Chained Students, “Breastaurants,” and “Dog Park Rape Culture”: the Sokal Squared Hoax Shook Up the Academic World. What Is It, and What’s It to Us?

Glasses on top of a notebook next to a laptop
By Nienke Harryvan | November 2nd, 2021

There is academic corruption in universities – that is what James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian, three academics, allege. According to them, a perversive culture has developed within the humanities which pushes towards specific conclusions, forgoes objective truth, and lacks scrutiny. They “tested” their observations in a controversial project known as “Sokal Squared” or  “The Grievance Studies Affair.” 

In 2018, they wrote a series of intentionally ridiculous academic papers; masked by academic jargon, fake data, and pseudonyms, these papers presented absurd ideas within areas of queer theory, feminism, gender studies, and similar fields. They then submitted these papers to quality, peer-review journals with the question: will these faulty papers pass critical review and get published?  

The answer: more often than one would hope. Of the twenty papers written, seven were accepted, and four were published. Several were still in line to get published before the hoax was exposed. Passing critical assessment, these papers were lauded by reviewers for their interesting insights, rich analyses or innovative contributions, and were provided with constructive criticism.

And that, while all of their premises were absolute baloney.

One paper on “dog park rape” proposed training men out of sexual violence by studying “dog rape culture” in parks. Published in Gender, Place and Culture, it was recognized for its high quality. Another published paper featured “breastaurants”, analyzing how frequenting Hooters restaurants allowed men to enjoy their patriarchal dominance and the sexual objectification of women. Another “pedagogy” paper proposed privileging marginalized groups in the classroom and discriminating against the more privileged, going so far as having them sit in chains on the floor and be kept silent. While the paper was rejected, the proposed chained-and-ignored ideas were not. Arguably the most shocking example was a “feminist solidarity” essay drafted along one of Hitler’s Mein Kampf chapters. It was peer reviewed, and accepted.  

When the hoax was exposed, it caused a commotion. Was this an unceremoniously cynical bashing of critical theory disciplines or an honest whistleblower action to take seriously? Did this prove the authors’ claim that these fields had relaxed their standards?

And what to make of scholars creating a hoax with fake data and then claiming to prove poor scholarship?

When asked for a comment on this project, Dr. Martinez pointed out that “this profession depends on the goodwill of its members. It assumes they are making good faith efforts to contribute to scholarly discussions in ethical ways. These kinds of unscrupulous projects are not limited to journals on race, class, and gender. In fact the most notable examples are in medical journals.” Indeed, the medical journal Lancet famously retracted an article on MMR vaccines and their link to autism twelve years after publication due to deceptive research. The academic publishing world relies on integrity and trust, which can easily be taken advantage of. It is not surprising that reviewers in critical theory studies, too, were misled.

Still, the “grievance studies” hoax remains alarming. For, besides fabricated data and authorship, the papers had outrageous and even unethical proposals – ones that one would expect would send alarm bells ringing (and some reviewers running). And yet they were seriously engaged with, sometimes even accepted and validated. Chaining kids, training men like dogs, a feminist Mein Kampf – how could these have passed critical review? 

These are divisive questions surrounding a loaded subject  – one that has fanned the flames within culture wars. Yascha Mounk, writer for The Atlantic and professor of political science, lays out  in his article the various responses from different corners: Right-wing corners were delighted, seeing validation for their skepticism toward the progressive critical theory field, one they claim lacks credibility and proper scholarship. Meanwhile, left-wing corners interpreted the project as a cynical targeted attack, aimed merely to discredit these fields. Disapproving of the unethical deception involved, many responders in general dismissed the project altogether. 

However, whether one agrees with the tone, ethics, or claimed results of the project or not, it should not be dismissed. While a shorter article such as this can by no means properly cover all nuances, nooks, and crannies to consider, and won’t attempt to, it can bring the issue to our attention. For us as American Studies students interacting with these fields, it is important. 

Because, for one, it highlights the importance of critical thinking, objective research, and clear language within academic research especially within fields so closely related to social justice. Naturally, engaging with these fields requires open and flexible mindsets as well as a willingness to change. 

At the same time, it requires a balance of objectiveness and critical discernment. More than anything, it demands language that says what it means – unpretentious, unambiguous, and understandable. 

For in that way, we stay credible and convincing in discussions of social injustices. 

We create worthwhile contributions that have merit and impact. 

And we won’t stand scratching our heads like the reviewers when we discover we might have condoned discrimination, followed banned ideologies or studied humping dogs to make a statement.