write a paper and have generated the following woke jargon: “We will deliver meaning-centered initiatives through cognitive disequilibrium. We will mesh real-time ESLR’s throughout multiple modalities. We will problematize standards-based schemas for our 21st Century learners.”

We will continue to write gibberish no one understands.



(Note: Helen Pluckrose reviewed this post and wrote the following email to us: “Thanks very much, John! A couple of things. I don’t have a doctorate and I didn’t write the dog park paper. That one was led by Peter, seconded by Jim and with just some theory supplied by me. We don’t tend to say publicly which of us led which ones tho. Also, they’re not really hoaxes. More like reflexive ethnography. All our papers are written in clear language and but make terrible arguments using the worst methods and ideas from existing papers.”)

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